Videnskabshistorisk Selskab

Robert Brain,
Department of History, University of British Columbia:

Protoplasmania: Haeckel's Perigenesis Theory and the Vibratory Organism in Fin de Siècle Visual Cultures

The history of nineteenth-century science has often been told as a tale of two ideas - energy and evolution - born in similar circumstances and leading parallel but separate lives. Yet in the late decades of that century many scientists followed T. H. Huxley's quest to bring together physics and general biology by proposing that the unified forces of the physical world fused in a nitrogenous, semi-fluid, elastic substance that could be found in the cells of all organisms: protoplasm. They reckoned that the curious gelatinous medium would prove itself to be uniquely suited to store physical forces and therefore to serve as the substratum of all vital processes, including heredity.The German Darwinian Ernst Haeckel's 1875 treatise The Perigenesis of the Plastidules proposed the most influential theory of protoplasmic heredity, arguing that waveform motions inscribed in the cell substance stored organic memories transferable from cell to cell and throughout the branching phylogenetic tree. Many evolutionists embraced Haeckel's theory as an improvement upon Darwin's unsatisfactory pangenesis theory of particulate inheritance because it joined evolution with a roster of scientific concerns, including the evolution of movement and psycho-physiological automatisms, habit and the physiology of aesthetic perception, and the conditions for a parallelism between the invisible forces (light, sound, x-rays and other ethereal vibrations) and the “vibratory organism”. This paper further examines some of the effects of the doctrine of protoplasmic inheritance on late nineteenth-century life sciences and aesthetic theories. I shall also consider the attempts of numerous artists to render those theories in painting, architecture, design, and film. The work of Neo-impressionists, Edvard Munch and August Strindberg, Jugendstil and Art Nouveau artists such as Henry van de Velde and Rene Binet will be considered, along with the early abstraction of Francis Picabia and cinematography of Sergei Eisenstein. I shall argue that these examples demonstrate how physiological aesthetics served as a critical resource in the development of early modernist abstraction in the arts.

tirsdag den 3. juni 2008, kl. 17

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