Robert Mitchell. Experimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature.
Robert Mitchell initially frames Experimental Life in terms of an ongoing "vitalist turn" in the humanities and social sciences. While that formulation might sound surprising, by the book's end "vitalism" seems able to encompass not just literary scholars' turn to the life sciences, but a number of turns--such as turns to media studies and affect theory--that are moving toward networks and other circulatory systems. Within Romantic studies, the book joins an increasingly rich body of work that sees Romantic literature and science as linked and mutually influential. Because of the notion of organic form, Romantic theories of life have long had a special relationship with theories of literature. However, like Denise Gigante's Life: Organic Form and Romanticism (2009), Experimental Life explores a different side of vitality, conceived not as the mark of an autonomous, organic unity, but as a shifting, unbounded principle of excess for which Gigante's keyword is "monstrosity." Mitchell's insight is that this excessiveness was also a feature of experimental culture itself. As he explains in the introduction, "Three Eras of Experimental Vitalism," life's recalcitrance as a concept--its tendency to overleap its own bounds--became a provocation to new questions and new experimental protocols. Mitchell's coinage for this is "experimental vitalism," which he opposes to the "theoretical vitalism," or systematic theories of a life-force, customarily associated with the temi. "Experimental vitalism," in contrast, refers to a set of practices that the problem of "life" continually unsettles and reorients. Originally a central feature of Romantic-era discourse (Mitchell's "first era of experimental vitalism"), this experimental impulse tracks forward through Bergson and Deleuze to the book's own methodological commitment to the experimental.
Chapter one, "Romanticism, Art, and Experiments," explains that commitment by bringing a broad history of artistic innovation (from Lyrical Ballads to John Cage and Theodore Adorno) within the purview of science studies. In short, the book's premise is that the stakes of "the experimental" will be clearer, first, if we attend to the influence artists have long had on the concept's history; and second, if we make use of the full range of approaches to experiments now on offer in science studies. On the latter point, Mitchell helpfully identifies three main frameworks for understanding experiments: epistemological approaches, which see experiments as producing true accounts of the world (e.g., Thomas Kuhn's account of scientific paradigms); sociological approaches, which focus on the sociopolitical context of knowledge production (e.g., Steven Schapin and Simon Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air Pump); and "ontogenetic" approaches (most frequently associated with Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), which focus on the new entities, assemblages, or "parliaments of things" experiments bring into being. Mitchell affiliates the book with that third mode of analysis: its provocative conclusion about Lyrical Ballads, for example, is that those famous poetic experiments do not seek truths about human nature after all, but rather play with scientific protocols to see what emerges, whether a novel poetic effect or "a new kind of social collective" (28).
The next two chapters turn more directly to theories of life. Chapter two, "Suspended Animation and the Poetics of Trance," links John Hunter's research on suspended animation to moments in Keats and Shelley's poetry--Keatsian "slow time," or the torpid vitality of "Mont Blanc"--which suspend the higher mental functions and strive for a poetics of minimal or agentless sensation. "Life" and "sensation" may not be identical concepts, but part of the appeal of Mitchell's readings is the way that they bring together those two strands of an ongoing discussion of agentless or subjectless Romanticism. Chapter three, "Life, Orientation, and Abandoned Experiments," introduces into science studies the concept of the "abandoned experiment": a subset of experiments that do not produce knowledge about life, but serve as crisis points that catalyze a broader reorientation of the experimentalist's own life. In other words, abandoning an experiment yields little in epistemological terms, but can sometimes have important results from an "ontogenetic" standpoint. This is one of the book's busiest chapters, and some of its most interesting insights come during a more traditionally sociological reading of two Coleridgean collaborations--Lyrical Ballads and the Theory of Life--which Mitchell reads in terms of a historical shift from patronage-based science to institutionally-based science. If Wordsworth and Coleridge really intended Lyrical Ballads to be "considered as experiments" (and Mitchell argues that they did), it would not have been clear to them what "dynamics of prestige, rivalry, and attribution" their collaboration would entail (85). The Theory of Life is marked by similar vagaries around Coleridge's collaboration with James Gillman, and tracks his transition from theorizing life to the later, more praxis-oriented works Mitchell terms "life-manuals": lay sermons which ostensibly delivered information about life, but actually "provid[ed] readers with protocols for disorienting themselves, for changing their lives" (99).
Chapter four, "Nausea, Digestion, and the Collapsurgence of System," begins the book's turn more explicitly toward systems and networks. Noting a Romantic-era tendency to associate paranoia with the physical sensation of nausea, Mitchell argues that such digestive unease marks what he terms "collapsurgence": essentially the vertigo that results from the revelation of a large-scale conspiracy, as in a gothic novel, or in similarly paranoid relationship to global and imperial systems. Mitchell's paradigmatic case is the production and circulation of food, where nausea doubles as a feature of bad digestion and a register of imperial anxiety. The case studies show how Thomas Trotter's View of the Nervous Temperament, William Godwin's Caleb Williams, and Coleridge's "Lectures on the Slave Trade" all induce nausea to create a visceral awareness of the larger systems in which their audiences are embedded. Chapter five, "The Media of Life," moves on to writers who sought to systematize that sense of entanglement in terms of speciation or species-being (which, by glossing as "mediation," Mitchell also brings to bear on the burgeoning field of Romantic media studies). The chapter offers Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Richard Saumarez, and G. W. F. Hegel as key proponents of an "official" Romantic-era story where "mediation" means progressive organization and perfection. The chapter's heroes, in contrast, are writers more comfortable with unsystematic variation: Schelling as theorist of "ecstatic self-differentiation"; Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Lamarck's contemporary) and his attempts to produce new monstrous variations rather than categorize existing variations; and Frankenstein, presented as a novel less interested in theorizing life than in producing variations and extensions of the human form. Chapter six, "Cryptogamia," turns to Romantic botany, where those themes of species and hybridity were more at home. Like Theresa Kelley's Clandestine Marriage (2012), this chapter takes the Linnaeun term "cryptogamia," a designation for plants with unidentifiable reproductive methods, as a thorny category that upends the very project of classification. For Mitchell, Romantic botany in general was therefore marked by a destabilized boundary between species and produced novel human-plant relationships he terms "mutual atmospheres" (201). "Mutuality" here does not imply harmony or sustainability: in fact, the chapter is critical of traditional ecocriticism, which Mitchell frames as overly invested in traditional notions of the human and in humanity's endurance. In contrast, many Romantic plant poems evince "a sort of interspecies desire" that foregrounds human mutability and opens up a posthuman horizon (2112).
Mitchell's conclusion, "Biopolitics and Experimental Vitalism," continues and enlarges chapter six's debate between humanism and anti- or post-humanism. For example, it defends Roberto Esposito's "affirmative biopolitics" by reframing it (against Cary Wolfe's objections) not as a protection of existing life but as an openness to "the emergence of new forms of life" (222). It also acknowledges Melinda Cooper's major objection to such "neo-vitalisms" as Esposito's (or indeed Mitchell's own): namely that their affirmation of ceaseless change and their orientation toward futurity mirror the capitalist logic of innovation and endless growth. Mitchell primarily lets that objection stand as one of his project's liabilities, and it occasions a "de-synonymizing [of] 'experiment' and 'innovation'" that is one of Experimental Life's real highlights (227). Closing with a gesture toward political economy also offers a reminder of the book's ambitious range, which continues expanding until its final pages. For some, this range may be a source of frustration: each chapter contains a number of moving parts, and occasionally this means the argument has to keep moving when readers may want to linger. The cumulative result, though, is a tremendously generative book that offers connections between areas as different as the sociology of science, evolutionary theory, the political gothic, abolition, and media studies, to name just a few. One way to put this might be that the book is experimental in Mitchell's own "ontogenetic" sense of the term: its strength is in the way it reels in a wide range of materials for the purpose of recombination, to see what new "epistemic things" come about as a result (21). In addition to its compelling history of experimentation in art and science, Experimental Life also marks many before unapprehended relations among different sectors of Romantic studies, and will no doubt generate a good deal of further experiments with Romantic literature and science--which, as Mitchell proposes, is what marks any experiment's real success.
University of Waterloo, Canada
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
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