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Title: Novel sensations : modernist fiction and the problem of qualia
Author: Day, Jonathan
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2014
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This thesis examines representations of sensation within modernist novels alongside contemporary philosophical debates over the concept of qualia. Concentrating on the work of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and Samuel Beckett, it confronts a longstanding critical tradition that has tended to obscure or misunderstand the implications of arguments made by philosophers of mind in relation to literary descriptions of sensation. That the mind is a thing, and that modernist narrative fiction is particularly successful at representing that thing, has become a critical commonplace. In this thesis I argue that interpretations of modernism’s supposed ‘inward turn’ are founded on a mistaken notion of ‘cognitive realism’, a critical position endorsing the idea that it is both possible and desirable to describe the mind (conceived of as a stable and unchanging object) without loss through the development and judicial deployment of new literary techniques. The myth of the inward turn in its various incarnations – the psychologised modernism described by many literary critics in the 50s and 60s, and the neuromodernism subscribed to by many contemporary critics – is, I argue, largely the result of a set of inter-linked misconceptions which attend the cognitive realist paradigm. The notion of qualia is central to my thesis. Defined as the ineffable, irreducible, and subjective properties of conscious experience, qualia emerge concomitantly with modernism, developing out of G. E. Moore’s definition of ‘sense-data’ and Bertrand Russell’s category of ‘sensibilia’. Though still disputed within contemporary philosophy, qualia create huge problems for materialist theories of consciousness, threatening to undermine critical approaches to literature which contend that formal literary strategies can ever hope to transcend the limitations of symbolic language in conveying sensation. The ‘problem’ of qualia referred to in this thesis, therefore, is the problem the concept poses for symbolic descriptions (either mathematic, psychological, or literary) of mental states, especially when those descriptions make special claims (or are interpreted as making special claims) of mimetic veracity. The problem emerged within philosophy at precisely the point at which the representative claims of literature came under direct attack. This thesis argues, therefore, that it is a profoundly literary problem, and that the absence of ‘sensation’ from the written is simply a manifestation of the inherent limitations of language. A critical tendency to re-insert sensory experience into the process of reading – through phenomenological interpretations of modernism, or in contemporary ‘neuroaesthetic’ approaches to literature – thus point to a general anxiety that manifests itself most forcefully in relation to modernist fiction’s ability to ‘write’ sensation. This thesis employs the concept of qualia as a way of contextualising narratives of the mind – philosophical, literary and scientific – from the period. In doing so it seeks to historicise modernism’s ‘crisis of the senses’; locating this argument in a broader theoretical space and questioning the relevance (and novelty) of contemporary approaches to reading the senses in modernism.
Supervisor: Whitworth, Michael Sponsor: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: English Language and Literature ; qualia ; sensation ; modernism ; modernist ; novels ; Joyce ; Woolf ; Wyndham Lewis ; Beckett ; Russell ; Moore