A Romantic Natural History


Project Summary:

My new book project, A Romantic Natural History, explores how historians, philosophers and writers drew upon contemporary natural histories, even as their works inspired a re-imagining of nature and history. The turn of the nineteen century was marked by a complex interface between human and natural histories. Because natural history was occupied with questions of origins and transformations, with the generation and degeneration of not only plants and animals but also human beings, its projects of investigating the natural world and improving the natural economy were inseparable from questions of social, moral and religious import.

A Romantic Natural History is interdisciplinary in method. It draws upon the works of naturalists and scientists, writers and artists, and philosophers and historians during the Romantic period. It is informed by recent scholarship in the history of science, history of philosophy, cultural history, studies in romanticism and material cultural studies. The book is organized as a series of essay on specific natural history objects and their larger significances. Examples include: hybrid creatures troubling categories of classification; infusoria populating experimental and speculative accounts of spontaneous generation; fossils as hybrids of the living and extinct; sensitive plants crossing plant-animal divides; Caucasians and their others; quinine as a new world remedy for colonial ailments; grafted plants; electric fish and galvanic batteries as models for one another; magnets as markers of the duplicity physical and mental powers; automaton as animated machines; hieroglyphics as natural languages; Grecian artifacts as exemplars of natural genius. The objects are selected because of their amphibious character. They do not fit neatly into simple categories of plants, animals and mineral. They are not simply understood as natural, artificial or cultural. They are material entities with semiotic significance. They were regarded at the time as crossing the boundaries of kinds of things and thus opening up broad epistemic, historical and cultural questions.

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