Benjamin Morgan

Benjamin Morgan
Associate Professor
  • Department of English
Walker 512
(773) 702-2203
bjmorgan@uchicago.edu

My research and teaching focus on literature, science, and aesthetics in the Victorian period and early twentieth century. My particular areas of interest include nineteenth-century sciences of mind and emotion; aestheticism and decadence in a global context; and speculative and non-realist fiction, including gothic, science fiction, utopia, and romance. My approach to the period is oriented by critical traditions in aesthetic and affect theory, science studies, and the environmental humanities.

I am currently working on a book, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature, which 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.

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. I've also recently written about how British aestheticism was taken up in the United States, focusing in particular on the circumstances surrounding Oscar Wilde's 1882 lecture to Mormons in Salt Lake City.

Courses

2016-17 courses: Autumn 2016, Science Fiction: Theories and Origins (graduate). Winter 2017, Nineteenth Century Environmental Thought (undergraduate).

Graduate: Psychology and Literature in the Nineteenth Century; Science and the Literary Imagination, 1830-1900; Victorian Speculative Fiction: Ecology and Utopia; Aestheticism and Decadence

Undergraduate: Literature of the Late Victorian Period; The Politics of Aestheticism; Science and the Literary Imagination, 1830-1900; Media Aesthetics; Environments of Literature; Climate Change Fiction

Publications

  • "Oscar Wilde's Un-American Tour: Aestheticism, Mormonism, and Transnational Resonance." American Literary History 26.4 (Winter 2014).
  • "Aesthetic Freedom: Walter Pater and the Politics of Autonomy." ELH 77.3 (Fall 2010)
  • "Undoing Legal Violence: Walter Benjamin’s and Giorgio Agamben’s Aesthetics of Pure Means." The Journal of Law and Society 34.1 (March 2007)
  • Critical Empathy: Vernon Lee’s Aesthetics and the Origins of Close Reading (Victorian Studies 55.1, Autumn 2012)
  • After the Arctic Sublime (Forthcoming, New Literary History)

Education

Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley, 2010. Teaching at Chicago since 2010.

Koenig manometer
"Interesting and dull shapes of leaves of bay and ivy, also a wild tulip and debased garden house-leak [sic]." From Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson’s Beauty and Ugliness (1912), which sought to develop an aesthetics based on simple responses to shapes and forms.
Beauty and Ugliness
A Koenig manometer, which illustrates the shape of sound waves by showing how differing pitches affect a gas flame.