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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. ...
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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
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