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‘Obsession: A History' by Lennard J. Davis

Julia Keller
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

"Obsession: A History" by Lennard J. Davis

University of Chicago Press ($27.50)

When it comes to scholarly ideas, Lennard Davis flies by the seat of his pants.

But only if those pants are corduroy. And not just the seat. The rest of fabric, too, inspires reflection.

"I'm looking at my pants right now," Davis said in a phone interview, "and they're corduroy. All the lines are regularly spaced apart. Why is that? We live in a world of incredible regularity. Look at a brick building, or a venetian blind. We expect a geometric symmetry."

And yet for most of human history, until interchangeable parts revolutionized industrial capacity in the 19th century, Davis noted, we lived in an irregular world, a world of curves and squiggles instead of straight lines, a world of craggy imperfection. Our expectation - sometimes, even our craving - for regularity has made a household acronym out of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), one of several obsessions that seems endemic to modern life.

"Obsession now defines our culture," Davis declares in his new book, an elegantly written and provocatively argued cultural commentary titled "Obsession: A History."

For Davis, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and pioneering scholar in the field of disability studies who also teaches in UIC's medical school, obsession is the default position of contemporary life. Consider a TV series such as "Monk," whose title character has OCD, as well as our celebration of real-life folks with a driving, single-minded focus, from Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps to Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

"We live in a culture," Davis writes, "that wants its love affairs obsessive, its artists obsessed, its genius fixated, its music driven, its athletes devoted. We're told that without the intensity provided by an obsession things are only done by halves. Our standards need to be extreme, our outcomes intense.

"To be obsessive is to be American, to be modern."

It was not until the late 19th century, as the scientific revolution began to grip the world like a pair of tongs does a test tube, that obsession became "a secular, medical phenomenon," Davis writes. Yet the term has never been a stable category. When does an eccentricity become an obsession? When does a quirk become a pathology? You can't understand obsession, the professor believes, without considering "the social, cultural, historical, anthropological and political" swirl in which it lives.

We all have a touch of obsessiveness, Davis says. And to refine his own thinking about obsession, he recalls, he had to switch from corduroy trousers to running shorts, because he often gets his brainstorms while exercising.

"I tend to engage in constructive obsessions."

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