Daniel Harris, “Politics for the Polyps: The Compound Organism as a ‘Peculiar Form of Communism’ in Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke and The Water-Babies” (pp. 64–88)
Charles Kingsley’s novels and political writings are saturated with references to physiological processes in marine invertebrates. In particular, the forms of his novels take their inspiration from functional arrangements in colonial organisms such as corals, in which “individual” polyps are physiologically linked to their neighbors. Alton Locke (1851) and The Water-Babies (1863) attempt to explain the benefits of cooperative economic practices (e.g., the associative workshop) and the dangers of cooperative political practices (e.g., the Chartist mass meeting) by jettisoning British Enlightenment assumptions about personal identity. Instead, Kingsley’s novels use discontinuous and communal physiological processes in invertebrates, such as corals and jellyfish, as frameworks for representing psychological and political development. Ultimately, Kingsley seeks to intervene in mid-century debates about how to individuate members of the working class by suggesting that reformist measures must be grounded in a physiological understanding of individuation that contravenes psychological definitions of individuality.