[NEMLA] The Descent of Darwin: Evolutions in Literary Representation (April 30 - May 3 2015)

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Northeast Modern Language Association
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Charles Darwin’s work transformed scientific knowledge in the nineteenth-century by offering new modes of understanding and classifying humans that had serious consequences for the studies of race, animals, and affect. This panel intends to explore how late nineteenth and early twentieth century British and American literature engages, affirms or resists Darwin’s theories. Many genres, such as Gothic fiction and naturalism, problematically craft characters that conform to Darwin’s hierarchical categorizations of humanity. We seek papers that productively participate in the discussion of literature and science with an eye to analyses of science not just as content or theme, but also as aesthetic and generic influence. Literature offers a means not just to respond to science but to work through scientific issues and resulting social anxieties.

This panel hopes to investigate the theoretical possibilities Darwin opened up or foreclosed through science. His work on evolution in The Descent of Man profoundly affected the terrain of scientific racism and affirmed the complicity of scientific discovery with colonialism, but also paved the way for the fields of animal studies and post-humanism. The system of classification he offers in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals has troubling implications regarding the relationship between race and animality, but also anticipates work in affect theory. Our panel will investigate Darwin’s influence on the literature of his day and consider how his work may have served as the foundation for theoretical fields central to contemporary academic discourse.

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