Vol. 14 No. 5 (May 2004), pp. 320-323

MODERNITY IN THE FLESH: MEDICINE, LAW, AND SOCIETY IN TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY ARGENTINA, by Kristin Ruggiero.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.  256 pp.  Cloth $49.50.  ISBN: 0-8047-4871-3. 

Reviewed by Amalia D. Kessler, Stanford Law School.  Email: AKessler@law.stanford.edu .

Kristin Ruggiero’s MODERNITY IN THE FLESH: MEDICINE, LAW, AND SOCIETY IN TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY ARGENTINA is an ambitious and engaging exploration of the rise of modernity in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Buenos Aires.  Ruggiero examines how legal and medical professionals—frequently in service of the newly consolidated liberal-democratic state—sought to mediate tensions between such “modern” values as individualism, urbanization, and science, and older notions of honor, community, and tradition.  Her wide-ranging study considers such diverse topics as conceptions of the role of women in the family, attitudes towards foreigners and political activists in the new urban landscape, and perceptions of those deemed degenerate by virtue of their criminal status and/or racial constitution.  Drawing on a series of criminal cases, as well as the related commentaries of contemporary medical doctors, jurists, and criminologists, Ruggiero binds these disparate threads together by tracing a pervasive social, legal, and medical discourse of the flesh. 

Language of flesh, she argues, was a fundamental structuring principle of fin-de-siècle Argentinian society because it expressed, rationalized, and encouraged a profound ambivalence regarding the rise of modernity.  By conceiving of women’s flesh as biologically inferior and prone to criminality, medical and legal science managed—in a manner fully consistent with the liberal state’s commitment to scientific rationality—to contain the threat to traditional notions of gender inequality posed by such modern, individualistic and democratic developments as the rise of feminism and the growing role of women in public life.  Likewise, “scientific” theories of how the flesh of particular individuals and entire races might degenerate, often through a process of physical and moral contagion, provided a comprehensive, “rational” account of the perceived dangers of urbanization, immigration and criminality.  This “scientific” account suggested that it was possible (and indeed necessary) to deal with such dangers by extirpating the diseased flesh—even if this meant violating the liberal state’s commitment to individual rights and equality under the law.  Ultimately, Ruggiero concludes, the true genius of the discourse of the flesh lay in that, while it was generally deployed to subordinate individual interests for the sake of the social good—thereby making modernity palatable to those steeped in more traditional values—it could also be used to ensure that self-interest, in the form of irrepressible bodily passions, would subvert self-control and thus take precedence over broader social needs.  In this way, modern professionals created a small aperture in the [*321] framework of the flesh within which nostalgia for the values of an older non-scientific and non-utilitarian order might continue to flourish.       

Ruggiero’s manuscript is at its very best in its densely rich and colorful account of daily life in fin-de-siècle Buenos Aires.  Indeed, the book is a tour de force of narrative detail, ranging widely across the urban landscape and providing a remarkable taxonomy of the various figures composing its diverse population.  Thus, we learn of the downtrodden servant, Teresa De Michelli, recently emigrated from Italy who, seeking to hide the shame of an extra-matrimonial pregnancy, gave birth in the latrine of a tenement building, severed the baby’s head, and then stuffed the body down the pipes, where it was discovered shortly thereafter.  After extensive medical analysis concluded that she did not suffer from any degenerative condition, Teresa was found guilty of infanticide and sent to prison for four and one-half years (pp.62-63).

At the same time that Ruggiero exposes us to the lives of the poor and desperate, she also introduces us to those who, like Judge Ernesto Madero, were at the other end of the social spectrum.  While traveling in his carriage down a main street during Carnaval, Madero was stopped by the police and ordered to turn the corner.  He refused on the grounds that he was on a “judicial errand” and then suffered the gross humiliation of having the police grab the horses’ reins and force him to make the turn, all under the gaze of a jeering crowd.  Irate at this assault to his honor, Madero charged the policeman responsible with contempt but ultimately failed to secure a judgment to this effect (pp.186-88).

Not only is Ruggiero a master of narrative detail, bringing to life the many characters whom she has rescued from the archives, but she is also remarkably adept at providing nuanced readings of these narratives, suggesting the multifold relations between her characters’ lives and the broader social issues of the day.  Thus, for example, she explores how the legal and medical response to Teresa’s murder of her infant reveals the underlying tension in the modern liberal-democratic state between a commitment to the individual as a rational being, capable of exercising free will, and the traditional view of women—a view now “proven” by modern positivist science—as inherently unstable, irrational and tending towards the criminal.  In a particularly insightful and thought-provoking reading of the archival sources, she suggests that it may have been precisely the violence and brutality of the infanticide that resulted in the shorter jail sentences received by Teresa and others like her, as compared with women whose babies died in circumstances that left open the possibility of accidental death.  This seeming paradox, she argues, followed from the view that women who killed their infants so brutally must have had to overcome their natural maternal instinct for the sake of hiding their shame and preserving their honor—thus exemplifying, Raskolnikov-like, the supremacy of the human will.  Similarly, Ruggiero teases out from the confrontation between the elite Judge Madero and the working-class policeman, echoes of a deeper conflict between traditional conceptions of honor and status on the one hand, and more modern notions of equality and the rule [*322] of law.  Particularly intriguing is her insight that, among the elite, passionate outbursts in defense of honor were a kind of double-edged sword—expected and even applauded as a natural outgrowth of high status, yet also reprehended as an atavistic remnant of a status-based society and as evidence of a failure to exercise proper self-control.

It is in constructing an overarching, explanatory framework for her analysis that Ruggiero falters—though her effort to bridge the longstanding divide between the legal and the social is in itself refreshing and encouraging.  Indeed, her effort to bridge this divide is especially admirable given that, outside the context of Anglo-American legal history, the artificial divide between law and society has, unfortunately, remained particularly powerful and pervasive.  Nonetheless, the discourse of the flesh is too fragile a framework to bear all the weight that Ruggiero puts on it, and thus fails to bind together her many very insightful sub-themes and narratives into a comprehensive whole.  While she states that her focus on the flesh is distinct from a Foucauldian analysis of the body, the distinction is ultimately unclear.  She argues that, unlike the body, which was simply an object of knowledge and power, flesh implied a resistance to such efforts at control.  In her words, “[b]ody could be circumscribed, but flesh spilled over” (pp.4-5).  Furthermore, she appears to view the focus on flesh, rather than body, as a distinctive aspect of the way that Argentina, in contrast to European nations, came to grips with the problem of modernity: “‘[F]lesh . . . was a signifier of the ambivalence felt about modernity in a postcolonial Third World country” (p.3).

Yet, the primary themes on which Ruggiero focuses—namely, the ways in which medical, scientific, and legal discourse created women, criminals, and foreigners as objects of study and social control—will be familiar to readers as the standard topics of Foucauldian analysis.  And while it is true that exponents of Foucauldian analysis have tended to focus on the body, rather than the flesh, Ruggiero’s claim that the flesh implied a resistance to social control is not in itself novel.  Indeed, it has been a long-recognized feature of discursive practices of power (including those constructing the body) that discourse is never readily contained and thus always prone to undermining itself, such that those against whom it is deployed can often redirect it in service of their own interests.

While Ruggiero suggests that a focus on the flesh provides insight into a distinctively Argentinian approach to the rise of modernity, the reader suspects at times that her essentially Foucauldian method actually serves to mask those features of her story that are truly local and particular.  Her analysis, in other words, sometimes seems to draw from a kind of free-floating discourse, cut off from any institutional roots, leaving the reader to wonder about the links between this discourse and the institutions that generate it—especially the legal institutions.  Indeed, while the book relies primarily on the various legal briefs, medical reports, and judicial opinions issued in a set of criminal cases, these are analyzed almost entirely apart from the institutions of the legal system.  Which courts produced the discourse that Ruggiero analyzes, and how and why did these cases end up in [*323] those courts?  Who were the judges and how were they trained?  What explains her fascinating observation that the “flowery rhetoric and literary and cultural references” used in these legal briefs was a distinctive Argentinian practice “or at least uncommon elsewhere in Latin America” (p.19)?  Is this due to the way these lawyers were trained?  If so, how was their training different from that of lawyers in other Latin American countries?  Or perhaps the use of flowery rhetoric followed from an effort to reach a broader public audience?  But then who was this audience, how was it reached, and how did it change over time?  

Ultimately, the most puzzling aspect of Ruggiero’s story is that so many of the anxieties she traces regarding the rise of the modern Argentinian, liberal-democratic state—anxieties about such issues as the role of women in public life, urbanization, immigration, and science—appear to have characterized modernity elsewhere as well.  Indeed, she herself cites some of the literature documenting the parallel experiences of nineteenth-century France.  To the extent that countries that transitioned to modern liberal-democracy with somewhat greater ease than Argentina were plagued by similar anxieties, we are left wondering what was distinctive about Argentina and its path.  And here, one cannot help but conclude that the secret must lie, at least in part, in a deeper exploration of the institutional context that provided the framework within which Ruggiero’s professionals developed and deployed their discourse—an institutional context that, for the many professionals who “were also statesmen and held political power” (p.7), directly linked the emerging civil society with the levers of government.  

In sum, while Ruggiero’s detailed portrait of the particulars of daily life in turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires is masterful, the essentially Foucauldian method on which she relies to construct an explanatory framework serves to erase much that is particular to Argentina from her causal analysis.  Nonetheless, it is a measure of the intriguing breadth and admirable sophistication of Ruggiero’s work that it succeeds in raising questions of great scope and importance—and that it does so, while at the same time providing a tour of fin-de-siècle life in Buenos Aires, whose narrative detail and nuance alone are well worth the price of admission.

Copyright 2004 by the author, Amalia D. Kessler.