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Enclosing Queer and Crip Futures: California Eugenics and Technologies of Liberal Governance


"Enclosing Queer and Crip Futures" examines the state-sponsored discourse and practice of eugenics in late nineteenth and early twentieth century California. At the time, eugenics reformers collaborated with the state government to implement programs designed to curb the reproduction of the so-called defective class. These programs included sterilization, institutionalization, and deportation. This chapter of California history is seldom mentioned today, but when it is, eugenics policies are described as having been discredited along with the “fake” science of racial improvement. I challenge the presumption that eugenics policies are aberrant to an otherwise progressive march of history. Instead, the dissertation implicates eugenics as central to the project of building a modern liberal state in California.

Based on original research in the California State Archives and the California Historical Society, the dissertation tracks how turn of the century eugenics discourse expanded and developed new technologies of power for the state to wield over bodies, temporality, land, capital, and desire. These technologies of liberal power rooted in eugenics discourses included, first, the violent attachment of difference to bodies. I analyze the discursive construction of the gendered, racialized, and disabling “defective class” and the process of attaching difference to bodies through institutional medicine. Second, eugenics expanded the carceral infrastructure of the state and a gendered logic of confinement, by legitimating mass institutionalization at state hospitals, state homes for the feeble-minded, and adult and youth reformatories. Third, eugenics discourse signals a break from laissez-faire political economy, and the establishment of a state biopolitical power that exceeds the interests of capital. I examine how Progressives enforced a version of freedom secured through liberal state power, challenging capitalist notions of freedom and the radical dreams of freedom articulated by the underclass.

Examining these technologies of governance as forms of enclosure, I demonstrate that the practice of eugenics in California asserted power over the possible futures that could unfold. Eugenics determined the present structure of liberal governance by foreclosing other possible queer and crip ways of being, forms of sociality, ways of organizing space and time, and other desires for freedom. Revisiting the era to reveal the contingency of the present splits the future wide open from eugenicist determination, creating time for queer and crip possibilities to emerge.

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