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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Life Expectancies: Late Victorian Literature and the Biopolitics of Empire

  • Author(s): Davies, Jessica Leigh
  • Advisor(s): Spackman, Barbara
  • Thompson, Charis
  • et al.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the rise of evolutionary thinking had produced a radical new understanding of life as the underlying connectedness of all living beings. If only the fittest would survive, the problem was no longer about how to differentiate between species, as it had been for the philosophical tradition since Aristotle, but how to articulate differences within a species. This dissertation analyzes the complex relationship between biology, politics and power that emerged in late Victorian literature. I examine the ways in which biological thinking was never limited to biology itself, nor was it a metaphorical technique used to describe social relations or simply a way to transcribe a political discourse into biological terms. I argue that the difference between biology and politics completely collapsed, and that this indistinguishability functioned to expand and justify British colonialism.

Inspired by Michel Foucault's work on biopower, I demonstrate and expand his theory of nineteenth century biopolitics as a form of power that takes biological life as both its subject and object through a series of regulatory controls leveraged at entire populations. It is a power characterized not by the threat of death, but its ability to optimize and foster biological life. Reproduction, mortality, life expectancy, and the management of health and disease are just some of the biological processes that fall under the dominion of this disciplinary power, with sexuality emerging as a particularly dense transfer point in the investment of the life of the population. I trace this notion of biopolitics through late Victorian literature - through the novels of Oscar Wilde, Richard Marsh and H. Rider Haggard - in which the investment in thinking biologically about sexuality is clear. Yet my central argument is that biopower cannot operate without empire. The reality of empire and all of the technologies and categories of difference that were central to its expansion and justification - such as gender, race and class - were inextricable with the biopower that took sexuality as its subject and object. Colonialism is not a marginalized technology of nineteenth century biopower; biopower is colonial.

My dissertation expands the critical conversation about late Victorian literature beyond the psychoanalytic, postcolonial and new historicist methodologies that have characterized the debates to ask a different set of questions. It was not my methodology that determined the questions, but a set of questions in the texts that suggested the most useful methodology for reading them. I pull insights from multiple fields of knowledge production beyond literature itself - including philosophy, post-colonial theory, anthropology, history, feminist theory, queer theory, and critical science and race studies. Beginning with Wilde, I trace sexuality as a discursive node of biopower that produces the homosexual "as a species." I then link this project of "species-making" to the rise of biological racism that imagined colonial populations quite literally as insects, functioning as a justification for war and "extermination." The final chapter analyzes the ways in which these "new species" provided the material for an imperial bioeconomy. I argue that this bioeconomy operated by imagining life in the colonies as expendable in relation to life in Britain, in order to produce wealth at home and regenerate the nation. These arguments trace a transnational itinerary through the discourses of decadence, degeneration, colonialism and imperialism, moving from and between Europe, Egypt, South America and southern Africa, to look several of the most aggressive components of the nineteenth century science of life: vivisection, mimicry and vaccination. I demonstrate that speaking about biological life simultaneously demands that we speak about the most profound set of differences - between nature and technology, humans and animals, and the differences we make real within our own species world. If categories such as race, sexuality, gender, class and empire mattered so much to the Victorians, they continue to matter now because biological thinking threatens to carry with it the trace of the violence of difference itself.

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