English 9162B

Biopolitics and Taxonomy in late Victorian Britain

Instructor: Professor Matthew Rowlinson
Winter Half Course.

In his late work, Michel Foucault described a long-term transformation in the modality of power in the West, by which the sovereign rulers of the early modern period, whose power was defined by a monopoly on lethal force—i.e., grounded in the power to kill—were replaced by governments operating through a more dispersed set of apparatuses, whose role was not to take life but to foster it. The grim irony of this transformation was that biopower proved far more lethal than sovereign power; the sovereign’s power to punish the subject was replaced by the biopolitical state’s responsibility to kill in the name of life. From the nineteenth century on the isolation and destruction of populations identified as threats to the health or the reproductive fitness of society as a whole became a major aim of state power. Foucault argues that the logic of biopolitics led eventually to genocide.

The lethal logic of biopolitics is fully evident in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where a dedicated band of medical men devote themselves to the discovery and death of a seemingly-human invader whose existence poses a lethal threat to the British population. We will read and discuss this novel, but our work in this course will however in general be less focused on the antithesis of health and disease that organizes biopolitics than on its relation to problems of taxonomy, and to the massive changes in the classification of living beings by species and race that characterize the nineteenth century. Our work will be to study how these changes are reflected in and enacted by literary and scientific texts, and to discuss their relation to the broader history and theory of biopolitics. Besides Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Victorian texts to be studied will include selections from the writings of Charles Darwin and Francis Galton; Dickens, Our Mutual Friend; Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. We will also discuss theoretical writings by Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, and Gilles Deleuze.

View the course outline here: English 9162B. PDF download