Assignment: Decolonizing Late Victorian Biopolitics

I’ve been thinking a lot about colonialism, Empire, and the history of biopolitics and I think that I’ve come up with a pretty nifty assignment on the subject for an undergraduate course on biopolitics and Empire in the Twentieth Century. This assignment uses the “Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen'” project of Adeline Koh. You can find the project overview here:

The assignment asks students to think critically about class and gender, and their relation to biopolitics, in the context of colonial Singaporean literature.

The idea here is that this would function as a mid-unit assignment building towards a major essay. Students will have already read excerpts from Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculties and its Development, Nordau’s Degeneration, and either excerpts from Lombroso on criminology or from one of his English followers, as well as G.W. Harris’s 1914 essay “Bio-Politics.” This means students will already be familiar with eugenics, degeneration, criminology, and biopolitics and have seen how they work to reinforce social values surrounding race, class, sex, and gender in Stoker’s Dracula.

When I teach Dracula, I tend to emphasize the novel’s fraught gender politics — its vilification of the New Woman and the simultaneous instrumentality of Mina’s subversive agency in saving the day. While Dracula engages abstractly with colonialism and Empire, this assignment will serve as a pivot to get students thinking about these issues in an actual colonial context. In this way, it serves as a pivot point between the first essay (on Dracula and the turn of the century) and the second unit, which would then bring the reversal of degeneration in Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism” to bear on midcentury British and Anglophone literatures (such as Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark and/or George Lamming’s The Emigrants).

With some work, I think the assignment could adapted for use in an American Literature class, especially as a segue into Global American literature. For example, to teach gender in a global context it can be read after Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” instead of Stoker’s Dracula.

I’ve pasted the assignment below, feel free to use, adapt, or remix as needed!

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This work by Steven Pokornowski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Decolonizing Late-Victorian Cultural Politics

This assignment builds on our recent class readings on degeneration, eugenics, criminology, and early bio-politics in England at the turn of the Twentieth Century. We’ve already seen how Victorian biomedical and social science normalized and reinforced gendered, sexualized, and racialized biases through the deployment of clinical language.

We have already examined how these issues are put into dramatic play in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, but now we will complicate our understanding by examining Anglo-Singaporean sources from the “Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’” project.

You will be tasked with choosing and reading one of two short stories published in the 1898 Straits Chinese Magazine, a Singapore based literary magazine that ran at the turn of the century.

You can choose between “A Victim of Chap-Ji-Ki” or “The Awakening of Oh Seng Hong”, both published in Volume 2 Issue 6 of the magazine, and available to read online through the “Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’” Project here:

After choosing and reading your story, you must complete these two brief written responses:

  1. Analytical Application of Critical Concepts

After choosing and reading your story, you must write a 1-2 page critical analysis of how the short story circulates common Late-Victorian beliefs about sex, gender, and class as they relate criminality and national degeneration. Cite specific passages from your short story and explain directly how they relate to concepts from the readings by Galton, Lombroso, Nordau, or Harris.

  1. Personal Reflection

Please include also a brief .5 page personal reflection on your analysis. Were you surprised at how similar these gendered portrayals of criminality and degeneration were to those you read about in the UK and Europe? How does this view of Chinese-Englishness make you reconsider the scope and effects biomedical or social science in colonial and imperial biopolitics? How does your story make you reconsider their role in Dracula?






ACLA 2016 Seminar in Review: Biopolitical Modernities

Near the end of March, I attended the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual conference. Evan Mauro and I collaboratively organized a two-day seminar titled “Biopolitical Modernities: Empire and Biological Governance in the Long Twentieth Century”, and I have to say, it was one of the most productive and rewarding conference experiences I’ve ever had.

The papers were all outstanding and the dialog and conversation was both rigorous and invigorating. We also got some excellent feedback, comments, and questions from folks visiting from other seminars. It was truly amazing.

[DISCLAIMER: I’m recapping these papers based on my own notes and memory, take them as brief blurbs intended to arouse your interest and allow you to find intellectuals working on these topics, not as ironclad recapitulations of papers given or arguments made. I cannot do any of these great papers justice.]

On Day 1 we had four presentations.

First, Jennifer Wang’s “Unhistorical Forms of Life in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem” got us started by reading Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem against Nietzsche’s conceptions of historical and unhistorical life. Wang focused primarily on complicating the concept of “unhistorical life,” demonstrating how McKay’s novel shows relations between unhistorical life, empire, and black modernity and argues that we must consider unhistorical life on its own terms (rather than simply as the grounding for historical life that is also left bare).

Ramon Soto-Crespo then presented “The Neobuggarón: Sexual Trash, Biopolitics, and Latin/o America.” Soto-Crespo examined how contemporary anthropological discourse has missed a moment of transition, wherein the figure of the buggarón has been revived through sexual tourism as a neoliberal construct. The neobuggarón ends up having high stakes, as the market vitalizes an invisible sexual identity that does not seek political agency and defies regulation.

Molly Hall then gave a paper titled “Biopolitical Sacrifice and Cnsumption in Padmanabhan’s Harvest.” In this paper, Hall read Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest through the lens of Giorgio Agamben’s biopolitical theory, examining how the factory farming of organ donors in the play at once makes them commodified objects AND hyperregulated and fetishized subjects.

I rounded out the first day of the conference by presenting “‘To cleanse them from pollution’: Medicine, Race, and Degeneration in Dracula and Biopolitics.” I had a two part argument. (1) That we need to historicize biopolitical discourse and understand that, given its emergence directly out of clinical/medicalized justifications for empire, colonialism, and eugenic endeavors, it is a provincially European postcolonial formulation that can benefit from dialog with postcolonial, disability, critical race, sex, and gender studies and queer theory. [Though I didn’t mention it at the time, obviously settler colonial criticism also applies here.] (2) The entangling of biology and politics and the turning of the clinical gaze onto the nation’s population at the end of the Nineteenth Century contributed to the formation of an assemblage that produced perceived threats of bioinsecurity to justify racial and social violence. [Feel free to email me for more info or a copy of the talk:]

Day 2 was just as productive and engaging.

Jih-Fei Cheng started us off with a fascinating paper on “Magnification and the Microbiopolitical.” Cheng performed a settler-colonial reading of the history of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV), and by extension in some measure, the origins of virology itself. Ultimately, Cheng critiqued the concept of scale as it has been elucidated in virology, as a visual iteration and translation of coloniality and the colonial racial form. [And as someone who has done some research on early virology, it was eye-opening seeing some of Jules Crevaux’s and others’ remarks about TMV infected plants being “made mulatto.” I thought that historical connection between race, colonization, Empire, and exploitation was really illuminating.]

Sonali Thakkar then presented “Unesco and the Politics of Racial Plasticity and Racial Reeducation.” Thakkar gave a fascinating critical history of the 1950 UNESCO statement on race, examining how the drafts of the statement veered more and more towards a goal of racial reeducation, while also failing to meet the original goal of positively defining race. The stakes of this intellectual reformation are greater than they appear, as the negative definitions of race offered by UNESCO in the end seem to contribute in some measure to the emergence of a postracial discourse. [This is also really interesting because at nearly the same time that the interdisciplinary board of thinkers in UNESCO tried to destabilize race as an object of scientific discourse and reeducate the world on race, the UN was participating in international sterilization projects with International Planned Parenthood and the London Eugenics Society.]

My co-organizer, Evan Mauro closed out the seminar for us with “The Social Life of Sensation: Logistics and Settler Colonialism.” Mauro’s paper looked at the argument between Brooks Adams and William James over what the “New Empire” of the U.S. should look like, examining how the neocolonial strucure of American Imperialism in the Twentieth Century was radical in its nature as trade colonial Geoeconomic/Debt imperialism. Mauro connected the establishment of logistics for settler colonial purposes to the global control of logistics through economic and trade relations as a neoimperial/neocolonial structure.