Mapping Male Sexuality: Nineteenth-Century England

By Jay Losey; William D. Brewer | Go to book overview

Bernard Shaw and the Economy
of the Male Self

KATHLEEN MCDOUGALL

CAPITALISM PRIVILEGES THE INDIVIDUAL OVER THE COLLECTIVITY; IT also rationalizes this “selfish” bent by measuring the worth of the individual—as an agent of innovation, progress, and growth—with reference to the collectivity’s ultimate well-being. In late nineteenth-century Britain, that phase of science known as “scientific naturalism” established itself as the instrument with which to effect and measure progress.1 It provided an apt “cosmological backcloth” to industrialization and the rise of the bourgeois middle class, and much of its value as such resided in its subordination, within an evolutionary framework, of individual strivings to collective processes.2

The increasing authority granted science redefined and, to a certain extent, discredited literature and other artistic pursuits, as Tom Gibbons explains3:

emotional-expressionist views [of art]… became increasingly extreme
during the course of the nineteenth century mainly as a consequence of
the continual and highly impressive advances which were being made
in the natural sciences. The more did scientists come to be regarded as
possessing a monopoly in the field of fact and objective truth, the more
did artists come to be regarded as dealing solely in their alleged oppo-
sites, i.e. subjective visions and emotions.4

Thus science, viewed as a secular, practical, and public-spirited endeavor, posed a threat to literature, which tended to be placed (or to place itself) at an opposite pole of beauty-, tradition-, and selfworship. A main point of the discussion to follow, centered on Bernard Shaw, is that arguments for the continued importance of literature were always self-defeating in some sense: they took for granted various scientific “truths” that undermined more than they bolstered credibility.5 Another point is that both camps tended to ground personal worth in sexuality, understood as the way in which

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