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Faculty of Languages & Literature

English Literature – Prof. Dr. Florian Klaeger

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Form-knowledge and (cosmo-)poetics

Forms of knowledge and the knowledge of forms in early modern astronomy, poetics, and ideology

Conceptually and methodologically, this project combines recent work on astroculture (Geppert 2020; Neef/Sussmann 2014) with a formalist poetics of knowledge, reading the emergence of new objects and domains of knowledge in terms of their formal presentation (Vogl 1999, 13). More specifically, it proposes an astropoetics that inquires after “the specific nature of literary engagements with astronomy and cosmology” with a view to their formal, epistemological and ontological nature and assumptions (Klaeger 2018, 27–28). Form is seen as not only an ornamental means of communicating knowledge; it also carries knowledge from one domain to another, shaping and legitimizing it in the process. This knowledge that is innate to forms – historically specific and highly contingent – allows for the close entanglement of what seems in retrospect like distinct fields of poetry, ‘science’, and social order. We suggest that such ‘form-knowledge’ complements, as a third agent, the two factors identified by Steven Shapin (1994) as subtending the creation of scientific facts in the early modern period: next to what was talked about (the object of investigation, ‘thing knowledge’) and who talked (the investigating subject, ‘people knowledge’), it mattered substantially how both were represented.

The scientific revolution has been described as a period when both the epistemological and ontological status of scientific facts were re-negotiated (Wootton 2016; Sarkar 2023; cp. Shapin 1998). In the period, the links between epistemology and ontology – like those between poetry, astronomy, and society – are uniquely foregrounded in ‘cosmopoetics’, a concept derived from Pythagorean and Platonic traditions and used by Johannes Kepler. Frédérique Aït-Touati (2011) has shown the fruitfulness of the concept for literary analysis, arguing that in the seventeenth century, cosmology was conceived as “at its core, an examination of forms, of what makes them and of what they themselves make in turn—a poieisis” (2011, 1). Early modern cosmopoetic writings are fundamentally shaped by organisational principles and practices derived from cosmic order, but transferred to the social and poetic order, as well. As Thomas Campion wrote in 1602, “The world is made by Simmetry and proportion, and is in that respect compared to Musick, and Musick to Poetry” (2). Thus, for instance, epic was expected to reflect the harmonious order of the cosmos, as Torquato Tasso put it:

ma che nondimeno uno sia il poema che tanta varietà di materie contegna, una la forma e l’anima sua, e che tutte queste cose siena di maniera composte che l’una l’altra riguardi, l’una all’altra corrisponda, l’una dall’altra o necessariamente o verisimilmente dependa, sì che una sola parte o tolta via o mutata di sito, il tutto si distrugga. E se ciò fosse vero, l’arte del comporre il poema sarebbe simile alla ragion dell’universo, la qual è composta de’ contrarii, come la ragion musica […]. (1964, 140)

[Yet the poem that contains so great a variety of matters none the less should be one, one in form and soul; and all these things should be so combined that each concerns the other, corresponds to the other, and so depends on the other necessarily or verisimilarly that removing any one part or changing its place would destroy the whole. And if that is true, the art of composing a poem resembles the plan of the universe, which is composed of contraries, as that of music is. (transl. in Rivers 1994, 155)]

Such works are world-containing and world-like (welthaltig and welthaftig, Blumenberg 1964, 65), but they are also actively world-making poetic interventions (cf. Lobsien/Lobsien 2003; Kavey 2016; Ramachandran 2016; Mahler 2019). Conversely, cosmological knowledge also derives from ideas of form that carry poetic and ideological meaning (Hallyn 1993; Nate 2009; Chico 2018) – the three domains must thus be seen as reciprocally linked and mutually constitutive. In this sense, and through form-knowledge, ‘cosmopoetic’ texts construct analogies between the ideological interpretation of humankind’s astronomical place in the cosmos and literary production (Klaeger 2018, 8). The project aims to trace how early modern claims for such commensurability are framed, and what follows from them.

Form is conceived as transporting and transforming epistemic and ontological assumptions. In early modernity, the basic forms suggested by Caroline Levine (2015) – the enclosed whole, hierarchical order, network and rhythm – are charged with significance and legitimizing power in the domains of astronomy, poetics, and social thought. Thus, forms derived from the cosmos but transferred to legitimise the social order include the hierarchical Chain of Being (Lovejoy 1982), the harmony of the spheres (Spitzer 1963), the homogeneous and ordered whole (Rössler/Sparenberg/Weber 2016), and nodal systems (Heninger 2013; Rössler 2020). In ideological readings of astronomy, they constitute formal foundations for, e.g., physico-theology (Groh 2010), social Newtonianism (Jacob 1990, Lynall 2012), or the philosophia perennis (Schmidt-Biggemann 2011). All four are ostensibly stable modes of organization associated with cosmic order but frequently invoked to legitimize political order. This ideologized view of the cosmos in turn is interpreted with a view to the ‘proper’ mode of writing poetry (e.g., Hallyn 1993, Shalev 2011) and, further, links poetic and political order (Matz 2000; Schmitt-Kilb 2004 and 2017; Neumann 2009; Domsch 2014; Borris 2017; Berensmeyer 2020).

Cosmic forms, then, are fundamental to poetic and social organisation in the period, and vice versa: The systems of poetry/literature and of society are constituted by, and predicated on, forms ostensibly derived from the cosmos, and new knowledge about the cosmos must conform to social and poetic norms in order to be acceptable. As astronomy is reshaped in the seventeenth century, forms ‘collide’ and require a re-negotiation of their relative value. In one of Levine’s “strange encounter[s] between two or more forms that sometimes reroute[] intention and ideology” (2015, 18),  the Aristotelian hierarchy between the sublunary and superlunary spheres may be said to collide, in the Galilean ‘stellarization’ of Earth, with a view of the solar system as a homogeneous whole. Likewise, the transition from a closed world to an infinite universe (Koyré 1957) must be seen, at least in part, as a conflict between forms. The ideological and natural-philosophical valency of these conflicting forms is in jeopardy and must be reconsidered. This has repercussions for poetic theory and practice, e.g., when epic is expected to reflect a cosmic order, as in Tasso. Texts staging such collisions exemplify how “reflexions about literary form are linked to the far more fundamental issue of how communities or […] cultures at once conceive of, organize, administer, and perpetuate both order and creativity” (Michler 2015, 20).

Since the period in question sees the emergence of literary criticism (or 'theory') in England, it is possible to study reflections on the processes described above in dedicated works of poetics, rhetoric, and aesthetics by contemporaries. How, we ask, did English (and British) writers of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century conceive of the analogies between poetry and astronomy? To what poetological and ideological purposes did they reference astronomy? Two initial surveys of such references have been published (see "Publications"); a working bibliography of relevant texts can be accessed here. Please note that this is a developing list.

Works cited

  • Aït-Touati, Frédérique. Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century, trans. Susan Emanuel. U of Chicago P, 2011.
  • Blumenberg, Hans. „Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Möglichkeit des Romans.“ 1964. Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Suhrkamp, 2001, pp. 47–73.
  • Borris, Kenneth. Visionary Spenser and the Poetics of Early Modern Platonism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Campion, Thomas. Obseruations in the Art of English Poesie, London, 1602.
  • Chico, Tita. The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment, Stanford UP, 2018.
  • Domsch, Sebastian. The Emergence of Literary Criticism in 18th-century Britain: Discourse between Attacks and Authority, de Gruyter, 2014.
  • Geppert, Alexander C. T. “What Is, and to What End Do We Study, European Astroculture?” In Militarizing Outer Space: Astroculture, Dystopia and the Cold War. Ed. Alexander C. T. Geppert, Daniel Brandau and Tilmann Siebeneicher, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, 371–377.
  • Groh, Dieter. Göttliche Weltökonomie: Perspektiven der Wissenschaftlichen Revolution vom 15. bis zum 17. Jahrhundert, Suhrkamp, 2010.
  • Hallyn, Fernand. The Poetic Structure of the World: Copernicus and Kepler. 1987. Zone Books, 1993.
  • Heninger, S. K. Touches of Sweet Harmony. Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics. 1974. Angelico Press, 2013.
  • Jacob, Margaret C. The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689—1720, Gordon and Breach, 1990.
  • Kavey, Allison B., ed. World-building and the Early Modern Imagination, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
  • Klaeger, Florian. Reading into the Stars: Cosmopoetics in the Contemporary Novel, Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018.
  • Koyré, Alexandre. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Johns Hopkins P, 1957.
  • Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Princeton UP, 2015.
  • Lobsien, Eckard and Verena Olejniczak Lobsien. Die unsichtbare Imagination. Literarisches Denken im 16. Jahrhundert, Fink, 2003.
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University, 1933, Harvard UP, 1982.
  • Lynall, Gregory. Swift and Science: The Satire, Politics and Theology of Natural Knowledge, 1690—1730, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • Mahler, Andreas. “New Ways of Worldmaking: English Renaissance Literature as ‘Early Modern’.” In Handbook of English Renaissance Literature. Ed. Ingo Berensmeyer, de Gruyter, 2019, 66–88.
  • Matz, Robert. Defending Literature in Early Modern England. Renaissance Literary Theory in Social Context, Cambridge UP, 2000.
  • Michler, Werner. Kulturen der Gattung. Poetik im Kontext, 1750-1950, Wallstein Verlag, 2015.
  • Nate, Richard. Wissenschaft, Rhetorik und Literatur: Historische Perspektiven, Königshausen & Neumann, 2009.
  • Neef, Sonja A. J., and Henry Sussman. “The Glorious Moment of Astroculture: Introduction.” Astroculture: Figurations of Cosmology in Media and Arts, ed. iid. and Gerd Graßhoff, Fink, 2014, 7–30.
  • Neumann, Birgit. Die Rhetorik der Nation in britischer Literatur und anderen Medien des 18. Jahrhunderts, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2009.
  • Ramachandran, Ayesha. “Cosmology and Cosmography.” In Edmund Spenser in Context. Ed. Andrew Escobedo, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 323–332.
  • Rivers, Isabel. Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry. 1979. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1994.
  • Rössler, Reto. Weltgebäude: Poetologien kosmologischen Wissens der Aufklärung, Wallstein, 2020.
  • ---, Tim Sparenberg, Philipp Weber, eds. Kosmos & Kontingenz: Eine Gegengeschichte, Wilhelm Fink, 2016.
  • Sarkar, Debapriya. Possible Knowledge: The Literary Forms of Early Modern Science, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023.
  • Schmidt-Biggemann, Wilhelm. Philosophia Perennis: Historical Outlines of Western Spirituality in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought, Springer, 2011.
  • Schmitt-Kilb, Christian. ‚Never was the Albion Nation without Poetrie‘: Poetik, Rhetorik und Nation im England der Frühen Neuzeit, Klostermann, 2004.
  • ---. “Envisioning Cultural Imperialism and the Invention of English Literature in Elizabethan England.” The Institution of English Literature: Formation and Mediation, ed. Barbara Schaff, Johannes Schlegel, and Carola Surkamp, V & R Academic, 2017: 89–104.
  • Shalev, Eran. “‘A Republic Amidst the Stars’: Political Astronomy and the Intellectual Origins of the Stars and Stripes.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 31, no. 1, 2011, pp. 39–73.
  • Shapin, Steven. A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-century England, U of Chicago P, 1994.
  • Spitzer, Leo. Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word “Stimmung”, Johns Hopkins UP, 1963.
  • Tasso, Torquato. Discorsi dell’arte poetica e del poema eroico. Ed. Luigi Poma, Giuseppe Laterza & Figli, 1964.
  • Vogl, Joseph. “Einleitung.” Poetologien des Wissens um 1800, ed. id., Fink, 1999, pp. 7–19.
  • Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, Penguin, 2016.

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