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Systems of LifeBiopolitics, Economics, and Literature on the Cusp of Modernity$
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Richard A. Barney and Warren Montag

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780823281725

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823281725.001.0001

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William Blake and the Time of Ontogeny

William Blake and the Time of Ontogeny

(p.162) Seven William Blake and the Time of Ontogeny
Systems of Life

Amanda Jo Goldstein

Fordham University Press

Romantic biology and aesthetics are frequently said to converge in the ideal of “organic form”: the organism, or the artwork, as “organized and self-organizing” cause and effect of itself. Reconstructing the foundational, early modern, bio-philosophical controversy between epigenesis and preformation through the lens of William Blake’s graphic poems, however, this chapter argues that epigenesis was not synonymous with Kantian organicism or the vitalist insistence on the ontologically exceptional status of the living. Instead, Blake joins contemporary zoologists Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in casting epigenesis as a work of acute historical and circumstantial dependency, rather than of autotelic power. Here living bodies are those that tend, for better or worse, to make an organ of experience, their morphologies presenting compound archives of interactions with their physical and social milieu. It is this sense of “epigenesis,” which eludes the stale alternative between autonomy and determination, that is making a selective return in the “epigenetic” research that has transformed evolutionary, ecological, and developmental biology since the millennium.

Keywords:   William Blake, developmental systems theory, epigenesis, Lamarck, organic form, Romanticism, vitalism

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