The Biopolitics of Feeling

Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century

The Biopolitics of Feeling

ANIMA: Critical Race Studies Otherwise

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Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 16 illustrations Published: December 2017

Author: Kyla Schuller

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality, Science and Technology Studies > Feminist Science Studies

In The Biopolitics of Feeling Kyla Schuller unearths the forgotten, multiethnic sciences of impressibility—the capacity to be transformed by one's environment and experiences—to uncover how biopower developed in the United States. Schuller challenges prevalent interpretations of biopower and literary cultures to reveal how biopower emerged within the discourses and practices of sentimentalism. Through analyses of evolutionary theories, gynecological sciences, abolitionist poetry and other literary texts, feminist tracts, child welfare reforms, and black uplift movements, Schuller excavates a vast apparatus that regulated the capacity of sensory and emotional feeling in an attempt to shape the evolution of the national population. Her historical and theoretical work exposes the overlooked role of sex difference in population management and the optimization of life, illuminating how models of binary sex function as one of the key mechanisms of racializing power. Schuller thereby overturns long-accepted frameworks of the nature of race and sex difference, offers key corrective insights to modern debates surrounding the equation of racism with determinism and the liberatory potential of ideas about the plasticity of the body, and reframes contemporary notions of sentiment, affect, sexuality, evolution, and heredity.


"Kyla Schuller's fascinating and informative book . . . represents an impressive addition to the extensive corpus of work dealing with the cultural implications of sensibility, particularly emphasizing its darker aspects."  — Allison P. Coudert, Reading Religion

"[Schuller's] terminology here may act as a springboard for additional theorizations of race. . . . An ambitious, conscientious history." — Joshua Falek, Cultural Studies

"The importance of this book to nineteenth-century studies cannot be understated: it fundamentally rewrites the history of sentimentalism, an affective and cultural formation that dominated norms of comportment and embodiment across the period. . . . " — Kyla Tompkins, American Quarterly

"The Biopolitics of Feeling takes a refreshingly head-on approach to the historical entanglement of race and sex in the United States. . . Stunningly convincing . . . Readers will find an abundant resource of theoretically informed readings of postbellum and Progressive Era science and literature throughout the study, but they will be also unable to ignore Schuller’s urgent warning about feminism’s embeddedness in the machinations of biopower." — Britt Rusert, Catalyst

"Impressibility and sentimentalism combine in this book to form a rubric assessing a broad and fascinating archive. . . . Schuller offers a broad view of how nineteenth-century Americans were given repeated exposure to the logic of impressibility and affective fitness, to the point where both became unconscious components of civic life." — Sheila Liming, Legacy

"The Biopolitics of Feeling brings together critiques of sentimentalism and of biopower in ways that can inspire Victorianist work on affect and biopolitics in the nineteenth century within the British Isles and across the empire." — Zarena Aslami, Victorian Literature and Culture

"An impressive synthesis of historical and theoretical work. . . . A well-documented critique of society and valuable contribution to scholarship on biopolitics that addresses persistent issues that can spark intellectual discussions. The book would be useful for scholars across disciplines such as Philosophy, Health Studies, Critical Race Studies, Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies." — Rosemary Onyango, Journal of International Women's Studies

"Schuller offers a confident, eye-opening analysis of biopower’s influence from the nineteenth century into our own, as we continue to participate in a 'zero-sum game that disposes of some bodies to safeguard others' and, as current events daily prove, cast 'the suffering and death of others as the grounds of our own virtue' (209)." — Cynthia J. Davis, American Literature

"The Biopolitics of Feeling is a work of tremendous synthesizing reach and power. Shifting the whole frame in which we conceive of race and sex across the vast project of nineteenth-century American sentimentality, Kyla Schuller brings the biopolitical turn to the realm of Americanist criticism with an exemplary rigorousness and vision. Her book is a major accomplishment." — Peter Coviello, author of Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America

"With scintillating attention to a telling archive, Kyla Schuller has taken nineteenth-century sentimentalism toward a set of critical consequences within the realm of biopower at large, speaking to a wide range of readers from science studies to critical race, feminist, affect, and materiality studies. Schuller's talents for excavation enable a rich and supple, necessarily defamiliarizing account of the traffic among gender, race, sexuality, and the political that comes back around to inform our presents anew." — Mel Y. Chen, author of Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kyla Schuller is Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. Sentimental Biopower  1
1. Taxonomies of Feeling: Sensation and Sentiment in Evolutionary Race Science  35
2. Body as Text, Race as Palimpsest: Frances E. W. Harper and Black Feminist Biopolitics  68
3. Vaginal Impressions: Gyno-neurology and the Racial Origins of Sexual Difference  100
4. Incremental Life: Biophilanthropy and the Child Migrants of the Lower East Side  134
5. From Impressibility to Interactionism: W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Eugenics, and the Struggle against Genetic Determinisms  172
Epilogue. The Afterlives of Impressibility  205
Notes  215
Bibliography  247
Index  271
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