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Experimental Life

Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature

Robert Mitchell

Publication Year: 2013

If the objective of the Romantic movement was nothing less than to redefine the meaning of life itself, what role did experiments play in this movement? While earlier scholarship has established both the importance of science generally and vitalism specifically, with regard to Romanticism no study has investigated what it meant for artists to experiment and how those experiments related to their interest in the concept of life. Experimental Life draws on approaches and ideas from contemporary science studies, proposing the concept of experimental vitalism to show both how Romantic authors appropriated the concept of experimentation from the sciences and the impact of their appropriation for post-Romantic concepts of literature and art. Robert Mitchell navigates complex conceptual arenas such as network theory, gift exchange, paranoia, and biomedia and introduces new concepts, such as cryptogamia, chylopoietic discourse, trance-plantation, and the poetics of suspension. As a result, Experimental Life is a wide-ranging summation and extension of the current state of literary studies, the history of science, cultural critique, and theory.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This book is the result of the intersection of two lines of research I initially thought of as quite separate. It had its origins in research that I conducted for Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era (2007). That book focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of sympathy, a term that then referred not only to moral relationships among individuals ...

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Introduction: Three Eras of Experimental Vitalism

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pp. 1-13

A vitalist turn seems to be under way in contemporary natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. While biologists have, for much of the twentieth century, generally understood vitalism as an outdated and invalidated nineteenth-century approach to living beings—an atavism from the irrational prehistory of biology proper, ...

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1. Romanticism, Art, and Experiments

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pp. 14-42

Can art really ever engage in experiments? Consider the following two quite different—even contradictory—assertions about the relationship between experiments and art. In “The Aporias of the Avant-Garde,” media theorist Hans Magnus Enzensberger contended that insofar as the term “experiment” “designates a scientific procedure ...

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2. Suspended Animation and the Poetics of Trance

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pp. 43-73

Among the more enduring legacies of Romantic-era literary criticism is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s suggestion that literary works demand from readers a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Coleridge employed this phrase in his famous discussion of the reception of poetry, recalling in Biographia Literaria (1817) ...

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3. Life, Orientation, and Abandoned Experiments

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pp. 74-103

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is, perhaps above all else, an analysis of the linked problems of orientation and disorientation, of finding one’s path and losing one’s way. As the first epigraph reminds us, the novel begins with a representation of certainty and clear orientation: the narrator of the book, would-be polar explorer Robert Walton, ...

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4. Nausea, Digestion, and the Collapsurgence of System

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pp. 104-143

Or it does so, at any rate, for the paranoiac. According to medical accounts that range from early-nineteenth-century physiology to contemporary clinical diagnostics, paranoia is associated with feelings of disgust and nausea. As literary critic David Trotter notes, disgust and nausea are understood to play a functional role in the production of paranoid fantasies: ...

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5. The Media of Life

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pp. 144-189

Romantic-era poetry and prose is, in many ways, literature devoted to what Martin Heidegger was later to call thrownness; that is, literature that assumes that human existence only begins when one finds oneself already cast, both mysteriously and irremediably, in the middle of things. ...

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6. Cryptogamia

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pp. 190-217

For better or for worse, Romanticism has come to be associated with the love of plants. Nor need one look hard for examples to justify such an association: William Wordsworth’s claim that his heart “dances with the daffodils”; the German romantic fascination with the unattainable “blue flower”; J. W. Goethe’s researches into the metamorphoses of plants; ...

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Conclusion: Biopolitics and Experimental Vitalism

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pp. 218-230

Though the focus of this book has been on Romantic-era experiments in art and science, both my introduction and my various references to the work of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, and other contemporary theorists emphasize that it is also an attempt to address, and intervene in, our own contemporary vital turn. ...


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pp. 231-270


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pp. 271-294


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pp. 295-309

E-ISBN-13: 9781421410890
E-ISBN-10: 1421410893
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421410883
Print-ISBN-10: 1421410885

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 861692127
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Experimental Life

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Subject Headings

  • Romanticism -- England.
  • Vitalism in literature.
  • Literature and science -- England -- History -- 19th century.
  • English literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism
  • Life in literature.
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