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Review of David Amigoni, Colonies, Cults and Evolution: Literature, Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing

2011 June 21
by rmcwilliam

Colonies, Cults and Evolution: Literature, Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing by David Amigoni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, xi + 237 pp., £50 (hardback) ISBN 978 0 521 88458 7

The interdisciplinary relations between Victorian literature and evolutionary science have perhaps rarely commanded more interest and attention than now, in a year which sees the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. That David Amigoni’s book offers a fresh and challenging intervention in this much ploughed interdisciplinary field is testament to its intellectual ambition and rigour. The book opens with a refreshingly unfamiliar Darwin: the introduction focuses on his reading of the Orientalist and diplomat John Crawfurd’s account of a mission to Burma. By dwelling on this ‘obscure but revealingly rich moment’ (4) in Darwin’s notebooks, Amigoni excavates some of Darwin’s fascination with the complex relations between culture and nature. This is Amigoni’s technique throughout the study: using a measure of Geertzian ‘thick description’, he finds surprising intertextual connections and resonances.

The central argument of this intellectually energetic and theoretically sophisticated book is that encounters between literary and scientific discourses were fundamental to the formation of conceptions of culture in the nineteenth century. Its other important aim is to demonstrate the nineteenth-century genealogy of major twentieth- and twenty-first-century critical concepts, notably hybridity, mimicry, and cybernetics. While such a move may be familiar from, for example, Robert Young’s Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Culture, Theory and Race (1995), Amigoni goes beyond the ideas about ‘race’ explored by Young, to offer a wide-ranging and ambitious discussion of how nineteenth-century scientific and literary transactions were bound up with and in turn shaped emergent ideas about – amongst other things – colonialism, imitation, sympathy, supplementarity, and the shifting fault lines between the human and the animal, and between the human and the machine.

Amigoni tackles an impressive and challenging range of texts, with a chronological scope which runs from Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814), via a host of well-known and lesser-known Victorian works, to Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907). The generic diversity of the texts is no less notable: poems, travel narratives, notebooks, footnotes, periodical essays, reviews, scientific writing, cultural criticism, lectures, addresses, letters, novels, and memoirs are brought skilfully into conversation with each other. The first two chapters are on writing of the Romantic period. Chapter One examines Coleridge’s resistance to mechanistic, sensationalist science in his later prose works but argues intriguingly that this is undercut by his use of ethnographic and embryological material which is tainted by association with materialism. This produces, Amigoni argues, some ‘very complex, supplementary effects’ (33). Chapter Two, on Wordsworth’s The Excursion, makes a similar argument for the complex and ambivalent positions taken in the romantic and radical contests over the meaning of culture. Amigoni reflects on how the poem and its ethnographic endnotes construct ‘culture’ and the affective power that builds sympathy, demonstrating that beneath its defence of natural theology lies a latent materialism. He convincingly relates the subversive potential of the poem to Wordsworth’s anxieties about the ‘counter-spirit’ in language (76). Chapter Three, on the second edition of Darwin’s Journal of Researches (1845), acts as a bridge into the Victorian period, meditating on the appeal of Wordsworth and romantic discourse for later evolutionists. It argues that Darwin’s reading of Wordsworth’s poetry allowed him to temper his observations about extinction. Amigoni also shows how Darwin’s text, while it subscribes to discourses of colonial improvement and cultivation, destabilizes evolutionary hierarchies by using images of mimicry, in ways which surprisingly anticipate twentieth-century postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhabha.

Chapters Four to Six move into the period after 1859. Although Amigoni denies that choosing this date amounts to ‘celebrating a “Darwinian revolution”’ (27), his reference to the ‘fact of the increasing authority of Darwin’s model of evolution in the 1870s and 1880s’ (29) could profitably have engaged with historians such as Peter Bowler who have questioned such a ‘fact’. For Amigoni, however, the date is principally significant because it reflects the shift to new publishing and lecturing patterns and hence new relations between audiences and intellectuals. Chapter Four investigates an broad array of texts written in the 1860s – by J. Baxter Langley, Walter Pater, G. H. Lewes, A. R. Wallace, Grant Allen, and Leslie Stephen – to explore how writers used biology to approach the idea of the colony, and also how they reflected on, and sought to fashion, intellectual and symbolic authority. The final two chapters bring more explicitly to the fore questions about the deconstructive nature of literary practice. Chapter Five offers a stimulating reading of Samuel Butler’s writings, scrutinizing the politics of place in his dispute with Darwin. It suggestively relates Butler’s blurring of the boundary between body and machine in Erewhon (1872) to later cybernetic discourse, and examines the novel’s often disturbing dramatization of imitation, mimicry, and hybridity. Chapter Six situates Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son in the context of contemporary understandings of imitation, as adumbrated in the ‘English Literature and the Universities’ debate of the 1880s and in popular scientific works. Amigoni shows that the ostensible evolutionist progressivism of Gosse’s text is undermined by intertextual allusions to J. G. Frazer’s anthropology, and that the work’s deconstructive literary tendency questions the possibility of imitation.

The book’s deliberate focus on the marginal (the footnote, the headnote, the scribbled observation in a notebook) is enlightening. As Amigoni observes of the ‘note’, ‘it is fragmentary, and generates a connection between areas of discourse that our own disciplinary separations and generic protocols have tended to keep apart’ (25). This attention enables Amigoni to find illuminating intertextual connections and resonances between texts and writers, and with the wider culture. Mid- and late-Victorian periodical publication is a particularly rich seam to mine, as it fostered just such a blurring of discursive and generic boundaries. Amigoni uses this to complicate and enrich our understanding of the relationship between scientific and literary discourses, resisting any easy sense that the ‘literature’ and ‘science’ of his subtitle were ‘distinct domains’ in the nineteenth century (27). A real interest in the act of reading sustains and propels the book, though here the interest in the marginal can occasionally seem perverse, generating strained connections. Thus Amigoni’s analysis of how Darwin’s theory was shaped by his experience of reading Wordsworth suggests rather speculatively that ‘Wordsworth perhaps engaged Darwin in a more complex set of readerly reflections’ (89). Nonetheless, the drive to defamiliarize, to find surprising associations and influences, produces an original and compelling book.

Colonies, Cults and Evolution promises to be an important book in many ways, not least in offering major new readings of many canonical and less familiar nineteenth-century texts. It also brings an innovative approach to the interdisciplinary field of studies of science and literature, and fires an effective salvo in the debate between interdisciplinary scholars and neo-Darwinian literary critics. Amigoni’s analysis, furthermore, makes an significant intervention in cultural studies, and specifically in debate about the construction of ‘culture’. Taking issue with Raymond Williams’s account of culture, which, he claims, neglects the relations of literature, science, and religion, Amigoni notes that we need a ‘new map of the word “culture” in the nineteenth century’ (12). This book not only goes some way towards redrawing the map, but will also be productive in indicating fresh directions for research.

Julia Reid
University of Leeds

Julia Reid is Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds. She is author of Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle (Palgrave, 2006). Her current work is on representations of matriarchy in Victorian anthropology and fiction.

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