Uncommon Sense
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Uncommon Sense

Jeremy Bentham, Queer Aesthetics, and the Politics of Taste

Carrie D. Shanafelt

  1. 200 pages
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eBook - ePub

Uncommon Sense

Jeremy Bentham, Queer Aesthetics, and the Politics of Taste

Carrie D. Shanafelt

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About This Book

Infamous for authoring two concepts since favored by government powers seeking license for ruthlessness—the utilitarian notion of privileging the greatest happiness for the most people and the panopticon—Jeremy Bentham is not commonly associated with political emancipation. But perhaps he should be. In his private manuscripts, Bentham agonized over the injustice of laws prohibiting sexual nonconformity, questioning state policy that would put someone to death merely for enjoying an uncommon pleasure. He identified sources of hatred for sexual nonconformists in philosophy, law, religion, and literature, arguing that his goal of "the greatest happiness" would be impossible as long as authorities dictate whose pleasures can be tolerated and whose must be forbidden. Ultimately, Bentham came to believe that authorities worked to maximize the suffering of women, colonized and enslaved persons, and sexual nonconformists in order to demoralize disenfranchised people and prevent any challenge to power.

In Uncommon Sense, Carrie Shanafelt reads Bentham's sexual nonconformity papers as an argument for the toleration of aesthetic difference as the foundation for egalitarian liberty, shedding new light on eighteenth-century aesthetics and politics. At odds with the common image of Bentham as a dehumanizing calculator or an eccentric projector, this innovative study shows Bentham at his most intimate, outraged by injustice and desperate for the end of sanctioned, discriminatory violence.

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The Trouble with Bentham

Like most students of eighteenth-century British philosophy working in American universities, I skipped Jeremy Bentham. From what I gathered secondhand, Bentham’s best ideas had been rearticulated by the evidently saner John Stuart Mill, and his worst ideas had been adopted by oppressive institutions to terrorize the laboring class. At the root of Bentham’s work is a strange proposal to quantify human happiness in measurable units so that it could be compared and prioritized by the state. What he called “felicific calculus” was a calculation he proposed in his first major work, A Fragment on Government, based on the principle that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”1 Potentially reducing human liberty to a matter of majoritarian rule, the felicific calculus suggests a justification for the dehumanization of cultural, sexual, religious, racial, and gender minorities. In eschewing a moral justification for the assertion of human rights, Bentham seemed to undermine the political progress made in the spirit of secular liberal Enlightenment philosophy. In a nation founded on the principles of secular liberalism in the same year as his first attacks on the discourse of natural rights, I learned that Bentham’s philosophy was mocked far more often than it was read, and seemingly for good reason.
As an undergraduate student of political theory, I was assigned Charles Dickens’s satirical 1854 novel Hard Times instead of anything written by Bentham in order to understand the disturbing legacy of Benthamite utilitarianism. In the novel, the utilitarian teacher Thomas Gradgrind disciplines his students to hate “fancy” and imagination, and to think only in terms of facts and data. Rather than conceiving of their own lives as valuable, Gradgrind’s students are catechized in their own insignificance compared to national progress and economic security. Dickens describes Gradgrind as a moral monster, devoid of sentiment or sympathy: “With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.”2 In this parody of the felicific calculus, Mr. Gradgrind uses that arithmetic to prove to his laboring-class students that they are merely cogs in a much larger machine in which the joylessness of their lives is mathematically irrelevant. Whatever Bentham may have intended to promote with his felicific calculus, his ideas became a shorthand for the systematic attack of power on the dignity of the human soul within only a few decades of his death.
Frances Ferguson notes that Dickens also satirizes a kind of evil Benthamite in Bradley Headstone, the murderous monomaniacal schoolmaster from Our Mutual Friend, who expounds the basic educational principles outlined by Bentham in his Chrestomathia, published in 1817. Bentham advocated for the creation of a system of universal education that, in including orphans and laborers’ children, should not depend on nor aim at instilling elitist aesthetics and virtues, but instead make learning as accessible, useful, and enjoyable as possible. In Our Mutual Friend, the orphaned Charley Hexam, who aspires to go to school, finds himself surrounded by bored, violent, lazy kids and is quickly able to distinguish himself to his schoolmaster Headstone through flattery, obsequiousness, and cruelty, in a school that rejects virtue ethics and aesthetic training in favor of simplistic recitation exercises in practical knowledge. Ferguson writes, “The chief aim of those educational techniques was to extend opportunities for learning to the masses, and particularly to the children of the laboring poor whose ranks in the city of London had swelled with the growth of urban manufactures.”3 As Ferguson shows, Bentham’s plan intended to provide laboring or absent parents with child care, offer practical skills for both pleasure and future employment, and create an alternative social structure for young people whose homes offered little. If nineteenth-century schools for poor children ultimately left much to be desired in comparison with the education of elites, Ferguson argues, they at least provided laboring-class youth with the opportunity to “create an artificial association” among students that could replicate the nonfamily ties that bind elites in interest with one another.4
Perhaps Dickens and Bentham had more in common than we—or Dickens—might assume. In Pleasures of Benthamism, Kathleen Blake analyzes F. R. Leavis’s assumption, now taken for granted, that Dickens’s body of fiction constituted a wholesale excoriation of Bentham, extrapolating from the satire of Hard Times to account for every character who advocates for political economy or reform of the Poor Laws. Drawing from Bentham’s manuscripts on sexual nonconformity, Blake shows that both Dickens and Bentham desire nothing more than to make social and aesthetic room for human eccentricity in individual, nonelite aesthetics of pleasure. “To back the eccentric is to back individuality and the notion, as found in Bentham, that different minds are different. Not only are they different, but their difference is a good thing.”5 Though the satire of utilitarian extremism in Hard Times or Our Mutual Friend may serve as a warning against civic implementations of utilitarianism that capitalized on the prospect of maximizing efficiencies while further oppressing indigent laborers, children, and other marginalized people, Dickens’s novels may have been written with the intent of satirizing the utilitarianism, not of Bentham, but of England. If so many scholars like me formed our earliest understanding of utilitarianism by reading a satire of its cruelest misinterpretation, we may be a generation of readers who were encouraged at a young age to develop a deep-seated intellectual prejudice against Bentham’s radical liberationist philosophy.

Foucault on the Panopticon

While my colleagues in literature still cite Dickens to me as the origin of their distaste for Bentham, philosophers most often name Michel Foucault, even before John Stuart Mill or Karl Marx. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish was how I first learned of Bentham’s ill-fated Panopticon project, in which he had planned to solve the prison reform crisis by inventing a penal facility that would increase efficiency, lower costs to the state, and decrease the suffering of prisoners.6 Although Bentham’s intention seems to have been rooted in genuine concern for the well-being of convicted criminals, the principles of efficient discipline he introduced became, after his death, a system of political control through perpetual surveillance. Foucault uses Bentham’s Panopticon—a series of letters and plans for a prison that was never built to his specifications—as a metaphor for the means by which the modern state terrifies the populace by insinuating that we might be visible to its agents, even in our most private moments.
The Panopticon, as Bentham proposed it, was intended to replace the older kind of prison exemplified by Newgate—a dungeon in which prisoners, most of them sentenced to death, were chained to a wall over an open sewer and where they often fell victim to brutal violence, disease, and suicidal despair. Bentham’s proposal for the Panopticon suggested that many of these prisoners could be reformed and reintroduced to society if they were offered sufficient food, clean clothing, a comfortable bed, warmth, privacy, schooling, payment for their labor, exercise, and encouragement not to return to crime.7 Bentham offered not only to serve as an unpaid guard in this prison but also to supply payment to workers and life insurance as a personal guarantee for their good care. He proposed that a dark place in the Panopticon could be arranged such that the prisoners would not know whether the guard was watching or not. In Foucault’s summary of Bentham’s project, he writes, “All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy.”8 Of course Bentham had no intention of shutting up any schoolboys or patients, and the project does seem to depend on he himself serving as a benevolent invisible supervisor rather than some would-be torturer.
Foucault is not really describing Bentham’s Panopticon, but ours—the systems of surveillance and isolation that allow the state to monitor and discipline its citizens with low cost and effort, using psychological manipulation rather than spectacular violence. In her analysis of Foucault’s reading of Bentham, Frances Ferguson notes, “The superintendent’s impersonality, his having no personal views of those he supervises, further diminishes the contractual nature of the interaction, and being visible seems thus to acquire a particular resonance from its opposition to the notion of a potentially verifiable contractual agreement.”9 Foucault asks us to consider the Panopticon as a metaphor for the less spectacular but more insidious role that modern state power plays in exercising its authority over our bodies. For readers of Foucault unfamiliar with Bentham’s papers on the Panopticon, it is only as this metaphor that it survives, rather than as a humanitarian project to give hope to miserable people whose convictions had placed them far out of the reach of the liberal Enlightenment’s so-called human rights.
In her 2012 book Utilitarian Biopolitics, Anne Brunon-Ernst has challenged this reading of both Foucault and Bentham. Many Anglophone scholars of Bentham since 1975 have greatly lamented Foucault’s reading of Bentham in Discipline and Punish because of its apparent dismissal of Bentham’s passionate and consistent advocacy against legal and extralegal oppression. By focusing on this one project, and in a way that seems to downplay the inhumane conditions it was intended to ameliorate, Foucault is often held responsible for turning Bentham into a philosophical punch line. However, Brunon-Ernst points out that, before 1975, Bentham had already faded into obscurity except in the work of a few specialists. Foucault inspired a genuinely rejuvenated interest in Bentham among French philosophers, beginning with Jean-Pierre ClĂ©ro and Christian Laval, whose translations and advocacy for Bentham scholarship since the 1990s have produced a wave of Bentham scholarship in the French context, including Emmanuelle de Champs’s excellent recent book Enlightenment and Utility. Brunon-Ernst goes on to show that truly Benthamite utilitarian concepts and ideas abound in Foucault’s oeuvre, even if, as she writes, “Foucault’s aim was not to interpret Bentham’s thought, but to use his theories, projects and concepts to feed into his own strategic discourse.”10 While Foucault has inspired French philosophers to take up Bentham for serious reconsideration, the effect of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish on Bentham studies elsewhere has had a less salutary effect. It may be difficult to see that much of what we admire in Foucault’s oeuvre is Benthamist; the subtitle of the second volume of The History of Sexuality is The Use of Pleasure, distinguishable from utilitarianism only in that, for Bentham, there is no use but pleasure.

Soni on Eudaimonia

In my own academic field of interdisciplinary eighteenth-century studies, Bentham has not fared well outside of the work of Frances Ferguson. As a counter-Enlightenment philosopher who despised the normative aesthetic, political, ethical, theological, economic, and social values of his contemporaries but never produced any galvanizing works of beauty or genius, he is barely read at all. Unlike the French or British Jacobins of his time, Bentham was cynical about radical political movements, which tended to employ the soaring discourse of egalitarian rights only to weaponize the resentment of disenfranchised persons to whom liberty and representation would never actually be extended. In literary and cultural studies, that Jacobin rhetoric of radicalism is often read as inspiring, rather than disingenuous, and Bentham’s critiques of virtue ethics and liberal rights do not offer an equally powerful alternative rhetoric of radical legal and social reform—a failure he felt keenly throughout his life.
In that vein, Vivasvan Soni’s Mourning Happiness, published in 2010, identifies Jeremy Bentham as the philosopher who effectively killed happiness by reducing it to a mere quantum of individual pleasure. Soni demonstrates that the classical secular definition of eudaimonia—flourishing as the result of a satisfying life devoted to excellence—was eroded in eighteenth-century literary and philosophical discourse by sentimentalism, commerce, philosophy, and literature, culminating in Bentham’s reduction of happiness to mere enjoyment. Soni argues that Bentham, like most modern political theorists, wants to recover the supreme value of happiness/eudaimonia from classical thought, while employing a selfish, consumerist, hedonistic modern meaning of happiness as a simple feeling. “When we attempt to accord the absolute privilege of the classical concept to the modern affective one, we discover that it cannot support this privilege.”11 Of course, happiness is not a matter that Bentham took lightly, nor took for granted in the same sense intended by novelists, politicians, or advertisers, for whom “happiness” may conveniently accord with whatever coercive moral or commercial behavior they are presenting as desirable. The presumptive “we” of Soni’s analysis were not a coherent discourse community in Bentham’s time any more than we are in the twenty-first century.
It may seem that to recategorize happiness as a matter of pleasure rather than moral satisfaction would be to trivialize it. Soni concludes that Bentham’s collapse of happiness into personal enjoyment is responsible, in part, for the destruction of the Enlightenment’s neoclassical formulation of happiness as the highest good of moral and political discourse. “At the moment that the word ‘happiness’ is captured by pleasure, we lose an important way of relating to the narratives of our lives. . . . This will always risk sounding like asceticism but it is our only chance for a concept that will be able to sustain a politics of happiness.”12 In Soni’s account, the liberationist potential of happiness as a political end lies in its dependence on a personal narrative of moral fulfillment, and to empty happiness of moral content is to render it politically powerless.
It is important to note that pleasure is never limited in Bentham’s work to sensory pleasure, but also includes emotional, moral, social, intellectual, and other pleasures, as outlined in the delightful Table of the Springs of Action. The Table lists fourteen classes of pleasures and pains in total: Palate, Sexual Appetite, other Senses, Wealth, Power, Curiosity, Amity, Reputation, Religion, Sympathy, Antipathy, Labour, Death, and Self-Regard.13 Under each class is a list of corresponding desires, actions, emotions positive and negative, as well as lists of attributes ascribed in common discourse to persons who seek each pleasure, labeled eulogistic, neutral, or dyslogistic. That is, Bentham did not seek to define happiness or pleasure, nor to prescribe a correct means of attaining either, but to study the widest possible variety of human action in the context of the discourse available to describe those actions. The only prescriptive aspect of Bentham’s study of pleasure is that he laments the paucity of eulogistic terms available for sensory pleasures, especially when they are enjoyed by members of disenfranchised groups, such as women, laborers, and sexual nonconformists.
These groups, who lacked direct representation in positions of authority in politics, philosophy, and religion, were conveniently expected to comfort themselves with the classical ethos of stoicism and asceticism that would produce “true” happiness, while men of means enjoyed the pleasures of the bottle and the body to any excess they pleased. In a pseudonymous work titled Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind, Bentham skeptically interrogated the claims of philosophers who advocated for a return to the classical ethics of eudaimonia from within a vaguely Christianist social system. He writes, “There can be no sympathy either for the enjoyments or the sufferings of others, where the thoughts of an individual are absorbed in averting posthumous torments or in entitling himself to a posthumous happiness—and where this object, important as it is, is involved in such obscurity, as to leave him in a state of perpetual anxiety and apprehension.”14 Without pleasurable experiences of any kind, and under the threat of eternal damnation, all of the positive community-building virtues of generosity, kindness, and sociability become impossible. Bentham’s concern in this work is specifically directed at proponents of so-called natural religion, in which doctrine was not primarily based on scripture but on semi-secular classical ethics of goodness and happiness. He feared that “natural religionists” had effectively made misery a disciplinary mechanism of social control by convincing disenfranchised persons that happiness is waiting for them at the end of a life supposedly well lived, without pleasure, safety, or even custodianship of their own bodies.
While much of the secondhand mockery of Bentham by people who have never read him might be waved off, the charges against Bentham by Dickens, Foucault, and Soni are all serious. They describe a recognizably modern form of despair, a sense that the potent...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgments
  6. Introduction
  7. 1 The Trouble with Bentham
  8. 2 Aesthetics of Pleasure, Ethics of Happiness
  9. 3 Against Rights
  10. 4 Bentham’s Queer Christ
  11. 5 Politics and Poetics of Liberty
  12. Conclusion
  13. Notes
  14. Works Cited
  15. Index