Headshot of Graduate Ryan Pilcher.

Graduate Fall 2021: Ryan Pilcher

Sensible Bodies: Race and Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century France

Department of French and Francophone Studies

`“Sensible Bodies: Race and Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century France” explores the specific ways the literary mode known as sentimentalism intersects with discourses of racialized difference in the nineteenth-century francophone world. Expanding on the common view in nineteenth-century French studies that sentimentalism is an aesthetic genre born of Enlightenment liberalism, my dissertation emphasizes the scientific and ideological groundings of such writings to demonstrate the complex ways that feeling (emotion and sensation combined) was deployed to construct racial categories. Sensibility, or the ability of living bodies to receive and incorporate sensory and affective impressions from their surroundings, emerges as a determining factor of both human status and processes of racialization. To account for the multiple origins and operations of sentimentalism, my corpus includes a wide variety of sources—novels, novellas, conduct manuals, schoolbooks, essays, scientific treatises, dictionaries, and encyclopedias—by canonical and non-canonical writers alike. By enlarging the purview of sentimentalism as evidenced in life sciences, literature, popular culture, and politics, I demonstrate how it conceptualizes race on the axes of European norms of “civilization” and the association of feeling with human development and life itself. Drawing on work in affect studies and Black studies, I ultimately argue that sentimental writings functioned as a disciplinary technology that aimed to transform the sensible nervous system through “properly” stimulating impressions, while also delineating which bodies were capable of such transformation, often along racial lines.