Reflection by Elisha Cohn
Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind dazzlingly displays the rewards of presentism. Examining how “a language of the soul was displaced by a language of electrical waves, nervous currents, and adaptations” (128) that decentered the subject in Victorian scientific aesthetics, Morgan explicitly highlights a Victorian paradigm that resonates with recent criticism’s own anti-subjective turns. Morgan tracks backward from both affect theory’s embrace of less-than-conscious sensations and distant reading’s effort to develop a “statistical phenomenology” that restitutes the divide between literary and scientific methods. Against an agonistic account of two cultures, Morgan’s reparative project emphasizes the mutual illumination, play, and entanglement of these discourses. While we sometimes condescend to Victorian theory as wedded to the detached, rational reflection and autonomous, willed action associated with a parochial liberalism, Morgan compellingly renders Alexander Bain and Thomas Hardy precursors of Deleuze, and Vernon Lee a kind of Moretti. And when The Outward Mind demonstrates how “the Victorians have escaped their gray reputation […], reappearing as a culture that at once celebrated and anxiously deplored the vibrant intensities of the senses” (12), even technical debates in Victorian scientific prose become gripping.
Yet the celebratory gets more attention than the anxiogenic. Though significant anxiety emerged from the socio-political implications of materialism’s reframing of phenomenal experience and especially of the will, it is not central to The Outward Mind, partly because novels are not its primary focus. The Outward Mind’s richness may partly depend on turning away from novels, which Morgan claims “understood scientific psychology as yielding resources for peering inside the minds of characters” (18), implying that novels absorbed literary theories while retaining a more conservative “inwardness” than their theoretically-oriented peers. But some novelists urgently asked: what did it mean to think socially or politically with a defamiliarized account of willed human action, especially in a culture that sometimes aggressively urged the cultivation of self in the service of securing a stable political will? It seems right to say that for George Eliot, “impulses are impulses to action within a social world,” whereas “Paterian pulsations drive outward toward a world of substance” (172). Morgan shows that “If materialist determinism erodes freedom, then, [Pater’s] Florian is compensated by finding himself in a world where objects [are] enlivened and invested with feeling” (153-4). But is compensation all?
Such a question deeply vexed Hardy, whereas other relevant writers linked new concepts of substance with the social— Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” describes an impoverished worker as “merely the infinitesimal atom of a force that, so far from regarding him, crushes him.”[i] Morgan shows that Lucretian atomism’s vogue in the 1870s offered a vibrant vocabulary to both science and aesthetics. This sense of enlivenment, even liberation, persists: for instance, Sara Ahmed writes that when Lucretius imagines the will as atoms swerving, his materialism tunes to “the possibility of deviation,” grounds for reframing the human will as dissensus.[ii] Yet Wilde’s comment underlines a punishing determinism and presses social analysis. W. K. Clifford, a mathematician of great interest in The Outward Mind familiar to Wilde, also advocated the ethical significance of his pre-posthumanism: “The conception of the universe or aggregate of beliefs which forms the link between sensation and action for each individual is a public and not a private matter; it is formed by society and for society.”[iii] While Morgan heeds Jacques Rancière’s account of the nineteenth century’s fundamentally democratic partition of the sensible, the social consequences of materialist regimes seem de-emphasized. By downplaying the ethical or political register, Morgan smartly avoids affect theory’s occasional impulse to anticipate radical liberation if affect, not subjectivity, is autonomous. But I wonder: for these Victorians, what was possible (or not) when what G. H. Lewes called “the physical basis of life”—a molecular commons—came into view?
[i] Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” in Criticism: Historical Criticism, Intentions, The Soul of Man, ed. Josephine M. Guy, in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, ed. Ian Small, 7 vol. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000–2013), 4: 263.
[ii] Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2014), 12.
[iii] Clifford, “Right and Wrong,” in Lecture and Essays, vol. 2, ed. Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011), 174.