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  • The Form of Becoming: Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm 1760–1830 by Janina Wellmann
  • Jocelyn Holland
Janina Wellmann. The Form of Becoming: Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm 1760–1830. Translated by Kate Sturge. New York: Zone, 2017. 424 pp.

There is much to learn from Janina Wellmann's book, which is a translation of Die Form des Werdens: eine Kulturgeschichte der Embryologie 1760–1830 (2010). The "cultural history" in question does not just have to do with early embryological theory, but rather—and even more so—with a word absent from the original German title: rhythm. The idea of rhythm is central to the entire project and, in particular, informs the readings of the first six chapters, with their focus on literature (including Klopstock, Hölderlin, Moritz, Novalis, and A. W. Schlegel), late eighteenth-century music theory, Schelling's Naturphilosophie and Philosophie der Kunst, and various aspects of "biological rhythm" (Wolff, Goethe, Reil). As Wellmann points out in her introduction, we lack a history of the concept of rhythm and, with the exception of more etymologically grounded studies, "there has been practically no research on the cultural and scientific history of rhythm before 1900" (19). Rhythm's connection to embryology lies, as Wellmann understands it, in the problem of "developmental thinking" around 1800: how to conceptualize the "form of becoming" in living nature and the activities of human culture. More concretely, it could be formulated as the question of how an organism could "continually change, yet still be ordered": "How could the parts combine into a highly complex formation when they themselves were all changing as incessantly as did the whole?" (16).

Wellmann begins with the premise that such questions are equally valid in aesthetic and biological terms. Each of her subsequent arguments centers around the general claim that a new "episteme of rhythm" was established around 1800 whereby, in numerous fields of human inquiry, the idea of change over time was understood as "rhythmical": "Rhythm described the emergence and formation of life not as a mere progression in time, but as an ordering of time" (17). Wellmann identifies her own approach as a kind of expanded "history of concepts" that also [End Page 341] considers methods and questions from various fields, including cultural history, visual studies, and the history of science. Her sense for historical detail will likely also appeal to those who can appreciate how well it resonates with intellectual culture in Germany and Europe around 1800, particularly where the areas of Romanticism and Naturphilosophie are concerned. At the same time, Wellmann's stated agenda, to pursue the "episteme of rhythm," also presents her with her most significant conceptual and methodological challenges, which include: (1) a working understanding of rhythm general enough to be applicable in those fields in which the term itself could have vastly different meanings and, (2) attributing rhythmic structures to the "form of becoming" in various contexts where the word "rhythm" itself is nowhere to be found.

Due in part to these challenges, The Form of Becoming is not a particularly easy book to review, and there is a further complication that has to do with the time lapse of seven years between the publication date of the German volume and the English translation. These years have witnessed, among other developments, the rapid growth of "sound studies"—a field to which the concept of rhythm is deeply connected, even if it is not completely congruent with those discourses of greatest interest to Wellman. Although Form of Becoming does contain a few bibliographic references to works published between 2010 and 2017 (mostly in the form of lists and embedded in the notes, because this volume contains neither a bibliography nor a works cited section), it does not engage directly with any of the literature from this time period in any of its chapters. This is unfortunate because many of the arguments in question touch upon very actual debates concerning literature and the life sciences. Another, more challenging, reason is that, by identifying the emergence of an "episteme" of rhythm in contexts where the "word" rhythm is not (yet) foregrounded, The Form of Becoming requires its readers to take a rather extreme...


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