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Worm Work

Recasting Romanticism

2012
Author:

Janelle A. Schwartz

Worm Work

The ascent of worms from creepy creatures to a vital Romantic literary trope

Rehabilitating the lowly worm into a powerful aesthetic trope, Janelle A. Schwartz proposes a framework for understanding such a strangely animate nature. Offering the worm as an archetypal figure to recast the evolution of a literary order alongside questions of taxonomy from 1740 to 1820 and on, Schwartz unearths Romanticism as a rich humus of natural historical investigation and literary creation.

Worm Work is sophisticated and full of unexpected analytic insights. Animal studies have in general been preoccupied by big animals and the nineteenth century, so it is important and refreshing to go a little further back in time and down the great chain of being to see how the lower animals have shaped, and been shaped by, cultural standards.

Charlotte Sleigh, author of Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology

Worms. Natural history is riddled with them. Literature is crawling with them. From antiquity to today, the ubiquitous and multiform worm provokes an immediate discomfort and unconscious distancing: it remains us against them in anthropocentric anxiety. So there is always something muddled, or dirty, or even offensive when talking about worms. Rehabilitating the lowly worm into a powerful aesthetic trope, Janelle A. Schwartz proposes a new framework for understanding such a strangely animate nature. Worms, she declares, are the very matter with which the Romantics rethought the relationship between a material world in constant flux and the human mind working to understand it.

Worm Work studies the lesser-known natural historical records of Abraham Trembley and his contemporaries and the familiar works of Erasmus and Charles Darwin, William Blake, Mary Shelley, and John Keats to expose the worm as an organism not only reviled as a taxonomic terror but revered as a sign of great order in nature as well as narrative. This book traces a pattern of cultural production, a vermiculture that is as transformative of matter as it is of mind. It distinguishes decay or division as positive processes in Romantic era writings, compounded by generation or renewal and used to represent the biocentric, complex structuring of organicism.

Offering the worm as an archetypal figure through which to recast the evolution of a literary order alongside questions of taxonomy from 1740 to 1820 and on, Schwartz unearths Romanticism as a rich humus of natural historical investigation and literary creation.

Worm Work

Janelle A. Schwartz is visiting assistant professor of comparative literature at Hamilton College.

Worm Work

Worm Work is sophisticated and full of unexpected analytic insights. Animal studies have in general been preoccupied by big animals and the nineteenth century, so it is important and refreshing to go a little further back in time and down the great chain of being to see how the lower animals have shaped, and been shaped by, cultural standards.

Charlotte Sleigh, author of Six Legs Better: A Cultural History of Myrmecology

A good, comprehensive study of the burgeoning field of Romantic literature and science, which will be useful to those working within this area. . . I will certainly take more notice of worms from now on.

Times Higher Education

Worm Work

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: VermiCulture
1. Transitional Tropes: The Nature of Life in European Romantic Thought
2. “Unchanging but in Form”: The Aesthetic Episteme of Erasmus Darwin
3. “Not without some Repugnancy, and a Fluctuating Mind”: Trembley’s Polyp and the Practice of Eighteenth-Century Taxonomy
4. “Art Thou but a Worm?”: Blake and the Question Concerning Taxonomy
5. A Diet of Worms; or, Frankenstein and the Matter of a Vile Romanticism
Conclusion: “Wherefore All This Wormy Circumstance?”

Notes
Bibliography
Index


Worm Work

UMP blog - Not "just" another essay on Frankenstein.

This past May, I attended the 2012 North American Levinas Society conference held in Anchorage, Alaska. Playing on its location in the Last Frontier, the conference was particularly interested in research focusing on “Levinas, the environment and the cultures of place,” and so it afforded me the opportunity to expand the reach of the theory behind my new book, Worm Work: Recasting Romanticism.

For this conference, I adapted portions of my chapter on Frankenstein and the worm in order to propose an expansion of the so called “face-to-face” ethics made famous in Emmanuel Levinas’ pluralistic philosophy. Specifically, I asked that we extend Levinas’ largely anthropocentric ethical stance into that of a truly ecological, biocentric concern able to highlight the intricate relationship between the human and the non-human animal. Of course, I am most interested in the implications of reading the human against the worm (that lower, invertebrate, decidedly vermicular organism). What follows, then, is an excerpt, with a link to a downloadable transcript, of this recent presentation (with only minor changes). I very much look forward to reading your thoughtful responses and queries.

Read the full article.