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  • Counter-Evolution: The Prosthetics of Early Modernist Form *
  • Joanne A. Wood

When in 1934 the art historian and critic Henri Focillon asked whether the work of art is “merely a simple phenomenon of cultural activity in a chapter of general history? Or is it something added to our universe—an entirely new universe, with its own laws, materials, and development, with its own physics, chemistry, and biology, with its own engendering of a separate humanity?,” all of modernism had prepared his readers to understand that as a merely rhetorical question. 1 Focillon’s notion that aesthetic forms constitute their own order of life, patterned on but separate from organic life, was merely the culmination of modernism’s project to invest form with ontological properties, to create aesthetic form as a phylum distinguishable from and with characteristics far in advance of the natural phylum.

Yet Focillon’s influential essay, The Life of Forms in Art, not only provided the culmination to high modernism’s conceptions of form, it also demonstrated how far that notion of form had departed from the concerns of early modernists. For Focillon, form is tied to change, so that what the analogy to organic life primarily produces is a way to unite formal stability with the dynamism of evolution. To make his point, Focillon celebrates the way in which forms demonstrate their plasticity by producing monsters and mutations as manifestations of their vitalism, describing form as a “protean monster” that “without once trespassing its limits or falsifying its principles . . . rouses up and unrolls its demented existence—an existence that is merely the turmoil and undulation of a single, simple form.” 2

In contrast, though the notion of form in earlier modernist writings prepared the way for a writer like Focillon, the concerns of many early modernists was instead to defeat the evolutionary processes seen to threaten the natural phylum. In order to achieve that end, they imagined and constructed form not just as analogous to the body but as compensation for it; form for these writers acts as a prosthetic that repairs and makes whole the flawed and incomplete organic body.

While Focillon and the later modernists looked upon that incompleteness primarily as an opportunity for innovation, for breaking out of [End Page 489] the teleologies that dominated all thinking about bodies before Darwin, early modernists attempted to inhabit an almost untenable position. On the one hand, the desire to create a compensatory prosthetic demonstrates a nostalgia for completeness, for a form with a telos able to stand against time and contingency; on the other hand, the very imagination and construction of such a prosthetic places the organic in a category for which the finality of a transcendent end does not apply. A prosthetic is simultaneously regressive, representing a desire to repair, and progressive, creating entirely new possibilities and ontologies. But it is precisely the doubleness of the gesture which must be negotiated in assessing the role that the early modernists have played in our cultural constructions, enabling revolutions in form that perhaps run counter to their own desires for return.

In this respect, both H. G. Wells and the mathematician Gottlob Frege become interesting counters for early modernist thought. Both are widely perceived as regressive in their thinking, with Frege condemned as an anachronistic Platonist despite being acknowledged as having provided the founding impetus for modern logic and analytic philosophy; and Wells is seen, at least in literary terms, as rather quaint: although his social treatises are forward-thinking, his literary innovations are generally disparaged as the last realist remnants of a late Victorian interest in science. Yet, by taking the bodily incompleteness that Darwin had made visible as the tendency towards adaptation and producing versions of the prosthetic body that attempted to achieve a more-than-organic wholeness, these writers enabled the revolutions in form that decisively launched twentieth-century modernism.

At the turn of the century, no British writer could have manifested a stronger desire to revise nature than H. G. Wells. In numerous works, both fictional and non-fictional, Wells draws on science to force the cultural imagination to expand beyond the organic and embrace the potential opened by the artifice of new...

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pp. 489-510
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