Geographies in Flux: Space, Syphilis and Soldiers’ Mobility

Apart from being a concern of syphilis specialists, the actual and imaginary geography of syphilis was of interest to military and tropical medicine, the regulationist circles and the abolitionists. Scholars have pointed out the importance of “geographical imagination” to the imperial politics and its regulation of sexuality and to public health reforms (Phillips 2006: 5).8 Putting in place - ordering - was inexorably associated with health and regarded as a chief characteristic of the imperial rule.9 It involved the practices of “place-making,” of turning specific spaces into “sites of confinement and incarceration” (Bashford and Strange 2003: 10). Exclusion and isolation were also traditional means in the prevention of contagion, applied with particular stringency at the turn of the century (7). “[C]onfinement-as-prevention” was instrumental in insulating the allegedly dangerous element and in securing the health of society (6). It was, as has abundantly been made clear, also the only grand-scale means in the prevention of syphilis, with its most problematic realization in the CD Acts. Spaces delineated in the course of such prophylactic attempts were not a simple background for the implementation of various isolationist measures. They were complex, interrelated sites of social exchange.

Spaces of syphilis visibility were inherently material, social and discursive in character. Their multifacetedness can be highlighted with the help of Henri Lefebvre’s trialectics of spatiality, further developed by Edward Soja. Lefebvre distinguishes between “conceived space,” for example, the space evoked by planners or scientists; “perceived space” or “spatial practice,” which refers to the social production of space and which comprises material, empirical spaces that can be measured and described; and, finally, “lived space,” which both incorporates the previous two and is different from them: a space of representation and symbolism, a potentially politically viable space of resistance (Soja 2010: 66-8). Post-Foucauldian thinkers have also considered space as a relation between a variety of such sites which are “defined by relations of proximity” as they constitute a grid of intertwined points and elements (156).

Two of such interrelated sites - colonies and military hospitals in Britain - constitute an exemplary imperial space of (in)visibility, which can be regarded in terms of heterotopias or “counter-sites” (Foucault 1986: 24) that make visible and indicate the values of the cultures that have created them. Envisaged in terms of thresholds (and trespasses), these sites were highly dangerous contact zones. Interlinked by military activities, they were also conceptualized as spaces of confinement and neutralization of the danger that was associated with soldiers’ disreputable behaviour. Regarded as unruly sites of infection, soldiers’ bodies were targeted by various practices of governmentality, which, however, had to be tailored to and comply with the popular imagery of the British army. A comparison of the aforementioned sites and soldiers’ bodies shows that both were regarded as health hazards to the whole nation. Irrespective of their political alliance, the major discourses addressing the future of the nation with respect to the health of the army prescribed a degree of spatial isolation both of the infected soldiers and prostitutes, even though the latter clearly remained their main target.

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