Submissions are invited for a proposed panel, titled “Reproductive Discontents,” for the 2016 NASSR conference in Berkeley (August 11-14, 2016). The panel aims to explore the topic of reproductive biology in the Romantic period through the lens of disability studies.
In Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Uncle Toby is afflicted with an injury to his groin, caused by a “blow from a stone, broke off by a ball from the parapet of a horn-work at the siege of Namur.” The wound requires four years of confinement for Toby and thereafter affects his relationship with Widow Wadman, who worries that the “poor captain will not enjoy his health, with the monstrous wound upon his groin.” (And this is not to mention the latter’s “corking pin.”) Ruth Perry has noted that Toby “build[s] his defenses . . . to compensate for the injury,” and observes that these “fortifications model his sexual reality.” With Toby’s inspired reactions to, representations of, and compensations for his injury in mind, could we not consider the wound a disability—one that prevents or complicates his place in normative social systems? And what does Sterne’s decision to allow Toby’s ultimate entrance into the marriage market say about disability in the decades before Romanticism? Most important, how does Romanticism approach similar inquires in its art, politics, religion, science, and medicine?
In Blake’s “London,” for example, one of the “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” that the speaker meets is the “youthful” harlot, whose “plagues” fatally taint either her marriage or those of her clients. It is a dangerous city, indeed, overrun with disease and death. Yet, could we not read the speaker’s “marking” as social labeling—a practice as insidious as Hawthorne’s scarlet letter or the “pier-glass scrawled with diamond rings” in Rossetti’s “Jenny”? That is, Blake’s speaker identifies and categorizes (or “charters”) deviant London, separating normal from abnormal in a move that anticipates Wordsworth’s “Parliament of Monsters” in The Prelude. This panel will investigate similar issues—what Lennard J. Davis calls the “hegemony of normalcy”—by drawing attention to “out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things”—characters like Blake’s harlot, whose aberrant reproductive biology either challenges or prohibits engagement with normalized society.
Some possible topics include virginity/chastity, impotence, sexually transmitted diseases, sterility, sex addiction (venery/satyriasis), priapism, hermaphroditism, and hypoplasia. Or they may relate to castratos or other surgical procedures, such as mastectomy or genital mutilation.