Robert MitchellExperimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013

by Carla Nappi on April 16, 2014

Robert Mitchell

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Science, Technology, and SocietyRobert Mitchell’s new book is wonderfully situated across several intersections: of history and literature, of the Romantic and contemporary worlds, of Keats’ urn and a laboratory cylinder full of dry ice. In Experimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), Mitchell argues that we are in the midst of a vitalist turn in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and that this is only the latest in a series of eras of what he calls “experimental vitalism.” Experimental Life is largely devoted to exploring the first of those eras by tracing an experimental vitalism through a wide range of Romantic textual worlds from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. After a wonderful discussion of the meanings of the “experimental” in the arts and sciences, Mitchell’s book proceeds to look at a series of cases through which we can understand how Romantic thinkers sought out the points of perplexity in vital phenomena, encouraged that perplexity, and often did so by exploring “altered states” that seemed to confuse life and death. These altered states included suspended animation, disorientation, digestion and collapsurgence, mediality, and encounters with the uncanniness of plant life, and Mitchell’s treatment of each case is both beautifully articulated and full of unusual and illuminating juxtapositions. Ultimately, Experimental Life offers readers not just a way of understanding these Romantic contexts, but also engages each case in a way that informs how we think about contemporary biomedical sciences and biopolitics.

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