Pamela K. Gilbert. The Citizen’s Body: Desire, Health, and the Social in Victorian England. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2007. ISBN: 9780814210529. Price: US$39.95.[Record]

  • Deirdre d’Albertis

…more information

  • Deirdre d’Albertis
    Bard College

The body, its environment, and its desires: in her latest book Pamela K. Gilbert dwells on historically specific imaginings of corporeality. By what logic did the universal liberal subject come to be organized around such humble calculations as how much dwelling space sanitarians deemed necessary for a working man to qualify as a “citizen” capable of proper representation (the answer we learn is a “700-cubic foot cushion of air” [60])? Following on Mapping the Victorian Social Body (2004), her study of social and medical mapping in nineteenth-century Britain, Gilbert’s new work expands familiar territory by further elaborating the “rise of the social” initiated in Victorian studies by Mary Poovey’s Making a Social Body (1995) as well as the general turn to Foucauldian historiography by students of the period. The social, for Gilbert, is “a mediating domain that enables the development, in this transitional period, of a notion of liberal government that mediates between ‘matters of the household’ and those of citizenship, both allowing for and policing a more inclusive model of political participation” (2). With The Citizen’s Body we see sustained attention to Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics, culminating in an afterword that explores current theories of “liberalism and its discontents” from Rorty and Mouffe to Walzer and Agamben. Gilbert continues to mine the productive vein of “governmentality,” even as she demonstrates a certain methodological predilection for conversation across intellectual traditions, situating Foucault for instance in dialogue with Habermas as well as Arendt, while drawing upon recent work of scholars of liberalism (Amanda Anderson) and the state (Lauren Goodlad) to amplify her own distinctive concerns with social space. Gilbert sites her study at the intersection of these recent trends, fruitfully connecting “Victorian ideas about fitness and citizenship” with “the rise of liberal government and new knowledge directed at measuring and controlling the economic and physical behaviors of the populace” (5). Investigating the many valences of liberalism from the nineteenth century down to the present day, Gilbert offers readers a detailed examination of the Victorian liberal imagination as it developed between the First and Second Reform Bills through “the articulation of fitness as a primary criterion for the franchise in the 1830s through the 1860s” (174). Whereas in Mapping the Social Body Gilbert organized her readings of social space around sanitary and medical interpretations of cholera (focusing perforce on diseased bodies), in The Citizen’s Body she broadens her scope to encompass parliamentary debates over extension of suffrage as well as discourses particular to housing reform and social work (shifting attention to the imperative to manage desire—whether it be for commodities, drink, or solidarity—within working- and lower-class bodies). During this crucial period, Gilbert argues, “preparation for citizenship came to be seen less as a matter of acquiring a public and political identity than of shaping the familial, moral, and physical environment required to foster a natural and healthy body and mind; in short, with liberal universalism, fitness for citizenship ceased to be simply a political issue and became instead explicitly a social matter rooted in the private and domestic spheres” (3). Thus we see less emphasis in this book on education than we do on acts of consumption and “a set of hygienic practices that created a bodily habitus appropriate to the development of middle-class tastes, thus eradicating class boundaries”(8). Possessive individualism imperfectly but nonetheless persuasively comes to characterize this emergent redefinition of the citizen. In contrast to Bruce Haley’s earlier approach in The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture (1978), Gilbert’s sense of health is oriented here toward the cultivation of “political fitness”(3) in the newly—or potentially—enfranchised. What is the “citizen” during this …