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  • The Lasting Impressions of Biopower
  • Benjamin J. Murphy (bio)
Review of Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century, Durham: Duke UP, 2018. 296 pp.

Kyla Schuller provides a remarkable re-evaluation of all terms indicated in her study's subtitle: race, sex, and science in the American nineteenth century intersect in the concept of "impressibility," which Schuller finds influencing fields and practices from moral philosophy to uplift politics to orphan resettlement to gynecology.

Schuller's introduction and first chapter establish what is meant by "impressibility." Impressibility names a body's ability to respond to, and incorporate, environmental impressions over the course of an organism's lifetime, as well as through the evolutionary durée of species formation. Impressibility thus has two poles of application. On the one hand, the individual is shaped by the impressions of external stimuli. But this is no passive state of being molded. Whereas impressionability would refer to a fully malleable organism that simply gives way to whatever is imposed from without, impressibility—in contrast—connotes "agential responsiveness" (7). Schuller proffers the helpful distinction between reflex and reflection: whereas the former is automatic and unthinking, the latter requires mediation and conscious application (4).

Just as the impressible organism moves through life managing formative impressions, so too does a species emerge slowly as the cumulative product of environmental interactions. This notion of impressibility across eons depends on a brand of evolutionary science that leaves Darwin to the side. Scholars have long recognized that Darwin's influence throughout his own century was uneven, at best; more palatable to nineteenth century's notions of teleology, progress, and agency was Lamarck's earlier-espoused theory of the heritability of acquired characteristics, which in the context of impressibility discourse meant that the impressions encountered by an organism during its lifetime could be passed on to future generations. This is the idea that anchored what Schuller calls the "American School of Evolution." An allusion to the so-called "American School of Ethnology," Schuller's coterie of thinkers—starring paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope—is the prime mover in this [End Page 453] ambitious account of how impressibility took root in a context where biology, literature, philosophy, and anthropology branched in manifold ways.

This recovery of an influential pulse of non-Darwinian evolutionary theory would in itself enrich our understanding of the historical period of focus (from 1830s-1900), but Schuller is just getting started. As the first chapter in particular details, impressibility emerges in the nineteenth century as a vector of racialization. Building on Michel Foucault's writings on biopolitics as well as on more recent work on biopower in the American context (particularly by Mel Y. Chen, Dana Luciano, and Jasbir Puar), Schuller argues that impressibility structured a distinctly non-deterministic notion of race. The American School of Evolution assumed what Schuller refers to as "civilizationist" (60) premises: "[i]mpressibility," she explains, "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 in the cultural grounds of self-constitution" (7). Impressibility discourse framed the white race as forward facing and open to self-directed improvement, as able to adapt in ways that other races—stuck in an eternal immediacy of reflex, for instance—could not. Thus, race "crystallized as a relative index of the body's degree of impressibility" (55). Under impressibility, race was less a question of unchangeable biological material and more a matter of relative flexibility—a matter of differentially mutable matter. Of course, to the extent that whiteness indicated plasticity, the relative inflexibility allotted to blackness meant that, on the unimpressible end of the spectrum, a version of determinism, or fixity, endured.

Impressibility is a slippery but intriguing concept. Although admittedly repetitive and sometimes convoluted, Schuller's elaborations do in sum make a compelling case for the importance of the term, and the archive that emerges is extensive and dynamic. One begins to wonder how we ever got along without "impressibility" in our critical lexicon. Schuller herself introduces the discourse by explaining that her book will theorize "two new keywords that have been hiding in...


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pp. 453-456
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