Reading, Society, and Politics in Early Modern England

By Kevin Sharpe; Steven N. Zwicker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Reading bodies

Michael Schoenfeldt

We are oppressed with [books], our eyes ache with reading, our fingers
with turning.

Robert Burton

Those who would apply the analysis of Revolutions to the Positive
study of Society must pass through the logical training given by the
simpler phenomena of Biology.

Auguste Comte

Reading initially seems like the most disembodied of processes. It requires a minimum of physical activity. The eyes move imperceptibly over the page, the hands turn pages; the body occasionally stretches and fidgets, but only to avoid the aches of inactivity. In the framework of early modern ethical physiology, however, reading entailed a profound intensification of the perpetual agon between disease and health, between passion and reason. A highly risky activity, reading imports into the self forces that may either improve or contaminate it. It can stir the emotions to virtue or to vice, but even the excitation to virtue is hazardous, since the emotional medium of such excitation is an inherently unruly and unhealthy arena, preternaturally subverting the precarious rule of reason. In this essay I want to think about what was imagined to happen in the embodied self of the reader. I also want to ask why the quiet hazards of reading were so frequently likened to the metabolic processes of digestion. I want, finally, to use this investigation of the physiological processes underpinning early modern reading to trouble a cliché about political organization (and, to some degree, medical knowledge) that distorts, I would argue, an inordinate amount of past and present thinking: that of the body politic. Arguing that there is no indigenous link between the principles of political order and the tenets of physiology, I hope in this essay to put some pressure on this sometimes perverse historical collocation of an incoherent notion of bodily process and a tendentious attitude to political organization. I am interested, finally,

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