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; and speculative and non-realist fiction, including gothic, science fiction, utopia, and romance. I also write about topics in the environmental humanities including extinction, energy cultures, and the literary history of climate change. My approach is oriented by critical traditions in aesthetic theory, affect theory, and science studies.

My first book, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2017), explores how nineteenth-century sciences of mind and emotion generated new and controversial explanations of the human experience of the arts. The book reflects on the long history of using evolutionary theory and cognitive science to make sense of art and literature, and develops some theoretical tools for articulating the unusual physicality of aesthetic experience. I discuss an array of Victorian literature and science writing, including the work of Herbert Spencer, Grant Allen, Walter Pater, William Morris, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Vernon Lee. These writers explored and debated a materialist, broadly anti-Kantian conception of aesthetic experience as an embodied relation between person and artwork.

book cover

My current book project, In Human Scale: The Aesthetics of Climate Change, asks how art and literature try to bring long and vast processes of ecological devastation into human frames of reference. One of the imaginative problems we confront in the era of climate change is that although global warming, ocean acidification, and extinction are happening extremely quickly at a geological time scale, these disasters look slow or distant from our human perspective. My project argues that this “scalar disjuncture” originates with British industrialization and earth sciences, and shows how literary and cultural forms like the naturalist novel, utopian literature, the panorama, or decadent aesthetics developed formal strategies for fusing human and inhuman scales of time and space. You can read parts of In Human Scale here and here.

In 2015-2017, I worked with my colleagues Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Emily Lynn Osborn on an interdisciplinary reading group and speaker series at the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society called “Climate Change: Disciplinary Challenges to the Humanities and the Social Sciences.” Our syllabus is here. I’m also a co-founder of the scholarly collective V21, which sponsors various forms of writing and discussion about the relation between the Victorian period and the twenty-first century.

My personal website, including my CV and syllabi, is here.

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

  • The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017)
  • “Scale as Form: Thomas Hardy’s Rocks and Stars.” In Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geological Times, eds. Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017.
  • “Scale, Resonance, Presence.” Victorian Studies 59.1 (Autumn 2016).
  • Fin du Globe: On Decadent Planets.” Victorian Studies 58.4 (Summer 2016).
  • “Introduction: Presentism, Form, and the Future of History.” Coauthored with Anna Kornbluh. Boundary 2 Online, special issue on the V21 Collective (September 2016).
  • “After the Arctic Sublime.” New Literary History 47.1 (May 2016).
  • “Oscar Wilde’s Un-American Tour: Mormonism, Aestheticism, and Transnational Resonance.” American Literary History 26.4 (December 2014): 1–29.
  • Critical Empathy: Vernon Lee’s Aesthetics and the Origins of Close Reading (Victorian Studies 55.1, Autumn 2012)
  • "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)

Education

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

fig 1
David Ramsay Hay, diagram of ideal human proportions in The Natural Principles of Beauty, as Developed in the Human Figure (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1852), n.pag.
fig 2
George Field, analogy between scales of sound and colors in Chromatics, Or, an Essay on the Analogy and Harmony of Colours (London: A.J. Valpy, 1817).