Review – Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic”

Michel Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception” (1963) (translated from the French by Alan Sheridan) – I think this is the only one of Foucault’s monographs I had yet to read? I haven’t read the second through fourth volumes of “History of Sexuality” (I get the impression few do), or all of the extant translated College de France lectures, if those count. It might seem like a big investment in the guy! He was a name to conjure with when I was in school, even if people who even claimed to understand what he was saying were few and far between in history programs. This always surprised me. The reason I’ve read his books is simple- I find them interesting. Sometimes they’re obscurely-written (apparently there’s circumstantial evidence that Foucault deliberately made the language harder in order to fit in with French academia) and sometimes I disagree with them. But I never invested the old guy — or any of the other old guys, or gals, or new ones either — with magic. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, “Foucault is just this guy, you know?” I find reading goes better when you’re aware of big reps but don’t take them on board.

Having now read this one, I see it mostly as a rehearsal for his next book, “The Order of Things.” Like that one, “The Birth of the Clinic” traces a change in the order of knowledge and practices — one is tempted to say “praxis” but the bald old point-monger always avoided Marxist language, even when he was supposed to be in Marxist formations — that occurred between the ends of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In “The Order of Things” he discusses such changes in a number of fields, in “The Birth of the Clinic” he focuses on medicine (European medicine, to be precise- one thing about Foucault is he stayed in his Eurocentric lane). I don’t remember all the details of the intellectual (another word Foucault avoided- wouldn’t want to come off as a “mere” intellectual historian, heavens to Betsy, no!) transitions he detailed in “The Order of Things” but from what I recall, a lot of them were pretty similar to those in “The Birth of the Clinic.” They’re not so much down to “advances” as shifts in how to organize data (another word he’d never use). Firmly early modern doctors tended to ascribe/describe in somewhat earthier, wide-ranging tones, and work with bewildering ranges of variables and what they could mean; those further down the on-ramp to what we would call “modernity” tended to be more stripped down and given to isolating variables, etc., though honestly even late eighteenth century medicine sounds pretty baroque and weird to my ears.

Truth be told I had less interest in this one both because it wasn’t as thoroughly fleshed out as “The Order of Things” and because I’m less interested in the subject matter, weird old medicine that didn’t work, than I am in rhetoric and other topics Foucault discussed later. I will say Foucault’s a clever spark, and I think encouraged his reputation as a shifty pseudo-magical genius, using techniques any stage magician would know- in this instance, framing. The book stops before the germ theory of disease takes hold, and before vaccinations really get going, either. If he did that, he really would be telling a story, unavoidably, of discovery and medical progress. He cuts the story off before anybody fucking knew anything, so of course, he doesn’t talk about objective truth, and the people who get real mad when the humanities people don’t give the science folks their gold stars do their thing, all good for the Foucault brand.

I don’t think that’s all Foucault was doing here, or even most of it, and I’m sure he had valid reasons to tell this story the way he did. But the “legend of Foucault,” if you will, that obtains even (arguably exclusively) with educated people is that he’s a subjectivist weirdo who doesn’t even think medicine is objective. Of course, other people (often devotees of other aspects of Saint Foucault) debunk that idea as a misreading of the man, at tedious length, but the guy himself just gave that nice toothy smile and stayed noncommittal. It doesn’t really worry me either way. ****

Review – Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic”

Review – Osman, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn”

Suleiman Osman, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York” (2011) (read by Marc Cashman) – Woof! I needed that week off from reviewing. I do love criticism but I also love “me time.”

I got this book originally during a book-buying spree while studying for my comprehensive exams. The idea is you read, or anyway prepare to answer questions about, as many of the major books in your field as you can convince your examiners you looked at. I did pretty good! But never got to this one. I figured I’d give it a listen in my “nonfiction reviews” slot. It’s something of a minor standard, it appears, in the academic history of gentrification.

Historian Suleiman Osman begins the story of gentrification in Brooklyn well before naive “common sense” understandings of these things, in the seventies or nineties. The story here begins in the immediate postwar period, when middle-class New Yorkers, including recently demobilized troops, started looking at Brooklyn as an alternative to expensive Manhattan living. Osman gives us a capsule residential history of the borough, from farm town to poorly-planned real estate speculation to almost-rival, a sort of Oakland to Manhattan’s San Francisco… these new middle class people postwar inserted themselves into the multi-layered history of Brooklyn, and came to use that history for their ends.

These ends were both self-expressive and monetary, as middle-class ends so often are. Brooklyn presented, if not a blank canvas — they didn’t want that — then at least a palimpsest that people looking for a certain kind of “urban experience” could work with. These were people who specifically did not want to live in the utopian (utopia means “no place” in Greek) suburbs or high rises, both of which were designed to warehouse people like them in comfort. They wanted somewhere with a sense of history and, for lack of a better term, that slippery concept of “authenticity.” All because we can’t pin it down, doesn’t mean the feelings surrounding it aren’t real (even if the term is dubious). Symbolic of all this were the brownstone buildings of South Brooklyn. To the Brooklyn settlers, they represented nineteenth century grace and elegance (even if, in fact, they were often cheaply built by low-balling speculative builders), and refurbishing them — often after they had been converted to serve as low-cost rooming houses for decades — gave the settlers a sense of both sweat equity in the neighborhoods and a metaphor- they were going to fix the mistakes of previous generations (you know, with their pesky need to live cheap) and renew an urban dream.

“Inventing Brownstone Brooklyn” lingers mostly on Brooklyn Heights, arguably the beachhead of the gentrification invasion, and on surrounding areas (it doesn’t touch much north of there, like Williamsburg, the gentrification epicenter when I lived there, or Greenpoint, directly north- not a lot of brownstones, for what that’s worth). Osman talks about the different ways gentrifiers understood themselves, and boy, they wrote a lot- pamphlets, novels, memoirs, articles in magazines. They were the ones who were going to make the new urbanism, most notably that version preached by Jane Jacobs in a few chapters of her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” (few read that book all the way through, and no one reads her other stuff) a reality. They stood down a number of plans by Robert Moses and other villains in the Jacobs-ite rogues gallery to build superblock construction in Brooklyn Heights. It turned out it was useful to have white middle class people, many of them journalists, architects, and especially lawyers, when you wanted to defend your neighborhood from city hall.

Osman makes much of the confluence of visions between the early gentrifiers and at least some of the people they settled amongst, usually some mixture of working class “white ethnics,” black peoples, and Puerto Ricans. They could work together to save neighborhoods, sometimes, or get improvements. Some of the gentrifiers meant that sixties business. But others either didn’t, or meant it in the bad way. They “meant it” as in they opposed “big government” and “red tape” and anyone getting in the way of their self-fulfillment (which, curiously, usually seemed to coincide with their real estate portfolios). In the end, “saving” a neighborhood from Robert Moses usually meant a stay of execution. Moses wanted to plow highways through neighborhoods and raise brownstones to build superblocks because he thought you needed those to maintain an industrial city (factories need trucks, trucks need big roads). Gentrification went hand in hand with financialization and the service economy, which implied a different spatial order. Neither were great for the working class of late twentieth century Brooklyn.

In keeping with work inflected by “the new cultural history,” Osman soft-pedals the economic factors, especially early in the book. Sure, the settlers of south Brooklyn wanted a good deal, but they also wanted to find themselves, find community, etc etc. He even points out how banks and insurance companies wouldn’t service owner-renovators of brownstones in a lot of neighborhoods, seeing them and the neighborhoods more generally as bad risks! But, even Osman has to admit, eventually, the money was the determinative thing. It didn’t take long for banks and real estate companies to notice what was happening in Brooklyn. These companies seized on the gentrifiers as proof of concept for expanding into “dilapidated” urban real estate. Hell, even a lot of the cultural stuff worked for them, decades before anyone knew what a latte was- the early settlers, looking for “neighborhood” feel where parts of 1960s Brooklyn only offered block or parish or ethnic feel they couldn’t directly accessed, often went deep into the archives of New York history to find some, any, old-timey name to give their neighborhood. This is where “Cobble Hill,” “Carroll Gardens,” “Boerum Hill” (which is flat) come from. Once given a name, these areas could become commodities. Maybe that’s not what the original gentrifiers had in mind (though Osman looked for some who minded and only found a few), but that’s their ultimate importance. ****’

Review – Osman, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn”