Behind the Book with Enrique Fernandez

9781442648869Enrique Fernandez is the author of Anxieties of Interiority and Dissection in Early Modern Spain. Fernandez explores the ways in which sixteenth and seventeenth-century anatomical research stimulated both a sense of interiority and a fear of that interior’s exposure and punishment by the early modern state.

What inspired you to write this book?
When I was researching the time the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, was a captive of the pirates in Algiers, I had to read many documents describing the punishment and torture applied to the captives who tried to escape. The gory descriptions were often fashioned after the models used to describe the torture of the early Christian martyrs. These descriptions of violence made me ponder the images of cruelty to which the people of the time were exposed. Besides those of religious martyrdom, which were highly stylized for the most part, those of the anatomical treaties were the most common, and they were much more realistic than their religious counterpart. Then I started to consider what influence those kinds of images may have had on those who saw them and if they felt threatened by them. While in the case of martyrdom the torturer was an enemy, in the case of anatomical dissection the dissector was the state itself, which was justified for the first time by the concept of scientific progress. It was as if for the first time we had fallen victims to ourselves, to our own cult of science and progress. These are evidently Foucault's ideas, but in the case of early modern Spain the rational apparatus of modernity was not in place, which made the situation very peculiar.

How did you become interested in the subject?
The main subject of my book is how the inner location of the incipient subjectivity of early modernity felt threatened by the new anatomical science. My interest for this issue is probably related to the present situation, in which the new technologies of communication simultaneously open new spaces of privacy while at the same time controlling them. Both the private subject and the controlling state have been significantly enlarged, and the areas of friction have consequently expanded. It is difficult not to become aware that the use of the internet—a world in which everything is recorded and traceable-- triggers in us a continuous anxiety of being spied on, of sending messages that, even if innocuous, may become problematic if they are misinterpreted or contain certain words that some impersonal program may tag as dangerous. Even worse, our interests - as reflected in the traces we leave with our searches on the internet and the pages we visit - may create patterns that mark us as dangerous for the state, which may unveil potential dangers in us of which we are not even consciously aware.

What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?
The presentism that characterizes much of the current public discourse implies arrogance towards the past. We tend to consider our times unique, and to envision our methods and techniques infallible, as if we were not prone to the same errors and dynamics that affected past generations. The early modern period is especially useful to cure this narrow-mindedness because people were for the first time fundamentally the same as us but the circumstances were very different. Studying it is like an exercise in estrangement, in placing ourselves in a different scenario and being able to see the results.

What's the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

I realized that some scientific discourses of the period, such as anatomy, influenced the way people conceived themselves as human beings and their relations to power. For instance, today we tend to use and abuse the idea of the brain as a computer, and this clearly influences the way we conceive of ourselves. In the early modern period the equivalent was the idea of the body as a machine with different chambers or small shops in which different functions were performed. This conception alienated people form themselves in the meaning that they were not completely sure what was happening in these inner chambers. This paradigm made them feel anxious and guilty since they were aware that they were not in control of themselves. This was an intermediate stage between the more immaterial conception of the self as a vague space for the soul of preceding years and the mechanistic view of the human being that culminates in the idea of subconscious with Freud.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The most difficult aspect to write my book was to acquire the many images I needed to have a clear idea of what the mental imaginary of the cultivated person of the period. In the past this would have implied considerable travel to many specialized libraries and institutions, and the inherent difficulties to reproduce not text but images. Now, for the first time, there is the possibility of accessing a considerable amount of these types of images electronically. This allowed me to collect my own database of jpgs that I could study and compare in detail. Then I had to trace the effects, often subconscious, to texts that expressed the same idea of opening the body to find the truth inside.

What are your current/future projects?
I am interested in exploring specific aspects of the visual culture of the early modern period. In a period in which people were not exposed to the myriad images with which we now live, they were probably much more impacted by the few to which they had access. The early printed books that contained engravings were the first mass produced images to be produced and consumed. Since many people were illiterate, those images must have been more influential in the collective imagination than we may think. Also, for the first time, the images in the churches were not the only ones to which people had daily access. Because nowadays we are saturated by images, understanding this first stage of commercial imagery is vital.

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