Criticism 46.1 (2004) 71-102
[Access article in PDF]
Or, How Many Ways Can We Do the History of Sexuality?
An anthropological pamphlet from 1934 features a series of photographs and illustrations that had become common to the genre of "scientific" pictorial display in the early twentieth century: images of naked tribal women, transvestism, bearded women, Siamese twins, female homosexuality, and dwarfism, to name just a few. The pamphlet proclaims its "500 authentic racial-esoteric" images to be "after the originals from scientific explorations, field studies and museum archives" and has as its aim the documenting of "racial peculiarities," "fetishism," "aberrations and perversions," "freaks and other abnormalities," along with "the erotic life of savage and civilized races of mankind" (see figs. 1 and 2). By the time of this pamphlet's appearance, the publication in America of George Gould and Walter Pyle's Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1896) had already made available the country's most famous human aberrations, and the practice of the "freak photograph" had become an established tradition. Photographer Matthew Brady, eminent for his images of Civil War soldiers and their war-torn bodies, ran a studio in New York City's Bowery where he gained another kind of notoriety for his portraits of Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng, the Fiji Cannibals, and other human oddities. Not only thought to be scientifically useful but also in actuality hugely popular, these photographs illustrate what Henry James has called an "American scene"—a world preoccupied with observation, supervision, and the intrigues of a new technology. That fin de siècle rite of being photographed—in family portraits, medical studies, cabinet cards, and cartes de visite—inaugurated what would become, and remains, a resounding interest in the contours of the visible body.
Remarkable about these curiosities is the chain of connection they produce among a range of bodies designated odd and peculiar. This chain generates a kind of categorical promiscuity that blurs any readily decipherable intention or purpose that we might expect from a scientific treatise. In the [End Page 71]
Click for larger view
| Figure 1 |
"A Private Anthropological Cabinet of 500 Authentic Racial-Esoteric Photographs and Illustrations, . . . arranged by . . . Robert Meadows" (1934), plates 360-63. Property of Duke University Medical Center Library, History of Medicine Collections, Durham, N.C. By permission of Duke University Medical Center Library.
Click for larger view
| Figure 2 |
"A Private Anthropological Cabinet of 500 Authentic Racial-Esoteric Photographs and Illustrations, . . . arranged by . . . Robert Meadows" (1934), plates 379-82. Property of Duke University Medical Center Library, History of Medicine Collections, Durham, N.C. By permission of Duke University Medical Center Library.
pamphlet, for example, a diagram illustrating "where additional milk glands sometimes appear in the female body"—drawing upon contemporaneous theories of reversion and atavism—appear alongside a sketch of conjoined twins from Hungary. While corporeal aberration seems to be what draws these two images together, the pamphlet never analyzes or explains this connection, nor does it disclose the relationship of these images to earlier ones of Parisian sex clubs and a "corset fetishist."
The persistent recurrence to sexual categories to label the images, in addition to the pamphlet's focus on images of a sexualized (at times pornographically displayed) body, suggests that the images in its pages may belong to the history of sexuality. It would not be quite right, however, to understand these images as informing something like a "history of homosexuality" in any stable or unified sense, despite the pamphlet's inclusion of images of homosexuals, transvestites, and women passing as men. As the harnessing together of "racial peculiarities," "aberrations and perversions," and "freaks and other abnormalities" in the pseudo-anthropological text literally illustrates, the scientific construction of perverse bodies is part of a complex cultural story not limited to sexuality, homosexuality, or sexual identity. In fact, the construction of perversity appears as part of a story in which race, gender, physical deformation, sexuality, and many other bodily forms and practices emerge in ontologically and...