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

The Geopolitics of Representation

The geopolitical practices addressing syphilis transmission ranged from the ideologically-laden spatial rhetoric of various groups through a transmedia and trans-discursive preoccupation with mobility, distance and proximity, to the tensions between the conceived, perceived and lived spaces of (in)visibility. Despite their diversity and divergent aims and functions, all of these mappings had the production of difference at their core. Medical geographies of syphilis, although they ultimately failed to offer a concrete map of the disease, found - in their tentative, corporeal-geography of the world - a valuable rhetorical tool. Their spatial propaganda was supportive in redirecting the concerns of venereal prophylaxis from grand-scale schemes to individual behaviour. With the multiplication of potential syphilis sites and with the emphasis on the perils of inter-human exchange, the prevention of syphilis became a matter of civic duty (Pietrzak-Franger 2017). This notwithstanding, the mappings of syphilis were crucial in sustaining the existing differences of race, class and wealth. They were powerful spatial representations of otherness that articulated, in the tension between proximity and distance, a number of socio-political anxieties.

Mobility and proximity also underpinned governmental policies pertaining to venereal prophylaxis in the army (and the navy) as well as padding the repealers’ rhetoric. While the prostitute’s body took central stage in these discussions, the soldier’s body was unanimously regarded as an ambiguous inter-space that needed constant fortification. Such a conceptualization, which highlighted this body’s permeability, brought in its wake an array of geopolitical and corporeal practices which aimed at ‘containing’ the potential contagiousness of the soldier’s surroundings as well as of the soldier himself. The production of cordons sanitaires in the colonies, a growing insistence on physical exercise and continued attempts to arrest the progress of the infected soldiers returning to Britain testify to the ambiguous status of soldiers’ bodies and to their potentially contagious character. The power of various representational practices and the mobility of the soldiers were influential in sanctioning the schemes of health and welfare provision. They were also crucial in inculcating middle-class values in the army regimes.

The latter were also an integral part of the spatio-geographical policies addressing the female civilian population. Voluntary and garrison lock hospitals - as sites of particular visibility - offered complicated lived geographies of confinement, treatment and rehabilitation. Marginalized and neglected, they also provided potent arenas for the negotiation of welfare provision and provided a stage for the active performance of civil rights at a time when “corporate national efficiency” was replacing the idea of civic freedom in the self-perception of the state (Colls 1987: 30). These lived spaces simultaneously perpetuated and subverted ideals of middle- class identity.

These three types of mapping - medical geographies of syphilis, the spatial conceptualizations of soldiers’ mobility and the lived sites of syphilis intensification - not only produced varying geographies of difference but also demonstrated, in their failure to provide a foundation for sound prophylactic measures, their own ideological and practical problems. They questioned the efficiency of existing preventive schemes at a time of major socio-cultural and medical transformations. In their shift from grand-scale tendencies to local initiatives and partial solutions, accompanied by a growing insistence on civil responsibilities, they relocated the blame for the spread of syphilis, thus renouncing their own accountability as a key factor in the fight against the disease. This shift towards civic duties is discussed in Chapter 6, which looks at the modes in which the figures of the syphilitic child and the syphilitic insane were used in discussions concerning the future of the British nation and the British Empire.

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