L3. Modernity as Whiplash and Spondylosis


The nineteenth-century preoccupation with the backbone’s ‘private life’—whether as pylon of phyletic memory or relay of the cosmic unconscious—explains the flourishing of novel, now ‘extinct’ nervous disorders during the Victorian era. It seemed that Nietzsche had been correct in his prognosis when he viewed the densification and acceleration of information as creating a Europe-wide ‘over-excitation of the nervous […] powers’ and foresaw that, in modernization, ‘the demands on the nervous system are too grand’, the implication being that the expansion of our mental powers via telegraphy also extended our scope for neurosis.

The most prominent of these modern ailments was ‘railway spine’: a post-traumatic condition attributed to the abrupt lurch of the global transport networks then piecing themselves together. Caused by the ‘significant jolts of acceleration’ sometimes experienced in early train carriages, railway spine was—just like whiplash during the automobile age—an elusive and baffling illness that was more the invention of contemporary medico-legal incentives and cultural fears than a real neural disorder…