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Mind and Embodiment in Late Victorian Art and Literature

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Organizer: Marion Thain

Co-Organizer: Atti Viragh

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Recent years have seen a growing interest in the late-nineteenth century cultural turn towards embodied approaches to the self—including psychophysiology, phenomenology, and neurology. What theories of the relationship between body and mind, this seminar asks, underpin such modes and ground their aesthetics?   The question of the fundamental nature of the mind was a major scientific and philosophical concern of the second half of the Victorian period. Arising contemporaneously with Charles Darwin’s 1859 The Origin of Species were foundational works of Victorian psychology, including Herbert Spencer’s The Principles of Psychology (1855), Alexander Bain’s The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and Emotions and the Will (1859), and G.H. Lewes’s The Physiology of Common Life (1859). In many ways, these studies continued a long tradition of British empiricism. However, as Rick Rylance has shown, their attempt to ground psychological processes in anatomical structures of the brain paved the way for the “psychophysiological” approach to the mind that would proliferate throughout the following decades. The literature, art and aesthetic criticism of the later Victorian period, meanwhile, have long been seen to emphasize bodily experience, whether in the physiological aesthetics of such writers as Vernon Lee and the essays of Walter Pater, the novelistic focus on readerly sensation, or poetic and narrative forms exploring the nature of impressions and emphasizing the cultivation of sensory capacities. Movements such as sensation fiction, Pre-Raphaelitism, decadence, aestheticism, and impressionism offer a striking exploration of the body as a vehicle of affect and cognition.   Yet it is far less clear how precisely the relations between the body and mind are being configured and understood in such works—let alone in the period as a whole. If the body seems omnipresent, a common understanding of the body’s involvement in given mental processes seems much harder to discern. This panel invites new approaches and interpretive frameworks by which we might understand representations of the mind-body relation in late Victorian literature, art, and criticism. Please submit an abstract (1500 characters) and short bio through the ACLA portal by the morning of September 23 (9:00 am EST).

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