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Coal in the Victorian Imagination: Deep Time and the End of Empire

Date and Time: 
Friday, March 16, 2018. 12:00 PM - 01:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Building 110, Room 112
Workshop: 
Data Scarcity of the Earth and Human Past
Meeting Description: 

Victorian Britain witnessed a major energy transition from biofuel and renewable energy to coal, a non-renewable fossil fuel. How did this transformation of the human-environment relationship register in the popular imagination? This talk takes up this question by examining portrayals of coal in nineteenth century science writing. Coal was sometimes described as an awe-inspiring manifestation of geological time, but it was also seen as evidence that the steam-powered British empire was unsustainable. This conflict between an immense geological past and an impossible political future was a major concern of Victorian readers, but it also persists in contemporary societies dependent on fossil fuel.

Benjamin Morgan is associate professor of english language and literature at the University of Chicago. His areas of research include science and literature in nineteenth century Britain and the environmental humanities. His first book, The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2017), explores how early scientific studies of the human mind transformed ideas about the human experience of the arts. His current book project, In Human Scale: The Aesthetics of Climate Change traces how literature and the visual arts have developed formal strategies for depicting large-scale ecological systems since the early industrial moment of the climate change era.

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