- Choreographies of the Living: Bioaesthetics in Literature, Art, and Performance by Carrie Rohman, and: Bioaesthetics: Making Sense of Life in Science and the Arts by Carsten Strathausen
The term "bioaesthetics," like many concepts discussed in interdisciplinary circles, has numerous understandings. Such disciplinary variations, which I will discuss throughout this review, are evidenced in two texts leaning heavily on somewhat different interpretations of bioaesthetics: Carsten Strathausen's Bioaesthetics: Making Sense of Life in Science and the Arts and Carrie Rohman's Choreographies of the Living: Bioaesthetics in Literature, Art, and Performance. While the former takes a more theoretical approach to understanding the humanities through a scientific lens, the latter emphasizes bodily impulse to represent the interplay between human animals and other species through literature and interpretative dance. Both are important contributions to continuing conversations about posthumanism, animal studies, modern literature, and performativity studies.
One of the major points of contrast between these two texts is in the way the authors define the titular term. Rohman situates bioaesthetics in the living: "If we understand artistic and performative impulses themselves to be part of our evolutionary inheritance—as that which we borrow, in some sense, from animals and the natural world—the ways we experience, theorize, and value literary, visual, and performance art fundamentally shift" (p. 2). Using this explanation to revisit performances by Isadora Duncan, Rachel Rosenthal, and Merce Cunningham while also applying these ideas to smaller works by D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, Rohman repeatedly argues how the human animal borrows from and seeks to represent interspecies interactions. Whereas Rohman grounds her definition of bioaesthetics squarely in the living, Strathausen begins by suggesting the prefix "bio" relies on the study of relations. In this sense, "life," for Strathausen, only makes sense to the living because it cannot be comprehended from an outside perspective. What these relations and sense-making represent for Strathausen is a difficulty between two explanatory modes of science: linguistic and dynamic. The "linguistic mode" describes experiments, while the "dynamic mode" focuses on the experiment itself. The differences between these two modes cause "semantic tensions" that highlight the challenges of using the humanities to explain and understand the sciences and vice versa. This tension is a drawback for Strathausen, and he uses critical theory for the remainder of the book to explore [End Page 411] it. Rohman sees the possibilities of using the relationality between human species to understand, and even embody, other animals, almost avoiding these "semantic tensions" altogether by focusing on the body to upend language.
The introduction to Strathausen's Bioaesthetics carefully examines the "two cultures," long ago explained by C. P. Snow and often revisited by humanists and scientists alike. One of the more well-known interpretations of the two cultures is E. O. Wilson's suggestion that "consilience," or the aim to unite the two cultures, is the most beneficial for both disciplines. For Strathausen, this is not only a dangerous undertaking, but it is made clear that Strathausen is vehemently opposed to the idea of consilience because he argues the impossibility of finding a "neutral middle ground between the two cultures" (p. 9). Even that middle ground, to which Wilson aspires and Strathausen objects, is fraught because each side will occupy it differently, and there could never be objective neutral space for both.
In each of the five main chapters of Bioaesthetics, Strathausen examines how semantic tensions play out in wide-ranging theoretical examples from Kantian aesthetics to present-day applications of neuroscience. While it is admirable to include such sweeping and thorough examples, this might be the one downfall I see with this text, which at times seems ever so slightly disjointed. I often felt that each chapter could be expanded into its own full-length manuscript; thus the disjointedness may be symptomatic of...