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Nations must be defended: public health, enmity and immunity in Katherine Mayo’s Mother India


This essay explores repressed hostility and punitive fantasies in the discourse of international health, using Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927). Multiple tendencies in interwar thinking converge in Mayo’s book, making it a veritable archive of major, minor and emergent forces, including those shaping the phenomenon of ‘international health’ post-Versailles. Mother India provides a unique opportunity to explore how progressive principles of international public health tend to obscure a ‘minor’ and forgettable yet disturbing truth: the discourse on life and health can ‘safely’ harbour an alternative politics and poetics of enmity. Spotlighting the way international health interventions, centrally shaped by USA, operated across multiple levels of governance, the essay locates the significant detail of Mayo’s representation of India as ‘world-menace’. Propelled by the logic of enmity, her shaming portrait of a dysgenic Hindu India justifying emergency international intervention resonates with a strand of interwar conservatism given theoretical expression in the writings of Mayo’s contemporary, Carl Schmitt. Schmitt’s animosity towards political liberalism helps identify Mother India’s vision of imperial sovereignty as a curious antiliberal, American iteration of the logic of enmity in extra-European space and in the ‘humane’ domain of health. Biologising the discourse of juridical-political maturity at a time when Indian nationalism’s organised challenge to Empire could not be gainsaid, Mother India urges a re-imagination of the political field as a battlefield where ‘the enemy’, construed as a problem of health, will kill. Building a case for continued imperial domination in the name of global health and immunity, the book’s humiliating representation of colonial bodily habits, habitations and contagions aimed to undermine liberal imperialism, internationalism and Indian nationalism, all increasingly vocal after World War I.

  • cultural history
  • literary theory
  • medical humanities
  • politics
  • public health

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