The Social Life of Fluids

The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel

Jules Law
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Social Life of Fluids
    Book Description:

    British Victorians were obsessed with fluids-with their scarcity and with their omnipresence. By the mid-nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of citizens regularly petitioned the government to provide running water and adequate sewerage, while scientists and journalists fretted over the circulation of bodily fluids. In The Social Life of Fluids, Jules Law traces the fantasies of power and anxieties of identity precipitated by these developments as they found their way into the plotting and rhetoric of the Victorian novel.

    Analyzing the expression of scientific understanding and the technological manipulation of fluids-blood, breast milk, and water-in six Victorian novels (by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, George Moore, and Bram Stoker), Law traces the growing anxiety about fluids in Victorian culture from the beginning of the sanitarian movement in the 1830s through the 1890s. Fluids, he finds, came to be regarded as the most alienable aspect of an otherwise inalienable human body, and, paradoxically, as the least rational element of an increasingly rationalized environment.

    Drawing on literary and feminist theory, social history, and the history of science and medicine, Law shows how fluids came to be represented as prosthetic extensions of identity, exposing them to contested claims of kinship and community and linking them inextricably to public spaces and public debates.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6238-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Dark Ecologies: A Tale of Two Cities and “The Cow With the Iron Tail”
    (pp. 1-20)

    In his sensational 1894 novel Esther Waters—published in explicit defiance of the de facto Victorian censorship system—George Moore recounts the harrowing story of an impoverished young unwed mother forced to sell her breast milk in order to support herself and her newborn baby. At the dramatic apex of the novel the guilt-stricken heroine is haunted by the intuition that she is bartering away the “milk that belongs to another,” thus sacrificing her own infant’s life for that of her employer’s child.¹ Overwhelmed by a conviction that she is trading “a life for a life,” she renounces her lucrative...

  5. Part One: Milk and Water:: The Body and Social Space in Dickens

    • Chapter 1 Disavowing Milk: Psychic Disintegration and Domestic Reintegration in Dickens’s Dombey and Son
      (pp. 23-45)

      From the latter half of the twentieth century on, economic and social arrangements in Western industrialized democracies have not been overly propitious for the practice of maternal breast-feeding. The breast-feeding advocacy movement, viewing this development with alarm, has generated two lines of argumentation for promoting the importance of maternal breast-feeding, one based on an antifunctionalist ideal of intimacy and female autonomy and the other based on global-economic and ecological rationales. It is easy to see how these two arguments—one fiercely individualist and one unabashedly technocratic—might sit uncomfortably with one another.¹ Arguing for breast-feeding as an expression of personal...

    • Chapter 2 A River Runs through Him: Our Mutual Friend and the Embankment of the Thames
      (pp. 46-68)

      The vision of a finely interconnected relationship between the individual body and public space, sketched out by the sanitarians in the 1840s and filled in by Mayhew in the 1850s, was incarnated and in curious ways superseded by the massive project to embank the Thames River in the 1860s. As sheer spectacle, of course, nothing could have topped the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition of 1851. But like the fairgrounds of major American “world fairs” over the next century, the Crystal Palace remained an essentially suburban white elephant. By contrast, the Thames Embankment (which included the equally ambitious London...

  6. Part Two: Driving Human Destiny:: George Eliot and the Problematics of Flow

    • Chapter 3 Perilous Reversals: Fluid Exchange in George Eliot’s Early Works
      (pp. 71-97)

      George Eliot’s critics have long recognized a peculiar, and peculiarly characteristic, tension in her work between embodiment and abstraction.¹ The tension is conventionally seen to come to a pitch in her final novel, Daniel Deronda, where it is staged as a struggle to adjust the ratio between the respective claims of organic community and deracinated individuality, with the liabilities of both probed rather mercilessly.² Given Eliot’s restless intelligence, it is virtually unthinkable that the ratio between these two competing sets of claims could be established in some static way. Consistently throughout her works she turns to the figure of flow...

    • Chapter 4 Merging With Others: Destiny and Flow in Daniel Deronda
      (pp. 98-124)

      Daniel Deronda is a novel about embodiment in every sense of the word, and recent critical history has increasingly identified the novel’s distinctive shuttling between abstraction and incarnation as the key to its incipient modernism. The novel is filled with spectral figures who must be embodied, and much of the novel is dedicated to figuring out the means of this materialization. As in Our Mutual Friend, the embankment of the Thames—the massive and ongoing public works project at the heart of the city—turns out to provide a crucial material and symbolic matrix for the novel’s project of constituting...

  7. Part Three: Soldiers and Mothers:: Nursing the Empire in George Moore’s Esther Waters and Bram Stoker’s Dracula

    • Chapter 5 Tempted by the Milk of Another: The Fantasy of Limited Circulation in Esther Waters
      (pp. 127-145)

      In 1894, midway through a decade replete with literary sensations and publishing scandals, the London publishing world was rocked by the appearance of perhaps its most scandalous novel of all. At the dramatic center of this narrative was a tableau of bodies literally feeding on other bodies—human beings being “mealed” for one another, fluids being sucked from enervated limbs, lives being exchanged for lives. And arrayed in concentric circles around this tableau, a series of subthemes and subplots echoed metaphorically the theme of “life” forcibly extracted from the human form: transfixed and burning bodies tortured to yield their fluids;...

    • Chapter 6 Ever-Widening Circulations: Dracula and the Fear of Management
      (pp. 146-166)

      In Dracula, the instability evoked and embodied by fluids is inseparable from a fear of management, though it is not entirely clear which of two possible estrangements—managing or being managed—presents itself as the more threatening. The novel would at first glance seem to draw on many of the same cultural fantasies and anxieties about the social circulation of bodily fluids as Esther Waters, and as well on many of the same conflations of bodily incontinence. But in Dracula the loss of control over fluids is no longer a random or aberrant event but a generalized and even productive...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 167-170)

    1999. “Affordable healthcare begins with breastfeeding,” declares the bumper-sticker in a Chicago-area suburb, at once asserting the community’s stake in infant feeding while shifting the burden for nothing less than public health policy itself squarely onto the shoulders of women. Nearby, at a federal WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) clinic in Cook County, a peer counselor expresses her frustration that inner-city, low-income teen mothers are being pushed by their own parents to return to school or work rather than to breast-feed. In the counselor’s view, this decision is tragic: “In most cases, breastfeeding is the one thing this teenage mother can...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 171-188)
  10. Works Cited
    (pp. 189-198)
  11. Index
    (pp. 199-204)