Following Darwin: Biopolitics and the Grotesque in American and German Culture, 1890-1933 Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Kuhn, Lina
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • My dissertation investigates turn-of-the-20th-century fiction’s fascination with ‘other’ bodies—their forms, constitutions, and meanings—and the corresponding biopolitical enterprises meant to address them. Prompted by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories in the 19th century, and adopting his language of the “normal” and “abnormal,” a host of wide-ranging efforts to optimize human development emerged on either side of the Atlantic during this period. My project examines the contemporaneous literary and filmic responses to such efforts, specifically those aimed at identifying and correcting ‘abnormality’ in the fields of degeneration, psychology, criminal law, and genetic science. I reconceptualize the aesthetic grotesque, as traditionally defined by Wolfgang Kayser and Mikhail Bakhtin, to include a biological component that reveals how grotesque characters might simultaneously embody and destabilize the concept of abnormality. In attending to the grotesque as individualizing the impact of biopower’s mass, population-based interventions, I demonstrate how the violence of biopolitical classifications results, paradoxically, from their instability—i.e., from attempts to ‘fix’ what, in essence, eludes human comprehension and control. Each chapter studies a different biopolitical discipline and its target subjects, pairing a German and an American work to investigate the surprisingly under-examined parallels between the racist American after-effects of slavery and pre-Holocaust German anti-Semitism, especially in their common systematic attempts to classify and then neutralize perceived threats to their populations. I look at American and German fictional texts by authors Frank Norris, Thomas Mann, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Georg Heym, Gertrude Barrows Bennett, Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, and director Fritz Lang. Reading across these texts, I uncover a surprising contrast between an American willingness to define difference as biological, while the German fiction remains more circumspect, refusing to either endorse or reject biological classifications of humanity. Ultimately, I show how literature and film, rather than providing solutions to the problem of biopolitics and its obsession with categorization, tease out the nuances of that problem; unfettered by real-world stakes, fictional characters have the freedom to test multiple modes of dealing with such issues of control.
Date of publication
Resource type
  • Wald, Priscilla
  • Langston, Richard
  • Dore, Florence
  • Downing, Eric
  • Taylor, Matthew
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Graduation year
  • 2018

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