Eve Keller. Generating Bodies and Gendered Selves: The Rhetoric of Reproduction in Early Modern England. Seattle and London: U of Washington P, 2007. 248pp. ISBN 0 295 98641 7.

Sara D. Luttfring
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sara D. Luttfring. "Review of Eve Keller, Generating Bodies and Gendered Selves".  Early Modern Literary Studies 14.1/Special Issue 18 (May, 2008) 11.1-5<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-1/revkell.htm>.

  1. Generating Bodies and Gendered Selves examines early modern medical writing about conception, pregnancy, and childbirth, arguing that the ways these texts treat biological reproduction reflect the period's turn towards new ideas about selfhood. Unlike previous literary scholars who have read medical texts as secondary or background material, Eve Keller takes biological and medical treatises and case histories as her primary objects of study, reading them not simply as accounts of actual medical practice, but as ideologically inflected rhetorical constructs. She argues that the rhetoric these texts use to describe, for example, male and female "seed," the work of midwives, or the activity of a foetus during childbirth, is influenced by emergent notions of a fully autonomous self. Crucially for Keller, this western humanist self is persistently gendered male, and she argues that this gendering depends on the formulation of an other against which to define the subject. This other is the reproductive female body, the perceived contradictoriness of which both supports and undermines early modern notions of a stable masculine self.

  2. In her first chapter, Keller places early modern notions of selfhood in the context of what she calls "the long arc of western intellectual history" (19). She argues that the early modern humanist tradition of an autonomous self distinctly separate from the body is aberrant when viewed in the context of the more embodied notions of the self that preceded and followed it, specifically pre-modern Galenic theories and post-modern research into areas such as robotics and genetic engineering. Chapters 2 and 3 examine texts that modify Galenism to reflect new ideas about selfhood, specifically Helkiah Crooke's Microcosmographia (1615) and books of practical medicine directed towards a female audience. Although these texts were highly derivative, with much of their material copied or translated from earlier Galenic texts, Keller argues that they diverge significantly from Galenism in their "asymmetrical sense of the self that identifies the male with persons and the female with the womb" (70). In chapters 4 and 5, Keller proceeds to analyze depictions of masculine subjectivity in medical texts that diverged more radically from previous Galenic theory. In William Harvey's De generatione animalium (1651) and in various embryological theories, Keller argues that notions of selfhood are increasingly attributed to (presumably male) embryos at earlier and earlier stages of development. In her final chapter, Keller reads late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century case histories by several male midwives and one female midwife, and she argues that these texts construct their authors as authoritative masculine subjects through an emphasis on knowledge gained by touch. Keller concludes her book with a brief epilogue that examines some of the ways the early modern model of personhood she has been describing continues to influence the legal and scientific rhetoric of the early twenty-first century.

  3. Throughout Generating Bodies and Gendered Selves, Keller combines her nuanced close readings of medical texts with a wide-ranging and subtle understanding of their contexts. She makes a strong argument for the ways in which these texts participated in the political and philosophical, as well as medical, debates of the period. For example, in her fourth chapter she makes an inspired link between Harvey's De generatione and Thomas Hobbes's political theory, arguing that Harvey's shifting of subjectivity from the father to the embryo matches the political shift from patriarchal monarchy to commonwealth. Another strength of this book lies in Keller's subtle readings of depictions of female bodies, in which she resists the temptation to generalize, instead noting the ambiguities of the texts' treatment of women. She observes that at certain points in certain texts, "the female is a participatory, possessive, agential subject," but argues that these constructions of the female are never consistent or coherent, but always undermined by the texts' rhetoric (11).

  4. Keller's reading of the ways medical texts undermine their own rhetorical constructions is occasionally less nuanced in her discussions of masculinity. For example, in her analysis of early modern theories of embryology in chapter 5, Keller assumes that the agency attributed to sperm, and the fact that it comes from the father's body, automatically genders the sperm itself male. However, this assumption is not consistently borne out by the evidence Keller cites; frequently the texts use gender-neutral, as opposed to masculine, pronouns to refer to sperm and to the embryos supposedly contained within it. In her examination of an early modern illustration of sperm, Keller claims that the plate depicts sperm as "miniature men," but in fact the tiny beings pictured are modestly covering their genitals, so their sex is impossible to determine (152). Keller doesn't make as much of these inconsistencies as she does when reading depictions of the female reproductive body, but it seems that masculinity is similarly undermined in these texts, and not only in its reliance on the female as definitional other.

  5. Overall, however, Generating Bodies and Gendered Selves compellingly shows how medical writing took part in formulating emergent ideas about the self during the early modern period. Both in its larger thesis and in its readings of individual texts, Keller's book is a welcome addition to the study of early modern conceptions of medical knowledge, gender, and subjectivity.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).