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

The iconography of syphilis was both sustained and disrupted by nineteenth-century medical texts. While the severity of the disease was often regarded as dependent on environmental, gender and racial characteristics, its symptomatology was generally seen as independent of these referents. The then-recognized three stadia of syphilis had their own, distinct corporeal makeup.2 Encased in a highly detailed medical jargon, progressive symptomatology defined the development of the disease. The first stage was characterized by the appearance of a chancre: a skin lesion, which, usually positioned in the genital area, often remained unnoticed. Secondary (or constitutional) signs of syphilis, occurring after a period of four to six weeks, were believed to include malaise, higher temperature and a rash on the chest and abdomen resembling the skin eruptions characteristic of measles. At this stage, the symptoms would be temporary (Hutchinson 1887: 14-19). With the disease gradually compromising various tissues, ulcers and skin eruptions would appear: sore tonsils, lesions in the mouth, hair loss and nail affections would often be accompanied by rheumatoid pains, temporary deafness, loss of strength and appetite and diminished energy (29-32). In the intermediary or latent stage (roughly at the end of six months), most of the symptoms would subside, with occasional relapses of lesser severity reoccurring at times. The so-called ‘reminders’ could include lesions of the tongue, patches on the palms, gummata (soft growths) of the testis as well as choroiditis (although infrequent) and diseases of the arteries, which could lead to the occlusion of blood vessels and even to gradual paralysis (34-7). The third stage of syphilis, if it occurred at all, could follow any time afterwards, sometimes as late as twenty years after the primary stage and would be characterized by gummata, serpiginous lesions, muscular and bone nodes along with various affections of the brain and spinal cord, such as general paralysis of the insane (GPI) or locomotor ataxia (42-6).3 Medical publications were full of graphic descriptions of corporeal decay accompanied by a wealth of case narratives and illustrations.

These pathological changes marked the bodies of syphilis sufferers while various discursive traditions determined their gender and racial construction. Sander Gilman has demonstrated the coexistence of two major icons of the disease: that of the female (prostitute) as the source of syphilis and of the male sufferer as its ultimate victim. Tracing the development of syphilis iconography, he claims that the Enlightenment witnessed a representational shift from male victim to female perpetrator (Gilman 1987: 95). R. S. Morton sees this new direct association of femininity with the source of contagion in such works as Luca Giordano’s Allegory of Syphilis (1664) and Johan Sadeler’s Warning against Syphilis (1590) (1990a: 120-3). According to Gilman, this link remained dominant not only in the visual arts but also in literature and medical writings and reached the climax in the nineteenth century, when women’s bodies began to serve as exempla of syphilis infection (1987: 96). In addition to that, other ethnic and racialized bodies, for instance that of the East-European Jew, functioned as sites of syphilis (Gilman 1989: 250-61).

Many critics have shown that the intensification of these attitudes lead to an increased identification of the polluted body with a specific female body - a prostitute’s body:

the body of the prostitute came to be synonymous with venereal disease. Prostitutes were not merely agents of transmission but somehow inherently diseased, if not the disease itself. [... ] During the 1850s, the language and ideology underpinning the discussion of syphilis and gonorrhea treated prostitutes and disease synonymously. The terms “social disease” and “social evil” were used interchangeably. (Spongberg 1997: 45)

Even with the appearance of a novel narrative of blame in late nineteenth-century medical, feminist and New Woman writing, which patho- logized middle-class masculinities and highlighted their role in the transmission of the disease, the body of the prostitute remained a potent symbol (symptom) and a site of physical and moral degeneration (Spongberg 1997: 166).

Keen interest in potential biological predispositions to prostitution was flagged by social and criminal anthropologists of the second half of the nineteenth century as they attempted to determine the physical and psychological blueprint of various social strata by producing differential typologies. By the 1870s, with the Darwinian notion of natural selection and Spencerian theory of the survival of the fittest rising to prominence, the discourse of degeneration gained a stronghold in British scientific and cultural practices (Pick 1989, Chamberlin and Gilman 1985b, Greenslade 1994, Karschay 2015). Although degeneration was not a set axiom but a travelling, dynamic concept, it nonetheless percolated all spheres of Victorian culture, thereby testifying to the existence of a pervasive sense of crisis (Pick 1989: 5-7). Degeneration was, Pick argues, more than a fleeting problem; it “became [... ] the condition of conditions, the ultimate signifier of pathology” (8). It had to be fought against and averted by all possible means. Broadly understood as the inevitable entropy and decline of existing (biological, social, moral, etc.) characteristics, it was both a phantasm and an organizational dialectics through which to structure and understand reality

(Chamberlin and Gilman 1985b: x). In this context, the processes of naming, outlining, typifying, and thereby fixing and ordering became chief technologies of the day. Across Europe, cross-disciplinary methodologies espoused polarities drawn along evolutionary lines with the purpose of analysing existent social blueprints and proposing a new ordering. Visual and literary cultures offered veritable typological feasts for popular consumption. The ‘politics of degeneration’ became the byword of the day, and the spectacle of degenerate bodies the symptom of racial atavism and anarchy that had to be counteracted and/or suppressed.

Tracing the contours of ‘abnormal’ physiognomies became an object of scientific interest and political concern. Drawing on the traditions of physiognomy and phrenology, incorporating new trends in social Darwinism and eugenics and relying on the science of anthropometry, independent studies across Europe and Asia set out to offer a catalogue of such characteristics. The criminal anthropology of Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero in Italy and the anthropometric studies of Pauline Tarnowsky in Russia were at the forefront of research into the physical and psychological idiosyncrasies of degenerate types.4 Tarnowsky connected prostitution to primitive, atavistic femininity. Prostitutes occupied for her a position at “the lower end of the scale of beauty, the end dominated by the Hottentot” (Gilman 1985: 224). Lombroso’s studies also established a close resemblance of a “born prostitute” to a “primitive woman” and highlighted the irregularities of her bodily structures, which in effect made her appear masculine: “receding or narrow forehead, abnormal nasal bones, prognathism, a masculine type of face, huge jaws, asymmetry in the face and eyebrows, badly distributed and defective teeth” (Corbin 1990: 301-2).5 In La donna deliquente (1893), in which they recycle both the findings of Parent-Duchatelet and Tarnowsky, Lombroso and Ferrero note the marked heaviness of the prostitute’s frame and her physical anomalies, which continues her scientific defeminization (2004: 130-4).6 A delineation of further characteristics such as early menstruation and proneness to certain violent affective states was coupled with a belief in prostitutes’ atrophied intellectual abilities and heightened propensity to excess: laziness, lying, search of pleasure and vain distractions were considered apparent symptoms of their degeneration (Lombroso and Ferrero 2004: 213, 218-19).

Tarnowsky’s and Lombroso’s studies saw the degeneration of prostitutes as mirrored in the shape of their genitalia and in their apparently beautiful, albeit atavistic physiognomy (Gilman 1985: 229). Although Lombroso notes the conspicuous beauty of prostitutes, he, nonetheless, explains it away by their young age and the use of makeup. The characteristic exaggeration of their cheek bones and jaws, he believes, becomes visible in old age, when these features “hidden by adipose tissue emerge and the face becomes virile, uglier than that of a man” (Lombroso and Ferrero 2004: 143). This emphasis on the corruption of the prostitute’s body demonstrates a shift in the thought style, with the longstanding belief in female propensity to generate disease being replaced with a more attuned, normative differentiation between proper womanhood and its degenerate versions (Spongberg 1997: 7). With the growing pathologization of the prostitute, she herself became “the embodiment of diseased female genitalia in the nineteenth century” (Gilman 1991: 120), while her body was turned into a potent site of syphilitic venom (Spongberg 1997: 7).7 Here, the stern gendering of disease was coupled with fears of racial degeneration. This insistent naturalization of the prostitute’s degeneration proved instrumental in the policing of venereal disease and in controlling female sexuality (Corbin 1990: 300-9), both of which were entwined with the market economy and goods distribution. It also highlighted her guilt and responsibility in spreading the disease.

Under these circumstances, the prostitute became the prime target of continental, British and colonial regulatory policies that aimed to control the spread of venereal disease. She was converted into a potent political sign in the language of reformers and their critics. In response to the anxieties concerning the occurrence of syphilis among the British population and in the British army, a committee of medical men, under the supervision of F. C. Skey, was founded in 1864 in order to inquire into the basic pathological makeup of the disease and into the possible ways of its treatment. While it shed little new light on the disease itself, it certainly reinforced the link between the disease and prostitution. Through its efforts, the prostitute’s body (hierarchized and racialized) became the main site targeted by the CD Acts and ordinances in Britain and across its colonies (Spongberg 1997: 65-9).8

With the convergence of social and moral reforms, prostitution became an unmistakable target of social purity movements, which meant to expunge it from the public spaces of the Victorian streets and music halls.9 Residues of this equation were also present in early twentieth- century feminist discourse. Although The Plain Facts about a Great Evil highlights the danger that syphilis-infected men constitute to society, Christabel Pankhurst famously identifies syphilis-ridden “frail bodies [of children as] the stigmata of degeneration and disease which are the heritage of the prostitute” (1913: 72). Although she regards prostitution as both a male and female profession and recognizes the male co-role in the maintenance of the trade, Pankhurst also characteristically retains the distinction between virtuous women (innocent wives) vis-a-vis wayward husbands and prostitutes. This differentiation was also curiously sustained by the New Women, who, it could be purported, had to separate themselves from forms of female ‘deviancy’ as a way of gaining political foothold. The nascent presence of the New Woman in the urban space and her as yet uncertain categorization invited comparisons with the prostitute: both were types of ‘public women’ who became symbols and symptoms of disruption (Wilson 1991: 9, Ledger 1997: 154-5, Rappaport 2001).

The dominant targeting of the prostitute in anthropological, criminal, reformist and feminist discourses does not gainsay the existence and circulation of other stereotypes as viable sites of syphilophobic anxieties. Gilman has shown to what extent the image of the archetypal East- European Jew became another topos in the British socio-cultural politics of differentiation and othering: an “emblem of human sexual perversion out of all control” (1991: 112), a site and source of the disease. In an alternative, although contemporaneous, narrative, the affinity between Jewishness and syphilis evolved into a conspicuous immunity of this ethnic group to this ailment (98). Whichever narrative was given credence, it highlighted the relation between the two. This connection was made especially conspicuous in the media hype around the Jack the Ripper case. The Whitechapel murderer was also caricatured as an Eastern Jew, with his facial characteristics compliant with the cultural mythology of Jewishness and in keeping with popular and scientific images of degeneration (113-17). Gilman draws a sequence of analogies that visualize the late nineteenth-century equation of particular non-normative corporealities with syphilis: “Jews = lepers = syphilitics = prostitutes = blacks” (1991: 127).10 In sequence and individually, though always already referencing the other links in the chain, these bodies were imagined as sites of potential chaos. They menaced to subvert the distinctions of class, race and morality as well as those between private and public spheres (Geller 1996: 153). The syphilitic, like the leper, the primitive black, the prostitute and the Jew brought forth fears of dissolution and emasculation: a fear of dis-order.

Effectively, the prostitute and the Jew were regarded as dangerous to the “fiscal and sexual economy” of the times and thus as potentially fatal to British wealth (Gilman 1991: 120). Whilst both were associated with a circular transformation of capital and sexual desire: “conversion of sex into money or money into sex” (122), the prostitute was regarded as biologically and economically infertile. The trade in which she engaged was threatening as it opened a void of unproductivity. It was seen as “pure exchange,” without any socially and economically viable products resulting from it (Laqueur 1992: 213). Similar associations became pertinent with reference to the Jewish community. The diversity of the Jewish diaspora and their continuing migration to Britain, especially prominent after the 1880s, combined with their mid-century emancipation and a marked ascendance from lower to upper, upper-middle and middle classes meant that they could now pursue a number of new vocations. According to Alderman, over three-quarters of Anglo-Jewry worked in the mercantile and retail sectors while the financial sector comprised the largest single occupational group (2008: 234). With this transition from manufacturing to financial sectors, the Jew also became associated with the non-productivity of purely financial exchange at the exclusion of socially warranted production of goods.11 Overall, the prostitute and the Jew embodied the dangers of the marketplace, which threatened to implode existing hierarchies and values. Both were also seen as embodying the complications of the modern age.12 By association, syphilis (the always already syphilitic Jew and the prostitute) was brought in connection with the forces of the modern marketplace and exchange economy and enlivened fears of social and financial infertility.

Anxieties brought about by this potential loss of control are perceptible in continuous attempts at demarcating the syphilitic other. As one of the chief mechanisms of scapegoating, these attempts evince the existence of a persistent fear of the non-normative, brought to the surface in the intensified processes of scientific, cultural and political construction of social types and stereotypes. Richard Dyer sees the production of (social) types and stereotypes as prime affective and political strategies of differentiation, which warrant a degree of social fixity that ensures a persistence of current patterns of domination. They participate in the production and sustenance of socio-economic hegemonies and in the naturalization of difference. Dyer’s disambiguation of both terms relies on the concept of inclusiveness: “Types are instances which indicate those who live by the rules of society (social types) and those whom the rules are designed to exclude (stereotypes)” (1984: 29). Many of the scientific typologies of the late nineteenth century, however, peculiarly merge these two categories so that what is hailed as a scientifically established type quizzically mirrors existing stereotypes. It is through this intricate fusion that the iconography of syphilis becomes linked with that of consumption, which fosters a connection between the disease and modern-day economy.

Francis Galton’s composite photography is a case in point. At first sight, the portrait of a phthisical syphilitic type (Fig. 4.1), developed in the course of a highly mechanized practice, curiously conforms to the iconographic tradition of syphilis. Inspired by Malthusian philosophy and influenced by Darwin and Spencer, Galton, a veritable polymath whose ideas enriched many a discipline, was a firm believer in the hypothesis of racial degeneration, which did not only lie at the core of his theory of eugenics, but which also found a direct expression in his innovative scientific procedure allegedly enabling the identification and exegesis of socio-biological differences.13 Galton believed that by the use of a specific means of technological registration - composite photography - racial types could be discerned, and with that, easily identified and managed. Emphasizing the importance of a hierarchical differentiation of physical types, Galton viewed the regulation of reproductive processes as a successful way of counteracting degeneration and of ensuring a prosperous future for British society. His conception of racial hierarchies, in which the Anglo-Saxon race reigned supreme, was also a defence of British imperialism (Maxwell 2008: 81).

In this wider context, composite photography was not only a means of documentation but also a potent methodological instrument that promised an unprecedented accuracy in typological empiricism (Lalvani 1996: 120-8, Muller-Wille and Rheinberger 2007: 3-34). In order to ensure a degree of necessary comparability, Galton devised a special apparatus that enabled him to standardize various photographic formats and, with it, establish a foundation for his processes of classification. By means of flexible machinery, which allowed him to readjust the focus and the size of the negatives, a specifically calculated process of superimposition (the length of the exposure was divided by the number of plates from which the composite was taken), and a fixed framework of comparison (the position and scale of each photograph was regulated by its projection on “fiducial lines”), the procedure promised a high degree of scientific viability (Galton 1885: 243). This mechanized superimposition of single plates rendered a generalized, “average” picture: not a portrait of an individual but a visual essence of group resemblance, a “portrait of a type” (Galton 1883: 222). Galton claims, “[b]y the process of composites we obtain a picture and not a mere outline. It is blurred, something like a damp sketch, and the breadth of the blur measures the variability ofindividuals from the central typical form” (1879:162). Significantly, here, the blurred contours of the photographic image become the marker of biological instabilities and a literal sign of the dangerous porosity of corporeal and social boundaries. (Composite) photography thus visually codifies difference while at the same time offering a testimony to its own failure.

Galton regarded mechanical precision as the main merit of composite photography, which, unlike artistic imagination, was prone to little influence by individual fancies. He was also convinced of its scientific value: not only could it offer visual illustration of racial types, it could also be used in hereditary inquiries and applied as a basis for social reforms. His work partook in the processes of evolutionary categorization and segregation through a regulatory territorialization of society. Photography thus became part of complex surveillance technologies, which drew on statistical documentation and analyses of normative measurements in order to contrive typologies of difference as guarantors of socio-political ordering (Maxwell 2008: 11, Lalvani 1996: 197).

Such procedures supported biological determinism and were held to be commensurate with the empirical methods of scientific naturalism (Green 1987: 3). As Daston and Galison have shown, although the photographic revolution was part of a broader transformation in the reigning thought style, the technology became eponymous with scientific objectivity and detached observation (Chapter 2). At the same time, however, such scientific use of the medium obviously relied on existing representational codes and drew on approved methods of selection (Green 1987: 8, Maxwell 2008: 11-15). Galton’s writings betray a heightened awareness of scientific vulnerability inherent to the process of selection and interpretation. In his study of consumptive physiognomy (1882), which includes the syphilitic type referenced earlier, Galton set out to scientifically (dis)prove the principle of diathesis, which had for centuries accompanied medical practice under various guises, from humoral theory to the belief in the generational transmission of environmental changes to the organism. Starting in January 1881, Galton and F. A. Mahomed examined almost 500 cases of phthisis from the Guy’s Hospital and the Brompton and Victorian Park Hospital for the Diseases of the Chest, which they compared to 200 cases of patients suffering from diseases other than consumption. To ensure an ‘unbiased’ case selection, they devised a patient chart in which the names and ailments of chosen patients were noted alongside other relevant information. They used these to group the patients’ photographs and to produce the groups’ composites. Even though Galton and Mahomed cautiously describe each step of the procedure, some of their decisions remain conspicuously vague. Thus, although they insist that their initial grouping was based on clinical facts, no details ensue as to the criteria used in the procedure. The various exercises in arranging and sorting out the photographs yielded the following results: all cases of “strong hereditary taint of phthisis” brought evidence of a co-existence of two distinct physical types: “the one with blunted and thickened features, the other with thin and softened features, [which] closely coincided with the two types constantly described by physicians as the ‘strumous’ and ‘tubercular’” (Galton 1882: 483). Overall, however, no marked deviation could be established other than the general emaciation and delicate structure of consumptive physiognomies (485).

However ambiguous the undertaking and its results, Galton was able to discriminate, among the consumptive cases, what he considered a syphilitic type, a subgroup of the strumous variety:

In these we find the broad faces, heavy lower jaws, short upper lips, thick and rather up-turned noses, often with a depressed bridge, which are characteristic of what is called the “strumous diathesis.” When we examine a group of the most degraded of this type, as seen in fig. 32, we cannot but recognise that we are dealing with such features as those which characterise syphilis. (Galton 1882: 488; my emphasis)

Two issues are conspicuous in this description: the hierarchization of the syphilitic type and a direct reference to the cultural coding of the disease. The syphilitic type is “the most degraded” of what is already a patholo- gized physiognomy. It constitutes, physically and rhetorically (as the last series in the succession of the plates), the lowest type of (consumptive) physicality. Unsurprisingly, if only tentatively, it also references two inferior racial types distinguished among British inhabitants. In its 1885 report, the Anthropometric and Racial Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) offered a clear, if evidently biased, hierarchy of bodily constitutions. The dolichocephalic type, characterized by an elongated skull, dark hair and eyes and unformed thick lips was considered less evolved than either the brachycephalic fair type (high- bridged, projecting nose, thin lips, large, square jaw, blue-grey sunken eyes and light brown, wavy hair) or the most refined subdolichocephalic fair type (light hair, blue prominent eyes, heavy jaw, full lips) (Maxwell 2008: 97-103). With the dark hair, prominent jaw and thin lips, the composite syphilitic falls somewhere between the dolichocephalic and brachycephalic type. Like Lombroso and Tarnowsky, who acknowledged the surprising beauty of some prostitutes, Galton saw the possibility of refining phthisical constitutions, which, over several generations “may give rise to the comely and attractive face seen in the composite, fig. 31” (1882: 488-9). Without wanting to exaggerate the resemblance, one is tempted to see a degree of similarity between Galton’s syphilitic consumptive type and the anthropometrically established constitution of the born prostitute. There is an uncanny resurfacing of social stereotyping in a technology allegedly developed to produce unbiased social typologies.

In this composite portrait of a syphilitic type, mimicry (repetition) masquerades as re-presentation. There is present, in Galton’s description of the syphilitic type, a reference to a sanctioned social (but also icono- graphic) coding of the disease. The involuntariness of his interpretation, visible in his assertion that “we cannot but recognise that we are dealing with such features as those which characterise syphilis,” betrays an assumption as to the existence of an easily identifiable physiognomy of the disease. At the same time, it shifts the attention from the physical constitution to the act of interpretation: Galton “cannot but recognise.” Like Hutchinson (see Chapter 3), he also builds his authority on his interpretative abilities. Yet the early response to his work undermines his powers of recognition. Galton’s description of Jewish types, which he considered the utmost achievement of his technique and best examples of composite portraiture, was criticized shortly after his presentation by the Oxford scholar of Hebrew scripts Dr Adolf Neubauer, who, as Maxwell relates, doubted the existence of any physiological differences due to inbreeding and pointed out that, if there were any apparent differences at all that would distinguish Jewish people across Europe, it would be the stigma of oppression they suffered and internalized (2008: 89-92). The characteristics allegedly apparent in Galton’s photographs were demonstrably counterfeit and disturbingly close to pervasive racial stereotypes (Maxwell 2008: 89-92). What is more, Galton’s emphasis on the “cold, scanning gaze” (qtd. in Maxwell 2008: 88) as a typical sign of racial difference exposed his culturally biased exegesis. As Maxwell rightly notices, it was “a figment of his imagination” since most of the photographed boys have “a thoroughly benign expression and appear to be in a pleasantly reflective mood” (88). Here, as in his description of syphilitic types, the stereotype metamorphoses into a social type as Galton engages in a sort of circular argumentation: a tautological reasoning that aims to prove what it assumes to be right from the start (Lalvani 1996: 126).

The composite portrait of the syphilitic instantiates the problematic character of Galton’s typological accuracy. The apparently unbending belief in the existence of syphilitic types and their scientific incarnation in Fig. 4.1 is undermined by the overall failure of the eugenist to provide a conclusive characterization of consumptive physiognomy. What is more, the iconotext that evidences and illustrates his argument dismantles the certainty of his identification and undermines its decisiveness, which substantiates Vrettos’s aforementioned contention as to Victorian culture’s inability to “tell a coherent story of itself” (1995: 11). The scientific, iconotextual body becomes the site of this incoherence and discontinuity. The qualification of the phthisical type as syphilitic is problematized by the insertion of a question mark into the caption preceding the series of photographs: “Fig. 32 [... ] (Strumu, syphilis (?)).” Nowhere else do Galton and his colleague Mohamed so visibly mark the uncertainty of their findings. Here, a hasty addition of a bracketed question - like an insidious thought which does not disappear despite their best efforts - references a broader query: were dark-haired, dark-eyed women the epitome of the disease? Were they predisposed to prostitution? Was this portrayal at all valid? The iconotext questions its own validity as it defers meaning in the signal of authoritative uncertainty.

Irrespective of this iconotextual equivocation, one could see here a tentative link between syphilis and modern economy. Galton’s specific mode of syphilis production (and reading), premised on the scientific imbrication of syphilis and tuberculosis, marks a complication of syphilis symbolism, which is now used to reference not the narrow field of sexuality but the extensive grounds of capitalism. Rather than a refinement of the symbolic function of syphilis, the coupling of both diseases brings its expansion. Acknowledging the potency of both diseases to keep a powerful grip on the Victorian political and cultural imagination, Victorian literary scholar Katherine Byrne (2011), like Susan Sontag, emphasizes the wider metaphorical potency of tuberculosis due to its unknown aetiology. Merged with tuberculosis, then, syphilis acquires its multivalent characteristics, of which the relation to capitalism is the most important. Already in the eighteenth century, tuberculosis began to be allied with consumerism as it became “semiotically associated with the compulsive desire to purchase and possess commodities” (Byrne 2011: 46). This rapport was soon complicated and tuberculosis began to function as a metaphor both of the capitalist principle of insatiable consumption and of its dangers leading to “economic entropy” (Porter 1993: 59): both a product of and a threat to the capitalist system (Byrne 2011: 59). Mid-Victorian literature stressed this complexity by overdrawing the circularity of these connections:

if industrialism and capitalism, as consequence of their inherent pathogenicity, produce tuberculosis, and tuberculosis interrupts and undermines the system, then society is, of course, the agent of its own destruction. Its desire to produce and consume despite the physical cost to the masses, and the moral and psychological cost to the upper classes [... ] results in society’s own consumption by disease. (Byrne 2011: 60)

By extension, through the fusion of both diseases, Galton uses syphilis as another potent metaphor for the principles and perils of modern economy. In the image of pathological femininity, “the conspicuous consumptive” - as “the agent of conspicuous consumption” (Duffin 1978: 26) - becomes syphilitic.

This fusion of the two most poignant diseases of the nineteenth century testifies to the expansion of discourses around syphilis: whereas the focus continues to rest on the feminization of the disease, the significance of this gendering, like syphilis’ other faces - the prostitute and the Jew - implies the cultural amalgamation of the disease with the principles and crises of capitalism. The imagery sustains, but also complicates, syphilis iconography. In Galton’s experimental methodology, the uncanny re-emergence of stereotypical differentiation resurfaces in the mechanics of technologized empiricism as an articulation of desired reality. Composite photography becomes a case of mimicry: an ambivalent repetition that both appropriates reality and disavows it. In this context, the syphilitic body, like a colonized body, is transformed into a sign of “bestiality, [... ] grotesquerie, which reveal[s] the phobic myth of the undifferentiated whole white body” (Bhabha 1984: 132-3).

The image of the syphilitic resurfaces as a visible sign of a desire for articulable otherness that coheres, even as it simultaneously undermines, hegemonic power and dominant knowledge. In the cross-fertilization of criminology, anthropology, statistics, social sciences and reformist campaigns, the female body, or, more precisely, the prostitute’s body constantly returns as a prime site of syphilis. Most directly, such categorization facilitates socio-political decisions that aim to preserve existing hierarchies and de-emphasize other possible sites of contagion, which are more difficult to regulate, both politically and economically. At the same time, however, the frequency of this crossfield identification signals a degree of uncertainty and vulnerability to the threat posed by syphilis.

 
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