S. Pearl Brilmyer is assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is core faculty in the Comparative Literature and Women’s & Gender Studies programs. She is the author of The Science of Character: Human Objecthood and the Ends of Victorian Realism (Chicago, 2021) along with various essays on nineteenth-century literature, philosophy, and science.
With Filippo Trentin and Zairong Xiang, she is the editor of a special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies entitled ‘The Ontology of the Couple’ (2019). With Filippo Trentin she is also the editor of a special issue in Psychoanalysis & History on Lou Andreas-Salomé’s 1916 essay, ‘“Anal” and “Sexual”’, featuring the first English translation of that essay.
ICI Affiliate Project 2021-22
This project renews discussions of sexual subject-formation long central to the field of queer studies, including the tension between universalizing and minoritizing theories of sexual disposition, the historical contingency of sexual identities, and the elusive meaning of the term “queer.” Revisiting these field-defining concepts and debates, the project asks what queer theory knows today, and it interrogates some of its central axes. Is queerness best understood as that which undoes legible identities and interrupts rigid patterns of behavior? What contradictions arise when “queer” names the refusal of stability as such? “Queer Rigidity” asks how and why queerness came to be aligned with fluidity, mutability, and the subversion of norms, and it puts pressure on these alignments.
Drawing on scholarship in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and critical race theory, and arising out of the discipline of literary studies, the project develops a theory of desire as habitual tendency. It constructs this theory by looking beside, beyond, and behind two of queer theory’s most-cited thinkers—Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault—to the examine the entanglement of desire, habit, and the aesthetic in works by authors that inhabit the periphery of the queer theory cannon. Through close readings of literary, scientific, and philosophical works by Lou Andreas-Salomé, Félix Ravaisson, Walter Pater, Charles Darwin, Frantz Fanon, and Wilhelm Reich, among other nineteenth and twentieth-century thinkers, the project seeks to account for the limits of desire’s flexibility without approaching desire as a supratemporal, ahistorical, or biologically predetermined drive.
The Color of Lichen: Environmental Realism from Eliot to Schreiner
ICI Affiliate Project 2018-19
During the final years of the nineteenth century in England, realism began to peel away from the novel form that gave rise to it. Foundational Victorian realists such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy increasingly distanced themselves from the conventions of mid-century popular fiction and its emphasis on plot, and a new generation of women realists shifted their focus from the temporal teleology of Bildung to the diffuse and cyclical spatiality of environment. This project traces the rise of a ‘new realism’ at the century’s end, showing how English authors from 1870 to the 1920 cultivated an environmentally attuned ‘science of character’ that elucidated the physical processes, practices, through which character materializes.
Highlighting the significant role of women and feminist writers in transforming the subject of realist fiction, I show how ‘character’ at the fin de siècle came to name not a hidden or buried kernel of personality, but an observable set of qualities emergent through ecological interactions between bodies. In so doing, I challenge the historical alignment of realism with scientific ideals of objectivity, bodily abnegation, and self-restraint, demonstrating how late Victorian realists such as Eliot, Hardy, and ‘New Woman’ novelists like Olive Schreiner refigured the relationship between the observer and the world she observed as intimate and connected, rather than distanced and alienated.
Sciences of Character in Fiction and Philosophy, 1870-1920
ICI Project 2014-16
This project tracks a series of literary interventions into scientific debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, showing how the realist novel generated new techniques of description in response to philosophical problems of agency, materiality, and embodiment. In close conversation with developments in the sciences, writers such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Olive Schreiner portrayed human agency as contiguous with, rather than opposed to, the pulsations of the natural world. The human, for these realist authors, was not a privileged being, nor even a discrete entity, but rather a node in a web of interconnected life forms.
Focusing on works of English fiction published between 1870-1920, I argue that the historical convergence of a British materialist science and a vitalistic Continental natural philosophy led to the rise of what I call a ‘dynamic realism’, a realism attentive to the dynamic forces productive of character. Through the literary figure of character, I argue, turn-of-the-century realists explored what it meant to be an embodied subject, how qualities in organisms emerge and develop, and the relationship between nature and culture more broadly.