03 May 2013

Review: Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864 by Mary Poovey

Trade paperback, 255 pages
Published 1995
Acquired  April 2012
Read September 2012
Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864
by Mary Poovey

Mary Poovey’s Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864 examines the way that British society was consolidated in the early nineteenth century, particularly through practices dependent on the metaphor of the “social body,” practices that she refers to with the term “aggregation,” and many of which are scientific practices: “The image of a single culture had begun to seem plausible in 1860… because the technologies capable of materializing an aggregate known as the ‘population’ had been institutionalized for several decades. These technologies included the census… and statistics” (4). These technologies of aggregation are a form of scientific detachment, because they allow aspects of culture to be approached from a distance, not bound up in individuals.

Poovey repeatedly considers the gendered dimensions of aggregation. She seems to predominantly consider the practice of aggregation a male one, perhaps because of the metaphors aggregation employed. In discussing Edwin Chadwick’s Sanitary Report (1842), she points out that his “plan for improving the sanitary conditions, and hence the productivity, of Britain’s working poor cast the city (and society more generally) as a giant body that required a physician’s care” (37); on the other hand, writers such as Charles Babbage employed the metaphor of the social machine or factory (38). Either one of these metaphors makes the detached observer male, for the typical doctor and typical (if not all) factory operator were men. Poovey later generalizes that by the early nineteenth century, “the abstract reasoning of political economy was considered a masculine epistemology, while the aesthetic appreciation of concrete particulars and imaginative excursions was considered feminine” (133). Her discussion of this separation, however, throughout Making a Social Body seems to set up an implicit preference for the feminine epistemology over the masculine: Poovey seems to consistently privilege “the aesthetic appreciation of concrete particulars” and view instances of abstract reasoning with suspicion or hostility, recalling Donna Haraway’s characterization of feminist critiques of objectivity as being only about “what they have meant and how it hurts us.”

In discussing James Philip Kay’s The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832), Poovey characterizes his work as being “[e]mpirical observations of specific instances of working-class distress, gathered and interpreted by a middle-class (white male) expert” (57). The construction of the phrase, especially the parenthetical insertion of “white male” seems to indicate that the reader is mean to take it as read that a middle-class, male examination of working-class subjects is innately flawed.

Poovey presents as an alternative to this “anatomical realism” (74) the actions of Ellen Ranyard, the founder of the Female Bible Mission, which undertook to place a Bible in every home. Though Poovey admits that Ranyard too “contributed to the rationality associated with abstraction” (50), she seems to praise Ranyard for her determination “that the knowledge generated by the mission about the poor should not be used to facilitate either the kind of aggregation that let Chadwick to calculate the tons of waste produced by poor bodies each year or the kind of science whose systematic nature was its chief criterion for its success” (51). Poovey claims that Ranyard was “adapting a practice associated with women to a science dominated by men” and thus “preserved an alternative model of knowledge that challenged the claim to superiority advanced by the science she practiced” (54), but does not really substantiate why Ranyard’s endeavor was superior to the masculine efforts of Chadwick it contrasted against. Chadwick’s work was aimed at reducing the suffering of the poor, even if in aggregate and even if it was unsuccessful; Ranyard’s work resulted in the dissemination of a number of Bibles among the lower classes, but does not seem to have been particularly helpful in reducing the suffering of the poor, either. The praise for Ranyard’s efforts seems to mostly rest on an unquestioned belief that her “feminine” epistemology was somehow superior to the masculine one that it was challenging (but nevertheless being replaced by). Though Poovey’s analysis of the gendering of specific forms of knowledge is useful and strong, the problem I see with Poovey’s approach is that she seems to have bought into the dualism that the nineteenth century set up—only she has just reversed its significance.

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