Infectious Revolutions: Gender, Science, Identity and Humanity in Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century Hermaphrodite

Jessie Casteel


Inarguably, Herculine Barbin is quite blatantly centered around the question of performative gender identity. Perfomativity has helped us to better understand the cultural mechanisms that control individual and group identity formation in every area from gender to ethnicity, and, in a more literary application, it has also helped us to understand the construction of fictional characters. In spite of the width of this range, the application of the concept of performativity to the construction of human-identified subjectivity appears to have been little, if at all, explored. I find this lack unfortunate, because I think that bringing the lens of performativity to bear on an analysis of human subjectivity reveals not only a great deal about how our identities are constructed, but also about the nineteenth-century social anxieties over scientific revolutions that originally drove such constructions. Darwin’s theories and other evolutionary science were sources of preoccupation and anxiety for people in the nineteenth century expressly because evolutionary science inevitably raises uncomfortable doubts about the essentialism of human subjectivity. Darwinian and Lamarkian ideas about evolution both unsettled firm ideas about human identity and destabilized accepted notions of the boundary between human and animal. This led to anxieties about identity, and left performance as one of the last definitive markers of humanity in a distressingly uncertain paradigm. Herculine Barbin arises from this matrix of fear and uncertainty, and the hermaphroditic author's tragic experiences are representative of a larger terror of the problematization of human subjectivity that expressed itself by representing the biologically marginal as monstrous in order to shore up the vanishing boundaries that defined humanity.


Foucault, queer, gender, science

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