The Biologist’s Mistress:
Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature and Nature
Emergent Publications, 2011
Drawing on her experiences as a complexity theorist, novelist and art-theorist, Victoria N. Alexander examines the history and practices of teleology, the study of purpose, in nature as well as in human behavior. She takes us “inside” paradoxically purposeful self-organizing entities (which somehow make themselves without having selves yet to do the making), and she shows us how poetic-like relationships—things coincidentally like each other or metaphoric and things coincidentally near each other or metonymic—help form organization where there was none before. She suggests that it is these chance language-like processes that result in emergent design and selfhood, thereby offering an alternative to postmodern theories that have unfairly snubbed the purposeful artist. Alexander claims that what has been missing from the general discussion of purposefulness is a theory of creativity, without which there can be no purposeful action, only robotic execution of inherited design. Thus revising while reviving teleology, she offers us a secular, non-essentialist conception of selfhood as an achievement that can be more than a momentary stay against the second law.
cover artwork: Tree (2005) by Oleg Shupliak
“Alexander has written a book of dazzling sparkle, charm and intellectual range. Her eleven chapters in The Biologist’s Mistress make an easy tour through some very difficult terrain, and always one is aware of a sturdy armature of argument, lightly carried.” –Angus Fletcher, author of New Theory for American Poetry and Time, Space and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare.
“In The Biologist’s Mistress, Alexander has achieved something so remarkable that one might have been thought impossible before reading her new book. She has persuasively shown how the notion of teleology, reinterpreted in the light of both complexity theory and Peircian semiotics, can illuminate aspects of the novelty producing core of creative process and art-making that had long remained obscure and inaccessible.” –Jeffrey Goldstein, author of Emergence: Flirting with Paradox in Complex Systems.
This “very personal inquiry into creativity, as apprehended by way of teleology with its historical depth reconceives final cause in connection with the process of self-organization, …bridg[ing] the ‘two cultures,’ and allowing cross reflection between them. Alexander navigates in a confluence of several discourses (semiotics, complexity theory, literary criticism) that just happened to confront her intellectual journey.” –Stanley Salthe, author of Development and Evolution and Evolving Hierarchical Systems.
“Looking at the role of purpose in art and life, [The Biologist’s Mistress] should strongly appeal to those interested in the dovetailing of the sciences and the arts, and especially those enthralled by literary criticism and the craft of fiction. In the end it is a kind of modern artistic manifesto, telling us what we’ve been missing and why.”–Dorion Sagan, co-author of Microcosmos and Into the Cool.
“Alexander has an uncanny way of anticipating critical artistic concerns – how much of what we produce is directed, and how much owes to chance? – and then rephrasing the issues in ways that illuminate and promote creativity itself.” –Ellen K. Levy, visual artist, past President of the College Art Association, and co-organizer (2002) of a traveling exhibition, Complexity.
“Chance, Nature’s Practical Jokes, and the ‘Non-Utilitarian Delights’ of Butterfly Mimicry” in Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art, Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson, Eds.
Yale University Press, 2016
“This collection explains to the layman just why Nabokov’s scientific work was so successful and important. The drawings are absolutely stunning—even to someone without a scientific background they are arresting. Lepidopterists will surely want to own it, but more importantly, this will be a treasure for Nabokov fans.”—Eric Naiman, author of Nabokov, Perversely
“This is a very valuable contribution to understanding one of the great novelists of the Twentieth Century. It is a superb example of how a creative mind can combine art and science in ways that make them both greater than they would have otherwise been. A landmark book.”—Thomas E. Lovejoy, George Mason University
“What makes this volume special is not so much its attempt to merge Nabokov’s philosophy and science, but its ability to include all the relevant authors on the subject of Nabokov’s dual nature.” —Nina Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics
“Fine Lines presents a welcome and rare insight into Nabokov’s obsessive attention to detail so prominent in his writing. The rich collection of his illustrations, reveal an unintended artistry born out of meticulous observation.”—Rob Kesseler, co-author of Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers
“The wonderful drawings and remarkable essays in this book allow us to trace Nabokov’s steps in many ways and on many pages. The result is a long close-up of an ideal form of curiosity.”—Michael Wood, Princeton University
“This detailed and gorgeous volume of Nabokov’s scientific achievements inspires both artistic and aesthetic appreciation for readers, historians, and scientists alike.”—Publishers Weekly