Cheryl Spinner's Weblog


Feb 20 2010

Nina Baym, “A Minority Reading of Wieland”

I’ve decided to plough through Wieland scholarship chronologically. First, I began with Martin S. Viles and his 1903 publication on Charles Brockden Brown. Now I turn to Nina Baym’s 1981 discussion of Wieland.

Baym begins her essay by attempting to push against a misconception in Brown scholarship. Brown publishes 5 novels in four years (1798-1801) and when these fail to give him the quick popularity he would need to support himself he turns to political pampheteering and magazine editing(Baym 87).

Baym notes how Brown’s lack of success in the literary field has been used to support the assertion of America’s cultural immaturity in the early national stage. “Brown’s lack of financial success as a fiction writer,” she observes, has been interpreted by later generations of scholars as a sign of America’s cultural immaturity: we were not yet ready to support a serious novelist” (Baym 87).  But Baym insists that this conclusion is a wrong one to make. “His lack of success needs to be put in a somewhat wider perspective,” Baym maintains. “No novelist, on either side of the Atlantic, had at that date succeeded in supporting him–or herself solely by writing novels, because authorship as a paying profession in general was then only nascent and because the novel was not yet recognized as a dominant, serious literary form” (87).

Baym takes issue with the assumption that Brown’s literature was somehow more serious than other forms of American writing, particularly the work of American female writers like Rowson (Charlotte Temple), and that Brown was self-consciously writing as a so-called more serious author. Instead, Baym pits Brown as an amateur novelist, whose sloppy production of 5 novels in 4 years calls to question how seriously he actually viewed these literary attempts.

Nina Baym is incredibley smart, cogent, and convincing, although I don’t buy her argument, but it will be a really great way for me to insert myself into Brown scholarship and show where it’s been and where it’s currently going. Because this essay will prove so important to me rhetorically as I begin writing my thesis (one paragraph down, woot!), I’m going to include lots of quotes right now. Yay for interesting criticism!! It feels like it’s starting to all make sense now.

These reminders may help us to avoid the sentimental fallacy of assuming that Brown would have succeeded better had he been a less serious author. E.g., “Americans simply had no great appetite for serious literaturein the early decades of the Republic–certainly nothing of the sort with which they devoured Parson Weems’ notorious cherry-tree biography of the nation’s father…or, say, the ubiquitous melodrams of beset womanhood, ‘tales of truth’ like Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple [1791] and Hannah Foster’s The Coquette [1797].” We need hardly aruge that the absence of seriousness in the two works cited does not speak to its presence in the works of Brown. Although there is scattered testimony to the powerful impression that Brown made on some important later writers, both British and American (Keats, J.F. Cooper), there is no real evidence that his novelistic aims were very high. His letters, as Dunlap presented them, indicate no concern with any aspect of his fiction other than its salability. The “seriousness” of Brown’s work, nontheless–as the quotation above exemplifies–is an article of faith among his twentieth-century critics (Baym 87).

By “serious,” these critics refer to a presumed purpose of utilizing fiction as a means of developing themes and ideas. Thus defined, the quality of seriousness in Brown’s fiction calls for the discovery and exposition of the controlling ideas in his novels; and to these tasks the modest yet enthusiastic Brown revival has devoted itself. A survey of these ideas produces, however, a list of truisms: “universal” banalities and late eighteenth-century conventionalism. In Wieland, for example, Brown is said to be defending–or attacking–rationalism; showing that our senses are liable to err, that we are not always in control of our will; tempering Deism with fate; decrying fanaticism. In his gothicism is discerned a commentary on the darker aspects of the human psyche. Except that an analysis of most fiction for its idea content leads to a similar set of conclusions, one hardly sees a case for Brown’s intellectual distinction in the ideas which the criticism has identified in his work. Perhaps, however, ideas are not what Brown’s fiction […] is really about (Baym 87, 88).

Yet, the intense didactic bias in the Brown scholarship may be attributed in part to a distrust of his literary gift and achievements. At face value, it seems highly unlikely that five novels composed more or less simultaneously by a neophyte with no definite plan for any of them, will possess much literary merit. Indeed, only a genius of the first order could possibly produce good work under such conditions. Brown’s method of composition throws doubt, at the very least, on the seriousness of his commitment; so does the rapidity with which he abandoned fiction for more rewarding forms of writing. And the fact is that although Brown’s novels show command of some segments of the novelistic repertory of his day, they equally evidence carelessness, haste, forgetfulness, and changing intentions. (Baym 88).

Like Viles, Baym here seems to be making  value judgements about Brown as an author (recall how Viles claims Brown has no conception of how the human mind works), but I find these sorts of readings underestimate Brown’s actual abilities. While I in no way, shape, or form endorse any kind of hyperbolic reading of any author (and I don’t intend to do that for Brown), it seems curious to me that early national authors are faced with jugements about their style that their British male counterparts are never subject to. This brings in larger questions about the marginilization of early American literature in general and is particularly relevant for me as I make my way through the world of academia by actively branding myself as an early American scholar. I refuse to be an apologist for early American literature. So there. I said it.

More on Brown’s “flaws” (at least according to Baym):

The flaw in Brown’s Wieland is basic and central: there is a continuous sacrifice of story line and character–hence,  long-term coherence–for the sake of immediate effect. As the narrative progresses, indeed, a second plot, designed to maximize the opportunities for such effects, overtakes and ultimately obliterates the main story. These effects involve the creation of a type of terror which is significantly different from the sort of terror inspired by the main story. In two words, the main story is tragic, the supervening tale is gothic. As the plot advances, the tragedy recedes to the background where its vague presence imparts to the gothic some resonance and power beyond its otherwise trivial and transient impact. Yet this supervening foreground, while drawing strength from the tragedy, prevents access to that tragedy, diverts the reader from it (88-89).

Inheritance of madness in Wieland:

The father and founder of the family, who emigrated from Germany and established himself in America on the banks of the Schuy

More on Brown’s flaws:

But Brown, in defiance (or ignorance?) of story logic, chose to bring Carwin into the novel’s center, where, for much of the action, the ventriloquist replaces Wieland as the object of narrative attention. It seems as if his function becomes precisely to divert the reader from the true center. As in a detective story, we must see everyone except the murderer. Though Clara’s obsession with Carwin–she is certain from the start that he is her family’s evil genius–he effectively usurps the antagonist’s role. Whether he meant to or not, Brown invented a second plot whose action moves from ignorance to discovery. Clara is like a detective protagonist, wanting to know what is happening to the family and who is responsible for it. Carwin, a minor character in Wieland’s story, is truly the antagonist in this one, because his behavior presents the obstacles that prevent Clara from discovering the truth. Fixed on Carwin, she doesn’t see the changes in her brother. She assumes that Carwin is the murderer at the climaz because she has eliminated any other possibility. But fixed on Clara, Brown’s narrative also fails to see Wieland’s change. He is taken off stage a rational man and brought back a demented maniac (93).

So Baym is arguing that Brown’s narrative structure is inherently flawed because he constructs subplots that distract the reader from the central concern of the novel–Wieland’s dissent into madness. Once again, Baym is clearly a skilled rheotaritician, because I’m almost willing to buy her argument. Almost. But then I begin thinking and wonder, “Wait, Wieland is the protagonist of this novel and Carwin’s only a secondary character? What?” What about the ambiguity of the title “Wieland; or the Transformation” and how that transformation can also apply to Carwin. AND, what about the sequal Carwin the Biloquist? If Carwin was such a secondary character, why would Brown create a sequal that tells Carwin’s story. A better question, then, I would say is why Wieland is not called Carwin the Biloquist–Carwin seems to be more of a central character than the titular character.

More on the problem of Carwin as a distracting secondary character that overtakes the plot:

The novel’s change of direction proclaims itself in the opening of Chapter6, when Clara introduces Carwin. “I now come to the mention of a person with whose name the most turbulent sensations are connected. It is with shuddering reluctance that I enter on the province of describing him…my blood is congealed: and my finers are palsied when I call up his image” (p. 49). Let us remember that Clara is not telling her tale as it happens, in the mode of an epistolary novel. She is recollecting it. As a character she now knows that Carwin is not the villaim she mistook him for. Yet she (or the author who manipulates her) brings him to the reader’s attention with a heated vocabulary inconsistent with the narrator’s knowledge at the time she tells the story. Apparently, Brown is not attempting to characterize Clara but simply to use her as a register for melodramatic effects. Reader attention is arrested at those surface events which, though “thrilling,” will prove susceptible of explanation. We have no access to the state of Wieland’s mindl the question is no longer how he becomes a murderer, but who the murderer is. Substituted for the pity and awe of the tragic are the excitement and shock of the early whodunit, the gothic thriller. Ultimately, then, Wieland draws its dynamic neither from its transcendence of gothic nor its expansion of the mode to cover new literary territory, but  just the reverse. Wieland does open such possibilities, but quickly retreats from them. It is gothic and sensational to the core. Like many aspiring writers in the early years of the republic, Brown’s literary purpose seems to be little more than to domesticate currently popular genres (94).

Some more Brown bashing:

 I imply above that, as an inexperience writer, Brown might have found Carwin too difficult a technical problem and allowed him, through ineptness, to take a central role he was not supposed to have. But it might be supposed instead that it was Wieland who posed the insuperable technical difficulties ot a novice (especially given the choice of the first-person narrator), tragedy being so much more difficult to achieve than melodrama, and gothic machinery being so easily imitable (94).

No responses yet Tags: Uncategorized

Feb 20 2010

Martin S. Vilas, Early 20th Cent. CBB Scholar

Martin S. Vilas publishes Charles Brockden Brown: A Study of Early American Fiction in 1904, definitely the earliest criticism I’ve read on CBB thus far.

Some great quotes from this guys:

The interest in Charles Brockden Brown and his works arises largely from his ranking positioon among American Prose Writers.  Hence, it is not expected that an estimate, somewhat extended and somewhat critical, of his writings is likely to become popular. No other than this, save very brief sketches of Brown and of what he has done is known to the writer. It may be, then, that the student of American literature will find this book, written five years ago, something suggestive, perhaps something usually called original (Vilas 4).

I find it interesting when CBB’s work is “rediscovered.” Cathy Davidson resurrects early national literature in the 80’s; Vilas apparently resurrects it in the early 20th century, although he predicts that critical attention to CBB’s work is unlikely to become popular. In a way he is right and wrong. CBB now is certainly not mainstream in the culture at large, but he’s canonical in early American studies.

But notice how Vilas, as any good scholar would, is sure to point out that this book is perhaps something original because it sheds light on the rarely explored author.

Vilas also speaks about the condition of literature when Brown writes. This is worth including here as well:

Literatures like Constitutions are not made; they grow. Like the growth of the coal mine, they form, harden and mature from the timber of other ages, of times well nigh forgotten, and from materials usually overlooked by the ninety and nine. Literature is the clear lake in which may be seen mirrored the vegetation that grows near it, the animal life that appears above and around it and the movements within its horizon (Vilas 10).

Viles emphasizes how literatures need to grow from material of the ages, and this, therefore, requires time. Viles notes how the beginning of every nation in literature has been in verse, not in prose, but the United States is one rare exception:

In the United States we note the rare exception. The rule has been true because with most nations we mark their rise from a condition of barbarism by long, slow stages to civilization and culture. The people in the early periods of progression have not the intellects capable of carrying on the successive steps in argumentative prose but their fancies are pleased by ballads descriptive of the heroism of themselves and their ancestors. But America received her origin and early development not through an Anchises and an Aeneas carrying their ” sacra patriosque penates” […], but she received them at a stage in the world’s history when the blackness of ten centuries of gloom had but fairly rolled away, when the civilized world, rejoicing anew in its rediscovered strength, was investigating and progressing as never before and had sent some of its best blood across the western seas to colonize and found new nations. The long years of evolution from the uncivilized to the civilized that marked the growth of European nations were absent here. For without the institutions of the Old World, the New yet possessed their training and influence and considered herself as good as her fathers. The United States, though her tuition has been derived from all the world, yet is in language, instituitions and laws, the child of England. To her she has ever turned to draw the inspiration that has set her alive ot the best instincts within herself (Vilas 10).

After his introduction, Vilas goes on to summarize and outline Charles Brockden Brown’s works. For the scope of my thesis, his analysis of Wieland is what is most relevant. Vilas notes how Wieland is influenced by Godwin’s Caleb Williams. I’ll have to take Vilas’s word for it because I’ve never read Godwin.

One of Vilas’s main arguments is, however, that Charles Brockden Brown did not understand the human mind. Huh? Really?

To contextualize, Vilas quotes Griswold who claims that Brown was “a careful anatomist of the mind and familiar with its wonderful phenomena” (22). In response, Vilas argues that while “it is true that he evidently had made a careful study of the mind, but that he ever understood its healthy workings I do not believe” (22). Vilas thus believes that Brown is more concerned with the mind in its most unstable moments. Vilas argues that CBB provides logical explanation to the seemingly supernatural occurances in the text (unlike say Macbeth, etc.) and yet “when we have finished Wieland there seems to be something ‘uncanny’ about it” (Vilas 24).

This leads Vilas to conclude that Charles Brockden Brown did not understand the human mind because the work, even with its explantions seems impossible. “We cannot make ourselves to believe that ordinary mortals would so conduct themselves,” Vilas notes, and so if Brown really understood the human mind “he must be able to show forth its workings as they are so that they seem to us possible” (Vilas 24). I find this whole question to be incredibley inrelevant and, quite honestly, poor criticism. Who cares if Charles Brockden Brown “understood” the human condition! That being said, I still must give credit to Vilas for bringing  Brown to the forefront, despite an obviously dated literary analysis. But Vilas’s argument does raise an interesting point about Brown and our perceptions of him. Was he crazy just like his books? Or was he a man of science and letters and a person that could be considered a source of inspiration the 19th century. Would 19th century Americans read Brown as Vilas reads him, or would they be more open to him as an “anatomist of the mind” and commentator on all things American? I’d venture to say the later.

No responses yet Tags: Charles Brockden Brown,Thesis,Wieland

Feb 17 2010

American Sympathy, Caleb Crain

In order to get ready for some major thesis writing, I still have to do some more reading on Wieland criticsm. Sigh. I give you my first attempt at summarizing some Wieland criticism:

Informed by Freud and writings on “insanity” or imbalance behavior (as evidenced by his refernce to Dora, etc.),  Caleb Crain emphasizes the importance of the father and what he terms “copyism” in guiding the narrative’s direction. Crain defines copyism as follows: “A copyist is a self whose creative impulse has been destroyed as a sacrifice to authority. The sacrifice is in a sense a gift of love. The copyist would rather not be himself or herself than lose the approval of the one he or she copies” (Crain 107).

Crain cites a letter CBB writes to a friend of his in which he rails against the entrance of copying into the realm of art. In a discussion on music, Brown writes, “low, indeed must be the ambition, which is satisfied with pleasing by mere mimicry, but putting off every distinctive property, everything that constitutes themselves; and warbling the words of others, and running through unmeaning, unappropriate, unintelligent notes.”

Not coincidently, Brown was preoccupied with the idea of copying and imposture. His father, Elijah Brown,was a conveyancer and copied over legal documents but he often copied over documents on his own time as a kind of therapeutic technique of relaxation. Brown was also involved in lots of shady business transactions, and here is where Crain ties in issues of copyism, and issues of father figures. Brown attempts to do things differently–not to imitate his father’s shady ways, but Brown cannot help but see the links between the literary art and its “combination of imposture and projection,” which like Carwin, can “speak where he is not” (108). The idea that the novel itself is suspicious with its disembodied voice, just as Carwin’s ability to project his voice as if it is detached from his own body, is an interesting idea to think about.

No responses yet Tags: Charles Brockden Brown,genre,Thesis,Wieland

Jan 02 2010

Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination

An ecocritical reading of Melville:

Consider the case of Herman Melville. His sensitivity to physical environment was acute, even when one might least expect it, as in the heavily allegorical Mardi and the psychologically involuted Pierre. Moby-Dick comes closer than any other novel of its day to making a nonhuman creature a plausible major character and to developing the theme of human ferocity against animal nature. Yet Melville’s interest in whales was subordinate to his interest in whaling, and  his interest in the material reality of both was constrained by his preoccupation with their social and cosmic symbolism. Thus we should not be surprised between the almost concurrent encounters of Melville and Charles Darwin with the Galapagos Islands (Buell 4,5)

Buell argues that Melville’s Moby-Dick moves away from anthropocentric literature by developing an animal (the whale) as a “plausible major character.” Melville’s characterization does, however, have its limitations. Buell argues Melville is less interested in the whale itself than in whaling and the symbolism the whale could provide. Thus, the text still has its anthropocentric aspects. Buell then looks at Darwin’s and Melville’s encounters in the Galapagos to further illustrate how Melville was still very much anthropocentric in his observations.

Melville, Darwin, and the Galapagos:

Darwin’s visit in the 1830s as nautralist of the HMS Beagle was an astoningishingly rich imaginitive event. His discovery of large numbers of unique but related species on the different individual islands marked the beginning of his discovery of the theory of natural slection. Melville, visiting the islands during his wanderings in the South Pacific a few years later, was equally impressed by them, but as an area of starkness and desolation that he turned to symbolic use in The Encantadas, a series of ironically titled sketched about the islands, and in his late poem Clarel, which likens the deserts of Palestine to the Galapagos. Melville’s environmental imagination was too homocentric to allow him to respond as Darwin did (Buell 5).

According to Buell, Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos provides a “rich imaginitive event” from which he observes these animals and is later able to formualte his theory of natural selection. Buell’s language, I find, especially intriguing–the connection between a naturalist and imaginitive writing. Melville, in a trip some years later, is similarly inspired by his trip, , according to Buell, but it is a homocentric inspiration. He uses the environment symbolically in The Encantadas and Clarel.

Question: Buell seems to be implying that Melville’s “homocentric” use of the landscape in his writing is an inherently negative thing, while Darwin’s animal-centric reading is inherently superior. I have two questions to posit: A. Is this act even really “homocentric?” Is depicting a landscape in literature inherenlty a human-centered act? B. And even if it is, is there anything wrong with this? And wouldn’t this make all literature that depicts humans and their interaction with the environment inherently homo-centric? I don’t really think this matters, honestly. There, I said it. I guess my stance here on the whole “anthrocentric” issue is pretty clear.

Conclusion: I think Buell here is missing the point. The fact that Melville travels to the Galapagos after Darwin’s famous trip is, to me, what is so intriguing, not that his writing is homocentric or not. Additionally, I find it equally exciting  that Darwin, a naturalist, visits an environment, observes it, and is writes about it makes Darwin. In this sense, Darwin sounds very much like Charles Brockden Brown, who Bryan Waterman argues, as a “man of informaiton and observation,” thought it was his duty to record and document his surroundings in novel form.

Despite my problems with Buells argument in this particular case, he does come up with some useful theoretical ideas, case in point, the notion an Environmental Text.

Buell devises “a rough checklist of some of the ingredients that might be said to comprise an environmentally oriented work” (7):

1. “The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history (Buell 7).”

2. “The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest” (Buell 7).

3. “Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation” (Buell 7).

4. “Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in this text” (Buell 8).

“I deliberately keep this list short,” Buell concludes, ” wanting chiefly to give a flavor of how potentially inclusive and exclusive the category of “environmental” is, in my apprehension of it. By these criteria, few works fail to qualify at least marginally, but few qualify unequivocally and consistently. Most of the clearest cases are so-called nonfictional works, hence my special concetration on them here” (Buell 8).

While I may not agree with Buell’s “checklist,” I do appreciate his desire to push for readings of environmental non-fiction in literary studies.

The Politics of Reading Non-Fiction in Literary Studies

This part of Buell’s discussion is, I think, probably the most useful for me as I think about the larger impact my work could or should have in the ever politicized world of academia.

Some wise, and even humorous observations Buell makes:

Apart from Walden and a few other works by Thoreau, for practical purposes nonfictional writing about nature scarcely exists from the standpoint of American literary studies, even though by any measure it has flourished for more than a century and has burgeoned vigorously in the nuclear age (Buell 8).

Environmental nonfiction, however, gets studied chiefly in expository writing programs and in “special topics” courses offered as the humanities’ tithe to environmental studies programs or to indulge a colleague’s idiosyncrasies, rather than as bona fide additions to th literature curriculim (Buell 9).

Hmm, this is something for me to really thing about. I plan on devoting a lot of my attention to Charles Brockden Brown’s annotated translation of Constantin Volney’s naturalist work. Will I get pegged as the “idiosyncratic colleague?” Is this why I’m shy away from calling myself an ecocritic, even though I read environmental non-fiction? I don’t know, this is a possibility.


One response so far Tags: 19th Century Sciences,Ecocriticism,Herman Melville,imagination

Oct 30 2009

Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Introduction

Farrah Mendlesohn, in “Reading Science Fiction,” argues that “science fiction is less a genre–a body of writing from which one can expect certain plot elements and specific tropes–than an ongoing discussion” (1). If it were a genre, Mendlesohn contends:

we would know the rough outlines of every book that we picked up. If it were a mystery, we would know that there was ‘something to be found out;’ if a romance, that two people would meet, make conflict and fall in love; if horror, that there would be an intrusion of the unnatural into the world that would eventually been tamed or destroyed (2).

Mendlesohn brings Schild’s Ladder (1992), one of the best examples of sf, to show how sf cannot be a genre: it is both mystery, romance, and horror story.

Question: Could this explain why Sheppard Lee’s plot is so bizarre? Is it melding genres?

Mendlesohn naturally contradict herself by claiming  that there is “genre sf,” which began in the mid-1920s.” This genre, she claims, is united by a “sense of wonder.” Charasterics of this “genre sf” include:

  • “the earliest sf relied on the creation of a new invention, or an arrival in a new place. For the readers of this material, this was enough; one could stand and stare at the flying city, or gasp at the audacity of the super-weappon” (3).
  • the tone was primarily descriptive, the protagonist unfamiliar with his/her surroundings describing to the reader, or auditing a lecture on our behalf” (3).
  • “almost all stories ended either in universal peace or with the destruction of invention and inventor because the writers either lacked the skill to go beyond the idea and employed the explosion as the sf equivalent of ‘I woke up and it was all a dream,’ perhaps in order to avoid any sense of consequence […] The result was a sense of wonder combined with presentism” (3).

No responses yet Tags: genre,Orals,Personal Statement

Oct 29 2009

Science Fiction: The Last Piece of My Orals Puzzle?

My brain has been racing with orals/PhD application ideas and something just occured to me tonight: why in the world am I not looking at critical theory on science fiction as a genre? This is a huge oversight on my part. I mean, if I’m planning on looking at all of these example of speculative science in early American literature how could I not look at theory about science fiction as a genre? Plus, I think the sci-fi angle could also be an interesting way to begin my personal statement. It’ll help me contextualize my interests in these wacky, semi-obscure literary texts via a more approachable known, body of scholarship.

The impression I’ve got thus far of sci-fi theory is that it’s really messy. It’s difficult to really define what sci-fi literature is, but it’s definitely not just Star Trek and the Matrix triology. Criticism seems to be concerned with the history of this term “science fiction” and what it means for a text to exhibit sci-fi qualities before the actual genre, as a term, exists. Call it proto-sci-fi fiction, if you will. And if texts exibit moments of science, is this enough for them to be considered science fiction? Must a book take place in a sterile futuristic world where babies are concieved via external uteri and big brother is always watching in order to be considered sci-fi? What if the books takes place in an early American New Jersey, like Sheppard Lee, with no time traveling devices and no Marxist undertones? Can this work be considered science fiction? Is it sci-fi because it uses science to enter political questions about race and class? Hmm, I don’t know. I don’t know.

No responses yet Tags: Orals,Personal Statement

Oct 27 2009

Nature’s Economy Part II: Thoreau as Ecologist

As an “active field ecologist and a philosopher of nature,” much of Henry David Thoreau’s ideas, David Worster asserts, have anticipated modern day ecology (58). This would explain why Worster devotes three full chapters to the Romanticist in his history of ecology.

Thoreau as field ecologist: excavating America’s ecological past

Thoreau meticulously documents the change of seasons in 1852. A self-described “inspector of snowstorms” during the winter of that year, Thoreau documents the coming spring in a “journal of no very wide circulation” (ie: his own private journal) (Worster 59). Thoreau assembles his  very own naturalist library of local flora and fauna and even makes trips into Boston to visit the rooms of the Natural History Society (Worster 59). “The Thoreau of this decade of ramblings, the 1850s,” Worster notes, ” is not nearly so well known today as the man who lived from 1845 to 1847 in a house built at Walden Pond” (61). Hmm, peculiar isn’t it? Questions: Brown’s stint as a translator of a french naturalist text is overlooked, Thoreau’s work as a field ecologist is all but forgotten. Why is this? Is this because of a tradition in the humanities that has cringed from anything related to sciences? Do we not want to think that Brown could have been a naturalist because then we would have to, God forbid, read his scientific writing? Do we choose to forget the scientific productions of these literary figures and philosophers, because it’s, let’s face it, less sexy? In overlooking these works, do we do a disservice to our research? Well, I certainly think so.

Worster makes note of Thoreau’s years after writing Walden. Once again, this sounds similar to the lack of scholarly interest in Brown’s translation:

Unfortunately, no book like Walden emerged from that last decade or so of his short life, and so that continuing and deepening intimacy [with nature] has been widely ignored. But his journal of some two million words should be sufficient proof that  Thoreau himself took these years seriously. It was the time, one might say, of the maturation not only of his science but also of his personal ecological philosophy. Therefore, in interpreting this philosophy here, the principal source of evidence will be the often neglected entries in his journal from the early 1850s until the spring of 1861, when, fatally ill with tuberculosis, he gave up writing altogether. It is not too much to claim that the attitudes toward nature conveyed by Thoreau in these volumes may be his most important legacy to another age. This body of work is also perhaps the best single expression we have of the shift to Romantic ecological thought in England and America (Worster 61).

In Thoreau’s Fact Book, a collection of notes from his reading, he copies long passages from Charles Linneaus, the noted eighteenth-century naturalist. In his journal of 1852, he even includes the following note-to-self: “Read Linneaus at once” (Worster 63). While this doesn’t seem related to my studies, I will sum up the crux of Worster’s argument in two sentences. Worster asserts that  Thoreau saw in nature an overabundance and tendency to wastefulness in contrast to Linneaus’s view of nature as a “careful and tidy economist” (65). Thoreau noted that the mildewing of acorns before they could be eaten exposed, ” a glaring imperfection in Nature, that the labor of the oaks for the year should be lost to this extent” (Worster 65).

Thoreau as ecological historian

Much of Thoreau’s ecological work, Worster argues, stems from his desire to reconstruct America’s not-so-distant ecological past.

No responses yet Tags: Ecocriticism,Orals

Oct 21 2009

Nature’s Economy, Donald Worster: Excavating Our Ecological Past

I figure it makes sense to begin my orals reading with what I know least about, which would be the entire field of ecocriticsm.  Shameful, I know. And so orals reading begins. I give you selections from Donald Worster’s important book, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas.

Importance of language and metaphor in ecological science (and, by extension, science as a whole):

The omnipresence of metaphors in the ecological enterprise, and the extent to which they have shaped research, surprised me and made me realize how intimate is the relation between science and other creative, imaginative, human activities. Metaphors are in essence nonrational ways of perceving and communicating: They spring out of the soul of a society (or out of its machinery) by some mysterious, irrepressible process and find their way into every corner of its life. Science, for all its devotion to reason and culture-free thinking, has not been sealed tight against them. the very title of this book was selected to make that point (Worster viii).

I really like this quote from Worster’s preface. I think he’s getting at a really crucial point here–that science is inextricably tied to language and metaphor. Science relies on language to develop a set of terms to “describe” the known world. For example, “sperm” and “egg” may be objective scientific categories, but the set of metaphors that are used to describe their interaction are often gendered (ie: sperm is active penetrator; egg is passive receiver). As I look through primary nineteenth-century scientific works, I will be paying close attention to the particular kinds of metaphors that are used to explain or describe so-called objective science. I’ve already seen how Schwann utilizes architectural/spatial metaphors to describe the cell, and I’ll be curious to see what kinds of metaphors are used in the atmospheric sciences.

Question: If science requires metaphor and language to operate, could scientific works be treated as literature, and by this, I mean can scientific texts, on the level of language, be deconstructed just as we do to works of literature? Can we, as literary and cultural critics, legitimately lay claim to a sphere that has long been forigen humanities?

Cannot scientists go about their work of explaining in a value-free way? Of course, on one level they can and do. Some have called this the pursuit of ‘normal science,’ where the researcher is merely filling in details, doing limited experiments, paying little heed to larger conceptual problems or to the role of science in society. That dimension of ecology is worth noting and writing about too. But finally, it seems ot me, one must see that, in its narrowness of focus, the history of normal science involves a serious distortion. It disregards the fact that science is always, in some measure, involved in matters of value and moral perception. We cannot escape such matters by ignoring them or by retreating to the ecology textbook or the laboratory (Worster xii).

Notice Worster’s reference to normal science. This is a key term Kuhn uses in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I will be reading more of this for my orals examination, but from the little I had skimmed for my prospectus I have a pretty good idea of what normal science is. Normal science basically exists during moments of scientific stability. Normal science encompasses the wide array of research that supports a given paradigm. Over time, normal science eventually gives way to paradigm shifts, when enough experiments begin to refute a given theoretical framework. Here, Worster refers to these more stable scientific periods, when scientific experiments work with (and not against) the existing paradigm. In these moments, eras, time periods, whatever, “new” sets of vocabularies aren’t really necessary and these experiments could be viewed as more benign–they simply reaffirm that which has been articulated. And, yet, Worster notes how even “the history of normal science involves a serious distortion” because “science, is always,  in some measure, involved in matters of value and moral perception” (Worster xii). I think Worster is absolutely right here. Science, whether “normal” or “revolutionary,” is always loaded with values and is never entirely objective. If it were objective, it wouldn’t relie on metaphor and language to explain the “value-free” world.

Worster’s aim in writing Nature’s Economy is to chart the history of ecology:

  • Worster calls “our time” (the later half of the twentieth century) the “Age of Ecology” because of the proliferation of talk about ecology and man’s relation to nature in recent years. Worster’s objective of his book is not to explain why ecology has become such an important topic in the last half of the twentieth century. Instead, he says, “the aim of this book, however, is not so much an account for the appeal of ecology to our own time as to understand what this field of study has been prior to its recent ascent to oracular power (Worster xiii).
  • “There are compelling reasons for seeking such a historical perspective. Like a stranger who has just blown into town, ecology seems a presence without a past” (Worster xiii).
  • “Before committing ourselves too firmly to its tutelage, however, we might do some digging into its [ecology’s] previous life–not in the expectation of uncovering grisly deeds, but simply that we may know our teacher better. In that inquiry we might learn more about the kind of science ecology has been, and also more about those aspects of nature which this science has revealed to us. We might see, too, what ecology has not told us about nature. How the living world has been perceived through the aid of the science of ecology is thus the main theme of this study in the history of ideas” (Worster xiv).

As part of Worster’s desire to “excavate” our ecological past, he notes:

This account will make clear that ecology, even before it had a name, had a history. The term “ecology” did not appear until 1866, and it took almost another hundred years for it to enter the vernacular. But the idea of ecology is much older than the name. Its modern history begins in the eighteenth century, when it emerged as a more comprehensive way of looking at the earth’s fabric of life: a point of view that sought to describe all of the living organisms of the earth as an interacting whole, often referred to as the “economy of nature.” This phrase gave birth to a rich set of ideas out of which emerged the science of today…” (Worster xiv).

Worster uses the term “economy of nature” to refer to the eighteenth-century view of nature that sought to describe all living organisms of the earth as an interacting whole.

Worster’s method (which sounds a lot like mine):

The reader should not expect in these chapters a traditional treatise on the history of science. By intention as well as training, I approach my theme as an intellectual historian, curious about the origins of our present ecological ideas, their contents, and their practical effects in the past. From this vantage point I have come to believe that the ideas of science are open to much the same kind of treatment as other ideas, such as theological or political thought. Like all of man’s intellectual life, scientific ideas grow out of specific cultural conditions and are validated by personal as well as social needs. They are, in short, more closely interwoven with the general fabric of thought than is commonly supposed. Thus, unlike many traditional historians of science who are convinced of the onward and upward march of “truth”[…], I have blurred the edges a great deal. In fact, my subject is not simply the growth of a narrowly defined field of science but of the larger penumbra of “ecological thought,” which is meant to include literary, economic, and philosophical conections ecology has made (Worster xv).

But, here, we disagree:

Unconventional as it may first seem, this approach works especially well with the history of ecology. While it may be more nearly true to say of mathematics or themodynamics that they take their course apart from prevailing intellectual fashions or economic forces, it would be a false assumption to make about the study of ecology. Perhaps because it is a “social” science, dealing with the interrelationships of living creatures, it has never been far removed from the messy, shifting, hurly-burly world of human values. The historian of this interaction must therefore by alert to much more than who contributed what bits of knowledge to the present state of science; he must range widely over the intellectual landscape of the past (Worster xv).

I have major problems with this passage. Throughout the preface, Worster is clearly on the defense. He claims that he is “unconventional” and will treat the sciences like any other intellectual historian interested in tracking the social forces that influence ecological science, and yet he justifies his methods here because ecology is a “social science.” Worster claims his approach would be less successful in the “hard sciences,” like the mathematics or thermodynamics. According to Worster, the “soft sciences” fill certain social needs, but the “hard sciences” exist in a culutral vacuum. But my my whole project depends on the fact that the hard sciences are, in fact, influenced by the surrounding culture pressures, and I don’t believe I’m wrong over here. Sorry Worster, but Math, Chemistry, and Physics all rely on language and metaphor to explain the “known,” and language is always influenced by the surrounding culutre. Always. I’ve said my peace.

More on paradigm shifts:

To be as manageable as possible, this book is organized episodically. I have tried to select and focus on major formative moments in the life history of modern ecology. Each of the book’s five parts is about one of those moments, a time when ecological thought underwent significant transformation. Key figures appear in each part, not as heroic revolutionaries or even as thinkers of great influence in every case, but simply as individuals who participated in those changes and best reveal their meaning to us (Worster xvi).

This is an important point that I’ll have to keep in mind as I work through my ideas. Lavoisior, Priestly, Dalton, Schwann, etc. aren’t THE revolutionaries in scientific thought. It’s not like Priestly got up one day and said let me discover Oxygen and let me change science as we know it. Scientific change is extremely gradual and it is precisely in those moments of paradigm changes that it becomes especially difficult to locate where this change actually begins. Did Priestly discover Oxygen, or was it Lavoiser? Who actually discovered the cell? And when we say cell, are we talking about plant cells or animal cells, because there’s a difference? See, what I’m talking about? It’s enough to make you crazy. So, all of these questions are incredibly important and are going to be crucial to how I will confront these primary scientific texts. I can’t possibly read all nineteenth-century scientific texts (this includes the array of pamphlets, etc.) that contributed to these paradigm shifts, but I will have to keep in mind that I’m choosing to focus on certain individuals not to locate these revolutions in any one individual and his findings.

In his book, Worster focuses on 5 paradigm shifts in the field of ecology, beginning from the 18th century and ending the in the 20th century. As Worster correctly puts it, in “overthrowing” the past paradigm shifts do not completely wipe away everything that has come before them. Instead, they build upon and modify what has preceded them, and thus the traces of the past can be found. I think I’d like to call this a vestigal past–a Darwinian term that applies to those organs that remain but have lost their function. I think applying the notion of Darwinian evolution to the evolution of scientic ideas could be useful. Would it be more frutiful to view scientific revolutions as evolutions? In any case, here’s the passage that got me thinking all of these things:

These five episodes might be characterized according to the jargon of scientific history, as “paradigm shifts,” in the course of which an older model of nature is overthrown and a new one takes its place. But it must not be concluded that such shifts wiped out all traces of the old; on the contrary, the present corpus of ecological thought is a conglomeration of all its pasts, like a man who has lived many lives and forgotten non of them (xvii).

No responses yet Tags: Ecocriticism,Orals

Oct 16 2009

Cell-Walls and Cell-Cavities: House Metaphors and Schwann’s Theory of the Cell

I’ve been perusing through major scientific texts of the nineteenth-century and am really happy with what I’ve been finding. Theodor Schwann’s seminal text on animal cells and plant cells has been a particularly rewarding text. On one level, I’m really excited to be reading this text in its original form. I know as an undergrad I was told that all organisms are made up of cells and was expected to take this as a given without reading the actual primary texts from which this information is given. I think most biology classes are like that–they assume that certain fundamentals of science have been established. Cells exist, right, so looking at the original documents that describe these observations aren’t necessary. The textbook of the moment becomes the scientific bible. Biology students rarely read original primary texts. Why read Darwin if your textbook can give you a nice distillation (which may or may not be accurate) of the original.  As a literary scholar and a former budding scientist, I can say how dangerous this all is. You start to realize that these so-called biological givens (ie: the concept of the cell) are rooted in language and metaphor. Schwann calls outer membranes that divide each cell from another”cell-walls,” the interior of these “spaces” he calls “cell-cavities.” When microscopic technologies improve so that the human eye could better “see” the underlying structures of the body, a new set of terms and language would be required to describe them. To say that this new set of concepts and terms is objective and value-free would be inaccurate. Cells don’t have walls; we give them walls. The “cells” are described in incredibly material terms, with walls and internal cavities. They sound like individual rooms or compartments. I find this language particularly interesting given that the body as a whole is often described in like terms, as an empty vessel or cavity clothed in skin. I can see these kinds of metaphors relating to the work I would eventually like to do on Sheppard Lee, an antebellum work of science fiction about body travel. And the orals work continues…

No responses yet Tags: 19th Century Sciences,Orals

Oct 09 2009

Of Reading Lists and Why We Make Them…

I began my orals journey with a very specific idea in mind. I wanted to look at the construction of the atmosphere in early American science and literature and present some grand conclusions based on my research. Based on feedback that I’ve gotten from both my advisers, I’ve come to realize that I would benefit from adopting a more open reading list. I can always do, and will always do archival research, but the orals will give me the opportunity to develop a toolkit of critical work that I will always have. And that’s important. So I’m going to resist my stubborn nature and try to expand my horizons. Given this new outlook,  I plan to read the big-guns in the field of Science and Technology Studies (Foucault, Kuhn, Fuller). I will also cover critical work on theories of the senses, which include “skin theory,” theories of vision and the eye, and sound theory. It’s exciting because I’ve just added “skin, “eye,” and “ear” as three new categories to my blog. My blog is mirroring my shifting ideas. It’s evolving with my thoughts and ideas, and not against them. But enough about blogs.

Skin Theory

Right now, I’m most excited about grounding myself in critical discussions about the skin.  The largest organ of the human body, skin, or the integument, is often imagined in terms of boundaries. It is the organ of separation, demarcation, that all important organ that divides and aggregates the internal organs from the external world. I’m interested in exploring how the skin, as membrane, as boundary, connects with my original work on theories of the atmosphere. You just can’t have an atmosphere if you don’t imaginatively conceive of a distinction between inside and outside, between an internal environment and an external world.

I’m noticing that I seem to grativate towards moments these moments of disruption, when the boundedness of the body is disturbed. Is this why Sheppard Lee, a book about body travel, has been on my mind since my time at QC? In any case, Professor Merish recommended I think about the notion of black face and how it allows for an imaginative disruption of the skin’s fixity. Bakhtin’s idea of the grotesque body with engorged body parts that extend into the external environment and disrupt the comfortable distinction between the inside and outside could also be incredibly useful.

No responses yet Tags: Orals,Personal Statement

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