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Beyond the Panopticon: Victorian Britain and the Critical Imagination

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Critics' imagining of Victorian history has been profoundly influenced by Michel Foucault's groundbreaking genealogies. Yet Foucault's famous account of modern discipline is better suited to the history of the Continent than to nineteenth-century Britain, with its “liberal” disdain for state interference. Discipline and Punish offered a mid-1970s response to Marxist dilemmas and to the problems of twentieth-century welfare states. In the early 1980s, Foucault discerned the resurgence of liberal economic ideologies, including neo-Victorian beliefs in free trade, self-help, and laissez-faire. Foucault's later essays on today's neoliberal “governmentality” therefore provide better critical tools for the study of nineteenth-century Britain than does Discipline and Punish. Literature offers a key context for this reimagined history. Works by self-consciously progressive writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and John Stuart Mill elucidate a distinctive liberal quandary: the quest for a modern governing or “pastoral” agency that would be rational, all-embracing, and effective but also antibureaucratic, personalized, and liberatory.

Special Topic: Imagining History
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2003

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