Bioaesthetics / biopoetics. Towards an organic consideration of fictional practices

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Prospero vol.19 - A Journal of Foreign LIteratures and Cultures, University of Trieste, Italy
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Call for Papers
Prospero vol. 19 (2014)
Bioaesthetics / biopoetics. Towards an organic consideration of fictional practices
The recent upsurge of studies on biopoetics is primarily the outcome of a heightened awareness of the aesthetic implications of some aspects of Darwin’s theories. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin definitively develops a general theory on the adaptive function of the aesthetic factor on the processes of sexual selection which imply the competition between males of the same species vying for the favor of a female. From this scientific basis, different interpretations have been advanced in the human sphere regarding the development of a disposition to the practice of art and the existence of “poetogenic” structures of an anthropological kind. The most renowned and influential of these interpretations is to be ascribed to American evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (“The Psychological Foundations of Culture”, in The Adapted Mind. Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, eds Jerome H. Barkowm, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, 1992; “Does beauty build adapted minds?”, Substance, 94/95, 2001), who investigated the nexus between formative capacity as manifested in aesthetic practice and mental fitness; one of the three levels of fitness they attributed to evolutionary processes. Fictional practices are held to organize reality on the basis of increasingly complex modes, inclined to stimulate certain adaptive faculties in a potential and simulated mode, according to what Toody and Cosmides define as the “organizational mode”. The German literature scholar Karl Eeibl (Animal poeta. Bausteine der biologischen Kultur - und Literaturtheorie, 2004) added a variation to this pattern by suggesting the existence of a “ludic mode” to which art could be related and according to which the aesthetic practice would guarantee a greater resilience to the stress generated by strategies of survival, and hence ensure an adaptive advantage.
Alongside this essentially evolutionist scholarship, other studies have followed, aimed at identifying in the notion of bios a macro-structure destined to connect heterogeneous fictional expressions, belonging to different and multiple historical and cultural contexts. Winfried Menninghaus studied the adaptive function of the aesthetic within a general outlook of culture theory oriented towards the radicalism and cold cognitivism of some strains of evolutionary aesthetics. In the context of Italian cultural studies, Michele Cometa has highlighted the “bioanthropological” character of many aspects of eighteenth century aesthetics, while Vittoria Borsò has provided some of the first reading tools for the processes of fictional construction in terms of the biological and corporeal sphere.
The forthcoming number of Prospero invites essays focused on the intersections between fiction and nature, aesthetics and biology, with the aim of tracing a possible compass for the application of a biopoetical perspective. It is worth pointing out that the cognitivist slant of many biopoetic enquiries of recent years determined a certain imbalance towards aesthetic reception rather than aesthetic production. This imbalance is particularly noteworthy in Anglo-American scholarship, from the by now “classic” works by Frederick Turner (Beauty. The Value of Values, 1991) and Ellen Dissanayake (Homo Aestheticus. Where Art Comes From and Why, 1995) up to the most recent studies by Michael Tomasello. Even when emphasis has not been laid on general cognitive processes but rather on historically and culturally contextualised practices, the scholarship in the field has largely neglected the position of literary authors. Katja Mellmann’s works on eighteenth century emotionalism can be mentioned in this regard, as foregrounding the slant towards the fashioning of a readers’ ideal anthropology and a more accurate forecasting of those phenomena of sensitization resulting from contact with the literary text (Emotionalisierung. Von der Nebenstundenpoesie zum Buch als Freund, 2006).
It is thus time to investigate whether a biological consideration of fictional phenomena should not extend to the way in which the domain of bios structures and directs the author’s formative work, thus going beyond the idea that the cultural meaning of the organic should be limited to the sphere of mere aesthetic reception. It is therefore necessary to move on from a “bioaesthetics” - conceived as the biological foundation of the processes of the perception of what is beautiful - to a fully achieved “biopoetics”, which can assess the modes whereby the organic can be traced in the processes of fictional construction.
The relatively few studies which followed this line of research seem to have privileged those parts of the literary works in which bios is explicitly thematised (as in the case of the Barashes’ 2005 interpretation of Madame Bovary’s sexual mores). However, a critical template which aims at a successful mapping of bios in all the processes of formal expression cannot be limited to the spaces where its presence can be traced, but should, rather, be extended so as to investigate every structure in which an anthropological foundation, whether culturally connoted or not, functions as a producer of sense and meaning.
Suggested topics may address, among others, the following questions:
- Interdisciplinary perspectives in the history of aesthetics.
- Fictional representations of the body in authors and movements in literary history.
- The influence of natural sciences in the construction of fictional characters.
- The anthropological foundations of rhetorical and poetic categories (i.e. the role of emotions in affective poetics).
- - Biological foundations in the distinctions between literary genres.
- - Applications of evolutionary theory in the interpretation of literary texts and “literary Darwinism” in the Anglophone world.
- - Conceptual transformations and hybridization between heterogeneous discursive fields in historical semantics.
Proposals must be submitted to the Editor, Maurizio Pirro, University of Bari, Italy,, and to the managing editors Roberta Gefter Wondrich ( and Anna Zoppellari (, with abstracts not exceeding 300 words, by 12 May 2014. Acceptance will be notified by 25 May, 2014. All final articles, between 5000 to 8000 words, must follow the MLA Style Sheet and should be sent by September 15, 2014, together with an English abstract of maximum 300 words. All articles will be submitted to double blind peer-review, according to the journal policy.
Prospero, Rivista di Letterature e culture straniere (A Journal of Foreign Literatures and Cultures) is a printed and online publication of the Department of Humanities, University of Trieste, issued annually by EUT, Trieste University Press, since 1993. It publishes contributions about Anglophone, Francophone and German literatures, comparative literature and cultural studies. It features several proceedings of international conferences. It is indexed by MLA, and by Italian and foreign libraries (among which KVK Karlsruhe Virtual Catalog, Library of Congress, Worldcat). Since 2011 the journal is entirely open access and has an anonymous referee system that undertakes double-blind peer review.


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