Earthworms, Thomas Hardy, and Touch as Knowledge

I’m teaching a upper-level undergraduate Victorian literature class this term that focuses on bodies, ghosts, and technologies. Typically in a class like this I would assign a number of Victorian texts as well as critical articles. While I picked some great articles for the students to read alongside Wuthering Heights, Lady Audley’s Secret, A Laodicean, Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, and In the Cage, as I put the syllabus together, I realized that I also wanted my students to be aware of what Victorianists were researching right now. As Moscow, Idaho (my new home) isn’t exactly the center of Victorian studies in the US, I opted to have students listen to lectures recorded for the London Nineteenth-Century Seminar, posted on the website of the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies.

They listened to Sue Zemka’s talk “Prosthetic Hands and Phantom Limbs,” (Thursday 28 May 2015) and Anna Henchman’s “Darwin’s Earthworms and the Sense of Touch” (Wednesday 11 March 2015). Both talks connected to our reading but also presented interesting experiments in listening without any visual cues. We all admitted that it was more challenging to stay focused listening rather than reading. It was also a bit tricky following all of Sue Zemka’s lecture as she used so many images to explain the history of artificial limbs (if I do this next year, I’d show students some of the images she refers to before they listen to the lecture rather than after). Anna Henchman’s talk was also hard to listen to at times because there were a few sound issues and many people coughing in the audience! Despite these challenges, our own experiences nicely related to the talks’ emphasis on senses other than sight. Both focused in the sense of touch in particular; indeed, this seems to be a topic attracting attention from many Victorianists at the moment. Continue reading

Bodily Sympathy, Imitation, and Victorian Literature

Disdain and disgust from Darwin's Expression of Emotions...

From Darwin’s Expression of Emotions… From: Wellcome Library, London.

Sympathy is perhaps the most frequently discussed emotion among scholars working in Victorian literature and culture. Many have argued how important notions of sympathy and later empathy were to the development of nineteenth-century subjects and the novel as a genre. Most of these critics understand sympathy as cognitive, or as a kind of mental feeling. In Scenes of Sympathy, for instance, Audrey Jaffe draws from Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments when she explains that “sympathy ‘does away’ with bodies in order to produce representations, replacing persons with mental pictures, generalized images of ease and of suffering” (11). Yet for many Victorian thinkers, sympathy did not ‘do away’ with the body. In fact, in Victorian scientific and philosophical writing, as well as in much literature of the period, sympathy was often understood as an affective response that was deeply physiological and embodied. Henry George Atkinson, writing to Harriet Martineau in their collaborative text Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development in 1851 called sympathies between individuals, “the influences of one organized body upon another” (117-18). If scholars working on nineteenth-century literature have been so invested in notions of sympathy as a cognitive and ultimately ethical response to reading, how might we read literary texts alongside a more embodied and potentially more ambiguous understanding of sympathy?

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Victorian Insect Bodies

B Potter

Beatrix Potter, ‘Studies of nine beetles’ © Frederick Warne & Co. 2006. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Recently, I was giving a talk on Victorian sensation fiction and I wanted to stress the ways in which this genre emphasizes materiality and the experiential dimension of the body. I linked the genre’s investment in the matter of the body to what some critics have called ‘the material turn.’ Many contemporary critical fields – feminist theory, ecocritism, postcolonial theory, critical posthumanism, and social and cultural geography – have seen a renewed interest in embodiment and the senses. Theorists in these fields frequently engage with phenomenology, referencing and building upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the body as a phenomenal, changing, and lived body that alters as it interacts with an environment to which it both responds and shapes. Yet such an emphasis is also visible in Victorian writing, as critics like William Cohen, in his excellent Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2009), have shown. So what many contemporary critics have called the materialist turn is in some senses, a material return.

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Darwin and the Mechanisms of Human Expression

from The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy

Duchenne de Boulogne and Patient, from The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy

A recent bout of research on photography and duplicity has led me back to Cambridge’s indomitable Darwin Correspondence Project. This editorial project is an extraordinarily valuable resource for Victorianist researchers, but I’m especially impressed by the compelling points of access the site provides into a mass of information that might otherwise seem quite imposing. I imagine that many curious but casual readers have been drawn in by the site’s weekly blog posts.

One especially intriguing item popped up a couple of weeks ago. It’s an interactive quiz that recreates an experiment Darwin conducted on his own friends and acquaintances. The DCP takes you through a series of Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne’s famous photographs of electrically induced emotions, first collected in his Mechanism of Human Physiognomy (1862), and later included in Darwin’s Expression Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). (Have a look at the photos here.) Continue reading

Honk if you love Darwin: The Problem of the Human (Researcher)

An interesting discussion recently took place at the “On the Human” forum, hosted by the National Humanities Center, in response to Gillian Beer’s essay “Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human.” The “On the Human” forum is, I think, a really wonderful example of the ways that web technology can allow for thoughtful, engaged, and open scholarly conversations and I encourage you to take a look at it if you haven’t already. Continue reading

Looking at the Origin

Word cloud for On the Origin of Species, 2nd edition

Word Cloud for On the Origin of Species, 2nd edition

I hope visualizations entertain you as much as they do me.  I’ve recently generated two word clouds which denote the word frequency in the second and sixth editions of On the Origin of Species.  As always, they support what we already know (for example, the increased frequency of “Mr” in the sixth edition confirms that there were more men that Darwin could draw on to substantiate his work in 1872 than he had been able to in 1860).  That said, I’m not sure how to interpret the later text’s dwindling use of the word “varieties” relative to “variations,” or the virtual disappearance of the word “believe.”  I suppose visualizations really do make us question the text, rather than providing us with answers.

Word cloud for On the Origin of Species, 6th edition

Word Cloud for On the Origin of Species, 6th edition

NVSA 2010: What the h— happened to Darwin?

I’ve returned home from lovely Princeton and from a very rich and collegial conference experience at this year’s NVSA conference. As I mentioned in my first post about the conference, the topic this year was “Fighting Victorians,” which is a theme I’d like to respond to as I think back over the conference. I really enjoyed how the focused topic allowed all of the papers to build on each other another and thereby construct a larger, aggregate sense of what fighting meant to the Victorians (and the wide range of issues that they had to fight over). Continue reading