Imagining Early Modern Scientific Forms
Edited by Jenny C. Mann and Debapriya Sarkar
Jenny C. Mann and Debapriya Sarkar, “Introduction: ‘Capturing Proteus’”
This special issue argues that early modern science is shaped by imaginative engagements with the problem of form. These articles reveal how early modern natural philosophy requires the category of form to define itself and its objects of inquiry. They also illustrate how the language arts and imaginative literature are sites of philosophically consequential formal innovation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Together, these essays assert that the current “return” to form in the literary humanities signals the emergence of a new methodological paradigm in literature/science studies, one that treats form as an ontological as well as an epistemological category. “Introduction: ‘Capturing Proteus’” defines early modern scientific form in terms of the interactions of form and formation. Early modern allusions to the capture and chaining of Proteus reveal that form is a mode of being and a process of becoming that is arrested in moments of knowledge production.
Mary Thomas Crane, “Form and Pressure in Shakespeare”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet explores the role of preternatural forces acting through “pressure” of various kinds exerted at a distance by “forms.” For the first several acts of the play, Hamlet investigates whether preternatural agencies of various kinds are able to be discerned, understood, and employed to cause action in the world. Tracing a scale of action that increases from “press” to “strike” and “blast,” the play ultimately gives up on preternatural force and reinstantiates a split between natural and supernatural explanations for events in the world. [“Form” and “pressure” are at the heart of the play’s exploration of whether we can trust what we see, understand what we see, and take meaningful action in the world.]
Suparna Roychoudhury, “Forms of Fantasy: Psychology and Epistemology in the House of Alma, De la force de l’imagination, and Othello”
Using Spenser, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, this essay explores the formal variegation of early modern representations of phantasia (imagination, or fantasy). In different ways, The Faerie Queene, the Essais, and Othello show how literary form provided a means of reviewing premodern cognitive theory—Aristotelian faculty psychology, and the faculty of imagination in particular—in light of early modern epistemologies and epistemes. In these literary treatments of the fantasy, we find allegory fused with anatomy, the essay with the medical case study, the dichotomy of script and performance with that of theory and practice. Individually, these texts offer nuanced insights into mental representation that are inspired by their sixteenth-century moment; collectively, they point to the period’s pluralistic and open-ended assessment of the image-making faculty. The subtle inventiveness of early modern forms of fantasy warrants a reconsideration of the place of Renaissance poetics in the intellectual history of imagination.
Lauren Weindling, “Empirical Errors: The Comedy of Errors and ‘Knowing’ Metamorphosing Forms”
This article considers Francis Bacon’s articulations of his new method—especially in
the Novum Organum (1620) and Of The Wisdom of Ancients (1609)—alongside Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (1594) in order to consider their overlapping, though ultimately divergent, epistemological concerns. I contend that both Shakespeare and Francis Bacon appeal to the language of metamorphosis to figure a problem within Aristotelian epistemology: visible appearance doesn’t accurately indicate essence, or a thing’s hidden nature. Yet unlike Bacon’s attempt to rescue the epistemological project by redefining form as a law of operation, Errors prompts us to embrace the ethical possibilities of indeterminacy or confusion such as solidarity or sympathy.
Jessica Rosenberg, “The Poetics of Practical Address”
This essay offers an account of practical address as a literary technique that appears across genres and forms in early modern England. Through readings of the poetic forms taken by practical knowledge in The Taming of the Shrew alongside examples of instructional books and lyric poetry, it shows how practical knowledge always hangs on the formal operation of address. Drawing on both the history of science and the poetics of apostrophe, this essay argues that practical address represents a distinct formal type: an utterance oriented toward a reader or listener that purports to transfer knowledge of a method, practical address performs an imaginative act, conjuring an attentive and obedient listener as well as a persona for the speaker (or expert). Yet, these are never simple cases of direct address in the present. Rather than confront its readers directly, practical address imagines them into a future moment of knowing how.
Adhaar Noor Desai, “Scientific Misrule: Francis Bacon at Gray’s Inn”
This article studies six orations written by Francis Bacon that were delivered during the Christmas revels of 1594–1595 at Gray’s Inn. Emphasizing the context of these orations, which posit ideas Bacon would later promote in his reforms of natural philosophy, it relates how they were composed as a direct response to “The Night of Errors,” a catastrophic failure of programming in which misrule became outright unruliness. The orations evince how the clumsy events of the festival season inculcated a form of “literacy”—experientia literata—Bacon would later promote in natural philosophers. For Bacon, both experimentation and festivity were organized around experiences of error that resisted resolving into outright failures. Perceiving him attempt to reconcile calls for discipline with an understanding of the epistemological importance of mistakes, the article argues that Bacon’s view of scientific form shares a social history with the active, improvisational habits of revelry.
Vin Nardizzi, “Daphne Described: Ovidian Poetry and Speculative Natural History in Gerard’s Herball”
In Renaissance botanical natural history, “description” is both art and science, method and form. I trace the use of Ovidian poetry as a descriptive method in Gerard’s Herball and examine, sometimes speculatively, the forms that description could take on its pages. I attend especially to Gerard’s engagement with the myth of Daphne and Apollo, which is so resonant for blazon poetry and botany alike. I do so to test the limits of Ovidian poetry’s use as descriptive natural history in this herbal.
Wendy Beth Hyman, “Seeing the Invisible under the Microscope: Natural Philosophy and John Donne’s Flea”
“Seeing the Invisible Under the Microscope: Natural Philosophy and John Donne’s Flea” considers the mythological, poetic, and conceptual categories that influenced what the natural philosopher ostensibly “saw” under the lens. I argue that early microscopic texts, especially Robert Hooke’s Micrographia and Henry Power’s Experimental Philosophy, reveal a surprising indebtedness to fabular, fictional insects. Poetic fleas and their brethren, immortalized by John Donne but ubiquitous in classical and early modern works, were veritable workhouses of erotic, natural philosophical, and metaphysical speculation. Their miniscule size promised access to hidden knowledge, and their uncanny ontology led to analogies with other small entities like atoms and verses. I examine in turn the mutually reinforcing effects of microscopic oculus and poetic microcosm, showing how natural philosophy revels in imagination. These works of microscopy do study nature, but they also cite Donnean seduction poetry, recast insects as romancical characters, and reflect on nothingness.
Travis D. Williams, “Unspeakable Creation: Writing in Paradise Lost and Early Modern Mathematics”
In Paradise Lost, Milton adapts for poetic purposes the theological theories of accommodation, by which God makes himself even slightly understandable to created beings, to make the divine, unfallen, and hellish aspects of the story available to a fallen reader. Particularly potent means of accommodation in the poem are images of writing, by God and his Son, the Word, to create the universe, which occur in parallel to the poem’s own discussion of its status as a written artifact, one that presents a rhetorically successful sensation in readers that they have in fact apprehended the divine. This sensation is similar to contemporaneous developments in mathematics, that sought to find through writing strategies ever more powerful ways to access perfect mathematical objects and concepts. Interpreting these writing events together, the conclusion presents the writing done by Galileo and Christ as indicative of fallen humanity’s best chance to improve itself and regain the promise once held out to its unfallen forebears.