My first book, 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.
In Human Scale: The Aesthetics of Climate Change
Human activity is changing the biosphere very rapidly at the scale of geological time. But in our human scales of reference, this change looks slow or imperceptible. Since the nineteenth century transition to a coal and steam energy economy, we have found it extremely difficult to understand the disjuncture between geological time and fossil fuel consumption. My current book project, In Human Scale: The Aesthetics of Climate Change, asks why aesthetic objects have so often attempted–and so often failed–to convey the vastness of ecological crisis. Examining the literary and visual culture of the early climate change era (ca. 1800-1900), the project evaluates popular and elite cultural forms–panoramas, geological maps, voyage narratives, coal debates, and naturalist novels–that attempted to resituate human activity within vast scales of time.