Robert Michael Brain’s “The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siècle Europe” by Ashley Bowen-Murphy

The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siècle Europe

by Robert M. Brain

University of Washington Press, 2016, 384 pages


Given the growing divide between STEM and the arts (despite the somewhat anemic push to embrace the STEAM – STEM plus art – acronym/approach), Robert Brain’s ambitious new book, The Pulse of Modernism, reminds us that the line between art and science has always been thin. Brain’s findings demonstrate that the ways of knowing that characterize the sciences may influence art but that artists take up these ideas and adapt them for their own social, intellectual, political, and economic purposes.

Robert Brain’s The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siècle Europe deftly argues that experimental systems (e.g. instruments, techniques, and processes) mediated the relationship between art and the lab far more than scientific writing (e.g. journal articles and monographs). Brain emphasizes that “physiological aesthetics” represented more than just the “extension of physiology to a new domain of human function… art.” The artists at the core of this study did not uncritically take tools or techniques from the laboratory. Instead, they used the insights and techniques of physiology to rethink form, rhythm, and abstraction in addition to thinking in new ways about perception, empathy, and the entire “human sensorium.” In this account, modernism emerged from new ways of thinking about the body and human senses.

Brain locates his book at the intersection of a broad spectrum of disciplines including art history, literature, science studies, the cultural history of science, and medical history. Although he does not follow Bruno Latour’s methods explicitly, the anthropologist and theorist’s influence is clear throughout the book—to the point that Brain defines his own work as an “historical sociology of translation” (xviii).

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