Reflection by Kate Flint
Benjamin Morgan’s brilliant, thought-provoking book makes Victorian discussions about the porosity between body and world, mind and matter, speak to a whole range of contemporary debates. His concern is not simply with the nature of aesthetic experience (is it profoundly individualistic and subjective, or does it build on and create community?), but with the history of affect, with form, with networks, with scale – including early modes of distant reading – and with changing emphases within literary studies. Both literary and art historians will learn much from his close, clear analysis. The long-standing tension between the intrinsic properties of an aesthetic object and the contingent associations that someone brings to a work is the book’s underlying theme, but at its core is a consideration of Victorian theories of embodied aesthetics. He shows the centrality of physiology to Victorian theorizing about art and literature, and its relationship to certain intersections of science and humanistic inquiry today.
It’s to Morgan’s credit that he leaves us asking plenty of questions. I’m especially intrigued by how germane these issues are to a pedagogy of aesthetics – whether Victorian or our own. The Outward Mind opens with Ruskin about to give a public lecture, pitting the deadening qualities of rational symmetry and mathematical perfection against Gothic expressiveness of individuality and human/natural imperfection. But can one teach aesthetic response, and what might it mean to do so? Does it mean listening to our bodies, and their interaction with what we perceive? This might include – according to different Victorian ideas that Morgan articulates – the involuntary position we adopt in front of a statue; the movement of our eye across a page of pleasing typeface; the curl of our body as we fit into a comfortable chair to read – just as much as the tingle in the nervous system that supposedly resulted from the stimulation of a sensation novel. Incidentally, I’m surprised that late Victorian beliefs about gendered difference in the nervous system’s composition weren’t considered: they certainly played a role in discussions about women’s reading.
Yet how can one account for, and perhaps transform, people who appear to have no response whatsoever to beauty (whether of form or language, or even of the natural world) or those who shrug their shoulders when introduced to a work that leaves someone else enraptured? One can teach attentive looking and reading, and maybe experiment with the associative potential of distracted, mind-wandering perception – but can one tell that someone’s reaction involves molecules in the brain reacting to molecules in the material world, rather than being the product of learned cultural norms? Finally, can one teach a distinction between individual preference and commodity fetishism – something particularly pertinent to the field of design? What, too, of “ugliness” – or reactions to what Vernon Lee termed, writing of Botticelli, “alternate or rather interdependent ugliness and beauty” – and the part that this, and what one might term negative affect, play in discussions of the aesthetic?
Underpinning and exceeding these queries is my strong endorsement of Morgan’s suggestion that it can be profitable, on occasion, “to adopt a strategy of historical interpretation that is nonlinear” (261). That is to say, whilst still acknowledging the importance of establishing where, how and why particular cultural formations came into being, we can profitably borrow questions from the Victorians, and use them to ask – in relation to today’s inquiries about affect and aesthetic reception – how meaning and emotion are related to the corporeal, and how matter and mind are intertwined.