Posts in science-and-culture
Excerpt: Chapter 6: Villains and Laughing Stocks, The Gender Jackpot, Transgressing the Boundaries

Obviously, I had by now known and accepted the premise that English Studies was a battlefield of “textual politics,” and that the players made no bones about their agendas. Previously, critics in the field, like the old New Critics with their plodding close reading of texts, had pretended to be neutral, but their neutrality was merely a thin scrim for cultural domination. Dead white men had ruled the English canon long enough. But this was only the most flagrant of offenses. Other suspects were singled out for prosecution – including an exclusive focus on the text itself (New Criticism), assuming the centrality or superiority of European culture (Eurocentrism), implicitly endorsing heterosexuality as a norm (heteronormativity), believing that humanity is exceptional and that individual humans have unitary selves (humanism), believing in an essence of human nature and/or in the essence of essential types of humans such as racial groups and women and men (essentialism), the belief that neutral knowledge is discoverable by scientific means (positivism), the belief that words might faithfully represent an external reality (logocentrism), and the privileging of the masculine in the construction of meaning (phallogocentrism) – among others. Every one of these notions or beliefs has been treated as a villain, a laughing stock, or both. 

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Naturally Scientific

Review of The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and His Contemporaries. Bernard Lightman and Michael S. Reidy, eds. Pickering & Chatto, 2014. Endeavour. Vol. 38.3–4 (September-December 2014): 151-52.

Review of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity, Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman, eds., University of Chicago, 2014. Endeavor 39.1 (March 2015): 3.

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Darwin’s Ancestors: The Evolution of Evolution

Despite his unique contribution to evolutionary theory—the mechanism of natural selection—Charles Darwin can hardly be considered the first evolutionary theorist in history. It is generally acknowledged that organic evolution, or “transmutation” as it was called during his lifetime, was hardly a new idea when Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. If ancient Indian and Greek thought is included, evolutionary ideas were thousands of years old by the time Darwin wrote. But even considering his own times, Darwin was not the evolutionary lone wolf that he is often made out to be. In fact, Darwin not only followed closely behind other transmutation theorists, but his own views met with a degree of skepticism not altogether unlike that which greeted his predecessors. In Victorian Web. 1 December 2008.

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The Construction and Deconstruction of Science in Middlemarch

The fictionalizing of science happens to be a meta-theme in Middlemarch, and one which, I will argue, Eliot sets out consciously and masterfully to interrogate. In the process, I hope to show that Eliot's use of science is far from naive or merely syncretic. To the contrary, I will venture to argue that in Middlemarch Eliot actually anticipates a greater discursive shift in scientific theory of which Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (l962) is the watermark in the philosophy of science, and which Michel Foucault marks and notes in his various archaeologies of knowledge. In Victorian Web. 1 December 2008.

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The Trope of “the Poor Inventor” in the British Patent Debate (and Beyond)*

As recent scholarship on the history of invention has shown, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century inventor was proposed as a plausible new hero of the industrial revolution. But the inventor has also been characterized as a creature of accident—of risk, poverty, madness, and premature death. By the 1820s, inventors were not only heroes of industry; they became its victims as well—“poor inventors” who suffered under poverty and oppression to bring forth the works of the mind. The case of the poor inventor was introduced and championed by advocates of inventive workers from the 1820s until the 1840s; the figure came to stand emblematically for working-class interests at large. By 1850, however, the ideological and rhetorical construct of the poor inventor was appropriated by a liberal, mostly middle-class lobby to affect the first reform of patent law in modern British history.

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Science in the Popularis Aura: Opening Statement delivered in defense of the dissertation: “The Publics of Science: Periodicals and the Making of British Science, 1820-1860”

As Thomas Carlyle quipped in 1829 in “Signs of the Times,” in the nineteenth century, “every little sect among us, Unitarians, Utilitarians, Anabaptists, Phrenologists, must have its Periodical, its monthly or quarterly Magazine;-- hanging out, like its windmill, into the popularis aura, to grind meal for the society.” In my dissertation, “The Publics of Science: Periodicals and the Making of British Science, 1820-1860,” I have endeavored to study the “machinery” for the production and dissemination of science in culture—to examine how various sects or publics provided scientific “meal for the society.” Examining several periodicals from early to mid-nineteenth-century Britain, my dissertation is an account of emerging sites for the production, dissemination, negotiation, and appropriation of knowledge amongst various participants—authors, publishers, editors, reviewers, critics, readers and others—as they vied for (and against) cultural authority on the basis of beliefs claimed as “scientific.”  

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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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