Nobody’s Disease: Theorizing Syphilis and Subjectivity
Syphilitic rhetoric has proven itself as contagious as the disease itself. Brian R. Shmaefsky’s 2010 study points to the history of naming the disease after one’s enemy, “due to the perception that syphilis was cased by immoral acts, such as prostitution and indecent acts with animals.” Thus, fifteenth-century Italians blamed Columbus for bringing syphilis to Italy, changing the name from the “Venetian Disease” to the “Spanish Disease.” Turkish Muslims labeled it the “Christian Disease.” Tahitians infected by British sailors called it the “British Disease.” In its long history of transmission, syphilis became both nobody’s and everybody’s disease.More specifically, syphilis was unique among other illnesses because it engendered a liminal space characterized by self-alienation specific to infection, as well as the desire to displace this dis-ease via the marginalization of others. Thus, syphilitic rhetoric long prefigured the biopolitical thought generated by theorists such as Foucault and Kristeva.
The immoral stigma of syphilis still persists and, as current scholarship demonstrates, is used to reinforce social hierarchies, marginalize minority populations, and control women’s bodies. Furthermore, the recent controversy caused by Kevin Birmingham’s claims in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (2014) that James Joyce suffered from syphilis reveals that work remains to be done in the field of literary studies to reconceptualize the relationship between syphilitic identity and modern identity. Because current scholarship seems rather at a stalemate in terms of analyzing syphilis by way of gendered and racialized paradigms, Nobody’s Disease seeks to broaden syphilis scholarship by inquiring how syphilis — more than any other endemic disease (tuberculosis, polio, cholera) — has had a fundamental role in shaping modern subjectivity the world over, in ways that exceed gender and race categories. While these connections obviously cannot be denied, it would appear that syphilis’s long history as the disease of the Other necessarily incorporates a great deal of anxieties regarding personal, political, and national subjectivities. Thus, this collection of essays aims to open up the field by exploring transatlantic texts beginning in the 19th century and continuing onward to the present day that examine the cultural constructs of syphilis (or potentially related venereal diseases) and their subjectivity-shaping mechanisms and potential.
Essays might consider the following:
- How might the phenomenological heft of syphilis be bound up with its symptomatology? Where do the lines between phenomenological virulence, etiology, idiopathy and stigma blur and coalesce? (considerations of this nature might take up 19th-century physicians’ obsession with differentiating gonorrhea from syphilis, for example, in spite of long-standing confusion between the presentation of the two)
- Why has syphilis long been conceptually defined an “endemic” disease, as opposed to other diseases that have been identified as “epidemics” at given times (e.g., polio in mid-century America)
- Metacritical essays might consider the significance of the predominant gendered and racialized critical paradigms of syphilis
- Consideration of syphilis’s structural power in modern institution-shaping (e.g., IRB development and development of the modern-day “race for the cure” in medical research)
Email proposals of 350 words to Kari Nixon (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Carrie Johnston (email@example.com) by 1st November 2014 in anticipation of full essays due by 1st April 2015.