I am an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago. My research and teaching focus on literature, science, and aesthetics in the Victorian period and early twentieth century. In particular, I work on:

  • Nineteenth-century sciences of mind and emotion, and their significance for Victorian novelists and literary critics
  • Speculative fiction from the Victorian period to the present, including gothic, science fiction, utopia, and romance
  • The aesthetic and decadent movements in art and literature
  • Aesthetic philosophy, affect theory, and neuroaesthetics
  • The role of humanities scholarship in the era of climate change

My book, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2017), explores how nineteenth-century sciences of mind and emotion generated new and controversial explanations of the human experience of the arts. Tracing manifold intersections of science and aesthetics, the book reflects on the long history of the aspiration to use evolutionary theory and cognitive science to make sense of art and literature.

Other topics I've recently written about include the reception of British aestheticism in the United States, and literary interpretation in the era of climate change.

With my colleagues in History, Emily Lynn Osborn and Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, I am a PI on the project Climate Change: Disciplinary Challenges to the Humanities and the Social Sciences at University of Chicago's Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.

I also help organize V21: Victorian Studies for the Twenty-First Century and the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Cultures Workshop at Chicago.

 

bjmorgan@uchicago.edu

@morganbenjamin

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Walker 512
1115 E. 58th St.
University of Chicago
Chicago, IL 60637
Office Hours (2016-17): T/Th 12-1

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Research

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The Outward Mind

My current book project, The Outward Mind: Materialism, Science, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, explores how Victorian sciences of mind and emotion generated new and controversial explanations of art, literature, and beauty. In the context of early neurology and evolutionary biology, many argued that aesthetic judgment was not a distinctively human capacity, but a physiological response or an evolutionary adaptation. Scientific approaches to art and literature were remarkably widespread in the nineteenth century, but they fell out of favor when foundational thinkers in modern literary studies and art history developed autonomous critical methods. Discussing writers such as Herbert Spencer, Walter Pater, William Morris, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Vernon Lee, the book traces some of the forgotten intersections of aesthetic theory and the science of the mind: for these and many other thinkers, writing about aesthetic experience became an important way both to explore relationships among mind, body, and emotion, and to consider how the individual mind could extend "outward" into surrounding objects and physical environments. Part of my aim is to return to nineteenth-century materialist thought to consider alternatives to familiar categories such as the sublime and the beautiful; I am especially interested in how Victorian accounts of aesthetic experience as taking place beneath or beyond conscious reflection can help us think about the affective dimension of aesthetic judgment. More broadly, the book reflects on the long history of our desire to use evolutionary theory and cognitive science to make sense of art and literature.

Aesthetics, Historicism, and the Anthropocene

I am also working on several essays that converge around issues of climate change, nineteenth-century nature writing, and the literature of scientific exploration. In the broadest sense, I am interested in how the notion that we live in a new era defined by anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity collapse (the Anthropocene) might shift how we historicize within the humanities, and in how aesthetic theory can provide resources for moving between the divergent temporal and spatial scales of the human and the planet. My current work approaches these questions by way of the literature and visual culture of nineteenth-century British and American polar exploration, which developed a range of aesthetic, quantitative, and formal strategies to represent the extreme environments of the Arctic; as well as through non-realist fiction from 1870-1930, which often speculated about nonhuman agency, the malleability of natural law, and deep time before and after humanity.

 

Publications

Forthcoming

V21: Presentism, Form, and the Future of History. Special issue of Boundary 2 Online, co-edited with Anna Kornbluh (forthcoming September 2016).

“Fin du Globe: On Decadent Planets.” Victorian Studies 58.4 (Summer 2016).

“Scale, Resonance, Presence.” Victorian Studies 59.1 (Autumn 2016).

"Scale as Form: Thomas Hardy's Rocks and Stars." In Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geological Times. Eds. Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor. University Park: Penn State University Press, forthcoming 2017.

“Harmony and Dissonance.” Classicisms, edited by Larry Norman and Anne Leonard. Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2017.

“How We Might Live: Utopian Ecology in William Morris and Samuel Butler.” In Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire. Eds. Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

Reviews and Entries

Review of Wicked Intelligence, by Matthew C. Hunter, Critical Inquiry (2014).

“Vernon Lee.” Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Review of The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe, ed. Stefano Evangelista, Victorian Studies 54.2 (Winter 2012): 366-368.

Review of Gothic and Modernism, ed. John Paul Riquelme, Modern Philology 110.2 (November 2012): E111-E114.

Review of State of Exception, by Giorgio Agamben, Law, Culture and the Humanities 1.2 (July 2005): 264–265.

Talks

Upcoming

V21 and Strategic Presentism” (Keynote). Graduate Student Conference, Loyola University Chicago, October 2016.

“Decadent World Ecologies.” North American Victorian Studies Association, Phoenix, AZ, November 2016.

“The Climate of The Purple Cloud.” Victorian Literature and Culture Seminar, Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University. November 2016.

“In Human Scale: Forms of the Anthropocene.” Theater Studies Colloquium, Duke University, Fall 2016.

“V21: Presentism and Victorian Studies.” Indiana University, Spring 2017.

“Climate Change and Narrative.” Stevanovich Institute for the Formation of Knowledge, Inaugural Conference, University of Chicago, November 2017.

Invited Talks

“In Human Scale: Thinking Climate Change with Thomas Hardy.” Nineteenth-Century Faculty Seminar, Oxford University, June 2016.
 
“Aesthetic Play in Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer.” Victorian Psychology Now, Birkbeck College, University of London, June 2016.

 “Global Thought in the Anthropocene.” Panel discussion with Ursula Heise, Bill Brown, and Fredrik Jonsson. Center for International Studies, 50th Anniversary Series, University of Chicago, May 2016.

“Scale.” Midwest Faculty Seminar, University of Chicago, April 2016.

“Keywords for Strategic Presentism: Scale, Resonance, Presence.” Plenary roundtable, Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference, Asheville, NC, March 2016. 

“Scales without Size in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science Workshop, University of Chicago, February 2016.

“Memory: Writing, Traces, and the Unconscious.” Object Roundtable, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, October 2015.

“From Clouds to Gas: Atmospheres of Industrialization.” Object Roundtable, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, March 2015.

“Feeling Anthropocene: Arctic Aesthetics in the Nineteenth Century.” University of Maryland College Park, Department of English, February 2014.

“Victorian Neuroaesthetics.” History of Human Sciences Workshop, University of Chicago, November 2013.

“How Matter Learned to Think: Wilkie Collins, Walter Pater, and Physiological Aesthetics.” Birkbeck College, Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, October 2013.

“Aesthetic Experience and the Embodied Mind in Victorian Science and Literature.” University of Edinburgh, Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, September 2013.

“Renegade Aesthetics.” Inter-Chicago Circle for Experimental Critical Theory. Newberry Library, Chicago, August 2013.

“Darkness and Invisibility.” Smart Museum of Art Object-Based Workshop. University of Chicago, April 2013.

“Critical Empathy: Reading the Movement of Form in Vernon Lee’s Aesthetics.” Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Cultures Workshop, University of Chicago, May 2011.

 “On Physiology and Beauty.” Franke Institute for the Humanities luncheon series, University of Chicago, February 24, 2011.

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Conference Papers

“Utopian World Ecology in Samuel Butler’s A First Year at Canterbury Settlement and Erewhon.” V-cologies Symposium, University of California, Davis, September 2016.

“Fin du Globe: On Decadent Planets.” 20th and 21st Century Workshop, University of Chicago, May 2016.
 
“Presentism, Form, and the Future of History.” V21 Symposium: Presentism, Form, and the Future of History. Chicago, IL, October 2015.

"Cold Paradise: The Arctic's Utopian Pull." Narrative 2015, Chicago, IL.

"After the Arctic Sublime: Aesthetic Categories in the Anthropocene." ACLA 2015, Seattle, WA.

"The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Scientific Voyages, Deep Time, and Planetary Context," NAVSA 2014, London, Ontario.

“Transnational Wilde.” Modern Language Association, Chicago, IL, January 2014.

“Living Matter in Victorian Physiology and Aesthetics, 1840-1860.” Modern Language Association, Chicago, IL, January 2014.

“Mapping the Sublime: Scientific Knowledge and Aesthetic Judgment in the Arctic and the Alps.” North American Victorian Studies Association, Pasadena, CA, October 2013.

“Bodies as Networks in Victorian Aesthetics.” North American Victorian Studies Association, Madison, WI, September 2012.

 “Some Objects of Victorian Aesthetic Theory.” Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, Milwaukee, WI, September 2012.

“How Things Look: Clementina Anstruther-Thomson and the Aesthetics of Material Vision.” North American Victorian Studies Association Conference, Montréal, November 11–14, 2010.

“Grant Allen and the Science of Aesthetic Pleasure.” Arts Research Center Symposium, UC Berkeley, May 6, 2009.

“Aesthetics/Hedonics: The Science of Pleasure at the fin de siècle.” Interdisciplinary Nineteenth Century Studies Conference, Skidmore College, April 24–26, 2009.

“A Lot of Art is Boring: The Psychological Aesthetics of Grant Allen and Vernon Lee.” Northeast Victorian Studies Association Conference, Wellesley College, April 3–5, 2009.

“Regeneration: Evolutionary Aesthetics and the Biology of Form.” Nineteenth Century Studies Association Conference, March 26–28, 2009.

“Lucretian Aestheticism: The Materialist Flux and Aesthetic Subjectivity.” North American Victorian Studies Association Conference, Yale University, November 14–16, 2008. Also given at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association Conference, Pomona College, November 7–8, 2008.

“The Pleasures of Sinking: Decadent Self-Loss as Sublime Immersion.” Northeast Victorian Studies Association Conference, University of Toronto, April 11–13, 2008.

“Is Bad Aestheticism Good Politics? William Morris and the Debate over Individualism.” Rhetoric Department Faculty/Graduate Student Panel, UC Berkeley, December 6, 2007.

“Pater’s Ethical Materialism.” North American Victorian Studies Association Conference, University of Victoria, October 10–13, 2007.

“The Aesthetics of ‘Pure Means’: Violence and the Law in Benjamin and Agamben.” Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities Conference, Syracuse University, March 24–25, 2006.

“Spectatorship as Action: Arendt’s Lectures on Kant and the Futurist Spectacle.” “Rethinking Reception” graduate conference, Duke University, March 25–26, 2005.

Teaching

At Chicago, I teach in the Media Aesthetics core sequence, which introduces first-year students to theories and histories of media, broadly conceived. Some of the topics we address include Plato's critiques of imitation and writing in the Republic and the Phaedrus, early responses to photography and cinema, and the relationship between text and image in the graphic novel.

At the undergraduate and graduate level, I teach courses on Victorian literature and the history of science, with a particular emphasis on Darwin's literary significance, literature and ecology, the emergence of science fiction, aestheticism and decadence at the fin-de-siècle, and Oscar Wilde and his circle.

Syllabi

University of Chicago

Science Fiction: Theories and Origins, Fall 2016
Climate Change Fiction, Winter 2016
Aestheticism and Decadence, Fall 2015
Literary Environments, Winter 2015
Victorian Speculative Fiction: Agency, Time, and Utopia, Autumn 2014
Oscar Wilde and His Contexts, Spring 2013
Oscar Wilde’s London (Study Abroad), Fall 2012
The Politics of Aestheticism, Winter 2012
Science and the Literary Imagination, Winter 2012
Psychology and Literature in the Nineteenth Century, Winter 2011
Late Victorian Literature, Winter 2011
Media Aesthetics: Image, Text, Sound, 2010-2014

 

University of California, Berkeley

Science and Literature: The Two Cultures, Summer 2009
Irrationality, Madness, and Superstition in Victorian Prose, Summer 2008
Aestheticism and Decadence, Summer 2007
Introduction to Literary Theory, Spring 2007                                                                  
Reading and Meaning, Fall 2005
The Aesthetics of Evil, Summer 2005
Theories of the Lie: Plato to Derrida, Spring 2005, 2008, 2009
Twentieth-Century Theories of Interpretation, Fall 2006
The Politics of Performance, Summer 2006
Early Modern Europe and its Others, Fall 2004
The Scientist and the Detective, Spring 2004
Violence and Persuasion, Fall 2003

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