What I Was Doing When I Was Writing About Descartes

By Melissa LoMay 22, 2023

What I Was Doing When I Was Writing About Descartes
I BEGAN MY dissertation thinking it might turn me into somebody else. After all, I didn’t have a lot in common with René Descartes. (I still don’t.) He was the so-called progenitor of modern subjectivity, a giant mind among mere men, an indisputable behemoth of the Western canon. For over four centuries, the French philosopher had mainly attracted scholars who looked like him. There were exceptions, of course. Mary Hess, Marjorie Grene, Geneviève Rodis-Lewis, Sylvie Romanowski, Margaret Jacob, Patricia Easton, Dalia Judovitz, Erica Harth, Lyle Massey, Rebecca Wilkin, Delphine Bellis, Andrea Gadberry, and Eleanor Chan had all expanded the terms on which Descartes’s philosophical practice could be understood. (Not to mention Queen Christina of Sweden and the drawing rooms of précieuses in Descartes’s own day.) But the footnotes—especially those to his natural philosophy (an early modern proxy for physics)—were white dudes all the way down.

I was just an anxious, incredibly privileged 21st-century cis-female, able-bodied Chinese American graduate student—a former high school water-polo goalie, born and raised in Santa Monica, who had been packed to the gills with elite education. It was the summer after my generals exam. I was sitting listless in the attic reading room of the Académie des sciences in Paris. My hypothetical research topic—the 17th-century invention of progress—had gone bust. But a few clicks on Gallica, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s answer to Google Books, put me face to face with Voiage du monde de Descartes (1690), an intergalactic narrative whose sole purpose was to make fun of Descartes’s misanthropic folly. Weirdest of all, the author had decided that one of Descartes’s vortices illustrations was an easy target. So, he copied it and parodied it throughout Voiage. Which seemed to indicate that the woodcuts the philosopher had produced for Principia philosophiae (1644) and the Essais (1637) were important, thus making it all the more curious that so little scholarship had taken them seriously.

I sensed opportunity—maybe even an epistemic jackpot. Ably wielding the cogito seemed like a sure-fire way to prove my scholarly mettle. To say something original about the granddaddy of modern philosophy promised academic longevity.

What was that about?


Academia and the model minority identity are mutually reinforcing versions of American meritocracy. A note on terminology here: I’m with erin Khuê Ninh’s refusal to call the model minority myth a myth. As she writes in her 2021 book Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities, many Asian Americans share “a set of convictions and aspirations, regardless of present socioeconomic status or future attainability.” Their (my) internalized “success frame”—to use Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s formulation—leads to a whole host of reassurances: hoop-jumping excellence will beget security. Hard work, all by itself, will win prestige. The deserving individual will always be rewarded with cash, prizes, and tenure. The fear of being an alien less-than will magically disappear. But playing by these rules long enough reveals that true belonging will always require a more opportune moment—one preferably accompanied by an accolade even fancier than the one you’ve just achieved. And, in a weirdly Cartesian twist, both academia and the model minority identity depend on the fantasy that minds are absent bodies, free of relationships: a world unburdened by politics. Having been nurtured by one reward structure, I came to feel at home in the other.

For far longer than I’d like to admit, I was convinced that I alone would break the mold to be a new kind of model minority. Sure, I got good grades. And I had played piano and violin. But I was athletic. My social circles weren’t majority Asian. Science eluded me. Homework was fun rather than drudgery. When it came time to fill out my college applications, I took great pleasure in writing a personal essay about identifying with my first name, which means honeybee in Greek. I described myself as buzzing between different “flowers”: Virgil’s Aeneid and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” swim practice and a predilection for period pieces. My stinger-like temper was the character defect I was working hardest to subdue. It never occurred to me to write about Ming-Hwei (明慧), my given Mandarin name. That my essay had nothing to say about garden-variety filial piety or our family habit of making dumplings on the Sundays before my mom went on business trips was a point of pride.

I thought I was pretty original. I was a Chinese American girl doing some unabashed teenage swooning over John Keats, thrilling to the tension in Kazimir Malevich’s White on White, and imagining myself into the stained-glass luminescence of Sainte-Chapelle. I felt a distance between all that romance and my parents’ pragmatism. As children of the Sino-Japanese war, they had watched their families lose their mainland fortunes only to become middling island colonizers and bureaucrats. Having been ghettoized while getting graduate degrees in the Deep South, they unconsciously decided that their three-person Southern California family would exemplify assimilation. The only accents my parents abided were issued by Masterpiece Theatre and commentators at Wimbledon. I only caught glimpses of red envelopes every few years. Good sportsmanship was key to their upper-middle-class success. In turn, my education didn’t reward me for questioning the whiteness of received wisdom. I excelled because I put that wisdom on a pedestal. I felt pride when I fulfilled its expectations and shame when I fell short.


I was convinced that my mind was separate from my body. Descartes had not yet appeared on any of my high school reading lists (probably for good reason!), but I was getting an early intimation of what his philosophy would afford me. Hundreds of years earlier, some of the philosopher’s earliest readers had observed something similar. As Erica Harth demonstrates in Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime (1992), elite, mid-17th-century précieuses were drawn to Discours de la méthode (1637), Principia, and, eventually, L’Homme (1664) precisely because Descartes’s splitting of mind from body seemed to promise that women’s minds could be taken as seriously as the minds of men. Unbound by flesh, their arguments would be evaluated without politics, measured against merit. Right?

Academic originality is a beastly hybrid. Its novelty depends on all else that’s come before. And it points to a future when, after having been cited ad nauseam, it too will become banal (Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” being the ironic case in point). Fundamentally, the recognition of originality is a social phenomenon. When sociologists Joshua Guetzkow, Michèle Lamont, and Grégoire Mallard traveled deep into the bowels of fellowship competitions in the humanities and social sciences, they discovered that, while humanists value new methods and new data (“innovation”), they place extraordinary weight on a scholar’s moral character, integrity, and authenticity. But how could a reviewer possibly know if a PDF manuscript was being true to itself? How to confirm that a person under scrutiny was a generous colleague? Only the constellation of application parts—the writing sample ideally joined by the commendations of credible colleagues, reputable institutions, and similarly prestigious awards—could give originality its unmistakable glow.

Throughout grad school, it did not feel like being a woman of color in a predominantly white program had anything to do with the questions I asked or the answers I came up with, until it did. Towards the end of reading for generals, my wonderful advisor, Katharine Park, noticed how animated I became when we discussed feminist histories of the body. She suggested that I might pursue a dissertation topic about early-modern gender difference. As soon as I felt that spark of having been seen—it was as though my disposition toward fairness was being taken as an asset rather than a liability—I pulled away. It felt too risky to be a woman of color applying an unapologetically feminist interpretation to anything. Rather than talk about those fears, I put my head down and tried to find a topic that had—for lack of a better word—endurance. That’s why early modern studies had attracted me in the first place. All those elaborate wax seals and oak-lined Wunderkammern, Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (1580) and Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651)—that was the stuff that lasted. And I thought it did so only because of evident merit. An idealist’s regrettable naivete fueled my belief that scholarship about subjects that had been scrutinized for centuries would itself be measured solely for its inherent worth, its indisputable novelty. I didn’t yet see originality as political.

Before I ever noticed Descartes’s woodcuts, I had come to feel at home in two distinct historiographies: histories of art that read the past through form and form through history, and the disposition toward historical epistemology among historians of science. I had gotten my first taste of the former as an undergraduate fan of Roland Barthes. I just could not get enough of his 1957 book Mythologies, and I would ride subways and buses while underlining his eloquent analyses of plastic and wrestling. By the time I entered grad school, I found a kinship between Mythologies and a crop of art historians who had redefined the study of Western art at Berkeley in the 1990s. Michael Baxandall’s oeuvre showed me that artists are not idiots, and that the compositional choices in a painting are shaped by everything from patronage and the price of pigment to the local pastor’s sermons and the salons where the artists hung out. Svetlana Alpers had demonstrated that artists in the Dutch Republic had so absorbed the empirical impulse of the so-called scientific revolution that they applied it to their canvases. And Erika Naginski, a longtime mentor, had clued me into mark-making and sculpting as a set of choices that provided insight into—because they were conditioned by—the intersection of politics, philosophy, and culture. All these historians of art had asked their fields to start with the object in order to historicize how it came into being.

That process of coming into being began to fascinate me. And my world changed during a history of science seminar when another student observed how, during the age of colonization, the shape and size of the crates in which natural specimens from the Americas were shipped back to European ports would ultimately condition the kinds of natural history that would be written. That insight—which stressed the many threads of humanness woven into making knowledge—felt like a materialization of what Steven Shapin had described in his 1994 book A Social History of Truth. (Truth had a history?! It was a social artifact?!) And it made into a touchstone a typically eloquent question Lorraine Daston had asked in her essay “Preternatural Philosophy” (2000): “Why don’t we have a science of dust wreaths on windy days?” I realized what historians of science typically realize early in their careers: categories—even those that help us understand the apparent constancy of nature and physical laws—are not self-evident. They have to be organized; they have to mean something to generation after generation in order for them to last. It made me wonder what had made collaborations between early modern scientists and artists possible. It got me asking about those later moments when old pictures became ineffectual, easy to discard, and no longer epistemic for a new generation of scientists.

To be sure, these were predominantly white fields with academic cultural capital. But they gave me tools—and an analytical intensity—for asking how and why the world has come to be what it is. They honed my historiographical radar well enough to realize that Descartes’s pictures had been generally overlooked for centuries, and to see that this neglect had to do with a philosophical privileging of word over image. My training also encouraged me to take the philosopher’s woodcuts seriously so as to situate them within their cultural contexts—and to wonder why it had been advisable to modify Descartes’s pictures in, say, 1660s and ’70s Paris or in Leiden, Holland, circa 1680. Which is to say, they made me analyze for context with much more nuance. They showed me that historical specificity was not Casaubonian dilettantism but an ethical necessity.


There was one class, though, that took many years to sink in. Having nothing to do with art history and little, ostensibly, to do with the history of science, the critical history seminar offered by the superlative duo of Afsaneh Najmabadi and Judith Surkis had been one of the greatest pleasures of my coursework. Their subject was the politics of history. They theorized the weirdness of writing history as a person living in a historical moment—and, indeed, as a person inevitably subject to the politics of their own historical moment. Informed by but never beholden to psychoanalysis, critical history mined how fears of losing power—and, thus, resistance to change—structure the cultural patterns, laws, and tacit knowledge of any group of people, historians included. At the time, it was not yet clear to me how I could apply critical history’s methods to early modern studies. After all, the fact that enslavement underwrote so much of 17th- and 18th-century Western European cultural and intellectual history was barely mentioned in discussions of the subfield. It did not occur to me that ignoring that violence was an insane, ignorant privilege. I thought that focusing on the prescribed boundaries of intellectual history would once and for all prove my intelligence.

This earlier self was what Toni Morrison, in her 1989 essay “Women, Race, and Memory,” described as an agnostic or nonaligned humanist: “They are the women in academia who accept their tenured positions as part of the fruit of feminist labor, who identify themselves as representing womanpower, but who are quick to disassociate themselves from ‘merely’ feminist scholarship (‘I teach Milton’).” Add to this the lived convenience of the model minority identity. Meritocracy was still my religion. Keeping my head down and doing the work was my long game. I never wondered why cultural capital was conferred on those who studied Descartes because, without realizing it, I was too busy trying to accumulate it.

Thankfully, life got in the way. In the years after submitting my dissertation, the desire to stay in Los Angeles and the exasperation of trying to win the academic job lottery rocked me into consciousness. Trading on elitism had begun to discomfit me. The thought that my work was worthier because I studied one subject rather than another had turned repulsive. Whether listening to episodes of Call Your Girlfriend while driving past streets increasingly lined with tarps and tents, or during brief exposures to the uncertainties—and, at times, indignities—of adjuncting, the nonsense of inequity became all too clear. I found unshakable purpose in teaching courses on intersectional feminism and early modern medicine and enslavement. The California sun also reminded me that being a water polo player among water polo players—a teammate—had been one of the great satisfactions of my young life. The competitively singular intelligence I had demanded of myself for so long—because I thought that was the person I was expected to become—felt less and less like me.


Back in grad school, a friend—also an Asian American early modernist—recounted a question posed during their generals exam: “Why France?” This gnawed at me. I knew my answer to “Why Descartes?” was insufficient. Yes, recuperating his illustrations would provide a more accurate view of what the philosopher had attempted to accomplish. Yes, histories of science and philosophy could be animated by art-historical methods. And, yes, reminding philosophers that pictures had once been integral to their trade might find resonance in our image-saturated world. But there was more.

Just a few months ago, I told another Asian American early modernist friend that I was toying with writing this essay, and our exchange hit me like a truth serum. With deep empathy, they reasoned that writing about a dead white man may have reflected my impatience with working at academia’s margins. They said pursuing Descartes may have reflected a reasonable ambition to claim a seat at the center of intellectual activity. But something didn’t comport; the answer didn’t make sense with the inspiration I had drawn from an important interview Morrison gave to Australian television journalist Jana Wendt. That’s when I realized—all along, I had presumed that someone else always created, defined, and adjusted the center. Even though I had lived for so long with a historical subject who had spurned his era’s most calcified systems of power, and whose most famous picture proposes an extraordinary decentering of the universe, I hadn’t been convinced that I could safely declare the importance of a work of art, a person, a community, or a culture that hadn’t already been deemed important by someone else.

Things feel different now. There are spaces—like this very one—where articulating our respective positionalities is a reparative investment, where refusing to divorce mind from body, philosophy from politics, is evidence of intellectual seriousness. I can say it’s important to tell my story even though no one told me that it’s important to tell it. This is thanks to a moment that embraces a profusion of ways to examine the world.

That said, the years when things felt different did help me grow. All the researching and writing and rewriting I poured into my new book Skepticism’s Pictures: Figuring Descartes’s Natural Philosophy built a sanctioned variety of professional expertise. The book? I’m proud of it. And my long communion with the exigencies of academia has also showed me what the world is. I don’t wish the anxieties and pain of that experience on anyone else. But it equipped me with a mode of inquiry that I can turn on myself. Why did I keep deferring my worthiness, yoking it to some idealized version of the book in my head? Why, for so long, did I wish to be recognizable to others rather than to myself? The answer, in brief, is that I was hypnotized by a racialized adulation of individual success that prioritizes validation from those in power over and against community-supported definitions of self-care.

With that, I will get on with the work of being the person the past has helped me become.


Melissa Lo lives and works in Los Angeles. Skepticism’s Pictures: Figuring Descartes’s Natural Philosophy (2023) is her first book.

LARB Contributor

Melissa Lo lives and works in Los Angeles. She currently serves as a program officer at the Getty Foundation, where she focuses on building racial equity in the arts and the future of work at museums. A historian of early modern European science, medicine, and visual culture, she co-founded Cedar-Sinai’s Program in the History of Medicine; performed applied research for Shondaland and the Mash-Up Americans; curated the history of science and medicine collections at the Huntington Library; and taught at UCLA and SCI-Arc. Her writing has appeared in Carla, Journal of the History of Ideas, and The California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg. She serves on the boards of the Feminist Center for Creative Work and Carla. Skepticism’s Pictures: Figuring Descartes’s Natural Philosophy (2023) is her first book.


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