Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Medico-politics and English literature, 1790-1830: Immunity, humanity, subjectivity
by Mallory-Kani, Amy, Ph.D., State University of New York at Albany, 2014, 216; 3620301
Abstract (Summary)

In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner began vaccinating individuals against small pox by using matter from the pustules of the cow pox. Though extremely controversial because of its discomforting mixture of animal and human, by the end of the Romantic period, vaccination was celebrated as the safest way to immunize the British population. Through the practice of vaccination, Britain found a way to save its body politic from a destructive epidemic while affirming the strong connection between individual health and collective well-being that writers of the period like Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley recognized in their works. From the beginning then, medical immunity was inherently connected to politics; at the same time that Jenner was experimenting with vaccination, writers were debating over the most effective way to stifle the "jacobin influenza" and the "French malady," the contagious revolutionary ideas migrating to England from France.

Importantly, the use of medical terms and concepts to define the political points to the already immunological process by which modern political subjects are born, a process explored by contemporary biopolitical theorists like Roberto Esposito and which my project grounds in the historical record of early modernity. In particular, I argue that the rupture in sovereignty caused by the French Revolution, resulted in a shift in the way that political subjectivity was conceived. Individuals, rather than being constituted in relation to a transcendental sovereign whom, according to Hobbes, they created to protect themselves, instead internalize sovereign power. In a sense, the modern political subject comes into being through an essential immunization.

The discourse of what I call "medico-politics" made its way into the literature of the period. In fact, literature distinctively influenced how the modern, medicalized political subject was imagined. Capital-L literature—itself an burgeoning kind of discipline—was drafted into the immunizing project of modern politics because of the way it disciplines readers' bodies and minds. While Saree Makdisi claims that there is a "uniquely Blakean slippage between political and biological language" during the period and other critics view the relationship between literature and medicine as unilateral and metaphorical, I argue that medical practices like inoculation not only influenced literature, but became a part of literature's own self-definition as a modern discipline.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Barney, Richard
Commitee: Kuiken, Kir, Lilley, James
School: State University of New York at Albany
Department: English
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 75/08(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Science history, British and Irish literature
Keywords: Austen, jane, Biopolitics, Immunity, Shelley, mary, Wollstonecraft, mary, Wordsworth, william
Publication Number: 3620301
ISBN: 978-1-303-90457-8
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