Phenomenal Description: Cook, Radcliffe, and the Spectrality of Science
About the talk:
Ann Radcliffe's novels are famously ghostly: her fictional worlds are full of obscure, fleeting images, and characters often become phantasmal ciphers for a quasi-omniscient narrator. Radcliffe's style is key to this ghostly atmosphere.
Alex Sherman (PhD candidate in English, Stanford University) highlights a particularly eerie spectrum of lexical and grammatical techniques, terming them "phenomenal description." Phenomenal description presents only phenomenal appearances, making minimal ontological claims, and it replaces the embodied observer with an abstract, disembodied, public but ghostly viewership. Phenomenal description can in turn be traced back at least to the account of Captain James Cook's first voyage, which similarly stresses uncertain appearances over existing objects and which spectralizes the observing community of mariners. It has major implications for interpreting these texts, their narratorial epistemologies, their reading communities, and their genres.
Sherman concludes by highlighting the similarity of phenomenal description to the style of scientific writing, connecting the Gothic to science via the literature of sea travel and arguing that phenomenal description Gothicizes science even as it shows the serious epistemological and scientific work done in the Gothic. The Gothic should be seen not as a reaction to Enlightenment science but as its most dramatic extension.
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