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Masquerades of Impairment: Charity as a Confidence Game DAVID T. MITCHELL AND SHARON L. SNYDER University of Illinois at Chicago Introduction: Surface Sciences H erman Melville’s representation of disabled bodies in The ConfidenceMan delineates a nineteenth-century economics of anatomy, charity, and social role. Jacksonian America provided an important venue for practices that were founded on empirical observation: craniometry, phrenology , palmistry, psychology, and physiognomy. All these sciences of the surface named external body features as reliable signs by which the identity of a person could be fixed and known. While The Confidence-Man does not make an overt political critique on behalf of disabled people as a marginalized group, it does introduce disability , not only as a narrative device, but also as a disruption of rationales of national personhood and morality. Because disability came to be construed as a tragic embodiment that extracted individuals from productive membership in a capitalist economy, people with physical and cognitive differences found themselves controlled by new terms reflecting the emergent concepts of modern charity inherent in the industrial U.S. In this period, ideas about disabled people changed fairly drastically: their livelihood and integration were no longer perceived as a familial and community issue, and they were to be officially classified by techniques adopted from objectifying taxonomies of the body. Named as members of a deficient population, disabled bodies were to be managed by private organizations as well as state and federal agencies. This historical transition marks a critical moment in American approaches to disability issues and disabled people, and it serves as a context for Melville’s portrayal of the detection strategies employed in the oversight of charity. By the middle of the nineteenth century, practices of community support for poverty and the classification of bodily unsuitability for labor gave way to intrusive managerial attitudes toward diverse human physicalities. Whereas the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tended to approach human differences from the religious standpoint of the “strong” taking care of the “weak,” the nineteenth century approached issues of dependency as a disservice to a nation that must invest in its manifest destiny. In this respect, U.S. responses C  2006 The Authors Journal compilation C  2006 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 35 M I T C H E L L A N D S N Y D E R to physical and cognitive impairments shifted from a relatively benign formula , the interdependency of human lives in one’s immediate community, to one of moral and community judgment.1 Those classified as economically dependent — because they could not participate in rigid social roles without significant revision to modes of work, habitat, and socialization rituals — became pariahs. Families were held culpable for the unpreparedness of their members for vigorous national participation. Furthermore, charity discourses of this period often held out faulty lifestyles as the source of impairments, therefore finding both families and individuals culpable for bodily and cognitive attributes considered deviant. Melville’s entrance into this debate in The Confidence-Man hinges on four distinct critiques relevant to the cultural production of disabled bodies: 1) by conflating charity and confidence exchanges as economic activities with moral repercussions; 2) as a critique of charity systems that excluded recipients from participating as national citizens; 3) as an exposé of capitalist altruism that markets products and services through opportune references to the alleviation of human suffering; and 4) as a narrative device that can unmoor fixed patterns of belief and roles. As the overarching theory that connects these critiques, our analysis uses Michel Serres’s theory of parasitic economies as an exposé of inequitable power relations at work in nineteenth century U.S. capitalism. Serres’s inversion of the host/guest relationship provides a context for comprehending Melville’s own tactical inversions of giver and receiver, con game and gift, donor and recipient. The Confidence-Man wages warfare on physiognomy for presuming, on behalf of scientific and national knowledge, the reliability of bodily appearances as a means to evaluate persons. In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 35-60
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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