Body Boundary Object
My paper explores how children’s bodies, or particular body parts, became ‘boundary objects’ in the epistemological battles about the meanings of childhood and child health which were fought by pioneering medical doctors, literary writers, parents, journalists, radical mesmerists, philanthropists and many other groups at the middle of the nineteenth century. Boundary objects, a concept that was originally developed in sociological debates, can take material or abstract form as they travel between different communities of practice. They are invested with discrete local meanings in the context of each of these communities, but they also carry generally recognizable meanings which enable them to function as a means of communication and, sometimes, mediation across different social and professional groups. I propose that representations of the bodies of child patients and their fictional counterparts can be understood as boundary objects, and that tracing their circulation within and across different communities of practice can help us understand transactions between literary and popular scientific cultures during this formative period in the history of childhood.
I focus in particular on reciprocal exchanges between the writings and public causes of Charles Dickens on the one hand, and slowly emerging scientific fields, such as paediatrics and mesmerism, on the other. Dickens’s engagement with novel medical and scientific conceptions of the child, and with disputes over scientific credit and prestige, shaped the development of his narrative techniques and aesthetic imagination. In turn, some of Dickens’s contemporaries discovered in his child characters a version of childhood that was ready to be inscribed by a wide range of medical and scientific projects. The foundation of new medical institutions, such as the first British hospital for sick children, and the success of new scientific forms of inquiry, such as mesmerism, depended on the – often fraught – collaboration of different social and professional groups. In these debates, I argue, Dickensian motifs and child characters emerged as crucial boundary objects that were used by doctors, philanthropists, journalists and many others to articulate their contrasting visions of childhood and child health, to negotiate compromises and stake out common ground, and to campaign for funds in the wider community.
A Head for Knowledge: Archaeology, Anthropology and Body Parts in Victorian Museums
For much of the Victorian period, the leading paradigm for understanding the significance of disarticulated bodies was anatomical – the body was a biological entity whose proper and improper functioning could be understood by taking it to pieces and examining it. However, the development of human sciences towards the end of the period led to another way of thinking about what disarticulated bodies could reveal. This paper will examine the circulation and collection of heads and skulls from archaeological and anthropological sources, and show how such bodily objects came to be seen as indices for the culture of the source people, not just for the anatomy of the individual. In reading heads and skulls for the signs of culture, late Victorian scholars asserted that bodies, both whole and in bits, which came from the past or from distant places, were able to carry meaning beyond the fact of their biology; and different features of such bodily objects were, accordingly, sought out and analysed. Moreover, as archaeology and anthropology were still open and partly amateur disciplines, these readings of body parts were undertaken by a relatively wide group of people in Britain. By the very end of the Victorian period, because of their ability to combine biological and cultural meanings, skulls and other archaeological and anthropological body parts became important evidence in the growing science of race.
Organs of Imitation:Theatrical Body Parts and Scientific Psychology
In the early 1800s, Franz Joseph Gall argued that there lay towards the front of the head an organ of imitation. Upon inspecting the bulges and depressions in the skull of an imprisoned thief in Berlin, the phrenologist announced ‘if this man had ever been near a theatre he would, in all probability, have turned actor’. The astonished prisoner immediately confessed that his crime was having ‘personated a police officer to extort money.’
By the end of the nineteenth century, the idea that there might be an organic basis for compulsive copying – for our urge to mimic each other’s gestures and voices, to catch yawns, return smiles and duck when another is about to be punched – had become a key topic in psychological research. In this period, psychology was emerging as a recognizably modern science, yet theatre continued to play an important role understanding how bodily gestures and feelings were transmitted. From observing their own mirror responses whilst watching circus strongmen, to becoming emotional performers before audiences of babies, this paper explores how psychologists were increasingly drawn to theatrical spaces and practices. In turn, it argues that the notion of an inherently theatrical body found its way into the scientific literature, becoming a repository for the wider anxieties about agency, authenticity and resilience that compulsive copying implied.
The Surgically Sartorial: Cutting it Fine among Wasp-Waisted Men
Victorian culture demonstrated a fierce anorexic logic: it placed more emphasis on (in)corporeal discipline, compulsive (non)consumption, and (dis)embodied panopticism than ever before. However, with fleshly embodiment and dis-embodiment being stereotypical female concerns, we often forget to ask about the fat-phobic ‘discorportation’ of men. Using a variety of fiction, fashion journals and a small selection of medical treatises, this paper will examine how man’s externally perceptible midriff and gastrointestinal stomach were to become contentious sites of the body. Fusing the Victorian physician’s surgo-medical propensity to cut and trim adipose flesh with a sartorially-crafted rendition of such body sculpting, it will thrust both the protuberant abdomen and the male ‘wasp waist’ into the critical spotlight.
Through its examination of the era’s amateur forms of ‘lipo-surgery,’ this paper will begin by revealing how the distended stomachs of the epoch’s men were sadistically scaled-down and surgically probed. Moving from the clinical realm of invasive surgery to the commercial world of corsetry, it will then analyse the somatic impact surrounding the tight-lacer’s own body-truncating endeavours. In its critical observations of the overweight male who threatened to burst apart at the seams, this paper will essentially explore how squeezing his stomach into a corset and probing his paunch with a knife could become alternate means of corporealising and de-corporealisating the central abdominal cavity of the Victorian Male.
Erect Victorians: The Anxious Masculinity of the 19th-Century ‘Diphallic’ Terata
Teratology, the now antiquated name for the study of congenital birth defects, was a subject of intense interest throughout the nineteenth century, with teratological reports peppering most major medical journals. In some respects, it could be argued that nowhere else in medical discourse were the individual ‘parts’ of the Victorian body subjected to a more obsessive fascination. Inspired by an unrelenting desire to categorise and understand the nature of what was then termed ‘human monstrosity’, teratological narratives often compounded their physical examination or dissection with a subsequent verbal dismemberment of the individual who was the focus of their study. And in a medical trajectory so interested in, and unnerved by, the parts of the body, one of the most anxiety-inducing body parts that confronted teratologists was the penis. By examining reports and studies of diphallic individuals from the second-half of the nineteenth century in light of their literary disarticulation, this paper proposes to discuss the role of the penis in constructions – or de-constructions – of masculinity in these medical narratives.
From tales of the lascivious character of ‘the most celebrated of all the diphallic terata’, Jean Baptista dos Santos, to the emasculation of diphallic individuals by J. W. Ballantyne and A. A. Scot Skirving, the paper will consider the different ways in which the conflation of the diphallic penis with masculine identity, revealing anxieties regarding masculinity and sexual desire as they fluctuate throughout the latter-half of the century. Engaging with discussions of Victorian masculinity centred on the figure of the upstanding middle-class gentleman, the paradoxical medical constructions of diphallic masculinity as both hypervirile and inherently impotent will be explored, with attention to historical and cultural context. Building from Elizabeth Stephens’ ‘The Spectacularized Penis: Contemporary Representations of the Phallic Male Body’ (2007), this paper will probe the fraught relationship between the body part itself (the penis) and the masculine ideal (the phallus) through the figurative – and occasionally literal – image of ‘the third leg’.
Turn-of-the-century bodybuilder Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) was one of the most photographed men of his day, and his image was widely circulated through physical culture books, popular films, magazine illustrations, and hundreds of photographic souvenir cards. In collaboration with photographers, filmmakers, and sculptors, Sandow’s body was broadly distributed to an image-hungry
public that was also increasingly anxious about masculinity and modernity, cultivating bodily awareness and interest in muscularity. Commonly known as the “Perfect Man,” Sandow deftly manipulated the latest technologies to disseminate images of his body in two and three dimensions: while Sandow himself went on several international tours, copies of his body—and especially fragments featuring his flexed bicep—also circulated the globe as life-size photographs and plaster casts, inviting viewers near and far to compare their bodies to the strongman’s. The bodybuilder developed a popular exercise program that featured the use of his patented, eponymous dumb-bells; followers were encouraged to measure their body parts before and after exercise to track their progress, teaching them, in the process, to isolate their own limbs. Sandow’s devotees decorated
their gymnasia and domestic interiors with images of the bodybuilder, framing his photographs or displaying the plaster cast of his arm, mounted on a plush shield.
The firm of Brucciani & Company, who had furnished the Cast Court of the Victoria and Albert Museum with reproductions of sculptural masterpieces, produced the life cast of Sandow by preparing moulds of sections of his body over the course of several months. Photographs of this process were later distributed, demonstrating the painstaking division of his body into discrete
segments. Across media of film, sculpture, and photography, Sandow contorted and displayed his body, in parts and wholes, to create projects that expose the tensions between motion and stillness,
animation and petrification, integration and fragmentation, life and death.
Laughable Limbs: Comic Dismemberment in Early Cinema, 1895 1910
In the years immediately following the invention of the cinematograph, commercial filmmakers depicted bodies which were delightfully malleable, absurdly elastic and playfully transformative. In 1900, the Lubin Manufacturing Company produced the 42-second short Beheading a Chinese Prisoner, a fictional re-staging of a military execution based on news reports of the Boxer Rebellion. The French filmmaker Georges Méliès, drawing on his own repertoire of magic-show stage-tricks returned again and again to the theme of dismemberment, and a number of other prominent filmmakers, including Edison, Vitagraph and Pathé-Frères shared this preoccupation with bodily disintegration. How might we account for early cinema’s fascination with somatic disassembly, and for its predominantly comic tone?
This paper will explore a number of early films made around the turn of the twentieth century in France, Britain and the US which feature (in)destructible bodies. Crushed, penetrated, flattened, dismembered or fragmented, they are consistently divested of corporeal integrity, only to be facilely re-assembled and restored. Drawing on late nineteenth-century developments in medicine, travel and technology, I will focus in particular on a cluster of ‘comic accident’ films produced between 1895 and 1906 which stage collisions between pedestrians and new modes of transportation. In the late nineteenth century, the human body was exposed to an expanding range of external stimuli which challenged its ontological and physical primacy. The resultant perceptual shifts, I argue, found natural expression in the new technology of the ‘moving pictures’. The comic dismemberment of these screened bodies has its counterpart in cinema’s creation of a representative whole (the ‘film’) from a series of parts (the still images of individual frames). What these films ultimately offer is a jocund celebration of the vitality of the human body, as well as cinema’s capacity for fantastical reconfiguration of it.
“I take myne owne”: The Hysteric, The Collector and Anatomical Autonomy in Richard Marsh’s ‘Lady Wishaw’s Hand’ (1895)
Horror writers of the fin-de-siècle often engaged with cultural anxieties concerning the rebellious and unruly potential of the body. The 1890s saw a profusion of Gothic tales that manifested this through fragmenting the body and investing its various dismemberments with a life of their own. Richard Marsh’s unsettling 1895 story ‘Lady Wishaw’s Hand’ is a particularly innovative example of this trend. Mr. Pugh, a collector of ‘curios’, unexpectedly receives a rather macabre legacy: the severed, yet miraculously preserved, hand of Lady Wishaw. The hand proceeds to terrorise him: directly through, what I characterise as, diverse forms of ‘inappropriate grabbing’ and indirectly through an apparent ability to telekinetically control Pugh’s body (e.g. making his throat muscles involuntarily contract).
This paper addresses Marsh’s story in relation to that seemingly ubiquitous late-19th century malady, hysteria. Victorian cultural anxieties about the misbehaving body and medical discourses around this illness were in many way mutually informing. Hysteria had always been marked by an anatomical autonomy in which body parts appeared to act outside the control of the self. In it, as Freud identified, ‘the body speaks’. The hysterical body tells of repressed desire; desire that resists being worded and only finds expression through the twitching leg, the constricted throat, the wandering hand.
This threat of bodily revolt is contrasted in Marsh’s story with an impulse for control associated with collecting: control over objects but also, and by extension, over oneself (particularly, with anatomical collecting, one’s body). As Bill Brown, quoting William James, states: ‘collections “become… parts of our empirical selves”‘. Once Pugh takes possession of Lady Wishaw’s hand it becomes not only part of his collection’s corpus, but also a physical appendage to Pugh’s body. It disrupts, this paper argues, control of both through replicating hysterical structures of being; through employing (we could say performing) hysterical discursive practices.
This paper explores relationships between hysteria and collecting, as they are presented in Marsh’s story, by interrogating the role of desire (as both compulsion and disruption). In doing this I draw upon recent theoretical work on both (e.g. Brown and psychoanalysts André Green and Christopher Bollas). Ultimately, this paper engages with key questions, raised by Marsh’s story, concerning the nature of control (over the self, over the body) and late-19th century responses, pathological or otherwise, to bodily disorder.
The Case of the Artificial Hand: Considering Disability, Prosthesis and the Motif of the Hand in the Nineteenth Century
The case study of a nineteenth-century nobleman’s daughter who required a ‘natural feeling’ prosthetic hand forms the basis of this paper’s consideration of the societal and literary connotations of disability, femininity, and the hand. Recounted by surgeon Henry Heather Bigg in his Artificial limbs and the amputations which afford the most appropriate stumps in civil and military surgery (1885), the removed medical approach provides a new perspective from which to consider these themes. Arising from this case study is the question of gendered and class-based reactions to disabled bodies. This anonymous woman’s prosthetic is one that must above all restore naturalness, while the artificial limbs created for male or working-class individuals within Bigg’s text are described as being practical and functional above all else. The primary function of the artificial hand in question was to hide disability so that the lady might take her rightful ‘position in society’. This raises issues surrounding the eroticization of the female hand during the nineteenth century, stemming from its aesthetic and socially-dictated attributes. From this, questions of artificiality, deception and the uncanny arise, which feed into the gothic trope of the ‘hand of death’ that is specifically invoked by Bigg. By tracing the imagery associated with ghostly hands and mortmain through novels and short stories of the nineteenth century, the points at which medical and imaginative discourses intertwine are explored. In Artificial Limbs Bigg emphasises the success of the prosthetic from a medical perspective, failing to document the resultant impact on the young woman’s life. Thus, the physical disabled body is pushed to the peripheries of the text, allowing textual referents room to proliferate and cross-disciplinary connections to be made.
“Down Came the Limb with a Frightful Smash”: Prosthesis as Weapon in Nineteenth-Century Literature
The nineteenth century witnessed significant development in both the design and distribution of prosthetic devices. Despite these improvements, however, contemporary cultural and literary representations of human prosthesis often tend to exhibit scorn or mock false body parts. Many texts demonstrate a preference for primitive prosthetic devices, such as peg legs, rather than newer varieties of prosthesis, such as Benjamin Franklin Palmer’s lighter and more flexible artificial legs, which became increasingly well-advertised as the century progressed. In these instances the inability of the prosthetic to mimic the appearance and function of a lost body part is often lamented. In other cases we see false limbs that are worryingly sophisticated—so much so that the devices seem to possess a will of their own. As this conference paper reveals, a surprising yet prevalent trope in these literary representations of prosthesis is the portrayal of the artificial body part as a form of weapon. In three texts, Thomas Hood’s 1840 narrative poem “Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg”, Henry Clay Lewis’s 1850 short story “The Indefatigable Bear Hunter”, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1890 Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four, lower-limb prostheses are used by morally dubious characters as deadly weapons. On the one hand, these representations seem to represent the false leg as a device that is capable of extending the abilities of its user; on the other hand, they underscore the otherness of the artificial body part. As I argue, these representations display an anxiety towards the non-human limb, which, in these fictional tales, is so rudimentary in its design that it is better suited as a club than it is as a functional replacement for a leg. These stories are explicitly concerned about the non-human aspect of prosthetic devices.
Wiggery Pokery: Touching Dickens’s Hair
When Dickens visited America in 1842, his experience was roughly akin to that to the Beatles 122 years later. He wearily describes in his letters the endless crowds of people looking at him and commenting upon his appearance wherever he goes; indeed, when he first disembarks from the steam boat in New York he is surrounded by a crowd of excited fans who tear pieces from his coat as souvenirs. One of the most unusual aspects of this fanatical interest in the writer’s body, however, is the attention that was paid to Dickens’s hair during this visit. Whilst one newspaper commented disappointedly that Dickens’s hair was not as ‘fine’ as it had appeared in pictures, undeterred fans nevertheless repeatedly wrote to request that he sent them locks, and he confessed to his brother that he was afraid to have his hair cut ‘lest the barber should clip it all off for presents’. As critics such as Elizabeth Grosz and Marcia Pointon have commented, hair is a uniquely ‘magical’ kind of body part: its ability to be both unique and ubiquitous, to be specific to a single body and yet easily separated from that body, and to be managed and manoeuvred into new forms, all point to its inherent strangeness and instability. In this paper I will consider Dickens’s imaginative interest in hair’s specifically separable, peripatetic quality, from the wonky wig of Mr Finching’s aunt, to the single hair that haunts Bill Sikes following his murder of Nancy, to Dickens’s own concern that his hair will fall into the hands of unknown admirers. In this seemingly autonomous propensity to become ‘out of place’ and move between bodies, I will argue that separated hair provides Dickens with a crucial means of thinking through tensions between real and unreal, natural and artificial, and inner and outer, and of investigating the intensely communal and communicative nature of the human body.