Observations Upon a Blazing World

Introduction: Part II

Part II: Ontologies of Form in the Premodern

Margaret Cavendish's experimentations with the forms and per-form-atives of her texts go beyond just play with genre. To understand the implications of her efforts, we need a more complete picture of the significance of form in an early modern context.  Henry Turner, in an article calling for a more nuanced conversation between humanists and scientists in the contemporary moment, offers a glimpse into the vitality of form in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Turner examines how our largely epistemological perspectives on form in the present (a spectrum that covers stylistic, structural, material, and social modes of form) typically are conceived as static boundaries or containers of meaning: genre as form, for example, signifies a delimitation or containment of sedimented meaning.  Form serves as a vehicle for describing something that has already realized a kind of expressive stasis.
In the early modern sense, questions of form evoked a much more dynamic and fluid context. That is, form was less an epistemological category than it was “a kind of ontology” (Turner, 80), comprising moving networks that functioned as “in-process” modes of meaning making rather than as “static model[s] that define[] and delimit[].” I have extended Turner’s inquiry on form to consider how such a shift in perspective might reform our approach to digital modalities in literary and historical research and writing. This project is an active realization of my earlier thoughts on how to employ digital modalities in reproducing experimentations with form in earlier periods that defy contemporary disciplinary and structural stases.
Cavendish’s texts are at once too familiar and too obscure. One of the features of her hybrid text is a highly subtle investigation and critique of the emergence of what at our moment is now termed the “two cultures” problem: the contemporary phenomena of scientific inquiry coding its methods and epistemological foundations as fundamentally distinct from literary and historical frameworks. While there have been critical studies of these themes as they appear in Cavendish’s work, the predilection to divide Blazing World from the Observations leads to significant oversights in how specifically Cavendish's critique functions as a kind of "procedural aesthetics” that goes well beyond the rhetorical and narrative devices of argumentation or satire. Cavendish’s text(s) — performed together — ask the reader not just to hear the arguments for and against the new science, but to experience the formal reorganization of knowledge that comes with the protocols and moving ontologies of form implied by this shift. Her term, employed across her romance fiction and her observations on experimental science, is “figurative motions,” where figurative meaning and the motional aspects of shifting ontologies of form are meant to be encountered together. While there is much warranted interest (and concern) in how the forms of the new digital humanities might distort humanistic inquiry, we can detect in Cavendish a situation where the ontological and epistemological biases of print of the last century have deformed the active experimentations in her work with the power of procedural aesthetics, in the form of procedural authorship and procedural readership.

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  1. C.P. Snow's Two Cultures across Historical Periods
  2. Margaret Cavendish, Minerva and Apollo Portrait, circa 1665-58