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Productive Creativity: On Janina Wellmann’s The Form of Becoming: Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm, 1760–1830 by Catherine Despont

The role of traditional aesthetics has long been divorced from any meaningful conversation in science or politics, or even art for that matter. With maybe the sole exception of mathematics, beauty has been banished as a central indicator of knowledge about the world; our conceptualization of it has shrunk from an entire discipline once seen as capable of unifying all other disciplines, to a vague quality that is mostly sentimentalized and exploited as a vehicle for luxury—nice if you can afford it, but nonessential.

In a broad sense our disconnection from the ethical dimension of aesthetics enables us to create vast amounts of waste and destruction in the production of “culture” without wincing, and it emboldens statements—like the one made by the current president about the “beauty” of Civil War memorials—that privilege a kind of meaningless objecthood over and above what a thing might say or how it was made. We may not like the way certain things look, but that’s not often a matter of moral discomfort. And even in the case of Civil War memorials, the grounds for debate are understood as political, not aesthetic.

To understand the richness that once attended the discipline of aesthetics we need to go back in time, and there we find it not only in discussions about art and poetry, but also rigorously interrogated as a philosophy of science, and even military practice. Janina Wellmann’s The Form of Becoming: Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm, 1760–1830 provides a detailed account of a period when the role of aesthetics was still seen as a main stage for a universal philosophy.

At the core of Wellmann’s analysis is not a description of beauty per se, but an observation about the limits of description when confronted with living systems, and the role of the observer’s own creativity in defining methods of approach. Wellmann’s meticulous survey through the landscape of thought between the years 1760–1830 explores a period when the central figures of the time, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, did not see such harsh distinctions between their poetic, philosophical, and scientific projects. Wellmann embeds the emergence of embryology in the context of aesthetics, poetics, and philosophy, not so as to trace the influence of one “side” on another but as an exploration of “experimental systems, research practices, and technologies of observation that both shape concepts and are shaped by them.”

The book considers a period when many of the tools and strategies of observation, such as drawing and writing, were shared by the arts and sciences, and when the formal structures of the arts—music, dance, poetry—were understood as expressive languages of phenomena that were mirrored elsewhere in the world. For Wellmann the category of “rhythm” as it was expressed through various disciplines at the time “indicates a unity between culture and nature before the nineteenth century spilt them into separate spheres of science and the arts.” The concept of rhythm, she explains, “responded to the quest for rules according to which both nature and human creativity—poetry, music, the visual arts—in equal measure bring forth their works, for the law according to which they are internally ordered and that governs their constantly changing configurations.”

According to Wellmann the observation that drove both aesthetic and scientific thinking circa 1800—be it in Goethe’s description of the metamorphosis of plants, F. W. J. Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, or Karl Ernst von Baer’s visualizations of embryonic chick development—was that of “development,” i.e., the phenomenon of ongoing transformation that is simultaneously ordered and bound. As von Baer’s principle law of development stated it: “there is nowhere new formation, only transformation.” Whether it was the way leaf structures emerged in plants, or organs developed in embryos, or the way that poetry connected disparate images to create new meanings or concepts, such evolution was understood in terms of a constant motion whose ordering principle was rhythm or rhythmic—an organizing principle that could account simultaneously for order and change.

This conception of rhythm not only connects the aesthetic with the biological, but offers one possible resolution to the philosophical fissures created by the Cartesian view of the world by binding human rationality and creativity to the same laws of development as the natural world. In essence it returns everything to relationship. And it’s perhaps only in the connection to nature where the ethical dimension of aesthetics can reemerge. If our own creativity expresses a universal principle of existence, then it can’t be relegated to any one aspect of our activity. Art ceases to be the stronghold of creativity in this perspective, but that’s exactly what enables it to become re-enscribed as a language within all areas of our work and general activity. Beauty, in this scenario, is not just a privilege, but also a meaningful indicator of humanity. The nonsense of our politics, the drudgery of jobs, the pollution of industry, the violence of bureaucracy—all these can be seen as byproducts of the separation of creativity from so-called “productivity,” in which case aesthetic value can and should become grounds again for meaningful debate.