Notes on Spinal Catastrophism

Travis Chi Wing Lau //

“It is the duty of a spine to destroy the universe; or, a spine is the universe’s method of acknowledging this duty to self-destruct.[1]

“Fig. 4. Bodkin’s theory of Neuronics”; one of many hand-drawn images by Thomas Moynihan included in Spinal Catastrophism

To my scoliosis, reads the dedication to Thomas Moynihan’s Spinal Catastrophism: A Secret History (Urbanomic 2019). This line alone was more than enough for me to pick up this strange blend of philosophy and intellectual history during my visit to New York for Synapsis’ first writer’s retreat. As a scholar and poet living with scoliosis-related disabilities, I felt seen by this scholarship in a way I had never been before. To know that my embodied experience led to cripistemologies like this one, that scoliosis could in fact be the site of theory (fiction) was absolutely exhilarating. I felt for the first time that I could ache my way toward theory.  

I will not even attempt to summarize the entirety of Moynihan’s wide-ranging study that traces a meandering genealogy of spinal thinking through an archive that Ekin Erkan describes as an “intellectual ‘cabinet of curiosities,’” full to bursting with sources both esoteric and canonical, ranging from neuroanatomy to geology to philosophical anthropology to literary history.[2] What lingers with me is Moynihan’s truly interdisciplinary spinal history—an account of how the spine and its discontents winds its way through so much of Western thought. Late twentieth-century thinker Daniel Barker’s seemingly forgotten notion of “spinal catastrophism” is, according to Moynihan, hardly obsolete but in fact continuing to animate the way we think about embodied human experience. For Barker, the spine, recapitulated through every human body, bears biogenetic traces of ongoing planetary and cosmic traumas. The spine thus mediates the local and individual with this greater scale of deep time and memory. Moynihan’s insight is that this central idea has been with us for centuries, perpetuated through multiple iterations by different thinkers with vastly different intellectual commitments.

Of particular interest to me as a Victorianist is Moynihan’s account of “railway spine” or “Erichsen’s disease,” a name for an amorphous set of neurological conditions believed to be caused by the jolting experiences of acceleration during railway travel. When autopsies revealed no somatic sources that could cause such effects like loss of memory, sleep disturbances, or back pain, the condition came under increasing scrutiny as such conditions were being inconsistently claimed by people who were not even present at any railway accidents but were merely witnesses. Used by some to sue the railways and others to claim disability to avoid work, “railway spine” became the center of debates about its veracity, resulting in contrasting theories that modern train travel led to the devolution of the spine itself to its primordial layers or that such conditions were merely another manifestation of hysteria and hypochondria. Given that hysteria was typically associated with women (the disease of the “wandering womb”), “railway spine” became the hysterical condition of men whose traumatic experiences of modernity were leaving them recumbent, as opposed to firm and upright. Modernity as temporal whiplash: “‘railway spine’ broke out when our ancestrally attuned backbones simply couldn’t keep up.”[3]

This pathological challenge to industrial modernity strikes me as a compelling case study in how to think about disability as always a problem of gender, as well as of culture. Because “railway spine” undermined a Victorian progress narrative characterized by masculine uprightness, fortitude, and productivity, it provoked crises in what to do with the unintended consequences of modernity that so often took traumatic forms. If the cost of progress can be embodied in the spine’s painful wandering, how are we to reckon with the inevitable ableism of any progressive vision of a better future? Is spinal catastrophism’s cynical approach to futurity a way to resist neo-eugenic worldviews that fantasize a future purged of disability all together?    

Ultimately, Moynihan’s provocations were challenging to reconcile from my point of view as a disabled scholar committed to disability justice—how do those of us with scoliosis-related disabilities define a sense of disability pride when our spines must inevitably register at the level of vertebrae traumas often beyond our comprehension? Are we only to be defined by our spinal trauma or is spinal catastrophism perhaps an unexpected opportunity for new forms of crip collectivity and solidarity across traumatic lines shared by each human body? If anything, I am strangely comforted by the prospect of this kinship across curved spines and herniated discs—less alone, more connected to other bodyminds more crip than we are even aware.


[1] Moynihan, 268.

[2] Erin Erkan, “Unveiling Thomas Moynihan’s Spinal Catastrophism: The Spine Considered as a Chronogenetic Media Artifact.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy. 15.1 (2019): 564.

[3] Moynihan, 214.

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