Current Research

Literary Micrologies: The Life and Knowledge of Small Forms around 1800

My current book project, Literary Micrologies: The Life and Knowledge of Small Forms around 1800, examines how concepts of life are brought to bear on literary and scientific writing practices around 1800, with particular focus on the works of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Jean Paul, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. While much has been written on the concept of life in relation to the fields of aesthetics and biology during this period, this book investigates a crucial, yet largely overlooked element of the discourse of life around 1800: the materiality of writing. More specifically, it inquires into the different ways in which the semantics of vitality becomes coupled with methods of text-production in literature and science. In the case of the aforementioned authors’ works, I argue that this coupling results in a conception of writing as corporeal, finite, and “lively”: in Chapters 1 and 2, I examine Lichtenberg’s notion of wit in relation to his scientific note-taking practices and remarks on microscopic organisms such as polyps and infusoria; in Chapters 3–5, I analyze the role of text-production in Jean Paul’s scholarly biographies, with a focus on his concept of humor as the “inverted sublime”; finally, in Chapters 6–8, I argue that Goethe’s morphology can be read as a science of serial aggregates, which informs his later literary production. Through a careful engagement with their works, I conclude that these writers’ insistence on the corporeality and vitality of text-production no longer strictly coheres with the Romantic theory of literature as a process of infinite reflection; this book thus seeks to reconstruct an alternative epistemology of literature around 1800, which sheds light on the materiality of writing according to the different “forms of life” that it comes to embody.

To support this argument, I draw on recent scholarship in the growing field of “science and literature,” which identifies a gradual convergence between the disciplines of biology and aesthetics around 1800, with a focus on their medial conditions of text-production. As “life” increasingly became an object of scientific and empirical scrutiny during this period, the older natural-historical enterprise of categorizing living beings into primordial types and taxonomies is said to have given way to a new biological conception of life according to their organic processes of emergence and development over time. Where my book parts ways with previous studies in this field, however, is that it seeks to shift the focus away from the canonical works of German Romanticism and their well-established connections to the scientific discourse of organisms by examining marginal or pseudo-literary genres, such as Lichtenberg’s Waste Books or Goethe’s Notes on Morphology, in which the corporeal materiality of “life” as a scientific object and the rhetorical virtue of “vividness”—enargeia—simultaneously gain poetological and epistemological traction.

From this interstitial perspective into the “discourse network around 1800,” supported by three case studies that illuminate different aspects of form, life, and materiality around 1800, I argue that there is a profoundly close, yet largely overlooked interconnection between the biological-material conceptions of life in the early 19th century, which foregrounded the elements of contingency, disorder, and death, and the emergence of literary small forms—forms which were considered far too heterogeneous and fragmentary to possess any semblance of aesthetic unity. Thus, rather than taking new biological theories of life predominantly as the model of canonical genres like the Bildungsroman or the Romantic fragment, this project foregrounds instead the relation of form to life with respect to different procedures of writing and recording information, and to show how in these peripheral texts the heterogeneous configurations of the organic and the inorganic—these include polyps, quicksilver, ringworms, beetles, spiral tendrils, and even the scholar–book assemblage itself—serve as productive models for many different kinds of literary small forms that have been long neglected by literary scholars. 

Future Research

The Opulence of Form: Aesthetics, Rhetoric, and the Art of Beautiful Thinking (Baumgarten – Brockes – Klopstock)

Building on my current research, my next book-length project, tentatively entitled The Opulence of Form: Aesthetics, Rhetoric, and the Art of Beautiful Thinking (Baumgarten – Brockes – Klopstock), proposes to examine the historical epistemology of aesthetics in relation to the concepts of form, life, and materiality in the period stretching from roughly 1750 to 1790. Taking as its starting point the return in recent years to aesthetic and theoretical debates surrounding the concept of the beautiful, this project inquires into the genealogy of aesthetics, as both a mode of sensual cognition (cognitio sensitiva) and of rhetorical-technical composition, in order to show how its origins and development with Alexander Baumgarten were inextricably intertwined with contemporaneous reflections on poetic representation. Crucial in this discursive-historical context, I argue, are the works of Barthold Heinrich Brockes and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, which played an equally central role in mediating the epistemic and the rhetorical-poetic according to a theory of the senses, or what Baumgarten would term the ars pulcre cogitandi. In particular, Brockes’ physico-theological poems collected in Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott (1721–1748) as well as Klopstock’s Der Messias (1748–1773) and Cidli odes both demonstrate in different ways how literature moves from the margins of knowledge organization during the baroque period to take center stage in the epistemic configuration of text-objects. In the case of Brockes’ work, this formation of theory occurs by way of reflection on the event of perspective within the field of poetic representation, which mediates the rhetorical techniques of perception and perspectivization with the contemporaneous practices of scientific observation. In the case of Klopstock’s poetry, meanwhile, the literary text develops an awareness of its own aesthetic and medial complexity, whose symbolic structures become poetologically reflected in his texts. These poetic works, I argue, thus do not simply confirm Baumgarten’s seemingly paradoxical argument that the perfect poem consists in clear but confused representations—what he terms, using a new concept to refer to their confused clarity, “extensive clarity” [extensive clarior]. Instead, they show how poetry had already stumbled across the “problem” of extensive clarity, albeit not by that name or concept; rather, they gave it poetic form.

In addition to this book-length project on the genealogy of aesthetics, I am currently pursuing several smaller, article-length projects, which engage in different ways with the fields of literature and science from an ecocritical perspective. In addition to a forthcoming article on Goethe’s theory of spiral tendencies in plant life, which I read as a challenge to the regulative epistemic paradigm known as “Bildung” insofar as it places contingency and finitude at the center of his conception of nature, I am also pursuing a project that examines the discourse and poetics of cosmology in the writings of Alexander von Humboldt. In light of the importance of his titanic five-volume treatise Kosmos (1845–62) for the development of German Realism, modern theories of physiognomy, and the emergence of a nascent “astroctulture” in the early 20th century (Benjamin, George, Klages, Spengler), I will argue in this forthcoming article that Humboldt’s cartographic representations of the “New World” and his paradoxically fragmentary way of conceiving and representing the world itself as a “cosmos” take on new urgency in the geologic epoch known as the “Anthropocene.”

In summary, my research agenda covers a broad range of topics and fields from the 18th to the 20th century, including German literature and literary theory; film and media studies; the history of science, philosophy, and aesthetics; German Romanticism; as well as modernist and avant-garde aesthetics. Across these various interests, however, my methodological approach to the study of literature and other media consists in the examination of how techniques of representation and procedures of writing reflect and inform discursive and epistemological shifts in different time periods. In order to pursue my next research project, I situate my objects of analysis and methodology at the intersection of literary theory, media studies, and historical epistemology—the latter defined by historians and philosophers of science such as Lorraine Daston and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger as the analysis of the conditions of possibility for the organization of knowledge in different historical periods—in order to examine how literature and other media co-produce knowledge in a historically-specific manner.