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Dispassionate Descriptions: Disciplining Emotion in the Long Eighteenth Century

Peh, Li Qi

It is widely accepted that description was used by eighteenth-century writers for the purposes of documentary or ornamentalization. That it was also used to manage the emotions of readers is less often discussed. “Dispassionate Descriptions” corrects this imbalance by attending to the ways in which descriptions in certain scientific and poetic works from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries were used to dampen the intense emotions that scenes of violence and death tend to inspire, be they sympathy, anger, or love. Writers ranging from William Harvey to James Thomson to John Gabriel Stedman, I argue, taught their readers how to remain dispassionate in the face of suffering and injustice by describing moving bodies and scenes in terms of their physical features alone. By presenting the blood spurting from the wounds of vivisected animals in relation to the regular beat of the heart, a drowning cat in terms of the movements of its head and paws, and the dance of enslaved persons in terms of its irregular beat, the writers I study demonstrated how the disorderly movements of pain or rebellion could be read as expressive of overarching classificatory schemes. Through cultivating dispassion for movements commonly thought to incite passionate responses, these writers worked to maintain the ethical and political status quo.
By examining the emotional work descriptions of motion do, “Dispassionate Descriptions” traces an alternative history of how motion from the 1660s to the 1790s was understood outside of the predominant frameworks of mechanism and vitalism. While motion was regarded as inextricable from the literary and scientific discourses of this period, scenes of motion, as I demonstrate, were paradoxically also thought to facilitate emotional retreat. They were thus used by writers to advance a mode of ethics that prized non-interference and the disavowal of moral responsibility.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Davidson, Jenny M.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 5, 2020