Biopower: Bodies, Minds and Biographical Subjection in Victorian Lives of the Poets

Issue: Vol 6, No 1: Summer 2015
Pages: 7-31
Author(s): James Whitehead (Liverpool John Moores University)
Citation: http://www.victoriannetwork.org/index.php/vn/article/view/53

Abstract

This article discusses the diagnostic and exhibitionary character of nineteenth-century biographical discourse, with particular attention to Percy Bysshe Shelley. The article proposes that suggestive parallels between the life of the individual body and the textual materials of the written Life were often made in the nineteenth century. These parallels can be related to Foucauldian arguments about pastoral power and the individual subject, medicine and the case history, irrationality and juvenescence. The article argues that poetic subjects discussed as eccentric or pathological ‘genius’ were the ideal subjects and exemplify the proliferation and operation of forms of ‘biopower’. With these arguments in mind, the article analyses biographical writing about Shelley up to 1860. Specifically, the article discusses how Shelley’s biography moved from the somatic diagnosis of the poet’s ‘constitution consumptive’ in sketches by William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, to taking his thoughts, behaviour and writing as symptomatic of psychosomatic pathology. Looking in particular at the biographical productions of Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Thomas Medwin, the article suggests how ‘biopower’ compensated for the absence of the diagnosable body by concentrating on and disciplining the embodied mind, in line with nineteenth-century “moral management”, “domestic psychiatry”, and the construction of “the mind of the child”. Finally, the article considers Victorian biography’s rhetoric of rational disenchantment and disillusionment, and suggests that it was conversely highly significant in establishing a version of beautifully and ineffectually irrational Romantic poetry. Looking forward to later periods, the article also proposes a pre-history of psychoanalytic or psycho-biographical criticism, and its ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, in nineteenth- century biography.



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