Author discusses new book about her study and participation in "figure girl" competitions

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Feminist art history professor discusses book on how she came to study and participate in a form of bodybuilding called "figure girl" competitions.

Review of Lothar Muller, 'White Magic: The Age of Paper'

When assessing scholarly books, pleasure is not normally a factor, any more than flavor is in judging medicines. Calling a monograph enjoyable is, after all, at best an expression of personal judgment. At worst, it’s a breach of the “professional professorial asceticism” that Pierre Bourdieu identified as definitive for Homo academicus.

But what the hell. A columnist has no other protocol to meet than deadline, so let the enthusiasm roll: Lothar Müller’s White Magic: The Age of Paper (Polity) is the most enjoyable scholarly book I’ve read in a while, despite my initial suspicion that it would be just one more example of the the rather hackneyed genre of middlebrow cultural histories with titles like Salsa: The Condiment That Changed Everything.

White Magic is, just to be clear, a serious work in the field of media studies. Müller, a professor of general and comparative literature at the Free University of Berlin, follows through on the implications of the Canadian historian Harold Innis’s work in a more cogent and coherent way than Innis’s best-known follower, Marshall McLuhan, ever did. The bibliography is broad and dense, and the text moves between economic and technological history and literary works in ways that shed light in all directions.

That said: what a great read! It is a book to warm up the brain on a day of mental fog. It’s possible to open up White Magic at random and find a piece of historical information or analysis that is interesting and suggestive in its own right, elaborated in prose that develops its points clearly, with none of the anxious tics (“unfortunately there is not space here to examine...”) that come from straining to establish authority without having the confidence to exercise it.

First published in Germany three years ago, and now published for the first time in English, White Magic continues the drawn-out effort to understand the changes in publishing, and in society at large, wrought by digital communication. Besides his academic position, Müller is editor of the features section of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a newspaper. That’s certainly one way to experience the ongoing epochal shift of recent years up close and personally.

But White Magic isn’t a defense of print media, or even a eulogy. It challenges the perspectives embedded in the familiar grand narrative of an age of print, dawning with the invention of movable type, that has entered its twilight with the advent of the digital age. Perhaps the best way to introduce Müller’s point is to consider our presuppositions about Gutenberg’s innovation.

The familiar story is that his press made it possible to produce, at much greater speed and in far larger quantity, texts that in earlier centuries would have been copied by hand onto papyrus, parchment or vellum. From scroll to codex to bound volume, there was a continuity in the history of the book -- changes in format tending to make books more durable, with Gutenberg introducing the catalytic factor of mass production.

And very often the story then continues by recounting the intense, even convulsive impact of all that speedy production of writing in bulk: journalism, pamphleteering, the Protestant reformation, etc.  

But imprinting ink on a surface with movable type required that the material it was printed on possess certain qualities (especially standard dimensions and consistent smoothness, but also resilience under pressure from metal type) and that it be available reliably and in great bulk. To put it another way, Gutenberg’s invention depended on a still earlier invention, paper, which was itself a mass-produced commodity, turned out in protofactories that represented sizable investments as well as wide distribution networks.

How paper manufacture was invented in China, perfected by the Arabs and eventually adopted throughout Europe is an exemplary piece of transnational history -- and given Inside Higher Ed’s audience, it’s worth noting the huge impact on university budgets, almost from the moment there was such a thing. “To free itself from dependence on paper dealers from Lombardy,” Müller writes, the University of Paris “successfully petitioned the king in 1354 for the right to run paper mills” of its own, operated by craftsmen “who had the status of university employees.”

That was well after Italian universities found a way around the costly reproduction of textbooks, circa 1200, by authorizing the transcription of costly parchment books as paper editions that “would be split into smaller pieces by book dealers or stationers, who would rent out the pieces to students.” Then the students would make their own copies or hire a scribe to do it for them.

Paper was a dynamic commodity. The supply created its own demands, accelerating if not creating bureaucracy and postal networks even before the printing press came on the scene. Müller’s chronicle of these developments and their cumulative impact is rich in detail but surprisingly brisk in the telling.

The significance of this history, the author explains, comes from the fact that “paper was never on its own; it always sought a symbiosis with other media.” We often talk about communication technologies in ways that stress conflict, forced obsolescence, the replacement of one medium by another.

“But media history also encompasses effects of resonance amplification and the symbiosis and feedback between media which have not become technologically integrated but instead react to and cooperate with one another as distinct, separate spheres.”

In Müller’s interpretation, paper stands as “a virtuoso of substitution... insinuating itself into existing patterns and routines” -- very much like digital communication itself, so often taken to be paper’s antithesis.

The translator, Jessica Spengler, has made the unusual choice to leave the Teutonic sprawl of Müller’s paragraphs intact, rather than breaking them up into pieces of less formidable size. A few run for three pages or more, and even the shorter ones sometimes read like miniature essays. While expansive, though, the paragraphs are lean. (Müller seems to have ignored Walter Benjamin’s tongue-in-cheek advice to academic authors: “Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.”) White Magic is a remarkably concentrated book; that, I think, is why it will likely prove a re-readable one.

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Review of Jessi Streib, 'The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages'

When George Orwell identified his family background as “lower-upper-middle class,” he wasn’t being facetious. It was a comment not just on British social hierarchy but on how that structure perpetuated itself -- through an anxious process of monitoring and policing the nuances of distinction, the markers of inclusion and exclusion at each level.

It’s a cliché that Americans tend to be clueless about such things, or at least as pointedly indifferent to them as circumstances permit. No other society has ever managed to convince itself so thoroughly, for so long, that social mobility is normative -- tending, as if by nature, mostly upward. Some of the people Jessi Streib interviewed for The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages (Oxford University Press) were “visibly angry or tearful” when asked about class, “as they thought that the question implied not only differences but also statements about who was morally superior.”

What a contrast to the rather morbid preoccupation with calibrating status that Orwell describes! But the difference is not so complete as it first appears. Intense indignation and distress at being asked to think about one’s class background suggest it is a topic charged with feelings of embarrassment, frustration, anger, disgust and fear, to keep the list as short as possible. Orwell’s reflections on class find the same emotional elements, albeit combined in a different formula.   

What happens to class differences within the crucible of romantic love is an old question for novelists, but Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, takes a more analytical approach. She interviewed 32 married heterosexual couples in the United States in which one spouse came from a blue-collar family and the other from a white-collar family, plus another 10 couples for whom all the in-laws were from a white-collar background. Everyone interviewed was white and most were college graduates.

The homogeneity on these points was in part a function of who answered the initial call for interviews, but it had the advantage of limiting the number of variables in a relatively small pool of subjects.

The precise definition of class is a matter for dispute even among social theorists sharing the same general framework of analysis (the Marxist debates alone are voluminous), but Streib’s categories are pretty much vernacular. “White-collar-origin respondents are those that had fathers with bachelor’s or advanced degrees and who worked in professional or managerial jobs.” The blue-collar-origin participants “had fathers with at most a high-school diploma and who tended to work with their hands (though, of course, their jobs also often required mental work).” The mothers’ educational levels were almost always identical to those of their husbands.

The interview subjects themselves, whatever their parents’ educational and occupation level, fell into the white-collar category. Streib questioned each member of the couple separately and then together, covering not just their family backgrounds and biography but their attitudes and practices concerning money, career, child raising, housework and use of free time. The mixed-background couples tended to have met in college or at their workplaces -- in other words, in contexts where each person would understandably assume that the other occupied a white-collar status or was at least headed that way.

My impression from Streib’s biographical sketches is that during early phases of their relationships, mixed-class couples tended to think of differences in their background mainly in terms of family income. When describing his own class origins, Orwell wrote: “You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood.” So it is, but other aspects of class come into view only after spending some time with the other person’s family -- experiencing something of the world they grew up in, the attitudes and norms that shaped them.

Streib identifies two general patterns of value and behavior associated with the partners’ origins. Those who come from professional white-collar families exhibit what she calls a “managerial sensibility.” They tend “to plan, deliberate, mull over and organize their resources, their children and their daily lives,” while their spouses are prone to a “laissez-faire sensibility” and prefer “to feel free from self-constraint... to go with the flow and live in the moment.” (Carpe diem is a better characterization of it than laissez-faire, but que sera sera....)

Such broad generalizations are not easily distinguished from stereotypes -- and as someone who would fall into Streib’s blue-collar-origin cohort, I’ll point out that her “managerial sensibility” also exists in the lower orders, where it is known as the work ethic. In any event, The Power of the Past focuses largely on how managerial and laissez-faire sensibilities play out in the various domains of family life, and how couples come to understand the contrasts and strains.

The most interesting finding is that mixed-background spouses tend to be attracted to each another by personality traits missing from their own sensibility: the highly organized daughter of lawyers falls for the easygoing trucker’s son. Complications and conflicts inevitably ensue. Resolving or containing them is certainly possible, though it is much more complex and drawn-out a process than the romantic comedies would have you believe. (My white-collar-origin spouse would surely agree.)

The author’s insights are necessarily limited by the size and narrow demographics of her pool of subjects, but also by abundance of happy endings, or at least of lasting unions. Class conflicts can be resolved in good marriages -- but it doesn’t always work out that well. I don’t think Marx ever had divorce in mind when he referred to “the mutual ruin of the contending classes,” but the statistics imply that is the usual outcome.

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Editor discusses new collection of essays on the importance of the social sciences

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Editor discusses new volume on the importance of key disciplines to solving key societal problems.

Article on Mimi Nichter, "Lighting Up: The Rise of Social Smoking on Campus"

Tobacco itself is no aphrodisiac, but one of the great tropes of classic American cinema might be called “the precoital cigarette” -- an emblem of desire smoldering on-screen when Humphrey Bogart gazes at Lauren Bacall, or when she exhales after accepting a light.

It was foreplay by proxy, or as much of it as Hollywood once allowed. And 70 years later, the scenes still work. All the gestures of asking for a smoke or offering one -- the moments of sharing a cigarette or plucking it from someone’s lips to make way for a kiss -- still communicate feelings of intimacy and languor, even for audiences that remember seeing the blackened lungs of smokers in health class and have never doubted the surgeon general’s warning.

The students whose behavior Mimi Nichter analyzes in Lighting Up: The Rise of Social Smoking on College Campuses (New York University Press) are in a similarly untenable position. They feel the allure while knowing better. “Young adults have the highest prevalence of smoking of all other age groups,” she notes, “with approximately 35 percent reporting that they currently smoke.”

At the same time, the undergraduates whose rituals and folk culture interest Nichter (a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona) recognize the stigma attached to smoking. Bogie’s aura has faded. The smoker has become a pariah: unwelcome in restaurants and other public places, a menace to the health of others through secondhand smoke, at best the pitiful dupe of Joe Camel and other shills for Big Tobacco.

So how do they handle the cognitive dissonance? The short answer is that they make a distinction between enjoying a few cigarettes in social situations while in college and really being a smoker, i.e., someone addicted to nicotine for life. The contrast parallels that between social drinking and alcoholism. Social smoking is occasional rather than compulsive, something done in groups, never alone. No stigma need apply.

The comparison works at another level, since most of the social smoking discussed in Lighting Up takes place at parties where cigarettes go with alcohol “like cookies with milk,” to use one sorority girl’s expression.

As an anthropologist, rather than a psychologist, Nichter is ultimately less concerned with the rationalizations for smoking than the group situations and norms in which it is embedded. Besides conducting surveys and drawing on the work of other researchers, she has gathered detailed accounts of social smoking from native informants (freshmen and sophomores) and checked her ethnography by presenting draft chapters to her classes: “Students have told me that my descriptions of student life and smoking and drinking on campus are quite accurate.”

The picture that emerges is in some respects familiar to anyone who has ever been on a college campus in their late teens. Smoking, like drinking, is one of the behaviors perennially available for asserting the adult right to make decisions, which makes it appealing even for those who hadn’t been rebellious enough to try it in high school.

But Nichter’s inquiry also finds in effect now a common attitude towards social smoking as something to do while in college, but only then. It’s something you can and will quit once in “the real world.” Giving it up sooner would mean the loss of both a stress reliever and a set of routines useful for sociability. There are benefits to being able to introduce yourself via bumming a cigarette, to go outside for a smoke with friends at a party and to collect your thoughts before saying anything by pausing to light up.

Nichter’s respondents understood their smoking as “a habit that they engaged in when they chose to, at times when they and others seemed appropriate. ...Being really addicted, defined as ‘needing your cigarettes wherever you are,' was associated with those who were weak of will or had real problems. In contrast, many college students saw themselves as needing to smoke but only in a limited number of contexts.”

It’s not clear from Lighting Up’s otherwise very detailed account just when this cluster of attitudes and behaviors emerged. But occasional remarks by the author suggest that the antismoking public-service announcements of the past 20 years or so had a lot to do with it. Depicting smoking as addictive -- and reminding the public that tobacco companies have done research on how to make their products even more so -- seems to have had the paradoxical effect of encouraging young people to prove themselves able to light up while remaining in control.

But there are problems with such limit-setting efforts. One is that there is no definite threshold at which nicotine becomes addictive. The difference between smoking only at social events on weekends and low-level daily smoking (one or two cigarettes per day) begins to blur quite rapidly with students who begin unwinding on Thursday afternoons.

And while the undergraduate social-smoker ethos may be prepared to go cold turkey after the senior year, current trends make graduation less of a decisive transition point than it once was:

“Many grads today are stepping into an uncertain future, where the prospect of finding a good job in a timely manner is unlikely. Their 20s may be characterized by multiple moves (in and out of their parents’ and friends’ homes) and compounded by multiple stressors, not the least of which is finding oneself in a time of high unemployment and low wages. Moving into adulthood is now an elongated process, as markers of ‘settling down,’ like marriage, edge upward into one’s late 20s, if that. For those who have come to depend on the comfort of cigarettes during their college years, this array of life stressors may make cutting back or quitting more difficult, despite their intentions and understandings of the harms of tobacco.”

Smoking as a deliberate and controlled way to enjoy oneself is completely different from developing a nasty habit tinged with a death wish -- or it can be, for a while. The cigarette companies depend on people overestimating how much time they really have, and they're in no real danger of losing money on that score.

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Author discusses new book on 'creativity crisis' in science

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Author discusses new book on the flaws in American science -- and the ways that government agencies and universities support it.

New book explores gap between policy makers, international affairs scholars

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New book argues that benefits of fostering better relationships between academics and policy makers in international affairs are underestimated.

Review of Elena Conis, "Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Vaccination"

His reputation will never recover from that unfortunate business in Salem, but Cotton Mather deserves some recognition for his place in American medical history. He was the anti-vaccination movement’s first target.

The scene was Boston in 1721. Beginning in April, a smallpox epidemic spread from a ship anchored in the harbor; over the course of a year, it killed more than 840 people. (Here I’m drawing on Kenneth Silverman’s excellent The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1985.) In the course of his pastoral duties, Mather preached the necessary funeral sermons, but he was also a corresponding member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The Puritan cleric had been keenly interested in medical issues for many years before the epidemic hit. He knew of a treatment, discussed in the Society’s journal, in which a little of the juice from an infected person’s pustule was scratched into the skin of someone healthy. It warded off the disease itself, somehow. The patient might fall ill for a short while, but would be spared the more virulent sort of infection.  

Two months into the epidemic, Mather prepared a memorandum on the technique to circulate among area doctors, one of whom decided to go ahead with a trial run on three human guinea pigs. All survived the experiment, and in a remarkable show of confidence Mather had his son Samuel inoculated. (Mather himself had contracted smallpox in 1678, so was already immune.)

News of the procedure and its success became public just as the epidemic was going from worrying to critical, but not many Bostonians found the developments encouraging. The whole idea seemed absurd and dangerous. One newspaper mocked the few supporters of inoculation for giving in to something “like the Infatuation Thirty Years ago, after several had fallen Victims to the mistaken notions of Dr. M____r and other clerics concerning Witchcraft.”

Still more unkind was the person or persons responsible for trying to bomb Mather’s house. It failed to go off, but the accompanying note made the motive clear: “You dog, damn you, I’ll inoculate you with this….”

The colonial era falls outside the purview of Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Vaccination (University of Chicago Press) by Elena Conis, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, who focuses mainly on the 20th century, especially its last four decades. The scene changed drastically since Mather's day. Knowledge lagged behind technique: pioneering though early vaccination advocates were, they had no sound basis for understanding how inoculation worked. And the “natural philosophy” of Mather’s era was nowhere near as institutionalized or authoritative as its successor, the sciences, grew in the 19th century.

By the point at which Vaccine Nation picks up the story -- with John F. Kennedy announcing what would become the Vaccination Assistance Act of 1962 – both the nation-state and the field of biomedical research were enormous and powerful, and linked up in ways that Conis charts in detail. “If the stories herein reveal just one thing,” she writes, “it is that we have never vaccinated for strictly medical reasons. Vaccination was, and is, thoroughly infused with our politics, our social values, and our cultural norms.”

Be that as it may, the strictly medical reasons were compelling enough. The Act of 1962 was a push to make the Salk vaccine -- which between 1955 and 1961 had reduced the number of new polio cases from 30,000 to under 900 – available to all children. This seems like progress of a straightforward and verifiable sort, with the legislation being simply the next step toward eradicating the disease entirely. (As, indeed, it effectively did.)

But in Conis’s account, the fact that JFK announced his support for a vaccination program on the anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death was more than a savvy bit of framing. The reference to FDR, “the nation’s most famous polio victim and survivor,” also “invoked the kind of bold, progressive Democrat [JFK] intended to be.” It positioned his administration as sharing something with “the nation’s impressive biomedical enterprise and its recent victory against a disease that had gripped Americans with fear in the 1940s and 1950s.”

It was technocratic liberalism at its most confident -- a peak moment for the belief that scientific expertise might be combined with far-sighted government to generate change for the common good. And it’s all pretty much downhill from there: Vaccine Nation is, in large part, the story of an unraveling idea of progress. True, scientists developed new vaccines against measles, diphtheria, rubella, and other diseases. But at the same time, the role of federal power in generating “public awareness and acknowledgement of a set of health threats worth avoiding” came into question. So did public trust in the authority of medical science and practice.

The erosion was, in either case, a drawn-out process. A couple of instances from Conis’s narrative will have to suffice as examples. One was the campaign against mumps. The military lost billions of man-hours to the highly contagious disease in the course of the two world wars. But a vaccine against mumps developed in the 1940s was left on the shelf when peace came. Mumps went back to being treated as a childhood ailment, rather than a disease with an associated cost.

But the postwar baby boom created a new market of parents susceptible to warnings about the possible (if very rare) long-term side-effects of getting mumps in childhood. Messages about the responsibility to immunize the kids were targeted at mothers in particular, stressing that the possible danger from contracting mumps made prevention more urgent than statistics could ever measure.

The logic of that appeal – “Why risk a danger that you can actively avoid?" – applied in principle to any disease for which a vaccine could be manufactured, and by the 1970s, early childhood meant having a cocktail of them shot into the arm on a regular basis. Then came the great swine flu scare of ’76. The government warned of an impending crisis, stockpiled a vaccine for it, and began immunizing people – especially the elderly, who faced the greatest risk.

The epidemic never hit, but the vaccine itself proved fatal to a number of people and may have been the cause of serious medical problems for many more. All of this occurred during the last months of Gerald Ford’s administration, though it has somehow become associated with the Carter years. There is no historical basis for the link, but it has the ring of truthiness. The whole debacle seemed to refute JFK’s vision of science and the state leading the march to a safer and healthier future.

The largely unquestioned confidence in vaccination was perhaps a victim of its own success. Insofar as nearly everyone was immunized against several diseases, any number of people suffering from a medical problem could well believe that the shots had somehow caused it or made them susceptible. And in some cases there were grounds for the suspicion. There were also cases of inoculation inducing the disease it was supposed to prevent, as well as allergic reactions to substances in the vaccine.

But Colis sees the rise of an anti-vaccination mood less as direct response to specific problems than as a byproduct of countercultural movements. Feminists challenged the medical profession’s unilateral claim of authority, and some women took the injunction to protect children by immunizing them and turned it on its head. If they were responsible for avoiding the risk, however slight, of preventable childhood illnesses, then they were equally responsible for avoiding the dangers, however unlikely, posed by vaccines.

Another strain of anti-vaccinationist thinking was an offshoot of environmental awareness. While industrial society polluted the air and water, heedless of the effects, medicine was pumping chemicals and biological agents into the smaller ecosystem of the human body.

Similar concerns had been expressed by opponents of vaccination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- though without much long-term effect, particularly given the effectiveness of immunization in preventing (even obliterating) once-terrifying diseases. Conis depicts anti-vaccinationists of more recent times as more effective and better-established.

Besides the feminist and ecological critiques, there is the confluence of anti-government politics and new media. Supporters of vaccination once downplayed the issue of side effects, but it’s an area that demands – and is receiving – serious medical investigation.

In places, Vaccine Nation suggests that the critics and opponents have made points worthy of debate, or at least raised serious concerns. And that may be true. It would almost have to be, the real question being one of degree.

But even with that conceded, many of the arguments the author cites are … well, to be nice about it, unpersuasive. “DISEASE IS NOT SOMETHING TO BE CURED,” says one vintage anti-vaccinationist tract revived in the 1980s. “IT IS A CURE.” The cause for illness? “Excess poisons, waste matters, and incompatible food” – but not, most emphatically, germs.

“Did you know,” asks another figure Conis quotes, “that when immunity to disease is acquired naturally, the possibility of reinfection is only 3.2 percent? If the immunity comes from a vaccination, the chance of reinfection is 80 percent.” In a footnote, Conis indicates that the source of these fascinating statistics “is unclear.” That much, I bet, is true.

Poor old Cotton Mather’s thinking combined superstition and enlightened reason. They can and do mix. But not in a statement such as “DISEASE IS NOT SOMETHING TO BE CURED. IT IS A CURE." The good reverend would dismiss that as little more than ignorance and magical thinking -- and rightly so.  


Review of Peter Toohey, 'Jealousy'

Some years ago I met a woman who owned a large calico cat bearing a certain resemblance to Queen Victoria: stout, regal, disapproving. She had enjoyed her mistress’s undivided attention as a kitten; the second cat joining them a few years later proved easy to dominate. But the large male primate who began coming to the apartment on some evenings was another matter. I appeared incapable of taking a hint, and she was not amused.

Before long I was spending most evenings there. Oaf though I may have been, I did get a feeling of being disdained, at best, and could imagine the older cat taking the woman aside to say, through unhappy looks and feline telepathy, “This guy has got to go.” If things ever reached that point, the woman held her ground – and reader, I married her. (The cat with less seniority had in the meantime grown fond of me, which may have helped.)

The situation de-escalated before reaching the stage depicted in Octave Tassert’s Die eifersüchtige Katze, one of the paintings reproduced in Jealousy (Yale University Press) by Peter Toohey, a professor of classics at the University of Calgary. The author roams across several cultures, media, and disciplines in his investigation of the green-eyed passion. In literature, jealousy tends to resemble a kind of madness, and it usually becomes part of the daily news only after escalating into lethal violence. But Tassert’s canvas presents the emotion in one of its more comic expressions.

Painted circa 1860, “The Jealous Cat” depicts a love triangle of sorts. We see a woman sprawled on her bed in dishabille  -- with her lover in, let’s say, close proximity, still clothed for the most part but with his pants below his knees. (A coat hangs on a nearby chair, not draped over the back but thrown on it at an angle suggesting haste.) At first glance he appears to be standing. But the angle of his legs and the way one arm seems to be swinging upward -- and the startled expression on his face as he looks over his shoulder -- all suggest he has just bolted upright. Just behind him, and a little lower, you see the creature giving the painting its title: a jealous cat, stretching up to sink both claws into the man’s exposed buttocks.

“They’re obviously more tempting than the uninspiring ball of string left by the chair,” Toohey deadpans. The painting itself is humorous but it raises perennial questions about emotion: Do animals have them, or is that just anthropomorphizing? And if they do experience feelings that in a human would be understood as emotion, how similar to ours are they?

Animals’ inability to self-report their own mental states makes any answer more or less unverifiable, and we are in the same position regarding the emotions of the human child in its first few years. What we have with both nonverbal animals and preverbal infants is behavior that looks and sounds like what we associate with happiness, excitement, fear, and perhaps one or two other emotions. But is jealousy among them? The experience of it can be raw and overwhelming, but it responds to a situation that is fairly complex. “The foundation stone of jealousy,” writes Toohey, “is triangular”: the product of a situation “usually [involving] two people and some form of possession, animate or inanimate.” The classic form – “the clichéd sine qua non of the jealous situation,” as the author puts it – is the romantic triangle: the jealous party’s claim on the significant other is violated, or at least menaced, by a rival.

Whether or not its brain can process all the elements in play, the jealous feline in Octave Tassert’s painting has at least determined the fastest and most efficient way to disrupt the situation. A desire to hurt the rival may not be noble, but it’s understandable and reasonably straightforward, especially when the rival is standing right there.

Human beings are prone to making things more complicated. The desire for retribution can target the beloved as well as the rival, and even become more intense – sometimes to really horrifying extremes. The author cites one case that sounds like the brainchild of an exploitation-movie director trying to outdo the competition: A British man who spent a week beating, strangling, and threatening his girlfriend also tried to fill her ears and eyes with quick-sealing putty. In handing down a prison sentence, the magistrate told him: “You are almost insanely jealous.” Almost?!

Explosions of jealousy -- even of sexual jealousy, by all counts the most excruciating sort -- usually stop short of mayhem. Toohey notes that there is just enough of a stigma around jealousy to limit how openly we feel comfortable expressing it. At the same time, jealousy is a persistent enough force to make subduing it hellishly difficult, and also irresistible as raw material for art and literature. In Othello, the work most indelibly identified with the experience of jealousy, Shakespeare treats it as a passion that, once ignited, feeds itself, with imagination as the fuel -- even when the grounds for it are entirely false.

Toohey writes of the moment when an individual sees or hears something that ignites the emotion. Even when based in rock-solid fact – with no Iago whispering baseless insinuations – the suffering of the jealous person comes mostly from scenes and conversations running in an obsessive loop within the mind. One of the most interesting chapters of Jealousy considers how literary and artistic works present our eyes and ears as the organs that make us vulnerable to the suspicion then elaborated upon within the brain’s theater.

Perhaps that accounts for the bizarre revenge taken by the “almost insanely jealous” man mentioned earlier. And perhaps imagination is the factor distinguishing human jealousy from whatever it is animals feel when faced with rivalry. Our motives are more complex, and our memories are longer. That gives us an evolutionary advantage. But it also opens up wide vistas of potential misery, where the jealous mind is condemned to wander in circles.

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Interview with author of book on history of American higher education

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Author discusses his new book on the evolution of colleges and universities in the United States.


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