Early American History Seminar: Justine Murison, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Thursday, June 5, 2008

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

“Apes, Frogs, and Dogs: The Physiology of Democracy in Early Nineteenth-Century American Culture”
Justine Murison, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This paper argues that the cultural and political disruptions posed by studies of nervous physiology during the mid-nineteenth century, particularly the physiology of the reflex arc, threatened to turn the Great Chain of Being into a horizontal web of analogical relationships, tying animals and humans intimately together through their internal functions and opening the door for human bodies operating without mind or sympathy. The reflex therefore posed a problem for the two most prominent antebellum theories of subjectivity: the liberal democratic subject and the sympathetic subject, which this chapter traces through Marshall Hall, one of the discoverers of the reflex function, and Edgar Allan Poe.