Cooley, Thomas Entries

Cabinet of wonders...and racism, and sexism

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I read Thomas Cooley's The Ivory Leg in the Ebony Cabinet in conjunction with the feral children book I wrote on a few days ago, and the two accounts dovetailed surprisingly well. Whereas Savage Girls and Wild Boys was ultimately a study in the tendency of normally-socialized people to project their own hopes and expectations on the "blank slate" of a feral child, Cooley's book revealed our collective habit of projecting those same expectations on anyone we label "other," regardless of whether they can articulate their own reality or not. Not only that, but we attempt to cement those expectations in place as "objective reality" by grafting them onto a limb of science.

Cooley examines the dominant model of the mind in pre-Freudian America: faculty psychology, which divided the mind (brain) into separate "faculties," like compartments in a cabinet, each of which controlled different aspects of human character. Amativeness, Comparison, Combativeness, Philoprogenitiveness: you name it, it had a little brain-cubby in which to live. Each of the faculties was physically separate from all others, housed in a specific area of the brain, which is why those porcelain busts used by phrenologists have little numbered segments all over them. All the individual faculties, moreover, were divided among three areas: the Intellect, the Propensities or Sentiments, and the Will, which was a single, indivisible faculty. The theory went that a given idea or issue would pass through the house or cabinet of our minds on a predetermined path: observed first through the faculties of the Intellect, it would then be processed through the Sentiments, and thence to the Will, which determined our eventual action.

This schema, although it seems a little naive in a world so thoroughly acquainted with the unconscious and its role in determining human behavior, was not inherently racist or sexist, but Cooley argues that it quickly became so. Because the faculties of the "propensities" or "sentiments" soon came to be associated with female and "savage" people, whereas the all-powerful Will came to be associated with the qualities of whiteness and manhood. Women and people of color, it was thought, never fully developed the faculty of Will, and so were at the mercy of their whims and carnal lusts, with no "master" to keep them in line. In contrast to the perfect "balance" of faculties supposedly found in the well-adjusted male mind, the woman or person of color had a mind where certain Propensities in the brain were left unchecked. (Which, Cooley points out, was the same criterion used to describe madness.) This gave the backing of science to the idea that women and people of color needed a white male "master" to keep them in check, replacing in external form the Will that they supposedly lacked internally. It also enabled the establishment to "diagnose" as mad any woman or person of color who did NOT want to marry or live in slavery, since by definition a woman without a husband or a person of color without a white master was intrinsically mentally unbalanced. It was therefore an efficient way to invalidate whatever claims the system's malcontents might make; a slave leading an uprising? Mad! A woman who chose to live as a spinster? Insane! This seems quaint and hokey to us know, but during most of the nineteenth century it was literally true: a black person desiring to live free was thought certifiably insane.

There was, of course, supposedly unbiased scientific work that backed up all this quackery: comparative studies (not done blind), which showed a correlation between brain mass and intelligence; phrenological tomes demonstrating that the sloped forehead of the stereotypically "African" profile revealed a lack of the Intellectual faculties so well-developed in the Caucasian bust. One of the most sobering aspects of Cooley's book is its demonstration of the ease with which humans find evidence to support their preexisting hypotheses, regardless of what those hypotheses might be.

Cooley goes on to analyze the role of faculty psychology in classic nineteenth-century American literature, looking at the ways in which authors from Poe and Melville, to Emerson and Thoreau, to Dickinson, incorporate and play off (and even subvert) the mind-model of their time. He makes interesting points: Melville and Poe, he claims, both fear their age's vision of a human race utterly controlled by the white male Will, and present moral landscapes of horror in response to it. Certainly, there could hardly be an apter depiction of male Will gone mad in pursuit of whiteness, than Ahab and the whale. Emerson, says Cooley, was by contrast completely enamored of the idea of a world ruled by the Will, while writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass attempted to subvert the psychology of their times by essentially creating "white" black characters and "black" white ones. In other words, Stowe and Douglass were unconventional enough to import the standard set of "black" character traits into a white character, and the standard set of "white" characteristics into a black one, but too convention-bound to conceive of a character that diverged from one pre-set standard or the other. (In an interesting aside, Cooley uses Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin to illustrate the pre-Jamesian model of thought: instead of the "stream of consciousness" with which we are all familiar, nineteenth-century Americans envisioned human thought as a disjointed series of mental images, one following the last in a distinct order. This model derives from the idea that only one faculty of the mind is in use at a given time, and the issue under consideration travels from one to the next like a marble in a marble machine.)

My favorite analysis in Cooley's book was his discussion of Emily Dickinson's work, which, along with that of Henry and William James, began to turn faculty psychology on its head. Cooley discusses how James and Dickinson come to prioritize emotion over intellect or Will as the true indicator of "morality" and consciousness, and how Dickinson actually anticipates psychological breakthroughs of ten or twenty years after her death, when she writes about the subjectivity of individual consciousness. Dickinson is one of those rare writers whose work I enjoy much more after after reading criticism of it, and this was no exception. I never would have considered Dickinson's severe and gothic charms as an attempt to claim for the female and subjective the same prominence that the male Will once enjoyed.

That said, only my intense interest in the subject under discussion could have motivated me to slog through Cooley's labyrinthine prose. I tend to go easy on other writers for this, because it's a weakness I share, but come on, man. Three parenthetical remarks and two sets of dashes, in one sentence? There are MANY points at which Cooley's writing style interferes with his ability to communicate his already subtle points. Not only that, but he often seems to wander aimlessly from a discussion of one work to another, with insufficient warning or explanation of what he is doing, and leaves the reader with an unsatisfying amount of analysis of all works. The book's overall organization, too, is a bit odd: Cooley neglects to offer much primary-source evidence in his opening chapters, examples of works where faculty psychology was swallowed wholesale rather than played with or subverted. He then plunges directly into Poe and Melville, whose relationship with it is very complex and ambivalent, and only then attacks Emerson and Thoreau, the faculty-psychology poster-boys. This makes sense chronologically, but it's confusing from a conceptual point of view, especially given the lack of real grounding in the opening chapters. Overall, a fascinating subject, covered in a frustrating manner.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography