Alexandria Digital Research Library

Soft cosmologies : reading, genre, and the play of belief in trans-historical America

Brennan, Shannon Eileen
Degree Supervisor:
Stephanie LeMenager
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
Religion, History of., American Studies, and Literature, American
Nineteenth century
Online resources and Dissertations, Academic
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara. English
Ph.D.--University of California, Santa Barbara, 2014

Secularization in America is a story of increasing religious options, rather than doubt. The late nineteenth century spiritual marketplace was abundant, and many works of literature, religion, and popular culture offered strategies for sympathetically encountering the multiplying systems found there. These texts form the subject of this study. I call them soft cosmologies.

Soft cosmologies like H.P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine (1888), which culls evidence from Popular Science and the Hindu Vedas, or Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Gates Ajar (1868), which uses Biblical hermeneutics to construct a Spiritualist vision of the afterlife, suggest that a person might engage with differing theorizations of the cosmic totality as she would with the 1893 Columbian Exposition: collecting and incorporating the divergent pedagogies and symbols of each exhibit. Soft Cosmologies queries the method by which such products enable the reader to incorporate divergent schemes into her worldview. The dissertation thus identifies a significant strategy for re-enchantment that developed within American popular, literary, and religious textual culture, and offers a theory of its operation.

I argue that the soft cosmology renders religion an interpretive enterprise, to be pursued in the field of language and on the plane of the inter-subjective body. As such, it asks its reader to unsettle the basic terms that would allow her to testify her commitment to one worldview over another. The soft cosmology thus is not merely a mechanism for combining modular religious forms, but for facilitating motile religious forms. Suggesting that the soft cosmology is both a variety of religious experience and a theoretical mode for constructing a hermeneutics of the subject, I combine work on the Symbolic, drawn from queer theory's engagement with Freud and Lacan, with material theories of ecological subjectivity, drawn from affect theory and its cognate studies in queer theory and new materialisms.

The project's central focus on fin-de-siecle nineteenth century culture is bookended by treatments of the soft cosmology in contemporary America. Chapter 1 examines contemporary soft cosmologies like Life of Pi, arguing that such works sacralize feeling while insisting upon the ethical necessity of interpreting such feeling rightly. Chapter 2 argues that the science fiction and scientized religions of the late nineteenth century competed with professional science by offering linguistic play as an alternative to totalizing materialism. Chapter 3 examines the work of Henry James and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. I use critical work on "relationality" and subject-formation to examine how the soft cosmology might create religious community without hardening its own boundaries. Chapter 4 is a study of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its numerous adaptations, mythological interpretations, and material culture. I show how the work achieves its vaunted affect of "wonder" by investing its audience in the animacy of the object world. This chapter thus shows how the soft cosmology's interest in the play of signification might be married to a materialist aesthetic to produce affective relations to an enchanted ecology.

Physical Description:
1 online resource (423 pages)
UCSB electronic theses and dissertations
Catalog System Number:
Inc.icon only.dark In Copyright
Copyright Holder:
Shannon Brennan
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