- Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England by Wolfram Schmidgen
Exquisite Mixture argues that early modern English culture prized the concept of mixture—scientific, political, epistemological, linguistic, artistic—as a source of strength, rooting this concept in the scientific and political struggles of the seventeenth century. The methodology of Schmidgen’s book embodies its own subject, as he mixes unlike ingredients, crossing boundaries of discipline and canon, joining minor and major figures in conversation, linking fields of enquiry (geography, embryology, chemistry, politics, epistemology), and engaging both the metaphorical and literal uses of the language of mixture. In the process, he raises some fundamental questions about the assumptions underlying both our concept of modernization and contemporary critical enquiry.
While the eighteenth century is generally seen as a time of consolidation of British identity and power, Schmidgen argues that a counter-narrative of mixture had established itself in the seventeenth century, so [End Page 166] that by the early eighteenth century mixture had become a distinguishing feature of Britishness. It was generally agreed that “mixed government” produced a superior political model and preserved English liberty (11) and that increased international exchange was a vital source of English prosperity (11). English language was neither French nor German but a mixture of the two, and English identity was often seen as a “trimmer” or healthy mixture of qualities.
Schmidgen traces much of this thinking to the revival of atomism in seventeenth-century science. In models of generation he sees a shift from the prevailing concept of authoritative order imposed on primal chaos through a higher agent, towards the privileging of atomistic mixture, the interaction of elements themselves producing new and superior bodies (for example, in chemical reactions). He argues that this atomistic model, working across science, philosophy, and politics, “normalized the threatening forces of multiplicity and heterogeneity, deformity and mutation, and laid the foundations for the broad recognition of mixture as a source of perfectibility in early eighteenth-century England” (22). Key to Schmidgen’s argument is the work of the influential scientist Robert Boyle, who re-envisioned chemistry not as the art of separating or purifying elements but rather of mixing them (the title phrase “exquisite mixture” comes from one of Boyle’s experiments). Boyle believed all natural phenomena can be explained by matter and motion, that is, by the interaction of atoms—a theory that privileges mixture, in a non-hierarchical model of continuous transformation (42). Schmidgen shows how this model became dominant in the political changes of the seventeenth century, tracing the process through both Catholic and Protestant writings, to argue that by the end of the century political “deformity” and the power of the “multitude” are not signs of degeneration but rather of a new political entity in which people, Commons, Lords, and monarchy unite different powers (20). Schmidgen concludes his argument with a demonstration of the importance of mixture in all elements of John Locke’s thought, linking biology, politics, and epistemology.
This exploration of the pervasiveness and power of the idea of mixture leads to some genuinely transformative questions in Schmidgen’s concluding remarks. He proposes that the oppositions used by modernization to define itself (archaic versus modern, reason versus religion, literal versus metaphorical, science versus magic, geographical and temporal distinctions) are no longer adequate. He suggests that modern and postmodern scholarship, founded on analytic distance and distinctions, should be prompted by these early modern thinkers to break down those boundaries, “accept[ing] the riskiness of open-ended contact with the objects we study and the genuine transformations that such contact can trigger” (157). [End Page 167]
In linking science and politics Schmidgen is following paths blazed by Margaret C. Jacob and others, a debt he acknowledges, but his book’s engaging crossovers between disciplines, supported by a plethora of material from both well-known and lesser-known writers, are genuinely illuminating as well as closer to the mental universe of the seventeenth century. There are, however, a...