The Complete Bentham: Rationality's Afterlife in Victorian Literature

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Waldschmidt, Stefan de la Peña


Armstrong, Nancy
Psomiades, Kathy

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“The Complete Bentham: Rationality’s Afterlife in Victorian Literature,” focuses on one of the nineteenth century’s most contentious attempts to imagine the social good in quantitative terms: Jeremy Bentham’s proposal to measure and manage “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” The last time literary studies took Bentham seriously, the guiding assumption was that his Panopticon prison trained individuals in the routines of self-policing that liberal government required, and that the novel carried that disciplinary training to the reading public. I show that this argument considers only a small part of Bentham’s massive corpus and so misses both the radical reformulation of liberal government that he was proposing and the aesthetic possibilities that his utilitarianism opened up as a result. The Victorians certainly thought there was something caustic in Bentham’s system of cost-benefit analysis, a worry expressed in charges that Bentham was an emotionally deficient thinker who would, like Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind, “weigh and measure any parcel of human nature and tell you what it comes to.” This critique, I argue, has its basis in the Victorian recognition that Bentham’s logic challenges liberalism’s normative commitments including the individual’s right to own property and the primacy of the family as the fundamental unit of society. When Bentham asserts that the only way to manage a population of rational individuals is to maximize pleasures and minimize pains, no matter their source, he imagined a form of cost-benefit analysis that makes any particular right or social norm expendable in the name of producing “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Rather than show how the novel appropriates Bentham’s panoptic apparatus to reinforce the norms of liberal society, I argue that Bentham’s excessive reason is the means by which nineteenth-century literature found its way outside those norms. When Victorian novelists join liberal thinkers in chastising Bentham for translating qualities of life into quantities of pleasure and pain, they also memorably preserve the perverse implications of utilitarian rationalism and imagine new qualities of life. Even so obvious a caricature of Bentham as Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind offers a vision of a life passionately animated by the compulsion to calculate.

In order to see what became of utilitarianism’s calculating rationality in the Victorian cultural imagination, each chapter of my dissertation considers how a different novelist takes up one aspect of Bentham’s multi-faceted theory in order to contemplate its radical consequences. My first chapter, “Calculating Pleasure,” begins with Bentham’s assumption that individuals who imagine future pleasures and pains can be governed by means of a carefully calibrated threat of future punishment. Shelley’s Frankenstein takes up this calculating logic in order to reverse it: the more Victor and his creature imagine their futures, the more ungovernable they become as their disappointment and hope lead them to increasingly antisocial behaviors. In my second chapter, “Expanding Bureaucracy,” I show how Dickens enacts a different reversal when considering the universal suspicion that motivates Bentham’s plans for a universal bureaucracy. While Bentham, ever distrustful of government functionaries, insists on layering one level of government inspectors on top of another until the whole population is involved in monitoring bureaucratic institutions, Dickens’s late city novels (no less suspicions of government functionaries) see these bonds of mutual surveillance as the basis for forming bonds of trust and mutual aid. My third chapter, “Panoptic Economics,” returns to Bentham’s famous Panopticon prison in order to argue that even as it establishes the protocols for disciplining individuals it also imagines an alternative socialist economy that would care for and manage all unemployed people. While Wilkie Collins’s detective fiction has often been read in terms of totalizing panoptic surveillance, a revised understanding of the Panopticon allows us to see that these novels also imagine a utopian condition of full employment where everyone becomes the possessor of potentially valuable information no one can be dismissed as part of a disposable surplus population. My final chapter, “Sexual Irregularities,” considers the queer potential of Bentham’s utilitarianism. I show that Bentham’s little-known defense of homosexual, bestial, and necrophilic acts joins the aestheticism of Walter Pater in promoting pleasures that belong, not to the reproductive future of the bourgeois family, but rather “give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” Taken as a whole, my dissertation offers us a way of seeing the word “utilitarian” as something other than the catch-all term of derision for a practical, depoliticized, and unaesthetic education that sometimes appears in op-eds bemoaning the “Death of the Humanities.” By returning to Bentham’s contentious place in the Victorian cultural imagination I hope to show just how impractical, political, and aesthetic utilitarianism can be.






Waldschmidt, Stefan de la Peña (2017). The Complete Bentham: Rationality's Afterlife in Victorian Literature. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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