An amorphous space located somewhere “inside” the human body, generating conviction (“That’s just how I feel inside”), satisfaction (“I felt all warm inside”), and even identity (“I have to be who I am inside”), “interiority” and the questions raised by this keyword arguably stem from the influence of Michel Foucault’s ([1975] 1995) analysis of the institutional discourses shaping, implementing, and managing subjectivity and will. Interiority, in a Foucauldian context, is the precondition and outcome of power as new knowledge regimes (pedagogical, medical, and penal) have shifted social control from forces exerted on the body (punishment) to institutional incentives to increase the productive forces of the body in managed systems of normalcy (discipline).

Attention to interiority emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries out of new institutional discourses that sought to maintain social order without impinging on Enlightenment principles of self-governance and rational liberty. Institutional knowledge permitted discipline to appear as objective benevolence, manifest in penal and educational reform and in new forms of science, psychology, and sexology. Nineteenth-century phrenology, for instance, read bumps and recesses on the skull to determine a person’s “nature,” locating within the body traits that formerly characterized social organization (the capacity for love or friendship), labor (the abilities to calculate or reason), and interaction (combativeness, acquisitiveness, or veneration).

This version of interiority required self-cultivation, making possible the individualism for which the United States became (in)famous. As citizens felt less control over public cultures increasingly shaped by print, urbanization, and migration, the human interior became something they could control, allowing them to feel civically active without needing to engage in public affairs. To compensate citizens for the increased privatization of agency, interiority yoked obedience and pleasure. As phrenologist O. S. Fowler (1844, 21) promised, “All enjoyment flows in the direct line of the obedience, and all suffering bears a close analogy to that sin which causes it. The pleasure is like the obedience, and the suffering partakes of the same cast and character with the transgression.”

Obedience and pleasure become especially conflated in the form of interiority called “identity.” Arguing that apparently autonomous subjectivity arises from reiterative performances of cultural discourses, philosopher Judith Butler (1990, 279) conceives gender not as “a role which either expresses or disguises an interior ‘self,’ whether that ‘self’ is conceived as sexed or not,” but as “an ‘act,’ broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority.” Again, phrenology provides a valuable example and precedent, since it popularized the idea that identities are the spontaneous manifestations of inner “natures” that correspond to gender and race (“I have always found Eventuality very large in Jews,” Fowler reports. “The same is true of the North American Indians, who perpetuate their history in the memories of the rising race” [1884, 135]), regions (Yankees possess strong organs of acquisitiveness, as opposed to New Yorkers [133]), and nations (the English and Germans have powers of concentration, but not Americans, “which corresponds with their national habits” [132]). The nationalization of bodily “natures” supports Paul Giles’s (2003) contention that allegories of interiority have maintained fictions of American exceptionalism, impeding a fuller understanding of the culture of the United States in its global context.

Other cultural critics have bridled at the tendency to isolate the study of interiority from that of material social relationships. Terry Eagleton (1990), for instance, analyzes judgments of taste as presuming (and constructing) an interiorized realm of affective integration that insufficiently compensates people living in a postmodern age of alienating self-fragmentation and among the ephemeral pleasures of consumption, aesthetic sensation, and fashion. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1983, 270) share Eagleton’s desire to move out from the interior, faulting Freud for making the family the domain of libidinous subjectivity, establishing “interiority in place of a new relationship with the outside.” Similar challenges to inflexible and predictable formulations of interiority surfaced in the nineteenth century. In the “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick ([1851] 1971), Herman Melville ridicules the “systemized exhibition” (116) of interior traits that will produce a clear taxonomy of whales. Instead of aligning interiority with law, whales’ “internal parts” (122) reveal “peculiarities… indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure” (122). If “a rabble of uncertain, fugitive, half-fabulous whales” (127) can defy “right classification” (122), surely the laws of human interiority ineffectively contain the social possibilities of an “almost frantic democracy” (135).

Melville’s faith in the “half-fabulous” reminds us that “interiority” is not just a realm of containment and isolation but also one of imagination, fantasy, affect, aesthetics, and sensation, all of which have become sites, in recent cultural criticism, for the reinvigoration of a less-than-frantic US democracy. Despite Hayden White’s (1982, 115) claim that the persistent belief in human interiority has made it “not only impossible but also undesirable even to aspire to the creation of full-blown sciences of man, culture, and society,” the world-making powers of desire and pleasure, the political deployments of aesthetic sensation, the unprecedented social possibilities of fantasy, and the cultural demands made audible through melancholy and suffering have all been analyzed by cultural critics eager to trace the transformative possibilities, as well as the disciplinary dangers, of the human interior. At a moment in US cultural history when politicians feel our pain, when “reality television” provides the giddy sensations absent in the mass-mediated “everyday,” when elections are decided over issues of affective union, and when “terror” animates the cultural landscape of an unevenly global security state, “interiority” is likely to remain a keyword for cultural critics well into the twenty-first century.


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