Description - Membranes by Laura Otis
"[Holmes] is an amateur of crime, as I am of disease. For him the villain, for me the microbe."--Culverton Smith in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Dying Detective Between 1830 and 1930, improvements in microscopes made it possible for scientists to describe the nature and behavior of cells. Although Robert Hooke had seen cells more than 150 years earlier, new cultural stresses on individuality made nineteenth-century Western society especially receptive to cell and germ theory and encouraged the very technologies that made cells visible. Both scientists and nonscientists used images of cell structure, interaction, reproduction, infection, and disease as potent social and political metaphors. In particular, the cell membrane--and the possibility of its penetration--informed the thinking of liberals and conservatives alike. In Membranes, Laura Otis examines how the image of the biological cell became one of the reigning metaphors of the nineteenth century. Exploring a wide range of scientific, political, and literary writing, Otis uncovers surprising connections among subjects as varied as germ theory, colonialism, and Sherlock Holmes's adventures.
At the heart of her story is the rise of a fundamental assumption about human identity: the idea that selfhood requires boundaries showing where the individual ends and the rest of the world begins. Otis focuses on the scientific and creative writing of four physician-authors: American neurologist S. Weir Mitchell; Spanish neurobiologist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who won the Nobel prize in 1906 for proving that neurons were intact, independent cells; British author Arthur Conan Doyle; and Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud in fin-de-siecle Vienna. Membranes also compares the scientific and political thinking of German scientists Rudolf Virchow, the founder of cellular pathology and an active liberal politician, and Robert Koch, who discovered the bacteria that causes cholera and tuberculosis and whose studies of foreign bacteria provided a scientific veneer for German colonialism. Finally, the book presents a unique reading of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Membranes shows how psychological fears of penetration have both shaped and been shaped by scientific theories and political trends, and offers a fresh perspective on a continuing cultural problem.
In an age of AIDS, ethnic wars, and the internet, Otis explains that belief in impermeable personal and national borders is increasingly dangerous, though we have yet to replace our need for boundaries with a more appropriate concept of identity. Defying the traditional boundary between science and the humanities, Membranes concludes by offering ways to circumvent these fears, arguing for a notion of identity based on relations and connections. "Reflecting both scientific fears of infection and nationalistic fears of infiltration, the membrane model bases identity on resistance to external forces, many of which are projections of undesirable internal drives. Penetration of one's 'membrane,' whether by bacteria or by foreign ideas, represents an insult, a subversion of selfhood ...As we begin to recognize the cultures and the lives so long denied as closely related to our own, we must accept that the social and political borders we see are not 'natural,' not a phenomenon grounded in external reality. The eye seeks boundaries, and language constructs divisions that are not really there.
They create these differences so that there may be vision and communication, but these differences vary from eye to eye and from language to language. In my anxiety about what this reliance on arbitrary boundaries does to truth, I reassure myself that vision works beautifully. If only, in our quest to understand what we are, we can see as well as our eyes."--from the Introduction
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(229mm x 152mm x 13mm)
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
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Author Biography - Laura Otis
Laura Otis is an associate professor of English at Hofstra University. She is the author of Organic Memory, an analysis of heredity and memory in literature and science, and Networking (forthcoming). She received an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellowship to support her research at the Max Planck Institut in Berlin, and was recently granted a MacArthur Fellowship to study the relations between science, literature, and culture.