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The Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies

Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century

'Neither moral philosophy nor poetry condescends to the monstrous or the abnormal,’
Thomas De Quincey, 1848.


CNCS Postgraduate Conference, organised by the Postgraduate Representatives for the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies at Durham University.

Thursday 7 May 2015 | Durham University


Keynote Address

Professor Martin Willis, Chair of Science, Literature and Communication, University of Westminster


Abnormality and the Abnormal

The words ‘abnormal’ and ‘abnormality’ first emerged in the nineteenth century; contemporary usage reflects their pejorative connotations.

The first recorded use, in 1817, contrasts ‘abnormal’ with ‘healthy’, suggesting that ‘abnormality’ was initially a medical term. In medical discourse it became an ostensibly objective descriptor – in 1847 The Lancet defined abnormality as ‘something that is abnormal; an instance of irregularity.

However, the term eventually came to mean an aberration from any kind of ‘normal’ concept, behaviour, expectation, or way of being: indeed, the construction of ‘normal,’ and the values associated with normality, is itself implicated in nineteenth century constructions of the abnormal.

This one-day interdisciplinary conference explored categorisations, explanations, and implications of abnormality in the long nineteenth century, asking what the abnormal can tell us about long nineteenth century constructions of aberration, deviancy, and normality.


Conference Report - June 2015

The ‘Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century’ postgraduate conference opened with an engaging keynote address by Professor Martin Willis (University of Westminster) entitled ‘The Case of the Soho Sleeper: Catalepsy, Care, and the Politics of Seizures’. Professor Willis used a high-profile case of catalepsy from 1887, known to the Victorian press as the Soho Sleeper, to argue that such conditions produce conceptions of the abnormal, and also of the normal from which the cataleptic was understood to have moved away.

Professor Willis’s talk initiated a productive conversation ranging from the ethics of care to the methodology of research. The first panel of the day, ‘The Social and Political Function of Abnormality’, featured three methodologically diverse papers, which each dissected various ways in which a concept of abnormality can be created in the service of a particular ideology. The second panel, ‘Abnormality and the Body’, offered literary, archaeological, and philosophical analyses of bodily and mental deviations from a norm in terms of an implicit association between normalcy and morality. The last panel of the day, ‘Gender and Sexuality’, addressed a topical nexus between embodiment and social norms; each paper offered an analysis of the construction, communication, and celebration, of a particular instance of gendered or sexual abnormality.

All three postgraduate panels generated stimulating and wide-ranging discussion; the continuity between contemporary and nineteenth-century ideas about abnormality, and the connections between abnormality, morality, and power were recurrent themes. Despite a programme which endeavoured to maximise opportunities for conversation, the conference ended with many more questions than answers. The Abnormality Research Network, launched at this conference, will facilitate the continuation of this conversation; this postgraduate-led initiative will explore conceptualisations of abnormality across disciplines from the early modern period to the present day.

Some of the papers, including the keynote address have been recorded and are now available to view below.

Resources

Abnormality Conference 2015

Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century - Abnormality Prize Giving and Close

Views: 77

Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century Postgraduate Conference, Durham University 00.00 – 03.08 | Abnormality Conference Prize Giving, Professor Bennett Zon, CNCS Director 03.08 – 09.09 | Abnormality Conference Closing Remarks, Professor Simon James, CNCS Associate Director

Abnormality Conference 2015: Gender and Sexuality. Short Paper Session 3

Views: 335

Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century Postgraduate Conference, Durham University 00.00 – 20.01 | “The abnormalism consists in disproportion: not in inversion”: Sue Bridehead’s scandalous sexuality. Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury |Durham University 20.01 – 42.44 | The mythological Other: Degeneration theory, female abnormality, and hysteria in nineteenth century representations of Medea. Rebecka Klette | Birbeck, University of London

Abnormality Conference 2015: Abnormality and the Body. Short Paper Session 2

Views: 79

Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century Postgraduate Conference, Durham University 00.00 – 21.00 | Forged Bodies: Hidden Ancestry and Invisible Degeneracy in Grant Allen's Fiction. William Abberley | St Anne's College, University of Oxford 21.00 – 36.31 | Life in the shadows: accessing evidence of rickets and 19th century society through bio- archaeology. Sophie Newman | Durham University

Abnormality Conference 2015: Social and Political Function of Abnormality. Short Paper Session 1

Views: 123

Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century Postgraduate Conference, Durham University 00.00 – 22.02 | Screw Loose: The Evolution of a Maddening Idiom. Dr Jennifer Duggan | Sør-Trøndelag University College, Trondheim 22.02 – 44.06 | Sergei Stepniak and his Exceptional Terrorists: Subverting Dominant Representations of Russian Terrorists for the English Reading Public 1883-1895. Lara Green | Northumbria University 44.06 – 1.02.15 | ‘Abnormal Enthusiasms’: The Religious Politics of Madness in Nineteenth Century Cornwall. Daniel Simpson | Royal Holloway, University of London 1.02.15 – 1.19.12 | Q&A Session

Abnormality Conference – Opening Remarks and Keynote Address

Views: 44

Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century Postgraduate Conference, Durham University 00.00 – 01.39 | Opening Remark, Siobhan Harper, Durham University 01.39 – 44.57 | Keynote Address, ‘'The Case of the Soho Sleeper: Catalepsy, Care, and the Politics of Seizures’, Professor Martin Willis, University of Westminster 44.57 – 1.00.54| Post-Keynote Q & A Session

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