Frederickson, Kathleen, The Ploy of Instinct: Victorian Sciences of Nature and Sexuality in Liberal Governance (New York: Fordham University Press 2014)

Kathleen Frederickson, The Ploy of Instinct: Victorian Sciences of Nature and Sexuality in Liberal Governance (New York: Fordham University Press 2014) 236pp.  $75 Hb, $26 Pb. ISBN: 9780823262526

Kathleen Frederickson’s The Ploy of Instinct: Victorian Sciences of Nature and Sexuality in Liberal Governance is a dexterous negotiation of Victorian ‘instinct’ both as an impetus for progress and as a means of demarcating the social agencies available to women, labourers, and indigenous persons in European ‘assemblages of liberalized, sexualized governance’ (20). Frederickson’s analysis engages with a range of literary histories, expansively including works of eighteenth-century biological and political thought, as well as late twentieth-century concerns about reinstating an ‘architecture of […] subjective thickness’ (8) for Victorian queer theory in the wake of Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume I. Although Frederickson moves freely between this Foucauldian Victorianism and the mid-to-late-Victorian texts of her first two chapters, and though she likewise situates her last two chapters at the extreme cusp (1908-13) of ‘late Victorian semiotics’ (95), the broad temporal scope of her philosophical concerns accords well with the crux of her argument. Whereas works like Lauren Goodlad’s Victorian Literature and the Victorian State articulate questions of liberal governance within specific state cultures, Frederickson’s analysis spans whole countries, continents, languages, literary forms, and Victorian disciplines. This literary reach allows Frederickson to chart a fuller spectrum of social implications arising from contemporaneous understandings of ‘instinct’, whether or not this term manifests explicitly in all of her chosen texts.

In Chapter One, for instance, Frederickson reads George John Romanes’ Darwinian analysis of insect behaviour, and John Stuart Mill’s therapeutic shift from strict rationalism into the imaginative possibilities of Romanticism, in connection with legal debates surrounding Victorian pornography. Here, Frederickson elucidates how Victorian ideas of instinct could achieve the seemingly contradictory ends of positioning pleasure as a mark of distinction among ‘elite men’ (44), while also identifying its manifestation among the working classes as an atavistic tendency in need of social corrective. Strikingly, in Frederickson’s analysis, both the men ruling in the R. v. Hicklin obscenity case and pornographers like the anonymous ‘Walter’ demonstrate a strong belief that sexual content maintains its power to arouse (or degrade) even when isolated from its original context. However, in Frederickson’s assessment, only the pornographers extend this conviction to credit readers with a capacity for self-selection, and therefore personal agency, that surpasses unthinking instinct. In so doing, although Walter does not foreground ideas about instinct in his erotic writings, his work still elevates what is elsewhere regarded as the ‘beastliness’ of sex (41) to a body of choices and sensations existing far above simple, ‘mechanistic sexual materialism’ (59).

Chapter Two then advances the labour-oriented implications of instinct by contrasting bodies of economic thought, as seen in the writings of Herbert Spencer, Walter Bagehot, William Stanley Jevons, and Marx, with sexology’s fascination with labour in relation to questions of ‘sexual inversion’ (ie cases of human sexuality that do not fit a strict procreative paradigm, but which might arise from instincts similar to those of social insects). This juxtaposition of formal disciplines allows Frederickson to read ideas about individual instinct against ideas about collective instinct, both within the existing class strata of European cultures, and between European cultures and their ‘civilizing mission[s]’ (76) among indigenous peoples. Frederickson here explores negative figurations of species variation, like Bagehot’s conviction that ‘modern savages’ have lost the ideal instinctiveness of their ancestors, only to gain habits counterproductive to any further civilization (71-2), as well as ambivalently positive ones, like Edward Carpenter’s approach to ‘homogenic instincts’ (89), which advances a more inclusive evolutionary paradigm while still echoing broader concerns about the resonance of such instincts with Frankensteinian acts of human ‘miscreation’ (92).

In the wake of concerns surrounding the possible death drive present in many labour- and sex-oriented instincts, ‘Freud’s Australia’ (Chapter Three), shifts the location of and linguistic context for Frederickson’s overarching argument to indigenous populations starkly diminished by the genocidal encroachment of white settlers. Here, Frederickson sustains the book’s Anglophonic focus through the interwoven ideas of Darwin, Mill, William James, and a selection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropologists, including Francis Galton and Fison and Howitt. Frederickson especially illustrates how Australian indigenous societies, with their intricate marriage systems but also extreme vulnerability to eradication, posed a problem for European ideas around the civilizing power of social instincts. Frederickson argues that Freud resolves this concern by negating the capacity of indigenous persons to hold ‘self-reflective relationship[s]’ with their institutions, such that indigenous institutions merely ‘express the instincts of a collectivity of individual savages’ (106). In Frederickson’s analysis, Fison and Howitt similarly regard indigenous persons as capable only of immediate, unthinking, law-upholding responses to major communal transgressions. This framing of indigenous agency allows turn-of-the-century anthropologists to rule out the possibility that Australian indigenous societies hold a genuine interest in their own futurity (114)—and in so doing, elides European responsibility for the destruction of entire peoples.

With Chapter Four, Frederickson’s negotiation of ‘instinct’ in relation to Victorian conceptualizations of liberal governance returns to and closes in England, where suffragette hunger strikes provide a nexus for interrogating both the nature of instinct at the turn of the century, as well as the assumption that men were, on an instinctive level, better designed for full participation in political life. Frederickson’s analysis of New Woman literature, including Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and the ‘fraught’ writings of Eliza Lynn Linton (132), outlines a social economy in which women, by eschewing traditional models of feminine intuition, destabilized notions of their own inability to engage in acts of higher reasoning necessary for political life. According to Frederickson, the subsequent hunger strikes in pursuit of voting rights offered a further ‘intervention into the logic of sex-defining instincts’ (123), while also allowing activists to wield all claims to an instinctive sex-based hierarchy against their initial proponents. If the pronounced susceptibility of male persons to certain societal vices was to be regarded as only natural, after all, such that ‘feminized hunger [both nutritive and sexual] might be less voracious than men’s’ (135), then it would follow that women, not men, should make better, more rational participants in political life.

Despite venturing into philosophical terrain highly susceptible to simplistic binaries—between sexes, and cultures, and classes—Frederickson engages fluidly with a wide range of literary forms, figures, and locales throughout The Ploy of Instinct. In so doing, her work provides a dynamic spectrum of thought around the implications of biological modelling for labour-, sex-, and ethnicity-oriented conceptualizations of liberal governance, both within and well beyond the Victorian era.

Maggie Clark, Wilfrid Laurier University