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Regenia Gagnier, Individualism, Decadence and Globalization. On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859–1920

Bénédicte Coste
p. 227-230
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Regenia Gagnier, Individualism, Decadence and Globalization. On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859–1920, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. ISBN 978-0-230-24743-7

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1Regenia Gagnier’s knowledgeable and wide-ranging study explores various manifestations of Decadence and its links to different versions of globalisation. Taking her cue from Bourget’s well-known definition of the decadent style as the independence of the parts from the whole, she argues first that the development of the parts, as exemplified in the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, can be seen both as a thought experiment and, in some cases, as a real experiment concerning the limits of self and other. She then contends that the tensions between parts and whole(s) define the period. For Gagnier, decadence is not a state but a relation of part(s) to whole within ever-changing systems, so that individualism-as-progress (materialised as autonomy) and individuation-as-decadence (manifesting itself as alienation or isolation) are differently imagined relations to the whole. The tension between independence and interdependence, the idea that individual development might threaten the functioning of the whole, constituted the anxiety of Liberalism at the turn of the century. Consequently Gagnier follows nineteenth-century formulations of the relationship of part to whole in both science and culture, with the aim of showing that such an analytic of relationship of parts to whole proves more conducive to our understanding of the period than the usual categories of identity, essence, property, or linear causality, something she demonstrates aptly if not completely.

2Embarking on a genealogy of Liberalism from the abstract unit to the concrete individual in all its relations, Gagnier explores Mill’s rational version of individualism, Schopenhauer’s psychological interrogation of the individual’s potential dissimulation in pursuit of self-interest that threatened the development of the social whole, Spencer’s evolutionary-based progress towards individuation, Smiles’s ethical link between character and the State (the decline of character implying national decline), and the evolutionary psychology of Bagehot who, in Physics and Politics (1872), applied the principles of natural selection and inheritance to political society to prove both the continuity of individuation with Nature and the interdependence of the individual and the state.

3Drawing on Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts (2002), Gagnier then introduces globalisation, locating it, for instance, in the writings of Edward Carpenter who viewed western civilisation as the egotism of a part threatening the survival of the whole. Many works of Decadent literature, Gagnier contends, indicate the European awareness of the death of the empire, along with the rejection of Western Decadence in favour of pre-industrial and indigenous movements (such as the Irish Renaissance). Such a recognition allows her to plead for the introduction of “more global perspectives on Decadence”. (23)

4Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of different models of the individual in non-fiction prose, literature and art, tracing a possible genealogy of individualisms. Gagnier explores the social, aesthetic and scientific models of individualism and globalisation in Spencer, Arnold, Pater, Wilde, Freud, Bell, and Adorno, in order to show how they evolved from different conceptions of the relationship of part to whole. She then engages in a sensible and convincing discussion of how these models of individualism were inflected by gender in the works of the New Women, Female Aesthetes, and some socialist individualists. The following chapter on Decadent individuation, interiority, and the will appears less convincing. Gagnier’s discussion of the problem of the Decadent individuation through the complex and often contradictory physiological or psychological theories of the will that typically ran counter any idea of “rational” choice, draws on poets (Johnson, Symons, Davidson), and philosophers (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche). Unsurprisingly, she concludes on the two divergent solutions that were offered: internationalism or ethnicity.

5Chapter 4 is certainly one of the most interesting in the book. It explores the paradox of Victorian cultural philanthropy (which types of subjects does philanthropy constitute?) through two case studies: that of the Home Arts and Industries Association, and that of the American-born philologist Charles Geoffrey Leland who not only learnt the Romani language but also discovered another kind of philanthropy “antithetical to the individualistically-motivated bureaucracy of organized charity” (126). Gagnier rightfully notes that the late nineteenth-century linguists and cultural anthropologists, as well as writers, desired and dreaded the global demise of peoples who did not fit western and rational economic development. Finally, chapter 5 examines “Europe” as a functional relation rather than an identity and focuses on cosmopolitanism as an inevitable ongoing process that needs to be included in the work of contemporary thinkers who are themselves expanding the idea of late Victorian radicalism to embrace religion, ecology, and the tolerance of differences, as well as M. Davis’s weaving of the fin de siècle into the global context. Two key notions of the late nineteenth-century cosmopolitanism, the Good European, and the Education of the Emotions, are explored through the writings of Morris. Gagnier rightfully pits Morris, who lived at a time when no conflict was perceived between individualism and the social state, against the current liberal neo-cosmopolitanisms. Cosmopolitanism’s engagement with Europe was part of its progressive potential. If we want to assess its legacy and make it relevant for our times, Gagnier argues that it should not be contrasted with internationalism but with current forms of globalisation that tend toward domination. An appendix on J.K. Huysmans’s uneasy relation to the Church epitomises the dilemma of a time when Liberalism underwent its most severe crisis.

6Gagnier’s engaging and thought-provoking study is, however, not for undergraduates but for scholars willing to take interdisciplinarity seriously. Like Decadent writings, it relies on a wealth of secondary sources in economics, political philosophy, and biology, which makes it a mine for information and reflection. The drawback of such a reliance is that some of the discussions are sketchy, insufficiently argued or substantiated. The wealth of information about Leland, the finely-tuned readings of women’s writings or the impressive genealogy of Liberalism sometimes contrast with one-dimensional discussions or brief definitions. Gagnier’s study would greatly have benefited from more book space to fulfil its ambitious program, but it delineates many paths for further research.

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Bénédicte Coste, « Regenia Gagnier, Individualism, Decadence and Globalization. On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859–1920 »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 75 Printemps | 2012, 227-230.

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Bénédicte Coste, « Regenia Gagnier, Individualism, Decadence and Globalization. On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859–1920 »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 75 Printemps | 2012, mis en ligne le 03 février 2015, consulté le 16 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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