Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 287-288
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Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics
Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics. By Laura Otis (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) 210pp. $45.00
In the introduction to Membranes,Otis recalls two crucial experiences from her student days that shaped her future interests as a scholar: observing in a neurophysiological experiment that retina cells respond only to differences in the stimuli that they receive and learning in her introductory class to literary theory that concepts are typically defined by what they are not. Identity, she concluded, is forged from differences; it is predicated on a distinction between "self" and "other."
Focusing on "membranes" as the boundaries between self and non-self, Otis locates the birth of the modern notion of identity in the nineteenth century. She argues that the formation of cell theory and of germ theory depended on a willingness to perceive boundaries and that the anxieties of imperialism provided the necessary stimulation for these changes in attitude. Once established, the idea of "membranes" shaped the language and thought of both scientists and writers.
Consciously ignoring the disciplinary identities of science and literature, Otis analyses the work of several nineteenth-century "physician-authors" (S. Weir Mitchell, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Arthur Schnitzler), as well as the work of the pathologist and cell theorist Rudolf Virchow, the bacteriologist Robert Koch and the novelist Thomas Mann. "Studying these authors' work in parallel, simply as writing, one can learn more about what identity meant during these years than one can by studying the works of bacteriologists or novelists alone (3)."
Otis' approach is intriguing. It is also full of potential pitfalls. On the positive side, she clearly demonstrates--as have others before her(such asMendelsohn)--how culture and language are resources for both writers and scientists and how ideas and metaphors from one domain can cross disciplinary boundaries and prove highly infections in another. 1 Her choice of subjects is also interesting, considerably widening thescope of previous accounts of bacteriology's rise during the age of imperialism. Focusing on an eclectic cast of characters, Otis suggests connections between the Western construction of identity as the resistance of external influences, and concerns about infection (with both tropical and venereal diseases) and an overpowering fear of the loss of [End Page 287] self andautonomy (at the hands of one's own unconscious and "animalistic" drives, as well as of colonial subjects and their unknown powers and diseases).
The problem with Otis' work is that it never goes beyond mere suggestion. Yet, at several junctures, Otis makes strong claims about causal connections. "How might politics and culture have shaped cell theory (4)?" she asks. "Cell theory developed in part because Schwann wanted to see cell membranes, a cultural as well as a scientific desire (15)." She briefly acknowledges that biological reality and technological ability also played a role in the discovery of cells, but largely ignores recent historiography of science that emphasizes the material and technological dimensions of scientific discoveries. In part, this is a consequence of her decision to treat scientific works merely as texts. In comparing the work of nineteenth-century physician-authors and looking for literary representations of cell and germ theory as manifestations of imperialistic anxieties, she tends to overlook the diachronic history of scientific, political, and philosophical notions of identity, as well as the specific cultural and historical context of each of her subjects. Little is said, for example, about the different contexts of a nineteenth-century American protestant (Mitchell), a Catholic supporter of the British empire (Doyle), an assimilated Jew in fin-de-siècle Vienna (Schnitzler), and a Protestant representative of Wilhelminian Germany (Mann). They all are treated as representatives of "imperial culture." This lack of nuance is particularly troubling in the conclusion of her book, where she advocates that, reversing the chain of influence between science and culture, modern biology should help us to overturn the...