[NB] En Route to Colonial America

Just something I’ve read recently that set a few thoughts in motion.

“…[Zabdiel] Boylston and [Cotton] Mather explored outright the causative principle of disease. Mather argued for the existence of small ‘animals’ (protozoa and bacteria) that live on plants and mammals and, when spread from body to body by ‘winds’ or physical contact, spread disease. Seeing these ‘animals’ under the microscope, Mather began in the late 1680s to doubt the entirety of the Galenic system. If germs rather than sins were the cause of disease, then why all the concern with planetary movement and humoral imbalance?

An outbreak of smallpox in Boston gave them a chance to test the theory in 1721. Smallpox was the most virulent disease that New England ever had to confront, but its precise cause remained unknown. During the first two decades of the eighteenth century, Mather had read reports in the Transactions of the Royal Philosophical Society of successful inoculations performed by folk healers in Turkey and China. He had heard of similar treatments in West Africa from his own slave, Onesimus…Boylston and Mather inoculated 274 individuals with smallpox. Only 6 of his patients died, and probable not from the pox. Proud of their new work, minister Mather was shocked when Bostonians reacted with fear, throwing ‘grenadoes’ through his windows and threatening to destroy his property.”—Robert Blair St. George, Conversing by Signs:Poetics of Implication in Colonial New England Culture (196)

I keep coming back to this point in American history for reasons both historical and personal. Portions of my family history are entangled with this moment in time, but the greater expanse in which it is embedded is itself something of a microcosm for the present. Here, back in the good ol’ days, we have anti-vaxxers, working class dissatisfaction fueled by immigration, an elite dominating the urban landscape and pricing out an artisanal class, outmigration and outsourcing, and the intersection of witchcraft and science (the intersection is less clear in this quote, more so in other parts of the text).

Two things I want to flag about this quote in particular. First, notice that in the middle of Puritan New England we have scientific advances taking place based on what are functionally ethnographic reportage with the personal experience of an enslaved West African man serving as verification of that reportage—experiences derived from folk practices embedded in, you know, cults to terrifying plague spirits who are spoken of through euphemism rather than by name. It’s too easy to forget how many of the advances in modern science derived not from straight-up European inventiveness, but from imperial centralization. Slavery and science, troubling bedfellows in ways that we ought to appreciate.

Think about how poorly we treat the Puritan scientific legacy, reducing them to cliches of dogmatic faith, then think about how beneath that cliche we have entirely buried the contributions of folks like Onesimus, allowing us to project backward onto his people an image of indigenous purity that utterly disrespects their historical lives. The first elision facilitates the second, so if we want to break the cycle we have to blast both out of their comfortable place (or lack of place) in our schoolbook histories, alongside the inequities animating them.

(The Salem witch trials? Yeah, it seems like folks were embarrassed about them almost immediately. Folks worked hard after that to put a cabosh on witch trials after that and it is possible that the trials helped motivate reform, motivating many officials to downplay and dismiss cases of witchcraft. Also, who sat at the center of them? Tituba, likely an enslaved Arawak woman, which should tell us more about the bloody braid of the American experience.)

I also want to point out the way in which ‘the people’ seem to realize the disruptive nature of this innovation before the innovators. They sense more immediately that this shift represents a sea change in the understandings that animate their daily lives and they are resisting it. Mather and friends, despite being more steeped in the philosophical worldviews that stand to disappear in that sea change, don’t see the scope of the change.

(That’s probably the personal business of this—an ancestor was driven out of Boston for trying to modernize the chemical curriculum of Harvard.)

St. George uses this incident to start thinking through the pivoting of American thinking from an image of the human as microcosm embedded in the macrocosm to a more mechanical model. That’s useful to think about, too, especially as we consider the way in which that image of the human as microcosm continues to exert a steady gravitational force on the conception of the humanities. The reflexive support for the humanities today still depends on this image of the human being, as an individual, at the center, reflecting the whole with a great deal of fidelity.

St. George’s narrative plays comfortably in the history of disenchantment, of the story often told about how we have lost our sense of the magical world and become lost mechanical souls in modernity. However, it also suggests a counter-reading, one rooted in the interplay of the microcosmic and mechanical. That interplay opens the door to a sustained gnostic reading of history, in which the mechanical appears as an intersecting plane across the microcosm, as a manifestation of the resistance inherent in the earth to the macrocosmic organizing force, and of the conflicts that develop as the microcosm realizes itself simultaneously in multiple points in space and time.


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