Degenerates and dangerous classes

The precise origin of the idea of degeneracy in nineteenth-century culture and psychiatry is difficult to pinpoint, although Morel is usually quoted as father of the notion. Degeneracy concepts acquired a general presence and resonance in the culture, reaching a climax around the 1890s and serving as a generative metaphor around which a whole language was constructed, and from which certain personages, categories, and worries were defined as objects of concern and intervention. In Walter's (1956) survey, the term, as applied to human life, was "an important framework for explanations dealing with psychiatry, sociology, criminology and eugenics" (p. 422). Predictive of a range of possible "deteriorations" and productive of a variety of dangerous classes, these concepts prompted extensive intellectual as well as imaginative labour, as with the late Gothic novelists (Greensdale, 1994; Morris, 1994). Theorists of degeneracy were excited by the discovery of what they thought was a tangible, semi-zoological "reality", the visibility of particular "types" of persons and the signs and stigmata that betrayed them; amongst others, homo criminalis was born. This created fear and fascination, since deviant bodies were felt to be close-at-hand and were potentially common, not rare. Whilst the influence of degeneration psychiatry and older, heredity-neurological models faded with World War One, degeneration had an after-history, as in the case of eugenics societies (Rose, 1985). During the War, it was easier to project degeneracy onto the enemy and to spare one's own nation, but notions of tainted heredity was no longer a viable explanation for the mass breakdown of men both on the battle-field and away from it (Pick, 1989).

French psychiatrist Philippe Morel summed up the key features of degeneracy: "hereditary transmission, and increasing severity in successive generations leading to extirpation of affected individuals, families or groups" (Lewes, 1974, p. 134). Like a diseased tree, human life too could be deformed. One of Morel's central concerns was cretinism, analysed with a mix of theoretical speculation and Catholic moralism. Degeneration fitted well with contemporary evolutionary theory, promising to explain a range of phenomena, such as atavism (from the Latin atavus, ancestor), regression, and decline. Morel's version of evolution posed the gloomy proposition that degeneration would spread, manifesting itself in a whole series of morbid transformations that would be passed down the generations. Degeneration was the shadow side of a period, "so often identified as the quintessential age of evolution, progress, optimism, reform or improvement" (Pick, 1989, p. 2). The notion provided an effective backdrop to sickness/health models emergent in a psychiatry, which was busy carving out its territory, naming and mapping disturbances and identifying departures from the norm, with its -manias, -phobias, -philias, and -isms.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Lombroso's founding of "criminal anthropology" exploited the idea in a similar manner, focusing, as it did, on the potential for savagery in society, atavism, superstition, and so on. Lombroso's famous "faces of criminality" and "criminal composites" used the new technology of photography and device of statistics to demonstrate its "findings" whilst Foucault (1978a) reminds us that criminal psychiatry was then preoccupied by the "pathology of the monstrous". This new criminal anthropology attempted to isolate criminal man, or the "born criminal", from his worthy alternatives and as a science was devoted to the defence of modernity from the threat of "backwardness".[1]Lombroso's version of evolution was different in emphasis to Morel's, in so far as he identified with the prospect of regeneration, even if the criminal class was seen as a recalcitrant force and a throwback to an earlier stage. Whilst British psychiatry was sceptical of some of these continental speculations, it, too, was establishing its authority and theorising anew those populations that inhabited the asylums, threatened decency, or who came together in riotous assembly. Maudsley used his own version of degeneration and crude "psychiatric Darwinism" to bolster a class elitism and anti-feminism, arguing, for example, against further extensions of women's rights on the grounds that it would undermine the natural productivity of society (Nye, 1993; Showalter, 1986).

As Morel and others indicated, degeneration was not solely or even predominantly an individual matter, but afflicted families and even nations. Hence, the tracing of pathology and its social consequences down the generations was considered important. In Foucault's (1978a) terms, addressing criminology, degeneration touches upon the presence of a "dangerous element ... in the social body" that unless rooted out would work its invidious effects; "dangerous classes", criminal groups (indeed, criminals as constituting a class or nation in themselves), and lower class pathology were the objects of such worries (Carlson, 2001). Racist doctrines thrived on the idea, raising alarm around the notion of decadence and possible national and "race suicide".[2] The emphasis on social pathology and defence is a field of inquiry in itself, articulated by the pioneers of crowd psychology as well as by criminologists (e.g., Le Bon, Tarde, and others): "As they described the crowd's savage, instinctual behaviour, they encapsulated many of the fears of their well-to-do contemporaries . Their crowds loomed as violent, bestial, insane, capricious beings whose comportment resembled that of the mentally ill, women, alcoholics, or savages" (Burrows, 1981, p. 5).[3] An element that links the theoretical speculations of Le Bon to the literature of, say, Zola is the idea of groups bent on revenge and mindless destruction. Zola's novel Germinal portrays violent contagion, the overthrow of male power, with the spectre of communism and anarchism never very far away. Given its turbulent history, military defeat, and the upheavals of the Third Republic, it is no surprise that crowd psychology blossomed in France.

Closely related to fears of crowds, was the imagery of the "city" and modernity, described in the English context by Steadman Jones in Outcast London (1971). Fears located in what he calls the urban "residuum" were relevant to the construction of the "alien", a term which continues to connote danger and civic illegitimacy. Although Edward Said's Orientalism explores representations of the East as backward and exotic, he touches on the link between external Others and their internal counterparts: "The Oriental was thus linked to elements in Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor) having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien" (Said, 1978, p. 207). The city might have imperial connotations but equally contained the possibility that degenerate elements might subvert civilisation from within.

Pick (1989) offers a brilliant commentary on the concept of degeneracy, exploring the plurality of connotations surrounding the notion, mostly lost today. He analyses the continual movements in science, literature, and the press between the supposed "individual species" and the collective manifestations of degeneracy. Core dangers involve a dialectic of fear and reassurance: "Degeneration involved at once a scenario of racial decline and an explanation of 'otherness', securing the identity of, variously, the scientist, (white) men, bourgeoisie against superstition, fiction, masses ..." (Pick, 1989, p. 230).

Let us consider some of the personages who populated the field of degeneracy.

  • [1] A contentious issue concerning earlier formulations of intersubjectivity was that although it challenged the "myth of the isolated mind" and "myth of neutrality", it concentrated on the analytic partnership or dyad in isolation (Zeddies, 2000; Zeddies & Richardson, 1999). To be fair, this over-emphasis has been subsequently corrected by Stolorow, Atwood & Orange (2002). Greenberg (1999a, 1999b) helpfully explores the embedded dimension of analytic treatment and how definitions of therapeutic authority invoke the cultural milieu in which they operate.
  • [2] The idea of degeneracy was applied in the biological sciences, with preoccupations around the definition of "species" and measurement closely tied to racial metaphors; Morel's "species" was easily translated as "races". To this extent degeneracy was a generative signifier, able to travel across disciplinary and social spaces and contributing to racial, class, and nationalistic concerns. With the abolition of slavery and industrialisation, new anxieties emerged, centred on the movement of people, the mixing of races, and the possibility of class migration: "Racial biology, in short, by the mid-nineteenth century was a science of boundaries between groups and the degeneration that threatened when those boundaries were transgressed" (Stepan, 1985). With the eugenic projects later in that century and into the early twentieth century, the biomedical language changed to that of "stock" and "inferior pedigree" (Nye, 1993; Rose, 1985). Mort (1987) clarifies the eugenic emphasis on racial health and the need to "purify" conditions at their source. He makes the important point however, that eugenics never achieved the hegemony sought by its proponents, with the medical profession deeply divided in its views.
  • [3] Le Bon's seminal contribution to crowd psychology is explored by Nye (1975), who places him within the political context of revolutionary, post-Commune France. Of particular interest is Nye's skilful analysis of the centrality of racial doctrines to the embryonic science of group psychology. Pick (1989) also identifies a misogynistic strand in Le Bon's theory, with woman as symbolic of instability, suggestibility, and emotion, the very qualities he ascribes to crowds. Laclau (2005) offers an interesting analysis of their "denigration of the masses" and the framing of, "their discourses in stock and sterile dichotomies—individual/ crowd, rational/irrational, normal/pathological" (p. 40)
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >