Dark Degenerations: Life, Light and Transformation Beneath the Earth, 1840-c.1900

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


This paper offers a distinct contribution to several bodies of scholarship by historicizing the supposed capacity of darkness to transform, and perhaps monstrously distort, bodies and minds. It does so by focusing on a single – though expansive - dark environment where several discourses of dark degeneration converged across the mid-late nineteenth century. Orbiting Kentucky’s immense Mammoth Cave, this paper interrogates conceptualizations of the physical effects of deep darkness on the bodies consumed by it. The cave was the stage for several allied discourses of dark degeneracy that conjured images of corporeal fragility and the disintegration of particular bodies and minds via exposure to the cave’s all-encompassing darkness. This examination of various forms of dark degeneracy highlights one manifestation of an intensifying nineteenth-century focus on the how of natural processes and a growing sense of the transformative significance of the apparent cohesion of malleable bodies with their wider environments.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Sep 2021


  • Darkness
  • subterranean
  • biology
  • zoology
  • History of science
  • cultural history


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