(First off, I must admit that I stole the title of this entry from the title of a course I took at Amherst two years ago on nineteenth-century prostitution in France.)
Although it was just a brief passage in Imperial Leather, this one caught my attention:
“Domestic workers, female miners and working-class prostitutes (women who worked publicly and visibly for money) were stationed on the threshold between the white and black races, figured as having fallen farthest from the perfect type of the white male and sharing many atavistic features with ‘advanced’ black men…Prostitutes–as the metropolitan analogue of African promiscuity–were marked as especially atavistic and regressive. Inhabiting, as they did, the threshold of marriage and market, private and public, prostitutes flagrantly demanded money for services middle-class men expected for free. Prostitutes visibly transgressed the middle-class boundary between private and public, paid work and unpaid word, and in consequence were figures as ‘white Negroes’ inhabiting anachronistic space, their ‘racial atavism anatomically marked by regressive signs: ‘Darwin’s ear,’ exaggerated posteriors, unruly hair and other sundry ‘primitive’ stigmata.” (56)
With this renewed interest of the figure of the prostitute in mind, I was also struck by this passage:
“Under imperialism, I argue, certain groups are expelled and obliged to inhabit the impossible edges of modernity: the slum, the ghetto, the garret, the brothel, the convent, the colonial bantustan, and so on. Abject peoples are those wom industrial imperialism rejects but cannot do without: slaves, prostitutes, the colonized, domestic workers, the insane, the unemployed, and so on. Certain threshold zones become abject zones and are policed with vigor: the Arab Casbah, the Jewish ghetto, the Irish slum, the Victorian garrett and kitchen, the squatter camp, the mental asylum, the red light district, and the beddroom. Inhabiting the cusp of domesticity and market, industry and empire, the abject returns to haunt modernity as its constitutive, inner repudiation: the rejected from which one does not part.” (72)
This idea of the threshold—public/private, marriage/market, paid/unpaid work, white/black—stuck out, for in a society obsessed with neat classification, how should liminal figures be classified? I was also interested in the fact that, just as the slums of London were treated similar to colonies—dark spaces that must be penetrated, documented, made comprehensible—prostitutes are viewed as similar to blacks, not just in terms of morals/character traits but also in terms of genetics. All these forms of the “Other” become linked together—the insane, slaves, prostitutes, the unemployed—and both the justification for their “Otherness” (genetic differences) and the solution (“polic[ing] with vigor”) are the same. (As an aside, I wasn’t sure what the reference to Darwin’s ear meant, but as I was intrigued by the fascination of the Victorians with criminal ears, I decided to google Darwin’s ear. I found Darwin’s earpoint and Darwin’s tubercle: http://kenpitts.net/bio/genetics/face_lab/26_darwins_earpoint.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin%27s_tubercle show that it is a recessive trait similar to that of monkeys.)
I am curious if anyone more familiar with photography at this time knows of the existence of photographs (documentary, artistic, official, or otherwise) of prostitutes. I am familiar with the French obsession with the figure of the prostitute (specifically the courtesan) and the wide-spread obsession of artists with prostitutes. Degas paints prostitutes in France, Delacroix penetrates harems in Algeria in order to paint the “Oriental” prostitutes. Within the category of French prostitutes, there are paintings that use them as models but do not label them as such and there are others that specifically try to represent the prostitute. Nineteenth-century French novelists, sociologists, anthropologists, painters—all seem obsessed with the figure of the “woman of ill repute.” With poems centering around the figure of the prostitute, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Webster’s “A Castaway” (both occurring contemporaneously with the Contagious Diseases Acts), it seems that there was a British interest in the figure of the prostitute (though perhaps to a lesser extent). Yet I am unfamiliar with photographs of French prostitutes, and I am particularly unfamiliar with British visual culture and if there is a tradition of prostitutes in paintings or photos. I would be curious to see how they are depicted, in what circumstances the photos were taken, how the figures are framed, etc. In other words, is there a correlation between the ways in which colonized female subjects are captured and those of domestic female “Others” such as prostitutes?