Thesis ID: CBB233336823

Passive Life: Vitalism and British Fiction, 1820-1880 (2022)


Dames, Nicholas (Advisor)
Newby, Diana Rose (Author)

Dames, Nicholas
Columbia University
Publication date: 2022
Language: English

Publication Date: 2022
Physical Details: 208

This dissertation charts a lineage of nineteenth-century British literary interventions into the arena of science and philosophy jointly known as vitalism. Intended in part as a contribution to the history of science, Passive Life reconstructs the largely forgotten genealogy of a robust tradition of Victorian-era materialist vitalism, or vital materialism: the theory that a principle of life inheres in all physical matter. I connect this scientific trend to a concurrent surge of cultural engagement with the seventeenth-century philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, whose monist doctrine received renewed attention as experimental developments in biology, physics, physiology, and epidemiology increasingly supported a vital materialist account of the nature of life. Through readings of novels by Mary Shelley, Harriet Martineau, and George Eliot, I position these three women writers as key figures in vitalism’s cultural reception. By attending to the thematic resonances between their novels and materialist vitalism’s major principles and provocations, Passive Life traces the narrative arc of Victorian vitalism, deepening and expanding extant scholarly accounts of the rich interchange among literature and science in the nineteenth century. Moving beyond reception history, however, this dissertation argues that the novels of Shelley, Martineau, and Eliot worked to construct critical interpretations of vitalist theory with a shared emphasis on passivity as a fundamental feature of life. Through innovative techniques of description and characterization, their fiction locates the passivity of life at the level of the material body, in its inherent contingency, fluidity, and impressibility. The view of embodied subjectivity that thus emerges from these novels complicates the liberal humanist model that rose to predominance in Victorian culture and privileged an active, self-determining subject. Within the counter-tradition to which Shelley, Martineau, and Eliot belonged, the idea of “passive life” occasioned pressing ethical and political quandaries involving the relationships between self and other and between subject and environment. On the one hand, treating embodied life as passive pointed speculatively toward more liberated, open-ended, and mutually sustaining forms of communal being. On the other hand, “passive life” also suggested the vulnerability and precarity of bodies helplessly exposed to their material and affective surroundings, raising important questions regarding intention, obligation, and accountability. How do we live well in a world where so many other embodied lives impress upon our own? Can pain and harm be prevented in such a world? What habits of perception and practices of sociality might be evolved and adapted to the realities of passive life? In confronting these questions, nineteenth-century British fiction provides conceptual frameworks well suited to interrogating the political and ethical implications of the twenty-first-century new materialist turn.

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Authors & Contributors
Berg, Gunhild
Brown, Jeffrey Scott
Duncan, Ian
Erlingsson, Steindór J.
Giglioni, Guido Maria
Kaitaro, Timo
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
Science in Context
Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Journal of the History of Biology
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
University of Iowa
Stanford University
New York, City University of
Cambridge University Press
Classiques Garnier
Princeton University Press
Science and literature
Mechanism; mechanical philosophy
Hobbes, Thomas
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich
Cavendish, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle
Darwin, Erasmus
Dickens, Charles
Diderot, Denis
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
17th century
20th century, early
20th century
Great Britain
Université de Montpellier

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