Benjamin Morgan’s distinctive examination of the historical relationship between science and the humanities from Victorian times to the present in his first book, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (2017), recently received the 2017 Sonya Rudikoff Prize from the Northeast Victorian Studies Association. The Rudikoff Prize honors the best first book published annually about Victorian studies.
Traveling to Edinburgh, Scotland, and London, Morgan researched archives where Victorian intellectuals used evolutionary theory and cognitive science to make sense of art and literature. In The Outward Mind, he develops several theories for articulating the unusual physicality of aesthetic experience. His wide-ranging analysis of Victorian literature and science writing includes the work of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Hardy, and William Morris, who explored and debated a materialist, broadly anti-Kantian conception of aesthetic experience embodying the relationship between the person and the artwork.
“Benjamin Morgan has a truly remarkable, enviable capacity to reanimate current debates through fascinating historical research—in this case, debates about the neuroscience of aesthetic experience and questions about how and why the human sensorium apprehends artistic form,” said Bill Brown, the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture in the Department of English Language and Literature and Principal Investigator at the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory. “However, counterintuitively, at a moment when the arts and sciences have ‘begun’ to converge, the likes of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Vernon Lee have never seemed more relevant. As with his new work on climate in the Victorian era, Benjamin dramatically demonstrates, page after page, the far-ranging significance of humanistic scholarship.”
Through showing how Victorians used scientific concepts to delve into concepts of beauty, Morgan helps scholars look at this subject in a new way. “One example is how Victorians measured Greek statues to show the angles and mathematics of beauty and harmony,” said Morgan, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of English Language and Literature. “Through empirical studies, many scientists and writers explored a physical sense of beauty. They wanted to find out if art activates the nervous system in some way, a question that is relevant to discoveries taking place today.”
The community of scholars at UChicago influenced the broad scope of Morgan’s book. He shared drafts of his book with his colleagues in different disciplines who listened, critiqued, and debated it, including at the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Atlantic Cultures workshop and at the History of Human Sciences workshop.
“Benjamin’s book stands out for several reasons: it joins together mainstream scientists and intellectuals with figures not so well known; it emphasizes how a physiological orientation was not simply about sensation and presentation but about rethinking of the mind itself; and it establishes new intellectual genealogies that link what was once deemed intellectual backwaters of the Victorian period with innovative literary trends in the early 20th century,” said Elaine Hadley, professor in the Department of English Language and Literature.
For his future scholarship, Morgan is working on a book project, In Human Scale: The Aesthetics of Climate Change, asking how art and literature can bring the 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,” he said. “In this book project, I argue that novels and artworks can help us imagine climate change and expand our ecological imaginations.”
As demonstrated with his first award-winning book, Morgan is adept at delving deeply into fascinating topics and finding new ways to view the world through the complementary uniting of arts with sciences, while resisting the common temptation to keep them separate.