Archive for the 'Orals' Category


Oct 30 2009

Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Introduction

by at 9:27 pm

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 | Categories: genre,Orals,Personal Statement

Oct 29 2009

Science Fiction: The Last Piece of My Orals Puzzle?

by at 2:43 am

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 | Categories: Orals,Personal Statement

Oct 27 2009

Nature’s Economy Part II: Thoreau as Ecologist

by at 11:41 pm

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 | Categories: Ecocriticism,Orals | Tags: , , , ,

Oct 21 2009

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

by at 1:36 am

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 | Categories: Ecocriticism,Orals | Tags: , , , ,

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: , , , ,

Oct 09 2009

Of Reading Lists and Why We Make Them…

by at 5:14 pm

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 | Categories: Orals,Personal Statement

Sep 21 2009

The Much Anticipated Cecelia Tichi Article…

by at 11:31 pm

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Cecelia Tichi could have stolen my orals/thesis thunder. Tichi got to Volney and Brown before I did, but have no fear, she is a great writer and thinker and this actually helps. A lot.  So, drumroll please, I give you  important snippets from Tichi’s article that will inform my orals/thesis:

Notice the  first sentence of Tichi’s article. I knew she had it from the first line. First line!

In his lifetime Charles Brockden Brown translated one work only: C.F. de Volney’s A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States. For the novelist-editor-critic and, as of 1803, political pamphleteer, the translation of Volney in 1804 seems an odd choice. Although he was America’s foremost litterateur, Brown rendered into English no romantic tale in the tradition of Chateaubriand’s Atala but “the first book to give an organized synthesis of the physiographic and geologic regions of the United States and of the climatology of the continent” (Tichi 1).

Some important things to note about the above passage:

  1. I like that Tichi calls Brown a “novelist-editor-critic.” I like the hyphenation. I wonder if “translator” or even “naturalist” would be appropriate additions?
  2.  I wasn’t able to include the footnote here, but that quotation in the last line of this paragraph is from George W. White’s “Introduction” to his 1968 facsimile of Brown’s translation. I know White’s “Introduction” well. I came across White’s facsimile long before I ever knew about Tichi’s article. I’d say it’s a good sign when you start recognizing random critics in obscure footnotes….
  3. Tichi makes an excellent point: why didn’t Brown translate into English a romantic tale or something more literary? It is kind of strange that CBB would translate this work on American geology and climatology, no?

Next passage:

The choice for translation seems doubly puzzling when we consider that a London English language edition was already available in America even as Brown labored at its American counterpart (Tichi 1).

Cecelia Tichi, I like the way you think! I’ve seen the original London English edition at the Library of Congress and remembered being puzzled myself. I was looking for the CBB translation because that’s why I was interested in the Volney addition in the first place. But the book I looked at wasn’t what I expected. I remember thinking, “Is this the CBB edition?” Nah, it just couldn’t be, because the CBB edition was clearly marked as such, with CBB as translator and annotator, and a translator’s preface, all of which were missing in the edition I looked at, which turns out to be the one Tichi is referring to. I make note of this first edition in an endnote in my writing sample. Hmmm, I should probably reference Tichi now that I’ve got more information…

And here it comes, Tichi’s argument:

But while his biographers have viewed Brown’s effort as an anomalous quasi-literary interlude between his novels and his political-historical activities, such easy dismissal of the translation may leave neglected a significant aspect of Brown’s thought. The Monthly Anthology reviewer had denounced Brown’s alterations of Volney as “wholly unpardonable,” both dishonorable and unjust. Yet a close look at the eccentricities of Brown’s translation suggests that Volney stimulated the Philadelphian both to define the American in relation to his nation and continent, and to attempt actuation of the territorial expansion which, as of his first political pamphlet, Brown evidently believed would insure national progress. Indeed, the special biases Brown reveals in his translation make it quite clear that the effort was no perfunctory exercise in a language self-taught, nor a task undertaken only at the urging of Brown’s fellows in the Friendly Club. Rather, Brown’s translation of Volney appears to be the work of a mind bent upon using the pen for specific nationalistic purposes (Tichi 2).

Tichi’s aligns Brown’s translation of Volney’s naturalistic work with Brown’s personal politics. Brown makes significant changes to Volney’s appendix; Tichi’s argument depends on these modifications. During the course of this essay, Tichi elaborates on Brown’s politics, specifically his endorsement of American expansionism (aka: the creation of an American empire). Brown’s translation, Tichi argues, is informed by such political aims.

Brown as cultural archivist; Brown’s translation as an indication of his politics:

Brown’s interest in, and encouragement of, American national self-consciousness in varied areas of life has been well documented. For example. his brief editorial tenure at the Monthly Magazine and American Review (1799-1800) had found him reviewing “more or less critically” some “one hundred and fifty American publications.” And his later journalistic ventures in editing the Literary Magazine and American Register (1803-1806) and then the American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Science (1807-1809) reveal by their contents–and even by their titles–the value Brown placed upon preserving the current record of the growing nation. Moreover, as a novelist Brown had used fiction to define the American experience […] But Brown published no fiction after 1801, and Warner Berthoff finds in the “feebleness” of his last two novels an anticipation of Brown’s “abandonment of the novel as a literary instrument” […] Certainly one of Brown’s major ideas concerned American nationalism, a term whose political ramifications are perhaps best revealed in the kinds of liberties Brown took with Volney’s text in the cast his marginal notes gave that work (Tichi 2).

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Constantin Volney,Orals,Thesis,Writing Sample

Sep 17 2009

Talking Back: Charles Brockden Brown, Jefferson, and Scientific Dissent

by at 1:10 pm

My orals have been shaping into something over the past couple of days. Nice surprise, I know, but I think I need to backtrack a little to show how I got to where I am now.

James Delbourgo cites Charles Brockden Brown’s translation of Constantin Volney’s A View of the Climate of the United States of America in A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders. I read this a ways back, but never sought to find it.  Over the summer, I went to the Library of Congress and was able to see Volney’s work. Apparently, Lauinger Special Collections has a copy as well. I have to get on that.

In any case, I thought that this translation had never really been discussed, at least in relation to Brown explicitly (Delbourgo mentions Brown, but never acknowledges that he was an early American author). Well, I was wrong. I just found an article by Cecelia Tichi, published in 1973, and called “Charles Brockden Brown, Translator.” I know what you’re thinking, Cheryl is freaking out because her great, original idea has already been taken. Hold it, not so fast. Things are fine. Great actually. I’m not only writing on Brown and his connection to Volney. I’m actually more concerned with how Brown fits into a wider early American community of thinkers, like Jefferson, who counter European generalizations about their continent. Professor Rubin informed me that Jefferson translated Volney’s Ruins. Although Jefferson does not annotate Volney’s work, Jefferson does refute Buffon’s generalization about Americans and the American continent in Notes on the State of Virginia. In these examples, Brown and Jefferson engage with European scientific dialogue by assuming a scientific form. I would like to expand this approach to include the novelistic form. I am interested in how American authors embrace and contest conclusions made about the American climate in European discourses of science. Given this framework, I plan to look at Melville’s Pierre and Israel Potter, which, although 50 years later than Brown and Jefferson, invoke the language of the atmospheric sciences.

So, Cecelia Tichi, wherever you are, thanks for your article. Really. A write-up of this article is soon to follow.

2 responses so far | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Constantin Volney,Herman Melville,Orals,Personal Statement,Thesis,Thomas Jefferson,Writing Sample | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Aug 25 2009

Bryan Waterman, “Arthur Mervyn’s Medical Repository and the Early Republic’s Knowledge Industries”

by at 9:04 am

Brown and his relationship to the medical sphere (could the same be said for Melville, at least as far as an awareness and engagement with medical science in his novels is concerned?):

The present essay’s task is, above all, to locate Brown’s authorial self-understanding as an observer, organizer, and exhibitor of such information in relation to the knowledge-producing projects undertaken by his associates who were medical professionals. To do so requires that we take seriously Brown’s statement, in the preface to Arthur Mervyn, that the novel is his “venture” into “medical and political discussions of [yellow fever]…afloat in the community” (231). This prefatory statement reminds us that Brown’s novel is only a small part of the flood of printed and spoken material that poured from early American yellow fever epidemics (Waterman 216).

Examining the Repository’s stores of “medical eloquence” opens new windows into the medical content of Brown’s fiction and reveals more fully than we have been conditioned to see the ways in which early Republican “literature” participates in broader cultures of information and knowledge production (Waterman 224).

Medical eloquence–the intersection between novelistic/poetical style and the rhetoric of medical literature in the Early American medical journal, Medical Repositories:

Emerging within a “literary” culture broadly conceived, the Repository shared with Arthur Mervyn an assumption that great nations are built on exemplary writing that explores in minute detail the unmapped terrains–cultural, geographical, geological–that confirm their distinction in novelty. Its creation of a national audience of medical readers depended, the editors believed, on a balance between imaginative form and informational content that Elihu Smith captured in a striking term “medical eloquence” (Diary 191). The concern for the poetics of medical discussion perhaps came naturally to Smith and his coeditor Samuel Latham Mitchill, both of whom composed poetry on medical and nonmedical subjects, but Smith’s diary entries frame “medical eloquence” as a deliberate strategy for creating a general, educated audience (Waterman 221).

Information of information and knowledge production:

During the New York outbreak of 1795, Elihu Smith pointed in his diary to a concern he shared with cultural critics across the American landscape–that rumors about the fever, in their constant retellings, “acquired redoubled horro” until cities found themselves in a “violent state of alarm” (57). Unmanaged information yielded the worst possible audience responses. The unregulated flow of information, good and bad, made men whose tenuous social standing depended on being better “informed” than their “inferiors” anxious for “authentic intelligence” about the disease (Nord 25-26).

Septon, Oxygen, and the materiality of air:

Published in the Repository’s first volume, Mitchill’s poem contains both the basic principles of his effort to “account for nearly all disease” and his response to the reception issues at stake for his readers (Courtney Robert Hall 31). Mitchill’s Doctrine of Septon holds that “two natural forces”–Oxygen and Septon–exist “in the universe to balance each other” (35). Oxygen, following Priestley and Lavoisier, is the principle of life; “Septon” (a name Mitchill derives, like septic, from the Greek word for putrescent) is the “principle of dissolution” (35). When the two combine, he argues, they release “pestilential fluids” into the atmosphere–the noxious vapors that so concerned climatists and sanitationists because they were believed to generate yellow fever. In order to counter the progress of pestilence, Mitchill prescribed the use of alkalis–lime and potash in particular–to neutralize Septon. For this reason, Americans whitewashed the interiors of their homes with lime, and some even ingested the stuff (Waterman 225).

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Aug 15 2009

Samuel Otter, Melville’s Anatomies, Chapter 4: “Penetrating Eyes in Pierre”

by at 11:13 am

“For many viewers in the 1850s, the American land was not the site of historical struggle between competing interests but an Eden paradoxically urging its own manipulation and destruction. By contrast, the landscape of Pierre presents a hyperbolic version of the American picturesque, in which the tropes of visual possession are pressed to revealing–and rupturing–limits” (Otter 173).

Pierre, the eye, and the American landscape:

In the opening books of Pierre, Melville focuses on the eye, examining its structures while the pupil is dilated under the stimulation of the American landscape. Continuing his cognitive inquiries, he shifts emphasis in Pierre from the faculty psychology in Moby-Dick, which imagined that the powers of the mind were embedded in the brain, to an associationist psychology, which saw the contents of consciousness as linked by principles of relation, such as similarity, contiguity, and frequency. Associationist ideas influenced nineteenth-century painters, writers, and nationalists who exalted the American scene. Turning to landscape, Melville expands his scrutiny of the links between the individual, the natural, and the national (Otter 173).

In Pierre, Melville delves behind the eyes and deep into the cavity of the chest. He further tests the epistemology of character and characteristics, first in the body of the landscape and then in the hidden landscape of the body. In the end, the narrator and author pull back from their intimate exposures. Pierre begins by gazing outward, at Saddle Meadows, and ends by staring inward, at the seared landscape of Pierre character and writer. Ultimately, Melville turns the figure of the eloquent body inside out. In the most encumbered prose of Melville’s career, his narrator reads the lines written not on Pierre’s face, skin, or head but on his own heart. In the next two chapters, I will chart these movements outward and inward and suggest how such unfolding concludes the first phase of Melville’s career (Otter 174).

Landscape Painting and the Antebellum Period:

In examining representations of the land in the antebellum period, we need to remember that the very terms of the discussion–“landscape,” “scenery,” and “picturesque”–are aesthetic constructions, particular orientations of perspective and detail that became current during the rise of landscape painting in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in America during the early nineteenth century. They are painters’ terms, separating observer from view and abstracting land from labor or occupancy. E. H. Gombrich argues that landscape painting is more a conceptual than a visual art, privileging aesthetic attitude over subject matter an requiring “some pre-existing mould into which the artist could pour his ideas.” The rise of landscape painting marks what Dieter Groh and Rolf-Peter Sieferle call “an epochal transformation” in the cultural meaning of nature: nature is made alien while the capitalistic manipulation of the world is naturalized. As the natural world was objectified and contracted, nature appreciation was discovered and manifested in landscape painting, prints, and gift books, travel literature, lyric poetry, prose sketches, and fiction (Otter 175).

In America, it is the first decades of the nineteenth century that we find such an “epochal transformation”–what the influential New York City editor and writer Nathaniel Parker Willis referred to as “a direct revolution” in American perspective. In the northeastern United States, and especially among New York academicians in the 1840s and 1850s, there was an urgent call for American viewers to turn their attention to the distinctive, defining qualities of American scenery (Otter 176).

Mind-eye connection, landscape painting:

Both British and American understandings of the picturesque drew upon associationist psychology, following Hobbes and Locke. Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight argued that aesthetic ideas resulted from the transformation of sensory data through mental associations. Writers disputed the origin and quality of these associations. Agreeing on the predominant role of abstract visual qualities in shaping aesthetic response, Price argued that associations with line and color had their source in human feelings, while Knight maintained that the associations with light and color were defined and sharpened ed by the viewer’s experience of the art of painting. In contrast to Price and Knight, the landscape gardener Humphrey Repton stressed the role of personal or historical circumstances in determining aesthetic response. These theorists were interested in visual training. In a resonant passage, Knight described the complex act of perception: “The spectator, having his mind enriched with the embellishments of the painter and poet, applies them, by the spontaneous association of ideas, to the natural objects presented to the eye, which thus acquire ideal and imaginary beauties: that is, beauties that are not felt by the organic sense of vision, but by the intellect and the imagination through the sense.” Knight sought to analyze the ways in which the eye becomes a vehicle for the mind (Otter 176).

American Landscape:

The discussion of American scenery became comparative and nationalistic. European and especially British writers asserted that American scenery lacked the historical or cultural associations of high civilization and that the picturesque scenery of the eastern United States was insufficient to stimulate thoughts of the sublime. Americans debated the character of their landscape and nation. Some, such as Walter Channing, Jared Sparks, and George Bancroft, agreed that American scenery was wanting and hoped for future development. Others, such as William Tudor, Samuel Gilman, W. H. Gardiner, and William Cullen Bryant, felt that American national associations could stimulate aesthetic response and support literary and artistic production. Often such associations had a manufactured quality, such as the “fanciful associations” put forth by the contributors to The Home Book of the Picturesque (1852). In a powerful synthesis of the two positions, some observers validated the “absence” of historical associations and celebrated the American land as a divinely inscribed tabula rasa. In the redemptive Edenic landscape was written not the burden of the past but divine assurance of the nation’s glorious future. Spared the scars of the aristocratic Old World, Americans would write their own history. In these nationalistic visions, aesthetics, religion, and politics were conflated, and the sublime promise of the United States was seen as fulfilled in the cultivated scenery of picturesque America (Otter 176, 177).

Americans and their own views on their landscape (note contrast to Volney’s more cynical view of the varying climates in the American landscape!):

In the “Essay on American Scenery,” Cole [the American landscapist) provides a feature-by-feature gazetteer for American landscape appreciatation: mountains, lakes, waterfalls, rivers, and forests (102-108). These natural sights may not evoke the range of European historical allusions, but they are unmatched in their religous and moral associations. Cole asserts the American difference is an asset. He climaxes his catalogue with a paean to America’s “skies,” which out-Europe Europe’s encompassing the entire geographical and visible spectrum:

as we have the temperature of every clime, so we have the skies–we have the blue unsearchable depths of the northern sky–we have the upheaped thunder-clouds of the Torrid Zone, fraught with gorgeousness and sublimity–we have the silver haze of England, and the golden atmosphere of Italy. And if he who has travelled  and observed the skies of other climes will spend a few months on the banks of the Hudson, he must be constrained to acknowledge that for variety and magnificence American skies are unsurpassed (108) (Otter 181).

 …And, yet, Americans are still unsure about the landscape and their future there:

In “Essay on  American scenery,” the claims seem strained and the faith too fervent, as though Cole were attempting to talk himself into a confidence that he could not see. Such ambivalence about American prospects is on display in his famous 1836 oil painting of the Connecticut River 1836 oil painting of the Connecticut River, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Mass., after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), composed at the same time as the “Essay” […] Yet as Angela Miller observes, the circle of land in the center of the painting forms not only a stage or yoke but also a question mark. The storm, like the river, might reverse its course. The clouds still cast shadows over the land. The divine writ may not be good news (Otter 182, 183).

 Antebellum Alchemy:

The “aptness” of the analogy between “the democratic element” and a “subtle acid” lies in its apparent incongruity yet functional success. Progress is linked with corrison in a narrative of “natural law.” Out of revolutionary “Death” comes new “Life” for old institutions. Pierre is steeped in language of such antebellum alchemy (Otter 196).

The American Landscape and American Spectres:

The landscape of Saddle Meadows, then, is not merely embellished with images of Pierre’s ancestors–“on thsoe hills his own fine fathers had gazed; through those woods, over these lawns, by that stream, along these tangled paths, mnay a grand-dame of his had merrily strolled when a girl” (8)–nor cloaked in the qualities of “this new Canaan” (33). It is saturated with reminders of those who were dispossessed […] These associations thicken the atmosphere of Saddle Meadows. They seep into the soil. They point to the past, not to the future” (Otter 201).  

Facial Landscape parrallels the physical landscape (IMPORTANT!):

The analogies between facial and landscape features are not accidental or occasional in these sections of Pierre. Such analogies structure the representation of character. Lightning forks upward from Pierre’s brow. Pierre sees stars and clouds in Lucy’s eyes and the seasons in her face. Lucy’s eyes contain unparalleled scenic wonders: “All the waves in Lucy’s eyes seemed waves of infinite glee to him. And as if, like veritable seas, they did indeed catch the reflected irradiations of that pellucid azure morning; in Lucy’s eyes, there seemed to shine all the blue glory of the general day, and all the sweet inscrutableness of the sky” (35). Like Cole’s American skies, Lucy’s eyes reflect the unique variety and magnificence of America. Lucy is a walking encyclopedia of landscape features–clouds, seasons, waves, seas, lakes, skies. In Melville’s picturesque twist on the sentimental effictio, or “fashioning” of a female figure, Lucy is an overstocked embodiment of individual, natural, and national characteristics. The land does not merely lie before Pierre; it rises up and embraces him in the form of an inordinate, geomorpic angel (Otter 203).

The eye, escaping pupils, and savage, animalistic love:

(My Note: I wonder if the escaping pupil is in anyway connected to Laura Otis’s work on membranes? The eye is the place where outside and inside meet–light from the outside penetrates the pupil into the retina, but what does it mean for the pupil to attempt to escape? Does this rupture the safe and comforting idea of the eye as receptacle–the body here is actively penetrating the environment, instead of the environment penetrating the eye, as nature usually works):

When Pierre observes the atmospheric effects in Lucy’s eyes, he cannot contain himself–or, to be more precise, he cannot contain their pupils: “Then would Pierre burst forth in some screaming shout of joy; and the striped tigers of his chestnut eyes leaped their lashed cages of fierce delight. Lucy shrank from his extreme love; for the extremest top of love is Fear and Wonder” (35). Here, the pleasures of perception are rendered disturbing through the insinuating amalgam of adjective and noun (“screaming shout of joy,” “fierce deligh,” “extreme love”). The love in Pierre’s eyes is given a savage shape and appetite. Melville represents the blinding fulfillment of the picturesque goal of feeling through the eyes, as Pierre’s eager pupils threaten to rupture the acqueous humor, tear through the lashes, break out of their ocular confinement, and pounce upon their victim. The extremes are taken to their extremity, as Melville maps the contours of the sublime and ambivalent peaks of love (Otter 203, 204).

Active Eye in Pierre:

As eyes look into eyes in Melville’s defamiliarizing passage, the intervening medium is filled with ridiculous creatures. In this heightened and revealing version of the “loving gaze,” the eye is not at all a receptive organ but becomes an active, violating force, and its projections are absurdly literalized. Neither particle nor wave, the “light” from the lover’s eye is composed of “strange eye-fish with wings.” The mood is broken here. The mystifications are materialized. Love’s eyes are “holy things,” Melville insists, after representing them as profane fish ponds. The eye is “Love’s own magic glass,” he proclams, and then he shatters the delicate vessel. Visual penetration is compared to the sinking of mine shafts, and visual transaction threatans to become a literal “driving through”: when eyes bore into eyes, the shaft, one assumes, must be sunk through the cornea (Otter 204, 205).

The Emersonian “transparent eyeball:”

In the first section of “Nature” (1836), Emerson, too, joins an absurd visual figure with praise of the landscape. After an exalted account of the poetic possession of the land (“There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all th eparts, that is, the poet”) and immediately following the assertion that the visual faculty is the sine qua non of human existence–“In the woods…I feel that nothing can befall me in life,–no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair”–Emerson offers his famous catachresis: “I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Yet the bizarre physicality of Emerson’s “eyeball” does not interfere with the metaphorical dynamics of the passage. The “transparent eyeball” stands as a desire for all-encompassing vision, for the removal of barriers to visual participation in the world, for the ultimate “integrity of impression made by manifold objects” (Otter 205).

 Isabel’s unreadable face :

(My Note: THIS PASSAGE IS REALLY IMPORTANT. Like Pierre and Lucy, Isabel’s face does synch with the landscape–think of the electrical storm moment when Isabel is actually described as being electrical–and yet her face remains an enigma throughout the text. In the beginning, before her identity is known, she is even described as “the face.”  Pierre’s fixation on Isabel’s unreadable face is undoubtedly due to her ambiguous beginnings–she is raised on a ship, the most transitory space possible–and yet her body appears as if it’s beginning to “become” American. Additionally, Isabel represents the foriegn and the familiar: she is both foriegn, but has Glendingning blood and resembles Pierre’s father as a young man, which may be another reason for Pierre’s fixation. She is unreadable but also very familiar. I must, MUST address this in my writing sample):

The phaeton ride ends abruptly, when Pierre and Lucy flee the hills encircling Saddle Meadows to the level safety of the plains. Fearing that “too wide a prospect” meets them on the slopes, Lucy insists they descend (38). Lucy’s anxieties are spurred by her thoughts about the mysterious face Pierre saw at the Pennie sister’s sewing circle. Remembering, she loses the inspiration of the morning and sheds some tears. This is the first of Melville’s many references to the “riddle” of Isabel’s face (37). Associated with Europe, with the lordly sins of the fathers, and with ilegitimate acts of possession and dispossession, Isabel’s features weigh on Pierre’s mind. Under their pressure, the enamel of Saddle Meadows cracks. The “discovery” of an abandoned sister cases Pierre’s patrimony in a new light (Otter 206).

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