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Kyla Schuller

Short Biography
Kyla Schuller is Associate Professor and Undergraduate Director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is the author of The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Duke University Press, 2018) and The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism (Bold Type Books, 2021). With Jules Gill-Peterson, she co-edited a special issue of Social Text and with Greta LaFleur, co-edited the American Quarterly volume Origins of Biopolitics in the Americas, which was named Best Special Issue 2020 by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. Schuller’s work has been awarded fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and Stanford Humanities Center.

Image Source: "Edward Drinker Cope in His Study." Image #104670, American Museum of Natural History Library, taken from K. Schuller: Biopolitics of Feeling (2018)


Panel Abstract
Impressibility: The Forgotten Materiality of Race and Sex

In this talk I argue that the forgotten nineteenth-century state of sensory “impressibility” underwrites the modern categories of race and sex difference. I show how scientists of the era categorized and ranked bodies according to their varying degrees of impressibility, or the capacity to be affected over time. Their sensory hierarchy marked race, and especially Blackness, as a condition of unimpressibility – the inability to move forward through time. At the same time, scientists, reformers, and others deemed civilized whiteness as a state of extreme impressibility, a condition that posed both the promise of advancement and the peril of degeneration. To balance this vulnerable state, race scientists split the white body into two binary halves: one male, one female, and assigned each distinct roles in balancing the precarity of the sensory susceptibility deemed to be both the cause and effect of civilization. Focusing in particular on the work of the American School of Evolution, I show how this sensory hierarchy laid the groundwork for the modern, biological notions of race and sex difference. Simultaneously, the cultural and scientific tradition of sentimentalism attempted to regulate sensory capacity to ensure the impressions acquired by the civilized would be beneficial to the race. Sensation and affect, I reveal, are not merely embedded in ideas of race: the capacity of being affected by external environments was itself the material groundwork of the notions of race and sex.

Kyla Schuller speaks in Panel I: Other(ed) Sensibilities. Revisiting the Sensory Politics of Racialization by Anja Breljak and Vanessa Oberin.