Critical Blind Spots

Although there have been a number of relevant and valuable works on syphilis, they have generally been limited by their adherence to specific disciplinary objectives and epistemological constraints, which has been responsible for the thematic limitations and fragmentariness of syphilis studies and which has often been accompanied by a concomitant neglect of the multimedia contextualization of syphilis. These disciplinary restrictions have prevented a more integral look at the socio-cultural, economic and political significance of the disease at the fin de siecle. Despite a number of articles on syphilis, full-length studies on the cultural and medical production of knowledge about it in the Victorian era belong to three disciplinary areas: (social) history of medicine, literary and cultural studies, all of which are characterized by specific thematic concerns.

Works pertaining to the (social) history of medicine (Crissey and Parish 1981, Oriel 1994) record the milestones in the expansion of the discipline. Yet they seldom pay due attention to the processes of knowledge construction, which are the focus of this study. These mechanisms are also rarely addressed by social historians of medicine (Brown 2006, Quetel 1990). Their attempts to present medical advancements and pivotal professional debates in a broader socio-cultural context are understandably thematically limited and often disregard the implications of the various media evocations of syphilis by treating them as ancillary evidence. Both Kevin Brown’s The Pox: the Life and Near Death of a Very Social Disease (2006) and Claude Quetel’s acclaimed History of Syphilis (1990) trace the social history of the disease, thus expanding the frame of inquiry.11 Despite its only cursory interest in the Victorian era in Britain, Quetel’s work is significant for the links it makes between medicine and “the history of civilization” (Quetel 1990: 1). As Adrian Wilson rightly points out, however, he adheres to a popular-scientific synthesis of syphilis, which does not differentiate between the varieties of its historically specific concepts (2000: 275). Such historiographic differentiation lies at the core of Ludwik Fleck’s work Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1935), in which he inspects the nature of scientific knowledge and the processes that participate in its production. Fleck does not only survey the historical development of the modern understanding of syphilis but also lays out the mechanisms that underlie the exchange of knowledge between experts and the lay public.

Besides the processes of knowledge production and circulation, the works by Walkowitz (1980, 1992), Levine (1994, 2003), Spongberg (1997) and Howell (2009) address tensions between individual and collective identities. Walkowitz’s Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State (1980) sketches the broad social context of the CD Acts and the repeal campaigns. These constitute a background for her discussion of the interrelations between “ideology, public policy, and social change” (1). Her attention to individual positions in the debates about the CD Acts uncovers the complexities in the understanding and management of venereal diseases and helps her explore “how prejudice and the double standard of sexuality influenced medical treatment, and how these ideological influences shaped institutional facilities for the care of venereal-disease sufferers” (48). Politics is also one of the major concerns of Levine’s Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (2003), in which she uses the regulation of prostitution in British colonies as a “lens” in her analysis of Britain’s imperial expansion (3). Philip Howell’s Geographies of Regulation: Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the Empire (2009) shifts the focus of these earlier studies to address the spatial regulation of prostitution. Preoccupied with the “geographies” of power, his work investigates “one of the distinctive ‘rhythms of rule and sexual management’” of imperial Britain (2). Another work attentive to the rhetorical construction of venereal disease in the biomedical discourse of the nineteenth century is Mary Spongberg’s Feminizing Venereal Disease: The Body of the Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse (1997). It inspects various reciprocal influences of scientific parlance and cultural discourses in discussions about the provenance and transmission of the disease, pathologization of the female body and social regulation of vice.12 All in all, studies in the (social) history of medicine supply a valuable background for the discussion of the cultural impact of syphilis in late Victorian culture.

Literary studies is the second discipline with more than a cursory interest in syphilis (see especially Heilmann 2004, Richardson 2003, Ardis 1990, Ledger 1997, Mangum 2001). The major thematic area within which syphilis is discussed here is degeneration. In this context, most inquiries have been devoted to New Woman writing and its treatment of the subject. Like the full-length works, most of the articles on New Woman writing (Kennedy 2004, Liggins 2000, Driscoll 2009) often focus exclusively on its function within a specific literary work.13 At the same time, criticism attentive to literary evocations of syphilis (Showalter 1986, 1990, Schonlau 2005, Gilbert 1997, Wilson Carpenter 2010) insists on the categorization of the disease according to gender dichotomies, which at times may have essentializing effects. While this gender perspective has undoubtedly drawn attention to various kinds of prejudice, these categorizations are limiting in that they too readily dismiss ambiguities in both male and female writers’ treatment of the disease. Elaine Showalter’s and Anja Schonlau’s publications are exemplary in this respect.14 In “Syphilis, Sexuality, and the Fiction of the Fin de Siecle,” Showalter builds her argument on the assumption that male and female writers responded differently to the disease and that, while “male writers explored the multiplicity of the self, the myriad fluid lives of men, women were limited by the revived biological essentialism of post-Darwinian thought” (1986: 110). Anja Schonlau’s Syphilis in der Literatur: Uber Asthetik, Moral, Genie und Medizin (1880-2000) takes a cue from Showalter’s assertion as it traces gender-based differences in the aesthetic preoccupation with syphilis. According to her, whereas late nineteenth-century women authors used realist techniques in the evocation of the disease, men employed Gothic conventions in its portrayal (2005: 273). In this regard, Andrew Smith’s chapter “Reading Syphilis: The Politics of Disease” offers a study of the complex interrelationships between scientific and literary treatment of syphilis, in which he combines literary and medical texts to discuss the semantics of the disease. Important as Smith’s study is, it characteristically ignores the iconotextual character of the selected medical texts, hence disregarding a crucial aspect of syphilis enunciation.

Although the tradition of syphilis visualization has been addressed (Gilman 1987, R. S. Morton 1990a, 1990b) and in spite of the fact that there are numerous analyses ofindividual artworks and/or artists and their depiction of the disease (for example, Conway 1986 and Healy 1997 on Bronzino, Eisler 2009 on Durer or Lowe 1992 on Hogarth), the transmedial character of syphilis has yet to be given due attention. Gilman must be credited with addressing the pictorial evocation of syphilis as his work in this area oscillates around the disease and its visualization, be it in articles where it is his major preoccupation (1987), be it in more exhaustive studies on sexuality (1989, 1993a), degeneration (Chamberlin and Gilman 1985) or on the depiction of mental illness in art (1995, 1989, 1986, 1985). Yet, despite their innovative character, Gilman’s works however also partly erase the tensions intrinsic to the representation of the disease.

The above disciplinary constraints, restricted thematic scope and a general negligence of the multimedia exposition of the disease have precluded a more complex view of syphilis. Positioning itself in the field of visual culture studies, and referencing the developments within medical humanities, this work attempts to offer a more integral look at the disease and its socio-cultural significance. In order to do so, it takes the tensions between visibility and invisibility as a point of ingress. Attentive to the triangular dynamic relationship between theory, object and subject of study, this work hopes to offer a comprehensive, albeit not exhaustive, survey of syphilis visualization in the late Victorian era.

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