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Our April, 2021 meeting of LMCC took place on Wed. April 28 at 5:30pm est via Zoom. We focused on Kyla Schuller’s 2018 monograph The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century, especially the introduction, “Sentimental Biopower.”

If you missed the meeting, you can still access the text on the Readings page of this site!

For a recording of our virtual meeting, click here.

Our next meeting will take place on Wed. May 26 at 5:30pm est. We are tentatively planning to meet in person on the UNC campus, although we will also attempt to make the meeting hybrid, so those who wish to join virtually should be able to do so using our usual Zoom link. We will post an announcement about that meeting soon.

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Schuller, Kyla. “Introduction: Sentimental Biopower.” The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Duke UP, 2018, pp. 1-34,


Some key passages:

“The ‘Black lives>white feelings’ meme captures the interdependence of two seemingly disparate dynamics driving racial formation that the summer of 2015 brought into cruel relief: white emotional well-being is produced in part by the ritualized entertainments of the security state, which hinge on the regularized death of black people” (Schuller 1-2).

“The Black Lives Matter meme rejects a basic premise of the domain of the political: the sentimental state, which identifies the feelings of the civilized individual—and only the civilized individual—as the kernel of liberal democracy” (Schuller 2).

“Sentimentalism stimulates the moral virtuosity and emotional release of the sympathizer and her affective attachment to the nation-state at the expense of the needs of the chosen targets of her sympathy, typically those barred from the status of the individuated Human: often the impoverished, the racialized, the conquered, the orphaned, and/or the animalized” (Schuller 2).

“White feelings, in the context of the United States, are the fertile products of racialized vulnerability, disposability, and death. Sentimentalism, in the midst of its feminized ethic of emotional identification, operates as a fundamental mechanism of biopower” (Schuller 2).

The Biopolitics of Feeling historicizes and theorizes this perhaps unexpected phenomenon: sentimentalism’s role as a foundational technology of biopower. In biopower regimes, the general trend of liberal democracy in the West since the late eighteenth century, biological existence forms the key domain of the political. State and nonstate actors govern by fostering the health and vitality of some members of the nation, while designating others for dispossession and death” (Schuller 2).

“In this book, I uncover how biopower materialized through the deployment of a vast and varied discourse that determined the vitality or unresponsiveness of a living body, and therefore its political claims to life, on the basis of its relative impressibility, or the energetic accumulation of sensory impressions and its capacity to regulate its engagement with the world outside the self. Sentimental discourse elaborated finely wrought rankings of the disparate corporeal capacity to receive, incorporate, and transmit sensory impressions, and for the mind to direct appropriately nonimpulsive, emotional responses to sensations—named ‘sentiments’—that would benefit the individual, race, and species” (Schuller 3).

“Excavating sentimental biopower disrupts some of our most cherished scholarly and popular narratives, including binary oppositions between: social and organic processes; sentimental and scientific accounts of ontology and reason; biological and cultural interpretations of racial status; hegemonic and feminist versions of sex difference; and determinist and vitalist accounts of the capacities of matter. The biopolitical work of feeling continues into the present, and the Black Lives Matter meme directly confronts its ongoing ramifications” (Schuller 3).

“Sentimentalism, in its function as an aesthetic mode, epistemology, and ontology, was deployed to intercede in the impressibility of the civilized body by cultivating the ability to respond to sensory stimulations on the basis of emotional reflection, rather than instinctive reflex. Together, impressibility and sentimentalism distinguished civilized bodies as receptive to their milieu and able to discipline their sensory susceptibility and as such in possession of life and vitality that required protection from the threat posed by primitive bodies deemed to be impulsive and insensate, incapable of evolutionary change, whose existence was very close to running out of time. The tension between bodily vulnerability and pliability, a microcosm of the larger antinomy between the individual and the collective enshrined in liberalism, was stabilized by sentimentalism. Sentimentalism served to explain how an originally separate individual could be affectively and politically reconciled to its material coexistence with the external environment it depended on for self-constitution” (Schuller 4).

“The sentimental politics of life played out across scientific, medical, literary, and reform spheres in the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century, and I follow its lead across this range of sources. I uncover how scientists, reformers, and writers alike saw themselves as working in concert with a neurobiological substrate that they conceived of, in its ideal form, as in dynamic exchange with the surrounding bodies, objects, and forces that press on it, especially during the tender years of youth. I bring together accounts of the divergent dynamism of the body and the stabilizing effects of sentimentalism from a variety of genres and contexts” (Schuller 4-5).

“Throughout, I examine the intertwined movements of the two most prominent discourses that consolidated political power at the site of the feeling body: science and sentimentalism. This multidisciplinary approach emphasizing the politics of plasticity, rather than determinism, in nineteenth-century culture displaces many of the best-known figures in the politics of race, sex, and the human sciences in the period, and brings a more diverse cast to the fore” (Schuller 5).

“Overall, I argue that nineteenth-century biopower consolidated in a sentimental mode that regulated the circulation of feeling throughout the population and delineated differential relational capacities of matter, and therefore the potential for evolutionary progress, as the modern concepts of race, sex, and species. Racial and sexual difference were not assigned the role of immutable, static qualities of the individual body in the nineteenth century, as has been frequently claimed. Rather, race and sex functioned as biopolitical capacities of impressibility and relationality that rendered the body the gradual product of its habit and environment, differentially positioning the claims of individuals and races for belonging in the nation-state” (Schuller 5-6).

“Within the consolidating framework of biopower, bodies signify not singularly, but within a collective in which the health and vitality of the individual functions as an element of the prospects of the population, linked as it were across space and over time through the network of sympathetic nerves. Race, sex, and species difference, I assert, defined a body’s relative claims to life on the basis of the perceived proportional vitality and inertia of the sensory and emotional faculties. The long, unrecognized history of sentimental biopower is necessary to our current efforts to assess and negotiate the political work done by hierarchies of bodily and emotional difference as well as to tease out the political implications of the contemporary theoretical turn toward vital materiality” (Schuller 6).

“Related to sensation, sentiment, and affect, yet not a subset of them, the impression characterizes how a living body is acted on by the animate and inanimate objects of its environment…. Impressions denote the trace an object or idea leaves on the passive nervous system at the precise locations of their juncture, a marking that reinforces the ontological distinctness of each. The individual’s self-transparency depends on the material world that nevertheless remains fundamentally external” (Schuller 6-7).

“By contrast, impressibility denotes the capacity of a substance to receive impressions from external objects that thereby change its characteristics. Impressibility signals the capacity of matter to be alive to movements made on it, to retain and incorporate changes rendered in its material over time. Impressibility thus has a distinctly different register from the more familiar term impressionability, although the two registers do overlap” (Schuller 7).

“Impressibility was understood to be an acquired quality of the refined nervous system that accrues over evolutionary time through the habits of civilization that transform animal substrate into the cultural grounds of self-constitution…. The impressible nervous system rendered the civilized body the gradual outcome of its habit and surroundings, accumulating over the life span of individuals and the evolutionary time of the race” (Schuller 7).

“Impressibility came to prominence as a key measure for racially and sexually differentiating the refined, sensitive, and civilized subject who was embedded in time and capable of progress, and in need of protection, from the coarse, rigid, and savage elements of the population suspended in the eternal state of flesh and lingering on as unwanted remnants of prehistory” (Schuller 8).

“Biopower, in this molar and pregenetic era, requires a somatic interface at the level of the organ or bodily system through which the individual body links to a larger species-being that materializes over time. How does the milieu act on the soma? The answer, I show, is found in [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck’s work itself. His Zoological Philosophy (1809) translates the theory of sensory impressions into the groundbreaking idea that not only the mind, but the entire nervous system, acquires its structure from the sensations an organism habitually pursues and that the organism retains these adaptations throughout its life and transmits them to offspring” (Schuller 8).

“The impressible body—and the sentimental body—is a biopolitical effect, constituted by its affective linkages to the other bodies within its milieu. Sentimentalism, as we shall see, is a broad regulatory technology in which neurological and emotional tendencies play important roles in reconciling the impressible body to its role in a biological population, rather than a narrower aesthetics and politics of the moral aptness of emotional identification” (Schuller 9).

“Impressibility functioned as the nineteenth-century precursor of the notion of affect, or the circulation of energy throughout a milieu in a manner that binds bodies together through common stimulation. The physiological dimension of sympathy has been overlooked. This has precluded understanding how affect has a genealogy rooted in the historical formation of the biopolitical entity of population and how sentimentalism was elaborated in the nineteenth century as a central biopolitical technology to regulate the vulnerability of the civilized body” (Schuller 10).

“Biopower works by situating individuals in dynamic relation and calculating and regulating how their bodies affect one another within a milieu. It governs through a pervasive animacy hierarchy that unevenly apportions the capacities of plasticity and determinism among a population. Contemporary frameworks that seek to contest biological determinisms with flexible materiality do not escape the political legacies of liberal humanism—rather, they unwittingly recapitulate the conceptual apparatus of the biopolitics of feeling” (Schuller 11).

“The civilized body figures as a repository of cultural value, an outcome of racial capital. Civilization emerged after layers and layers of beneficial impressions that propelled impressible bodies forward through time, yet their animal and savage substrate ever threatened to reemerge” (Schuller 12).

“Yet impressibility reveals that affect has a forgotten twin that has been swallowed up within its definitional reach: the state of affecting, but being unable to be affected in turn. Affect, in other words, depends on the notion of impaired relationality as its constitutive outside. Affective capacity depends on its definitional opposite, debility, for theoretical solidity, a reliance that suggests that affect materializes across the multitemporal reach of populations, rather than individual bodies. Within biopower, racialization and sex difference do the work of unevenly assigning affective capacity throughout a population. In effect, the common use of the affect concept, which conflate the capacities of affecting and being affected into one phenomenon, reifies rather than interrogates, the historical ontology of whiteness” (Schuller 13).

“The racialized were assigned the condition of unimpressibility, or the impaired state of throwing off affects but being incapable of being affected by impressions themselves” (Schuller 13).

“To be unimpressible was to be assigned the unsexed state of ‘flesh,’ Hortense Spillers’s term for the ontology of antiblackness in which the black body is suspended outside the movements of time, lingering in a raw organ state useful only for resource extraction. The racialized body was a disabled body (and vice versa), deemed unfit for social life due to its reduced cognitive and corporeal capacities, which rendered it incapable of self-constitution. The unimpressible are figured themselves as history, rather than its subjects, as energy that can be set in motion to produce for others but remains incapable of accumulating anything in return” (Schuller 13-14).

“Biopower functions as an umbrella term combining two different yet overlapping instruments of postsovereign power deployed within the regime of civilization: the discipline of the individual body, which worked to ‘integrate the body into a system of economic productivity’; and the ‘regulatory controls’ of biopolitics, which ‘aim to adjust population to economic processes.’ The sentimental politics of life illuminates how biopower consolidated around the impressible body/unimpressible flesh dynamic in both dimensions throughout the nineteenth century. Biopower functioned through the diagnosis, surveillance, and subjectivization of the docile body and the transformation of a multiplicity of individuals from a congregation of persons into a biological phenomenon existing in evolutionary time that could be measured, administered, and regulated over generations through the same processes governing the natural world” (Schuller 14-15).  [Schuller quotations in the above passage come from Repo’s The Biopolitics of Gender.]

“In order for the national population to maintain its equilibrium, biopolitics fosters the life of the population as a whole by identifying those groups whose continued existence would threaten its economic and biological stability and who thus must be allowed to die…. The uneven distribution of death, in other words, is a key function of biopower’s efforts to maintain life” (Schuller 15).

“Contemporary analytic frames that echo these oppositions, whether social constructionist notions of race that privilege notions of malleable embodiment over fixed biologies or affect theories that fail to interrogate how representations of affective capacity function as a key vector of racialization, therefore remain within the biopolitical imaginary” (Schuller 15).

“Across this varied terrain, a common paradigm emerges: race stabilizes the economic and biological health of the population, which enables the development of civilization, while sex difference stabilizes civilization. Sex served to balance the somatic vulnerability of the impressible races by dividing the civilized body into two halves: the sentimental woman, who possessed both a heightened faculty of feeling and a more transparent animal nature, and the less susceptible and more rational man, thereby relieved from the burdens of embodiment” (Schuller 16).

“Sex difference was elaborated as a biopolitical security strategy in which power maintains the homeostasis of the population through material givens inherent to its biological existence, a process that sacrifices the existence of the aberrant for the cohesion of the whole” (Schuller 17).

“I stress that binary sex does not exist in a parallel or intersecting dimension with race. Rather, the rhetoric of distinct sexes of male and female consolidated as a function of race. Yet my formulation does not relegate sex difference to the role of secondary or analogical effect of racial formation. Rather, I name sex, sexuality, and, in the post-World War II era, gender as key ways that race fragments the domain of the biological” (Schuller 17).

“Throughout this book, I argue that sentimentalism took shape as a technology to circulate and regulate feeling throughout a milieu, a political praxis that consolidated the modern hierarchies of race, sex, and species…. I offer the term sensorial discipline to capture the imperative placed on the civilized races, especially its female members and those aspiring to civilization and citizenship, to learn to master their sensory impulses and thus direct the development of themselves and their descendants” (Schuller 18).

“The sentimental politics of life helps illuminate how biopower is so effective at creating atmospheres in which people come to identify with the needs of the state and capitalism as their own best interests. Biopower works not only at the level of regulating reason and desire, but also in choreographing a repertoire of sensory stimulations that exceeds the ways that modern sexuality, in Foucault’s words, came to gradually subsume ‘the sensations of the body, the quality of pleasures, and the nature of impressions, however tenuous or imperceptible these may be’ into the apparatus of sexual identification” (Schuller 19-20).

“Sentimentalism worked to position the body’s differential capacity of feeling as the object and method of state power and capitalist development, a project that works not only through the rehearsal of emotional experience and consumer gratification, but also through the stimulation and regulation of the body’s vital capacities” (Schuller 20).

“…from the beginning, biopower has functioned through technologies of biological optimization that rely on ideas of corporeal mutability and plasticity as the interface between the individual and the population that predate genetic-era divisions between the political and natural world. In fact, one of biopower’s key innovations is the very determinist/plasticity binary itself” (Schuller 24).

“New materialisms generally animate racial thought in three ways. First, they often carve a trajectory of critical thought that takes shape as an animacy teleology moving from ideas of inert matter (the past) to vital materiality (the future) that mirrors, rather than contests, civilizationist ontologies of the nineteenth century. Second, their sweeping historical narrative regularly fails to recognize the structuring role of the intertwined ideas of vital matter and inert material in the deployment of biopower over the last two centuries…. For Pitts-Taylor, the recognition of the dynamic capacities of matter is not in and of itself counterhegemonic; rather, its political implications depend on how plasticity is deployed within scientific discourse and the work of its interpreters…. The racial logic of impressibility lies within the concepts of vitalism, material agency, and intersubjectivity with the external world which current theories, in the absence of critical interrogation of the concepts they inherit, risk reanimating. Finally and most problematically, new materialisms often unwittingly reproduce the colonial logics of impressibility, or the idea of self-constituted matter, in their account of the agency and force of the material world” (Schuller 26-27).

“The idea of porous, plastic, vital matter is not in itself an alternative to liberal humanism; it is one of the unnamed effects of the biopolitical ontology in which humanism was enlisted. Biopower itself lies at the foundation of agential/mechanical and culture/matter binaries. What we need is theories that account for the coconstitution of material and cultural processes over time” (Schuller 27).

“To disentangle radical politics from biopower, we must examine the various ways that power has long managed the circulation of vital energies and the differing ends to which such energies are conceived and enlisted” (Schuller 32).

“Sentimentalism represents a prime example of liberal individualism’s transformation of feeling, relationality, and care into an asymmetrical dynamic—a market of feelings. Biopower seeks to transform the very capacity of feeling into mechanisms of population security and biological optimization” (Schuller 34).


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