Rae Beth Gordon is Professor emerita of French Literature and Cultural Studies, University of Connecticut, Storrs. Author of numerous essays on 19th-century medicine, literature, and aesthetics, she has written Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature (1992) and Why the French love Jerry Lewis: From Cabaret to Early French Cinema (2001).
Dances with Darwin and Vernacular Modernity in France: 1875-1910by Rae Beth Gordon
Examining the extraordinary influence of Darwin's theory of evolution on French thought from 1875 to 1910, Rae Beth Gordon argues for a reconsideration of modernism both in time and in place that situates its beginnings in the French café-concert aesthetic. Gordon weaves the history of medical science, ethnology, and popular culture into a groundbreaking exploration of the cultural implications of gesture in dance performances at late-nineteenth-century Parisian café-concerts and music halls. While art historians have studied the ties between primitivism and modernism, their convergence in fin-de-siècle popular entertainment has been largely overlooked. Gordon argues that while the impact of Darwinism was unprecedented in science, it was no less present in popular culture through the popular press and popular entertainment, where it constituted a kind of
"evolutionist aesthetic" on display in the café-concert, circus, and music-hall as well as in the spectator's reception of the representations on the stage. Modernity in these sites, Gordon contends, was composed by the convergence of contemporary medical theory with representations of the primitive, staged in entertainments that ranged from the can-can, Missing Links, and epileptic singers to the Cake-Walk. Her anthropology of gesture uncovers in these dislocations of the human form an aesthetic of disorder a half century before the eruptions of Dada and Surrealism.
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