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A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels and Systems of Thought.

A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels and Systems of Thought. By Stephen Kern (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 437 pp. $29.95).

With A Cultural History of Causality, Stephen Kern sets out to undertake what "no one else has tackled" (p. 1) and provide a broad survey of changing ideas about the causes of human behavior from the Victorian era to modern times. Taking a three-pronged approach, he offers extensive descriptions of scientific developments in fields from evolutionary biology to quantum mechanics; detailed exegesis of the work of theorists from Nietzsche to Freud; and original readings of a wide selection of literary authors from Charles Dickens to Don DeLillo. Mulling these through, Kern argues that causal understanding became ever more highly elaborated yet simultaneously ever less certainly bounded over the course of the period from 1830 to the present. Encapsulating this paradox with the term "the specificity-uncertainty dialectic," Kern argues, in essence, that the hallmark of modernity has been the recognition that "the more we know, the more we realize how little we know" (p. 13).

Seeking a smooth avenue into this vast territory, Kern decided to focus on a single, signal human act. He sought for study a dramatic action that, while unchanging in itself, could be shown to have undergone markedly varied causal explanations over time. Murder eventually suggested itself and, with murder novels as his touchstone, Kern works systematically to elucidate varied theories of causation from the sexual and emotional, to the linguistic and the social.

Topical chapters are organized loosely according to the confines of major academic disciplines, with detailed abstracts of the arguments of the major figures in a given field providing the context for discussion of corresponding ideas as they appear in murder novels. To take one example among thousands offered in the book, a chapter on sexuality contrasts Balzac's reliance on humoral. Here, as throughout, Kern emphasizes that the greater specificity of modern scientific understanding (epitomized by the replacement of vague notion of humors with empirically verifiable/chemically synthesizable hormones) only begets greater complexity, as authors ultimately come no closer to understanding how or why hormonal imbalances, amongst thousands of other identified neurochemicals, contribute to murder.

Readers are sure to be impressed by the sheer weight of Kern's synthesis. One can easily imagine this book proving highly useful in a first-year methods course for history Ph.D. students. Indeed, it would provide a valuable primer for anyone in need of a quick and lucid introduction to key analytic perspectives that have influenced the shape of historical inquiry over the last century.

However, Kern's original research comes, not with his recapitulations of scientific and social theories, but with his close reading of more than 100 murder novels written between 1830 and the present. Unfortunately, he undermines his own efforts by announcing in his introduction that, "novelists draw on scientific findings, while the arrow of influence almost never goes the other way" (p.24). Little in the subsequent text serves to contradict this observation. Instead, Kern concentrates on cataloging instances in which literature reflects leading theories of causation developed in other disciplines.

The reader is then brought up short when Kern shifts, in his conclusion, to the assertion that, in fact, "science and literature make for an uneasy fit," and that literature seldom uses scientific theory to explain behavior. Kern may well be onto something when he declares that literature and science are fundamentally incongruent because science emphasizes the effort to "reduce complex behavior to simple ... cases," while "literary dramatizations aim to elaborate the fuller complexities of life" (p.371). Still, his book would have come closer to its potential had Kern made greater efforts to demonstrate literature's capacity to reveal hidden truths, its ability to shape and transform, not merely reflect, the ideas it engages.

Readers may also criticize Kern's work from the opposite angle and question his decision to focus on murder novels in the first place. For in choosing murder as a lens through which to examine ideas about causality, Kern frequently conflates causation with motivation, narrowing his exploration of human behavior down to the actions of individuals. And because he relies largely on works by European and American male authors about male murderers ("to add female writers and female murderers would have multiplied [too many] variables"), that individual turns out to be the usual suspect: the putatively autonomous Western male subject (p.21).

While Kern does reference Durkheim's famous decision to study suicide because doing so "required explaining sociologically an act that was thought to be quintessentially personal," he offers no parallel interrogation of the analytical import of choosing murder as the central subject for an investigation of causation (p.290). Instead, he simply states out the outset that murder struck him as a promising topic for study because it is an action that is "strongly intentional, highly motivated, full of meaning ... and usually done for a reason" (p.2). The result is an unacknowledged bias towards individualistic explanations for motivation--"causation"--that undermines any effort to understand the role of social position in the formation of subjectivity, in the very process of "self-definition" that Kern posits as the fundamental aim of human motivation. Thus, despite the fact that Kern does devote a chapter to "society" and to sociological explanations for murder, it comes as no surprise that his study of murder literature finally leads him to conclude that moderns find themselves "in world in which ... individuals are separated from a grounding in traditional narratives ... and must work to ground themselves" (p.358). In the end then, Kern's magisterial work succeeds too fully in demonstrating its central premise: the more you know, the less you know. Kern has produced a cultural history of causality that dramatically understates the causal role of culture.

Nicole Eustace

New York University
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Author:Eustace, Nicole
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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