Feb 23 2010

Spirit Rapping and Unknown Tongues

by at 12:28 pm

I am currently enrolled in Dana Luciano’s Sex and Time in 19th Century America and it’s fabulous–definitely getting my academic juices flowing.  Right now, I’m really beginning to think about my final project–a digital archival research project in which I will be creating a historical scholarly introduction to Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Very innovative pedogagy and am excited to be a part of this. We’re also keeping a research blog for this project, but because my research has sparked some ideas about Wieland I decided to blog about it here as well.

At the very opening of Blithedale, the reader (and narrator) encounters this very strange figure: the Veiled Lady who is acquanted in the mesmeric arts. She is essentially a spirit-rapper–one of those 19th century “seers,” those “table movers.” Naturally, I’m incredibley intrigued by this figure and want to find more information about the spiritualist movement, and in my search I came across this really interesting article:

Spirit Rapping and Unknown Tongues

In this example, the spirit rapper, an American, is able to speak in Swedish without knowing the language. After reading this, I wonder if Carwin could be read as a kind of spirit-rapper, or rather, a charlatan who manipulates his voice to dupe to his audience. This would tie in well with the idea that this novel is an early American scientific novel that explores 19th century science. The question of spiritualism and whether or not it could be a real science is expressed out-right in the following article:

Spirit Rapping and Science

Could Brown be including Carwin as just another example of what the possibilites of science could be? And is the revelation of Carwin’s “talents” a way of putting down this kind of psuedoscience or does Wieland allow for a more expansive view of science and the unsolved world. Should we even buy Carwin’s explanation?

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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…

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Mar 31 2009

“Science Girl” or “Technology Girl”….

by at 12:30 pm

Next semester is going to come sooner than I’d like, so I’m starting to really think about this application process. I like Science and Technology Studies as a whole, but I know that my writing sample is going to have to emphasize one over the either (ie: more science-y, or more technologically based). So, I was thinking, will I “package” myself more as “science girl” or “technology girl?” (haha, I like them both actually….sounds like a nifty super-hero name). After much thought, I’ve decided that I’m probably going to submit a writing sample that demonstrates my interests in electricity and literature, that way I can have both science and technology: the electrical phenomenon is itself scientific, but it’s applications could also bring it into the technological sphere. I’ve really started thinking about this distinction between science and technology after someone in the audience at UVA asked for me to expand on that distinction, and I think that was incredibly helpful. It’s really quite simple–electricity, as a principle, is science, and it’s application is technological– but I don’t think I was explicitly thinking about the distinction. 

So, in light of all this, I think I’m going to stick with the electrical metaphor and magnetism that we see earlier in the century, rather than focusing on the more technological metaphors of bodies and machines that we begin to see later in the century. I’d like to focus on how notions of animal magnetism provide mental maps, which allowed for a more fluid understanding of race. I touch on this in my UVA presentation: when bodies are thought to be unified by an electrical principle, then the importance of skin is diminished. I’ve always wanted to write on Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee and now I think I’ll have my chance! Bird, himself a trained physician, was clearly informed by principles of animal magnetism with all the “body jumping” that happens throughout. I’m thinking about how Sheppard Lee’s soul enters the body of the dead slave. Oh, I’m excited! I miss early American texts (Sheppard Lee is 1835, I believe), and I think I can have the opportunity to get back into this period.

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