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The Pendleton Act and the Origins of Modern Intelligence​

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Moore Auditorium

Management Building

Royal Holloway, University of London

Egham

TW20 0EX

United Kingdom

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We are delighted to welcome Dr Michael Collins (University of Kent) from the AHRC funded project ‘“Literary Culture, Meritocracy and the Assessment of Intelligence, 1880 – 1920’ to the Centre of Victorian Studies. Join us on Thursday the 18th January 2018 at 6pm to explore the origins of modern intelligence through readings of key novels by Henry Adams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, newspaper cartoons, and other contemporary visual culture.

The evening will include a question and answers session with Michael and be followed by a wine reception.




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The Pendleton Act and the Origins of Modern Intelligence​

The 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act is credited with the establishment of a modern, professionalised civil service in the USA. Following the example of the more “meritocratic” and, ostensibly, “neutral” British Civil Service model, the Act sought to challenge the hold of partisanship, the “spoils system”, and local “Boss” machine politics on the Federal Government through the introduction of mandatory testing and public examinations for coveted state jobs. Yet, in this paper I argue that the Act had far-reaching implications for American culture more generally. Drawing together methodologies from affect studies, the history of the emotions, performance studies, and nineteenth century literary studies, I suggest that the Pendleton Act constituted a significant, and seldom considered, shift in the structure of feeling around American government that paved the way for the introduction of controversial “intelligence testing”, “standardised testing” and, even, eugenical models in the 20th century. For the first time reformers were able to institute the types of mass testing that allowed them to conceive of “intelligence” as a “natural” trait, peculiar to an individual. However, the Act relied on civil servants remaining politically neutral and so required the expansion of the government’s purview and rights of access to private lives. Indeed, the Act precipitated the development of modern espionage regimes within government to police the political “neutrality” first demanded by the Pendleton Act reforms. Consequently, the paper argues that the Act was influential in shaping a new language and feeling around “intelligence”, which came to mean both an innate, biologically-determined trait in an individual, and espionage itself. I suggest that this ambiguity was captured in cultural texts at the time in modal shifts to an ambient affect of suspicion and envy that served to represent the character of “intelligence”, which had few, if any, outward forms, but which had become central to government itself . I demonstrate this thesis through readings of key novels by Henry Adams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, newspaper cartoons, and other contemporary visual culture that registers its engagement with “intelligence” (and so contextually with Pendleton itself) through dominant affects of suspicion and ressentiment.

About the speaker

Michael is a Senior Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Kent. He has published widely on topics relating to American Literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, performance, and print culture. He is the author of the 2016 monograph The Drama of The American Short Story, 1800 - 1865 (University of Michigan). This paper is from his new AHRC Early Career Grant project with Dr. Sara Lyons (Kent) “Literary Culture, Meritocracy and the Assessment of Intelligence, 1880 - 1920”.



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Moore Auditorium

Management Building

Royal Holloway, University of London

Egham

TW20 0EX

United Kingdom

View Map

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