The Biopolitics of Feeling

Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century

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Kyla Schuller
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , December
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Schuller’s fascinating and informative book deals with the way the cult of sensibility, which developed at the end of the eighteenth century, influenced scientific, social, and political thought in 19th-and early -20th century America. Her work represents an impressive addition to the extensive corpus of work dealing with the cultural implications of sensibility, particularly emphasizing its darker aspects. 

The cult of sensibility developed from John Locke’s sensualist epistemology rejected the notion of innate ideas, claiming instead that our ideas come to us through the senses. Senses and sensibility were therefore the gateway through which rational thought developed. Consequently, Locke believed that educational and environmental influences were all-important in shaping the mind, character, and behavior of individuals. Locke’s idea of sensibility was reinforced by experimental work on the nervous system, which established a hierarchy of bodies that were more or less sensitive to outside influences. This hierarchy became racialized: white middle- and upper-class “civilized” bodies were more responsive and “impressible” (a term coined by Schuller) than lower-class white, brown, or black “uncivilized” bodies. Employing the idea of “biopower” discussed by Foucault in The History of Sexuality (Éditions Gallimard, 1976), Schuller claims that since the late 18th century liberal western democracies have determined the value of individual lives in terms of their impressibility. 

The logical consequence of such ideas was “Necropolitics,” a term coined by Achille Mbembe I, the conviction that those groups which benefited society could be separated from those which threatened its economic and biological stability and must therefore be allowed to die, ideas associated most closely with Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) and later with Social Darwinists. Those wishing to attain the rank of the civilized were expected to control their sensory impulses through what Schuller describes as “sensorial discipline.” All kinds of new programs, institutions, and technologies evolved to aid in this endeavor: aesthetic discourses on taste; sex-segregated factory labor; public health campaigns; architectural and interior design; moral reform societies; vice squads; public and parochial educational facilities; prisons; the mass domestic novel; censorship; temperance movements; dietary reform and cookbooks; exercise equipment; religious revivals; and missionary efforts. All these highlighted the importance of inculcating good habits. 

The idea that impressible bodies could control their own evolution fit in with Darwinian notions of evolution. But, as Schuller points out, the great majority of American scientists and anthropologists did not accept Darwin’s idea of natural selection as the cause of evolution until after World War I; instead they turned to Lamarck’s idea that evolution was caused by impressions from the “milieu” in which individuals were raised. These impressions could then be passed on to their offspring. In other words, acquired characteristic could be inherited. 

During the 19th century the idea of the body as a palimpsest was extended back and forward in time to the point that individuals as well as entire races were thought to be shaped by impressions accumulated through inherited and acquired tendencies. This could and did lead to progressive ideas about women, so-called “inferior races,” and the poor. In Sowing and Reaping, for example, the black abolitionist feminist Frances E. W. Harper (1825-1911) discussed the way maternal behavior shapes the inherited proclivities of the next generations. Many white middle-class feminists made the same argument, which became a powerful weapon in the feminist arsenal. Lamarckianism was also used by W. E. B. Dubois and others to argue that races, like individuals, could evolve over time as a result of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The same could be said for the poor. Schuller claims that while literary and cultural scholars have emphasized these positive aspects of biopolitics, they have not sufficiently recognized its pernicious effects. 

A case in point is what Schuller describes as “biophilanthropy.” Middle class reformers took “uncivilized” youth from their families and placed them in Christian schools, homes, and orphanages that were expected to press new sensations onto malleable constitutions. Biophilanthropy was seen as a progressive way to control pauperism and prostitution and to civilize poor and some non-white children by removing them from the harmful milieus into which they were born. Whatever good intentions philanthropists may have had, these children were basically left to the mercy of their new guardians and employers. Many of them were abused and overworked as cheap labor in the growing capitalist economy. None of this appeared in sentimental orphan literature written to gratify the philanthropists supporting these institutions. 

Schuller contends that scholars have also tended to downplay the negative gender and racist assumptions central to the correlation between sensibility/impressibility and evolution. In the world of Lamarckian biopolitics the long-standing idea that women were by nature more impressible than men had been taken positively by many as a sign of women’s openness to progress. But it was also believed that sensibility could degenerate into an incapacitating disease. To protect against this threat of over-civilization, the civilized body was divided by the male pundits of the period into two interdependent units, the male and female: “ ... the adult female absorbs the instability of impressibility and its tendency to hysteria, absolving her male counterpart of the excesses inherent to delicate feeling” (59). As for non-whites and the poor, the fact that they were considered less impressible limited their inability to evolve.  

Schuller argues that by 1915 the more progressive aspects of Lamarckian evolution gave way to increasingly deterministic notions of heredity characteristic of Social Darwinism and eugenics. The turn to eugenics was marked by state sterilization mandates as the idea of the malleable individual gave way to the notion of fixed identity through genes. This brings Schuller to W. E. B Du Bois. Du Bois’s acceptance of eugenics and his participation in the infamous “Negro Project,” which was supported by Margaret Sanger and later by Planned Parenthood, is a contentious subject among scholars. Schuller claims that Du Bois was not a confirmed eugenicist because he continued to accept older ideals of biopolitics that allowed for racial improvement through the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

As heredity was increasingly seen as impervious to the environment, the idea that individuals or races could improve through their own actions or by the inheritance of acquired characteristics lost purchase. The notion of impressibility gave way to that of impressionability, a sign of the innately limited rationality and excess emotionalism of women, inferior races, and the poor.  

Schuller’s investigation of the biopolitical ramifications of the cult of sensibility demonstrates the interconnectedness of ideas about sex, race, class, and gender, providing one more example of the impossibility of separating scientific ideas from their cultural milieu. Her book will be of great interest to everyone interested in key aspects of modernity concerning race, class, gender, and the history of the body and emotions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Allison P. Coudert is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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


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