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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility

Peripatetic Viewing

The nature of the preoccupations that underlie this study position it within the “transdisciplinary and cross-methodological” field of visual culture (Rogoff 2002: 26), which offers insights into the creation, distribution and consumption of media images of syphilis and into our ways of recognizing the disease as it also foregrounds the apparatuses that enable this recognition.15 Although visual culture (studies) has been variously defined by its main proponents, there are certain common assumptions concerning the nature of inquiry it fosters. Most importantly, critics spotlight the non-predetermined object of its study. Joanne Morra and Marquard Smith elucidate this “makeshift” character of the discipline, which allows for a dynamism and flexibility of the researcher’s position that traditional disciplines preclude:

Visual Culture Studies is not simply “theory” or even “visual theory” in any conventional sense [... ]. Rather, it is the case that between: 1 finding ways of attending to the historical, conceptual and material specificity of things; 2 taking account of “viewing apparatuses”; and 3 our critical encounters with them, the “object” of Visual Culture Studies is born. (2006: 16; my emphasis)

Similarly, Mieke Bal claims that delineating the specificity of the objects visual culture examines brings with itself the danger of essentialism (2003: 8). Rather, she proposes a redefinition of “visual culture,” in which “culture” is regarded as positioned “polemically, between global and local, retaining the specificity of each [... ] but using that specificity in order to examine the ‘patterns determining the aetiology of cultural misunderstanding’ [...]” (Bal 2003: 17; original emphasis). Such an approach remains committed, as I do, to an understanding - if hazy from the point of view of traditional disciplines - of culture as dynamic and as “envisioned in a plural, changing, and mobile existence” (Bal 2002: 9). Visual culture studies concentrates on the functioning of chosen objects in their cultural embedding, their “articulation of meaning” and involvement in “cultural debates” (9).

Furthermore, this approach draws attention to the processes and mechanisms of visual production. It concentrates on what the objects “do” (Bal 2003: 13), that is, on “the practices of looking invested in any object” (11). In this sense, the “object domain” (11) of the visual culture can be defined with the help of a set of questions that map the trajectory of its concerns. Apart from an inquiry into the creation, dissemination and consumption of images, the purview of visual culture encompasses the “‘viewing apparatuses’ which include our ways of seeing and practices of looking, knowing and doing” (Morra and Smith 2006: 9-10). It assumes an ideological conditioning of vision and asks “how bodies of thought produced a notion of vision in the service of a particular politics or ideology and populated it with a select set of images, viewed through specific apparatuses and serving the needs of distant subjectivities” (Rogoff 2002: 31). It also inquires about the political conditioning of viewing positions and their capacity of resistance (26). In other words, the object of visual culture is a “visual event” (Bal 2003: 9), which necessitates special attention to the interaction between the seer, the object seen and the conditions of this exchange (14).

In this context, Bal, like Shohat and Stam, cautions against a conceptualization of the visual event in purely visual terms and veers away from criticism which would assume a fundamental difference between visuality and language (Bal 2003: 10; Shohat and Stam 2002: 45). Such attempts at differentiation and juxtaposition of the visual and the verbal introduce hierarchical division of senses, which has been regarded as one of the shortcomings of the humanities (Bal 2003:10). Rather, it is helpful in this context to take into consideration an innate impurity of vision and its inherently “synaesthetic” character, which, like other “sense-based activities,” is “mutually permeable” (9). Looking, like reading, is intrinsically an act of interpretation; vision, like speech, is a complex, “semiotic activity of an inherently rhetorical kind” (Bal 1996: 81). In this context, an act of syphilis visualization produces intelligibility across media and discourses. Visualization encompasses a complex dynamics of display and elucidation and their twin sisters: concealment and ignorance.

Visual culture’s preoccupation with visual codes, practices of looking and the ideological production of vision is accompanied by a democratization of the materials that it studies (Dikovitskaya 2005: 53). The inclusive character of visual culture, which encompasses materials ranging from photography and painting to fashion and advertising, is accompanied by its deconstructive impulse as it tends to reveal and to question the “grand narratives” underlying the epistemological foundations of other disciplines (Shohat and Stam 2002: 36).16 This critical function makes it possible for non-traditional narratives to become discernible (Bal 2003: 22). Apart from the inquiry into normative cultural practices and narratives, the task of visual culture is to grasp the driving factors behind the supremacy of realism and to comprehend the rationale for essentialist thinking, “which promotes the look of the knower (Foucault) while keeping it invisible” (Bal 2003: 22). This interrogation of (other) disciplines’ doxa is possible due to the polycentric approach visual culture encourages. What are the implications of such a framing for this study? To what extent is its positioning within visual culture productive and to what extent does it follow the programmatic guidelines purported by the proponents of the discipline?

First of all, it offers a possibility of regarding late nineteenth-century evocations of syphilis within a number of media in terms of visual events, with particular attention to the relationship between the agent of evocation and the entity evoked as well as the performative situation in which they are engaged. This act of exposition, of making syphilis visible, should be understood in terms proposed by Bal, who identifies three components of the verb “to expose,” as “exposition, expose, and exposure” (1999: 4), and conceives of exposing as making something public, arguing and self-exposition. In this context, the display of syphilis must be regarded as “working in the realm between visual and verbal, and between information and persuasion” (Bal 1996: 18), where the latter are considered as two “channels of information” (31) that contribute to knowledge production. The act of exposing syphilis thus refers to the ways in which the disease was evoked by a variety of discourses, to the modes of its rhetorical use and to the self-identification of the agent of exposure through the trope of syphilis, which also involves processes integral to the construction of individual and collective identities. This focus on the expository situation offers a common ground for the analysis of the multiplicity of discursive and media formations which are central to late nineteenth-century preoccupations with syphilis.

Since the study of the cultural production of knowledge about syphilis encompasses a number ofthemes and problems that pertain to numerous disciplines, it would be reductive to use one specific theoretical toolbox. Rather, this study offers an expanded analysis which draws on a number of theoretical approaches that help spotlight its individual concerns. On the one hand, I draw on recent gender and postcolonial theories in order to inspect the intricacies of the relationships between class, gender, ethnicity and location together with their effects on the cultural construction of syphilis. These will be helpful in the discussion of the mechanisms of power/knowledge creation and their ideological conditioning. On the other hand, the history of ideas and the history of medicine will offer a background for the understanding of interpretation apparatuses and mechanisms underlying the creation of (medical) concepts. I will also choose from the conceptual repertoire of film, museum, art history and literary studies in my consideration of the processes and products of seeing.

The conceptual flexibility that this approach allows must be accompanied by due attention to the specific media in which the acts of syphilis exposition materialize. Bal considers every gesture of showing as a discursive act, similar to speech acts, which has a truth value and works to constitute the subject/object dichotomy (1996: 3-4). She also insists on the medial embedding of every discourse: “Discourse implies a set of semiotic and epistemological habits that enables and prescribes ways of communicating and thinking that others who participate in the discourse can also use. [... ] Language can be a part of the media used in a discourse, not the other way round” (3). This emphasis on the acts of exposure enables an integration of a variety of media products which constitute the fabrics of discourses around syphilis. In order to ‘read’ the variety of media, I will combine semiotics, narratology and rhetoric. Semiotics will offer analytical precision in the study of media traces/signs of syphilis and in drawing relations between them and the broader structures of meaning. As the exposition/conceal- ment of syphilis is an integral part of personal, professional and national narratives, narratology will offer analytical tools for inspecting the media- specific and overarching structures and modalities of such storytelling. Finally, rhetoric will help to expose strategies of persuasion and argumentation integral to the discourses around syphilis.

Apart from offering a framework within which the media and discursive complexity of syphilis can be taken into consideration, this methodological grounding allows for a more ethically engaged work, which arises from a responsiveness and responsibility vis-a-vis the object of study. It offers a study of syphilis that combines, but does not exhaust, a number of expositions of syphilis both in nineteenth-century culture and in contemporary critical discourses around its socio-cultural and political significance. This attention to critical blind spots does not offer an integrative master-narrative on syphilis but provides a number of readings which aim at displaying its complex semiotics.

These acts of interpretation are activated by the multiple perspectives that the study integrates and the critical potential of “seriating” (Bal 2003: 21) on which it is based. Seriating is an active intervention based on a new configuration of objects, which brings to the fore the meanings that have hitherto remained hidden: “As objects are brought together new series are made, and statements are iterated and reiterated” (Bhabha qtd. in Verhoeff 2006: 350).17 This new arrangement has been configured in such a way that traditional, dominant readings of syphilis are juxtaposed with “multiplying perspectives, [and] proliferating points ofview” (Bal 1996: 9).18 This study, then, aligns with Nicholas Mirzoeff’s conviction that “[i]t is time [... ] to look with ‘double vision’ [... ], ‘parallax vision’ [... ] or ‘multiple viewpoints’ [... ] with the transverse look or glance - not a gaze, there have been too many gazes already” (2002: 18).

To highlight the plurality of views generated by a juxtaposition of the late nineteenth-century acts of syphilis exposition with their contemporary readings, I have therefore arranged the book so that its every chapter centres on one chosen issue that has either been critically overseen or greatly simplified in the study of syphilis. Such focus on well-defined critical blind spots makes it possible for the specific media and discourses around the disease to bear on one another. It also allows a rethinking ofan entire system of cultural representation and is thus, like other projects within medical humanities, also a “political [... ] enterprise” (Cole et al. 2015b: 12).

Chapter 2 lays out the historical and methodological background of this study. First, it postulates the need of inspecting disease concepts with reference to the particular styles of thinking that produced them and with attention to the various groups that participated in their production. In this context, it also sketches the basic tenets of the expert knowledge about syphilis at the fin de siecle as a way of introducing the late nineteenth-century medical creed built around the disease. Second, on the background of recent interdisciplinary discussions about illness and with the help of a posthumanist-materialist framework, it also argues for the necessity of discussing syphilis concepts with reference to the materiality of the disease. Referencing Jonathan Hutchinson’s abundant collection of didactic materials on syphilis, this chapter exemplifies the richness of media depictions of the disease and advocates expanding the study of syphilis beyond the already well-trodden textual landscape. It makes evident the various media mechanisms that participated in the production and dissemination of knowledge about the disease. Overall, then, the chapter argues that attending to these processes reveals complex mechanisms of knowledge diffusion and the invisibility/visibility dialectics that lies at their core. It also delineates the degree to which the consideration of the rhetorical use of syphilis can be helpful in assessing the role the disease played in individual and collective practices of self-fashioning among medical practitioners and the function it had in broader socio-political and cultural frameworks. In this way, the chapter exemplarily offers a novel approach towards a historical study of disease and its visual instantiations.

Chapter 3 is concerned with the expository situations and rhetorical contexts of medical and cultural production of syphilis. It asks: when and under what circumstances could one view the disease? Who was allowed to see it and how were such acts justified? How was the spectacle of syphilis framed and what political considerations accompanied the display of the disease? The closing decades of the nineteenth century were characterized by an uneasy tension between showing and talking about the disease, recognizable across media and genres. While existing critical literature puts emphasis on the (gender) dichotomization of literary preoccupations with syphilis, it is worthwhile to juxtapose the various acts of its literary exposition with other popular and medical spaces of its evocation in order to inspect the concomitant politics of explanation. A discussion of medical publications, clinical demonstrations (The Polyclinic), specialist as well as public museums (Hutchinson’s Clinical Museum, Liverpool Museum of Anatomy), feminist writings and New Woman novels brings to light the complexities of syphilis exposition. Flanked by didactic narratives that professed the greater good of the individual and the nation and fostered civic responsibility, syphilis recognition became a valid political means that facilitated voicing an array of demands concerning the distribution of knowledge. It was instrumental in tailoring the ebb and flow of information as well as in broader power struggles. Syphilis recognition was also a potent tool of self-stylization, which enhanced the authority of medical practitioners, writers and museum proprietors and justified their political and economic actions. At the same time, knowledge about syphilis was invariably connoted as pornographic and thus necessitated careful delivery. This chapter inspects these various narratives of syphilis recognition and sketches similar patterns across media and genres in order to expound the pornographic character of knowledge about syphilis and the repercussions this had for all who joined the debates.

Chapter 4 addresses the poetics and politics of syphilis depiction. How was syphilis portrayed and what were the political effects of such visualizations? While it has been established that syphilis iconography was from the outset gender-, race- and class-bound, this chapter argues that a multimedia and multidiscursive overview of syphilis depictions exposes a number of sweeping overgeneralizations concerning their socio-cultural and political semantics prevalent in critical literature. Taking into consideration the processes of classification and ordering/othering of syphilis (types) in (criminal-) anthropological and medical discourses, it argues that in the late nineteenth century a new alliance between syphilis and consumption was forged in popular imagination and in scientific parlance. The first subchapter argues that, as a result of this fusion, a shift took place in the medical writing from the semantics of a syphilitic body to the syntax of contagious touch. At a time when all bodies could be infected with syphilis, what had to be policed were not only their sexual practices but their entire contours, their interactions: the potentially corruptive exchange economy. This chapter then also addresses a probing question of the centrality of syphilis to the (dis)orders of modernity. Taking into consideration Christian Krohg’s Albertine at the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room (1887), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Medical Examination, Rue des Moulins (1894) and Ramon Casas’s Sifilis (1900), the second subchapter inspects pan-European visualizations of the disease with reference to its stern gendering/othering. It outlines the ways in which the European visual idiom and British literature (for example, Emma Brooke’s A Superfluous Woman, 1894, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890) sublimated the syphilitic body and, in fact, displaced it in popular consciousness. The anesthetization of the syphilitic body and the incessant attempts at its delineation, I argue, actually indicate the failure of representation as concomitant with an epidemic of meaning, which made it impossible to control and expulse the disease from the public register.

Chapter 5 offers a synchronic look at the practices of syphilis mapping and at the spaces of its particular condensation to offer a cohesive panorama of Victorian geographies and cartographies of the disease. With special regard given to maps, architecture and urban plans but also literature (Kipling 1893), it addresses the role of geographic imagination, space and mobility in the late nineteenth-century prophylaxis of syphilis and links them to problems of national security and matters of civic responsibility. It connects these various technologies of geographical and spatial ordering to larger concepts of nationhood and citizenship. First, it briefly focuses on the tentative, if increasingly popular, medical mappings of syphilis incidence. As the second part of the nineteenth century saw a skyrocketing of publications on non-venereal types of syphilis, medical topographic and demographic endeavours testified to the sheer impossibility of demarcating the sites of the disease as programmatic in its elimination. This shift in medical discourse was instrumental in transforming preventive policies, which turned away from isolation towards education and individual responsibility as viable prophylactic means. Second, this chapter inspects the ways in which medical and other official discourses used syphilis to outline but also to police the (imaginary) British borders. It examines the extent to which the soldier, in his mobility, was regarded as dangerous to the stability of the country and the British Empire and surveys the ways in which his movements were restricted. Traversing through a number of liminal spaces, soldiers were the living incarnations of a failing isolationist political economy as they embodied the growing fears of Britain’s own demise. They had to be contained if the (imaginary) borders were to stay intact. Against the background of these practices of ordering, the final section examines the isolationist policies that targeted the civilian population of the late nineteenth century. Taking into consideration gender, racial and class hierarchies, it traces the spaces of syphilis inspection and treatment and attends to the dominant strategies of making them (in)visible.

Chapter 6 addresses the issue of civic duties with reference to the modes in which the figures of a syphilitic child and a syphilitic insane were used in discussions concerning the future of the British nation and the British Empire. What was the care provision for patients of congenital and third- stadium constitutional syphilis? What was their role in society and how was their existence significant to the identity of the nation? Because of their metaphorical currency, the figures of the syphilitic child and the syphilitic insane metamorphosed into figures of fear: into corporeal sites of anxiety about the future. Paradoxically, they also deflected popular attention away from the actual suffering of syphilis victims. At a time when such works as Edvard Munch’s Inheritance (1903-05), Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida Sad Inheritance (1899) and Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881) animated popular imagination across Europe, little could be done to alleviate the pain of those who suffered from the disease. By foregrounding the civic accountability of care-givers and of sufferers, such works as Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Third Generation” (1894) and New Woman writing remained curiously silent about the physical pain of syphilis sufferers. The emphasis on the metaphorical utility of the syphilitic child and the syphilitic insane was also concomitant with problems concerning the ineffability of the disease and with cultural codes surrounding the expression of pain. Whereas the civic responsibility supplied a ready scenario in eugenic narratives, the documents produced by the Victorian asylumdom, such as medical casebooks, variously complicated the expression of the pain and suffering of syphilis victims. They offer, like Alfonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain (1930), some of the very few records that openly address the suffering and care provision for syphilis patients.

The Conclusion (Chapter 7) briefly reconsiders the significance of syphilis in the Victorian era. It also inquires to what extent contemporary creative and critical revisions can be regarded as adequate tools in the rethinking of this issue. By contending that both critical and creative reconsiderations of syphilis’s semantics have themselves been prone to binary thinking, it calls for a more ethical engagement with Victorian culture in general and with syphilis in particular.

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