ENGL729A - Seminar in Eighteenth-Century Literature: Experimentalism: Literature, Science, Theory

At the end of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, we are given an image of the “Lunar Sphere” (where some think that Belinda’s snipped lock ends up) that features numerous tokens from the beau monde: beaus’s wits “in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases,” “The Courtier’s Promises,” (5.116, 119), as well as “Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea; / Dry’d Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry” (5.122-23). These final items are the possessions of a virtuoso, objects associated with experimentalism, even if ironically so. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, experimental philosophy had become a popular pastime, satisfying the culture’s desire for “public science” and inextricably part of modern, fashionable life.

This course will study the promise of experimentalism as a hallmark of modernity and its perceived liability as a trivial, even dangerous distraction. Drawing on the popularization of scientific practice, in part achieved through the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions and other publications, as well as the cultural coding of scientific instruments as fashionable consumer goods for urbanized men and women, this course will consider experimentalism as a simultaneously literary, scientific, and ideological mode. We will read a range of texts that present experimentalism as central to forming community, enhancing one’s social position, and providing superior knowledge, and others that suggest experimentalism leaves practitioners blind, socially outcast, and helpless in the marketplace. We will likewise extend our purview to consider the thematic and methodological manifestations of experimentalism in a variety of literary texts, attending in particular to the expressions of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Authors to be considered will likely include: John Locke, Robert Hooke, Thomas Sprat, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Jonathan Swift, Susanna Centlivre, Thomas Shadwell, Eliza Haywood, Daniel Defoe, James Thomson, Hester Lynch Thrale, Tobias Smollett, and Laurence Sterne. Our readings will be situated within central theoretical debates about early science, empiricism, and enlightenment, particularly the contributions of Donna Haraway, Ian Hacking, Barbara Stafford, Karen Barad, Lorraine Daston, Shapin and Schaffer, Horkheimer and Adorno, Susan Stewart, Judith Butler, Foucault, Habermas, Michael McKeon, and Gilles Deleuze.

Course requirements will likely include active participation in class discussion, two or three presentations, a research proposal, and a seminar paper (15-20 pp.).


Permission of department.