Organic Supplements: A Review – by Giulia Pacini

Organic Supplements: Bodies and Things of the Natural World, 1580-1790, ed. by Miriam Jacobson and Julie Park (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020). 285 pages, $35. ISBN 978-0-8139-4494-4. With essays by Lynn Festa, Miriam Jacobson, Kevin Lambert, Rebecca Laroche, Jayne Lewis, Julia Reinhard Lupton, Julie Park, Diane Purkiss, Jessica Wolfe, and Michael Yonan.


Through an original and diverse set of case studies, mainly focused on sixteenth- to eighteenth-century Britain and to a minor extent France and Germany, Organic Supplements examines “resonant historical relationships between humans and objects of the natural world” (18). It is a fascinating collective project which aims to understand how living bodies and things can interact, producing dynamic effects that reverberate through time and space. Far from focusing exclusively on the distinctive characteristics of individual objects or agents, each chapter captures the softness of the latter’s boundaries and recognizes the ways in which particular instruments — here defined as “organic supplements” — have been able or were thought to mediate, conduct, enhance, and transform thoughts, energies, sounds, and vital tissues.

The volume features nine cross-disciplinary essays well framed by its editors’ introduction and a thought-provoking afterword by Julia Reinhard Lupton. The introduction nicely defines and situates the organic supplement within a field initially staked out by contemporary theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Andy Clark, James Gibson, and Jane Bennett. Part I, “Inscription and Incorporation,” analyzes scenes of writing, recipe exchanges, and musical experiences in ways that immediately offer good examples of how the use and figuration of “supplemental” instruments could soften natural boundaries. Julie Park’s and Kevin Lambert’s essays speak clearly to the interest of theorizing the organic supplement and studying its operations. We better understand the meaning, value, and reach of particular bodies and objects when we realize, with Park, that a lover’s handwritten letter is so much more than just words on a piece of paper; it is also a (material and virtual) extension and a vital expression of the human body, mind, and bird (quill) that collectively penned it. Lambert’s chapter about Friedrich Grimm’s reactions to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Pygmalion similarly reminds us that sound is not a discrete physical phenomenon. Shock waves can reverberate along social networks and across intellectual communities: in this case, for instance, they traversed an assemblage uniting the performance on stage, Grimm in the audience, and the Republic of Letters at large with a transformative power that facilitated a “cultural reordering” and therefore the efflorescence of sensationalist French philosophy (93). As Park and Miriam Jacobson state in their introduction, it is therefore worth our while to pay “exquisite attentiveness to the materiality and interactivity of environmental objects in their affordances” (8). Rebecca Laroche’s essay then pushes back against theories of early modern “ecophobia” as it shows how medical recipes could design ointments to penetrate the human skin in a material act and a proto-theorization of what we might now call transcorporeality. To the extent that they too call into question modern paradigms structured around the notion of a human-nonhuman divide, these recipes promoting physical and spiritual wellbeing — as already Laroche’s essay itself — offer important theoretical models for the collection as a whole.

Part II, “Interface and Merger,” continues to examine different contact zones and organic objects capable of transcorporation or otherwise resistant to classification. In an interesting essay on Renaissance debates about minerals, Jessica Wolfe reflects on early modern perceptions of the boundaries and possible connections between living and nonliving organisms at the same time as she studies Thomas Browne’s attentiveness to the supplementary relationship that existed between the literal discourse of natural philosophy and the figurative language of myths in the seventeenth century. Lynn Festa’s essay on the wearing of kid gloves is an intriguing interrogation of what it means to be animal, human, or thing. Since skins are a sensitive “medium of exchange rather than a barrier between inside and out,” a glove is both an instrument of empowerment and a reminder of the vulnerability of the human who is always inextricably bound to the animal (140). A different kind of hybridity — this time uniting the human and the vegetal — then becomes the topic of Jacobson’s chapter on “vegetable loves” in seventeenth-century English poetry, where plants were sometimes figured as organic supplements that could extend, enhance, and liberate the human body and mind.

Part III, “Vitality and Decay,” explores cultural practices and representations of life, death, and subsequent processes of transformation wherein decomposed bodies can flourish anew. Diane Purkiss shows how bodies are confused and corpses repurposed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where clever word plays and images of recycled funeral meats take on new meanings if read alongside sixteenth-century cultural attitudes towards thriftiness and baked pies. In addition to this literary and historical work, Part III continues to theorize the supplement in both material and ideational terms, demonstrating how the organic object-conduit generates abstract ideas as well as physical effects, thereby nurturing a particularly fertile environment that can take on a life of its own. An essay by Jayne Lewis examines how the distribution of a lock of Milton’s hair ultimately engendered a lively discourse post-mortem: in the English eighteenth-century media community, these strands served as a generative conduit—as an organic and ideational supplement—animating life across and between bodies. Far from being simple proof of the mortality of humans, Milton’s hair became a “vibrant epiphenomenon of notional transaction among human beings” (223). In the same section, Michael Yonan argues that in Enlightenment Europe rococo ornamental prints were instrumental in examining not only the “possibilities of art,” but also bodily sensations and human perception more generally (179). They did so by exciting the beholder’s imagination, encouraging an exploration of the material world and enabling viewers to question what and how they see. Like Milton’s hair, these prints were supplements that “[created] new life” by stimulating new ideas and “acknowledging the fragmentary yet seemingly whole experience of perceiving the world” (188, 194).

Lupton’s brilliant afterword both closes and beautifully opens up this collection by rethinking the organic supplement in terms of the “virtue ecologies” it engenders. By reminding us of the physical senses of the term “virtue,” (an expansive concept that applies not only to moral excellence, but also to an object’s particular properties or powers, as well as to the liveliness of the entire universe), Lupton explains how organic supplements can grant a dynamic material energy to cognitive and ideational functions. More crucially, perhaps, she examines the virtues of the volume’s theory of the supplement, asking: “What affordances for interpretation does the organic supplement make possible in our critical discourse now, not only as an approach to agents, objects, and environments in the past but as a reframing of the potential uses and ends of literary education and humanistic scholarship today?” (249). Lupton therefore understands virtue ecologies as multifaceted “cognitive, affective, social, and physical” environments in which skilled human actors engage with the affordances of the natural world (249).

These engaging essays are well integrated through frequent cross-references that strengthen the volume’s coherence even when the authors do not mobilize identical definitions of the organic supplement. The ultimate effect is that of an open-ended series of meditations that dialogue among each other, rather than a forceful theoretical tract designed mainly to define a new concept. Far from being a problem, this expansive flow of thoughts should be embraced as it mirrors and expands upon the transhistorical circulation and exchanges of ideas that are the topic of many of the essays. The collection explicitly reflects on the continuities and ruptures between Aristotelian philosophy, early modern ideas, and today’s theory, displaying an admirable respect for historical concepts, categories, and terminology even as it moves back and forth between the ages. It effectively grapples with the paradigmatic shifts and occasional paradoxes that have engendered contemporary theory and its attendant vocabulary. As a result, Organic Supplements should be of particular interest to early modern intellectual, cultural, and art historians, as well as to literary scholars and anyone interested in material culture, new materialisms, and contemporary theory more broadly.

Giulia Pacini is Professor of French & Francophone Studies at William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA


Cite this note as:  Giulia Pacini, “Organic Supplements: A Review,” Journal18 (October 2021), https://www.journal18.org/5863.

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