Assignment: Decolonizing Late Victorian Biopolitics

I’ve been thinking a lot about colonialism, Empire, and the history of biopolitics and I think that I’ve come up with a pretty nifty assignment on the subject for an undergraduate course on biopolitics and Empire in the Twentieth Century. This assignment uses the “Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen'” project of Adeline Koh. You can find the project overview here:

The assignment asks students to think critically about class and gender, and their relation to biopolitics, in the context of colonial Singaporean literature.

The idea here is that this would function as a mid-unit assignment building towards a major essay. Students will have already read excerpts from Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculties and its Development, Nordau’s Degeneration, and either excerpts from Lombroso on criminology or from one of his English followers, as well as G.W. Harris’s 1914 essay “Bio-Politics.” This means students will already be familiar with eugenics, degeneration, criminology, and biopolitics and have seen how they work to reinforce social values surrounding race, class, sex, and gender in Stoker’s Dracula.

When I teach Dracula, I tend to emphasize the novel’s fraught gender politics — its vilification of the New Woman and the simultaneous instrumentality of Mina’s subversive agency in saving the day. While Dracula engages abstractly with colonialism and Empire, this assignment will serve as a pivot to get students thinking about these issues in an actual colonial context. In this way, it serves as a pivot point between the first essay (on Dracula and the turn of the century) and the second unit, which would then bring the reversal of degeneration in Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism” to bear on midcentury British and Anglophone literatures (such as Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark and/or George Lamming’s The Emigrants).

With some work, I think the assignment could adapted for use in an American Literature class, especially as a segue into Global American literature. For example, to teach gender in a global context it can be read after Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” instead of Stoker’s Dracula.

I’ve pasted the assignment below, feel free to use, adapt, or remix as needed!

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This work by Steven Pokornowski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Decolonizing Late-Victorian Cultural Politics

This assignment builds on our recent class readings on degeneration, eugenics, criminology, and early bio-politics in England at the turn of the Twentieth Century. We’ve already seen how Victorian biomedical and social science normalized and reinforced gendered, sexualized, and racialized biases through the deployment of clinical language.

We have already examined how these issues are put into dramatic play in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, but now we will complicate our understanding by examining Anglo-Singaporean sources from the “Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’” project.

You will be tasked with choosing and reading one of two short stories published in the 1898 Straits Chinese Magazine, a Singapore based literary magazine that ran at the turn of the century.

You can choose between “A Victim of Chap-Ji-Ki” or “The Awakening of Oh Seng Hong”, both published in Volume 2 Issue 6 of the magazine, and available to read online through the “Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’” Project here:

After choosing and reading your story, you must complete these two brief written responses:

  1. Analytical Application of Critical Concepts

After choosing and reading your story, you must write a 1-2 page critical analysis of how the short story circulates common Late-Victorian beliefs about sex, gender, and class as they relate criminality and national degeneration. Cite specific passages from your short story and explain directly how they relate to concepts from the readings by Galton, Lombroso, Nordau, or Harris.

  1. Personal Reflection

Please include also a brief .5 page personal reflection on your analysis. Were you surprised at how similar these gendered portrayals of criminality and degeneration were to those you read about in the UK and Europe? How does this view of Chinese-Englishness make you reconsider the scope and effects biomedical or social science in colonial and imperial biopolitics? How does your story make you reconsider their role in Dracula?






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