Archive for the '19th Century Sciences' Category


Sep 03 2010

The Algebra of Revolution

by at 9:09 pm

Hello all. My first week at Duke is over and I have lots of things to think about. I’m finding myself thinking about theory right now more than literary texts, which is definitely strange for me. I hadn’t really thought about theory seriously for a while. I’m going to be doing a lot of Marx this semester and bio-political theory. This is a huge change from my heavily archival time at Georgetown. I’m also finding the pace of research in a doctoral program way different from a Master’s program. There isn’t this rush to figure out what you need to be studying. I’m not quite sure what to do with this. Of course, my reaction to this new and different space is to blog, and blog I will.

So here’s some of my observations on Georg Luckacs’s History and Class Consciousness. As an extension of my Master’s thesis, I’m really interested in how science and/or religon attempts to understand the invisible world. Dialectical Marxism has an interesting way of imagining history in terms of an invisible world occupied by the invisible forces. As Luckas puts it: “In the class struggle we witness the emergence of all the hidden forces that usually lie concealed behind the facade of economic life, at which the capitalists and their apologists gaze as though transfixed” (65). But what does it mean to expose a hidden force? How can a force be seen? Is this similar to the science of physics, which matematically reveals what forces are eventhough they cannot be detected by the human eye? Is Marx merely the mathematician of social forces? Luckas seems to think so: ”

The revolutionary nature of Hegelian dialectics had often been recognised as such before Marx, notwithstanding Hegel’s own conservative application of the method. But no had converted this knowledge into a science of revolution. It was Marx who transformed the Hegelian method into what Herzen described as the ‘algebra of revolition.” (27).

I had never thought of Marx as a kind of social scientists, in the most literal sense, but I’m starting to believe he was. His attention to these invisible forces are so obviously infused with the hard sciences that I’m surprised I hadn’t really noticed this until now.

No responses yet | Categories: 19th Century Sciences

Jan 02 2010

Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination

by at 10:35 pm

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 | Categories: 19th Century Sciences,Ecocriticism,Herman Melville,imagination

Oct 16 2009

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

by at 3:14 pm

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 | Categories: 19th Century Sciences,Orals | Tags: , , , ,