Raw Material: Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture

Raw Material: Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture

by Erin O'Connor

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Raw Material: Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture by Erin O'Connor

Raw Material analyzes how Victorians used the pathology of disease to express deep-seated anxieties about a rapidly industrializing England’s relationship to the material world. Drawing on medicine, literature, political economy, sociology, anthropology, and popular advertising, Erin O’Connor explores “the industrial logic of disease,” the dynamic that coupled pathology and production in Victorian thinking about cultural processes in general, and about disease in particular.
O’Connor focuses on how four particularly troubling physical conditions were represented in a variety of literature. She begins by exploring how Asiatic cholera, which reached epidemic proportions on four separate occasions between 1832 and 1865, was thought to represent the dangers of cultural contamination and dissolution. The next two chapters concentrate on the problems breast cancer and amputation posed for understanding gender. After discussing how breast cancer was believed to be caused by the female body’s intolerance to urban life, O'Connor turns to men’s bodies, examining how new prosthetic technology allowed dismembered soldiers and industrial workers to reconstruct themselves as productive members of society. The final chapter explores how freak shows displayed gross deformity as the stuff of a new and improved individuality. Complicating an understanding of the Victorian body as both a stable and stabilizing structure, she elaborates how Victorians used disease as a messy, often strategically unintelligible way of articulating the uncertainties of chaotic change. Over the course of the century, O’Connor shows, the disfiguring process of disease became a way of symbolically transfiguring the self. While cholera, cancer, limb loss, and deformity incapacitated and even killed people, their dramatic symptoms provided opportunities for imaginatively adapting to a world where it was increasingly difficult to determine not only what it meant to be human but also what it meant to be alive.
Raw Material will interest an audience of students and scholars of Victorian literature, cultural history, and the history of medicine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397762
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Series: Body, commodity, text
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Erin O’Connor is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt

Raw Material

Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture

By Erin O'Connor

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9776-2


Asiatic Cholera and the Raw Material of Race

This is the story of Asiatic cholera, as told by John A. Benson's 1893 treatise on the subject:

Up from the dark Plutonian caverns of Erebus, up from the clouded Stygian valley, up from the depths of hell, in the early part of this century, arose the Goddess of Filth, and she wandered around over the face of the globe, seeking for a home to her liking. And coming to the delta of the Ganges, in this low, insalubrious and festering locality, where so many noxious and noisome diseases are generated, and where so many epidemics have arisen and so often swept over the earth with most fatal and desolating effects,—here she met, one dark and stifling night, with gaunt Despair. And surrounding her with his bony arms, Despair threw her on the foul, dark and slimy ground, and had his will of her. And when the day of her reckoning was reached, here in the neighborhood of Jessore—a town in the center of the delta—in agony and in shame and in desolation, Filth gave birth to the monstrosity yclept,—Asiatic cholera. And here she nurtured and fed him, here in this vast pest-house where every conceivable vegetable and animal substance is left upon the soil to rot in the heat and dews of a tropical climate,—here Filth fed her offspring from her own breasts, and as he grew and waxed strong, and his tusks and teethappeared so that he would chew and tear her dugs, she longed to wean him, and one day as he ferociously fastened himself upon her, she cast him away on the mud, and as his mouth was forcibly torn from the dug, some of her foul milk was scattered around, and falling into the water of the Ganges, as drops, was at once coagulated by the water, and became—the Spirilla Cholerae Asiaticae. (25)

In this epic invocation of the disease, Benson imagines the genesis of Asiatic cholera on the polluted banks of the Ganges as the result of a brutal environmental rape. The unwanted product of a hellish environment, the bastard child of "Filth" and "Despair," Asiatic cholera's is the case history of a criminal type. Describing an eerily Oedipal drama of epidemic, Benson envisions a psychology of infection in which the virulence of the disease results from being prematurely torn from the nurturing breast. Cholera, filled with anger at his mother, develops a kind of contagious character flaw, an unhealthy need to spread his devastation around. Born in 1817 in the Indian town of Jessore (about a hundred miles from Calcutta), cholera matured over the course of the 1820s into a marauder of "malignant character" (Jameson 167), an incompetent military commander whose circuitous route across Europe betrayed the backwardness of the world from which it came: "We never thought cholera would be so bad a general, with the example of Napoleon before his eyes, as to penetrate into the north of Europe, where, as we believed, like his great prototype, his force would be destroyed by frost and snow" ("The Contagious Character of Cholera" 123). Cruel and confused, a "monster" (Jameson 165) "truly of a protean nature" (Jameson 103), cholera's violence was all the more frightening for being totally unpredictable—"so diversified in its phases, so erratic in its general character, that it must be treated in its individuality" (Jameson 239), "choleraic perniciousness" was consistent only insofar as it habitually expressed itself in "deadly assaults" (Jameson 167) on the poor inhabitants of European cities.

Asiatic cholera took shape in the Victorian imagination as an Oriental raider, a barbaric force whose progress westward exposed the weak spots of an expanding industrial culture. According to the Canadian physician and health commissioner Robert Nelson, for example, Asiatic cholera is the most distinctive event of the nineteenth century:

The 19th century is remarkable for the great events that have taken place since its commencement, and a short time previously. In it the knowledge of steam, its powers, the means of controlling it, its uses as a substitute for bodily and manual labor, and its complete obedience to the hand of man, have been perfected.

Chemistry, already in its infancy, has become an exact science.

Electricity and magnetism have advanced from being mere toys to a grade of highest utility. Geology has disinterred the long buried almanac of the globe, brought clearly into light the reign of extinct creations, overwhelmed and hidden since millions of years have passed away. These are only a few of the remarkable occurrences; but the one which distinguishes this century more than all others of which history makes mention, in relation to man, is the stupendous plague called Cholera. Stupendous from its widespread malignancy over every continent; stupendous from the millions of victims it has swallowed; stupendous from the rapidity of its spread; stupendous from the few brief moments of life it allows to those it attacks: apparently capricious in its selections, it has desolated some places, spared others; terrified nations, arrested the march of armies, and baffled the efforts of man to arrest its empire. (13-14)

For Nelson, the most characteristic event of a century of progress is the emergence of an Oriental force capable of overthrowing the Western world; what symbolizes the industrial revolution more than any one technological event is the violent colonization of the West by an Eastern disease that is itself immune to the controlling powers of scientific modernity. Imagining cholera as a kind of military invader, an infectious imperialist who not only destroyed lives but also dismantled the terms on which the West understood itself, Victorian physicians and social critics used the epidemic disease as a means of questioning how the West was securing its own global economic power.

Infecting all the filthiest spots of Europe and America, Asiatic cholera found a particularly hospitable home in the English slum, where it thrived amid the distinctive dirt of British streets. The great paradox of cholera was, indeed, its terrible power over the country that so thoroughly dominated its place of origin. An upstart Eastern infection that ought never to have come as far as it did, Asiatic cholera exposed the frailties of England's urban industrial structure, ravaging it on four separate occasions in as many decades. Cholera first showed itself on English shores in the shipping town of Sunderland in the fall of 1831, and over the next few months spread to Scodand, Manchester, the Midlands, and London. That outbreak killed around half of its victims, leaving 32,000 English subjects dead and thousands more devastated, destitute, and weak. Cholera struck again in 1848-49, killing 62,000; in 1853-54, killing 20,000; and again in 1866-67, killing 14,000 (Wohl 118). Attacking the weak spots in the most powerful nation in the world with devastating accuracy and speed, cholera was seen as a sort of somatized social critique, a lethal disease whose pathological patterns provided a perfect map of the worst parts of England. Victorians developed an entire choleraic cartography, obsessively charting the course of the disease on global and local levels (figs. 1-3). A mystery to doctors and laymen alike, an exotic force that could neither be prevented nor cured and that killed with a speed and violence that was frightening to behold, it was a fitting figure for a culture that was ceasing to know itself, an inscrutable force from beyond that relentiessly exposed the underside of industrial development.

England's cholera years bracketed the period of deep uneasiness and ethical uncertainty that marked the early industrial decades of the Victorian period. The years from 1831 to 1866 saw dramatic changes—the rise of the mass market and the beginning of the free trade era; the extension of the franchise to all propertied white men with the Reform Bill of 1832; the creation of a state-sponsored, punitive system of poor relief with the New Poor Law of 1834; the passage of a series of factory acts geared toward improving working conditions; and the birth of the public health movement (following the investigations of such men as James Phillips Kay, Edwin Chadwick, Thomas Southwood Smith, Neil Arnott, and William Farr, a centralized board of health was created in 1848). The population of cities tripled during the first half of the century, and modern transportation was born: tens of thousands of miles of railroad track were laid during the 1830s and 1840s, and in 1854 work on the London Underground began. Irish people immigrated to England, and English people emigrated to America by the thousands. A massive, politically aware urban underclass was formed; overseas markets were rapidly expanded; and after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the state assumed official control over India. Victorian writers capitalized on the historical convergence of economic growth and epidemic spread, using Asiatic cholera as a metonymy for the disruptive effects of social change. Over the course of the century, Asiatic cholera became a master trope for urban existence. Throughout Europe and North America, it was a figure for and function of the deep uncertainty of modern culture. Periodicals, newspapers, and broadsides pictured cholera everywhere: as a giant ravaging war-torn Europe, a vagabond walking the streets of revolutionary Paris, even as a half-rotten corpse en route to America. The popular press showed a screeching miasmatic cholera wafting through the air on waves of stench, and a magnified microbial cholera riding around on the backs of men, 125,000 times larger than life. A skeletal cholera pumped contaminated water for the poor, gave dinners for the damned, and even traveled to Spain, where it posed as a toreador taunting death itself. Capable of assuming any form and dictating any number of meanings, cholera was a metaphor for it all, an absolutely embodied figure for the exigencies of existence in the age of capital. Linked in the popular imagination to such pervasive social problems as immigration, poverty, poor sanitation, and revolution, cholera was synonymous with the modern condition; it was everywhere and everything at once.

But for all its worldly ways, cholera reigned supreme in England. As an 1852 Punch cartoon called "A Court for King Cholera" (fig. 4) indicates, cholera was the lord of English slums, and England was cholera's home away from home. From 1832 on, Asiatic cholera came to function as a kind of master referent in the Condition of England debate, a means of articulating concerns about the effect of the industrial revolution on the English self. Victorian writers continually coupled Asiatic cholera with the problems of urban culture in order to develop a thoroughgoing critique of the contemporary urban scene. Noting that cholera typically settled in slums—it was a disease "of a vagrant character" (quoted in Jameson 54) that had, "in his rambles," a "preference for mud and mire, and crowded houses, and low places" (Jameson 277)—nineteenth-century writers used the suggestive patterns of cholera's spread as the material of social critique, developing an entire narrative of corporeal conquest to signal the precariousness of national identity under capitalism. In the absence of satisfying scientific explanations for the spread of disease, British writers, developed a poetics of contagion that juxtaposed invention and infection, progress and plague, industry and empire. In so doing, they combined anxieties about the condition of England into a socially resonant, powerfully evocative account of physical threat.


In his influential Treatise on Fever (1830), the physician Thomas South-wood Smith develops a vocabulary of contagious manufacture to link the fetid, close conditions of English slums to the deadly atmosphere of Africa. Setting epidemic, exoticism, and industry in dynamic relation to one another, Smith figures infectious disease as a foreign commodity that is beginning to be duplicated successfully by domestic modes of production: "The room of a fever patient, in a small and heated appartment [sic] of London, with no perflation of fresh air, is perfectly analogous to a stagnant pool in Ethiopia, full of the bodies of dead locusts. The poison generated in both cases is the same; the difference is merely in the degree of its potency. Nature, with her burning sun, her stilled and pent-up wind, her stagnant and teeming marsh, manufactures plague on a large and fearful scale: poverty in her hut, covered with her rags, surrounded with her filth, striving with all her might, to keep out the pure air, and to increase the heat, imitates nature but too successfully; the process and the product are the same" (324). In English cities as in Ethiopian swamps, plague is made, or "manufactured," as a matter of course: "the process and product are the same." In Nature, however, the catalytic combination of hot sun and stagnant marsh enables disease to be mass-produced "on a large and fearful scale," while in London fever is as yet a relatively small cottage industry, the piecemeal production of cramped, airless rooms. Imagining the ubiquitous problem of "fever" as a distinctly exotic byproduct of urban space, Smith positions the capacity to manufacture disease as a sign and a symptom of a particularly unfortunate industrial achievement: rather than importing plague, the English are making their own.

The notion that industrial England was manufacturing an environment uncannily akin to that of Smith's pathogenic African scene of "burning sun," "teeming marsh," and "stagnant pool" was a common one during the Victorian era. Exoticism provided a compelling metaphor for the effects of industrialism on the English environment, enabling commentators not only to emphasize how alien the urban landscape was, but also to align that apparent foreignness with filth and disease. According to an 1842 article in the Quarterly Review, for example, unsanitary conditions were effectively transforming parts of England into Africa, generating atmospheric poisons that in turn produced what appeared to be tropical disease: "It has been repeatedly observed that the family of a particular house has continued for years to be constantly afflicted with the very languor and fever described by every African traveler, which at last has been ascertained to have been caused by the introduction into the immediate neighbourhood of a couple of square feet of Sierra Leone, or, in plainer terms, by a grated untrapped gulley-drain, from which there has been constantly arising a putrid gas; and yet, instead of a few square feet, how many acres of Sierra Leone are, to our shame, existing at this moment in our metropolis in the shape of churchyards!" ("Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes" 422). By suggesting that urbanization produced living conditions that matched or even fell short of the "primitive" ones found abroad, comparisons such as this one worked to indicate that England, in consolidating its power as the strongest industrial nation in the world, was somehow ceasing to be English, that even as it was establishing imperial dominance over millions of exotic others, parts of it were becoming other to itself. Worried that the urban landscape was turning into "one of the strangest jumbles of artificial civilization and primeval barbarism which the world has ever beheld" (Kingsley, "The Water Supply of London" 124), social critics agreed that England was mass-producing a distinctly exotic squalor out of its own ill-disposed waste: as Fraser's put it in 1849, "The main difference is that we make our own swamps in England, and compensate for a hotter sun by fouler water, which water, let it not be forgotten, we drink" ("Cholera Gossip" 708; my emphasis).

From the moment of its arrival in England, Asiatic cholera was the primary figure in the Orientalist rhetoric of industrial filth. An Indian disease that flourished in English towns, Asiatic cholera materialized the figurative link that Smith and others made between exotic infection and urban conditions, providing palpable confirmation of the gross similarities between industrial and Oriental space. As Fraser's observed at the height of the 1849 outbreak, it was no mystery why cholera had sought out England a second time: "Let us not forget that the cholera of 1817, whatever may have been the history of its birth and parentage, had a swamp for its cradle, and poor Indian serfs, earning two pence halfpenny a day, broiling under a vertical sun, and living, doubtless, as poor workmen live in more favoured lands, after a very miserable and squalid fashion, for its first victims. If we had conned this lesson well in 1832, we should not have had to record so many thousand deaths in 1849. We should have recognized in every part of England worse swamps than those of Bengal, and more likely victims than the Pariahs of Jessore" ("Cholera Gossip" 706). Thriving in the grubbiest courts and feeding on the plentiful bodies of the poor, Asiatic cholera became the focal point of a degenerative narrative of urban transformation, powerfully suggesting that in some respects England had become more Indian than India itself. According to the Westminster Review in 1831, the English poor lived in worse conditions than Indians did: "In many respects no town which Cholera has yet visited, can furnish an easier conquest than our own metropolis. The hundreds of starving paupers who come to London for relief, and are compelled from want to herd together in much less cleanliness and comfort than the lowest orders of the native Indians, are ever predisposed to the invasion of such an epidemic" ("Spasmodic Cholera" 486).


Excerpted from Raw Material by Erin O'Connor. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

ONE/ Asiatic Cholera and the Raw Material of Race 21

TWO/ Breast Reductions 60

THREE/ Fractions of Men: Engendering Amputation 102

FOUR/ Monsters. Materials, Methods 148

AFTERWORD/ The Promises of Monsters, or, A Manifesto for Academic Futures 209

Notes 219

Works Cited 251

Index 267

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