Brown Bag Lecture: “Romantic Self-Experimentation and Thomas de Quincey’s Opium Eater”

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Date: March 11, 2014
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Emily B. Stanback

The texts in which scientists and physicians in Romantic-era Britain recorded their self-experimentation with various chemical and medicinal compounds—like nitrous oxide and various preparations of opium—may at first glance seem different from De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a rich autobiographical text that literary scholars often take as one of the first expressions of a modern, urban subjectivity. Yet De Quincey claims medical value for his laudanum intake and, like more properly “scientific” texts, foregrounds the act of self-experimentation and its physiological impact.

In this talk Stanback will use these texts to discuss ways that self-experimentation centers and disrupts the scientist’s body. At these richly productive moments the self-experimental body comes to inhabit a space akin to disability: inherent to the self-experimental act is the possibility that the scientist may become temporarily or permanently disabled. The association of self-experimentation with pains, permanent and temporary injuries, and even death helps explain its uneasy cultural status. But self-experimentation also productively alters the relationship between the scientist and the experimental object by exposing the subject to new, and widely variable, states of non-normative embodiment. It unsettles the relationship between the subjective I and the body, the self and the external world, and creates new aesthetic and epistemological possibilities that helped to shape the Romantic—and with it the modern—self.

Emily B. Stanback is a Haas Fellow with the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry who recently received her Ph.D. in English from the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. While at CHF, she has been working on a new project, “Romantic Experimentation: Radical Science and the Politics of Disability,” with which she hopes to demonstrate that radical Romantic science often produced or centered non-normative states of body and mind usually associated with disability. 

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

For more information, please call 215.873.8289 or e-mail

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