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Victorian Materialism

ENGL 560.301
instructor(s):
R 6-9:00

Throughout the nineteenth century, the concept of matter transformed
from the solid bedrock of the physical world to a dynamic and
capricious set of forces.

In this course we will attend to a series of key moments in this
transformation from Robert Brown's 1827 observation that matter was
not fundamentally inert, but rather comprised of tiny, dancing
particles (a phenomenon now referred to as "Brownian motion") to the
Victorian physicist Michael Faraday's formulation of field theory,
which explained the propagation of light and electricity not through
reference to the connective substance of ether but by creating a
vision of the world as a dynamic web structured by “lines of force.”
Alongside and on equal footing with these scientists, we will read
novelists and poets who engaged materialist science and philosophy
from George Eliot and Thomas Hardy to Olive Schreiner and Walter Pater,
asking to what extent their writing can be understood in materialist
terms. What was Victorian materialism and what relation did it have to
determinism, evolutionism, realism, and empiricism? To what extent did
Victorian literature presume or conjure a material world and what role
might literature more broadly play in conceptualizing and theorizing
matter? Finally, what might attention to the longer history of
materialism teach us about more recent "new materialisms" and their
stakes for literary studies?

In this course we will shift back and forth between historicist and
theoretical registers. We will explore the longer historical lineage
of materialist philosophy from ancient atomists like Democritus and
Epicurus through Lucretius to Victorian scientists such as James Clerk
Maxwell and Charles Darwin, and we will engage more recent materialist
philosophers and thinkers such as Quentin Meillassoux, Elizabeth Grosz, and Karen Barad.