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Biopower in the Long 20th Century: A Crip/Queer Exegesis of the Persistence of Fascism

February 15, 2018 @ 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Poster for event depicting a black and white snow-covered landscape of barbed wire fences leading off to the distance
2018 Gender Studies and the Humanities Lecture

Madelyn Detloff

English and Global and Intercultural Studies, Miami University


In her study of the formation and spread of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt analyzed the political structures of both Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR. Perhaps because of her exhaustive critique of Nazi totalitarianism, fascism is often associated in the public imaginary with totalitarianism and dictatorships. While this was certainly the case in Nazi Germany’s brand of fascism, the common perception of a strong association between fascism and totalitarian dictatorship can serve to mask the presence of fascism in other political formations. Using Virginia Woolf’s life and political philosophy as a starting point, this paper traces the ascendency of biopower as a political and cultural formation in the early 20th century in three distinct but intertwined forms – 1.) the emergence of sexuality as a meaning making system that derived identities from seemingly intrinsic and categorizable desires, 2.) the intensification of psychological and medical reliance on eugenicist norms to mark (and often segregate) persons with “deviant” intellectual, physical, or psychological characteristics, and 3.) the justification of colonialism, conquest, and ultimately genocide through the practice and cultural dissemination of scientific racism. This essay therefore takes up the tools of queer, crip, and antiracist theories to analyze Woolf’s engagement with these three strands of biopower through her fictional, (auto)biographical, and critical writing. Can we trace the tinges of scientific racism in Woolf’s offhand comments about Jews or Indians or South Americans? How was Woolf herself treated by medical practitioners who upheld norms of mental and physical health to which Woolf did not conform? And how does Woolf’s own writing make meaning of the desires and bodily practices that are taken up and crystalized by the discourse of sexuality? The answers to these questions are not simple and not always flattering to Woolf. Given the complexity of Woolf’s art and thought, however, they yield a rich picture of how biopower worked in the early 20th century and how artists and intellectuals deployed and resisted its workings. This understanding of biopower provides impetus for speculation on the persistence of fascism into the 21st century under political guises that look more like neoliberalism than totalitarianism, yet still rely on the populist and eugenicist underpinnings of fascist ideology.


Madelyn Detloff is Professor of English and Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University (OH).  She is the author of The Persistence of Modernism: Loss and Mourning in the 20th Century (2008) and The Value of Virginia Woolf (2016), and co-editor of Queer Bloomsbury (2016).  She has written a number of book chapters and articles on queer theory, crip theory, modernist studies (especially Virginia Woolf and H.D.), and is a fierce advocate of social-justice-oriented teaching and research.


This lecture will be followed by an additional event on Friday, February 16, 2018 from 10am-Noon: Please join us for a roundtable discussion with Madelyn Detloff about her recently published article “Metic, Methods, and Modernism” in 7191 Helen C. White. Coffee and light snacks will be provided. All are welcome. The article can be obtained here. Contact mmc@english.wisc.edu if you have any questions.


February 15, 2018
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Event Categories:


Helen C. White Hall, Room 7191
600 North Park Street
Madison, 53703 United States