Mind, Body, Motion, Matter: Eighteenth-Century British and French Literary Perspectives ed. by Mary Helen McMurran and Alison Conway (review)
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Mind, Body, Motion, Matter: Eighteenth-Century British and French Literary Perspectives, ed. Mary Helen McMurran and Alison Conway
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.
x+294pp. CAD$75. ISBN 978-1-4426-5011-4.

Mind, Body, Motion, Matter promises the reader a great deal of food for thought, and the collected essays go a great distance in meeting that promise, presenting a wide variety of approaches to many of the intriguing issues surrounding the depiction of mind and body in the eighteenth century. These insightful and original essays will be valuable to all students and scholars with an interest in the history of ideas in eighteenth-century Britain and France, and the literary productions engaged with these ideas. The debate on (im)materiality that raged over the course of the century is vast and multifaceted, and this collection, in its multiplicity of critical directions, contributes a provocative glimpse into this complex and many-headed subject.

Mary Helen McMurran’s introduction lays out the subject as “the major revisions” of “three core concepts” of natural philosophy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: matter, motion, and mind (3). Though the critical and research tacks in this volume vary widely in subject matter and method, all of the essays “engage with the re-grounding of human experience that resulted from early modern materialist and mechanistic tenets” (4). Rather than offering a summary of these tenets, McMurran describes changing attitudes towards the concept of form over the period. This description not only provides a useful tool with which to think about the essays’ various content, but it also dovetails with the rise in attention to form in theoretical approaches in recent years. McMurran lassoes the divergent interests by describing a critical context in which they might all be productively considered.

Though all the essays deserve mention, owing to space constraints, I will discuss a selection. Ruth Mack opens the volume with a consideration of William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty (1753), placed within the context of the rise of public interest in design and a contrary movement in the Royal Academy towards “high art.” In re-estimating the oft-dismissed “line of beauty” in Hogarth’s treatise, Mack points to Hogarth’s insistence on direct experience, the everyday object, and the importance of physical practice: “Thinking comes close to weaving, carving, casting” (29), and, as if on a potter’s wheel, the treatise itself is, in Hogarth’s words, “thrown ... in to the form of a book” (26). As opposed to a conception of art that focuses precisely on its separation from the everyday, Hogarth’s aesthetic reminds us “to think of the way an object ... could be tied to the cultural world ... [End Page 516] that surrounds it” (40). Mack’s essay makes a meaningful contribution towards the understanding of eighteenth-century artisanal aesthetics and to the broader history of aesthetic theory.

Hogarth also plays a significant role in Jonathan Kramnick’s “Presence of Mind: An Ecology of Perception in Eighteenth-Century England.” Kramnick is interested in what he calls an “anti-representational view” that acts as a “countercurrent” to a visually dominant eighteenthcentury aesthetic (47). Citing a variety of poetry and prose, the essay seeks to demonstrate the formulation of “an aesthetic of presence” that challenged the dominant notion of an isolated, distant observer. This notion may sound familiar to readers in its echo of twentiethcentury theory, from Benjamin’s aura to Lyotard’s assertion that “to be, aesthetically ... is to be—there, here and now, exposed ... before any concept of representation” (Jean-François Lyotard, “Prescription,” in Toward the Postmodern, ed. R. Harvey and M.S. Roberts [New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1993], 179). What Kramnick usefully points out, in lucid and concise prose, is that we can locate an aesthetics of presence in formulations that are pre-Romantic and pre-disciplinary. By focusing on examples that illustrate touch, rather than sight, as an organizing principle of sensation, Kramnick presents an alternative historical aesthetic based on shared presence as opposed to isolated withdrawal.

In “The Early Modern Embodied Mind and the Entomological Imaginary,” Kate Tunstall investigates the use of entomological imagery in depictions of the embodied mind...