Onwards and Upwards: Moments of Friction in Victorian Teleological Thinking (NeMLA: Toronto, Canada; April 30 – May 3, 2015)

full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA)

This panel seeks to engage with the repercussions that teleological imagery and metaphors of progress had on Victorian thought and culture. Progress, imagined as an accumulative, unidirectional movement through time, profoundly shaped the Victorian understanding of history, politics, social organization, and national destiny. Imagining civilization as developing in phases fomented a national obsession with documenting, collecting, and cataloguing people and things into discrete stages of development, and additionally demanded frequent cultural demonstrations of the nation's position at the pinnacle of this notional configuration. Meanwhile, metaphorical similarities between "primitive" cultures and developmental immaturity encouraged the proliferation of watchdog critics that carefully monitored Victorian culture for signs of degeneration or backsliding.

This panel is particularly interested in examining moments when these metaphors of progress create confusion, disagreement and paradox in Victorian England. The belief that non-Europeans were developmentally incapable of forging sophisticated circuits of commodity exchange, for instance, left explorers baffled when "primitives" were not awed by objects of European manufacture. Debates raged as to whether women existed constitutionally in an "earlier" stage of evolutionary development, or if, instead, the progress of political development necessitated gender equality.

Papers may consider such metaphors of progress with respect to:

  • Spatial representations of temporal movement (e.g., diagonal lines, ladders, staircases)
  • (Pseudo-)scientific frameworks of "accumulative" civilization
  • Teleological theories of art and design
  • Literary forms of development (e.g., the bildungsroman)
  • Visions of the future/depictions of atavism and regression

Interested scholars should submit an abstract (max 500 words) directly to NeMLA by Sept 30, 2014 (direct link to panel)