Embodying Agency: The Liberal Will, the Psychophysiological Individual, and Intersubjective Connections in the Victorian Novel

Kelly, JoAnn. Embodying Agency: The Liberal Will, the Psychophysiological Individual, and Intersubjective Connections in the Victorian Novel. 2012. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.
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My dissertation examines the emergence of a new language for agency in nineteenth-century literature and science, which articulated a form of intersubjectivity that departed from a central element of Victorian liberal ideology: the emphasis on the autonomous will as key to the advancement of civilization. I show that writers like Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins understand character development as importantly physiological, reflecting a movement in Victorian psychology that, for the first time, proposed a scientific account of the relationship between body and mind. The novels I take up do not necessarily affirm the kind of isolated, distanced individual that is typically associated with Victorian liberalism and the form of the novel. Instead, the relationship between body and agency is often imagined as a play of affective influence, constituting the theorization of an embodied intersubjective agency able to form and transform character through connections between bodies. As I show, this deviates from hallowed liberal ideals such as self-formation, the linear development of individual and society, the idea of evolutionary progress, and the role of a rational intellect in producing moral behavior.

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Completed/published
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