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Devin Griffiths: The Biology of Form - Scientific Fixation and the Molecularization of Race
WhenThursday, Apr. 19, 2018, 3:30 – 4:30 p.m.
Campus locationCommunications Building (CMU)
Campus room202
Event typesLectures/Seminars
Event sponsorsCo-sponsored by Textual Studies, the 18/19th Century graduate research cluster, and the Anthropocene crossdisciplinary research cluster. 

What can ecological thought tell us about the nature of forms — biological and social?

This talk draws together discussions of literary form, ecocriticism, and science studies, but departs from recent accounts of formalism in arguing that form constitutes a relation between things, rather than a shape or a property. Conceived as an event constituted through interaction, form can be understood as the basic unit of ecology, of an ontological sociality that (as Darwin realized) extends throughout the wider lived relations of both natural systems and human societies, and defines the mutual implication of what Bruno Latour has termed nature/culture. 

To explain what this ecological account of form suggests for our readings of textual artifacts and their cultural import, I turn to Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acid,” and its controversial relation to the X-ray crystallography of Rosalind Franklin. This conjunction, I will argue, relied on various strategies of scientific fixation, a stabilization of inherently unstable relations—through specific protocols of experiment, publication, and reproduction—that produced  both our background confidence in the stability of DNA and the “central dogma” of modern biology. Understood as a process, this account of scientific fixation crystallizes the relation between empirical practice and the literary procedures that Chip Tucker once termed the “fix of form.” Finally, I will suggest what this scientific fixation has meant for more recent iterations of scientific racism and what I describe (following Jordana Rosenberg) as the molecularization of race.

Devin Griffiths is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins (Johns Hopkins, 2016). His research examines the intersection of intellectual history, scientific literature, and the digital humanities, with emphasis on nineteenth-century British literature and science. He is at work on two new book projects: "The Ecology of Form," which examines how mid nineteenth-century naturalism offers alternative models for ecology and the study of literary form, and "The Radical Catalogue," which studies the science of order that organized nineteenth-century print and natural history collection, and tests the relation between empire and modern information technologies.

Griffiths will also lead a brown-bag seminar at 12 pm on Friday, April 20. To join, contact Jason Groves ( or Jesse Oak Taylor (

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