Stefan Schöberlein, Writing the Brain: Material Minds and Literature, 1800–1880

Stefan Schöberlein, Writing the Brain: Material Minds and Literature, 1800–1880 (Oxford: Oxford: University Press, 2023), 280 pp. $83.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780197693681

Stefan Schöberlein’s Writing the Brain examines the ‘first century of the brain’ in nineteenth-century English and American literature. In the century preceding neuroscience’s absolute claim on the brain as an object of study, the brain took hold as an anatomical entity – empirical matter to be observed, mapped, and manipulated – that crisscrossed scientific discourses and social imaginaries. By using the Kittlerian analytic of discourse networks (that is, the technological and institutional frameworks that give meaning to cultural systems) to track the transatlantic emergence of the material mind, Writing the Brain makes a considerable contribution to the study of literature and science. This ambitious account of the ‘proto-neuroscience’ of the enmattered mind unfolds through a series of surprising juxtapositions: sleepwalking yokes Charles Brockden Brown to Emily Brontë; phrenology, Charles Dickins to Walt Whitman; psychometry, John William De Forest to George Eliot; and pathological insanity, Wilkie Collins to Emily Dickinson. What emerges from the dynamic friction of these discursively labile groupings is a transatlantic field of study organized around the brain itself as a technological advance. Literary genres and media devices – from the stereograph to the telegraph – do not reflect a preformed entity called the brain, but they do actively shape how we think about it.

Brain, mind you – not mind. Whereas mind toggles between material and immaterial registers (depending on one’s philosophical camp) to approximate the soul and encapsulate the self, brain is a strictly physical vehicle of cognition with lobes and folds subject to anatomical study. In recovering the anatomical theories of cognition that flourished before brain science, Writing the Brain advances the expanding field of nineteenth-century literature and science. As such, it runs both alongside and athwart a growing body of scholarship that attends to the literatures, sciences, and technologies of embodied consciousness in the century before psychology became ‘modern’ – from Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind (Chicago, 2017) and Sarah Blackwood’s The Portrait’s Subject (UNC, 2019) to my book Sensory Experiments (Duke, 2020) and Hannah Walser’s Writing the Mind (Stanford, 2022). Yet a reader new to this field might not know that. Writing the Brain draws on foundational criticism from the last half of the twentieth century, but apart from a few critics like Shalyn Claggett and Robert Mitchell, the last fifteen years of scholarship largely goes unrepresented. Indeed, the claim that the ‘broader scientific-literary culture of the period remains understudied and unnamed’ (9) is a fairly dubious one in light of the pathbreaking books – such as Justine Murison’s The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Cambridge, 2011), Emily Ogden’s Credulity (Chicago, 2017), and Kyla Schuller’s The Biopolitics of Feeling (Duke, 2018) – that have laid the groundwork that Writing the Brain inhabits. Because of this citational lacuna, rich points of connection fall through the cracks. For instance, far from treating phrenology with ‘scornful dismissal’, as the author claims (8), scholars like Britt Rusert in Fugitive Science (NYU, 2016) have shown how antebellum Black writers integrated racial sciences like phrenology into the political project of abolition. How might that history texture Schöberlein’s claim that phrenology was, for Dickens and Whitman, a realist instrument of social psychology? In evading the scholarship upon which it builds, Writing the Brain ends up smoothing over the productive friction embedded in these epistemologically, aesthetically, and politically raucous texts.

To be sure, because of the constraints of an academic discipline constituted along nationalist lines (e.g., British literature), the boldness of a monograph that rejects national bounds is ambitious, admirable, and sorely needed. The sheer surface area that Writing the Brain covers – not simply literary and scientific texts but also American and English texts – makes for an enthralling read. Yet the author moves from text to text and from author to author with such dizzying speed as to engender, for this reader at least, a rather vertiginous experience of the enmattered brain. A chapter on the anatomy of the bicameral brain and the gothic trope of sleepwalking, for instance, begins with physician Benjamin Rush, then proceeds to collate Brown’s Edgar Huntly, Tennyson’s poem ‘The Two Voices’, Poe’s story ‘The Last Conversation of a Somnambule’, Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’ before concluding with W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness and the impossibility of a unitary logical self as it relates to the political rhetoric of ‘two Obamas’, ‘two different Donald Trumps’, and ‘two Joe Bidens’ (93). While there is a refreshing clarity that arrives with a birds eye’s view of the neuroanatomical underpinnings of the doppelgänger (Clithero and Heathcliff are indeed kin), it is a perspective that, in capturing a wide expanse, runs the risk of overlooking the finer details that differentiate one text from another (Du Boisian double consciousness purposively departs from the kind of gothicized, pathologized ‘split personality’ that, for example, Poe describes) and thereby occludes the conceptual stakes of both the local and global argument.

In the vibrant field of literature and science studies, Writing the Brain is a vital addition to, less an ‘opening salvo for’, a broader consideration of nineteenth-century science and media by literary scholars (9). It makes a persuasive case for the centrality of early neuroscience, grounded in anatomical and physiological investigations of the brain, to ongoing technologies and techniques of selfhood in both North America and Great Britain. Schöberlein tells a wide-ranging and far-reaching story about how the birth of the material mind made it possible to imagine selfhood and subjectivity as fundamentally empirical phenomena. Gathering together a diverse array of nineteenth-century writers and thinkers, Writing the Brain delineates a compelling account of the literary life of the material mind.

Erica Fretwell, University at Albany (SUNY)