Lydster: The Biopolitics of Feeling

19th-century “scientists

Biopolitics of FeelingSometimes, your teenager hangs in their room all day. Other times, they wander into your office and engage you in a fascinating conversation.

My child started talking about how sexism, homophobia, and transphobia has been promulgated by a false duality. If they didn’t exist, perhaps those social ailments would not either. What prompted the discussion was an Instagram book report on the book The Biopolitics of Feeling by Kyla Schuller. The subtitle of the book is Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. It was published by Duke University Press in 2018.

Ah. From the book report: “The sex binary – the idea that there are only two, inherently opposite sexes – is not natural. It is a political invention that emerges from 19th-century race science. It has since been naturalized such that in 2020 people understand the sex binary as an indisputable ‘biological fact.’ This is historically inaccurate.”

I was aware that some 19th-century “scientists” were “invested in identifying presumed anatomical differences between the races to justify discrimination.” But I did not know that they posited that “that only the white race could achieve a pure, binary distinction between sexes. BIPOC people were dismissed as gender non-conforming and sex indistinct… They used this racist interpretation of evolutionary theory to define fixed norms and roles for men and women that still influence us today.”

A serious book

In the description of the book, the publisher notes a remarkable analysis by the author. “Kyla Schuller unearths the forgotten, multiethnic sciences of impressibility—the capacity to be transformed by one’s environment and experiences—to uncover how biopower developed in the United States… Her historical and theoretical work exposes the overlooked role of sex difference in population management and the optimization of life, illuminating how models of binary sex function as one of the key mechanisms of racializing power.” Got that?

“Schuller thereby overturns long-accepted frameworks of the nature of race and sex difference, offers key corrective insights to modern debates surrounding the equation of racism with determinism and the liberatory potential of ideas about the plasticity of the body, and reframes contemporary notions of sentiment, affect, sexuality, evolution, and heredity.” There are some impressive reviews cited for The Biopolitics of Feeling.

Fat shaming and racism

Since my daughter pointed out something I didn’t know, I shared with her an article I had only recently come across. CBSN has a piece called The racial origins of fat stigma.

“Fatness wasn’t always culturally undesirable in the Western world. … As the art and fashion historian Anne Hollander wrote in a New York Times article from 1977, ‘The look of actual human bodies obviously changes very little through history. But the look of ideal bodies changes a great deal all the time.'”

While the… article considers the switch to thinness as the preferable body type to be part of “a period of revolution in both taste and politics” in the late 18th century, Sabrina Strings’ research traces how that ‘revolution’ is actually rooted in slavery and Protestantism.

Those involved in the slave trade “decided to re-articulate racial categories, adding new characteristics… One of the things that the colonists believed was that Black people were inherently more sensuous, that people love sex and they love food, and so the idea was that Black people had more venereal diseases, and that Black people were inherently obese, because they lack self-control. And of course, self-control and rationality, after the Enlightenment, were characteristics that were deemed integral to Whiteness.”

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