Date of Award

2019

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

English

First Advisor

Jed Esty

Abstract

E.M. Forster’s imperative to “only connect” has long been read as modernist slogan for the rarefied depth of authentic interpersonal intimacy. Reframing the historical co-emergence of literary modernism and modern social science, this project tells a different story—not of connections between exceptional humans, but of connections between persons and environments. The prevailing canons of modernism have not yet grasped the internal complexity of early-twentieth-century debates regarding the interdependence of human and nonhuman agency. Early-twentieth-century sociologists like Émile Durkheim grounded both the autonomy of human culture and the disciplinary authority of sociology on the premise of species exceptionalism—the independence of human relations from nature and technology. “Inhuman Power” uncovers how the latent epistemological assumptions of Durkheimian social theory continue to structure contemporary aesthetic value judgments and literary-historical paradigms. The dominant structuring prism of nineteenth-century social theory has led critics to understand modernist art as a form of human aesthetic agency responsive to the reifying degradations of machines, masses, and media—a symbolic consolation for human alienation from nature (both the natural world and the “second nature” of administered society). This model casts modernism within a protracted philosophical stalemate between the human and nonhuman that obscures the mixing of natural and social agencies. Challenging the presumed dominance of this position, “Inhuman Power” assembles a set of core texts that comprise a significant counter-aesthetic to the dualism of nature and society. Examining texts by E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells, Gabriel Tarde, Joseph Conrad, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Charles Chesnutt, this project recasts modernism not in terms of subjects alienated from nature, but subjectivities co-constituted with environments. A shared formal question animates all of the texts that I examine: by what aesthetic concept or literary feature can texts reimagine the conceptual relationship between character and environment, nature and society? Excavating aesthetic strategies developed across sociology and literary art to represent the intensifying entanglement of natural, social, and technological agencies in the first decade of the twentieth century, “Inhuman Power” reanimates these writers’ ambition to imaginatively transform the concepts through which human beings render the material world thinkable and thus how human beings interact with that world.

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