Raw Material

Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture

Raw Material

Body, Commodity, Text

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Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 50 b&w photographs Published: December 2000

Author: Erin O′Connor

Cultural Studies, History > European History, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Raw Material analyzes how Victorians used the pathology of disease to express deep-seated anxieties about a rapidly industrializing England’s relationship to the material world. Drawing on medicine, literature, political economy, sociology, anthropology, and popular advertising, Erin O’Connor explores “the industrial logic of disease,” the dynamic that coupled pathology and production in Victorian thinking about cultural processes in general, and about disease in particular.
O’Connor focuses on how four particularly troubling physical conditions were represented in a variety of literature. She begins by exploring how Asiatic cholera, which reached epidemic proportions on four separate occasions between 1832 and 1865, was thought to represent the dangers of cultural contamination and dissolution. The next two chapters concentrate on the problems breast cancer and amputation posed for understanding gender. After discussing how breast cancer was believed to be caused by the female body’s intolerance to urban life, O'Connor turns to men’s bodies, examining how new prosthetic technology allowed dismembered soldiers and industrial workers to reconstruct themselves as productive members of society. The final chapter explores how freak shows displayed gross deformity as the stuff of a new and improved individuality. Complicating an understanding of the Victorian body as both a stable and stabilizing structure, she elaborates how Victorians used disease as a messy, often strategically unintelligible way of articulating the uncertainties of chaotic change. Over the course of the century, O’Connor shows, the disfiguring process of disease became a way of symbolically transfiguring the self. While cholera, cancer, limb loss, and deformity incapacitated and even killed people, their dramatic symptoms provided opportunities for imaginatively adapting to a world where it was increasingly difficult to determine not only what it meant to be human but also what it meant to be alive.
Raw Material will interest an audience of students and scholars of Victorian literature, cultural history, and the history of medicine.


Raw Material is a superb and provocative study that all who do cultural studies in the Victorian period should read. . . . Readers will appreciate the bravura of her provocation, and the fine quality of the writing; the book is smart and funny, serious and satirical—a pleasure to read.” — Pamela K. Gilbert , Victorians Institute Journal

“[H]er work is one of the best I have seen in recent years on the body and the discourses surrounding it. O’Connor is one of the smartest young academics to enter the field, and as a first book, Raw Material is a tour de force, opening up new lines of thought, revealing cultural obsessions, and thinking hard and fast along the way.” — Lennard J. Davis , Hastings Center Report

“[T]his is a book with a wealth of fascinating material and some absorbing and intelligent readings of nineteenth-century culture.” — Roger Luckhurst , English Literature in Transition

“O’Connor shows us brilliantly that freakery was a part of a technology of selfhood, a resource that helped Victorians to (often pleasurably) elaborate opposing social identities (plural), not a crisis of a unitary traditional self. In taking on this role, freakery could also be used to represent the instability and contradictoriness of these classed selves, which were not so coherent and always in flux. Freakery therefore served both as an Other and as an emancipatory representation of a self outside the problematic boundaries of the normative bourgeois atomic individual. Which is a reason that . . . historians of medicine, and anyone interested in Victorian society, will want to take the trouble to read and process Raw Material.” — Michael Sappol , Journal of the History of Medicine

"[E]xtraordinary . . . . Readers will have been led into a fascinating world at the periphery of the respectable science that most of us study and will rejoice in the extraordinary sights they see." — David Knight , Isis

"[O’Connor’s] book was one of the year’s most provocative and challenging." — Andrew Elfenbein , Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

Raw Material adds much to the existing literature on the Victorians. With its enlightening case studies and its author’s solid understanding of the state of medical art in the latter half of the nineteenth century, this is a first-rate piece of work.” — Sander L. Gilman, author of Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul: Race and Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery

“Industry makes it possible to understand the Victorian body, according to Erin O'Connor, as so much raw material. O'Connor's mind is a pleasure to watch at work and Raw Material will make a significant contribution to Victorian studies, to work on the body, and to cultural studies.” — Mary Ann O'Farrell, author of Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush

“The body in distress and deformation—black from cholera, excrescent from breast cancer, monstrous, and repaired through prosthesis—offers a prism through which O’Connor refracts the crisis of the self in the world’s first industrial society. This is a complex, empirically rich, reflective and vigorously argued book that will be welcomed by literary critics, by historians of the body and of the nineteenth century, and by anyone engaged with cultural theory.”—Thomas Laqueur, author of Making Sex : Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud — N/A


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Price: $26.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Erin O’Connor is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

ONE/ Asiatic Cholera and the Raw Material of Race 21

TWO/ Breast Reductions 60

THREE/ Fractions of Men: Engendering Amputation 102

FOUR/ Monsters. Materials, Methods 148

AFTERWORD/ The Promises of Monsters, or, A Manifesto for Academic Futures 209

Notes 219

Works Cited 251

Index 267
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2616-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2608-3
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