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Biological Discourses

The Language of Science and Literature Around 1900


Robert Craig and Ina Linge

The relationship between biological thought and literature, and between science and culture, has long been an area of interest by no means confined to literary studies. The Darwin Anniversary celebrations of 2009 added to this tradition, inspiring a variety of new publications on the cultural reception of Darwin and Darwinism. With a fresh scope that includes but also reaches beyond the «Darwinian» legacy, the essays in this volume explore the range and diversity of interactions between biological thought and literary writing in the period around 1900.

How did literature uniquely shape the constitution and communication of scientific ideas in the decades after Darwin? Did literary genres dangerously distort, or shed critical light upon, the biological theories with which they worked? And what were the ethical and social implications of those relationships? With these broad questions in mind, the contributors consider the biological embeddedness of human nature, perspectives on sexual desire, developments in racial thinking and its political exploitation, and poetic engagements with experimental psychology and zoology. They also range across different literary traditions, from Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, to Britain and the USA. Biological Discourses provides a rich cross-section of the contested relationship between literature and biological thought in fin-de-siècle and modernist cultures.

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13 Attention and Efficiency: The Experimental Psychology of Modernism (Sarah Cain)


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13  Attention and Efficiency: The Experimental Psychology of Modernism


The German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg (1863–1916) occupies a unique yet under-examined position in relation to the history of modernist literature: as director of the Harvard Psychological Laboratory at the turn of the twentieth century, he taught psychology and philosophy of mind to both T. S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. More widely, his role in the history of American thought has often been obscured by the opprobrium he received after refusing to relinquish his German citizenship during World War I. This chapter seeks to recover the neglected link between the psychological and physiological discourses of Münsterberg’s experimental work, and literary modernism’s intense preoccupation with discourses of human energy, attention, monotony, and efficiency. It examines how Münsterberg’s thinking inflected and shaped modernist concerns about the biological response to modernity, tracing his influence on Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), and Stein’s experiments in prose form and the attentional processes of literary reading.

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