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7-10-2015, 13:42

Exhibition Perspectives: Spectacle and Dirt

Two theoretical approaches predominate in modern readings of exceptional bodies; both underscore the exclusionary—or disciplinary— aspects of display. First, Mary Russo’s comments on the relationship between spectacle and gender in The Female Grotesque emphasize the cultural processes activated by the female body out of bounds:

There is a phrase that still resonates from childhood. . . . It is a harsh, matronizing phrase, and it is directed toward the behavior of other women: “She [the other woman] is making a spectacle out of herself.”

Making a spectacle out of oneself seemed a specifically feminine danger. The danger was of an exposure. . . . For a woman, making a spectacle out of herself had. . . to do with a kind of inadvertency and loss of boundaries: the possessors of large, aging, and dimpled thighs displayed at the public beach, of overly rouged cheeks, of a voice shrill in laughter, or of a sliding bra strap—a loose, dingy bra strap especially—were at once caught out by fate and blameworthy.14

In this passage, Russo concentrates on the relationship between the production of proper gender identity and the disciplinary function of classifying disorderly women as spectacles through “a kind of inadvertency and loss of boundaries.” The act of identifying, or taxonomizing, women explicitly constructs boundaries where they are most needed, where the potential for likeness overshadows the clarity of difference. The spectacular body thus exposes the appearances and behaviors that bound normalcy, the cordon sanitaire beyond which propriety must not pass; the spectacle offers an inverse example of the “normal.” Such bounding seems accurate for a nineteenth-century culture in which merely to court the gaze, even within the private space of the home, was to play at the margins of feminine grace. The excessive visibility a woman hazarded in acting up or out provided substantial fodder for contemporary authors—think of Austen’s Maria Bertram, Bronte’s Blanche Ingram, Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth—and, subsequently, has fueled a profusion of feminist and cultural studies scholarship.

A woman who put herself on display beyond the private space of the home was even more troublesome: until late in the century, professional acting was commonly denigrated.15 As the Victorian moralist Dinah Mulock Craik argued, the actress was perilously close to the prostitute: “the general eye becomes familiar, not merely with her genius, but her corporeality.”16 Elsewhere, Craik observes that a woman who seeks the spotlight “is a creature so anomalous that she cannot fail to do enormous harm, both to her own sex and to the other. She ceases to be the guardian angel she was meant to be, and becomes an angel-faced devil, working woe wherever she appears.”17 Craik’s alarm may be amusing, but her strategy of species segregation is part of a larger dynamic that models the Victorian subject’s proper relationship to bodies on display. When Craik divides women into two classes, angels and devils, she expects her readers to understand which one is in the house and which is categorically excluded. The angel-faced devil defines by negation the very species of proper womanhood. Deploring the woman who seeks the spotlight, Craik relies upon a Victorian lexicon that condemns social behavior through racialization, so that the “angel-faced devil” becomes a dangerous hybrid.

As a form of boundary blurring, hybridity was of widespread interest in an era obsessed with taxonomy. Pastrana offered a walking metaphor for disorder: standing at the crossroads of male and female, animal and human, savage and civilized, Pastrana’s body refused to keep this separate from that. As Garland-Thomson has argued, “Her body was explicated as a boundary violation, a confusion of categories, a puzzle-ment.”18 Pastrana epitomized the hybrid’s potential to muddy the waters of classification.

In analyzing such border cases, many scholars have turned to Mary Douglas’s notion of dirt as “matter out of place” to explain Victorian formulations of racial, national, and class difference, categories that exhibition culture both complicated and clarified. According to Douglas, “Dirt. . . is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements.”19 In regarding Victorian exhibitions, dirt provides a remarkably useful metaphor for understanding the tenuous line between savagery and civilization, and for contextualizing the implications of social dirt for these categories of identity. In Pastrana’s case, her social transgressions as the female body on display were mapped onto her body in what seemed to be a form of species deviance.

In general, the Victorians linked concepts of difference with ideologies of race and empire, many of which were deployed in the interest of keeping individual bodies in line. The vast number of late-Victorian soap advertisements that promoted the idea that racial color is dirt worked both to shore up the sanctity of white British identity and to inculcate the various forms of supervision inherent in it. The ads thus drew upon notions of dirt, species, and nation to suggest that racial color exceeds the specificity of raced bodies. For example, in one increasingly infamous Pears’ advertisement, a black boy peers almost fearfully into a tub of seemingly opaque water as a white boy, sporting a crisp white apron, hands him a bar of Pears’ soap (figure 9.1). In the diptych’s second plate, the bather reappears, washed white from his neck down, peeking at his reflection in a mirror held by his aproned attendant. No longer suspicious but wide-eyed with wonder, the black boy regards his transformed body, his leg displacing the tub’s slogan now that his body stands as testimony to it: Pears’ soap, matchless for the complexion, has expanded the parameters of possibility, turning on its ear that old fabular maxim about the impossibility of washing an Ethiop white.20

Figure 9.1

Pears’ Soap advertisement. Courtesy of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, John Johnson Collection, Diptych of Black Boy and White Boy, Pears’ Soap, Box 5.

The ad’s ideology seems fairly straightforward, as it suggests in none too subtle terms not only that Pears’ is fabulous soap but also that racial color is equivalent to dirt and that blacks, if only they would “clean themselves up,” might be as white as the next Briton.21 However, just as Pastrana’s image offers various interpretive possibilities, the ad as it was printed in the 1890s is irreducible to a simplified racial spectrum of black and white. In the strikingly vivid original, both the soap and the “black” boy are brown, and the cheeks of the white boy’s face, as well as of those that peer in, out, and down from the corners of the ad, are a rosy pink. Just as it is important that the Crayola crayon with which I used to color white faces was once called “flesh” but is now more correctly labeled not “white” but “peach,” the pink cheeks of the “white” faces in this ad only approximate the whiteness Victorian culture held in such high regard. Color proves to be a cultural condition that can, perhaps, be washed off but also, conversely, can “soil” racially white bodies, thereby bringing them into the realm of cultural visibility and censorship. Even in racist soap ads, that is, dirt is less the stuff of bodily content than of proper bodily management.

Another ad, in which a bar of Pears’ soap crests an exotic horizon as “The Dawn of Civilization,” more clearly articulates the link between behavior, racial color, and social purity (figure 9.2). Printed in the 1890s, this ad explicitly refers back to the mid-century practice of exhibiting foreign peoples. These exhibitions aligned racial color with social dirt through the rhetoric of spectacle, catching out foreign or deviant (“uncivilized”) bodies and behaviors and making them “blameworthy.” Echoing the works of Edwin Chadwick and other sanitary reformers who clearly linked “civilization” with “clean” living, the exhibition effectively excluded behavioral others from the civilized world. Few middle - and upper-class visitors attended the free display of “savage” life that Chadwick, Henry Mayhew, and others had discovered at home in the slums of England, but the middle-class public was fascinated with and regularly visited the displays of “real” savages at Vauxhall Gardens, Leicester Square, the Egyptian Room, and other such venues.22

Exhibitions in which peoples of foreign lands were put on display for “Civilized White People,” as one handbill calls them, gained popularity in England throughout the Victorian period.23 Crowds flocked to see the Aztec Children, the Algerine Family, the Small-footed Chinese Lady and Family, the Zulu Kafirs, the Ojibbeway Indians, the Pigmy Earthmen, and Julia Pastrana, the Bear Woman, among others. These exhibitions brought the literally exotic into safe spaces where, for between 1s and 5s, visitors learned not only about the habits of “savages” abroad but also that civilized whiteness required more than having pale skin. By aligning display (the principal of exhibition) with racial color and cultural barbarism, these exhibitions tacitly erected the guidelines that regulated civilization and, hence, inclusion within the category of “white.”24 The exhibition, then, exceeded its function of teaching its audience how wonderful it was to be a British citizen; it also, as Charles Dickens demonstrates in his essay “The Noble

Figure 9.2

Pears’ Soap “The Dawn of Civilization.” Courtesy of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Dawn of Civilization, John Johnson Collection, Pears’ Soap, Box 4.

Savage,” effectively employed the threat of racializing the insurgent white body. Underlining the ways in which exhibitions were lessons in proper British behavior, the author writes, “if we have anything to learn from the Noble Savage, it is what to avoid.”25 Dickens’s “what to avoid” had nothing whatever to do with the color or decoration of one’s body. It entailed characterological traits that antonymically summed up British civilization. A good Briton is not “cruel, false, thievish, murderous,” nor “conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, [or] monotonous.”26 Proving that his concept of savagery has no relation to skin color, Dickens compares the Zulu Kafirs to the Irish:

The chief makes a speech to his brothers and friends, arranged in single file. No particular order is observed during the delivery of this address, but every gentleman who finds himself excited by the subject, instead of crying “Hear, hear!” as is the custom with us, darts from the rank and tramples out the life, or crushes the skull, or mashes the face, or scoops out the eyes, or breaks the limbs, or performs a whirlwind of atrocities on the body, of an imaginary enemy. Several gentlemen becoming thus excited at once, and pounding away without the least regard to the orator, that illustrious person is rather in the position of an orator in an Irish House of Commons. But, several of these scenes of savage life bear a strong generic resemblance to an Irish election, and I think would be extremely well received and understood at Cork.27

Dickens is only one of a plethora of Victorian thinkers who illustrate how the exhibition could be mobilized as a disciplinary medium that taught its audience to Other the bodies on display. Condemning the white Irish alongside the black Zulus for their collective lack of civilization, Dickens illustrates the ease with which the white body might take on the attributes of the savage. If one exceeded the parameters of civilized British behavioral codes, if one acted like a “savage,” these exhibits implicitly suggested, one might well become one. The exhibition, therefore, was a form of public entertainment with the potential to be a powerful ideological tool.