An Interview with Arnold Davidson

Non-eternal concepts:

An Interview with Arnold Davidson

Non-eternal concepts:

An Interview with Arnold Davidson

Benjamin R. Cohen
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

One evening in the early 1970s two men faced each other in the White House. One was President Richard Nixon; the other was a teenager named Arnold Davidson, who was performing magic for the Nixon administration. Both of their careers would soon change drastically: one went on to live in infamy; the other, to a career of philosophy and religious studies. Davidson wasn’t long for the magic game, nor did he follow his other equally plausible ambition, a career as a professional jazz drummer. Instead, after an injury to his hand, and then after less than one semester as an undergraduate, he leapt right into graduate school, where he worked with and befriended colossal thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

Davidson is a Professor in the Divinity School and Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago and in the Philosophy Department at the University of Pisa, the executive editor of Critical Inquiry, the English-language editor of Michel Foucault’s “Lectures,” the author of The Emergence of Sexuality, a former Guggenheim Fellow, and a remarkably affable guy. He speaks French, Italian, Spanish, English, and Portuguese, and is studying Catalan. He shouldn’t be so easy to talk to. But he is.

I spoke to him by telephone at his home in Chicago. Our conversation began with some light banter about the stigmata as theological vindication, “conceptual history,” monsters moral and physical and, oh, bestiality and sadism, before it subtly became apparent that all that stuff about nineteenth-century perversion was quite relevant—perhaps mandatory—to current conversations about homosexuality, gay marriage, and the strange commingling of politics and theology.

—Benjamin Cohen


THE BELIEVER: How did you get interested in the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi? This seems like such an unusual example for research.

ARNOLD DAVIDSON: I was at the time interested in historical studies of monsters and monstrosities, which offered a view into emotions of horror. But I also wanted to look into a case where the emotion was the opposite—that is, an emotion of wonder. I had gone to Italy once on vacation and liked it very much, and at the same time I became very interested in St. Francis of Assisi, an example of a lot of different kinds of artistic, theological, and literary innovations. I actually spent about four summers throughout Italy, mainly in Tuscany and Umbria, seeking out every painting of St. Francis for the first hundred years after his life. Which meant that I visited many towns that even many Italians have never been to.

BLVR: What were the philosophical questions you were after?

AD: With the case of the stigmata, we have a situation of conflicting explanations, of whether one should understand the phenomenon from a moral and theological perspective, or whether it should be explained medically or scientifically.

BLVR: Hold on—I shouldn’t pretend I know what you’re talking about. What exactly is, or are, the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi?

AD: The stigmata are cases of the production of the wounds of Christ on the body. Francis of Assisi is the first case the Catholic Church officially recognized as a miraculous case. So Francis supposedly had the wounds of Christ appear on his hands, feet, and side. Since his time there have been hundreds of cases with varying degrees of documentation, of people who have supposedly had the stigmata.

BLVR: Is there a category of study on representations of Christ’s experiences, or related images, of which the stigmata is also a member? Like a grilled-cheese Christ or an image of the Virgin Mary in an oil slick?

AD: Right, and there was the so-called apocryphal case of the Jesus burrito… which is often talked about with the humor that it merits—

BLVR: I saw that the frying pan for that grilled cheese was also up for sale…

AD: Somehow it doesn’t surprise me. And yes, there is a genre of this kind of apparition. But the stigmata is slightly different because it is taken to be an actual miracle produced on someone’s body which can, in principle, be examined by medical doctors, and indeed for twentieth-century cases many of them do have medical reports… so it’s an interesting case where you can look at the theological and religious dimension of a phenomenon at the same time you can look at the scientific dimensions.

BLVR: So that’s a good example of how the topic crosses strictly religious and strictly scientific domains. Seems like writing-the-body stuff, like that Kafka story, “In the Penal Colony,” where the prisoner’s crime is actually stitched onto him…

AD: Yes, that’s right, as with Christ’s suffering literally imprinted onto the body of a future Saint—in the case of Francis—and interpreted not only as a miraculous event but a theological symbol of the conformity of Francis’s life to the life of Christ. So the stigmata are seals authenticating Francis’s life as imitating Christ’s, an imitation culminating when he miraculously receives the same wounds Christ receives at the crucifixion. To those in the Middle Ages it showed that the Franciscan vows of poverty were legitimate, the stigmata being a theological vindication of that way of life.

BLVR: The case seems pretty removed. Is it just a relic of a medieval mind-set?

AD: Not entirely, because we still live in a world in which we don’t know what kinds of explanations we want. So yes, here’s this refined medieval case of the stigmata, which one might consider a problem of the Middle Ages, but we have the problem still—with monsters, with perverts, with all sorts of things that are more common to our modern experience. Since it is true that the stigmata may seem like an exceptional and very rarified instance of this problem of conflicting explanations—theological and medical—we should turn to a much more everyday example, namely one which concerns all of us in the ordinary course of our lives—sexuality, for example. Because here, too, one finds a conflict in modes of explanation, on the one hand a moral-theological explanation, on the other hand a scientific one.


BLVR: I follow you, but before we talk about sexuality, can you help me understand the ways in which you approach these historically different, though conceptually similar, problems?

AD: That would be useful, yes. And that idea of concepts has a lot to do with it.

BLVR: I almost have a sense of what that is. I have a friend who likes to quote Theodor Adorno, who said that “an object never goes into its concept without leaving behind a remainder,” as a way to mark out the difference between a study of concepts and objects. And whenever I encounter conceptual history, I think of that.

AD: That’s nice. Yes, originally when I was working on the material for The Emergence of Sexuality I used the rubric of Conceptual History. I wanted to look at the very concept of sexuality and the set of concepts that are necessary to make up or form the experience of sexuality and to see how those concepts emerged at a particular point in history in a particular way.

BLVR: So when you’re saying this, you mean, “How do we know these things that we’re talking about? How are we developing these concepts?”

AD: Right. “In what ways are these concepts formed?” Because I think that in the case of sexuality, for example, the formation of the concepts is crucial to a transformation in our own experience. So, OK, people often point out that sexuality as a word in Romance languages is recent, of nineteenth-century origin. I think that’s really only a surface phenomenon but a reflection of something very interesting, mainly that all the ideas that make up our concept and experience of sexuality are of nineteenth-century origin.

BLVR: How do you mean?

AD: Well, for example, there’s the notion of perversion—the classifications we have of so-called sexual disorders that started in the nineteenth century with the four great perversions of homosexuality, sadism, masochism, fetishism—plus the way we think about sexual instinct and its object, the notion of desire that goes with a theory of sexuality, and all of those things, they all emerge together as a kind of unified conceptual structure at a very specific point in history, and what I wanted to do was to examine the emergence of that particular conceptual structure.

BLVR: OK, the basic underlying premise is that concepts are not these eternal objects but things that emerge through historically variable conditions. Maybe more easily said: they change over time.

AD: Exactly. The idea that concepts are these abstract Platonic entities that always exist—a common picture for certain philosophers—was something I explicitly criticized by looking at how the concept of sexuality emerges historically. It’s not fixed once and for all; these kinds of concepts don’t emerge all by themselves, but in systematic ways related to other concepts. So you have to look at the whole structure.


BLVR: You mentioned earlier that your stigmata studies were a counterpoint to studies of monsters—the former on wonder, the latter on horror. It seems now that this is related to what we’ve just been talking about, especially as an example of conflicting ways to explain phenomena.

AD: Right. I’m interested in the changing classifications of monstrosities. In the Renaissance, for example, there was a whole genre of quasi-medical discussions of monsters. I wanted to figure out how people differentiated monsters from one another. Unlike psychiatric disorders, monsters or monstrosities are anatomically inscribed on the body, so we have detailed descriptions of the monster’s structure, whether it was hermaphroditism or half animal, half human—thought to be produced by bestiality—or other things we recognize as genuine medical examples, like conjoined twins or people with greater or fewer appendages than normal. All of those conditions were classified as “monsters,” and I wanted to look at the ones which provoked moral reactions. Then you can see how those moral reactions became a “natural” reaction to a monster. And eventually, scientific explanations pushed the moral condemnation of monsters away, so that a causal scientific explanation was the only way to describe a monster. That is, after that point, a moral reaction was considered inappropriate, merely superstitious, something expressed by someone who didn’t know the true explanation.

BLVR: What time period are you talking about?

AD: The naturalization of monsters? It begins in the eighteenth century and comes to its conclusion in the nineteenth century. You can find distinguished scientists—such as the embryologist Camille Dareste—trying to experimentally produce in chicken embryos the kinds of monstrosities described in medical textbooks. By being able to experimentally produce them, he thought, you could see that monstrosities were not some kind of moral deviation, they didn’t require supernatural intervention, they were purely natural phenomena, no different in kind than any other natural process and therefore, as he says, rather than having horror for a monster, one should have pity.

BLVR: What is the status of monsters today?

AD: It’s interesting, I think, because we use “monster” in a very metaphorical way, as something so extreme that we don’t have a better rubric for it. We no longer use anatomical deformity to define the monster, or, better, we think of someone who refers to anatomical deformity as being a monster, as someone ignorant or simply frightened. It tells us more about them than it tells us about the object itself. But interestingly enough, we do still talk about people as moral monsters. And I think that since we know physical deformities have natural explanations—they don’t have a moral dimension, and we don’t need to explain them by reference to the supernatural—we tend to—oh, we don’t have a good word for this—“de-monsterize” those kinds of physical deformities. But in cases we think of as irreducibly moral, where a phenomenon is so extreme that the categories of good and evil are morally insufficient, we refer to those people as moral monsters. We think of torturers as moral monsters; we think of war crimes as moral monstrosities; crimes against humanity is a typical twentieth-century locus for the old terminology of moral monstrosity; or if we look at descriptions of pedophilia, to take another example, you find the same kinds of categories. It’s not something simply “bad.” It goes beyond what’s bad and requires us to invoke the category of the monstrous. It’s shifted from its original locus in physical deformities to something more like moral deviations.


BLVR: Is there something in your term “styles of reasoning”—the historically evolving psychiatric, theological, moral, and other ways to explain the world—that helps explain that shift? Does it come under the domain of a psychiatric style of reasoning?

AD: This certainly raises a question still at the center of these debates—namely, whether something like psychiatric explanations could ever sufficiently explain the moral phenomenon called wickedness. Whether, for example, psychiatric explanations could explain concentration camps or the personality of the torturer. And I think that, although psychiatric—that is, scientific—explanations can be useful, the moral categories are irreducibly important. So there’s a kind of internal debate about whether psychiatric categories can completely displace the need for moral terminology.

BLVR: And these are philosophical questions?

AD: I do think they are genuine philosophical questions. So, as for the extension of psychiatric categories, I don’t think, for philosophical reasons, they can ever do the work of morality. They’re meant to do something radically different. Now, let me give you an example of the way psychiatric categories were extended to moral phenomena. There were debates when the Marquis de Sade was arrested, for example, about whether he was wicked or suffered from a rare and hardly known mental disorder. A number of psychiatrists testified at the trials, but they didn’t have the category of perversion as a psychiatric category, so there were various attempts to explain his behavior as erotic monomania. The category of sadism didn’t exist! So the Marquis de Sade couldn’t suffer from sadism, because it hadn’t been conceptualized as a possible disease category and his psychology wasn’t that of a sadist.

There were other people who said, look, why not just admit what’s true, the guy’s wicked, and you don’t need a kind of disease to describe that wickedness. So you have a gradual emergence of a disease category called “sadism,” which is supposedly the explanation of a certain kind of behavior that doesn’t refer to anything about the will or wickedness. So that’s an example of the extension of a psychiatric category to displace a moral category.

BLVR: And where a psychiatric style of reasoning overtakes a religious one?

AD: Yes. But you have cases where the opposite occurs—where we get moral phenomena moving out of the psychiatric—so that, for a while, in the history of disease classification in psychiatry, homosexuality was considered a disease. Now if you look at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, you find that homosexuality is not a disease. So something that was once officially classified as a disease becomes part of other categories, categories that might have to do with choice, for example, or lifestyle. Something that’s not open to the kind of naturalistic explanation you would have if you were extending psychiatric categories.

BLVR: OK, we are talking about sex. The Emergence of Sexuality is not, in fact, a misleading book title.

AD: Yes, because there are definitely important questions about the way scientific and moral categories shift in attempts to describe sexual behavior in the examples I give. In the study of monsters, I wanted to look at exactly those cases where a naturalistic explanation was considered insufficient to describe the monster, since you also had to refer to the activity of the will. In the case of sexuality, we need to think about these shifting categories in much the same way.

BLVR: What do you say to someone who claims that homosexuality is a disease?

AD: The interesting thing, of course, is there are some people who say homosexuality is a disease. But if you ask them to actually explain why it is a disease, it’s perhaps not surprising that within three seconds they almost always refer to theological arguments which have nothing to do with disease. They say “well, it’s unnatural.” But what’s unnatural here? It happens in nature. “No no,” they say, “not unnatural in that sense.” And pretty soon you get the claim that it’s against the will of God. You get the invocation of moral or theological categories, which are precisely the kinds of categories you use when you’re claiming it’s not a disease!

BLVR: How does that fit into larger patterns of the emergence of sexuality?

AD: It’s interesting. Some students will say, “Well, OK, homosexuality isn’t a disease, that’s clear. But what about sadism or masochism? Those are diseases.” And you say, “Well, OK, but then tell me, what does the disease consist in?” And they have great difficulty with that. Technically, we don’t require that one actually harm someone to be considered a sadist, or that one actually be physically harmed to be considered a masochist, but rather that one can only achieve sexual satisfaction by provoking some form of suffering, or by receiving some form of suffering, even symbolically—not necessarily physical pain, but humiliation, anything that would count as a form of debasement. That’s the technical definition of sadism and masochism.

So you ask students, “How are sadism or masochism diseases?” And you add, for example, that some people only get sexual satisfaction if they have sexual relations with someone very tall, or with a certain hair color, or a certain body type. And they don’t consider that a disease. Well, of course not. And you say, “Then why is masochism a disease, where you can only get sexual satisfaction through humiliating yourself?” The answer is often, “Well, that’s bad, that’s wrong.” And again, you have the reinvocation of a moral category.

BLVR: So you have to be in the religion and philosophy department.

AD: [Laughs] That’s right. There’s no alternative.

BLVR: Yeah, you don’t even have a choice.

AD: It does seem like that’s the conclusion that we’re being led into. And I do think that it’s precisely this moment, in the nineteenth century, when our categories start to conflict or collide, and in which you have to rethink: what’s the phenomenon you’re trying to describe? Is it sexuality as a psychological concept and phenomenon? Or is it sexuality as a form of behavior that’s susceptible to moral critique just like any other form of behavior?


BLVR: What about masturbation? Is it also a disease?

AD: The interesting thing about masturbation is that—well, maybe it’s not the only interesting thing—originally in the history of medicine and psychiatry it was thought to be something that provoked other diseases. It was a behavior that led to the progressive physiological and anatomical degeneration of the body.

BLVR: So it was a sort of gateway perversion.

AD: It was a causal factor in the production of diseases. What’s amazing is that, rather late into the nineteenth century, you can find death certificates listing cause of death as habitual masturbation. And you can find autopsy reports of habitual masturbators in which well-trained and well-known doctors tried to show the causal chain which led from masturbation to the internal degeneration of the organs.

BLVR: Oh, dear.

AD: So, you know, I think in the case of masturbation, although it was called the solitary vice in the eighteenth century, it’s much more difficult to imagine the moral arguments against it. In fact, all of the compelling arguments in previous historical epochs were ultimately theological in nature, not even moral arguments—so while a moral argument against sadism would be the evil of inflicting harm on someone, in the case of masturbation, it’s difficult to discern what the moral argument is supposed to be, which is why you find theological arguments that if you masturbate you’ll destroy your own soul and behavior and have to confront the physiological signs of that destruction.

BLVR: Given this historical basis for concepts, what can we say about today’s public discussions about homosexuality and its exclusion from the definition of marriage? Both marriage and homosexuality are treated as eternal, timeless objects—why is the issue so often presented in the public sphere as if it occurs outside of history?

AD: One interesting thing about those discussions is the way they meander from semitheological reasons to moral reasons to political reasons to so-called scientific reasons. The questions range from, in the most extreme cases, what was God’s will?—which is something that I don’t have access to, though some people in the conversation seem to think they do—to the claims that, for example, children raised in same-sex marriage households are subject to long-term psychological problems, for which, actually, there is no evidence at all. What interests me is not even the fact that there is no good evidence, but the fact that there is this kind of quasi-scientific argument, you know, it protects the health of the child, the psychological development of the child. There’s a kind of moral and theological component to the argument and a scientific component, all mixed together.

BLVR: Is it then argumentative inconsistency that’s the problem?

AD: Often when you don’t have a compelling argument for something, you look for anything; you just throw in whatever you think might count as an argument.

BLVR: Are you suggesting that there are no weapons of mass destruction?

AD: That is an apt analogy. [Laughter]

BLVR: Because Saddam was a bad man. Using one kind of true but irrelevant evidence for a different kind of argument.

AD: That’s right. I think the motivation for arguments against same-sex marriage has to do with the fact that if someone just made the claim that it’s unacceptable from a religious perspective, one would know what one was arguing against. And consequently, given long-standing and quite important doctrines on the separation of church and state, at least in this country, the argument wouldn’t be legally compelling. But as soon as you start mixing in the arguments about psychological well-being, and the importance of the family, and the stability of family structure, and all kinds of things about the health and well-being of society and of individuals, then you shift the argument in a very different direction. And, I think, without any conscious understanding of the way the ground is shifting, the arguments against same-sex marriage will take up anything that sounds like it might work. And they are all, in the technical sense, mushed together into something which has, in the end, no coherent form at all.

I myself have never heard any plausible argument against same-sex marriage that doesn’t ultimately have as its basis some kind of fundamental theological claim. But those fundamental theological claims don’t possess the requisite argumentative force in a contemporary constitutional democracy. To take an imaginary scenario, if the Supreme Court really said we cannot legally permit same-sex marriages because God doesn’t want them, we would have a huge crisis at the foundation of our political institutions. We are not a theocracy.

But if a court starts to invoke psychological considerations, considerations which have to do with policy, considerations that have to do with the health of individuals, then it’s much more complicated to know how you’re supposed to respond to the argument. That is, it suddenly looks as if the arguments are at least the kinds of things that are allowable in a constitutional democracy. And that raises the historical question: how did we get to the point at which, to take another example, psychological arguments can be legally compelling in criminal cases?

BLVR: Plus, again with the historical change thing, the arguments about marriage and sexuality are based on claims that it’s natural or that it’s always been that way. But that, demonstrably, is not the case.

AD: Right, I think so.

BLVR: Is there a case to be made that the Administration is well aware of historical variability at this point and has latched onto it so strongly that they want to create or produce the reality of their choosing? Not because they deny historical variability but because they embrace it? This way, they don’t have to argue that marriage has always been this way, so that’s why it should be this way now. Instead, they can say, “We’ll admit that marriage is not a timeless, extrahistorical idea, but since we want it to be that way, we’re going to make it so now.” And thus they rely on being part of history, whereas in other threads of their argument they have to be outside it.

AD: But they need both, yes. That’s the real problem. Because if they just say, “we want it to be this way now,” then we have a straightforward political debate. And we’d better forget about the introduction of supposed psychological data and sociological claims and theological claims and what’s morally right and what’s morally wrong, and we’d better recognize it as directly political. Which, of course, in many ways it is. But I don’t see them as willing to recognize it as a straightforward political issue, because otherwise, when Massachusetts or when the mayor of San Francisco legally authorizes same-sex marriages, then they’d face an unambiguously political problem. But they don’t want a straightforward political issue. At one level they want to say: this is how things must be, this is how they were from the beginning, this is how the country was founded…. a sort of recurrent litany of historical invariability and moral-theological necessity.

BLVR: That opens up an entire discussion about origins.

AD: Exactly. And that’s extremely important, because many people who put forward the argument know very well that they’re trying to impose something politically, but if they’re just trying to impose it politically, they might lose. Where, taking a quote from Bob Dylan, if God is on their side then they’re much more likely to win.

More Reads

Sigrid Nunez Talks With T Cooper

Sigrid Nunez’s fifth novel, The Last of Her Kind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), was published in January 2006. A new edition of her first novel, A Feather on the Breath of ...


An Interview with Paul Giamatti

Eric Spitznagel

An Interview With Etgar Keret

Ben Ehrenriech