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All in the Mix

Michael Cronin

Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England, by Wolfram Schmidgen, University of Pennsylvania Press, 256 pp, $59.95, ISBN: 978-0812244427

In the early 1970s, for a child, one of the highlights of Woolworth’s store on Dublin’s Grafton Street was a large, open stall containing sweets of every possible seeming kind gathered together under the simple invitation: “Pick ‘n’ Mix”. It was an invitation that proved irresistible on a Saturday to the groups of young women in from the suburbs in platform shoes, knee-length skirts and brown, chequered blouses, whose fingers would dance over the offerings before rapid and deft despatch to their open mouths. No mixture could have been more exquisite than these filched pickings, and no performance more breathtaking in its choreographed brevity.

Wolfram Schmidgen, in this important and original book, has his mind not so much on confectionery as on constitution: the physical constitution of the natural world and the political constitution of early modern England. He picks out “mixture” as a central concept in formulating a counter-paradigm to the more familiar representation of England in that period as being uniquely beholden to ideas of unity, purity and homogeneity.

Tracing the development of mixture as a key concept in natural philosophy, Schmidgen goes on to examine the uses to which this new thinking was put in political thought, and how John Locke used it to provide philosophical depth to his emergent theories of freedom and governance. His overall thesis, however, is not just that the historical record needs to be put right. It is more radical than this. He argues that the counter-narrative of mixture demonstrates that, right from the beginning, there was a very different way of imagining modernity. Modernisation has primarily been understood as involving the key actions of differentiation and classification, even by its most radical critics such Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour. In traditional societies concepts such as public and private, male and female, individual and society, are indistinct, jumbled up, related. What modernisation does is sort out the epistemic sheep from the lambs. It separates what was once joined: “in this account, societies develop and modernise when they differentiate kinds, spheres and functions”. (A crude, if popular, version of this thesis was current in the Irish Left in the 1970s and 1980s, where it was felt that Irish society lacked sufficient internal differentiation. Only if the rural-urban divide could be more sharply defined could there be any hope of a genuinely “modern” emancipatory politics.) What Schmidgen is arguing is that, from the very start, a different path to modernity was suggested, in which the path to progress and enlightenment was not through progressive differentiation, but through the radical embrace of self-renewing, endlessly creative mixtures in the natural world and body politic.

When the Italian philologist Poggio Bracciolini happened upon the manuscript text of Titus Lucretius Carus’s De rerum natura in 1417, nothing could have prepared him for what he was to read. Lucretius’s retelling of Epicurus’s atomic theory of the universe had disappeared from Western ken for several hundred years. In the seventh century, Isidore of Seville, in the compilation of his vast encyclopaedia, had used it as an authority on meteorology, and the eighth century Irish poet, teacher and astronomer Dungal had carefully corrected a copy. Then, for centuries, silence. That is until, in the words of Stephen Greenblatt in his The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, Bracciolini brought about the “momentous return” of Lucretius and Epicurean atomism.

Central to atomist theories is the notion that unity does not result from a pre-existing, prescribed, dominant form, but from the mixture or transformative interaction of parts. In other words, notions of the whole, the form, the one, are undermined as dominant notions in conceptual hierarchies. The ceaseless motions of the atomic universe mean that parts are prior to wholes, matter to form and the many to the one. Aristotle, for his part, was sceptical not about the existence of mixtures but about the capacity of mixture to generate anything. He readily acknowledged that substances could contain different mixtures of the four primary elements, just as Galen saw bodily state or well-being as dependent on different combinations of the basic humours. A difference in alteration (a shift in quality or size), however, was not the same as a difference in kind. A difference in kind could only take place if there was a higher form to act as a guiding generative principle. In his De Generatione et Corruptione Aristotle claimed that the compound resulting from a mixture is “actually something different but each ingredient [is] still potentially was what it was before it was mixed”. Nothing has been generated in the compound because it still contains, in latent form, the ingredients in their pre-mixed state. Form, not mixture, is primary.

The scientific findings of an Irish Protestant, Robert Boyle, and an English Catholic, Kenelm Digby, were to present a serious challenge to this Aristotelian emphasis on the sterility of mixture and the primacy of form. Boyle was profoundly influenced by and sympathetic to the new atomistic thinking, though he preferred the term “Corpuscle” to “atom”, which smacked too much of Godless materialism. In The Sceptical Chymist (1661), which takes the form of an extended conversation between friends, Boyle describes what happens in one specific experiment when different clusters of corpuscles are mixed together:

If you dissolve Minium, which is but Lead Powder’d by the Fire, in good spirit of Vinager, and Crystalize the Solution, you shall not only have a Saccharine Salt exceedingly different from both its Ingredients; but the Union of some Parts of the Menstruum with some of those of the Metal is so strict, that the Spirit of Vinegar seems to be, as such, destroy’d.

The lead only partially mixes with the vinegar but the vinegar cannot be recovered, and the resulting body is radically different in kind from the two ingredients that go to make it up. The sourness of the vinegar is replaced by an “admirable sweetness”. So by mixing lead and vinegar together you get a new body, with wholly different qualities, that cannot be reduced to its original ingredients. For Boyle, mixture was the generative force par excellence. He will coin the phrase “exquisite mixture” and point to gunpowder and glass as further examples of strikingly new bodies with astonishing properties that emerge when certain ingredients are mixed together. Boyle was exercised by problems of structure and stability, but it was the metamorphic possibilities of atomic motion and fluidity that fired his scientific imaginings. In this way, he was not dissimilar from the Irish philosopher and polemicist John Toland, who, in his increasingly radical materialism founded on his commitment to atomic theories of matter, presented the universe as an endless panorama of changing forms, a never-ceasing dance of Ovidean metamorphoses (see, in particular, “Letter Five” in Ian Leask’s excellent new annotated edition of Letters to Serena).

For Kenelm Digby, it was human generation itself that gave the lie to the Aristotelian strictures against the generative capacity of mixture. In 1644 he published a theory of embryonic development that has mixture and mutation at its core. For Digby, there is no validity in the idea of singular agency – the notion that the seed, for example, carries within it, in a condensed version, the complete form and nature of the future offspring. At every stage in the development of an embryo a plethora of different causes come into play, and what emerges at each stage is distinct from, and cannot be reduced to, what came before. For this reason too, Digby debunked the notion of the formative (and therefore primary) agency of the male seed. The dynamic and complex materialism of the generative process was wholly independent of some putative master plan embedded in the male offering.

What Boyle and Digby, along with many other scientific researchers and commentators from the period, came to articulate was a growing consensus that the “mixture of several bodies could produce cohesive and durable unions, superior or new qualities, and even new bodies”. All of this happens without the guidance of form. As mixture rises in status and becomes a cause, form loses status and becomes an effect. What is more, implicit in this new understanding is the idea that bodies can transcend not only their origins but the grip of the past, the tyranny of resemblance and the line of descent.

The particular circumstances of seventeenth century England meant that even the laboratory was rarely neutral. The persistent fear of Protestant reformers and polemicists, reaching a peak in the 1640s and the 1680s, was the return of Stuart absolutism. Underlying the notion of the sovereign’s divine right to rule was the notion of the “body politic”, with the head of the monarch directing the body of the people. In this figuration of power, the many parts of the body are subordinated to the one head of the kingdom. The sovereign is the superior, generative form, who disciplines the anarchic energies of the multitude. This is precisely the Aristotelian template that is called into question by the scientific champions of mixture. For them, the body does not involve the subordination of the parts to the whole, the many to the one, matter to form. Not only did they believe that open-ended cooperation of multiple parts was sufficient for the production and reproduction of nature, but they claimed it was vital for the improvement of nature. In other words, order, union and identity did not depend on subordination. Protestant critics of absolutism were thus drawn by the political implications of this new science of mixture. However, in order for this new science to be credible or, indeed, usable, they had to deal with the vexed question of mediation.

One of the central tenets of the Reformation was that mediation was just a synonym for obfuscation. What Catholic hierarchies and Romish priestcraft did was to place the clergy as corruptible intermediaries between the common people and God. Immediacy and transparency were Godly virtues that dismantled the elaborate lies of mediation. (Indeed, such is the force of these arguments that to this day they underlie standard Silicon Valley rhetoric on the utopian potential of cyber tools.) The problem was, from a scientific point of view, you could get too close to God for comfort. If God’s presence was, for those in an appropriate state of receptiveness, immediately to be felt everywhere – as Calvinists and Lutheran fundamentalists argued – then where was He not? In other words, was He behind everything, and if so where did that leave room for freedom in the development of the natural world and in the organisation of human affairs? In effect, immediacy might not be the ending of subjection but the beginning of servitude.

In the seventeenth century we find the emergence of a Catholic solution to a Protestant problem. Catholic thinkers like Digby, Molina, Bellarmine and Thomas White argue that the universe involves a division of labour. God, as first cause, sets the whole machinery in motion, but thereafter He no longer intervenes as the machine goes its own way, determined by an array of second causes that it is the scientist’s duty to describe and interpret. As Digby observes in his Two Treatises: Of Bodies and of Man’s Soul (1665), comparing God and a clockmaker: “He were an improvident Clockmaker that should have cast his work so, as, when it were wound up and going, it would require the Master’s hand at every hour to make the Hammer strike the Bell.” Second causes mediate the initial act of creation of the First Cause, and it is this space of mediation that becomes the space of independent action and human freedom. Protestant political authors readily embraced this Catholic mediatory metaphysics. Crucially, by opening up the possibility of autonomous action, it gave licence to a form of political atomism. It was the interaction, the mixture of the multiple constituent parts of society, that generated a coherent, stable, representative body politic. The multitude was no longer a source of horror but a guarantor of stability. This new thinking paved the way for a notion of mixed government – the interaction of sovereign, nobility and people – which was felt to be a vital bulwark in the protection of Protestant freedoms against royalist absolutism. For Locke, human identity was not bound up in some persistent substance or real essence but in constant, free exchange with the surrounding world. “The Identity of the same man consists [...] in nothing but a participation of the same continued Life, by constantly fleeting Particles of Matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized Body.” Freedom was the both the context for and the result of mixture. The science of mixture places a freely acting people at the heart of the political process.

The new science makes its way into political economy with the notion that it is nations which actively encourage mixture through trade and migration that survive and ultimately thrive. Locke was not alone in his admiration for Dutch prosperity, which he believed to be founded on their active immigration policy. He saw nothing anomalous in encouraging foreigners to settle in England as “most of […] our ancestors were Foreigners”. The most public, indeed notorious, defence of the mixed pedigree of the English people came from the pen of Daniel Defoe. In The True Born Englishman Defoe derided the purist claims of seventeenth century polemicists like John Hare who argued that “Our Progenitors that transplanted themselves from Germany hither did not commixe themselves with the ancient inhabitants of the Countrey.” Defoe’s vision of early English history was of a nation overrun by brigands, freebooters and adventurers from every part of the known world:

From whose mixt Relicks our compounded Breed
By spurious generation does succeed;
Making a Race uncertain and unev’n,
Deriv’d from all the Nations under Heav’n.

It is this “compounded Breed” that in Defoe’s view produced a strong, prosperous and resilient island nation. The target of Defoe’s satire is what he sees as the ahistorical and debilitating national fantasy of Saxon racial purity.

Schmidgen’s case for the counterparadigm of mixture in the formulation of early English modernity is compelling and persuasive. However, even Schmidgen is forced to admit that though the paradigm may have been influential, it can hardly be said to have triumphed. Irish Catholics, Native Americans, African slaves and the English working class were for a long time to be largely denied the blessings of mixture, and the logic of plantation was founded on a coercive logic of clearance and militant unmixity. Leaving aside the historical facts that point to the tenacious hostility of empire to notions of racial mixing (the fate of the Gaelicised Old English in Ireland was regularly held up as an example of the dangers of getting too chummy with the natives), mixture itself was not necessarily always the progressive notion it appears on first viewing. Francis Bacon, for example, in advising James I about a possible union of Scotland and England, claimed that the principal reason for the growth of the Roman Empire was “that the State did so easily compound and incorporate with Strangers”. Bacon thought mixture a good idea because it both legitimated and consolidated imperial expansion and integration. William Petty in the 1670s advocated the social and sexual mixture of the English with the Irish as a way of ensuring a sustainable Crown presence in Ireland. Daniel Defoe indeed saw the racial mixture of the English nation as a reason for its right to rule over others who by virtue of not being so mixed were not so developed. His strident nationalism was based not on the pure malt of Saxon supremacism but on the mixed blend of a superior people. As the resilience of the more virulent strains of US nationalism demonstrate today, population mixture and the celebration of mixed origins do not necessarily guarantee immunity against the most alarming forms of chauvinism.

Even allowing for the dark side of the force of mixture, it is possible to agree with Schmidgen that what the English seventeenth century has to say about mixture, exquisite or otherwise, has a contemporary bearing, not only on debates about migration and national identity, but on what it means to be modern. In particular, what the exponents of mixture challenge is the Aristotelian belief in the logical, historical and cosmological primacy of differentiation. What the likes of Robert Boyle, Kenelm Digby, Thomas White and John Locke argue is that in the beginning was not the Word but words. Mixture is primary not secondary, creative not derivative. Although thinkers like Homi Bhabha, in their invocation of “cultural hybridity”, might seem to be sympathetic to this alternative vision of reality, what one finds on closer inspection is something quite different. For them, the hybrid or mixed situation is an ambivalent or in-between space. It gives you a glimpse of another world, but it is only when you return to the surer ground of univocal identifications that you can begin to make sense or give form to this epiphanic knowledge. In the liminal world of holiday you can have a life-transforming revelation on Mount Athos, but it is only when you are back in Balbriggan that you make sense of the difference. In other words, hybridity is a space that cannot of itself generate anything. In Aristotelian terms, it is a mixed body that is incapable of generation. Only the return ticket of differentiation can bring about real change.

Accepting the primacy of mixture, on the other hand, involves embracing a phenomenological sense of being in constant interaction and exchange with a surrounding world where mixture is a precondition of human action and identity through space and time. It entails or implies a proto-ecological sensitivity to all the forces that shape us, where the emphasis falls not on the analytic drag of differentiation but on the holistic draw of integration. The problem for any theory of mixture, of course, is that not all human atoms are born equal. Who mixes with whom, where, when and how, is determined by forms of power that greatly constrict the paths that mixture can follow. The task for the proponents of an alternative path to modernity is to demonstrate not so much the power of mixture as the operations of power in mixture. One of the more daunting challenges of mixture is having to be extremely picky about what goes on in the mix.

Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. His most recent book is Translation in the Digital Age (Routledge, 2013). He is co-editor of The Irish Review.