CFP John Thelwall Society Special Session: John Thelwall’s Vital Materialisms (NASSR 2017)

For almost a century, the Romantic conceptualization of “life”– its origin, its organization, and the theological implications of both — was understood to be wholly vitalistic. However, over the past few decades several studies have questioned this conclusion and called for new answers to old questions: How do we understand the difference between “dead” matter and “vitality,” or life, in Romantic writing? How do the two interact? Where does vital energy come from and how is it sustained — whether in the body or the body politic? By re-thinking the metaphors of vitality that suffuse Romantic writing within the context of the scientific debates over the definition of “life” that raged in the 1790s, these studies have found multiple forms of vitalism and materialism “alive” in Romantic writing. Others have shown that vitalistic and materialistic theories of “life” overlap in so many ways that Romantic “life” might be better approached as a version of what Jane Bennett calls “vital materialism.”

John Thelwall’s An Essay Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality (1793) directly engages the debate over vitalism raging in the 1790s and provides insight into current assessments of matter and vitality – biological, political, and cultural. Further, as Thelwall scholars have pointed out, his version of “vital materialism” informs all of his literary and political projects. Papers for this session might consider how Thelwall, in his scientific, literary, or political writing, answers the Romantic question “What is Life?” They might also examine how his views on matter and/or vitality shed light on, or obscure, his literary or political investments. Or they might consider how Thelwall’s idea of “life” can be compared to that of his contemporaries. Any paper that treats Thelwall in the context of this broad theme will be considered. Please send proposals of 300 words to Molly Desjardins ( by Friday, January 6, 2017.

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