Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nathan Wolff reviews The Biopolitics of Feeling

Kyla SchullerThe Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. 290 pp.

Review by Nathan Wolff

6 August 2019                                                                                                         

Kyla Schuller’s The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century deftly traces the biopolitical implications of Lamarckian evolutionary theory as it was taken up and reworked by scientists, authors, and social reformers. Schuller demonstrates the centrality of Edward Drinker Cope’s and the American School of Evolution’s theories of sensory “impressibility” (detailed in chp. 1) to discourses of white and black feminisms, child welfare, and racial uplift. She shows how sentimentalism was a feature of scientific discourse, not its opposite, since notions of heritable experience made receptivity to feeling a key index of “civilization.” And she reminds us that, while rigid biological determinisms had and have sexist and racist implications, notions of mutable bodies authorized their own fantasies of eugenic perfection—and, sometimes, complexly antiracist and antisexist strategies of black and female empowerment. 

Interestingly, the book’s close readings are most convincing and engaging when dealing with “nonliterary” texts. In Chapter 3, largely forgotten writings by Drs. Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Walker reveal complex, provocative imaginings of how the “responsive physiology of the vagina” (p. 109) could provide a biological basis for theories of white women’s political agency and racialized hierarchies of sensation. In Chapter 4, Schuller condemns Charles Loring Brace and the Children’s Aid Society’s schemes for “improv[ing] the racial stock of the settler nation” (p. 151) through forced relocation, but she also contrasts the distinctive utopianism of these reformers—who dreamed of engineering a new race, one feeling at a time—with theories of the immutable gene that were soon to gain dominance.

When Schuller turns to authors more familiar to literature syllabi like Frances E. W. Harper (chp. 2) and W. E. B. Du Bois (chp. 5), however, she sometimes strains to make a text’s language to conform to the idiom of “impressibility.” For example, Harper’s line about an enslaved mother’s “last and fond embrace” of her stolen child is said to “underscore the animation and vitality of the black body” and its capacity to “absorb sensory impressions” (p. 75). The poem’s evocation of the trauma of separation could certainly demonstrate a direct or indirect engagement with impression theory, as long as “impressibility” is fully synonymous with the capacity to feel. But Schuller claims elsewhere that impressibility must be distinguished from sensibility (p. 7). And if they’re the same then it’s unclear if the book uncovers a specific strain of nineteenth-century US writing engaged with scientific discourse, or if Schuller is using the language of “biopower” to reframe a more-or-less well-known story about Lamarckism’s wide influence, interwoven with a more-or-less well-known story about the vicissitudes of sentimentality as an aesthetic-political mode.

Overall, though, it’s hard to imagine any reader of this impressive work not being awed by its theoretical and historical acumen. Schuller provides crucial models for ways of reading politics and literature that resist tidy taxonomies. Was Du Bois’s investment in birth control radical or reactionary? Does Harper’s faith in social engineering undermine her status as a leading advocate for gender and racial equality? Schuller refuses these choices. As a result, her most profoundly Foucauldian gesture may be less her exposure of philanthropy’s biopolitical underbelly, and more her nuanced genealogy of discursive networks linking unlikely allies and antagonists in a complex series of (mis)readings, the accreted effects of which are those cultural-biological phenomena, race and sex.