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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” )? 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 rather compressed period of transition? Gilbert relies largely on J.G.A. Pocock’s account of an elite Aristotelian strand in Victorian theories of liberal citizenship (in which the individual is free from distorting material concerns) as increasingly intertwined with a more capacious model proposed by the Roman jurist Gaius “that citizens constitute themselves as such primarily through action upon a world of material things” (23). “Construction of the citizen through his goods,” or a cultivation of self-mastery through the development of taste and consumerism, seemed to promise significant broadening of the citizenry in nineteenth-century political culture (23).
Gilbert structures the volume around three forms of discourse within the public sphere: political, social, and literary (in effect privileging the novel as a site for constructing and representing individual subjectivity). Part One deals with the domain of politics primarily through analysis of the rhetoric employed in parliamentary debates, foregrounding “competing models of citizenship during the period in question” and tracing “the emergence of the important theme of individualism versus the masses in citizenship debates from the 1830s to 1860s” (17). Were workingmen capable of functioning in political life as individuals or were they inevitably to be subsumed or “massified” by class interest, “a nightmare of corporative political action . . .imagined in terms of the massed bodies of the poor” (17)? The recalcitrant figure of the pauper haunted these debates, Gilbert demonstrates clearly, in effect signifying “that element of the community that, though produced by society, resisted socialization” (42). At the level of the state, Gilbert examines the presence of “sanitary visions of the body” in the arguments addressing working-class enfranchisement. Both pro- and anti-reform legislators laid claim to sanitary and medical justifications for their positions when it came to extending the vote to previously unrepresented members of the public. In the years following the First Reform Bill, Gilbert suggests, both sides increasingly employed a rhetoric of “fitness” to make such arguments, “moving substantively closer to twentieth-century notions of citizenship and individual rights” (21).
From the political Gilbert moves to the social proper, proposing thereby to participate in “current theoretical conversations on its status” (66). To this end, she charts the logic whereby “the social body overlapped with the body politic (especially from the 1860s on) (82). The central chapters of The Citizen’s Body concentrate on specific ideas about citizenship rooted in moral environmentalism, principally within the mid- to late-nineteenth century housing movement. The author offers fascinating glimpses into the rationale behind teaching working-class families to desire multiple as opposed to single-room dwellings, for instance, as a deterrent to “unhealthy” behavior. We become acquainted also with reformers’ enthusiasm for eradicating the communal spaces of slum courtyards and staircases; the architecture of urban space was seen either to affirm or erode a newly cultivated appreciation for (essentially middle-class) domestic privacy. By the 1860s, housing design aspired to reinforce a homogenizing emphasis upon “the similarity of the desires of the lower classes to those of the middle and upper classes” (97). Perhaps most usefully, Gilbert examines the division within early social work between a feminized model of household management and a drive for professionalization associated with data analysis and abstraction. Gilbert is particularly sensitive to the ambiguous status of Victorian middle-class women’s social activism around housing reform, offering a sympathetic yet critical portrait of Octavia Hill and her project “to mobilize consent” through “management of the desires of the poor” (100-101). Hill’s tenants were chiefly to be managed as “potential citizens” (108). A tantalizingly brief discussion of the Victorian social worker’s commitment to “a consciousness of corporate life” organized exclusively around liberal notions of community provocatively gestures towards “other bonds of community” literally invisible to the lady visitor, being based in “the common experience of shared labor habits or economic struggle as a legitimate source of communal feeling” (109) rather than forms of desire productive of “a public, and proudly English, identity” (110). What is it at issue here are other possible genealogies of the social developing in the nineteenth century, most notably around the rise of “socialism” in its many varieties, as noted by Raymond Williams. In Keywords, Williams contends that the social was being understood in two utterly distinct ways. First, as “a continuation of liberalism,” with its emphasis on “political freedom, the ending of privileges and formal inequalities, [and] social justice,” the social was concerned with “equity between different individuals and groups” (286). But in its equally important and opposing second sense, the social—and by extension socialism—could be construed as based not in “a competitive, individualist form of society,” but in “practical cooperation and mutuality.” As such, socialism aspired to “a just social order rather than equity between the different individuals and groups produced by the existing social order . . . . one based on social ownership and control” (287). It is this second sense of the social that Hill finally cannot recognize, much less value, in the communal life of her tenants.
The third and final section of the book focuses on social problem fiction, political writing and sensation fiction as they borrowed upon omnipresent and class-specific “body talk” of public health, shaping narratives that explored the drama of citizenship for Victorian readers. In speaking both to and for individuals, these texts frequently thematize the body as potentially rent by desire, overcome by ungovernable appetites, and even enslaved to addictions that threaten to overmaster any attempt to individuate and “socialize” citizens-in-the-making. Intemperate, incontinent, undifferentiated, the ill-disciplined bodies that haunt the fiction of Gaskell, Dickens and Eliot reveal severe consequences for those who fail to pass through the social as it mediates between public and private life, or who refuse to internalize “appropriate” strategies for the management of desire. Literary scholars seeking exhaustive readings of the novels under discussion may be left wishing for more: Gilbert presents a rapid series—often in paired analyses--of authors or texts in these final chapters that foreground consideration of genre. There are some wonderfully sharp and productive couplings to be explored here. In the chapter on the political novel we find Disraeli’s Sybil (1845) set alongside Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks (1866), an examination that effectively expands our current definition of the “political” to include the social in important ways. The chapter on “leaky bodies” in the liberal “social” novels of Dickens and Gaskell offers almost too much evidence for the argument Gilbert wants to develop; the sanitary rhetoric surrounding the slum of Tom-All Alone’s in Bleak House—“there is not an Atom of Tom’s slime . . . but shall work its retribution, through every order of society” (654, qtd. 143)—richly illustrates a corruption of the body politic that Dickens seeks to diagnose, if not to cure. “In Dickens, as in Gaskell,” Gilbert demonstrates, “the body of the fit citizen is represented as the body that achieves closure” (153). Blood, sweat and tears—not to mention oozing putrefaction—of “unfit” bodies identified with the “massified” poor, the author suggests, point to an unsettling “history of entanglement with representations of political resistance” (153). In her final chapter, Gilbert returns to the “political” novel in a later, “self-consciously anachronistic” form with a sustained reading of George Eliot’s Felix Holt (1866). Gilbert’s earlier work on sensation fiction comes to bear tellingly on Eliot’s hybrid novel: Felix Holt weds two apparently disparate forms, “taking up the topic of addiction . . .to argue that the mismanagement of desire is the central problem of liberal government, both in the public sphere of the social problem novel’s cryptopolitical realm and the private, domestic sphere of the sensation novel” (155). Concluding thus with Eliot’s “essentially conservative” vision, Gilbert rests on the “threat to citizenship of a subject who has learned too well to desire but failed to benefit from the social by learning the techniques necessary to displace and contain that desire” (173). Cutting across class, Eliot’s vision of the dangers of liberalism forecasts a “too-complacent conformity” whereby “the compliant citizen settles for an existence as a self-medicating philistine” (172, 173).
At the broadest level, The Citizen’s Body seeks to historicize that which persists as “natural” and “universal” in the liberal imagination. Gilbert writes: “it has been observed that citizenship under liberal government involves the mobilization of consent—you have perfect freedom to do what you want to do so long as you want to do what everyone else does” (81). Consent and desire remain flourishing concerns in our own times. In conclusion, Gilbert rehearses the promise and limitations of communitarian critiques of liberalism, as well as “a liberal discourse ethics informed by contingent universalism,” all the while wondering has “the postmortem of liberalism perhaps been hasty” (181). Without offering “any proposal for a remedy to the difficulty I have identified,” Gilbert makes strenuous efforts to locate our contemporary agon in relation to a vividly realized and variegated past: “to transcend our episteme, it is necessary first to understand how it is formed and functions; it is also necessary to evaluate what within it has continued to be of value” (182).
Deirdre d'Albertis is Associate Professor of English at Bard College. She is the author of Dissembling Fictions: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Social Text and is currently completing a book on women writers' materialist accounts of authorship in nineteenth-century Britain.
- Poovey, Mary. Making A Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
- Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society Revised Edition. NY: Oxford UP, 1983.