Dissertation Defense: Ryan Pilcher

Dissertation Defense: Ryan Pilcher

Apr 21, 2023
– 3:30PM
226 Burrowes Building

Candidate for the PhD in French and Francophone Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Sensible Bodies: Race and Sentimentalism in the Nineteenth Century

All are welcome to attend!

Dissertation Committee:

Bénédicte Monicat (Dissertation Advisor; Professor of French and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies)

Tracy Rutler (Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies)

Jennifer Boittin (Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies and History)

Hil Malatino (Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Philosophy)

Pratima Prasad (Associate Professor of French at University of Massachusetts–Boston)


            In “Sensible Bodies,” I ask how sentimentalism, a mode of writing that emphasizes the importance of feelings and that traverses genres and disciplines, intersects with discourses of racial difference in the nineteenth century. By reading across cultural arenas—science, literature, philosophy, and politics—I find ideological echoes even where no direct line of influence between thinkers/writers can be drawn. The corpus includes scientific treatises and essays, textbooks, novels, and short stories by one canonical author—George Sand—and several non-canonical writers—Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Pierre-Paul Broc, Aglaé Comte, Hortense Allart, and Sophie Doin—ranging from 1809 to 1853.

            I argue that sentimentalism in the nineteenth century produces a structure of thinking/feeling that hierarchizes whiteness over other forms of racialized embodiment based on a refined and “civilized” capacity of sensibility, and that the legacies of sentimentalism still condition the present. More than a literary genre, sentimentalism is a philosophy that makes the capacity to feel according to socially-prescribed scripts paramount to knowledge acquisition, biocultural development, and legal or interpersonal recognition of vitality and humanity. Further, it is a disciplinary technology working through the medium of aesthetics to optimize the feeling capacities of sensible bodies toward desired (bio)political ends. It thus deploys affect as both the material and means of individual and/or collective transformation, usually towards an end envisioned as a moral, social, and/or physical improvement. Following an introduction that draws on feminist and queer theories of affect and critical race studies, my chapters show how sentimentalism attempts to didactically inculcate ideas and values in corporeal matter by stimulating feeling (emotional, sensory, neural). I suggest that sentimental texts intervened in the moral and material development of individuals by aiming to train emotional responses into the nervous system, while also delineating along racial lines which bodies were capable of such transformation. This study therefore contributes to the field by (1) providing a fresh approach to the sentimental mode that accounts for its scientific heritage, thus broadening discussions of sentimental politics, (2) revealing how the sentimental mode can play into racist ideologies despite its avowed good intentions, and (3) developing an intersectional and anti-racist reading practice that is as applicable to today as it is to the past and that confronts race even in the seeming absence of characters of multiple racial identities, thus challenging the unmarked status of whiteness.