Bodies of Evidence: Recovering Early Modern Forensic Systems

April 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

My first blog post invited you to gaze into a stranger’s viscera, and, in Cloud Atlas fashion, I seem to have ended up exactly where I started. Over the past several months, I have been cultivating an interest in bodily testimony and forensics during the early modern period (chiefly the 16th and 17th centuries). I have had the distinct pleasure of working with Vanderbilt’s Dr. Holly Tucker, who holds posts both in the Department of French and Italian and the Center for Biomedical Ethics, and whose tour-de-force book exploring the history of blood transfusions in early modern France, Blood Work, you should go read immediately.

In our discussions of practices of torture, dissection, and cruentation (the controlled exposure of an accused killer to the victim’s body, on the assumption that the body will bleed afresh in the presence of its murderer), Dr. Tucker and I explored the extraordinary variety of ways in which the early modern body was supposed to “speak” truth: through speech, through gesture, through markings, through (in)sensitivity to pain, through the behavior of blood and viscera. As our conversations percolated, I became preoccupied with one question: what would it mean to consider these embodied systems of meaning as a form of “forensic” knowledge?

To be clear, I certainly don’t mean to imply that the standards of proof used in witch trials or virginity “tests” meet the standards of modern forensics.

"Enhance. Enhance. Enhance...Yup, looks like eye of newt."

“Enhance. Enhance. Enhance…Yup, looks like eye of newt.”

Rather, I am considering how the practices used in the early modern justice system use the gathering of physical evidence and experimentation as part of their methodology, and how the hotly contested nature of scientific evidence during this period illustrates the roots of the word “forensic” in the milieu of the Roman forum. As the legal procedures and standards of proof that we recognize from our modern justice system were just beginning to emerge, trials served as a type of forum in which these standards were debated, questioned, tested, and developed, facilitating a similar kind of dialogue in the public sphere.

It’s challenging to think about affairs like witch trials, which we currently dismiss as barbaric examples of superstition run amok, as precedents for the developing standards of modern law. Far from mob scenes full of peasants with torches, in England, these trials were run by the intellectual elite and, if viewed from the perspective of scientific knowledge of the period, the methodologies used to examine the bodies of supposed “witches” and varieties of evidence needed to construe proof seem remarkably thorough and demonstrate a genuine concern about false convictions. At the same time, however, I know that, based on the circular or totalizing explanatory systems used to make a narrative from the evidence gathered, I would almost certainly hang as a witch.

Exhibit A: "Devil's mark" on left bicep. Proof of communion with Satan.

Exhibit A: “Devil’s mark” on left bicep. Proof of communion with Satan.

witch 2

Exhibit B: Feline familiar, often in the company of the accused. Pictured here with infernal imp?

How do we deal with a legal past where a large freckle or mole was treated with the same epistemological seriousness of a DNA cheek swab? My experience engaging with the simultaneously exhaustive and flimsy procedures propping up the early modern justice system have opened my eyes to the contingency of modern forensic knowledge on assumptions about the infallibility of “objective” testing. Within the past month, we have seen the conviction of Purvi Patel for feticide using the (scientifically discredited) hydrostatic lung test developed during the early modern period and the developing scandal over the FBI’s acknowledgement of its forensic unit’s universally flawed testimony regarding microscopic hair comparison for over two decades before the year 2000. (These cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.) While we may pat ourselves on the back for making overt “witch hunts” a thing of the past, it is essential that we continue to hold our forensic knowledge up to scrutiny, remembering that our results are only as good as the explanatory systems surrounding them.

– A.M. Lehr


For more on the Patel trial and the hydrostatic test:

For more information on the FBI Crime Lab scandal:

horatio 2



Epigenetics and Blaming Mothers: Working with Dr. Amy Non

April 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Before this semester began, I harbored a secret interest in genetics and environmental heredity, an interest that I kept hidden from my work in English because it seemed so disconnected. But this has rapidly been changing. During this semester I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with Dr. Amy Non. Dr. Non is a molecular anthropologist in the Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University, and an inspiring mentor with whom to discuss the challenges and pleasures of mediating a discipline divide.

During my initial meeting with Dr. Non I mentioned that I had an interest in intersections of epigenetics and motherhood, and was greeted with a fascinating and highly relevant bibliography that not only gave me a thorough overview of epigenetics, but also provided me with the fodder to develop a research project that would engage both nineteenth century literature and many of the questions that Dr. Non is investigating in her research. Dr. Non’s research focuses on the interplay between health and early environments, examining how social experiences can become biologically embedded early in life to affect one’s life-long health.

So, you may be wondering, what is epigenetics? The prefix epi- derives from the Greek for “over” or “outside of,” thus implying that epigenetics studies what is outside of genetics. More simply put, epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression that are not caused by changes in DNA. That is to say, how our environment can affect our genes.

Many groundbreaking studies have been published over the past decade that investigate epigenetic changes and their epidemiological relevance. Weaver et. al.’s 2004 investigation of rat dam nursing habits is a noteworthy study, which found that less attentive maternal nurturing resulted in epigenetic changes to the rat pups’ DNA. One of Dr. Non’s articles has likewise been formative in my thinking, in which Non et. al. (2014) investigate DNA-methylation in neonates exposed to either maternal depression/anxiety hormones or antidepressant medication, finding that there was a higher level of epigenetic change to the neonates’ DNA when exposed to maternal hormones than to the medication.

While the results of these studies have been noteworthy to my thinking, it is the questions that have come out of reading about them that has allowed me to connect epigenetics back to the late nineteenth century. Primarily, while reading these studies, I began to worry about trends of blaming mothers that could develop out of investigations of the importance of nurturing early life environments. Do these epigenetic studies risk giving voice to arguments that promote stay-at-home motherhood as the only and best option? How does one separate the rights of the mother from those of the neonate/infant/child after epigenetics has identified the importance of early life environments? And how do these questions inform the late nineteenth century?

But I wont give away that last question… just yet.

My heartfelt gratitude goes to Dr. Non for inspiring my thinking this semester, dedicating her time to discussing and illuminating this new (to me) field of science, for her enthusiasm about my project, and her encouragement in my aim to intellectually cross the discipline divide. Thank you, Amy.

-W. Smeele

Modernism and Memory: Or, Alex’s Inability to Move On Already

April 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

For the past year, I have been obsessed with examining the role of memory in every text I’ve read. My unwitting colleagues have been subjected to my repetitive blog posts on this subject (thanks again, guys). But it is such a broad and pervasive concept that, for me, it is inescapable — from Frankenstein to Spin, I applied the lens of memory to every narrative in our bio-cultures seminar (though I sometimes omitted it from discussion for the sake of everyone else’s sanity). However, most importantly, I thought about memory in conjunction with my pet project on three women modernists: Olive Moore, Dorothy Richardson, and Muriel Spark. Meeting with Vanderbilt psychologist and neuroscientist Rene Marois, and with his doctoral student Matt Ginther, proved to be an indispensable experience for two main reasons: it brought me outside of literature in order to more fully understand and complicate my project, and it gave me the opportunity to collaborate (however simply) with individuals completely unfamiliar with my field.


This laminated piece of paper marks the unassuming entrance to Vanderbilt’s Human Information Processing Laboratory. Known more widely by the graduate students as the “Marois Lab,” this facility is run by scientists chiefly interested in two fields: neurolaw and modes of attention in relation to the brain basis of human cognition.

Neurolaw investigates how neuroscientific data can inform legal principles within the justice system and, in the Marois Lab, is applied primarily to punishment and decision making processes. For instance, while speaking with Rene, he offered an example based on drug defendant systems. Is it really useful or ethical to incarcerate a defendant with substance abuse problems when we should really be researching the neurological basis of their addiction and providing rehabilitation in a clinic rather than a jail? Similarly, when considering the punishment for juvenile defendants, should they be tried as adults (even 18 year olds) if their brains are not fully developed? The legal system foregrounds differences between metal states such as: intentionality (committing a crime on purpose), unknowingly, recklessly, negligently, or blamelessly (accident). Rene investigates judgment and decision making processes, by both jurors and judges, in relation to the fundamental nature of our third-party punishment system.

To introduce you to the Marois Lab’s work on modes of attention, I’d like to focus a bit more closely on one of my meetings with Matt, one of Rene’s graduate students. Over coffee, Matt patiently explained to me exciting concepts such as: the different between EEG and MRI machines, the minute details of online experimentation, the advantages and drawbacks to using fMRI machines, the spatiality of the brain… initially, our fields did not seem to coincide in very interesting ways (I think Rene still remains unconvinced that literature can relate to, or enhance, the fields either law or neuroscience). However, when I explained the ways in which memory and temporality work in many modernist texts and demanded that he “apply neuroscience to this,” Matt crafted an insight that has already made its way into my research. He suggested that modernist writers are offering stories about how we experience life, but the focus on involuntary memory is not an adequate representation of how we actually recall information. Many neuroscientists are invested in the events that take place beneath conscious awareness — that is, many events happen around us every day that we do not consciously perceive. But, as Matt suggested, modernist writers focus on these everyday, peripheral events and expand them (think of Richardson’s thresholds, Proust’s madeleine, West’s berries, Woolf’s cows…). They (re)create a version of our experience that we could not otherwise recall.

Will my tiny attempt at collaboration with Matt change the very fabric of Vanderbilt’s PhD program in literature? Will my feminist reading of Olive Moore’s biological essentialism lead to my first real publication? Will Rene read my paper and be astounded by my incorrect interpretations of his research? The answer is probably “no” (okay, the answer to the last question might be “yes”…), but this project has profoundly shaped how I approach modernist literature.

When I told Matt that his theory could have been spoken by a literary scholar, he was not only shocked, but even sounded a bit embarrassed. I hope to continue exploring the links between neuroscience, cognitive literature, and law and lit. to further my own research but also to show other departments what literature could bring to their disciplines.

-Alex Ox

Disability, Design, and Discipline: Constructing Space For Collective Access

April 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

Over the past few months, I have been lucky enough to work and think with Dr. Aimi Hamraie, Assistant Professor in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Medicine, Health, and Society.  Though the aim of this project was to pair English students (staunch humanitarians that most of us are) with scientists to see what might happen when cross-disciplinary minds encounter one another, my project was rather different in that I was instead exploring the inherent interdisciplinarity of my home field, Disability Studies.  As Margaret Price writes in Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability, “I perceive a theoretical and material schism between academic discourse and mental disabilities.  …Academic discourse operates not just to omit, but to abhor mental disability–to reject it, to stifle and expel it” (8).  A related sentiment is echoed by Tanya Titchkosky in her book The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning when she writes:

“Despite its complicated meaning, access seems to enter our lives not so much as a question but as a demand.  In the university, for example, people require access to buildings, washrooms, classrooms, offices, or access to filling out forms; people require access to news policies, and reading lists, as well as to professors and events; people require access to a sense of the camaraderie, conversation, and connections that accompany academic life.  In short, people require access to a general feeling of legitimate participation, meaningfulness, and belonging.  A classroom, a policy, or a professor can be perceived through questions of access” (7).

I am not quoting these authors to indict Vanderbilt University (per se), but rather to highlight the ways in which questions of access in university spaces originate from the very point at which any single body or mind encounters the larger structural force of the university–both passages I have quoted above are the product of a humanities methodology, but transcend disciplinarity in their scope.

I understood Aimi’s work to be functioning in a similar fashion: their work employed a humanities methodology (I even jokingly suggested that Aimi could be in an English department, since the boundaries of English scholarship are so fuzzy these days) though the majority of their work can be seen as taking an historical approach to science and technology studies.  Aimi’s scholarship is primarily taking up concerns of “universal design” (a design methodology with the aim of creating spaces for the widest variety of bodies) but its ramifications are far reaching, in the very literal sense that every single body encounters designed spaces.  I witnessed the practical application of an UD perspective when I attended an undergraduate conference that Aimi ran and watched the students providing myriad entryways to engagement with the conference and its contents.

I am leaving this interdisciplinary experiment with more questions about English as a discipline than suggestions for future interdisciplinary projects.  While Aimi is not in an English department, a lot of humanities-based DS work is located in English departments (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Margaret Price, Melanie Yergeau, Ellen Samuels, Petra Kuppers, the late Tobin Siebers, Lennard Davis, Jay Dolmage, the late Christopher Bell, and more well-known and oft-cited DS scholars) — what is it about English that makes it an especially fruitful ground for the interdisciplinary work of DS?

-Max B

Biocultures in Academic Medicine: A Not-So-Accidental Tourist

April 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

For the past two months, I’ve taken a return to the roots I know so well:  a humanities-based-interloper, standing on the outskirts of medicine and surgery as a quietly enthusiastic groupie.  Working with the Chair of the Surgery department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (that would be Dr. Dan Beauchamp, an admirable leader, to say the least), my project was to attend the surgery residents’ weekly conferences.   Typically, most programs in academic medicine, regardless of specialty, will have their departments come together twice weekly for major reviews in cases and care management (the Mortality and Morbidity Conference, otherwise known as “M&M”) and the Grand Rounds lectures.

To be fair, I came into this project with some very strong opinions already formed about some of the more pressing issues I had seen in my previous professional life, especially in physician identity development.  But it struck me anew, each and every morning I woke up at an ungodly hour to join the residents in their conference, that though I worked in a teaching hospital, I hadn’t had much contact with the greater framework of how these lectures function– how it is a group setting that facilitates identity formation.

There is much that can be said about communities of care, and, just as in any other profession, each program and department will have its own unique culture.  To be honest, I was expecting the surgeons to… well… have the affect of surgeons: logical, solution-oriented, intellectual over emotional, and depending on the subspecialty, not unlike the grown-up version of frat boys, regardless of gender.

A lot of my current research has found itself centered on the idea of intersubjectivity within the surgical encounter, especially by way of trauma.  Because, in medicine, the stakes of errors are so high there can be no easy restitution narrative for the physician, and that for the surgeon, this will often manifest in a very physical way: the surgeon’s “style.”

Surgery is effectively taught as “see one–do one–teach one.”  Techniques can be taught but how they are interpolated within the physicality of the new provider can’t be controlled.  When I have spoken to surgeons about the question of style versus algorithm–effectively the medical parameters that more or less form a list of “what to do if…”–many of them are unsurprised by the differences in technique.  It is far more surprising for those of us without medical training.

The recurrent theme in the resident lectures at VUMC was that this department tends toward a compassionate and humanistic perspective, and at that, one that is remarkably interdisciplinary.  I recently attended a Grand Rounds lecture given by Dr. Jeffrey A. Matthews from the University of Chicago, entitled “Truth and Truthiness in Surgery.”  And let me tell you, it was a lecture that would make anyone with an interest in science studies or medical humanities swoon (I swooned).

The title is more or less self-explanatory, but what Dr. Matthews is able to so deftly articulate is that in the humanity that is surgery–the practice of being “humans who take care of other humans” as one provider had said–there is as much reliance on intuition, practice, and experiential learning as there is on the solid pillars of medical science.  (This is of course a very brief synopsis of a very complicated lecture.)

I am resisting the urge to use this blog post to gush about “Truth and Truthiness,” so instead I will say that I was heartened and very grateful to see that 1) a lecture like that exists in the world, written by and directed to surgeons,  and 2)  that it was considered an important enough topic to be brought in for surgical grand rounds for the benefit of budding surgeons, and where it was supported by waves of nodding heads from the experienced attendings.

To me, this is another marker of a rising sea-change in medical care; one that I’m excited to see continue.

Over and Out,


Music, Langauge, and A Non-tradiational Collaboration

April 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

Music and Mind

Photo credit: Vanderbilt’s Music and the Mind website:

When I began the semester, I was interested in the way I saw music functioning in contemporary speculative fiction as a sort of language or communication tool that could transcend traditionally static boundaries, so I wanted to learn more about the relationship between music and language. In pursuit of this interest, Jay led me to a research initiative at Vanderbilt called “Music and the Mind” that works to bring researchers from across campus together to study music from various disciplinary perspectives—psychology, neuroscience, medicine, education, music performance—and often through collaborative efforts transcending these traditional research boundaries. One such researcher, Reyna Gordon, explores the cognitive relationship between music and language, thus situating her research at the intersection between linguistics and neuroscience. In a nutshell, her research adds to a growing number of studies that are interested in charting the neurological correlations between linguistic and musical processing. The implications of this correlation—that the brain responds identically to variations in musical beats as it does to syllables of language—fuels her more recent research on music training and grammar development in young children (See “Musical rhythm discrimination explains individual differences in grammar skills in children”). Ultimately, her work seeks to discover if musical training may actually improve language development in children and if so, whether this type of training may be useful for helping children with specific language impairments.

Brain and notes image

Photo credit: Vanderbilt’s Music and the Mind website:

Getting to know Reyna over the course of this semester has been an exciting and surprisingly fruitful experience. Her research tapped into some latent interest I had during my undergraduate years (I have a B.S. in Education) regarding how children and adolescents learn (or struggle in their attempts to learn) to read. Our interactions this semester not only introduced me to  resources that I can use to think more deeply about the way music functions within culture and literary contexts, but they have also led to a non-traditional collaboration. Reyna has actually asked for my help in developing the stimuli for testing in her next project using children’s literature. Next week, I will be (along with two of her lab assistants) leading the discussion of a research article that we will be using as a model for building our own testing paradigm and research methodology. And this summer, I will be able to participate in the implementation of the study and even learn how to read the EEG results. Who would have thought?


Thoughts on Interdisciplinarity, Cognitive Science, and 19th-Century Aesthetics

April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

Interdisciplinary is an at times seemingly vague buzzword invoked in academia. It is often used in general documents like Vanderbilt’s academic strategic plan. Recently, however, it has become a little less of an abstract concept for me.

I have spent most of my time in academia in the humanities, but I have recently been privileged to meet with Dr. Daniel Levin, professor of psychology and human development, cognitive neuroscientist, and director of the Levin Lab at Vanderbilt University. The research conducted in his lab “is focused on the interface between concepts and visual perception” ( It investigates a variety of issues such as “theory of mind,” “numerical cognition,” “dynamic event perception,” “concepts about agency and visual cognition in technological contexts,” and “face perception.” A description of the Levin Lab projects, past and ongoing, may be found here:

What has most intrigued me in learning about Dr. Levin’s work has been the fact that, although the methods of research are drastically different from those used in the humanities, nevertheless some of the core questions driving that research are similar. How do human beings think? How do they perceive and respond to the physical world, to change, to new ideas? This brief foray into a discipline other than my own has demonstrated to me just how much the common goal of understanding the human mind broadly underscores our very different methods of research.

Looking forward, I am interested in researching how theories of perception—for example, questions about the extent to which perception is intuitive or physiological, inherent or learned, and how perception relates to appreciation—were debated in relation to or even informed nineteenth-century aesthetic theory, specifically that of John Ruskin. Learning about some of modern cognitive science’s projects has helped me be more specific about the questions I’m asking of the nineteenth century. Perhaps greater awareness of the nineteenth century’s fluidity between then uncodified disciplines may also help us rethink the currently rigid boundaries demarcating modern disciplines from each other.

S. C.