Neil Chudgarwriting, wellbeing

Cute Modernity (A Talk about Ecology)

Neil Chudgarwriting, wellbeing
Cute Modernity (A Talk about Ecology)

Cute Modernity

(A Talk about Ecology)

Humanities Faculty Colloquium

Macalester College

September 20, 2011

1.  Contact

I should start out by saying that I’m kind of embarrassed by the title of my talk.  Perhaps some of you are too.  “Cute” is not scholarly; it lacks dignity.  The subtitle might help add some gravitas, but also a little mystery.  What does ecology have in common with the cute?  Well, today I’m trying to make sense of those two terms together.  What makes me think of “cute” and “ecology” in relation to each other is that both of those notions require us to think about how we are related to objects in our environment.  Some objects that we encounter are cute; other objects are “native prairie grasses,” for example, or “endangered.”  Both the cute and the ecological—whatever else they may be—are ways of talking about the claims objects make, or ought to make, on us.  

Both of these notions also seem to be modern inventions; by that I mean that they seem to originate during the historical period that many people call “the Enlightenment.”  The editors of a recent volume (called This is Enlightenment) explain the term simply:  “Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation.”  They continue:  “mediation is the condition of possibility for Enlightenment—and Enlightenment mediations become the condition of possibility for the many other discursive, material, and intellectual transformations.”   I’m speaking to an audience of scholars in the humanities, so I hardly need to point out that Enlightenment mediations have not been altogether successful in producing good relations between us and other objects.  Some Enlightenment mediations, like those that subtend and support differential categories like “culture” and “nation” and “race” and “gender,” have been pretty disastrous indeed.

It seems to me that some people in the early eighteenth century were well aware of the problems inherent in Enlightenment mediations and the categories they brought into being.  And I think some of those early-eighteenth century people tried to think of better ways for modern people to relate to the objects around them—less destructive forms of encounter.  The cute and the ecological, I’m going to suggest, are two such forms of encounter—forms that originated to solve some deep eighteenth-century problems, and that remain to us in our much later modernity.  In brief, I’ll suggest that the cute and the ecological name particular kinds of contact with objects.  So, first, I’m going to sketch out an eighteenth-century argument for the value of contact—not as a moment of mediation but rather as an alternative to “mediation.”

I hope that will seem a little bit silly.  After all, “contact” performs none of the mediating work of differential categories (like “culture” or “nation” or “race” or even “species”).  But that’s why “contact” matters:  not because it lets us mediate categorical difference, but rather because it makes that sort of difference unintelligible.  In the eighteenth-century story I’m going to tell, “contact” provides an ethically valuable alternative to “mediation” and the categories it generates by insisting on im-mediacy.  What I hope to suggest, in short, is that “contact” is the touchstone of a particular kind of eighteenth-century ecology—one that will end up, as so much ecological thinking does, bringing us face to face with the cute.    

2. Yahoo Ecology

If you remember Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s 1726 fiction of intercultural contact, you’ll recall how Gulliver, an ordinary bourgeois merchant type, modern and scientific, travels around the world meeting other cultures and having really dreadful experiences with them.  Gulliver plays out European fantasies of “multiculturalism,” but reverses them:  rather than encountering “other cultures” and trying to fit them into his own structures of knowledge, he finds himself the object of mediation.  The tiny Lilliputians, the gigantic Brobdingnagians, the duncical Laputians, and even the apparently perfect Houyhnhnms—all the “cultures” that Gulliver encounters mobilize their mediating technologies to make sense of their alien visitor.  Not for nothing, these operations closely resemble those of Enlightenment Europe—from the Royal-Society farce at the Grand Academy of Lagado, to the didactic public press of Brobdingnag, to the light of Nature that allegedly bathes Houyhnhnm reason in clarity.  Yet Swift doesn’t merely critique the protocols of Enlightenment mediation in Gulliver’s Travels.  While Gulliver’s ample suffering at the hands of “other cultures” makes plain the dangers of mediated modernity, there are moments when he escapes from mediation in order to become particular.  Those moments are moments of contact—not contact between “cultures,” or representatives of cultures; but rather between particular creatures.  These moments are also—perhaps not to Swift, but certainly to us—very cute.  

There are many such moments; I’ll give you just one example from Book Two.  Gulliver has been regaling the gigantic King of Brobdingnag with tales from modern European culture—stories about the perversity of the law, about the absurdity of party politics, about the horrors of international warfare.  

After hearing about as much of this as he can stand, the King (as Gulliver tells us), 

“[The King,] taking me into his Hands, and stroking me gently, delivered himself in these words, which I shall never forget, nor the manner he spoke them in. My little Friend … I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

“[The King,] taking me into his Hands, and stroking me gently, delivered himself in these words, which I shall never forget, nor the manner he spoke them in. My little Friend … I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

taking me into his Hands, and stroking me gently, delivered himself in these words, which I shall never forget, nor the manner he spoke them in.  My little Friend … I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth. (vi.122f, my emphasis)

Swift once wrote, “I have ever hated all Nations professions and Communityes and all my love is towards individualls … principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.”   The King’s strange behavior seems to echo Swift’s position:  perhaps humanity is a race of “odious Vermin.”  But Gulliver?  Gulliver is the King’s “little Friend.”  A race is a differential category; a friend, by contrast, is someone you can take in hand and stroke gently.  In the last book of the Travels, Swift suggests that even the most disgusting creatures in the world—Yahoos, who are just like humans in every important way—require a gentle touch—even and especially because they are so repulsive.

For Swift, gentle handling seems to rescue tangible individuals from the damning consequences of their mediated membership in differential categories—categories like nations, professions, and communities.  I think we may add add “cultures” to the list—to say nothing of classes, races, genders, or even species.

J. Grady,  Sophie Petting Lizard  (2011)

J. Grady, Sophie Petting Lizard (2011)

For Swift as for us, moments of contact across categorical boundaries are perilous, since they’re always and already produced by the mediations that generate the categories they purport to discover.  But Swift suggests, far more radically than we tend to, that the best way of avoiding the perils of contact is not to mediate difference in some new and better way—by celebrating “diversity,” for instance, or by appealing earnestly to transcendental ideals like “nature” or “rights.”  Rather, Swift wants us to locate our ethics in the literal difference, the mere physical not-the-sameness, that distinguishes one embodied creature from another.  

What’s at stake in this scene with the King of Brobdingnag, I’m suggesting, is ecology—a version of ethical relatedness that makes the world safe even for the most contemptible creatures, creatures like Gulliver and you and me.  (And maybe lizards, ha.)  That’s what makes this ecological position so challenging.  As many ecological thinkers have argued (with increasing intensity in recent years), ecology seems not to work if it tries to mediate categories of ethical importance into being.  Mediation is always ontologically prior to the distinctions it generates; so special categories—the vulnerable, the salvageable, the protectable, the environmentally sacred—are always dependent, conceptually and politically dependent, on the mediating technologies that generated them.  And mediating technologies, in modernity, can never be depended on when lives are on the line.

World Wildlife Fund

World Wildlife Fund

Imagine trying to design logo like this one—it belongs to the World Wildlife Fund—for a “Yahoo protection” movement and you will see the difficulty.  How do you mediate a deeply unpleasant kind of creature into ethical importance?

Swift challenges us, moderns, to confront our ethical responsibility to creatures who seem to belong to categories we hate—especially ourselves.  Yahoos like us, in Swift’s famously bleak view, are simply not worth saving, protecting, or caring for.  If Gulliver survives his travels, that’s only because Swift has seen to it that there are creatures who will venture beyond their own technologies of mediation to encounter him, stupid and repulsive as he may be, as a tangible individual—present im-mediately as an object not of thought, but of touch.  Swift’s ecology is the practice of “taking in hand, and stroking gently”:  it’s ecology by contact.  

3. Tree-Hugging

Craig Watkins,  Tree-Hugging Monster  (2009)

Craig Watkins, Tree-Hugging Monster (2009)

The version of “ecology” that I am sketching out might seem embarrassingly frivolous; in fact, I think it’s crucially important that it does. Arguing for a kind of ecological awareness that insists on tactile contact seems to literalize, in the silliest way, the notion of “tree-hugging.”   Of course Swift doesn’t have much to say about trees; for him, ethical concern attaches more to animal bodies than vegetable ones.  Nor, in fact, does he insist on hugging:  at his most ambitious, Swift requires only “gentle stroking,” and in general he seems content to recommend refraining from physical violence.  The notion of “tree-hugger” as a term of abuse, however, has a lot to do with the story I’ve been telling about the importance of contact in the early eighteenth century.  For “tree-hugger” to become effective as an insult, two things have to happen:  first, trees have to stand as metonyms for the sort of “nature” an environmentalist wants to “protect”; second, hugging has to be the wrong kind of action to perform in relation to it.  

I think these two events are related.  First, the arboreal version of “nature,” nature-as-tree, is, par excellence, the product of modern mediations.  The long history whereby “nature” turned from the universe into “the environment,” from everything into elsewhere, is a fascinating story—my colleague Terry Krier can tell you much more about that history than I can.  But I would like to mention an interesting consequence of the modern invention of “nature”:  “Multiculturalism,” as Bruno Latour puts it, “is solidly propped up by mononaturalism.”   The production of cultural difference, in other words, depends on an even deeper modern mediations, which produce a split between culture in general and a single non-human “nature.”  From within the mediating structures that subtend mononaturalism, “tree-huggers” are ridiculous because they perform a cultural activity in relation to a natural object—like sending a letter to a panda bear, or knitting a scarf for a rock.  (Not for nothing, these actions might seem awfully “cute”:  I’ll come back to that.)  

By this same logic, it may seem absurd to suggest, as I argue Swift does, that the most responsible way of encountering human others is by encountering their literal bodies—which seems to require us to perform a natural activity, making physical contact with a piece of matter, in relation to a cultural object, which is what a human being is supposed to be.  That absurdity is exactly the point.  Swift’s version of ecology asks us to do what tree-huggers do:  to ignore the mediations that produce differential “cultures,” and, beyond that, to ignore the mediations that produce a differential account of “nature” and “culture” more generally.  Gently stroking a Yahoo, like hugging a tree, grants ethical importance to an object—without the help of any mediation but that of mere material identity, the simple physical difference between one body and another.  Swift’s version of ecology asks us to think of our ethical obligation as attaching not to categories, but rather to individual bodies.  

That version of ecology has proven much too difficult to be sustained.  Hugging trees is simply too embarrassing for almost everybody in the modern world—because our ways of thinking categorically make it intensely difficult for us to encounter trees as bodies. But there’s more to our embarrassment than that:  in modernity, hugging itself is a problem all on its own.  I’d like to bring us to the cute by discussing an event in the history of mediation whereby hugging—and indeed physical contact generally—became, strictly speaking, taboo.  

4.  Touch into Feeling

So far, I’ve been telling you a story about the early eighteenth century:  about the importance of contact in the ethical thinking of Jonathan Swift.  This is one part of the cultural history I recount in my current project, a book called The Modern Touch.  This book argues that, from the late seventeenth century until the mid-eighteenth, English writers—philosophers and scientists, but mostly writers of what we call “literature”—English writers were fiercely committed to the importance of tactile contact between persons and tangible objects.  They found ways of representing such contact in writing, they used tactility as a way of thinking about what they were doing when they wrote and read, and they argued constantly and explicitly for the ethical significance of our contact with the tangible world.  The brief account of Swift’s “Yahoo ecology” that I’ve just sketched gives you an instance of what I mean by this.  

Now I’m going to suggest that—some time not long after Swift—physical contact stopped mattering:  that, in a historically determinate way, it became almost impossible to locate ethical significance at the surfaces of individual, tangible bodies.  The project I’ve got in mind next will try to account for that almost-impossibility.  In the time that remains today, I’m going to hazard a very preliminary sketch of that account.

Okay.  One convenient marker for the banishment of “contact” is the end of the reign of Queen Anne, who was the last English monarch to perform cures by the laying on of hands.  (The “royal touch,” as you may know, was for centuries the most effective available cure for scrofula, a tubercular infection of the throat.  

“His mother … carried him to London, where he was actually touched by Queen Anne.”

“His mother … carried him to London, where he was actually touched by Queen Anne.”

This is a nineteenth-century image of Queen Anne “touching” the boy who would grow up to be Samuel Johnson, a convenient periodizing moment:  the young Johnson one of the very last Britons to seek this form of medical treatment.)

The golden age of the contact cure was the period just after the Restoration of the English monarchy after the civil wars:  it is recorded that the hands of the restored Charles II touched well over ninety thousand ailing Britons between 1660 and ’82.  But the accession of George I in 1714 brought a final end to the practice of royal “stroaking,” and the monarchs of England officially relinquished their claim to heal by contact.  Dr. Johnson’s biographer Boswell reports, primly, that appealing to Queen Anne’s touch—a “superstitious notion,” he says—was not altogether curative.  

“The royal touch … had no effect.”

“The royal touch … had no effect.”

Now I am sure everyone here has a story to tell that can explain the abrupt decline of this ancient therapy.  One version of that story is about the modern separation between nature and culture.  Once the royal touch no longer satisfies a social need, it no longer has an effect on Nature; once it is no longer understood to participate in a therapeutic chain of material causes, Culture has no further use for it.  Contact is no longer effective as technology, because it can’t intervene between the social and natural:  contact between one body and another body mediates nothing.  

By the middle of the eighteenth century, social intercourse has begun to take the form we recognize today—I mean as a network of selves, of psychological interiors, connected by imaginary ties of social sympathy.  Bodies, meanwhile, stop being comprehensible as ethically significant—instead, what matters is persons, and our ideas of persons.  Adam Smith, in 1759, crystallizes this notion:  “What first disturbs us,” he writes, “is not the object of the senses, but the idea of the imagination. … The little sympathy which we feel with bodily pain is the foundation of the propriety of … patience in enduring it.”   

“What first disturbs us is not the object of the senses, but the idea of the imagination. … The little sympathy which we feel with bodily pain is the foundation of the propriety of patience in enduring it.”

“What first disturbs us is not the object of the senses, but the idea of the imagination. … The little sympathy which we feel with bodily pain is the foundation of the propriety of patience in enduring it.”

For Smith, our “moral sentiments,” as he calls them, attach not to the merely material objects of sense, but rather to “ideas of the imagination”; we don’t sympathize with other bodies in physical pain, but rather with our ideas of other selves.  

As the eighteenth century wears on, Britons work hard to prohibit bodily pain itself—almost as though to remove the necessity of trying to sympathize with it.  “At the end of the eighteenth century,” as one historian has argued, “physical comfort could be asserted as a right.”   What this historian calls “the invention of comfort” clears the way, I believe, for a properly modern ethics of liberal sympathy:  ethical concern attaches no longer to creatures with sensations, but rather to persons with sensibilities.  

Meanwhile, people stop talking about tactile feeling, and start talking about emotional feelings.  

I came to that conclusion fairly early on in the process of writing the manuscript I’m finishing now.  At the time it was just a sort of readerly intuition, supported only by the OED—which attests “feeling,” as referring to the sense of touch, from 1140; “feelings,” in the sense of “emotions,” is first attested in 1791, and continues in this sense to the present.  More recently, however, I’ve come up with vividly objective evidence of the change I’m talking about. This slide, taken from the Google NGram Viewer, shows the frequency of the words “touching” and “feeling” in English books published between 1660 and 1800.  Around 1755, the word feeling begins to outpace the word touching, and it never regains ground.


A related effect seems to occur—though somewhat later in the eighteenth century—in French and German.  In French books, the word sentir outpaces the word toucher across the eighteenth century, overtaking it around 1785.  In German, a comparable turn  occurs across the eighteenth century as well; the word fühlen takes the lead in the 1760s.  


I’m not going to talk about those other literatures any time soon, but I am encouraged by the suggestion that the cultural change I’m tracing is not merely a peculiarity of English words, or indeed of British culture.

Even just in Britain, though, the shift in vocabulary seems quite remarkable—and I have some hypotheses about its wider cultural correlates.  I suspect—and here I’m asking you to help me gauge the, ah, plausibility of these thoughts—I suspect that, as “feeling” replaces “touching,” bodies become containers of psychologies rather than tangible objects; and in consequence, physical contact becomes almost unthinkable, since it insists on the literal limit of a person’s self at the surface of her skin.  Tactile contact threatens a rupture in the intersubjective network of psychological interiors upon which sociopolitical life is coming to rely:  it’s threatening, because it allows material reality to obtrude into social reality.  

It seems to me that British culture, from the mid-eighteenth century forward, invented a wholly new aesthetic category to keep newly psychological feeling-selves in contact, however fugitively, with the ethical importance of the object-world.  I think that this aesthetic category remains accessible, in our own late modernity, in those objects we call “cute.”  And I think that recovering the eighteenth-century origins of the cute will allow for powerful new ways of understanding the phenomena that characterize our continuing modernity—important ones, from secularization to commodification, from pornography to the liberal state; and above all our relationship with the material environment and the claims its objects make on us.  In short, I’m suggesting that the cute is the cultural form in which modern people accommodate the persistent ethical claims of the object-world—that the cute is what lets us take physical contact seriously, in an age when physical contact is no longer serious.  

5. Pamela

The cute, as I understand it, has a historical origin:  it begins with a story in which physical contact is at once both mortally significant and completely beside the point.  I am referring Europe’s first runaway bestseller:  Samuel Richardson’s novel of 1740, Pamela, Or, Virtue Rewarded.  


Some of you may recall that novel:  in it, a poor young servant girl, Pamela, resists the increasingly violent efforts of her master, Mr. B, to rape her.  It is in fact a novel about attempted rape, so Pamela’s physical body is at the moral center of the story.  (The image on the screen is one of Joseph Highmore’s 1743 paintings of scenes from the novel; in this one, Pamela is about to be attacked by Mr. B, who is hiding in the closet.)  But her body matters only as a cipher:  all that matters to Pamela herself, she insists, is preserving what she calls her “Honesty,” which happens to be attached to a small (and fortunately inaccessible) part of her body.  All that matters to Mr. B, on the other hand, is obtaining his own pleasure—which happens to reside, he imagines, in the same small part of Pamela’s body where her “Honesty” happens to live as well.  (Henry Fielding, in a famous burlesque of Richardson’s novel, points out that what’s at stake in its central conflict is only “a little Girl’s, &c.”—a phrase that marks the profound oddity of reducing Pamela’s physical being to a cipher, an “etcetera.”)  In a strange way, her body is merely a placeholder for what she’s got to lose.


Now Pamela’s need to preserve her “Honesty” against Mr B’s advances is anything but inconsequential:  it isn’t merely a metaphor to say, as Pamela frequently does, that to be raped is to be “ruined,” since the social and economic consequences of sexual assault were potentially annihilating for a poor woman in eighteenth-century England.  But what’s astonishing about Richardson’s novel—and about the cultural milieu it reflects—is that physical violence doesn’t matter at all.  Mr. B succeeds all too well in touching Pamela in many literal ways—he kisses her, fondles her, pinches her, manhandles her till she is, in her words, “black and blue” (62).  But none of this violent contact alters the progress of Richardson’s narrative. Her body doesn’t matter, but her words do.  The course of the novel only changes when Mr. B reads Pamela’s letters.    This act of sentimental reading produces the novel’s glorious comic peripety, in which Mr. B (as Pamela writes)

put the Papers in his Pocket … and he said, taking me about the Waist, O my dear Girl! you have touch’d me sensibly.

She has “touch’d” him “sensibly” by producing her thoughts and feelings in writing.  

And that changes everything:  melted into ethical goodness by Pamela’s letters, Mr. B resolves “to defy the world, and the World’s Censures, and make my Pamela Amends … for all the Hardships I have inflicted upon her” (209).  He stops trying to rape her and asks to marry her instead.  “Love,” he says, “true Love, is the only Motive by which I am directed” (231).  Pamela is only too happy to marry her former persecutor:  it will be, she exults, “an ample recompense for all her Sufferings” (232). 


How does this astonishing turnabout occur?  Well, once Pamela has “touched” his sentiments, Mr. B cannot touch Pamela’s body:  the two now occupy the plane of imagination; their sympathy is mediated by their language.  All sorts of literally sensible touching might well have occurred; but, since that sort of contact isn’t mediated by modern technologies of intersubjectivity, it simply doesn’t matter.  The mid-eighteenth-century transposition of literal touch to figurative touch, from “touching” to “feeling,” may (just barely) have protected Pamela from being raped—but it left her entirely defenseless against the literal violence to which her body was constantly subjected.  In the modern world, where feelings matter but feeling does not, all manner of bodily suffering may go blithely ignored.  Technologies that mediate between psychological interiors, like Pamela’s letters, like the modern novel (and like the liberal state), may teach us great sympathy with emotional distress; but—as I think Richardson’s novel vividly suggests—such psychological mediations contribute to what Smith called “the little sympathy which we feel with bodily pain.”  Once emotional feelings matter more than bodily feeling, bodies simply don’t solicit our ethical engagement.  

6.  The Cute

And yet, sometimes, they must.  

As I mentioned, Richardson’s Pamela was an international blockbuster, a bestseller of unprecedented magnitude.  All kinds of people bought and read the book, and many more had the book read to them.  Beyond that, there was an unprecedented proliferation of material culture about Pamela:  Pamela paintings, Pamela woodcuts, Pamela picture-books, Pamela waxworks, Pamela fans, penny Pamela prints.  This explosion of merchandise wasn’t just selling the story of Pamela; it was selling, as rapidly as the eighteenth-century marketplace would allow, the image of the heroine herself.  And what made Pamela recognizable as Pamela was a curious feature of her costume:  in the novel—it’s prominently insisted on in the text—she wears a plain country dress and a little round-eared cap.

The little cap, like Werther’s yellow vest and blue jacket, or like Mary Magdalene’s ointment-bottle, is a sort of conventional attribute—something that distinguishes an image of Pamela from any image of anybody else.  But it’s important in another way, too:  it makes Pamela, unmistakably, adorable.  Little round-eared caps can do that.  


The cap—for Pamela as for the baby in this picture—is not only an attribute but also sort of a metonym for the qualities of the body underneath:  the Pamela underneath the cap is little and round and pretty as well.  She always has a tiny figure, a sweet and nearly circular face, and a plump and curvy body; her own ears are always hidden underneath the little round ears of her cap.

I’ve said that, in Richardson’s novel, Pamela’s physical body has no narrative significance:  yet it seems that, in the material culture surrounding the novel, Pamela’s body is very significant indeed.  I’d like to submit that Pamela, from 1740, is the first instance of what we now call the cute.  In saying this I certainly do not mean to belittle her—or to trivialize Richardson’s novel, or to make light of the cultural phenomena I’m discussing today.  Quite the opposite.  


I think it is tremendously important that we can draw a straight line from Pamela, in 1740, to this polar bear in 2011.  Like Pamela, this polar bear is vulnerable—I mean physically vulnerable, in bodily danger.  And like Pamela, this polar bear can be represented for us in a way that makes its body matter.   

Swift challenged us to locate ethical significance at the surfaces of mere bodies; I’ve tried to show how that kind of ecological thinking, ecology by contact, has become almost impossible in our latter day.  But that almost is what interest me.  The cute, I’m thinking, is the aesthetic form in which some objects insist on their ethical significance:  not by calling out to our reason or our sympathy, but rather by making their ethical claims irresistible.

And that, finally, is why I want to think about ecology and the cute together.  Following those modern notions back to the eighteenth century lets us understand the ethical importance of contact and think through our resistance to it.  Our resistance to the claims of objects is what makes this line of thinking so compelling for me.   In our own late modernity, we’ve learned to be insensible to the broader ethical consequences of our physical relatedness to objects.  If our economy threatens to collapse under exotic technologies of financial mediation, then we’ve lost contact, literally, with the material determinants of economic value.  If we’re on the brink of ecological catastrophe, it’s because we’ve literally mishandled the material environment.  If we allow our government to solicit terrorism with violence, then clearly we’ve forgotten that literal, tactile contact has ethical consequences.  Ecology—and I mean that in the most general sense—depends on making ethical contact with individual bodies; the cute, I’m suggesting, is the way such bodies make claims on us, despite our resistance to the notion that they should.  Thank you!