Introduction: Bodies and Things

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In his famous ‘Conclusion’ to The Renaissance (1873), Walter Pater evokes an intricate network, a ‘web’ of endlessly extending material threads, to describe the intimate, physiological rapport that exists between subjects and objects. Departing from Cartesian dualism, the passage suggests that the shared materiality — ‘phosphorus and lime and delicate fibres’ — of the human body and inanimate matter makes it impossible to define with any precision where the self ends and the material world begins. Pater’s study frequently resolves the subject-object relationship into a universal aesthetic impressionism. However, even in instances in which he asserts the autonomy of the perceiving subject (‘[e]very one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation’), the subject remains so thoroughly permeated by the sensory experience of the material world that his or her whole being is determined by it: ‘It is with this movement, with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off — that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.’2 The deliberate vagueness of phrase in Pater’s ‘Conclusion’ emphasizes the ambiguous positions of subject (as possessing agency) and object (as lacking in agency). In this excerpt, Pater’s syntax transforms the human self into the passive object of the sentence: ‘the elements of which we are composed’; reciprocally, the material forces that act upon the self exert an agency that seems to contradict their object status.

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... This involves excavating the productive, and often optimistic, discussions of materiality and materialism that abound in Victorian science, literature, and culture. Important precursors to the perspective proposed here are Gillian Beer's (2000) and Janis McLarren Caldwell's (2004) accounts of romantic materialism, William Cohen's (2009) analysis of materialist theories of embodiment, Boehm's (2012) emphasis on Victorian entanglements of subjects and objects, or Bodies and Things, Pamela K. Gilbert's (2019) investigation of materialist re-evaluations of the body's sensate surface as the locus of subjectivity, Benjamin Morgan's (2017) analysis of materialist aesthetics as an intersection of bodies, minds, and matter, and Brilmyer's (2015Brilmyer's ( , 2022 explorations of a material characterology. Like Stolte, William Cohen helpfully gestures to critical avenues beyond dichotomous framings that pit "rank" or "radical" materialism against idealism, humanism, or spirituality and narrowly equate it with atheism or reductivism. ...
In this introduction to the special issue Victorian Materialisms, the authors review the material turn in cultural and literary studies, foregrounding the necessity of more historical nuance. While new materialist accounts tend to stress the post-Enlightenment persistence of dualistic oppositions between nature and culture, humans and nonhumans, body and mind, the editors of this special issue argue that Victorian conceptions of matter reveal a wide range of materialisms that anticipate current new materialist interventions. Closer attention to nineteenth-century cultural, literary, philosophical, and scientific approaches to matter, the authors submit, uncovers not just anxiety about boundary breaches, but a widespread interest in material agency and the entanglement of animal, chemical, human, plant, and inorganic matter. The introduction suggests that a broader enquiry into Victorian materialisms beyond canonical figures and texts helps recuperate the pervasiveness and mundaneness of Victorian engagements with matter and material agency.
This chapter explores Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (2015) in the light of a renewed interest in Victorian material culture and through an analysis of the material side of the trace of the Victorian past, objects and things in contemporary culture. The growing interest in objects and sensory experience in Victorian scholarship provides the broader context for a neo-Victorian burgeoning fascination with objects, bodies and the sense of touch. In her biography of the Brontë sisters, Lutz considers the objects that the sisters possessed and follows their lives through those objects and things present in their daily activities, some of them belonging to their childhood (the miniature, for instance). By paying a heightened attention to things, Lutz not only illuminates the Brontë sisters’ lives but also provides a nuanced reading into Victorian material culture. These Victorian traces prove the affective power invested upon objects and texts which clearly mediate between an absent Victorian past and a contemporary present; therefore, Lutz’s text (Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, also published in 2015) demonstrates the relevance of affective encounters with the past through collecting and the complex relationship between subject and object.
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This article explores a hitherto neglected context of Robert Browning’s “Gold Hair” (1864), analysing the poem in relation to the tradition of “hair harvests” in Brittany, France, as well as the broader contexts of the hair trade and hairwork in the nineteenth century. In doing so, it makes a case for reading the textual evocation of hair in the poem literally to trace a cultural shift towards hair framed in material rather than corporeal terms. The girl of the poem has abundant golden hair that corresponds with gold, hairwork, and the hair trade in ways that highlight its potential against the girl’s apparent rejection of common hair practices. Diverging from previous analyses that have read poetic representations of hair in Browning primarily as symbolic (especially in relation to sexuality), the pairing of hair with gold is shown in this poem to signify unrealised sources of credit, unprocessed matter, holding the potential to be exchanged or refined. This article considers practices of keeping, working, and selling hair in conjunction with the Brownings’ collection of hair and hairwork held by the Armstrong Browning Library, in this way elucidating the materiality of hair in both the poem and the Victorian imaginary.
This article introduces texture as a key category of material analysis in Victorian literature and culture. Challenging distinctions between inside and outside structures, texture offers not only a complex, multi-layered understanding of material surfaces but also provides aesthetic and interpretive tools for rendering and analysing matter in literary and cultural representations. Drawing on Wilkie Collins’s No Name, this article argues that the novel presents the protagonist’s illegitimacy as a material condition by foregrounding the textural qualities of her bodily surface. Textural principles serve as a central technique of characterisation in No Name and are a crucial device through which the characters shape themselves and assess each other. As a means of interrogating Victorian laws and norms, the novel uses textures to show how normative conceptions of (il)legitimacy inform the characters’ and the narrator’s perception of (bodily) matter. The article shows how the novel’s textural construction of bodily materiality undermines comfortable distinctions between inside and outside, subject and object, as well as legitimate and illegitimate.
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The opening chapter introduces and contextualizes the politics and poetics of Victorian surfaces. First, we delineate the increasing interests in both natural and constructed surfaces by taking a closer look at discourses that reflect a growing fascination with surfaces, including (pseudo-)medical treatises on physiognomy. Secondly, we focus on the politics of surface readings by scrutinizing the politics of various visual representations of Queen Victoria and the (self-)fashioning of the body politic at the centre of a growing surface culture. Third, we develop a conceptual framework for the analysis of the poetics of Victorian surfaces by analyzing the attention paid to (or withheld from) surfaces in Victorian literature and culture. By examining the role of surface reading in Victorian texts, we offer an overview of different surface cultures and debates surrounding the challenges attached to surfaces, explore how to do things with surfaces, and thereby outline what can be described as a ‘poetics of surface.’
Drawing on work in critical theory, feminism and social history, this book traces the lines of tension shot through Victorian culture by the fear that the social world was being reduced to a display window behind which people, their actions and their convictions were exhibited for the economic appetites of others. Affecting the most basic elements of Victorian life - the vagaries of desire, the rationalisation of social life, the gendering of subjectivity, the power of nostalgia, the fear of mortality, the cyclical routines of the household - the ambivalence generated by commodity culture organizes the thematic concerns of these novels and the society they represent. Taking the commodity as their point of departure, chapters on Thackeray, Gaskell, Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, and the Great Exhibition of 1851 suggest that Victorian novels provide us with graphic and enduring images of the power of commodities to affect the varied activities and beliefs of individual and social experience.
In this ambitious and original study, Lynn Festa examines how and why sentimental fiction became one of the primary ways of representing British and French relations with colonial populations in the eighteenth century. Drawing from novels, poetry, travel narratives, commerce manuals, and philosophical writings, Festa shows how sentimentality shaped communal and personal assertions of identity in an age of empire. Read in isolation, sentimental texts can be made to tell a simple story about the emergence of the modern psychological self. Placed in conversation with empire, however, sentimentality invites both psychological and cultural readings of the encounter between self and other. Sentimental texts, Festa claims, enabled readers to create powerful imagined relations to distant people. Yet these emotional bonds simultaneously threatened the boundaries between self and other, civilized and savage, colonizer and colonized. Festa argues that sentimental tropes and figures allowed readers to feel for others, while maintaining the particularity of the individual self. Sentimental identification thus operated as a form of differentiation as well as consolidation. Festa contends that global reach increasingly outstripped imaginative grasp during this era. Sentimentality became an important tool for writers on empire, allowing conquest to be portrayed as commerce and scenes of violence and exploitation to be converted into displays of benevolence and pity. Above all, sentimental texts used emotion as an important form of social and cultural distinction, as the attribution of sentience and feeling helped to define who would be recognized as human. © 2006 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
In the 1880s, fashionable Londoners left their elegant homes and clubs in Mayfair and Belgravia and crowded into omnibuses bound for midnight tours of the slums of East London. A new word burst into popular usage to describe these descents into the precincts of poverty to see how the poor lived: slumming. In this captivating book, Seth Koven paints a vivid portrait of the practitioners of slumming and their world: who they were, why they went, what they claimed to have found, how it changed them, and how slumming, in turn, powerfully shaped both Victorian and twentieth-century understandings of poverty and social welfare, gender relations, and sexuality. The slums of late-Victorian London became synonymous with all that was wrong with industrial capitalist society. But for philanthropic men and women eager to free themselves from the starched conventions of bourgeois respectability and domesticity, slums were also places of personal liberation and experimentation. Slumming allowed them to act on their irresistible "attraction of repulsion" for the poor and permitted them, with society's approval, to get dirty and express their own "dirty" desires for intimacy with slum dwellers and, sometimes, with one another. Slumming elucidates the histories of a wide range of preoccupations about poverty and urban life, altruism and sexuality that remain central in Anglo-American culture, including the ethics of undercover investigative reporting, the connections between cross-class sympathy and same-sex desire, and the intermingling of the wish to rescue the poor with the impulse to eroticize and sexually exploit them. By revealing the extent to which politics and erotics, social and sexual categories overflowed their boundaries and transformed one another, Koven recaptures the ethical dilemmas that men and women confronted--and continue to confront--in trying to "love thy neighbor as thyself.".
This book offers a radically new reading of Dickens and his major works. It demonstrates that, rather than representing a largely conventional, conservative view of sexuality and gender, he presents a distinctly queer corpus, everywhere fascinated by the diversity of gender roles, the expandability of notions of the family, and the complex multiplicity of sexual desire. The book examines the long overlooked figures of bachelor fathers, maritally resistant men, and male nurses, and explores Dickens's attention to a longing, not to reproduce, but to nurture, his interest in healing touch, and his career-long commitment to articulating homoerotic desire. This book places Dickens's writing in a wider literary and social context, alongside authors including Bulwer-Lytton, Tennyson, Braddon, Collins, and Whitman, to make a case for Dickens's central position in queer literary history. Examining novels, poetry, life-writing, journalism, legal, and political debates, the book proposes that this eminent Victorian can direct us to the ways in which his culture could, and did, comfortably accommodate homoeroticism and families of choice. Further, it argues that Dickens's portrayals of nurturing masculinity and his concern with touch and affect between men challenge what we have been used to thinking about Victorian ideals of maleness. Queer Dickens intervenes into current debates about the Victorians (neither so punitive nor so prudish as we once imagined) and about the methodologies of histories of the family and of sexuality; it makes the case for a more optimistic, nurturing, and life-affirming trajectory in queer theory.
Skeletal remains are a vital source of evidence for archaeologists. Their interpretation has tended to take two divergent forms: the scientific and the humanistic. In this innovative study, Joanna Sofaer Derevenski argues that these approaches are unnecessarily polarized and that one should not be pursued without the other. Exploring key themes such as sex, gender, life cycle and diet, she argues that the body is both biological object and cultural site and is not easily detached from the objects, practices and landscapes that surround it.
How did the Victorians read novels? The author answers that deceptively simple question by revealing a now-forgotten range of nineteenth-century theories of the novel, a range based in a study of human physiology during the act of reading. He demonstrates the ways in which the Victorians thought they read, and uncovers surprising responses to the question of what might have transpired in the minds and bodies of readers of Victorian fiction. His detailed studies of novel critics who were also interested in neurological science, combined with readings of novels by Thackeray, Eliot, Meredith, and Gissing, propose a vision of the Victorian novel-reader as far from the quietly immersed being we now imagine - as instead a reader whose nervous system was addressed, attacked, and soothed by authors newly aware of the neural operations of their public. Rich in unexpected intersections, from the British response to Wagnerian opera to the birth of speed-reading in the late nineteenth century, this book challenges our assumptions about what novel reading once did, and still does, to the individual reader, and provides new answers to the question of how novels influenced a culture's way of reading, responding, and feeling.
From the Publisher: In this age of DNA computers and artificial intelligence, information is becoming disembodied even as the "bodies" that once carried it vanish into virtuality. While some marvel at these changes, envisioning consciousness downloaded into a computer or humans "beamed" Star Trek-style, others view them with horror, seeing monsters brooding in the machines. In How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles separates hype from fact, investigating the fate of embodiment in an information age. Hayles relates three interwoven stories: how information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms that carry it; the cultural and technological construction of the cyborg; and the dismantling of the liberal humanist "subject" in cybernetic discourse, along with the emergence of the "posthuman." Ranging widely across the history of technology, cultural studies, and literary criticism, Hayles shows what had to be erased, forgotten, and elided to conceive of information as a disembodied entity. Thus she moves from the post-World War II Macy Conferences on cybernetics to the 1952 novel Limbo by cybernetics aficionado Bernard Wolfe; from the concept of self-making to Philip K. Dick's literary explorations of hallucination and reality; and from artificial life to postmodern novels exploring the implications of seeing humans as cybernetic systems. Although becoming posthuman can be nightmarish, Hayles shows how it can also be liberating. From the birth of cybernetics to artificial life, How We Became Posthuman provides an indispensable account of how we arrived in our virtual age, and of where we might go from here.
The Victorians were fascinated with objects and things – but recent scholarship has proved equally fascinated with this Victorian obsession. Examining the rise of the ‘commodity’ in Victorian culture, this article goes on to trace how consumerism, semiotics and the rise of cultural studies have provided new approaches to Victorian culture and commodification.
While the Victorian novel famously describes, catalogs, and inundates the reader with things, the protocols for reading it have long enjoined readers not to interpret most of what crowds its pages. The Ideas in Things explores apparently inconsequential objects in popular Victorian texts to make contact with their fugitive meanings. Developing an innovative approach to analyzing nineteenth-century fiction, Elaine Freedgood here reconnects the things readers unwittingly ignore to the stories they tell. Building her case around objects from three well-known Victorian novels—the mahogany furniture in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the calico curtains in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and “Negro head” tobacco in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations—Freedgood argues that these things are connected to histories that the novels barely acknowledge, generating darker meanings outside the novels’ symbolic systems. A valuable contribution to the new field of object studies in the humanities, The Ideas in Things pushes readers’ thinking about things beyond established concepts of commodity and fetish.
Objects we traditionally regard as "mere" imitations of the human—dolls, automata, puppets—proliferated in eighteenth-century England's rapidly expanding market culture. During the same period, there arose a literary genre called "the novel" that turned the experience of life into a narrated object of psychological plausibility. Park makes a bold intervention in histories of the rise of the novel by arguing that the material objects proliferating in eighteenth-century England's consumer markets worked in conjunction with the novel, itself a commodity fetish, as vital tools for fashioning the modern self. As it constructs a history for the psychology of objects, The Self and It revises a story that others have viewed as originating later: in an age of Enlightenment, things have the power to move, affect people's lives, and most of all, enable a fictional genre of selfhood. The book demonstrates just how much the modern psyche—and its thrilling projections of "artificial life"—derive from the formation of the early novel, and the reciprocal activity between made things and invented identities that underlie it.
From the 1860s through the early twentieth century, Great Britain saw the rise of the department store and the institutionalization of a gendered sphere of consumption. Come Buy, Come Buy considers representations of the female shopper in British women’s writing and demonstrates how women’s shopping practices are materialized as forms of narrative, poetic, and cultural inscription, showing how women writers emphasize consumerism as productive of pleasure rather than the condition of seduction or loss. Krista Lysack examines works by Christina Rossetti, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, George Eliot, and Michael Field, as well as the suffragist newspaper Votes for Women, in order to challenge the dominant construction of Victorian femininity as characterized by self-renunciation and the regulation of appetite. Come Buy, Come Buy considers not only literary works, but also a variety of archival sources (shopping guides, women’s fashion magazines, household management guides, newspapers, and advertisements) and cultural practices (department store shopping, shoplifting and kleptomania, domestic economy, and suffragette shopkeeping). This wealth of sources reveals unexpected relationships between consumption, identity, and citizenship, as Lysack traces a genealogy of the woman shopper from dissident domestic spender to aesthetic salonière, from curious shop-gazer to political radical.
In May 1906, the Atlantic Monthly commented that Americans live not merely in an age of things, but under the tyranny of them, and that in our relentless effort to sell, purchase, and accumulate things, we do not possess them as much as they possess us. For Bill Brown, the tale of that possession is something stranger than the history of a culture of consumption. It is the story of Americans using things to think about themselves. Brown's captivating new study explores the roots of modern America's fascination with things and the problem that objects posed for American literature at the turn of the century. This was an era when the invention, production, distribution, and consumption of things suddenly came to define a national culture. Brown shows how crucial novels of the time made things not a solution to problems, but problems in their own right. Writers such as Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Henry James ask why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or remake ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears, and to shape our wildest dreams. Offering a remarkably new way to think about materialism, A Sense of Things will be essential reading for anyone interested in American literature and culture.
The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle
  • Thomas Richards
); on prostitution, see, for instance
  • Ruth Richardson
The Visible and the Invisible
  • Maurice On
  • Merleau-Ponty
Dr Kahn’s Museum: Obscene Anatomy in Victorian London and ‘“Indecent and Demoralising Representations”: Public Anatomy Museums in Mid-Victorian England 1–22; on labouring bodies, see, for instance The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity
  • See A Bates
Introduction: Posthuman Bodies
  • Judith Halberstam
  • Ira Livingston
  • J Halberstam
Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses
  • A William
  • Cohen
  • W Pater
Shopping and the Culture of Consumption in Victorian Women’s
  • Krista Lysack
  • K Lysack
City of Dreadful Delights: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London
  • Judith Walkowitz
  • J Walkowitz
  • J Goodall