Posts in Charles Lyell
From Romantic Catastrophism to Victorian Gradualism: A Reading of Epistemes

Several nineteenth-century scholars have remarked upon the movement from “catastrophism to gradualism” in the transition from Romantic to Victorian culture. They see the shift to gradualism in literature (and society) as the result of the incursion of science and its ideas into cultural realms  (e.g., Cosslett, Culler). While recent writings in the discourse of science and literature studies have complicated this one-way traffic by acknowledging a dialectical flow between cultural realms, such readings are nevertheless situated with reference to C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” paradigm.1 In referring literature to scientific discourse and vice versa, science and literature studies may capture a mutual conditioning of respective cultural spheres, but nevertheless continues to discount a reading of the determinations of both spheres by other important social and political factors.

In order to account for a shift from catastrophism to gradualism, I argue that science and literature must be referred to underlying discursive pressures mediating between cultural spheres. Rather than considering literature as appropriating the idioms of science, and/or vice versa, the social and political significations of competing epistemologies and philosophical positions within and across cultural spheres should be traced to account for changes within cultural representation.



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