King Cang

Stuart Elden – Canguilhem (Polity)

I went through this book on Georges Canguilhem by Stuart Elden in strides, thanks to his excellent explanatory craft. He lays out detailed research with an engaging narrative style and no gloss or loss. I hadn’t explored ‘King Cang’ in detail before and now I see how important he was.

The Foucault link is the thing many people know about, but the oft-mentioned connection to Foucault’s PhD is actually minimal, at the same time as Canguilhem’s work is Ur-Foucauldian.

The Normal and the Pathological is the key work and Elden maps out the text itself with fascinating asides on the histories of some of the concepts and debates Canguilhem grappled with in his time.

Canguilhem was a historian and philosopher of science, he worked closely with Gaston Bachelard, who is largely known for his book on space in Britain, rather than for being the equally paradigm-challenging individual he was in Europe. Shall I talk about Europe? I better not talk about Europe.

These figures – Foucault included – take you right into the roots of epistemology. For Canguilhem disease is not a diversion from the ‘norm’ of health, but a new type of life. Dead things live, hair grows. Live things have deadness. Mechanism and vitalism – and in fact morbidity and life – are not divided cleanly in two by a scalpel blade. The experimental laboratory is not a normalised situation, but a pathological one. Statistical mean averages normalise. The roots of this lie in metricisation and all the way back to the revolution, Bonaparte. Standard measures that were required to control and for warfare.

Scientists may have their eyes down the microscope, but they all live in a social world and they blindly bring elements of that socialisation to their supposedly neutral objective labour.

The links with Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic and other works should now be clear to those who know that material. But the kind of thinking Canguilhem executed is exactly that which is under threat in some places as conservatism and a re-kindled fascism shows a clear desire to close down on all but the most instrumentalised philosophy.

Cang’s work was in fact a kind of philosophical Antifa – as Elden shows – even though the explicit terms of those politics were muted in his writings.

These issues are at the heart of the struggle for the independent soft power of the university in Britain. Canguilhem is a crucial figure to keep as that struggle moves on, his critique of science and its epistemologies are as far-reaching as Adorno and Horkheimer’s in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Elden’s book is the perfect introduction and future guide to ‘Cang’ in English. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

I’m the Doctor

A.J. Lees – Mentored by a Madman (Notting Hill Editions)

There have been some cracking books this year, but for the sheer unexpectedness of it I’d have to say that Mentored by a Madman is the one I’ve recommended the most.

It was at the European Beat Studies Network conference in Manchester’s Welcome Inn – a place dizzy with incense and laughing yoga – where I first met Professor Lees. He wore a pristine suit and spoke with a careful, measured and attentive voice. His eyes were very still. In the midst of the paranoid scholars and itchy artists he seemed unnervingly calm, standing out but very much at home. Oliver Harris, one of the world’s greatest living experts on Burroughs, introduced him as a colleague of the late Olivier Sacks, a renowned neurosurgeon and an ‘unexpected disciple of another man who made a habit of wearing suits in company like this’.

The book, which I picked up that day on the strength of Lees’ talk, is a memoir which – like all great memoirs – relegates the protagonist to a secondary character. Lees is shaped by early run-ins with Beat culture, the Dickensian stringency of elite medical schools, the humanity of the Parkinson’s sufferers he treated with L-Dopa and, alongside all of it, the ‘madman’ of the title: William S. Burroughs.

Burroughs crosses the text like a Buddhist Lama, appearing with unexpected insights from him texts in incongruous situations and proving – like all we Burroughs-lovers have always known – that what appears on first reading as mania or obscenity can become, in time, priceless and humanistic insights that span time.

Of particular interest is Lees’ own adventurous spirit when it comes to the limits of standard clinical procedure. A good physician, he believes, should be willing to try the medicines he or she prescribes in order to truly understand their effect upon the subjectively experienced organism.

How else, other than sharing their urges, could Lees have discovered the psychosomatic and potentially addictive qualities of his treatments which had been deemed safe under lab conditions?

Lees praises botany as another lost art of the physician. Some of the millions spent synthesising trademarkable drugs in labs could surely be spared to search the rainforests where evolution has very likely already provided cures in abundance. The Yage Letters are an influence here.

Lees points out that Burroughs was the first Western explorer to realise that yage was a product of two vines, not one; a secret which official medicine would take another half-century to uncover. Exotic botany and self-medication eventually combine towards the close of the text as Lees’ describes to us one hell of a retirement party.

The key message of the work, and one Lees’ appears to have embodied throughout his successful career, are the benefits of what academics now call ‘interdisciplinarity’ but are much better described as having varied interests.

Burroughs, though he dropped out of medical school after one semester, continued to hold a broadly scientific outlook. The knowledge he gained from a lifetime’s autodidactic medical reading allowed him to become a worthy proponent of the apomorphine cure for opiate addiction.

It was Lees’ openness to literary and aesthetic insights which introduced him, through Burroughs, to this same apomorphine. The dopamine-regulating qualities that Burroughs praised for reducing opiate need proved a great breakthrough when utilised alongside L-Dopa in the treatment of Parkinsons. Lees credits Burroughs with these insights, but it is clear to us who the truly great physician here is.

Most importantly, Mentored by a Madman is well written, compulsively readable, compact and balances sentiment and humour perfectly. It’s chock full of great anecdotes and carries a life-affirming message, especially but not exclusively for those interested either in Burroughs or the neurosciences. Buy that shit!

– Joe Darlington