social flesh

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.

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