Janina Wellmann, The Form of Becoming: Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm, 1760-1830

Janina Wellmann, The Form of Becoming: Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm, 1760-1830, translated by Kate Sturge (New York: Zone Books 2017) 432 pp. $34.95 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-935408-76-5

In her recent book Forms Caroline Levine calls for a broad definition of form as 'all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference' (3). Such a broad approach to form makes it possible to identify the reoccurrence of particular forms over vastly different areas of knowledge and practice, making visible the ways in which they structure both thought and action. Levine focuses on rhythm in one of her chapters, since '[t]he term rhythm moves easily back and forth between aesthetic and nonaesthetic uses' and 'always already refuses the distinction between aesthetic form and other forms of lived experience' (53). Five years before the publication of Levine’s book, historian of science Janina Wellmann had already demonstrated the rich potential of thinking about rhythm in terms of an episteme that structures knowledge across different disciplines, and also provides a history for this kind of thinking. The Form of Becoming presents an admirable and highly ambitious tour-de-force through philosophy, literature, music theory, instructional iconography and, of course, early embryology. Wellmann’s main argument is that rhythm became an important figuration of thought during the decades her study focuses on, claiming more specifically that 'around 1800, the living world, especially organic development, was rethought in terms of rhythmic patterns, rhythmic motion, and rhythmic representation' (14).

Wellmann’s main interest and most ambitious claims concern the importance of what she calls the rhythmic episteme for early epigenetic embryology, but she embeds this argument in a much wider cultural context. The first of three sections explores the importance of rhythm in the work of German theories of literature, art and music in the period between 1760-1830. In the chapter on literary form, she considers theories of poetic rhythm by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Friedrich Hölderlin, Karl Philipp Moritz, Novalis and August Wilhelm Schlegel, arguing that rhythm was central to an endeavour to promote poetry as a principle of knowledge which involves the sensations as well as reason and imagination. Wellmann puts much stress on the physiological aspect of such theories as rhythm establishes a connection to nature beyond mere symbolic representation. Because rhythm was established as the fundamental principle of life and of organic development, poetry could be enthroned as a privileged form of knowledge. Rhythm thus becomes the 'conceptual linchpin' to Novalis’s concept of a universal poetry, which 'makes rhythm into the principle by which humankind can bring together the fragmented knowledge of the disciplines into ever-new images of the world' (55). The second chapter on music theory develops a similar argument in that it emphasises the way rhythm featured in music theory around 1800 as a physiological principle. In this new way of conceiving rhythm, it was contrasted to a regular, mechanical measure and beat as a quasi-organic principle, 'designat[ing] the living unity of music, its essential core, its life force' (63). Theorists of music understood rhythm as a 'natural inclination,' which structures physical as well as physiological motion (72). 'Rhythm,' so Wellmann suggests, 'was now the foundational structure of flowing movement, the guiding principle of what was understood as "development" – whether in the organism or in a musical composition' (63). A third chapter focuses on the epistemic importance of rhythm for Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling’s philosophy of nature and art. Rhythm, Wellmann explains, is the principle on whose basis Schelling is able to mediate; between the real and the ideal, the finite and the infinite, nature as productivity and nature as product' (78).

In the three chapters of the second section of her book, Wellmann focuses more closely on biological rhythm. She argues first for the centrality of rhythm to Caspar Friedrich Wolff’s theory of epigenesis. The rhythmic episteme, Wellmann suggests, allows Wolff to make sense of development as 'the periodic repetition of one and the same procedure' (108) in which 'the individual stages of development (such as the solidity of matter of the folding of a membrane) are always already thought within the entirety of formation (as components of an alternating play, of a repetition).' (110). Next she discusses Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s theory of metamorphosis, arguing that 'rhythmic regularity is the truly innovative aspect of Goethe’s thinking on metamorphosis' (111). Goethe’s elegy 'The Metamorphosis of Plants' provides her with a welcome opportunity to exemplify the way in which the rhythmic episteme is woven into thought as well as creative practice, form and content. Her final chapter in this section focuses on the scientific debate about the nature of the life force around 1800. Notwithstanding the differences between scientific opinions, Wellmann suggests that life was newly conceived of as essentially motion. 'Around 1800,' she claims, 'perceptions of the organism shifted from the topography of the body, as described in anatomy, to the circulation of the blood, the secretions of the glands, the organism’s nutrition and growth, emergence, and development' (140). If life is motion, the law that structures such motion is rhythmic.

After this tour-de-force through diverse areas of thought, Wellmann finally comes to the concerns which are clearly of most interest to her. If the first two sections of the book focus mainly on discourses about rhythm, on the way and the contexts in which rhythm was discussed around 1800, the third section on serial iconography makes a much more ambitious claim about rhythm as an underlying structure of thought and representation. In order to make this claim, she begins by throwing her net even wider:  Chapter Seven offers a detailed history of the iconography of motion, reaching back into the sixteenth century and discussing instructional illustrations used to teach fencing, military drills, vaulting, dancing, gymnastics and handiwork. Her main argument, which sometimes threatens to recede from view in her detailed discussion of the images, is that the iconography of motion developed as a rhythmic series: 'a movement is segmented into depicted and nondepicted elements that can then be synthesized by relating the images to each other' (190). Rhythm is the underlying logic of representation: 'Self-evident and intuitive as the picture sequence may appear at first sight, it is actually constructed in multifarious ways. It exists only as the tension between the pose and its dissolution, between stasis and flux, between individual image and seriality' (190). A question which her discussion does not settle satisfactorily is whether the iconographic series is inherently rhythmical, or whether it is so because the movement it depicts is rhythmical. Wellmann’s subsequent argument, however, relies heavily on this rhythmic conception of the iconographic series. Turning in the three remaining chapters to the work of early embryologists (in particular Christian Heinrich Pander and Karl Ernst von Baer), she emphasises the originality of their particular use of the iconographic series, in which she sees a manifestation of the rhythmic episteme. Instead of depicting stages of development as observed at particular moments in time, Pander and von Baer constructed developmental series, independent from strict chronology, in which each depiction of a stage of development relates to all the others. A rhythmic episteme allowed Pander and von Baer to make sense of the intricate organic development they were witnessing by describing it in form of variable, rhythmic repetitions of the same basic processes: as the repeated folding of membranes or as an iterable process of differentiation.

Wellmann’s discussion of the achievement of these early embryologists is very detailed, more detailed perhaps than would be strictly necessary in order to make her argument. In the wealth of this detail, it is not entirely clear whether she is suggesting that a conception of development as rhythmical motion led Pander and von Baer to appropriate the tradition of an iconography of motion to illustrate their observations, or, more radically, that serial iconography, whose basic rhythmic structure she has elaborately argued for, allowed Pander and von Baer to conceive of organic development as rhythmic in the first place. Her endeavour to situate such a discussion in a wider cultural context provides a wealth of material, but ultimately leaves unanswered the question of the connection between the different manifestations of the rhythmic episteme which she discusses. This is mainly due to the fact that she contents herself with identifying and describing this structure of thought. She does not attempt to suggest reasons for the rise of the rhythmic episteme. Thus, her analysis does not extend to the kind of questions which Levine considers central to her own approach to form: questions about political and social affordances of forms. Nonetheless, this should not slighten an appreciation of Wellmann’s achievement in providing such rich evidence for the importance of the rhythmic episteme around 1800 and in taking on such a truly impressive breadth of different materials. The Form of Becoming offers inspiring and thought-provoking reading throughout, and Kate Sturge’s translation admirably retains the verbal elegance of Wellmann’s argumentation.

Irmtraud Huber, Universität Bern