Conclusions: The Materialization of Violence
Mary Ann Doane points to the work of Annette Michelson and argues that the play of technological artifice, fear, and femininity moves feminist debates on representation beyond gender stereotyping and the “cinematic iconography of repression and desire” to a place where the feminized form is “the fantas – matic ground of cinema itself” (Doane 1990,166) With the analysis of La Specola’s wax models above, I argue that cinema and science are homologous. The prioritization of sight in the Galilean scientific revolution coupled with increased empirical scrutiny of the human body (and the modelling at La Specola based on such) set the scene.
Teresa de Lauretis states frankly that “violence is engendered in representation” (1987,33). Hers is a critical Foucauldian perspective on sexuality as technology—a set of techniques for maximizing life so as to support eighteenth – century bourgeois hegemony and class survival by privileging various objects of knowledge, including the sexualization of the female body and the control of procreation. But she does not accept Foucault’s erasure of the history of family violence: “Gender must be accounted for. It must be understood not as ‘biological’ difference that lies before or beyond signification, or as a culturally constructed object of masculine desire, but as a semiotic difference— a different production of reference” (48). Thus she, along with Doane and Mulvey, understand the production of femininity as a patriarchal materialization. Ludmilla Jordanova, who chooses a more modern feminist perspective as opposed to the poststructuralism of de Lauretis, applies similar notions to the models at La Specola themselves. I contend that the social constructionist argument she adopts with regard to the wax models can be updated to take into account the materialization of gender in early modern medical discourse.
Jordanova (1989,55) also points to the obvious sexualization of the female models at La Specola, and she includes the concept of depth as sexualizing contemporary nineteenth-century femininity within an accepted, scientific context: “Of course these models were already naked, but they gave an added, anatomical dimension to the erotic charge of unclothing by containing removable layers that permit ever deeper looking into the chest and abdomen. It is certainly possible to speak of shared metaphors at work here, such as penetration and unveiling, which are equally apt in a sexual and in an intellectual context.” This notion of the scientific delving into feminine mystique resonates with Doane’s (1990,164) reading of Hadaly as “opened up for dissection,” as a masculine response to fear and uncertainty in the modern technological age.
Jordanova also responds to the violence in the representation of the feminine at La Specola, especially in the gynecological room. She refers to the “special kind of eroticism at issue here [that has] a further aspect not so far discussed: violence” (Jordanova 1989, 60). She describes three types of violence in medical representations of women: epistemological (i. e., Francis Bacon’s call to scientists to wrest secrets from woman-as-Nature); actual (dissection of, surgery, and experimentation on the female body); and representational or “any literary or artistic device, or indeed any idea, which invites readers and viewers to collude with sexually aggressive fantasies and practices” (61). The models, although they reflect all three forms of violence, especially reflect the last. The gynecological models are butchered female forms, cut at the thigh and above the abdomen, gruesome platforms for the display of gravid pregnancies and female genitalia.
The “Little Venus,” also by Susini (found at the Museum of the Poggi Palace in Bologna) and La Specola’s Doll are both decomposable (as translated literally from the Italian scomponibile) and, as such, are considered among the more valuable of anatomical model types (there are others worldwide and are similar). They are also female, young and beautiful, and form elegant and erotic presents, packages, and Pandoras to be dived into. As we have seen, Mulvey uses the Pandora myth to illustrate feminine-as-fetish (the psychoanalytical reaction to profound and primordial fears); and she draws parallels to Trojan horses, the Christian myth of woman as the origin of betrayal and knowledge, as well as to modern robots and cyborgs (often beautifully feminine and bearing dangerous knowledge as technology-gone-amok). The eighteenth-century female wax figures of La Specola deserve to be included in the list. Their exterior exquisite beauty-as-feminine draws the eye into the terrifying interior of literally spilled guts. The mysterious lack-that-is-every – thing—the womb, the vagina—are laid out for rational comprehension and celebration over dark, deadly, chaotic nature. These models are also Carol Clover’s (1992,35) “Final Girl” (the feminized male figure that finally kills the feared monster) of the horrors of eighteenth-century Europe and today: fear of the material body (as disease and premature death) and fear of the metaphorical body (the feminine as mysterious betrayer of life and problematic site of origin). They act figuratively to express simultaneously the monstrous embodiments of our fears of body-based fragility, chaos, and mortality and the slaying of that monstrosity by the ordered and safe world of modern scientific rationalism.
These models form a logical extension of the scientific gaze associated with Galileo, who simultaneously explored the expanse of the heavens and the depths of once hidden anatomical knowledge. As eyes turned skyward, they entered the body and other uncharted territories, decrying dogmatic and mythic representations for the naked-eye truth. And the Grand Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold’s (1747-92) decision to collect the scientific curiosities of the duchy in La Specola; to augment them with increasingly popular anatomical waxes, effectively making the museum a working medical school; and to open the display to the public both heralded the rise of empiricism as a new world order and provided the spectacle of its triumph over the horrific other. Rationalism takes an embodied anatomical form logically inscribing and containing the body even as it opens it up. Surfing the edge of this wave of modern scientific ideology is the archaic, deadly feminine, tamed somewhat through scientific scribing and sexual objectification. But anxieties remain. Alignments of fleshed and desirous features with gore and the feminine as site of origin return us to primal fears of the generational matrix. I conclude with what Creed (1990,140) argues: it is important to distinguish prescription from description. This display of killing women makes sense in terms of scientific rationality and profound fears of the feminine. But it need not. This materialization of femininity could also be resistant, and certainly it is potent. Cyborglike, La Specola’s Doll is not a sexual goddess of new science. She may be materialized as fleshy feminine trope by science, but she also materializes science and technology.
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