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Conference: The Victorian Tactile Imagination

When? 19-20 July 2013
Birkbeck, University of London

Please note that this event is fully booked and registration is now closed. Please contact the conference organisers for further information.

You people who can see attach such an absurd importance to your eyes! I set my touch, my dear, against your eyes, as much the most trustworthy, and much the most intelligent sense of the two”. (Wilkie Collins, Poor Miss Finch, 1872)

Keynote speakers:

  • Professor William Cohen (University of Maryland), on Arborealities: The Tactile Ecology of Hardy’s Woodlanders
  • Professor Gillian Beer (University of Cambridge), on Dream Touch
  • Dr Constance Classen (author of The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch), on Victorian Intimacies: Love, Death, and the British Museum
  • Professor Hilary Fraser (Birkbeck, University of London), on Touching Pictures: Victorian Art Writing and the Tactile Imagination”

Special roundtable, Touching Nineteenth-Century Material Culture:

  • Professor Elizabeth Edwards, De Montfort University: mounting photographs and the tactile archive
  • Sonia Solicari, Principal Curator, Guildhall Art Gallery: the doorknocker in Victorian art and culture
  • Dr Nicola Bown, Birkbeck, University of London: love objects

This conference will explore the various ways in which the Victorians conceptualised, represented, experienced, performed and problematized touch. What does touch signal in nineteenth-century art and literature, and how is it variously coded? How are hands and skin – tactile appendages and surfaces – imagined in the period? By investigating the Victorian imaginary of touch, the conference will address and reappraise some of the key concepts and debates which have shaped Victorian studies in the past twenty years – in particular the emphasis on visuality as the dominant mode via which subjectivities and power were effected in the period: not least Jonathan Crary’s influential thesis that the nineteenth century witnessed a pervasive ‘separation of the senses’. The conference aims to investigate instead the workings of a more textured vision and reanimate the interoperability of sight and touch in nineteenth century culture.

The conference will also extend and build upon recent critical studies that have begun to explore nineteenth-century tactility in relation to material culture, bodies, and the emotions. By focusing closely on touch and tactility, it aims to establish whether and in what terms we might talk about a Victorian ‘aesthetics of touch’, and to explore how touch constructs and disrupts, for example, class and gender identities. It will also consider the historical trajectories of touch, asking, for example, in what ways does touch mark or blur the divide between Victorianism and Modernism?

The conference is organised by Birkbeck, University of London’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, with support from the Newcastle Institute for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities the British Academy and the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS.



Victorian Tactile Imagination conference