The literary has different kinds of formal contours that produce different aesthetic or political effects than, say, spirit photography. A key concept is Helmholtz’s sign theory of perception, which is that the senses are not static reflections of the world, they're flexible representations of the world. One of the implications, then, is that language and experience, which are typically understood to be completely distinct, are brought into proximity and, in fact, they’re interrelated. Insofar as a sensation is kind of inherently symbolic activity then language and ergo literature is not actually distinct from that experiential kind of ongoing process: a sensation.
In terms of deciding how to focus on photography for the chapter on vision, it seemed to me that Mumler’s spirit photographs came the closest to addressing the Fechnerian, spiritualist understanding of a de-empiricized vision that can't be so easily collapsed into the empiricist protocols of observation and enlightenment. Psychophysics is part and parcel of this broader European and settler North American Romanticism that appropriated Asian and Indigenous philosophies and did so to make a case for universal religious sensibility.
Spiritualism appropriates Indigenous beliefs and practices and combines them with Western empirical methods. Spiritualist metaphysics presents people as without a past, as if the culture that people are connected to does not shape them. The excess of empiricism that spiritualism and spirit photography engages are then produced as ‘mystical’ or ‘occult’. Mumler’s photos directly engage all these issues around vision and visibility. They perpetuate the universalist fantasy of this connection with the dead and with the past. But at the same time, what we see at play is precisely the problem with psychophysics—these fantasies collapse. The capacity of the body to transcend the past is, of course, the white body. Universalism is always actually a settler imperialist white supremacist understanding of these relations between bodies. And I think that's what spirit photography does so well.
MLC: It's very clear to both of us that one of the key interventions is bringing conceptions of race into history of science discourse. But I'm wondering about the converse: how do you see your discussion of psychophysics intervening in questions of critical race theory? How are these conceptions useful for a discussion of race in nineteenth-century America?
EF: One of the ways we can understand psychophysics as intervening in critical race studies is it expands our understanding of processes of racialization by actually contracting how racialization works. It operates not simply at the level of, say, physiognomy or other kinds of embodied practices and postures, but also at the micro-level of consciousness. The conceptual knot of psychophysics is precisely that it’s trying to empiricize something that you can't really measure: you can't empiricize judgments, especially these affective micro-judgments. On the one hand, psychophysics gives us a fuller picture of racialization in the nineteenth century broadly up through today that works at the level of affect and sensory experience, as it is felt. At the same time, what psychophysics also does is offer a more robust vocabulary for a kind of racial phenomenology. Psychophysics offers us a way to understand that race is neither strictly biological, though embodied, nor is it strictly social, though it certainly operates at the level of experience. So, to go back to Du Bois, racialization is felt. It works at this affective reality that's still tethered to the body but not reducible to it.
MLC: We noticed this pattern of intersectional readings where you draw out, say, the racism of Bellamy's socialism or the classism of The Awakening. Those readings of figures where, if we're calling them like “problematic radicals,” you're drawing out the problematic side.
EF: Yeah, that's like the story of the nineteenth century, isn’t it?
MLC: Yeah, totally. For example, in your reading of Bellamy, you foreground the Orientalist racism in his dream-visions of Spain. I thought that was a brilliant reading. I’m wondering what’s the purpose of that sort of a reading?
EF: I really take my cues from the objects and the historical framework. In the case of Hopkins, this is a kind of classist account of utopia that’s attracted to a eugenicist logic. She's completely keeping with progressive era African American reformist thought at the time. But what is still at play is what gets called a mystical or transcendent access, this understanding that Hopkins has where acoustics becomes a medium of trans-personal consciousness and connection. Consciousness itself then becomes the material of kinship. It's a model of kinship that isn't strictly biological. It's a sort of dialectical movement, where the further she turns into this kind of transcendent or mystical understanding of kinship as consciousness, the more she is also turning back into a more biological eugenicist framework.
My understanding of nineteenth-century US literature, in general, is that there is genuine radical politics and there's a lot of progressive liberal politics powered by people who, from today's vantage, we can see as ‘problematic.’ That's just classical liberalism; it's that incremental reformist change that doesn't fundamentally change the underlying structures of inequality. Writers like Hopkins and Bellamy are offering really interesting imagined solutions to very entrenched problems and, from today's perspective, aspects of those solutions and imagined worlds are problematic. But that's part of what I think makes them so interesting to think about because these are the problems we still face.
MLC: Moving to the next chapter, we were very curious about the recipes and the cakes, especially because there are references to specific qualities of the cakes. So we were wondering: did you actually bake any of them?
EF: I have only baked Dickinson's version. I remember pulling it out of the oven the first time and—not that it knocked me over—but having that feeling when you are given something that's a little heavier than you anticipate, and your body thinks a little, and you have to gird yourself.
What I realized after the Dickinson essay had been published in J19 and after the dissertation was that Dickinson's recipes were far more conventional than I had initially thought. She models it on fruit cake recipe that was from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824). This actually makes Dickinson’s writing even more interesting because we're seeing a bigger gap between her lawless aesthetic practices and poetics versus the cooking she's doing in the home.
AF: Could you elaborate on how you came to address embodied and lived genres alongside one another? Are they always overlapping or are they sometimes slightly askew?
EF: I understand them as distinct but mutually constitutive structures of relation that can cross cut each other. Even though each chapter is organized around a particular sensory genre, it's not necessarily organized around a literary genre. I don't really name it or underscore it. I didn't put a fine point on it because I had no interest in making a claim for a specific genre neatly lining up with an embodied genre. Hearing does not have a monopoly on utopian fiction, or vice versa.
I came to understand the senses as genres because of the way that psychophysics was atomizing the genres. It’s not to say that pre psychophysics there was just a general sensorium, but psychophysics was really the first to atomize and study them systematically and distinctly. There's a creative energy in the embodied genre and literary genre; they move across but are not reducible to each other. This reproduces the psychophysical body-mind relation in which the mind and the body are not causally related. It’s sort of a Möbius strip. For psychophysics, sense experience is that kind of torque or twist in the Möbius strip where the mind glides into the body, and vice versa. I'm understanding the embodied genre (affect), and then the literary genre (language experience), doing that same sort of movement.
AF: That's a really lovely image to end on. I feel like that helps give a mental picture of what the book is doing as a whole.