SWEET SCIENCE: ROMANTIC MATERIALISM AND THE NEW LOGICS OF LIFE by Amanda Jo Goldstein, Reviewed by Devin Griffiths
 


SWEET SCIENCE: ROMANTIC MATERIALISM AND THE NEW LOGICS OF LIFE
By Amanda Jo Goldstein
(Chicago, 2017) 330 + viii pp.
Reviewed by Devin Griffiths on 2020-08-08.

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EDITOR'S NOTE:

This book is jointly reviewed with Philipp Erchinger, ARTFUL EXPERIMENTS: WAYS OF KNOWING IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE AND SCIENCE (Edinburgh, 2018) 210 + x pp.

Working in distinct but complementary and convincing ways, these two studies contest a well-known borderline. Highlighting the distinction between the sciences and the arts, and more particularly between science and literature, they aim to show that this line was not simply unstable in the long nineteenth century, and not simply engaged in what Gillian Beer calls "two-way" traffic, but actively refused by a wide range of scientific and literary authors. Both books also underline the central place that studies of literature and science have lately given to ecocriticism. Just as Goldstein offers "an ecologically renovated materialism" (25) rooted in a "proto-ecological notion of contingency and interrelation" (75), Erchinger traces an "ecological view of experience" (130) through a range of Victorian poetry and fiction. Together, they convincingly argue that poets, novelists, and scientists of the long nineteenth century played key roles in generating theories of vital materialism, ecological relation, and material signification that have grown in prominence within the humanities and social sciences over the last several decades.

Initiated by a close reading of Lucretian philosophy in De Rerum Natura, Goldstein's Sweet Science shows how this ancient work influenced Romantic materialism and poetics. Identifying Lucretius's account of contingent material figuration with "the continuity between physical and poetic shapes" (6), Goldstein traces it through writings by a range of Romantic figures including William Blake and Erasmus Darwin, but with particular focus on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who get two chapters each. This dense, startling, and vibrant account enriches and extends earlier work on materialism in the period, especially Martin Priestman's account of Romanticism as the renovation of Lucretian and Epicurean philosophy in Romantic Atheism (1999), Kevis Goodman's study of the influence of Georgic materialism on Romantic poetry in Georgic Modernity (2004), and Natania Meeker's work on the materialism of the French Enlightenment in Voluptuous Philosophy (2006).

Yet Goldstein breaks new ground by unearthing the tension between this strand of Lucretian materialism and the pride of place given to vital organicism in accounts of Romantic poetry and science. As Goldstein explains, she aims to trace an important "minor position" (18) that, "against organicism's teleologically insular ideal ... cast life as dependent upon context, contact, and combination: a contingent susceptibility rather than an autonomous power" (22). Like Gavin Budge's Romantic Empiricism (2007), Sweet Science forcefully challenges the long-standing tendency to over-read the influence of German idealism and continental organicism within British Romanticism. Much Romantic poetry, Goldstein insists, was animated by a British empiricist tradition partly derived from classical sources, a tradition inimical to both idealist dualism and the teleological analysis furnished by German morphology. She pursues this argument through finely-woven close readings and across an impressive range of primary sources in English, Latin, and German. In doing so, she not only traces the lasting influence of Lucretius but also renovates the history of ideas as a powerful tool for addressing longstanding problems in critical theory and philosophy.

Though not equally convincing, all of her chapters are impressive in the depth of their attention and the freshness of the insights they draw from the Lucretian tradition. Reading William Blake in light of Erasmus Darwin, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, and Albrecht von Haller, chapter one persuasively unpacks the tricky morphological philosophy of The First Book of Urizen. As Goldstein shows, Blake's ontology of life sprang from contemporary debates over epigenesis and the source of living form, a theme that permeates his works. By defining the "epi" of epi-genesis as temporally "after" or "close upon" rather than (as is more common) spatially "over" or "upon," Goldstein stresses temporal sequence. She thus highlights the place of environmental experience and interaction in contemporary accounts of morphogenesis as well as tracing a theory of environmental engagement and contingency that includes both Darwin and Lamarck (41-42).

Chapters four and five, which examine a political theory of materialist figuration within Shelley's Triumph of Life and Masque of Anarchy, are marvelous and closely-worked. If the influence of Lucretius on Shelley is well-known, his importance to Shelley's poetics, philosophy of history, and politics has never been so intimately explored. Particularly astute on the material and political implications of prosopopoeia and allegory, two central figures in Shelley's poetics, Goldstein shows how their inherent tensions open onto the deep but contested material engagements of human subjects, natural agents, and national politics. Goldstein thus shows how Shelley's biopoetics anticipates Marx's materialist account of society and Foucault's analysis of biopolitics. Ending with a coda on Marx's own early engagement with Lucretian materialism, the latter half of the book rewardingly shows that Shelley's materialism as well as his politics is authentically proto-Marxist.

The two chapters on Goethe's studies of spontaneous generation and environmental morphogenesis are less convincing. Though rich and rewarding in calling attention to some of Goethe's lesser-known work on the life sciences, they tendentiously insist that Goethe's morphology was anti-organic. In thus reading a central theorist of German organicism and idealism from the position of British empiricism, they risk reversing the critique that Budge levied against latter-day Romantic studies. So while Goldstein's well-researched treatment of Goethe's own interest in Lucretius is valuable, she could have strengthened her argument by more directly confronting Goethe's account of organic development in his Metamorphosis of Plants (1790).

As Eckart Förster and others have shown, this book profoundly influenced the idealist philosophy of Hegel, and through him, the organicism of Marxist theory. In Metamorphosis of Plants, Goethe demonstrates that plant development is governed by the at least partly auto-telic unfolding of a higher plan or "Ur-type" that explains both the organic continuity of individual generations and the phylogenetic harmony of organic species. Goethe also made a major contribution to organic theory by analyzing the leaf as the "groundform" of all organs of the plant. Finally, he emphasized the lack of contingency shown in interactions between organism and environment. While treating elements like air and water as external stimuli that prompt the development and unfolding of the pre-determined plan, he argued that other interactions--occurring "accidentally and from without"--were incidental departures from the plan (Metamorphosis of Plants [2010] 8). For this reason, Ernst Haeckel would later conclude that Goethe had identified two "drives of organic formation": a "conservative species drive" identified by the Ur-type, and a "progressive drive to organic development" stimulated by the environment (Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte Gemeinverständliche, [1870] 65). This is not to say that Goethe's account of environmental interaction did not influence later thought about an organism's milieu, such as that of Claude Bernard. But Goldstein does not specify just what Goethe means by contrasting the contingent with the teleological and the materialist with the organic. Nevertheless, Sweet Science convincingly shows that "Romantic neo-Lucretianism poses a challenge to the ongoing presumption, common to the most diverse among present-day theoretical orientations, that 'matter' and 'the body' are what suffer, resist, or elude--rather than produce, demand, elaborate, or perpetuate--signification and the imposition of discursive, cognitive, social, and political form" (7).

In Artful Experiments, Philipp Erchinger tackles a similar set of problems regarding the ontological status of signification, the place of conscious experience in nature, and the complex interplay of literature and science. But working from a prospective rather than reflective point of view, Erchinger offers a prehistory of the pragmatic philosophies of Henry James and John Dewey as well as of the philosophical movement recalled in Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club (2001). Erchinger convincingly argues that various Victorian writers (scientific as well as literary) elaborated a "(proto-)pragmatic conception" of the relation between writing, engagement with nature, and cognition. From the beginning, Erchinger challenges the standard history of scientific objectivity in the nineteenth century: a history defined both by the professionalization and specialization of the sciences and the cultivation of an ethic of objectivity in which the scientist is removed from immediate experimental engagement and subjective judgment of nature.

Instead, Erchinger argues, there were two main currents of empiricism. The first was an objective tradition derived from a Kantian analysis of experience, as elaborated in George Levine's Dying to Know (2002) and Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison's Objectivity (2007). The second was practical and heuristic. Exemplified by the work of figures such as John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, George Henry Lewes, George Eliot, and even Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, it analyzed writing as discovery in action, revealing both literary and scientific works to be "ways of knowing ...: experimental enquiries that are conducted through the writing of texts" (13). Erchinger's argument, which unfolds over the course of eight concise chapters, is well-grounded in a thorough review of central problems in the history of modern philosophy and science. As a result, his argument directly bears not only on the status of disciplinarity and the possibilities of interdisciplinary study, but also on the structure and process of knowledge within the individual arts and sciences.

Exploring contemporary debates on the status of the scientific method, the first two chapters contrapose two concepts of science. In the first, a Kantian legacy of empiricist objectivity developed by William Whewell, science unifies experience under idealized scientific concepts; in the second, a methodological and practice-based account articulated by John Stuart Mill and Thomas Henry Huxley, science organizes practical experience. Erchinger then shows how the latter "ecology of experience" informs the writings of George Henry Lewes and George Eliot, chiefly Lewes's Seaside Studies and Problems of Life and Mind, and Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and (strikingly) The Spanish Gypsy. Like Huxley, Lewes and Eliot both continually emphasize what Erchinger calls the "continuity of the aesthetic and the intellectual" (80) but also the radical uncertainty of scientific knowledge.

To my mind, Erchinger could have sharpened his account of Eliot's writings on the physiology of memory, perception, and "tribal belonging" (127) by applying contemporary theories of racial distinction to Eliot's characterization of the Romany in The Spanish Gypsy and her treatment of Jews in Daniel Deronda. The topics of racial distinction and derivation seem particularly pressing in Erchinger's chapter on the philological studies of Max Müller and the anthropology of Edward Burnet Tylor. While Tylor, we are told, sees language "neither as an organic part of human nature nor as an embodiment of design, but as the outcome of a centuries-long career of makeshift improvisation" (160), Müller is said to advance an "idealist concept of speech" (144) in which the original linguistic roots of the Indo-European language family are structurally predetermined and subsequently elaborated into various languages by a form of "linguistic reason" (155). But how did Müller's analysis of the idealized roots at the base of his genealogical tree of languages shape racial ideologies? How did the idealist tradition forge theories of essential racial distinction, and did the pragmatic tradition have a contrasting impact? These are questions worth asking.

Reading the novels of William Morris and the poetry of Robert Browning, chapters 6 and 7 explore contrasting analyses of literary labor in terms of artful pleasure and arduous discovery. News from Nowhere, Erchinger argues, articulates Morris's argument for "work-pleasure" (174) in which decorative arts resist the industrial division of production and craft by demonstrating that "serviceableness and pleasure have never been separate, but have always emerged from one and the same exercise of skill" (169). By contrast, Browning's The Ring and the Book displeased many of his contemporaries by taking a far more arduous approach to craft. In one of his own most pleasing readings, Erchinger shows how Browning's poem asks the reader to "participate in the work of weaving together" (202), taking part in a formal strategy that "registers the experience of a world in transformation which can by definition only be grasped in an incomplete way" (212).

Turning in the final chapter to the sensation fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, Erchinger reads such fiction as a kind of early actor-network theory, a genre of "composition that connects humans with non-humans and subjects with objects" (219). The clock-calibrating scene in Collins's Armadale (1864-66), where the clockmaker is literally encased in the work he is attempting to construct, is construed as a mise en abyme for the genre as a whole, much as Audley Court, in Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862), presents "an improvised edifice that has been assembled in an incremental or piecemeal fashion, rather than in consonance with a predesigned scheme" (221). Likewise, in a short epilogue, Erchinger reads Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus as "fiction of being in the middle of a work in progress, or on the way towards a knowledge that is yet to become apparent in its true form" (265).

The exploration of practical empiricism in Artful Experiments might have been enhanced by more attention to biography and the practices of daily life. Though Erchinger reconstructs a convincing intellectual genealogy for pragmatism in the nineteenth century, I sometimes wished for more attention to the lived experience of the authors he treats. For example, while Erchinger wonders why Lewes links the travels in Seaside Studies to "affection" and "new passion" (qtd. 91), might he not have been inspired by his burgeoning relationship with Eliot, with whom he eloped on one of those journeys? And if Robert Audley speaks for his author when he complains that he would "leave England" if he could and "let the matter rest," it may be that in such passages, Braddon is not so much musing over the "search for meaning" in writing (225) as complaining of the notorious stresses of her domestic life: trying to manage both a professional career and a household of nearly a dozen children. While Barthes and Foucault may have killed off these authors fifty years ago, I kept wondering how their writerly days, and the texture of their homely and professional lives, shaped their pragmatic turn of mind. On a smaller scale, Erchinger's astute analyses of genre and narrative technique might have benefited from closer scrutiny of individual passages and lines, especially of the sounds and rhythms of the poetry. Just as more biographical detail would have enriched his account of particular authors, attention to prosody could only have enhanced his wider argument for an intimate connection between the quotidian rhythms of writing and the formulation of a nineteenth century "ecology of experience."

Nevertheless, in highlighting the literature and thought of the Romantic and Victorian periods as well in studying their contextual engagement, these two studies contribute important chapters to the relational turn of recent literary criticism and critical theory. Though Goldstein is more explicitly interested in the history of ecopoetics, both authors show how the writing of the long nineteenth century was shaped by the effort to grasp the complex interactions of the living world and to locate humanity within the natural scheme. Moreover, both books powerfully argue that writing can serve as an instrument of experience and ecological awareness, that putting words down is a way of taking the world up, and that language bridges the apparent ontological and epistemological divides between the arts and sciences, fiction and fact. At a time when the identification of the Anthropocene has focused scholarship on the pressing question of humanity's engagement with nature, these impressive and thoughtful books are not just handy, but urgently needed.

Devin Griffiths is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.


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