My book manuscript examines a shifting aesthetics of “liveliness” across the 20th century– an era where the molecular sciences have increasingly defined the parameters of vitality. Drawing on environmental theory and new materialist criticism, I identify two distinct genealogies of the vital that have developed over the past century, one emerging from a biological vitalism of early 20th century scientific philosophy, and another more attuned to the models of self-replicating materials familiar within molecular-engineering. When these two intellectual histories converge in the aesthetic field, I argue, novel artist practices and political visions emerge about how agency has become disengaged from the human. In particular, these practices produce an “experimental vitality,” a term I use in the dissertation to explore a renewed sense of limitlessness in understanding how a complex network of both biological and synthetic vitality contest our everyday notions of life (sentience, reproduction, species, homeostasis, movement, etc).
By analyzing a range of artistic ventures and scientific experiments from 20th/21st century Anglo-American culture, my research questions how we mediate uncertain vitalities, those phenomena we cannot see, but are often contagious, mutate, and most importantly, adapt and self-organize. For example, how do Leopold Bloom’s pervasive headaches signal an awakening to the once sub-perceptual effects of pollution? How do contemporary poems engaged with the language of transgenic culture demonstrate anxieties about mutation? Or how do protocell oils with landscaping properties in systems architecture get legislated as life matter, even if they don’t have DNA?
Methodologically, my research presents a new mode of analysis to think transversally about how these aesthetic projects contest the existing narratives of vitality so predominant within scientific philosophy. In conversation with theorists such as Donna Haraway, Colin Milbun, and Stacy Alaimo, this approach brings into relief a fresh set of challenges that are the very heart of the culture of literature and science. They help us re-think humanist models of art, not based on human singularity and autonomy, but based on an expression of a more environmentally distributed sense of agency.