thinking with the stomach

The case of the woman who thought from her stomach is outlined in Elizabeth A. William’s study of Philippe Pinel’s belief in the relationship between stomach disorders and nervous illnesses. The woman in question experienced numerous ills, but concluded by asserting that her sensitive stomach was the cause of her sufferings. In a very real way, her stomach expressed her self.

This leads me to consider matters of a decidedly methodological bent.

I am, in this research project, particularly intrigued by questions of speech, language and discourse; that is, in examining how it is that the body comes into language, and what this might mean for research into selves and identities that exist beyond language.

About a year ago, I made what I thought was a completely innocuous statement. At one point during a conference presentation, I suggested that the body had a language and that the body spoke. It was clear from the reactions of some audience members that this was not nearly as innocuous a comment as I had first imagined. While many were not at all bothered by the terminology and the idea of putting the body into language and imagining bodily functions in terms of speech, there was still a considerable contingent that would have none of it. This led me to think that perhaps I, too, should have a closer look at exactly what was informing my assertions, why this might be important, and how this might influence how I read and analyse the letters that form the basis of this project.

At a broad level I’m interested in considering closely the role of the body in the construction and performance of the autobiographical self, particularly in cases where the body’s narrative is all that we have available to us. This is not just, to follow ideas put forward by Philippe Lejeune, “the autobiography of those who do not write,” but, in this case, “the autobiography of those who do not – for the most part – even speak.” How might we analyse these narratives? How do we read autobiographies in the virtual absence of what we would generally understand as ‘text’?

In most of the letters that I read, the voices of the sick are quite readily available. Even in the case of letters written by others, the patient’s perspective is usually quite clearly discernible. These are patients who speak, letter writers who listen, and body stories that can, then, enter relatively easily into language.

But some letters are marked by the absence of the patient’s voice. In these letters, it is only the physical manifestation of disorder that remains. How can we analyse letters in which the body itself is the text?

One series of letters (written by three doctors) concerns the health of a young, unmarried woman, Mademoiselle XX or XXX. This patient appears to suffer from some form of nervous malady, an illness which is referred to variously as fureur, imbécilité, affections mélancoliques,  and manie. In contrast to the vast majority of letters addressed to Tissot, Mademoiselle XXX ‘speaks’ only once in the letters; we hear her actual words and ideas only once in the course of the whole correspondence. In the second letter, the doctor notes that she has expressed a desire to travel, and that this desire is so great that it has caused her profound agitation and she has lost much sleep.

As far as I can tell these are the only words she utters throughout the year of consultations. She is said to communicate; she is said to have an active mind; she is said to speak at times, but we have no idea what she says, how she says it, where she says it, or why she says it. Apart from this, she sings, laughs, trembles, convulses, faints, and stays mute, all bodily responses associated with the broad category of nervous illness.

For the most part, then, we do not have access to her ‘voice,’ to a speaking subject, if you will. She does not speak in ways that make it possible for those around her to understand. The only comments that we have are of her body’s workings. Her voice, in the absence of ‘rational discourse’, exists only in her madness, in the extra textual elements that are so present that they are no longer extra, they are, in essence, the text.

We know that Mademoiselle XXX spoke more than once but we don’t know what she said. Perhaps she just kept on reiterating her desire to travel to another region. Perhaps she said something else entirely. We know that, according to her doctors, ‘her mind was active,’ but we don’t know how this was assessed or measured. Perhaps they observed her responses to external stimuli. Perhaps she wrote. We know that she sang. Perhaps she sang with words, perhaps she only hummed tuneless melodies. We know that she laughed, shivered and experienced convulsions so strong it took 2-3 men to keep her down. Perhaps her laughter wasn’t inconsequential, perhaps her shivers were not irrational, perhaps her convulsions weren’t evidence of psychic disruption.

Perhaps they were.

There are, therefore, some things that we know, but so many more – particularly in relation to issues of language, speech and discourse, that we’ll never know.

All of this leads me to an impossible situation. How then, will I ever recover the story – the voice – of Mademoiselle XXX and others like her? As autobiographies, these letters are difficult to read, and even more difficult to analyse. We must, then, proceed with caution.

If, as Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have argued, discourse can be understood as the language that “produce[s] and circulate[s] knowledge” (25) about different things, then we can see the body as productive of discourse. Through its workings it produces and circulates knowledge about itself. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that within our systems, it is only through the body’s engagement with language – and here I use language as we conventionally understand it – that the body’s workings take on meaning. 

But what happens if we take the idea of the discursive body seriously? To what extent might we be able to assert that it is through bodily function – or in this case dysfunction – that the subject comes into being; that meaning is created in her life, and in response, that her subjectivity comes into being for the doctors. The question is, are we equipped to handle such forms of subjectivity?

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