Cultural History in a New Key: Towards a Semiotics of the Nerve

  • George Rousseau


George Rousseau locates his text — the discourse of nerves in the eighteenth century — in a long perspective, that of man escaping ‘the prison of his solipsistic self’ in order to communicate with the outside world. Man has developed his memory to a stage infinitely more complex than that of any computer, in that in the brain’s interlocking cell system it is capable of experiencing not only the nervous event, but also the recollection of the nature of that event. This kind of distinction between experiences relates to divisions of memory and learning, but, antecedent to these, the experience of a chemical reaction consequential on the nervous event which produced an unconditioned responsiveness. Rousseau refers in his analysis to the evolutionary processes of mankind, focusing on a specific period within his slow growth. He proceeds to relate it to a dominant discourse in medical, literary and social texts.


Eighteenth Century Cultural History Nervous Disease Moral Defect Nervous Condition 
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    An extended note on the historiography of nerves provides some perspective here. As the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries progressed, nerves played an increasingly prominent role in all sorts of research agendas, including those of the laboratory as well as in more logocentric projects, as I tried to demonstrate over a decade ago in ‘Nerves, Spirits and Fibres: Toward the Origins of Sensibility, Studies in the Eighteenth Century, ed. R. F. Brissenden, Canberra, 1975, pp. 137–57. My point, then and now, has been that there was a progression from nerves to the cults of sentiment and sensibility, and that European Romanticism could not have occurred without this sequence. It is, to be sure, a diachronic theory, and nowhere have I ever maintained that nerves and sensibility were the (superlative) cause of Romanticism. In this essay, I attempt to show more fully than previously the roles of the nerves in cultural history. But see also, for a medical historian’s view of the subject, George Rosen, ‘Emotion and Sensibility in Ages of Anxiety: A Comparative Historical Review,’ American Journal of Psychiatry 6.124, 1967, pp. 771–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Joan H. Pittock and Andrew Wear 1991

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  • George Rousseau

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