A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought
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This pioneering work is the first to trace how our understanding of the causes of human behavior has changed radically over the course of European and American cultural history since 1830. Focusing on the act of murder, as documented vividly by more than a hundred novels including Crime and Punishment, An American Tragedy, The Trial, and Lolita, Stephen Kern devotes each chapter of A Cultural History of Causality to examining a specific causal factor or motive for murder--ancestry, childhood, language, sexuality, emotion, mind, society, and ideology. In addition to drawing on particular novels, each chapter considers the sciences (genetics, endocrinology, physiology, neuroscience) and systems of thought (psychoanalysis, linguistics, sociology, forensic psychiatry, and existential philosophy) most germane to each causal factor or motive.
Kern identifies five shifts in thinking about causality, shifts toward increasing specificity, multiplicity, complexity, probability, and uncertainty. He argues that the more researchers learned about the causes of human behavior, the more they realized how much more there was to know and how little they knew about what they thought they knew. The book closes by considering the revolutionary impact of quantum theory, which, though it influenced novelists only marginally, shattered the model of causal understanding that had dominated Western thought since the seventeenth century.
Others have addressed changing ideas about causality in specific areas, but no one has tackled a broad cultural history of this concept as does Stephen Kern in this engagingly written and lucidly argued book.
therefore approximate and interrelated, neither precisely delineated nor mutually exclusive. Changing ideas about these factors emerged in nineteenthand twentieth-century modes, which, for purposes of conciseness, I refer to as Victorian and modern. Victorian does not denote speciﬁcally English developments or any sexual morality; I use it because the period to which it refers, 1837–1901, approximates my periodization of this earlier stretch of time, 1830–1900. Modern denotes the entire twentieth
action and ways of understanding them. Other terms in this study refer to aspects of human causality. Motives are inner impulses toward action, while intentions are objectoriented plans for fulﬁlling the motive. Causal understanding can also include purposes for actions directed toward the realization of goals. Reasons are the rational grounds for behavior and may form part of explanations that answer causal questions. Explanations may include a broad range of factors such as universal covering
instead. After his mother remarried, his stepbrother teased him for being ugly, once smashing his face into a mirror and smearing it with his own blood and mucus. Each of these traumas contributed to the modus operandi of his serial killing. He could not suck as an infant, so he made a replica of his grandmother’s dentures to ﬁt in his surgically altered mouth and bite victims. But he did not suck or bite the wounds for pleasure or to eat his victims; his goal was pure oral aggression. The boy
described earlier, even though in this version she survives to give birth to David, who is also the murderer, the producer of his own play The Birth of David, and a hermaphrodite and so self-generating like the text itself. The letter v continues to generate narrative as Robbe-Grillet plays with the name Vanadé, who is given other V-generated names such as Vanessa or Veronica and given alliterative epithets such as Vanadé the Victorious, the Vampire, and the Vanquished. Visual creations from v
knowledge is nothing but inspired commentary on that divine wisdom. Jorge justiﬁes his murder with the ﬁnal lines of the Bible: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life.” Jorge sees himself doing God’s work by killing anyone who wants to use Aristotle to make fun of the literal truth of the Bible. Speaking to his companion Adso, William challenges Jorge’s views by arguing that language is not a representation of