Monthly Archives: January 2011

Can women belong to the body politic, that nebulous imaginary body that has shaped and defined how we understand and viewed concepts of rational citizenship? According to Moira Gatens, they can’t, because the body that forms the basis of the body politic is male. This can, of course, be seen at a literal level in relation to Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, a pointed rebuttal to Thomas Paine’s deceptively objective Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, published just a couple of years earlier. The extended debates on woman suffrage in the nineteenth century also insist on this point.

But to what extent must we consider a relationship between woman and disability in considering the exclusion of women from the body politic. As a diverse range of thinkers and scholars have observed, women have often been imagined as defective men – their sex organs inside out, their bodies too cool to support rational thought, their reproductive bits the source of hundreds of maladies unknown to men. In a phallocentric imaginary, women, if they appear, can only appear in relation to ‘man’, and through that lens, are always found lacking.

So what might this mean for the highly charged debates around citizenship? Emile was Rousseau’s ideal citizen, a young man brought up entirely by his tutor and presented, when he was ready, with Sophy, a wife who was different from him in every way, a woman who would follow where he would lead, who would be a mother to this children and a virtuous foil to Emile’s strength. Other philosophers of the period had mixed feelings about women. Diderot found them capricious, unpredictable and, in Le rêve d’Alembert, vapid and flighty. Women were the weak link, entities whose mysterious bodily and emotional workings challenged the supposed rationalism and order of the political sphere.

And yet, many philosophers were keen to ascribe social roles to the sexes, roles that accorded with their perceptions of women’s abilities. Thus, women were ideal wives and mothers (particularly if they breastfed), but even this social positioning was fraught, for as incubators, women’s actions – and thoughts – needed careful surveillance. Not too much reading, not too much imagination. A moderate life that would preclude the possibility of nervous disorder, the scourge of elite society.

In this approach, women always come out wanting. Not rational enough to participate in public debates, their bodies were also weak and prone to illness. They would appear to hold a privileged place as incubators of the virtuous republic, but even this positioning was overwhelmed by their dangerous porosity, their all-too-easy capacity for emotional excess. At psychic and somatic levels, women were fundamentally disabled and as a result, could never qualify as political citizens.

I find much to appreciate in the work of Rousseau. He was an innovative and revolutionary political thinker. But I also know that if I had daughters, I’d have done as Madame Necker did: raise them like Emile, rather than Sophy.


Reading the work of Robert McRuer always makes me think.

Perhaps as a heterosexual someone who has, for the most part, enjoyed the privilege of ability, I have never considered the privilege nor debated the merits of linking compulsory heterosexuality with compulsory able-bodiedness, but as I delve further into the letters written to Tissot, and in particular letters related to disorders of a sexual nature, I have come to reflect on how closely linked are issues of disability, sex and the state.

Who defines the healthy body?

Who defines the diseased body?

How are they treated?

And what role does sex play in all of this?

We have only to consider the Contagious Diseases Acts in the nineteenth century and, during the eighteenth century, Tissot’s decision to stop responding to those engaged in masturbation. McRuer discusses the case of a Ducth wheelchair bound senior citizen, Hennie van den Wittenboer, to make his case. De Heer van den Wittenboer launched a legal battle to argue for the value of sex as one of the “primary needs of a human being” (qtd. 113). The case has, since, become a marker for Dutch values; the way in which the Dutch state defines itself towards its own citizens and in relation to other nations. It has, indeed, become reflective of the Dutch state’s ‘autobiography’. There are lessons to be taken from this, lessons that are cause for both optimism and wariness. As McRuer points out:

A crip theory of sexuality… would insist on thinking seriously about van den Wittenboer’s rights and pleasures while being wary of how those might get discursively positioned by and around the state. (Robert McRuer, “Disabling Sex: Notes for a Crip Theory of Sexuality,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies , 17.1 (2010): 107-117, p. 114)

A return to theory, and to the wonder of Helene Cixous’ writing … this, from her book, The Day I Wasn’t There, an autobiographical novel about the birth and death of the narrator’s first child, an infant born with Down Syndrome. Throughout the book, the narrator/Cixous struggles to come to terms with both his life and his death, her absence from his life and death, and how all of this relates to her own life. It is hauntingly beautiful and terribly tragic, all at the same time.

It’s this human porosity that bothers me and that I can’t escape since it is the fault of my skin, the extra sense which is everywhere in my being, this lack of eyelids on the face of my soul, or perhaps this imaginary lack of imaginary lids, this excessive facility I have for catching others, I am caught by person or things animated or unanimated that I don’t even frequent, and even the verb catch I catch or rather I am caught by it, for, note this please, it’s not I who wish to change, it’s the other who gets his hoods in me for lack of armor ….
(Helene Cixous, The Day I Wasn’t There, trans. Beverley Brie Brahic, Northwestern University Press, 2006)

If there’s anything that Tissot’s patients agree on (and there’s very little), it’s on the inevitably social natures of their bodies. The vast majority are not at all content to limit their bodily narrative to the parameters outlined by Tissot in his Avis au peuple sur sa santé. Tissot’s guidelines, designed to prevent the “great inconvenience” and difficulty of consultation by correspondence, look familiar to those of us who have sought the advice of a doctor. The patient needs to be able to articulate a range of physical signs that might give the doctor more insight into her condition: colour, activity levels, breathing, quality of sleep, bowel movements, current medicinal regimen, general health. Women are asked to provide information about when they started menstruating, whether they’ve been pregnant before, outcomes of pregnancies, lactation. For children, meanwhile, Tissot requests an account of their age, number of teeth, sleep patterns and whether or not they’ve had smallpox. All of these questions could easily find a home in the contemporary medical clinic, where the answers would form part of the patient’s medical history.

But the consultations by correspondence contain both less and more information than this. Thus, while some conform to the guidelines mentioned above, they also include considerably more details (as I mentioned in a previous posting). Others include an enormous amount of detail, but don’t actually address the questions that Tissot asks. On closer reading, it seems clear that what is important to the patients is the social nature of their bodies. They experience their bodies and the sufferings of their bodies within a web of social and cultural responsibilities.

Thus, the society lady observes that she has been unable to go out, from which we might be able to infer that she has been unable to meet the social obligations  and engagements required of her position. Her experience of her body takes on meaning within the context of the social world that she inhabits.

Another woman, writing of the health of her husband, points out that while she does not fear for his life, she is concerned about other factors that might be influenced by his malady: not only will her marriage (a marriage based on affection) suffer, but the family – broadly speaking – could suffer as well.

“Both of us would like to hold to the ideal of a large and powerful family, but my husband and my son (who is but one year old) are the only ones who remain to carry the family name forward. I am [therefore] responsible not only to my heart, but to society.”

These correspondents detail not only physical ailments, but social responsibilities and it is clear that these cannot be separated from one another.

To understand how the modern body came into being is an essential first step toward the very different task of reconstructing an extinct body perception. After all, my body determines my perceptions; above all, it shapes my notions and images of corporeality: of pain and pleasure, taste and lust, aging and disease, pregnancy, birth, and death…[but] to approach the women’s complaints recorded by the doctor in Eisenach, Germany, from my own body consciousness would profoundly prejudice my understanding of what these women were saying. …. (Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1991. p. 2)

It’s hard to believe that Barbara Duden’s influential book is now over 20 years old. It is still so very important at a methodological level – how might we recapture the bodily experiences of the past? Because to read them through the lenses that shape my experience is to misread them.

Their stories of their bodies were not shaped by ultrasounds or xrays, psychotherapy or the rest cure. Their stories emerged from very different contexts … from different imaginings that found it logical that menstrual blood transformed into breast milk, something that seems not only incredible to us today, but ridiculous. How much of what we take for granted today will seem equally ridiculous in the future, even though it seems entirely logical today?

How will I read the story of the woman who presents herself as mother and wife first and as ill person last? How can I understand her experience of pregnancy and loss? Her stories of forceps delivery and c-section? These are traumatic experiences even today…what must they have been like then? Or was life then so different that trauma itself was measured differently? Where might I begin to assess the stories of these lives?

The questions, it seems, lead only to further questions, and I find myself retreating into theory, a comfortable, but remarkably disembodied space from which to comment on corporeality. It is the work of scholars such as Duden that has made it possible to begin to imagine anew, that has opened our eyes to the possibilities of bodily opacity – the body that could not be accessed by outsiders, but remained, in Duden’s words, ‘opaque’:

It is a place of hidden activities. As long as a person was alive, his body could not be opened, his inside could not be deciphered, could not be seen. People could speculate about its inside only with the help of signs that appeared on the body or emanated from it. (106)

External signs were evidence of bodily accord or discord. Hair colour, imaginative engagement, pustules, excessive menstrual flow, a tendency to headaches, hot horse rides followed by a sudden breeze and cool shower.  Deciphering – and making meaning of – this world is an immense task, indeed. Wish me luck.

Consultation by correspondence was a mainstay of the eighteenth-century doctor/patient relationship. Doctors around Europe diagnosed on the basis of written description only, relying heavily on the descriptive prowess of patients and their local doctors. This was, understandably, a fraught system. Doctors required certain information – in his Avis au peuple sur sa santé, Tissot lists a number of questions that the patient needed to address – but patients didn’t always provide what they wanted.

The consultation letters in the Fonds Tissot reveal patients grappling with the limitations of language, the inability of text to describe their bodily experiences. Some details conform to Tissot’s list and offer insight into the patient’s age, medical history, current condition, current treatments, etc. Other details, however, confound and we are left wondering why they were included. Thus, we read about the weather, the political situation, the moral behaviour of the patient, and the social responsibilities of the family. Why might these seemingly random details have been included?

It would be easy to ignore them and to focus directly on the issues of direct medical concern. But to do so would, I think, be a mistake. These details are part of the individual’s shaping of her (or him) self as a social being, and as such, they reveal an understanding of the body and of bodily experience that is inherently social.

The body is not just something that gets in the way, it is something that defines one’s place in the world. More than this, the body is not easily accessible. According to Tissot’s patients, the body cannot be easily condensed into a neat list of answers to predetermined questions. Rather, it is something that exists in a much bigger space and is shaped and organised by a far greater range of experiences than those suggested by Tissot’s list. Indeed, Tissot’s questions, which sound very similar to those asked by doctors today, just barely scratch the surface of bodily experience and it seems clear that Tissot’s patients had much more to share.

From horse riding in the rain to swimming in the Rhine on a hot summer’s day, sleeping in a humid room as a child and immoderate engagement with the ‘pleasures of the flesh’, these life writings are much more than ‘medical consultations’; they offer insight into the social, cultural and corporeal thought worlds of suffering individuals during this period.

Reading through them, I am reminded of the words of Virginia Woolf, as found in her 1930 volume, On Being Ill:

“…literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane – smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.” (Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill. 1930. Ashfield: Paris Press, 2002, pp. 4-5)

Woolf goes on to suggest that English has no adequate language for the body. The same, I would suggest, might be true of French. The consultation letters are not so much about medical conditions per se. Rather, the majority reveal the struggles to articulate bodily  experience in written language; in other words, the struggle to make meaning out of the workings of thebody and from there, to share these ideas with others.

I first heard of Oliver Sacks when my grad school roommate came home talking about the man who mistook his wife for a hat. Then, after marrying a colour-blind man, I discovered the island of the color blind. And now, thanks to a musical Facebook friend (the music joined us together first; Facebook just facilitates the trans-Atlantic friendship), I return to his work again….this time, a New York Times piece on the relationship between the self and the brain, entitled “This Year, Change Your Mind.”

Just a single sentence to ponder tonight: “To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains”

This might be the essence of that which interests me most. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape our life stories? And further, to what extent are these stories shaped by and to what degree do they shape our bodies?