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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May 14 2009

Some More Thoughts On Sheppard Lee

by at 12:59 am

Adam Smith sees the biological limitations of a pure sympathetic response. To Smith, lived experiences are very much tied to the individual body, so one can never fully understand another’s experience because one individual never occupy the body of another. Mesmer’s ideas on animal magnetism, I argue, solve this problem by creating networks of bodies (hmm…”networks,” like what Laura Otis is talking about?) that can be linked via electrical impulses. Sheppard Lee similarly solves the body barrier divide that is put forth by Smith by having Sheppard Lee’s soul occupy the body of dead corpses. In this way, Sheppard Lee enacts a purely sympathetic response….and, yet, these instances of body travel still seem to problematize successful sympathetic encounters. For one, the fact that Sheppard Lee’s body is restored at the end is extremely significant. The entire narrative is written by this restored Sheppard Lee, and thus it seems as if even as Sheppard Lee inhabits the bodies of others there is still a marked seperation between Sheppard Lee and the body he inhabits. This may, again, be a result of the narrative–Sheppard Lee is writing this in hindsight, but it still prevents any true sympathetic exchange.

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Apr 21 2009

Sympathy–Elizabeth Barnes

by at 1:47 am

Since I’m writing about the science of sympathy for my Sheppard Lee paper, I’ll need to include a summation of the critics and their analyses of the sympathetic response. Because this information is so crucial for my paper, I’m going to start cataloging important passages from these theoretical works. The first one? Elizabeth Barnes’ States of Sympathy.

Barnes, Elizabeth. Preface. States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. ix-xiii.

“That is, this book stresses not Europe’s dreams about America [a la Leslie Fielder] but America’s dreams about itself” (Barnes ix).

“In attempting to retell some of the stories of the stories that American writers told about themselves and their country, I have chosen to focus on representations of American culture offered to us by the literature of the time–to emphasize, in other words, American imaginings over American history” (Barnes ix).

“Implicit in my argument is the idea that the cultural imaginary can be as powerful a political tool as material facts and events. Rather than treat specific historical or political incidents, I investigate the ways in which sociopolitical discourses intersect with popular literary themes to construct a compelling and coherent image of America. In doing so I have found that what most preoccupied American authors was imagination itself. Sympathetic identification–the act of imagining oneself in another’s position–signified a narrative model whereby readers could ostensibly be taught an understanding of the interdependence between their own and others’ identities. In a time when American national as well as individual identity was in question, it is not surprising that Amerrican literature brought such issues as identification, unification, diversity, and autonomy to the fore” (Barnes ix).

“One of the distinctions American authors emphasized, and one of the tools with which they attempted to forge their new identity, was, ironically enough, sympathy. Sympahty was to be the building block of a democratic nation, and democracy, so the story goes, was a defining element of the United States. Sympathetic identification–of the foremost elements of sentimental literature–works to demonstrate, even to enact , a correspondence or unity between subjects. In American literature sympatethetic identification relies particularly on familial models. Readers are taught to identify with characters in such a way that they come to think of others–even fictional “others”–as somehow related to themselves. At the same time, the family analogy generates a myriad of problems for an emerging national audience. For example, the long-standing metaphor of England as America’s “parent country” raises questions as to how America can both glorify family and reject the ‘parent’ that has so profoundly infleunced its culture. For how does a nation repudiate that which has brought it into being without repudiating an essential part of itself?”  (Barnes x).

“In this book I argue that American culture’s preoccupation with familial feeling as the foundation for sympathy, and sympathy as the basis of a democratic republic, ultimately confounds the difference between familial and social bonds. This accounts in part for why so many American stories center on the distinction between licit and illicit love and why incest and seduction become recurrent themes” (Barnes xi).


Barnes understands American sympathy in terms of a familial metaphor. While Barnes’ observation is an astute one, I would like to look at how sympathy is also tied to an electrical metaphor. Sympathy as science, or electrical magnetism, creates new possibilites for nation building, in which the skin barrier that seperates gender and race could be bypassed–something the familial metaphor could never do. In fact, the familial metaphor could potentially reinscribe racial difference by including only pure Anglo-American lineage under its scope.

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Apr 15 2009

Some Library of Congress Snooping…

by at 2:43 pm

So, I did a search on Sheppard Lee in the LoC database and, naturally, they’ve got the first publication. My Sheppard Lee search led me on a search of Robert M. Bird, and the LoC also has something called “The Difficulties of Medical Science (1841)” by Robert Montgomery Bird. I’m not sure if it’s an essay or an entire book, but this could be very useful, considering that I want to illustrate how Bird is playing with nineteenth-century science and race his Sheppard Lee. This “Difficulties of Medical Science” seems to be exactly what I need–I clearly haven’t read it yet, but I’m assuming Bird explicitly outlines his stance on nineteenth-century science. Wonderful! I can’t wait for the summer when I’ll actually have time to develop this. Also, I found an image of “Robert M. Bird.” It’s not dated, but I’m wondering if this is, in fact, the Robert Montgomery Bird! I’ll have to check this out as well.

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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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