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Scientific Forms of Sexual Knowledge in Romanticism

  • Richard C. Sha

…plus d’informations

  • Richard C. Sha
    American University

Corps de l’article

This essay has two aims: to begin to lay out some of the groundwork for how sexuality became a legitimate object of scientific knowledge in the late eighteenth century  [1] , and to begin to unpack how some of the various disciplinary and figurative forms that knowledge took helped to construct these narratives into seemingly coherent bodies of knowledge. I do so by focusing upon flexible rhetorics of empiricism  [2] within scientific and popular treatments of sexuality that initially separate the visible surface from the invisible theoretical depth, making the two seem coherent through analogy and through narratives that transformed the visible into the effects of invisible causes or structure into function. To put it in quintessential Romantic terms, these rhetorics of empiricism enabled scientists working on sexuality to half create what they half perceived, masking creation as perception or the visionary as vision.

Towards the earlier part of the eighteenth century, more emphasis is placed upon abstract theorizing as a form of biological and physiological knowledge;  [3] hence, observation and experimentation are often secondary to airy speculation but nonetheless provide some pontoons. Because as Buffon put it in 1741, "our senses reach not beyond the external parts of bodies,"  [4] we must use our sensory knowledge of the external to help us theorize the invisible internal. The 1761 editorial policy for the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions captures this divide between visible surface and theoretical depth in the sciences generally by announcing that since the editors could neither "pretend to answer for the certainty of facts" nor the "propriety of the reasonings," the editors had to base their decisions on whether or not to accept papers upon "the credit of judgement of their respected authors."  [5] Judgment of authors, then, guarantees knowledge by shuttling back and forth between visible empirical facts and invisible abstract reasonings. As medical men increasingly needed to prove their legitimacy and distinguish themselves from quacks towards the end of the eighteenth century  [6] , however, they became more skeptical of invisible theories, and they could do so because visible surface seemed transparently to reveal theoretical depth. What were once relegated to the realm of the invisible now became part of the surface.

Within scientific treatments of sexuality, the rise of epigenesis, vitalism, along with the localization of sexuality to the brain and the imagination paradoxically help explain this collapse of surface and depth.  [7] Although the internalization of sexuality would seem to indicate the decreasing influence of the visible as a form of sexual knowledge in fact the opposite is true. Epigenesis took the place of preformationism which argued that since unorganized matter is incapable of producing an organized being, organisms must preexist as a whole. Those who saw homunculii within sperm were preformationists who could partly rely on microscopic resolution for evidence. Epigenesis, by contrast, took generation beyond the resolution of the compound microscope since each new birth was a new formation, a theory that accounted for variability but which implied the existence of an invisible vital force that could organize living matter into complex forms. Yet proponents of epigenesis like Wolff and Blumenbach paradoxically turned to what they perceived as the absence of "real" visible evidence for preformationism as a kind of visible proof for epigenesis; this visible absence compensated for their own inability to render visible the vitalistic forces behind epigenesis.  [8] Blumenbach, in particular, mocked the "imaginary dignity of the animaculae in semen."  [9] My immediate point here is to use the epigenesis and preformation debate as a brief example of how complicated scientific visibility was with regard to scientific treatments of sexuality, and to suggest how this vexed visibility could be liberating for Romantic artists. The rising influence of anatomy and the growing middle-class access to anatomical collections, moreover, helped to make the body's previously invisible depths now seemingly transparent to a general public.

As sexuality turned inward towards the brain and imagination, and as vitalism (along with epigenesis) gained currency because it asserted the essential difference of living matter from dead matter and that living matter could not be understood by mechanistic laws, sexuality became a category especially resistant to scientific visibility and knowledge. Such resistance, however, was met with revised rhetorics of empiricism that now collapsed surface and depth. I read these shifting rhetorics of empiricism as symptomatic of what I call an epistemological panic within scientific treatments of sexuality. "Epistemological panic" names a recognition of the resistance of human sexuality to knowledge even as it attempts to quell this panic through more and more literal forms of visibility that must appear unmediated if they are to pretend to knowledge. It is precisely this panic—and the empirical veneer that occludes this panic—that makes sexuality a category rife for social liberation for so many Romantic artists since that visibility might now be a place where power unravels rather than necessarily consolidates. Recognizing how science was attempting to make sexuality visible in Romanticism, and recognizing how that visibility needed to remain persuasive, helps us to understand why the Romantics could consider meaningful sexual liberation to be possible at all.

1. Natural History to Botany and Analogy

Buffon's Natural History, General and Particular was instrumental to the legitimizing of sex as an object of human knowledge. English editions of Natural History tumbled from the presses in 1775-1776, 1785, 1791, 1793, 1797, 1802, and 1808 and suggest that if many of Buffon's ideas were superceded in scientific circles, this work nonetheless had wide cultural influence in the Romantic period. Coleridge, for example, read Smellie's nine volume translation of Buffon in December of 1803.  [10] Recognizing that theories of generation which referred back to God put generation beyond the reach of human investigation, Buffon asked his readers if he might "be permitted to form a hypothesis" on the "secrets" of propagation.  [11] Of course, Buffon was able to legitimate sex by subsuming it under reproduction. He did, however, make reproduction central to the definition of a species; he initially argued that members of the same species mated together and produced offspring, although he later realized that fossils and the extinction they implied posed real problems for reproduction as a criterion for a species. Anatomical resemblances generally further undercut the relation of reproduction to species definition.

As soon as Buffon concedes that we may never know "the secret cause by which nature enables beings to propagate,"  [12] he proceeds to a hypothesis, and from a hypothesis to analogy. He asks to be "permitted to choose that which appears to have the greatest analogy to other phaenomena of nature."  [13] I want to track Buffon's use of analogy because analogy was central to the sciences of sexuality during this period  [14] and because analogy facilitated the substitution of one form of the visible for another, often by confusing depth for surface or cause for effect, without looking like it was doing so. I suggest that analogy becomes so crucial to sexuality in this period because it allows "scientists" to demonstrate their judgment by engaging in abstract reasoning—Buffon highlights his "choice" of analogy from the expansive field of natural history, a field that had so absorbed the "great chain of being" that differences between humans, animals, plants, and sometimes even minerals were subsumed under similarilities—and empirical investigation at the same time.  [15] This slide from abstract reasoning to empiricism is all the more necessary to human sexuality, a category that, as Judith Butler reminds us, must remain resistant to transparency and disclosure in order to remain sexuality since sexuality itself, already in the Romantic period, is linked with the opacity of the imagination.  [16] Two valid definitions of analogy for the eighteenth century from the OED help support and complicate the rhetorical work of analogy: the scientific definition of analogy as a "resemblance of form or function between organs which are essentially different" (definition 9), and definition 5 which equates analogy with a "figure of speech."  [17] Whereas definition 9 pits resemblance against "essential difference," a battle in which resemblance can only triumph over the ontology of "essential difference" if resemblance is more than merely phenomenological, more ontological than phenomenological, the second definition further wrestles analogy away from ontology and locates it under rhetoric, a move that increasingly undermines the claims of analogy to knowledge.

Not only is the body in Buffon's time littered with analogies that have materialized into organs—like the Testes of the brain or the female sperm which Buffon thought that women ejaculated within their bodies—but also analogy for him explains generation in terms of a quasi-Newtonian field of attractive particles or internal molds. Buffon believed that when the "fluid extract of the male is mixed with that of the female, the particles that are most analogous to each other, being actuated by a penetrating force, unite and form a small organized body."  [18] The notion of female sperm was itself founded upon an analogy that understood women as inferior men—if men ejaculated sperm then women must do so internally. Buffon's "analogous particles" allows analogy to slide from rhetoric into the seemingly empirical particles themselves because they are analogous to gravity, whose effects are visible. Buffon is himself careful to justify this analogy: "If our eyes, instead of representing to us the surfaces of bodies only, were so constructed as to perceive their internal parts alone, we should then have clear ideas of the latter, without knowing any thing of the former . . . the supposition of internal moulds being thus founded upon analogy."  [19] As if to say that analogy provides an insecure foundation for his claims, however, Buffon adds that "the more analogies we can collect, the supposition will be rendered the more probable." This shift from reconstructed eyes that see the internal to quantifying analogies, from knowledge and clear ideas to quantity and probability, I suggest, betrays the onset of an epistemological panic, one that Buffon compensates for by offering more and more literal forms of visibility as evidence for his claims.

Why does Buffon go to the trouble of arguing for the validity of analogy because our eyes are flawed only then to undermine that very validity by not just one example of empirical proof but a serial set of proofs that must appeal to the very eyes which are flawed to begin with? Buffon's ultimate confirmation of this theory of mixed sperm rests on the visible resemblance of children to both parents. Yet the knowledge lent by analogy nonetheless did not prevent Buffon from needing actually to dissect bitches, see female sperm, have drawings made of them, and have the female sperm witnessed by two other scientists (Fig. one). His microscopic observations are confirmed by Messrs Needham and Daubenton who first made sure that the "object-glass" had been changed and was clean, and then that a new pick-tooth was used to place the "female sperm" on the slide.  [20] All of these observations are then reconfirmed by repetition of the experiments ten times in bitches and more times in other female animals. For Buffon, then, analogy promises empirical knowledge, and this promise leads to an epistemological panic, one that results in the need to provide more and more literal forms of visibility that must even be corroborated by other eyewitnesses. Buffon's insistent empiricism veils this panic.

Figure one

Buffon, Images of Female Sperm, from Natural History

Image Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD.
Buffon, Images of Female Sperm, from Natural History

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Add to these confusions about the knowledge value of analogy, Buffon's understanding of reproduction as being analogous to digestion and growth because they are "effects of the same cause."  [21] Analogy again performs the work of knowledge production without looking like it was transforming visible effect into internal causation. He understood the semen as being formed from a "surplus of nutritive particles."  [22] That eunuchs fail to become masculine in appearance is one form of ocular proof Buffon offers his skeptical readers. He therefore claimed that men who were thin but not emaciated would be the most vigorous,  [23] since fat was at the expense of virility. Of course, since "women are smaller and weaker than men, as their constitutions are more delicate, and as they take less food, it is natural to think that their superfluous organic particles should be less abundant."  [24] Buffon argued that since there are fewer women than men, this theory must be true. Buffon's initial stressing of his "choice" of analogy, however, reminds readers that only a distinguished and practiced natural historian can know true analogies from false ones, can recognize when similitude overcomes essential differences, and can make the appropriate deep abstract hypothetical inferences that nonetheless do correspond to surface visible knowledge.

If Buffon has helped us to understand how scientific analogy works to bridge the gap between empirical investigation and abstract reasoning, often by substituting one form of the visible for another—the digestive system for the reproductive, the attraction of particles for female and male sperm, the physical body of a woman for women's contributions to generation, surface for depth, the empirical for the imagined—I conclude this section on natural history by turning to one influential branch of natural history, namely botany, and more specifically, the sexualizing of plants. Buffon, in fact, did ridicule the Linnean sexual system of classification of plants, regarding it merely as a "misapplication of analogy" and a language, but not one that yielded any useful knowledge.  [25] He did, however, argue that the power of reproduction is common to the plant and animal kingdoms, and that reproduction is an "analogy both universal and essential."  [26]

Analogies between plant and human sexuality flourished in late eighteenth-century Britain and they did so largely because plants made sexuality itself a visible category. In Benjamin Stillingfleet's 1775 translation of Carl Linnaeus's Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Natural History, Husbandry, and Physick, for example, Linneaus foregrounds the voyeuristic pleasures of botany. He notes that whereas the organs of generation in the animal kingdom "are by nature generally removed from sight, in the vegetable kingdom they are exposed to the eyes of all, and that when their nuptuals are celebrated, it is wonderful what delight they afford to the spectator."  [27] Even the relatively untrained eye could recognize plant genitalia, the male stamens and the female pistils. Indeed, the OED reminds us that the word "sexuality" itself was first used to describe plant sexuality in an edition of Cowper's poems (1836). What is most striking about this talk of plant sexuality, beyond the effortless conflation of sexuality with nuptuals, is the substitution of one analogy for another: plants now can convey more knowledge about human sexuality than women can. As Erasmus Darwin put it in his The Golden Age (1794), "See plants, susceptible of joy and woe, / Feel all we feel, and know whate'er we know!"  [28] The decline in explanatory power of the one-sex model whereby women were analogous and inferior to men made analogies between the sexual parts of women and men seem "unfounded." Of course, already imbedded within the analogy of plant sexuality to human sexuality is a gender system of complementarity that is based on visible differences between men and women, as Londa Schiebinger has shown, which taught that men and women were not "physical and moral equals but complementary opposites."  [29] Hence Erasmus Darwin argues in Zoonomia (1794) that the "embryon is secreted or produced by the male and not by the conjunction of fluids from both male and female." By "embryon," Darwin means not a new animal but a "branch or elongation of the parent."  [30] This appears from "the analogy of vegetable seeds . . . . In large flowers . . . there is no similarity of apparatus between the anthers and the stigma." Darwin explains further, "Now in these simple products of Nature, if the female contributed to produce the new embryon equally with the male, there would probably have been some visible similarity of parts for this purpose."  [31] The perceived lack of perceived visible similarity in the sexual parts of plants becomes the basis for the absence of women's essential contributions to the embryo. Women, he thought, provided the nest, nourishment, and oxygenation for the embryon. Perhaps Linneaus's and Darwin's use of analogy to offer yet defer visible proof helps explain why one physician in the 1797 Philosophical Transactions argued that "arguments by analogies are better adapted to illustration rather than proof."  [32]

2. Making Sexuality Visible: Anatomy and Physiology and the Hunter Brothers

I have argued that natural historians like Buffon and Darwin turned to analogy as a form of sexual knowledge that enabled them analytically to substitute one kind of visibility for another. Analogy, therefore, marks the resistance of sexuality to visibility and discipline even as it performs the work of making sexuality visible; analogy is one symptom of an epistemological panic.  [33] I now consider how anatomists, physiologists, and surgeons like the Hunter brothers not only made sexuality visible during this period but in so doing aestheticized the visible through wax models, anatomical theatres, elaborate drawings and engravings, beautifully produced books in expensive paper and type, new ways of preparing anatomical specimens, and elaborate collections of such specimens. Like Buffon, William Hunter believed in the importance of comparative anatomy because it "guides us in reasoning from analogy."  [34] But whereas Buffon turns to analogy because it enables him to shift the locus of visibility without looking like he is doing so, the Hunters exploit anatomy and its ability to peel away the surfaces of the body to expose its previously hidden depths while simultaneously manipulating those body parts so that visible structures can now reveal otherwise invisible functions.

These elaborate sensuous embodiments of ideas of sexuality were at odds with the knowledge-producing function of empiricism; representation rubs against scientific description. Such lavish attention to sensuousness was another symptom of an epistemological panic; it is as if sensuousness might compensate for the uncertainty and invisibility of the ideas being actively and carefully embodied. William Hunter, we recall, was Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of Art from 1769 to 1772, and sought to make knowledge of the body's vascular system, nervous system, connective tissue, bones, and muscles requisite for the creation of beauty since "the internal parts change their figure and situation in a number of ways and thereby produce that wonderful variety which we see actually brought out in living bodies." The aesthetic lent anatomy some legitimacy, a legitimacy all the more necessary given the British anatomist's need to rob graves or pay others known as Resurrectionists to rob graves in order to obtain bodies.  [35] William Hunter's lectures to students at his anatomical theater specifically enjoined them to "speak with caution of what may be passing here, especially with respect to dead bodies." No visitors, in fact, were permitted to attend the "lectures on the organs of generation."  [36] John Hunter, who was called in to treat Byron's club foot and whom Coleridge recognized as the founder of Physiology, himself was so anxious to obtain the skeleton of Byrne, the eight-foot Irish Giant, for his collection that he had his man, Howison, watch over Byrne in his illness, and then kidnap the body after having bribed the men engaged by the undertaker to protect Byrne's body (the bribe was a substantial 500 pounds).  [37]

Given the Hunter brothers' training in physiology—the study of the living body—and commitment to vitalism, the idea that an invisible "living principle" made life not subject to the laws of chemistry and mechanics—the gaps between the anatomist's visible dead body, however beautifully prepared, and knowledge were large indeed. William Hunter emphasized in his Introductory Anatomical Lectures (1784) the absurdity of anatomy's reliance upon the dead to make claims about the living and the fallacy of "explaining the functions of our body, upon mechanical principles; arguing still from dead to living matter."  [38] Their prodigious efforts to illustrate, collect, and preserve what were termed the "organs of generation," a term which once again insists on sexuality as reproduction, coupled with their emphasis on ocular demonstration in their teaching of anatomy and physiology,  [39] nonetheless insist upon the knowledge-making powers of empiricism and the visible. The Hunters were able to manage these contradictions by helping audiences to see the visible surface—for example, the six-and-a-half-inch erect penis which William Hunter noted was "of a prodigious size"  [40] preserved in a jar—whose erection, maintained for posterity by a green injection makes visible an otherwise invisible vitalistic depth. Surface visible structures if read properly could be seen as the complex effects of physiological functions. If Buffon turned to empirical experiments to realize his invisible theories and analogies, the Hunters were not above literal embodiment of their theories.

John and William Hunter took advantage of the late eighteenth century's advances in the making of anatomical preparations and in the use of injections of colored fluids into the dead flesh to make certain features like arteries, veins, ducts, and lymphatic system visible, thereby aestheticizing dead flesh by arresting decay and by making this flesh beautiful. In his Two Introductory Lectures of 1784, William praised these developments for having "introduced an elegance into our administrations, which in former times could not have been supposed to be possible."  [41] On one hand, this "elegance" helped to make sexuality less sordid and a legitimate field of study, a legitimation enhanced either by the substitution of wax models or the use of dry preparations for the stench of decaying, and lest we forget often stolen, wet flesh; on the other hand, "elegance" had the potential to distort any truth that the specimen might yield. John Hunter collected 1500 preparations which he praised as being "admirable alike for their delicacy and beauty as works of art" for his "Gallery Illustrative of the Function of Reproduction" and helped to do the preparations in William's vast collection. William would argue that "the proper, or principal use of this art [the making of anatomical preparations], is, to preserve a very perfect likeness of such subjects as we but seldom can meet with, or cannot well preserve in the natural state."  [42] He acknowledges that what is visible in such "perfect likenesses," thus, may be either very unrepresentative or unrevealing about biological functions in living human beings whose physiological responses change according to their environment. If we further consider the care with which the Hunter brothers highlighted the singularity of their specimens—the age and illnesses, for example, of the person whose parts are shown—knowledge about that specimen might in fact become so local that it is useless as generalizable knowledge.  [43]

In the two collections themselves, these inconsistencies are, for the most part, carefully managed. Yet the fact that both John and William relied upon monsters in the sense of abnormal examples as "useful in anatomical enquiries" "because a mechanism or texture concealed in ordinary fashion or parts may be obvious in a preternatural composition,"  [44] also undercuts the validity of any normalizing knowledge claims based upon the monsters. Who is to say that what is visible in a monster is actually present in the normal body, despite the etymological links between monster and demonstration? William Hunter's practice of mixing normal and pathological specimens within a series further undermines the capacity of the normal to reveal knowledge. And if monstrosity is necessary for visibility, then, can visibility be a ground for knowledge? John's collection sought to overcome the gaps between anatomy and physiology/vitalism by insisting on the relationship of structure to function, a relationship which simply could not be demonstrated by dead flesh, even in the collection's spatial organization. He divided his galleries between preparations which illustrated the functions necessary to the individual, and to those devoted to reproduction. "The Gallery Illustrative of the Function of Reproduction" was itself broken down into ten series, beginning with hermaphrodite plants and animals, then the male organs in plants and animals, the female organs in plants and animals, the coitus of lower animals, three series devoted to the development of the ovum, one on the foetus, one on the growth of the young, and finally, one which illustrated the various modes in which food and protection are furnished for the young animal.  [45] The narrative that Hunter insinuates is a seamless one from genitals to reproduction to parental care of children; this narrative is, of course, itself underwritten by a physiological emphasis upon reading structures as functions. In the third series, 18 preparations exhibited the forms of the clitoris in mammalia, "and the occasional appearance of a hymen in them." This attention to the clitoris can in part be explained by the fact that the Hunters saw it as analogous to the penis, with the important exception that it had no known function in reproduction except for the sensation of pleasure. In fact, by the late eighteenth century, scientific interest in the clitoris was spurred on the by debunking of human hermaphrodites, that is, the debunking of the existence of humans with both sets of genitalia. What medical men had mistaken for the penis was actually an enlarged clitoris, an enlargement that many medical men had to explain away by pathologizing the clitoris through masturbation, or lesbianism, or the uterine furor, or racialized categories, or physiological monstrosity. In the midst of a lecture on the female organs of generation, William Hunter, for example, felt compelled to state "it is impossible [for] a woman with a large clitoris can [sic] copulate with another, because the skin does not go around the clitoris, as it does around the penis, but ties it down so that it can never be detached like the penis."  [46] What drives this need to insist that sex/penetration between women is physiologically impossible? Because the clitoris might, even to a trained eye, pass for a penis, it had to be disciplined by pathology. The force of this discipline stems from the fact that the enlarged clitoris violates a key physiological law, the accepted translation of form into function. Although the enlarged clitoris is visually like a penis, its visual similarity does not betoken similarity of function. Either physiology is founded upon a error or the clitoris must be made monstrous, an example of form that has no function except to deceive.

William Hunter stipulated in his will that a catalog to his collection be compiled. Although his manuscript notes towards such a catalog evince scrupulous care in the recording of the ways in which the making of the preparation distorted what the eye would normally see, along with explanations of the pedagogical purpose of the specimen, certain emphases of the collection did not benefit from such self-awareness. Whereas John focused on the clitoris, William was fascinated by the rarity of the intact hymen.  [47] It seems he could not resist using the hymen to speculate on the sexual history—or lack thereof—of the woman behind it. His manuscript notes that accompany "the external genitals of a full-grown woman" speculate that "her hymen [is] less perfect, and will easily allow a finger to pass, however, enough appears to make it probable that she was never deflowered."  [48] And next to "External Genitals of an Adult Woman," Hunter writes, "although the opening is large, yet the hymen appears perfect." On the "external genitals of an adult negro woman," by contrast, Hunter is not at great pains to defend the virtue of this specimen. He comments that she "probably [had] been deflowered, as the opening will admit one's thumb."  [49] Given his care in recording his alterations to the specimens generally—he notes for instance that the "external genitals of a female were kept extended with melted wax, then hardened in spirits, after which the wax was removed"— how could he be so sure that the elaborate preparation of the specimen did not in any way distort the hymen in these examples? That women's organs of generation had to be elaborately pinned with goose quills and bristles to keep them looking three dimensional—in ways that men's genitals did not—further strains the ability of these specimens to make sexual knowledge visible.

3. Neurology and the Sexualizing of the Brain and the Imagination

I have outlined the prodigious efforts of the Hunter brothers to make human sexuality visible during the late eighteenth century. Yet these scientific efforts to make sexuality visible must be understood in a larger context of sexuality's turn inward towards the imagination and the brain, a turn that enabled sexuality to enter the refined discourse of sensibility, and to thereby garner legitimacy. Roy Porter has argued that whereas the late seventeenth century envisioned sex as a bodily urge, by the end of the eighteenth century, "the dominant assumption was that sex was all in the head." John Hunter himself not only argued that "perhaps no function [copulation] of the machine depends so much upon the state of mind as this," but he also claimed that impotence was "depending on the mind." What happens to visibility as a criterion of sexual knowledge when sexuality turns inward—when the imagination, mind, and the brain become understood as sexual organs?  [50] It is precisely this inward turn that makes sexuality a possible site of liberation for Romantic artists: sexual liberation at once becomes potentially reflective and strategic and difficult to survey. As the poet/physician Thomas Beddoes put it, "no one certainly, can regulate the imagination of another."

Not surprisingly, the sexualized imagination and brain are insistently demonized because of their resistance to visibility. The French physician Bienville, known for his work on nymphomania, for instance, argued that "the imagination is the sole contriver" of self abuse, and he insisted that the female imagination especially was virtually powerless in the wake of "lascivious images." A Physician in the Country blustered in 1767 in "A Short Treatise on Onanism," which sold for one shilling, that the imagination offered the "most detestable kind of magic," because it could "conjure up at pleasure an ideal Venus, and thus never want an opportunity of enjoying an imaginary mistress."  [51] His cure was not nearly so cheap; however, his "Restorative Nervous Elixir" cost more than ten times the pamphlet. The Bath physician, James Adair, further helps us to understand the dangers of the sexualized imagination when he remarks that the imagination may represent sensations so strongly, as that they cannot be distinguished from the first and immediate impressions." The imagination engenders a profound epistemological panic because it confuses its own virtual sensations for actual foundational empirical experiences.  [52] For medical professionals, this confusion helped to account for the popularity of empirics or quack doctors. Dr. John Haygarth published Of the Imagination, as a Cause and as a Cure of Disorders of the Body, an essay that at once marveled at the imagination's power to make patients believe in false cures, but sought to limit the imagination's triumph over the body to negroes and other persons of "weak minds."

With the aid of autoradiography, Simon LeVay has recently argued that gay and straight men "may differ in the neuronal mechanisms that regulate sexual behaviour" based on his findings that gay men's corpus callosums and medial preoptic regions of the hypothalamus are similar to women's.  [53] LeVay's The Sexual Brain turns to the brain and the brain's subjective sense of itself to explain and naturalize sexual diversity. This kind of connection between sexuality, individuality, and the brain, however, had to be imagined first by the famous physiologist Albrecht von Haller. Albrecht von Haller's Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals, translated into English in 1755, argued that the penis and breast nipple were "sensible" tissues and this meant that they transmitted impressions to the soul/mind, and he would roughly contemporaneously state that man's "identity of personality" resides in the "intellectual soul." Haller grants both the breast and penis a "proportionable degree of sensibility."  [54] Irritable parts, by contrast, were "spontaneous" and therefore were without any attention of the mind or consciousness of an exertion of its active powers. Later in Haller's La Generation, he would argue that "the venereal act can never take place without the power of the imagination." Prevailing and accepted cultural eighteenth-century beliefs about homologies between the penis and the brain—a model that insisted upon the semen as being the primary component of nervous fluid—helped to make persuasive connections between sexuality and consciousness, so much so that Emanuel Swedenborg thought that the soul/intellect descended into the body and clothed itself into man's seed. Such a homology informs William Blake's insistent use of nervous fibres to collapse soul and body: when Los claims that "all our joy is in the Human Brain" [FZ 11.16, E306], he suggests the ideal unseparability of desire and cognition that can make the "lineaments of gratified desire" a meaningful and deliberate form of social liberation from church and state. Francis Gall would argue as early as 1807 that the cerebellum or little brain contains the "impulse to propagation." Spurzheim shrewdly recognized the need to gentrify sexual desire into the "organ of amativeness."  [55] This homology between penis and brain, however, enabled medical men like Adair, Beddoes, and Tissot to equate genius with sterility and effeminacy.

As this brief outline of the homology between penis and brain indicates, the very separability of visible surface from theoretical depth that Buffon at times cannot deny becomes undesirable when sexuality moves inward to the brain. Surface and depth, brain and mind, are by the nineteenth century insistently collapsed in a variety of ways, sometimes for unexpected political ends. These competing conflating narratives, I suggest, offer yet further examples of epistemological panic, other means of unravelling sexuality's relation to power. Some medical men stressed the influence of the mind, especially the male mind, over the body or the mind's sympathy with the body, and thus used the visible body to read the mind or imagination. The vulgarly accepted notion that the mother's imagination can put its stamp on the foetus, helped to make any deformities or irregularities in the baby a sign of the mother's uncontrolled or pathological imagination.  [56] William Smellie, the famous obstetrician and translator of Buffon, offered case histories of monstrous births, where a woman's craving for bacon and her witnessing of an execution which resulted in a man's brains being dashed onto the ground explain a miscarriage and the birth of a child with a missing piece of skull.  [57] Erasmus Darwin believed that while the female imagination could be blamed for miscarriages, the male imagination exerted the only real influence upon the child because the man's ideas at the moment of conception could effect his secretions.  [58] Thus a man's ideas of form transubstantiated into sperm were responsible for the sex of the child.

Gall and Spurzheim, of course, falsely thought that the shape of one's skull reflected the shape of one's brain and that the skull would reveal propensities of the mind; they went so far as to instruct readers how to measure the size of the cerebellum. (Fig. two) Gall's important work in comparative anatomy of the brain, however, did show an undeniable correlation between larger brain sizes and more complex mental functions, a correlation that he oversimplified, but one that nonetheless facilitated the collapse between mind and material organ. The larger size of the cerebellum in men as opposed to women, for them, explained man's greater sexual appetite. And by placing the "organ of amativeness" right next to the organ of the brain devoted to parental love, sexuality might remain under the discipline of reproduction. The separation of sexual desire and parenting, however, into two distinct, if proximate, organs suggests the potential for sexuality to resist reproductive function. Gall would later concede that heterosexual desire and pleasure were not always normative insofar as he knew women "who never felt the slightest inclination for men" and women and men who "never yielded to the embraces" of their spouses except by duty. Both of these unwilling groups nonetheless bore children. The potential of excessive sexual desire (cerebellums that were too large), to distort one's sexed body, moreover, further indicates how carefully one had to read the visible signs of sexuality. Gall writes, women abandoned to this propensity have . . . a robust and masculine constitution" while libidinous men "have an effeminate body; their limbs are rounded, fat, motled, and small, and their breasts are very conspicious."  [59] Excessive sexual desire, then, results in ambiguously sexed bodies that hint at a sexuality that resists being subsumed by reproduction.

Figure two

Gall, On the Functions of the Cerebellum

Photograph Courtesy of the National Libray of Medicine, Bethesda, MD
Gall, On the Functions of the Cerebellum

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Others, such as the radical scientist Joseph Priestly, argued that "the property of perception as well as of the other powers that are termed mental is the result of such an organical structure as that of the brain." For him, such a collapse enabled him to wrangle authority away from priests and towards medical and scientific men because only scientists understood how minds could be changed. Even those who resisted this equivalence of mind and brain found the resemblance between the work of the nerves and electricity helpful; for example, although Alexander Monro the second insisted that electrical fluid and "nervous fluid" were "essentially different in their nature" because of his faith in an invisible "living principle," he found the resemblance between electricity and nervous fluid useful in explaining the rapidity of nervous communication within the body. As my use of Monro already indicates, still others looked to the chemical and electrical properties of the gray and white matter of the brain, to make the internal visible and knowable. One scientist, for example, broke down the brain into chemical properties of water, fat, albumen, phosphorus, acids, salts, and sulfur, as if noting percentages of each chemical would explain how the brain worked.  [60] My point in tracing these convoluted and conflicting strategies for making sexuality visible once the brain is sexualized is to underscore the vexed and unexpected relationships of visible sexuality to power.

4. Sexuality as a Visible Fashionable Disease

Popular medical treatments of sexuality from 1750 to 1830 made productive sexuality a lynch-pin of health, even national health, and based their claims to knowledge upon citations of previous expert opinions, case studies, and most critically, the ability to read the surface of the leisure-class body for its incipient deep sexual pathologies. George Rousseau has shown how in the eighteenth century, delicate and exquisitely sensible nerves became the sign of the upper class; he argues that nerves were the means by which an insecure class could insinuate anatomy was destiny.  [61] The upper-class became willing patients since their nervous diseases were now evidence of class distinction.The increased sexualizing of the nerves, and the persistent linking of leisure itself with effeminacy and sterility was, I argue, not only an attempt by middle-class medical professionals to rewrite the destiny of the upper class in terms of extinction, but also a way of converting visible signs of economic status into signs of otherwise invisible incipient abnormal sexualities. By contrast to the luxurious and effeminizing excesses of the upper class, middle-class temperance or sobriety ensured a productive sexuality so long as the middle-class was disciplined and ever-vigilant. Thomas Trotter's A View of the Nervous Temperment (1806), for instance, argued that since middle-class city dwellers had to put off marriage so that they might acquire their fortunes first, sterility was common in towns and comparatively rare in rural settings.  [62] Too much forbearance from sex was just as unhealthy as too much sex. Trotter's linking of sexual moderation with economic moderation, moreover, enables one form to temper the other while making both sexual and economic desire more productive as a result. More critically, economic moderation now becomes a visible sign of sexual moderation.

These popular books and pamphlets often pathologized luxuries, a luxurious lifestyle, and the imagination by calling attention to how refinement, inactivity, sedentariness, and urbanization led to sterility and consumption, a disease which many argued was the symptom of masturbation. Signs of luxury—like novels, French sauces, rich foods could now be diagnosed as signs of impending sterility. These medical writers helped make leisure-class sexuality visible as a pathology by transforming the conditions for a predisposition to nervous diseases and sterility into visible symptoms of that pathology; they thereby paved the way for a more productive middle-class sexuality. James Adair argued in Essays on Fashionable Diseases (1790) that nervous diseases, which were linked to sterility, were the "result of that indolence of life and relaxation of habit most frequently to be met with in the wealthy."  [63] The poet/physician Thomas Beddoes warned in his three-volume Hygeia (1802) that books and circulating libraries, not to mention "servants and loose companions," encouraged onanism, indolence, and passive enjoyments, and therefore were responsible for the prevailing effeminacy of men, an effeminacy made visible by the failure of the male masturbator's body "to attain its full vigour." Coleridge makes ample references to this book in his prose works.  [64] The Swiss physician S. A. Tissot further underscored the precarious health and tenuous fecundity of the leisure classes by linking genius, literary men, and urban dwellers with masturbation, and he even went so far as to make make masturbators recognizable when he called attention to how loss of semen stunted growth, how pimples on the face were a symptom of masturbation,  [65] and how female masturbators did not show any interest in sex with men (since women were by nature passionate, women who seemed indifferent to sex must be satisfying themselves). Moreover, since Tissot believed that "so close is the connection between mind and body, that we cannot well conceive the operations of the one independent of some correspondence with the other,  [66] this somatic correspondence offered ways of reading the sexualized mind. And Samuel Solomon MD's A Guide to Health (1798)—which Byron equates with Keats's masturbatory poetry—states that onanism "occasions the whites in women and gleets in men. It ruins the complexion, and makes them pale, swarthy, and haggard."  [67]

Goss and Company, a firm of consulting surgeons in London, published The Aegis of Life, which went through the 18th edition by 1827. For five shillings, male readers were given an overview of venereal diseases and the consequences of masturbation, complete with case histories of patients who had been cured of both by Goss and Company. The author opened with a veiled reference to the French Revolution, claiming that "a healthful population is the best ornament and security of a throne, in the same degree as a weak, disordered, effeminate people, surround it with misery and danger."  [68] Like Trotter's View of Nervous Temperment, this author also recommended a middle-class temperance of diet, a "uniform habit of [sexual] temperance," and regular exercise to counteract the "sexual debility in men" caused by indolence, a sedentary lifestyle, and too intense study.

Popular medical treatments of sexuality during this period promised to make women's sexuality visible on the surface of her body or on the body of her infant so that the female body could be policed. The author of Aristotle's Masterpiece, the most popular sex manual of the eighteenth century, argued that "outward deformity of the body [of the infant] is often a sign of the pollutions of the heart" and that light menstrual flow with pain is a sign of a lustfulness that is a sign of sterility.  [69] Notwithstanding this elaborate chain of signifiers, this promised transparency of female sexuality, of course, was at odds with the middle-class women's natural modesty which seeks to keep sexuality hidden. The frontispiece woodcut to the 1793 edition—the fifty-fourth edition of Aristotle's Masterpiece—makes this tension between female modesty and masculine knowledge clear (Fig. three). Accompanied by her son, Cupid, Venus resists male textualization and modestly covers her private parts. Visually mediating between the masculine world of text and the naked female body whose modesty resists reduction to text is a portrait of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, war, and the liberal arts, known as well for her chastity. The battle gear in the portrait identifies the female in the portrait as Minerva. It is significant that Venus fails to preside over this scene of sexual instruction; given the author's insistence that sex can only take place in a loving marriage—unloving marriages are sterile—chaste Minerva sounds a more appropriate note. To get around female modesty, the text promises that its descriptions of women's sexual organs are a "private looking-glass for the female sex" and it admonishes women for being ashamed of their God-given parts when what they should direct their modesty against is the "unlawful use" of them.  [70] Even here, however, women may resist the female imagination's imprinting of illicit thoughts upon her child: if a woman engages in "unlawful copulation," yet if she fix her mind upon her husband, the child will still resemble him, though he never got it." And since the author offers numerous benign explanations for a broken or lack of hymen, along with telling readers that women might give birth to in infant that survives even if she delivers two months prematurely, the net effect of reading this text may have been to teach women how to manipulate their bodies as signs. In a culture that systematically sought to reduce women's subjectivity to their delicate bodies, this manipulation was profoundly disturbing. Of course, such possible deceptions could also further the cause of misogyny.

Figure three

Frontispiece to Aristotle's Masterpiece

Image Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino. Call No. 111189.
Frontispiece to Aristotle's Masterpiece

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That men-midwives placed increasing importance upon menstruation as a sign of health in the eighteenth century helped medical men to give female sexuality a visible sign that would aid in the disciplining of women. Men-midwives read early menstruation as a sign of sexual immorality and argued, as we might expect, that marriage and childbirth would help cure troublesome menstruation. Menstruation is the "axis of female health; round it the affections of the mind, as well as the sensations of the body, sympathies, sensibility, and feelings revolve," commented one medical writer who thus made regular menstruation the sign of the woman of feeling. The author of the Aegis of Life went so far as to argue that menstruation "relieves the uterine irritation, it mitigates the extremes of sexual desire; thus enabling them [women] to conform to the laws of morality.  [71]

Goss and Company also published Hygeiana, a book intended only for women that had by 1825 gone through twenty-five editions. This work also allows us to see just how complex the promised transparency of female sexuality could be. In the "Preface," the author announces that this work was detached from the Aegis of Life and published separately so that "ladies, who might be prevented by a becoming delicacy from perusing the work in its combined form, might be able to profit by such of our comments as exclusively applied to their own sex."  [72] Yet this very becoming delicacy could easily slide into a pathology in part because it prevents the physician from being able to diagnose the problem. The "natural delicacy of the female patient conceals some, and only glances obscurely at others of her afflicting sensations. Here the ordinary physician is indeed at a loss. Such cases only meet their remedy from the hands of those who have made the diseases in question so peculiarly their care, that they are capable of detecting, from one symptom, the whole chain of diseased actions."  [73] Delicacy requires the physician to specialize in reading certain corporeal signs in women as synechdoches for "criminal propensities"; the word "peculiarly" implies that this specialization is in itself dangerously close to the perversion it tries to cure. In making proper delicacy a potential visible sign of "self pollution," the thing that makes women sexually desirable, "becoming," is transformed into a disease. To show just how easily delicacy can slide into masturbation, the author writes, "for nothing, in the whole range of moral sentiment, can be more beautiful than winning, retiring decorum; yet, when fastidiousness is erected on this sentiment, of so excessive a nature as to endanger comfort, nay, even life, it surely becomes criminal."  [74] The writer's insistent punctuation here—no fewer than eight commas and one semicolon—vainly attempts to arrest the slippage from proper decorum to fastidiousness/masturbation. Part of this difficulty stems from the fact that the fine distinction between decorum and fastidiousness, a distinction of degree and not kind, is indeed a precarious hook on which to hang one's health. Masturbation, then, leads to the uterine furor, which can be recognized if the physician pays attention to changes in complexion (from ruddy to lead-coloured), in the color of the lips (from vermillion to dull), and from the dulling of the teeth. What began as a visible sign of beauty has become with careful reading, criminal, and this, in turn, becomes transparently diseased through the uterine furor.

My purpose here has been to show how complicated scientific visibility was in the Romantic period, especially with regard to human sexuality. I have done so in part as a corrective to Thomas Laqueur's argument that "believing is seeing" in medical accounts of sexuality.  [75] Though this is true, the scientist had an obligation even in this period to provide some empirical evidence—more than mere belief—for his or her claims. By paying attention to how scientific visibility was made persuasive—and therefore could be unmade—we can begin to think about why Romantic artists and writers turned to sexuality, what Blake called "the lineaments of gratified desire," as a category for liberation. And by examining the epistemological panic surrounding scientific and medical visibility with regard to sexuality, we can consider sexuality as a tenuous form of Foucaultian power. The ability to harness this power is contingent upon persuasion. We can also perhaps thereby continue to distance ourselves from the contemporary notion that visibility is necessary for liberation—that outing from the closet or empirical recognition of certain sexual identities is an uncomplicated measure of liberation—since that very visibility can invite surveillance.

Parties annexes