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  • Running High on FeelingEmotional Ecologies in Sister Carrie, Robert Park, and China Miéville
  • Kevin Modestino (bio)

Late in Sister Carrie (1900), Theodore Dreiser explains the chemistry of emotions in Hurstwood’s physical and moral decline:

Now, it has been shown experimentally that a constantly subdued frame of mind produces certain poisons in the blood, called katastates, just as virtuous feelings of pleasure and delight produce helpful chemicals called anastates. The poisons generated by remorse inveigh against the system, and eventually produce marked physical deterioration. To these Hurstwood was subject.


These mysterious chemicals, katastates and anastates, were the postulation of Elmer Gates, an inventor and self-proclaimed experimental psychologist. While writing Sister Carrie, Dreiser had contacted Gates in the interest of writing an article about his laboratory in Chevy Chase, Maryland. But Dreiser’s interest in Gates went beyond his magazine work; Gates’s ideas about neuromuscular volition and the chemical changes spurred by emotion helped confirm Dreiser’s doubts about human moral autonomy. Unlike a previous generation of literary realists, he envisioned his characters as beset by external and internal forces, such as Gates’s chemicals, over which they had little authority or control.1 The only problem was that Gates’s ideas were mostly crackpot—they would go on to inform countless dubious self-help programs—and Dreiser’s assertion that the effect of these chemicals had been experimentally demonstrated was quite literally a scientific fiction.

Dreiser’s novels are full of such speculations about the forces at play in the fates of his characters. In the logic of Sister Carrie a purse can build up in the mind of observers a “dim world of fortune” (6), inclining desires and imaginations towards its owner. A man’s passion (but not himself or his will) induces in a woman “a leaning towards him” (202). And a wad [End Page 52] of greenbacks finds itself removed from a safe into a man’s hand, without the man knowing how it all happened. Literary critics often read these scenes as reflecting a deterministic worldview, arguing that Dreiser created characters who were driven by instinct, trapped by evolutionary fate, and compelled to follow endless cycles of consumption.2 In contrast to these approaches, but not opposed to them, I propose to examine Dreiser’s novels as portrayals of dispersed, rather than determined, agency. In this reading Dreiser begins to look less like a late realist, questioning the mimetic accuracy of the ideal of moral autonomy, and more like a proto-speculative fiction writer, imagining the proliferation of agency through physiology, commodity objects, and emotions. As in the work of sf writers, Dreiser’s speculative leaps, his inclusions of pseudo-scientific theories, and his inconsistent Darwinism are not failures of mimetic realism or scientific knowledge.3 Rather, they are part of an encompassing attempt to disperse agency through multiple moral, physiological, economic, and environmental actors, not the least of which are emotions. This emphasis on emotional agency is something Dreiser shares with contemporary sf novelist China Miéville. Part of the “new weird” movement in Britain, Miéville’s novels explore both the emotional potency of encounters between human and non-human life and the circulation of power through cities in the form of incidental encounters, visual spectacles, and feelings of fear, anxiety, and paranoia. In other words, both Dreiser and Miéville imagine their characters as inhabiting “urban ecologies,” where selves have no moral, mental, or physical authority over the emotions that circulate through the space of the city independent from those who feel them.

The idea of a human or urban ecology was prominent in Dreiser’s era. While Ernst Haeckel defined the word ecology in 1866 as the study of interactions and adaptations between animals and their environment, around the same time Herbert Spencer applied the revelations of evolutionary theory to the study of human social life and, in doing so, helped provide the groundwork for the field of sociology. While Spencer saw society as a self-regulating natural phenomenon, reform-minded sociologists in America wanted to use sociology to understand and temper the social upheavals of the late nineteenth century. From the founding of the American Journal...


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pp. 52-78
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