MINDS, BODIES, MACHINES, 1770-1930 by Deirdre Coleman and Hilary Fraser, Reviewed by Tim Armstrong
 

MINDS, BODIES, MACHINES, 1770-1930
By Deirdre Coleman and Hilary Fraser
(Palgrave, 2011) xi + 225pp.
Reviewed by Tim Armstrong on 2011-09-17.

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This lively collection of essays aims to fill something of a gap in studies of the interaction of literature, technology and the body -- roughly, the gap between Julien de La Mettrie at one end of the period, and Frederick W. Taylor and Norbert Weiner at the other. It does so within a very long nineteenth century, since the essays start by recalling the last thirty years of the eighteenth century and spill forward into meditations on the internet and IT. But the essays also cluster nicely, and work together, in particular groupings: the Enlightenment and the Gothic; the mid-Victorian period; modernism and postmodernism. Since the nineteenth century saw significant developments in psychology, psychophysics, and brain anatomy, many of the contributors focus on concepts of and metaphors for the mind, but there are also essays covering disease, childbirth, and evolution. The result is a useful range of example and approach.

The individual essays range quite widely in their approaches, taking in the relatively traditional history of ideas; close reading and literary contextualization; and more theoretical meditations on perception, communication, disease systems and the philosophy of language, inflected by the work of Foucault, Deleuze, Crary and others. Contributors seldom rhapsodize like some postmodern theorists of cyborg bodies, though James Mussell compares the influenza outbreak of 1889-94 with the informatics paradigm of the computer virus in ways that can test the reader; it seems almost tautological, for instance, to point out that disease vectors take the same routes as news. But even this essay grows out of solid research in the cultural history involved, and it carefully evokes just how intangible the flu virus was for the Victorians. Like the atom, it seemed describable only in metaphor, or in its interactions rather than in itself.

By contrast, Marie Banfield's suggestively literary essay on metaphors for mental life in Eliot, James and Meredith -- carefully related to the psychology of Bain, Sully, Lewes and others -- displays careful attention to text and character: to the contrast in Middlemarch, for instance, between the old-fashioned water-borne mind of Causaubon and the electrical sparkiness of the younger characters. Metaphor, Banfield suggests, was central to Victorian understanding of the hidden flow of sentience, of the self in its mystery and depth. Likewise literary is Peter Otto's essay on gothic fiction. Contesting Jonathan Crary's claim that enlightenment perception is exemplified by the transparent mechanics and objectivity of the camera obscura, Otto argues that The Mysteries of Udolpho stresses the possibilities and dangers of the active, subjective perceiver. And in her essay on James Hogg's strange text, The Three Perils of Woman (1823), Katherine Inglis acutely explores galvanized corpses, automata, forceps, and the mechanization of childbirth, all of which tend to reconstruct women as reproductive devices in the ideology of the early nineteenth century.

Two contributors deal with pneumatic versions of the self and anxieties attached to influence (also a theme, of course, in Mussell's influenza essay). Paul Crosthwaite's account of clockwork and automata traverses fairly familiar territory in moving (rather abruptly in the end) from pneumatic and mechanical automata equipped with pens to recent computer-generated poetry, but in so doing he engagingly probes the relation between authorship, intention, and (dis)embodiment, asking whether we need a body to write. Raising similar questions in "Air-Looms and Influencing Machines," Stephen Connor suggestively explores the mind of James Tilly Matthews. Locked up in Bedlam in 1796, Matthews believed that he was influenced by a nefarious device manipulated by his enemies. In an early version of Tausk's "Influencing-Machine, this device projected outwards the pneumatic conception of the soul, which -- though familiar from the ancients--was enjoying a revival at the end of the eighteenth-century. The result, in Connor's account, is a paranoid crisis of individuation, inflected by the new world of mesmerism and volatile matter, in which thought seems to detach itself from bodies and flow through and between them.

If Crosthwaite and Connor consider dematerialized forms of authorship, two other contributors examine resistance to materialism within the mainstream of mid-Victorian science. Incisively analyzing the "apostacy" of Alfred Wallace, who in 1870 claimed that spiritualism and a "higher intelligence" directed human evolution, Iain McCalman argues that Wallace's position emerges from his humble origins and the potent mix of mesmerism, phenology, spiritualism, and socialism which characterizes the mid-century. One might say, then, that the politics of individual agency at the core of his work makes him a coeval of Whitman as well as of Darwin. In a complementary essay, Daniel Brown discusses James Clerk Maxwell's verse squibs on John Tyndall's materialism, again contextualizing them nicely in terms of factional debates within the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), and meditating on the role of nonsense and play in Maxwell's evocation of the Lucretian clinamen as grounds for free-will.

Finally, at the modernist end of the book, Laura Salisbury's dense but rewarding piece on "Linguistic Trepanation" links brain research, X-rays, the study of aphasia and other forms of brain damage to the modernist "revolution of the word" promoted by Eugene Jolas's transition magazine. Salisbury shows how mechanistic, ultimately associationist ideas are displaced by more holistic understandings of mind, with important consequences for the way language is seen: no longer a "translucent medium" but a cluster of difficult clues to an impenetrable interior, interesting in its derangement and stress. Given its broad scope, her essay resonates with those of Otto, Crosthwaite, Brown and others. In the face of reductive accounts of the human, she suggests, modernist revolutionaries sought to produce a discourse that recognized creativity and yet also acknowledged that language is grounded in a shared bodily experience.

Overall, this is a rewarding and well-assembled collection, required reading for anyone interested in the history of medicine and science as it relates to the history of literature. It suggests a community of scholars -- mostly British and Australian, with a few North Americans -- committed to an analysis of literature that foregrounds its relation to both embodiment and science. Besides representing the experience of the writer in terms of embodiment, this approach to literature connects it with the models offered by science, medicine, and technology (as the editors point out, the binding of the human body into the evolving model provided by the machine is one of the implicit subjects of the collection). In this respect the collection chimes with other recent studies including Sam Halliday's Science and Culture in the Age of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and James (2007) and Jason R. Rudy's Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (2009). In also reflecting the influence of a diverse range of cultural theorists and literary historians ranging from Crary and Friedrich Kittler to Mark Seltzer and Gilliam Beer, the book suggests a field that is now achieving some maturity.

Tim Armstrong is Professor of Modern English and American Literature, Royal Holloway, University of London.


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