- The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England by Mark Jackson (review)
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 28, Number 1, 2002
- pp. 84-87
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Reviews MarkJackson. The Borderlandof Imbecility:Medicine, Society andthe Fabrication of the FeebleMindin Late Victorian andEdwardian England(Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 273, $74.95. In recent years the metaphor of the "underclass" has been manipulated to secure support — a potent brew of anxieties, fears, and philanthropy — for a political project bent on scaling back a putatively dysfunctional welfare state, and monitoring and regulating the activities of those whose habitual dependence is allegedly engendered by it. If today's chronically work-shy and dissolute misfits are touted as the rot that threatens the social body, a century ago it was the mentally (and, ipso facto, morally) deficient who were cast as the lead players in a popular narrative of race degeneration. It is to the fretful hullabaloo and "scientific" polemics busily fashioning mental deficiency as a "social problem" in the final decades of the nineteenth-century and the first of the twentieth that MarkJackson directs us in this excellent book. The period is already well investigated. A good deal has been written about the moral reform movement, the emergence of eugenics, the angst surrounding "race degeneration," the ascendance of physicians to an authoritative profession, the establishment of the social sciences , and the public health movement. Jackson's scholarly, lucid, and accessible contribution is to demonstrate how each of these became complicit in the production of a phantasmagoric zone of feeblemindedness in which various middle-class anxieties and manoeuvrings for professional and epistemológica! authority were played out He is persuasive in his conclusion that the legislative response to the "problem" of feeble-mindedness represents a neglected element in studies charting the shift from laissez faire to statist liberalism in the years before the First World War. Jackson sets out to "accelerate the process of salvaging mental deficiency from the historical backwaters by charting the emergence of the borderland of imbecility as a crucial social, political, and cultural construct in the late Victorian and Edwardian period" (10). The "borderland of imbecility" in practice, as Jackson demonstrates volume 28 number 1 Reviews convincingly in his opening chapter, was a methodically constructed tropological space, poised between the socially and educationally "normal" and die padiological (die forms of idiocy and imbecility) wherein dwelt die "feeble-minded" who "[TJn die last quarter of the nineteendi century. . . emerged as a critical medical, legal, educational, and political category" (33). Jackson is on the mark in locating efforts to chart the extent and die features of mental deficiency within die broader economy of knowledge production during die belle époque. The moral reformism and social evangelism mat arose during die final quarter of the nineteenth century was constituted by a compelling blend of clinical medicine, technical expertise, and charitable philanthropy that reflected die growing hegemony of the ascendant middle class. Medical doctors were particularly active in their exploitation of this environment, riding die coattails of science to cement their professional authority. In a particularly astute chapterJackson describes attempts by physicians to monopolise the diagnosis and labelling of die mentally deficient through the assertion of "a linkbetween mental aptitude and physical form" (89). Photography was deployed in medical texts as incontrovertible evidence of die stigmata of mental deficiency, identifiable by die expert eye of the medical man "at a glance," but invisible to all who lacked die trained gaze of die physician. Jackson's chapters afford us glimpses of die ongoing debate between "environmentalists" and "hereditarians" with regard to explanatory narratives for mental deficiency. More could have been said about die terms of this debate. ButJackson is correct to emphasise the dominance of hereditarian polemic. Environmental reforms and advances in public healdi designed to ameliorate the lot of diose perceived as weak and inefficient were often cast as preventing nature from weeding out social wastage and, worse, creating conditions favourable to the multiplication of "degeneracy." What, dien, was to be done about die feeble-minded? The solution — if feeble-mindedness really was incurable — was "permanent care", urged as a palatable and effective alternative to marriage regulation Victorian Review85 Reviews and mandatory sterilization. It is with the advocacy of indefinite segregation that we are introduced to the central character inJackson 's account. Mary Dendy, the founder and driving force behind Sandlebridge...