Reviewed Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century, Duke University Press, 2018
When reports emerged late last year that thousands of migrant children were being forcibly separated from their parents at the United States–Mexico border and placed into state care, much of America (and beyond) reacted with shock.
‘I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries,’ wrote former first lady and wife of Republican president George W. Bush, in the Washington Post, ‘but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.’ Celebrities took their disbelief to Twitter. ‘What kind of dark evil shit is happening to this country?’ asked actor Tim Robbins, while Jessica Chastain wondered, ‘Are we really such monsters?’
At the same time, US President Donald Trump was justifying his zero-tolerance approach to the so-called ‘migrant caravan’—thousands of people fleeing violence and political repression in Central America to march to the US border on foot—by invoking familiar tropes of border security and aggressively deviant sexuality of men of colour. ‘Border security is very much a women’s issue,’ he said in the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term elections, ‘Women want security. They don’t want that caravan.’
For white citizens in the West who react to every instance of state persecution of people of colour as though it were unprecedented, this may seem an odd remark to make. But the connection between the policing of national borders and protecting the bodies of white women has a long history. The separation of migrant children by the state demonstrates how deeply our present is rooted in the science and politics of the nineteenth century. We can see this in three branches of our social and political realities: biopolitics, race and gender.
In The Biopolitics of Feeling—published before the child separation policy became public—Kyla Schuller, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, makes a startling interjection into both our contemporary political discourse and the scholarship of scientific and social history.
Not only are racial and gender oppression linked, she argues, but the concept of sex difference itself is racialised. The key function of binary sex difference was to assert and maintain white dominance through biopolitics: the notion that population management rather than direct control over the individual is the key to maintaining social equilibrium.
‘[B]iopolitics fosters the life of the population as a whole by identifying those groups whose continued existence would threaten its economic and biological stability and who thus must be allowed to die,’ she claims. Our contemporary social world, from Black Lives Matter to the contentious issue of the ‘white woman voter’, is a product of this nineteenth-century interplay between politics, race and sex.
In the mid nineteenth century the dominant scientific school of thought was the American School of Evolution. Eschewing Charles Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, this school drew from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who theorised that it was the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure that determined evolutionary change. Schuller deconstructs the relationship between science, race and sex by exploring the once-ubiquitous concepts of impressibility and sentimentalism, naming them as the key drivers of racial thought.
Impressibility, she writes, refers to the capacity of an organism to ‘receive impressions from external objects that thereby change its characteristics’. According to the American School, this plasticity or ‘ability to be affected over time’ meant that if humans could effectively manipulate their sensory inputs they would direct their own evolution by acquiring new traits that they would then pass on to their descendants. Impressibility was considered the domain of the more highly evolved and therefore civilised races; rather than regarding racial characteristics as biologically fixed, immutable traits, like the genetic determinism of the later eugenicists, the scientific racism of this era maintained that humans varied in the plasticity required eventually to attain the peak of civilisation. The fallacy that black people, for instance, are less sensitive to pain is rooted in this science of impressibility.
The sex binary, Schuller continues, then emerged as a function of sentimentalism (not to be confused with sentimentality). If the civilised body was more receptive to external stimulations, then this also left it vulnerable to excessive emotionality that could arise out of this sensitivity. Sentiment—the capacity to feel—although necessary for rationality and reason, could become burdensome if it interfered with objective thought to the point where it led to sentimentality. In order to solve this problem, scientists divided the civilised body into two distinct halves, with each assigned specific biological, intellectual, and gendered characteristics. ‘Civilised’, if it’s not yet been made clear, is a euphemism for ‘white’.
To the male half went the intellectual faculties of reason, logic and objectivity. To the female went the excessive sentimental responses and accompanying tendency to irrationality and impulsivity. Women, in other words, would take on the role of absorbing feeling, of over-sympathising, of letting emotions override the facts, leaving men to carry on the important intellectual and empire-building work. In this way civilisation would be stabilised.
These two separate but deeply connected concepts, she contends, are the foundations of our modern notions not only of race but also of gender. Impressibility allowed white society to continue evolving towards civilisational perfection by controlling sensory inputs, and sentimentalism stabilised the population by ensuring only certain segments of the population were permitted to take part in this evolution.
The racial implications are immediately apparent. Schuller begins Biopolitics of Feeling with a discussion of Black Lives Matter, arguing that much of its controversy stems from its rejection of ‘a basic premise of the domain of the political: that the feelings of the civilized individual—and only the civilized individual—is the kernel of liberal democracy’.
But Schuller’s most original contribution is her contention that binary sex, also a pressing contemporary concern that maintains there are two—and only two—fixed, non-overlapping genders, with separate and specific biological and character features that determine their place in the civilised society, is itself a function and feature of race. The concepts ‘man’ and ‘woman’ were not universal even to Europeans and their settler-colonial derivatives, but were created very specifically to refer to white, middle-class and affluent people—the civilised. Through the logic of biopolitics these categories were rigidly enforced to hinder any chance of non-whites similarly evolving.
We may have shed the antiquated Lamarckian view of evolution but its after-effects remain with us. Police brutality in the United States as well as Aboriginal deaths in custody demonstrate that certain people are considered disposable. The mandatory detention of brown and black people attempting to seek asylum in Australia and the determination of our government to keep them incarcerated at all costs—both monetary and human—are also a testament to the biopolitical notion that some bodies are a contagion that threaten the health of the rest of the population and so must be quarantined. Politicians have literally referred to asylum seekers as ‘threats to our way of life’.
Feminism must also reckon with this history: women of colour continue to struggle with white feminism and the spectre of the white woman voter who votes seemingly against her own interests. The Biopolitics of Feeling spells out clearly that white women still—whether wittingly or unwittingly—play this role of white society’s stabilising force. ‘Binary sex’, says Schuller, ‘has come to accomplish the work of racial differentiation.’ She expands in a blog post on the Duke University Press website:
The conservative ideology in which women’s role is to protect the private sphere is an element of the biopolitical logic that women’s role is to secure the stability of the civilized races.
Conservative women who publicly defend white men facing credible claims of sexual assault, including the President and Roy Moore, the 2017 Republican nominee for the Alabama senate, do not—as many of us, including myself, have argued—choose their race over their sex.
Rather, they embody and perform the role that has been ordained for them as white women: stabilise the population and maintain the white status quo. ‘Our anger at white women conveniently spares the white male voter, who supported Trump and Moore in even larger numbers,’ says Schuller. ‘The problem with white Republican women is the problem with woman as a category in the first place.’
The Biopolitics of Feeling is a dense work of stunning originality. By grounding sex difference as a feature of racialisation and the domain of white civilisation, Schuller gives us tools not only to contextualise contemporary racism and feminism, but also to understand why so much of our work in both these spaces seems to be stalling. By dividing the civilised body in two—(white) man and (white) woman—biopolitics created a fissure not just between white men and white women, but also between white women and all other women. Any efforts to address global patriarchy or women’s rights is necessarily undermined because whiteness constructed womanhood and femininity as we understand them as a central tool to assert and maintain its dominance.
The legacies of impressibility and sentimentalism are everywhere. The child separation policy at the United States–Mexico border recalls the biophilanthropy of Charles Loring Brace, father of child welfare and founder of the Children’s Aid Society, who pioneered the practice of separating poor children from their unsuitable parents in order to fashion them into useful citizens. Schuller analyses Brace’s nineteenth-century ‘orphan trains’, which removed German, Italian and Jewish children of New York’s derelict Lower East Side before the vulgar habits of their poor parents had time to leave a permanent impression on them. Transported interstate to hardworking American families, it was thought they would acquire desirable traits that they would in turn pass on to their own children. Schuller situates Brace’s vision as the prototype for Indigenous child removals in Australia and North America.
The implications for gender identity are also obvious. The association of woman-hood with genitalia, which dictates so many conflicts between trans activists and radical feminists today, is rooted in nineteenth-century biopolitics. Here, Schuller traces the work of two female physicians, Dr Mary Walker and Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, who both regarded the vagina as the key site of civilisational progress. ‘Stressing the impressibility of the vagina, Walker and Blackwell insisted that civilization depended on women’s ability to regulate its use.’
This recalls and connects two seemingly unrelated events for me. First, it echoes English feminist Caitlin Moran’s definition of feminism in her book How to Be a Woman (2012), that a woman is a feminist if she both has a vagina and wants to be in control of it. This in turn helps to explain Moran’s hostility to critiques of television show Girls created by Lena Dunham and enthusiastically endorsed by Moran. ‘I literally couldn’t give a shit about it,’ she responded when queried about the show’s lack of racial diversity. Second, it goes some way to deciphering the baffling words of conservative US politician Todd Akin, who in 2012 claimed that abortion was not necessary for rape victims because ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.’ Here, Akin was suggesting that the vagina had the capacity to avoid unwanted impregnation, a notion derived from impressibility.
Both of these seemingly disparate incidents can be seen as a hangover of what Schuller calls ‘the sentimental politics of life’, through which race determines who prospers in society and who remains marginalised, while sex difference keeps civilisation itself ticking along. Moran was unmoved by race representation because she is the inheritor of a feminist legacy that is concerned not with restructuring society but merely with improving how white women fare within it.
Schuller warns that we ‘are still in this period’ of using sex and gender to enforce racial hierarchies. We must see race, she argues, as neither biologically fixed and immutable nor as a purely social construct because biopolitics has ensured that racialisation leaves its marks on human bodies. She points to the higher childbirth mortality rates facing black women in America and local readers will also be reminded of the health and income gap that persists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in Australia. Race, Schuller explains, ‘is inherited trauma, it is also affective belonging’.
The Biopolitics of Feeling is a complex academic work that at times assumes scholarly knowledge likely to lose some lay readers, and its focus on the United States leaves Australian readers to make their own connections to our history and experiences. However, neither of these aspects of the book is reason to forgo it. Schuller’s unearthing of the political implementation of nineteenth-century scientific concepts and the clear line she draws to the present day reasserts the importance of a critical theoretical feminism that is unafraid to cast its critical gaze inwards.
Through Schuller’s careful excavation we can identify the current calls for ‘facts not feelings’ and ‘civility’ in our public discourse as cynical descendants of the conceit that reason and logic are the unique domain of white civilisation. These are invoked not to facilitate robust debate but to avert it. Likewise, the supposed tendency towards hysteria in women as well as the dismissal of people of colour as angry and irrational can be traced back to this demarcation between the civilised and the uncivilised. The strength of this remarkable book will become increasingly apparent over time, as we continue to unravel the role white women play in ensuring that never the twain shall meet. •
Ruby Hamad is a PhD student in media at UNSW. She writes for Crikey and The New Arab. Her first book, White Tears/Brown Scars, will be published by MUP in September 2019.