Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life.
While the subtitle of Amanda Jo Goldstein's Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life emphasizes the "new" concepts of life that emerge in Romantic literature and science, an important part of the book's argument is that these "new logics" owe much to Romantic writers' repurposing of the past. Specifically, the book argues that William Blake, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Percy Shelley return to Lucretius, and the atomistic materialism of De Rerum Natura, as a consciously anachronistic tactic to disrupt and unsettle the scientific discourses of the day. Goldstein's own turn to Lucretius might be framed in a similar way. She argues that shifting Romanticism's focus from Spinoza to Lucretius can unseat dominant critical terms like pantheism, vitalism, and organicism, and instead highlight atomistic, contingent, fragile accounts of living form. In that respect, Sweet Science joins Robert Mitchell's Experimental Life (2015) as a challenge to organicism as the dominant Romantic paradigm for life. Yet, where Mitchell's book made "experimental vitalism" a broad term for many different, rival formulations of life, Goldstein tells a more connected, linear story about Romantic Lucretianism. The cohesiveness of the book is helped by its streamlined focus on three authors, who--partly because of their canonical status, but also partly in spite of it--become our guides to a neglected countertradition.
The book emphasizes that it is reading against the grain by opening with a surprising moment from Blake's writings: an out-of-character moment from The Four Zoas, where he advocates for science rather than aligning it with the "Tree of Death." As Goldstein notes in the introduction, when Blake imagines a more salubrious age of "sweet science," he is closely adapting a passage from De Rerum Natura. As a result, he makes Lucretian materialism the template for a poetical science, one that need not be conceived as art's antagonist. As Goldstein frames it, Lucretian atomism, far from simply being a vulgar materialism or naive empiricism, pictured matter itself as being figural in nature. Since Lucretius sees the material world as defined, at base, by formal processes like assemblage, shaping, and figuration, Goldstein argues, Lucretian materialism places inert matter, living systems, ideologies, and poems on equal footing.
The analogy between poems and living systems is a hallmark of organicist theory, too. Differentiating the two approaches is the project of chapter one, "Blake's Mundane Egg: Epigenesis and Milieux." Unlike the Kantian or Coleridgean privileging of autonomous, self-regulating organisms, Lucretius emphasizes the "acute circumstantial dependency" of living systems (40). In the eighteenth century, Goldstein argues, an early version of that argument plays out in the context of the preformation/epigenesis debates. Blake's relation to that debate in embryology has been well established, though his intellectual affiliations are characteristically hard to pin down. Ultimately, Goldstein suggests, epigenesist ideas offer Blake an opportunity to make intellectual "mischief," and his works are contrarian experiments that prod at ongoing tensions--not just about whether an embryo is "preformed" or undergoes structural changes during gestation; but whether such structural changes derive from inner, organic processes, or from the external and contingent play of environmental forces (50).
The book then offers two chapters apiece on Goethe and Shelley. Chapter two, "Equivocal Life: Goethe's Journals on Morphology," widens the book's argument beyond British Romanticism. In German studies "around 1800," too, organicism was not as monolithic or inevitable a logic as it has sometimes seemed. Drawing on the recent wealth of work on Romantic-era botany by Theresa Kelley and others, Goldstein argues that Goethe was interested in moving beyond botany's focus on "generation" and the formative drive; and instead sought a broader taxonomy of non-generative acts, from pollination (glossed here as "going to dust") to processes associated with death and decay (93). The chapter presents a clear case study of botany beyond organicism. Moreover, by glossing pollination and other "goings-to-dust" in terms of communication and mediation, it adds to the growing body of work that connects theories of life to Romantic media theory.
Chapter three, "Tender Semiosis: Reading Goethe with Lucretius and Paul de Man," turns to an intriguing missed opportunity in deconstructive criticism. The occasion for the chapter is de Man's passing reference to Goethe's poem "Dauer im Wechsel," which, Goldstein argues, de Man mistakenly interprets as a claim for permanence and transcendence in nature. Goldstein dutifully shows the poem's actual investment in Lucretian contingency, but the point is not just that de Man was wrong about this poem: for Goldstein, he is wrong about Romanticism, insofar as he continually reads it in terms of an insurmountable divide between language and world. The alternative Goldstein proposes is the "atomist indexical sign" (114), which renders objects themselves a part of the process of signification. While this may be the most abstruse part of the book (especially in its distinguishing of the "indexical sign" from naive empiricism), it will be worthwhile for readers interested in Romantic empiricism and its theories of signification.
Chapter four, "Growing Old Together: Lucretian Materialism in Shelley's The Triumph of Life," is probably the strongest chapter in the book, partly because it builds on a longer-standing and more familiar connection between Shelley and Lucretius, and partly because Goldstein is able to offer a compelling answer to a frequently asked question: how, if at all, is The Triumph of Life about the life sciences? Goldstein rescues the poem for the history of science by reading it, like Blake's visions, as a poetic argument against "the vitalist celebration of new, powerful, and self-organizing life" (148); and, like Goethe's morphological writings, as shifting the focus from the formative life-force to the de-forming processes of senescence, decay, and decomposition. Shelley, too, turns toward a more scattered, atomistic picture of life as contingent existence within a shifting environment of material, physiological, and historical forces.
Chapter five, "A Natural History of Violence: Allegory and Atomism in Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy," carries that argument forward, moving from Shelley's theorization of life itself as a contingent play of material forces to that theory's explicitly political implication: that any material, historical situation is volatile and open to revolutionary change. Goldstein acknowledges right away that this chapter might be a hard sell, since The Mask of Anarchy is a poem with less obvious connections to the life sciences. And to be sure, if you are a historian of science hoping for more work on, say, the Shelleys and William Lawrence, then you might find this chapter to be the book's weakest link. Goldstein's insight, though, is that however tenuous or risky that link seems, it was a connection Shelley made and a risk he took. Shelley's Lucretian account of life was scientifically rooted, but was impossible for him to sequester the resulting, materialist conception of life to the domain of the life sciences alone. Lucretianism also provided the template for his historical materialism. As a result, if this is the lightest chapter in terms of the history of science, properly speaking, it is the chapter that most thoroughly explains how scientific materialism becomes a materialist politics. By its end, Goldstein has shown that Shelley, anticipating Marx, erases any firm distinction between history and natural history.
Goldstein expands upon that claim in the book's coda, "Old Materialism, or Romantic Marx," which polemically accuses the current critical moment's "new materialisms" of a certain forgetfulness. The announced project of some brands of new materialism (for example, in the introduction to Diana Coole and Samantha Frost's important 2010 collection New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics) has been to move away from Marxist historical materialism to the actual materiality of the underlying object world. Goldstein's retort is that a better object-oriented materialism can already be found in early Marx, another thinker for whom Lucretius offered a model of historical contingency. If the book as a whole stops short of challenging the "new materialist'" project altogether, it asks us to situate such projects within a longer history.
It might do much the same for studies of Romantic science, since it frames Romanticism's own "new" materialisms as inheritors of an older, indeed ancient materialism that might productively challenge the spirit of the age. One result is that, while the book holds obvious attractions for students of Romantic literature and science (whether in the British or German contexts), it would also be useful for anyone working on Romantic antiquarianism and its radical uses. The portions on Blake, for example, can be seen as bridging Blake's knowledge of contemporary science with his engagement of antiquarian poetics; the chapters on Shelley suggest ways to bridge the sciences of mind and brain with "Cockney classicism." Above all, Sweet Science is a distinctively literary contribution to the history of the disciplines--both because of Goldstein's own prose style (rich, dense, and stylized, but without sacrificing clarity), and because the book joins a field increasingly attentive to how specific dialogues between literature and science relate to broader lines of social and political thought. That makes it an exciting time to be working in this field, and Goldstein has given us a lot to work with.
University of Waterloo, Canada
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2018|
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