Cerebral incandescence, genetic anomaly, amoral irruption, demiurge of historical change itself—behold 'the genius,' that superlative (if labile) figure who has haunted art, war, science, and politics in the modern period. Whence came these beasts—part god, part flesh?
-Dr Graham Burnett, Professor of History, Princeton University, USA
An Introduction by Joyce E. Chaplin and Darrin M. McMahon
In the Spring of 2012, a number of the world’s leading scholars on the phenomenon of genius gathered together on the lovely grounds of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. We were a varied lot, comprising different disciplines and subfields, but we shared a common interest. We wanted to know how genius had been understood in the past, how it was talked about and invoked, marshaled and employed, and how such uses and definition had changed over time. We were less interested, that is, in investigating what genius is or might be in any universal sense, and more concerned to examine the many ways it has been conceived.
The result, we hope, is a groundbreaking series of essays investigating the various genealogies of genius from the time of its emergence as a new category in the 18th century to the present day. The subject matter ranges widely. There is reflection here on genius and eugenics; on the relationship between genius and obsession and genius and madness; and on the way in which the category has contracted and expanded in keeping with changing prejudices about gender and race. There is a consideration of the relationship between genius and evil, and genius and artificial intelligence, along with essays on the fascinating ways in which genius was imagined in Victorian Britain, Bolshevik Russia, and post-revolutionary America and France. Together the essays suggest a skeptical approach to treating genius as any sort of fixed category. They also highlight genius’s particularly vexed relationships to politics and ideologies that emphasize the equality of humankind.
We hope that readers will have as much fun reading them as we did in their conception.
Joyce E. Chaplin and Darrin M. McMahon
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