Reviewed by José Martinez-Pérez (University of Castilla-La Mancha)
Published on H-Disability (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison
The development of eugenics, its appearance, spread, and institutionalization represented a highly influential factor for the social perception of disability in Europe and North America. The eugenics movement used the arguments that certain human beings should be considered as unfit due to their biological characteristics and that they were related to the source of certain social problems. The movement’s rhetoric contributed to an increasingly negative view of disabled people and made them more susceptible to becoming the objects of practices aimed at separating them from society.
Such works as Modernism and Eugenics by Marius Turda, director of the Centre for Medical Humanities at the Oxford Brookes University, must be contemplated with interest by both those who are dealing with the way in which eugenics was configured and permeated some of the most relevant social and political ideologies of the first decades of the twentieth century in a large number of countries, and also by those who want to understand the ideas behind the way in which the phenomenon of disability was interpreted and reacted against. Turda’s work represents a valuable contribution not only to the already extensive list of works devoted to unraveling the elements that made possible the appreciable route and influence made by eugenics but also to our understanding the way in which the perception of disability has been constructed over the past century.
Modernism and Eugenics represents the first volume in the Modernism and ... series. According to the explanation given by its editor, Roger Griffin, in the series preface, the series aims to extend the semantic field of the term “modernism” to include phenomena that do not seem to be related to the meaning that is usually given to the reference: that of artistic innovation. As Griffin explains, “modernism” is applied in the series to any coordinated attempts in any field of activity “to resurrect the sense of communal and individual purpose being palpably eroded by the chaotic unfolding of events in the modern world even if the end result would be ‘just’ to make society physically and mentally healthy” (pp. xi-xii). Modernism tries to use “transdisciplinary perspectives and the conscious clustering of concepts often viewed as unconnected” with the aim of “moving closer to the experience of history of its actors” the principle of reality in which the historiography was based (p. ix).
With this expansive consideration of the term “modernism” as a premise and reference, Turda’s work shows how an enriching historiographic exercise can improve our understanding of the way in which disability interacted, through eugenics, with a variety of social, cultural, political, scientific, and national contexts. Turda estimates that the history of eugenics has “reached the level of conceptual maturity necessary for a comparative and multidisciplinary examination,” which would allow it to surpass the perception of eugenics as “a biological theory of human improvement grounded almost exclusively in ideas of race and class.” Eugenics also represented “a social and cultural philosophy of purification and rejuvenation of both the human body and the larger national community,” which encourages it to be approached as “a cluster of diverse biological, cultural and religious ideas and practices.” In this way, Turda explores a terrain that he deems insufficiently known: “the modernist engagement with eugenic theories of human improvement and eugenic visions of national perfection” (p. 1). Turda considers that eugenics must be interpreted as “the emblematic expression of programmatic modernism” (p. 2), that is to say, of a form of modernism that would encourage artists and intellectuals to cooperate with collective movements to promote the change of social reality and political systems. Without putting to one side it being understood “as a scientistic narrative of biological, social and cultural renewal,” Turda deems that eugenics represented the most sophisticated attempt to reach one of the intrinsic components of this wish for transformation that was so characteristic of modernism: racial improvement (ibid.).
To show that eugenics represents a “cluster of scientistic narratives and an expression of modernity,” Turda approaches the analysis of the relations between modernist thinking and eugenics in an enriching, comparative way (ibid.). His study considers a broad European geographical framework, which, although perhaps it might be slightly unequal in intensity when referring to the different states, covers a scope ranging from the United Kingdom to Central Europe and from the Scandinavian countries to southern Europe. Through this, and resorting to a varied set of sources—“specialised journals, proceedings of national and international conferences on eugenics, scholarly works and books geared towards popularising eugenics amongst the general public”—Turda aims “to reinforce the idea that eugenics served not only to generate medicalised metaphors of the social and national body, but [also] to augment those technologies of hygiene and health without which modern societies were allegedly destined to immerse in barbarity and backwardness” (p. 5).
Turda is not attempting to offer an exhaustive history of the eugenics movement in Europe, but rather his ultimate purpose is to examine the way in which eugenics contributed to modeling the different perspectives about national regeneration and the bio-political ideologies of racial and social engineering. To do this, Modernism and Eugenics follows two conceptual objectives: examining the methodologies by which the individual body is redefined through eugenics by politicians, intellectuals, and scientists; and revealing how the collective body or nation was represented by the eugenic and bio-political discourses that were formulated to counteract a process that it judged as cultural decay and biological degeneration.
To carry out his task, Turda structures the presentation under four extensive headings that correspond to the chapters of the book. This clear division offers a panorama of the development of eugenics; the author, without making readers lose sight of its links to modernity, reveals the fundamental ingredients and the differences and nuances that it acquired during each interval and in the different social, political, and cultural contexts. The first chapter is organized very cleverly to show how eugenics linked up to the growth of what would mean a new scientific ethos—the so-called scientism—by which science started to play a role that went beyond mere knowledge of the world and started to represent a role similar to that played by religion as it participated in the work of generating values and in the direction of political and moral action. Turda shows how eugenics emerged and spread within a framework of historical circumstances that range from economic growth to class stratification, racism, and the growing acceptance of scientific theories by the society of the time.
In the second chapter, Turda reveals how the discourse on the “rejuvenating” role of the First World War, its image as a symbol of a new beginning, helped eugenics to extend its scope “beyond scholarly debates and infiltrated public and political discourses” (p. 41). The call for the regeneration of the race expressed by many during the war encouraged the reality that, when it ended, eugenics had become “an essential component of national politics in many European states” (p. 63).
As Turda states in the third chapter, this integration into the area of political decisions, particularly through their link to the concept of national regeneration, allowed the practical application of eugenics to increase between 1918 and 1933. As Turda convincingly explains, the eugenicists, under the canopy of science, were right to combine hereditarian determinism with the modernist political revolution, “insisting that both pursued the same goal: to seal the societal and cultural chasms torn open by modernity” (p. 65). Eugenics contributed to positioning science as a solution to several of the problems that nations were facing, especially those related to the growing perception of their decline. The eugenicists had been actively demanding the adoption of legislative steps aimed at achieving a biological and social improvement of nations. Turda correctly shows, through the analysis of the work developed by some outstanding eugenicists, how they contributed to the stigmatization of those considered unfit. The destiny of disabled people therefore, was affected by their inclusion as part of the group of members of society who were considered as susceptible of being deprived of their rights and privileges using the argument that they represented a danger for the nation’s recovery. In this way, what Turda calls “the biologisation of national belonging” occurred (p. 67). Eugenics, insofar as the health of the population was concerned, became an essential component of political programs, with its role increasing as an outstanding reference in the postwar reconstruction process.
Turda paves the way to show, in the fourth chapter, how ideas of biological improvement sustained by the eugenicists reached their peak within the framework of the states that adopted what the author considers one of the most significant contemporary currents of eugenics: modern bio-politics. The author convincingly explains the different ways in which the eugenics discourses contributed to tracing new political lines from the First World War onward, characterized by the direct intervention of the state in all areas of life, supplying ideas and practices that in turn, provided behavior models for individuals to regenerate the nation. The practical applications of eugenics, particularly expressed as laws, formed a framework of actions to control ethnic minorities and people considered as unfit. As Turda emphasizes, mainly following the example of the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases, which came into force in Germany in 1934, many countries stipulated or defended the application of steps aimed at sterilizing those who were considered, in accordance with medical experience, to present signs of suffering from serious mental or corporal disorders. Although, as occurred in France, compulsory sterilization was not contemplated as a suitable step throughout Europe, eugenicists contributed to strengthening the idea of the need to establish a political order that was based on the reinvention of an ethnic community. As Turda states, when approaching the advisability of controlling the national body by way of steps aimed at purifying the race and eradicating “extraordinary individuals,” eugenics helped to establish the bio-politics in the way in which Michel Foucault defined the term to refer to a modern discipline destined “to rule a multiplicity of men to the extent that their multiplicity can and must be dissolved into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and, if need be, punished” (p. 116).
Modernism and Eugenics is a solid work. The book goes beyond a mere work of synthesis to give the reader a polished analysis, which is highly suggestive of the interaction of eugenics with modernism. With precise wording and well-organized presentation, Turda resolves, in very few pages, a complicated task and makes a suitable approximation to the contents and development of eugenics in a comparative way. The fundamental features of this work, and its main lines of influence with respect to the different historic contexts, are clearly traced by the author without omitting the nuances and variations that they acquired in the different geographical, political, social, and cultural frameworks. Turda’s narrative style, which often uses highly representative assessments, quoting the authors that he uses to back up his presentation, contributes to increase the evidence of his statements. However, it would have been desirable for Turda to have allowed us to also listen to the voices of those who were the most significant recipients of the discourses and practices he discusses; the work would have benefited from the testimonies of the individuals considered unfit regarding what these ideas and proposals that the eugenics movement contributed to disseminating around Europe could represent for them. Notwithstanding this, the reading of Modernism and Eugenics, which also offers a bibliography on secondary literature about eugenics updated to the date of publication of the book, must be recommended to anyone who would like to discover the contents of eugenics; who aspires to understand the way in which it became a political catalyst aimed at controlling and managing the phenomenon of disability in the first decades of the twentieth century; or who simply is interested in finding out the origin of some of the ways disabled people were perceived, ways that regrettably still remain too alive in some sectors of contemporary societies.
. Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 62.
. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1975-1976 (New York: Picador, 1977), 242.
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José Martinez-Pérez. Review of Turda, Marius, Modernism and Eugenics.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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