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Secularizing Sentiment, Democratizing Virtue: A Genealogy of the Liberal Subject Over the Long Nineteenth Century


My dissertation tracks the dialectical development of liberal subjectivity from eighteenth-century cultures of sensibility to the development of pragmatist-feminism at the turn of the twentieth century. Scholars have recently developed models for understanding transatlantic circuits of exchange and their importance in the development of interiority. Secularizing Sentiment, in focusing on the shift from sensibility and sentiment to pragmatism and feminism, participates in these discussions by framing liberal discourse in terms of affective conflict and aesthetic innovation. In particular, it anatomizes the generative contradictions of liberal subjectivity, on the one hand enamored of the text's power to order experience, on the other terrified of the threat to selfhood posed by iteration. Secularizing Sentiment theorizes the shift from sentimentalism to pragmatist-feminism as transatlantic states struggle with economic liberalization, industrialization, and growing rates of literacy. It emphasizes literacy as a technology accompanied by predictable conflicts, providing new lines of inquiry across an expanding archive of print and material culture made available by digitization.

Chapter One considers Bluestocking sociality and Della Cruscan poetics by way of Sarah Wilmot nee Morris, a presumably unpublished poet whose manuscript miscellanies I found while doing archival research at Chawton House Library. Chapters Two and Three, through close attention to transatlantic novels and poetry of sensibility and sentiment, characterize sentimental subjectivity in terms of manic literacy, referred to by Jacques Derrida as the pharmakon, and how manic literacy gives rise to regulatory hermeneutic regimes. These regimes of interpretation - such as sensibility, sentimentalism, realism, and pragmatism - check the free play of the text according to powerful social and institutional structures. Chapters Four and Five complicate my theorization of liberal subjectivity, considering how the Civil War and the rise of clinical discourse threaten sentimental presumptions. Chapter 6, through readings of John Dewey, Jane Addams, and William James, demonstrates how pragmatist-feminism emerges as a sentimental critique of clinical discourse, thus placing it in the broader genealogy of liberal subjectivity explicated in Chapters One through Five.

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