Panther Nation: Big Cats and Biopolitics in Nineteenth-Century America
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Tracing the presence and function of big cats—panthers, especially—in multicultural American literature, this study reveals how that particular species group functions as a point of entry for disparate American cultures into Foucauldian biopolitical negotiation, that is, acts of forming one’s own or forcing on others socially-constructed subjectivities in the name of achieving social gains. Drawing on biopolitical theory and animal studies methodology, the study performs a comparative reading of American-Indian, Anglo-American, and African-American texts that feature big cats and speak to issues of social ordering. Taking this approach puts these different American cultures’ biopolitical strategies into conversation with one another and reveals how nineteenth-century inter- and intracultural power struggles were in part facilitated by big cat imagery and figurative language. Previous scholarship has regarded much of early American animal imagery as an ideological weapon that upheld the removal of American Indians from their lands, reduced African Americans to the status of chattel slaves, and severely restricted women’s rights; however, moving beyond the recognizable Anglo-American big cat tradition, which largely asserts white male dominance, this study establishes scholarship on the big cat literature of women and ethnic minorities, segments of American society that challenge social exclusion through their own seldom-studied, yet rich, big cat texts. More precisely, this study reveals that women and ethnic minorities in nineteenth-century America used their own big cat literature and oral traditions to construct arguments in favor of their full and equal inclusion in the American social order. By comparing big cat narratives from different U.S. cultures, this study, which departs from the trend of applying biopolitical theory to population control in the strictly genetic sense, shows that the human/nonhuman border, a border that resonates with ancient fables and structures race, gender, and class relations, can be manipulated via narrative into a potent biopolitical tool. Exploring texts that bear this out furthers our understanding of how American cultures position themselves relative to nonhumans, how that positioning informs subject formation processes, and how those processes contribute to the framework of American society.
Trevino, Rene Horacio (2016). Panther Nation: Big Cats and Biopolitics in Nineteenth-Century America. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from