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Anxiety, Profusion and the Nineteenth-Century Natural History Object

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Dr Alison Wood (English; Divinity; Lucy Cavendish) presents at the CRASSH Postdoctoral Research Seminar.

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We are accustomed to speaking of the Victorian crisis of mind; of considering nineteenth-century British culture as somehow in a state of – or responding to – political, scientific or social tension. The burden of material and intellectual excess resonates in our scholarly concerns: from enduring interests in texts such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Mrs Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere to the recent multitudinous and careful studies of the many, many things of Victorian culture – toys, souvenirs, gems, specimens, street lights, ephemera. Central to this is the movement of objects, particularly natural history objects – the specimen, the taxonomic catalogue, the expedition haul. Such abundance was exhilarating and exhausting, a burden and a possibility, a source of anxiety and of crisis.

I wonder then, how this image of nineteenth century cultural life might be nuanced if profusion were considered a function as well as source of anxiety. How, in terms of nineteenth-century natural history, did anxiety serve as intellectual constraint, fuel and frame? For the ordering and naming of natural things multiplied via trade, via oceanographic expedition and the flourishing – or spawning – of natural history societies and interests. But it also multiplied because of an anxious and pleasure-driven desire to know. In this paper I want to sketch some varieties of anxiety as they relate to the work of natural history and the intellectual fascinations of its observers and orderers. Where objects (many, many objects) and the work of classification collide there is an unexplored fissure: that in all of this thing-li-ness, anxiety meets pleasure meets a process for making knowledge. And it is that fissure that fuels my investigation.

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