This paper makes the case that Charles Dickens is uniquely positioned to teach twenty-first-century literary critics how to adapt to—and thrive in—an increasingly “neurodiverse” world, where so-called neurological “disorders” and “deficits” are treated as different cognitive styles, rather than as pathologies, and where the campaign for neurodiversity has been likened to the battle for cultural diversity. Dickens was arguably Victorian literature’s most astute and sensitive chronicler of cognitive disability, brain damage, personality disorders, and nervous conditions. Unfortunately, an ideology of neuronormativity still prevails in literary studies. Empathy, for instance, an ethico-aesthetic pillar of modern literary criticism, is invariably defined in a way that excludes autistic people from the community of readers, downplaying the importance of the visual-spatial form of empathy at which autistic minds excel. Even as we celebrate representations of cognitive “Otherness,” we stubbornly cling to a neuronormative implied reader. This paper explores the challenges and rewards of reading Dickens in the face of twenty-first-century neurodiversity and on the shifting ground of modern literary criticism.
MATTHEW KAISER is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Merced, where he teaches courses in nineteenth-century British literature and gender and sexuality studies. He is the author of The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept (Stanford UP, 2012) and the editor of five books. He recently completed a new translation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs. In 2013-14 he was an External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center at Stanford University, and in 2012 he was the recipient of the North American Victorian Studies Association’s Donald Gray Prize. He has taught at Harvard University, Shanghai International Studies University, Fudan University and Rutgers University. He is currently at work on a book entitled Anatomy of History: Cognitive Neuroscience and the Victorian Sense of the Past.
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