Monthly Archives: January 2012

A great article in the Huffington Post  today about the intersections between the media, the male gaze, consumption, objectification and the politics of the athletic female body.

From the article:

“The players in this league are actually, really, phenomenal athletes. What are their choices? They have none: there aren’t other opportunities for adult women interested in professional football that match this one. Apparently, the price of playing is to accept your own objectification and sexualization and claim it as your own. Girl power”

girl power, indeed.


If photographs can function as visual autobiographies (and I do believe they can), and if the face can speak (and I do believe it can), then what kinds of stories of self do these mother portraits tell?

I feel the need to examine all of our old family photos carefully. Perhaps there are mothers hiding in corners, behind chairs, under blankets.


Canadian Blood Services has set up camp on campus today. Two locations. Many signs showing the way.  I used to donate regularly. I saw it as a form of civic duty: this was a gift that I could, relatively painlessly, give to others who really needed it. And they were always happy for another pint of type B blood. Less than 8% of the Canadian population has B positive. And that makes me special.

In fact, I’m now even more special: because I lived in England for two years during the Mad Cow Disease crisis, I am not allowed to donate blood at all. My eligibility is, according to the language of Canadian Blood Services “indefinitely deferred.” I am, of course, not the only one. Many others are indefinitely deferred: men who have had sex with men, even once, since 1977; anyone who has received money or drugs for sex; anyone from certain areas of Africa; insulin dependent diabetics…

My indefinitely deferred eligibility also means that I cannot donate any other fluid substance from my body. This includes milk. When my second son was born, I very quickly found myself with what I would euphemistically call an “overabundance” of breast milk. As a NICU nurse observed, “You could feed the whole NICU!” 40 babies. The lactation consultant wasn’t particularly supportive or helpful, chirping that: “Many women would love to be in your position.” (is my resentment still that obvious, over six years later?).  Let’s just say that 13 litres of frozen breast milk is more than any single baby can handle, let alone a four pound preemie consuming less than 100 ml in a day.

So, good citizen that I was, I explored the options of breast milk donation. BC Women’s Hospital (where I gave birth and where my son spent the first three weeks of his life) is home to Canada’s only milk bank. Before the mad cow crisis, they would have been happy to relieve me of my 13 litre stash. But for milk, too, my eligibility to donate is indefinitely deferred. My milk, like my blood, is understood as a possible site of contagion.

Ah, the irony.

According to the experts, breastfeeding my own child is the healthiest thing I could possibly do for him. The aforementioned lactation consultant was pretty clear on this, too. Breastfeeding is seen as a badge of honour (in fact, the online pregnancy forum I used to frequent had badges you could add to your avatar: 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 2 years…) Breastfeeding instantly elevated me into the ranks of good mothers. I can still see myself, my halo polished, glowing as I rose above mere mortal mothers who fed – not nursed – their children formula. As a breastfeeding mother, I can claim kinship with Marianne.  Be/aring my milky breasts, I am the ultimate mother-citizen, reproducer of the nation. I can take my anointed place within the hallowed haloes of mother-nurture, secure in the knowledge that I have achieved maternal immortality.

Marianne, symbol of revolutionary France. Image by Patrick Janicek (available at:

But woe betide the anonymous infant who might be subjected to my indefinitely deferred eligibility. Mother-nurture? Mother-citizen? Hardly. No, in this incarnation, I have become mother-demon, a being whose potentially infected, diseased, contaminated fluids threaten the health of the populace as a whole.

The politics of fluids shape how I am read. How my body is read. And they shape, too, my relationships with those around me and the role that I am allowed to play in society. My blood, my milk, my fluids are not welcome. While it might be argued that this is to protect the broader public good, the decisions seem, to a large degree, arbitrary. Certainly, the decision to exclude anyone who has lived in Britain for more than 6 months between 1980 and 1996 is not based on any scientific evidence. There is no demonstrably clear link between mad cow disease and CJD. And even if there was, those of us who have been indefinitely deferred may never have eaten a morsel of beef in our lives (or chicken or pork or veal or lamb…). Or we may have grown up in Saskatchewan and Alberta, both of which have had their own issues with mad cow disease. But we are singled out – indefinitely –  walking bio-hazards who threaten the security of the state.

I am Tissot’s wetnurse. She, in turn, is me.

Marin Marais’ “Tableau de l’opération de la taille,” a movement from his Suite in e minor, Book V (1725), has been rolling around in my brain for the past few months. A musical description of a gall bladder operation,  it is a harrowing piece of nightmarish beauty.

I discovered this piece by accident several years ago. As a flute player, it’s not something that I would generally stumble over… but I also love programmatic elements and have a decidedly morbid nature, so I was hooked. As a piece that is meant to evoke the lived experience of a gall bladder operation, it most definitely fits into the category we’d label TMI today. Do I need to know these details? Do I want to know all these details?

Nobody really knows if Marais actually underwent this operation. What is known is that it was a relatively common operation of the time. In that sense, it is a program that would have been recognizable: fear, inevitability, incisions, pain… so very much pain, blood, resignation, rest.

But why would he have chosen to put such an experience to music? What was the purpose of making this body experience visible in musical form? Why formalize the work?

I ask similar questions about about Fanny Burney’s careful narration of her mastectomy. Why was it so important, not only to record it, but to ensure its safekeeping?

In some ways, both of these works follow the tradition of the anatomy lesson paintings so common in the Dutch Golden Age – they offer the voyeur insight into the body and its workings (see, for example, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp). A group of doctors gathered round the docile patient. The doctor playing to his captive and presumably enraptured audience. An arm – human flesh – exposed for analysis and discussion. In these paintings, the surgical body glows with an ethereal whiteness, its flesh exposed for the curious, both those who gaze in rapt attention from within the painting and those, like myself, who watch from outside.

There are elements of voyeurism in both Fanny Burney’s and Marin Marais’ works. Reading Burney’s narrative is excruciating. We feel her helplessless. We feel her bodily sorrow. We feel her fear. And we feel, too, her power as she responds to her doctor’s query: “Qui me tiendra ce sein?” It is her moment of grace, an astonishing display of strength and a powerful act of corporeal witness.

Who will hold this breast for me? I will.

The return of the ‘I’ at this point is transformative. This is no longer an anatomy lesson enacted on a docile body; this is an active subject in full control of her own bodily narrative.

Perhaps, then, it is the idea of bodily memory and corporeal agency that we are meant to take away: Fanny’s strength of character as she held her diseased breast out to her doctor in the presence of so many other men, voyeurs all in this staging of surgical skill. As a reader, I, too, bear witness. Not to surgical skill, but to willpower that it took to undergo this operation and later, to the literary prowess that enabled her to produce this narrative

Marais doesn’t include an ‘I’. Well, not directly. But Marais’ ‘I’ emerges in the act of performance. It emerges in the communion between musician and score, and then, in the spaces that unite performer and audience. The temporal nature of this work brings an immediacy that printed word or visual image alone lack. (I suppose I’ll get in trouble for saying that, but as a musician, there’s just something about live music that can’t be replicated in the ‘captured’ images). It is that immediacy that evokes the ‘I’ – in performance, the musical text becomes an autobiographical text. How might this have played itself out in the context of eighteenth-century bodily experience? If this was a common operation, how would this piece have been received, particularly with the joyful “Relevailles” that follows it? Would performers have recognized their own experiences, and would those experiences have transposed themselves onto and through the musical text?

Both Marais and Burney were masters of their respective crafts. They knew how to shape a narrative. How to build to a high point. How to release and return us to ourselves. These are not mere autobiographical recollections; these are carefully structured and considered evocations of corporeal suffering and distress.

What might we learn from them as we consider the meanings and politics of bodies past?

When we tell our body stories, what stories do we tell? And what stories are told for us? These are the questions that South African photographer, Zanele Muholi, asks us to consider. Muholi understands photography as a form of visual activism, a way of transforming the gaze from the oppressive/repressive regime of state control, in the form of identity cards “as capture, as arrest” (Baderoon, 404) into what she terms a collaborative “(auto)biographical” project (Baderoon, 407). Instead, images emanate from the perspectives of those who are photographed, a process which fundamentally reimagines the nature of visibility.

Central to this project is a focus on the face: “The face,” Muholi observes, “has a voice. The face means a presence and an existence” (Baderoon, 411). A speaking face allows for the possibility of an encounter – of mutual recognition. A speaking face tells stories, even in silence.

What stories does your face tell?


we’re heading into “virgin” territory this time – over to my friend and colleague Jane Magrath’s brand spanking newly domain named blog about life writing: reading for their lives!

Jane’s first post is about life, dying, death and mourning (though perhaps not in that order at all). And it’s about our encounters and communions with the dead, as they come to life for us again through their writing and as we struggle to articulate our relationships with them. What a lovely piece to start this conversation about reading life writing… and with one post a week to come, it’ll be the perfect place for a visit and a spot of tea.

Lausanne is a gorgeous city. Stretching from the banks of Lake Geneva to the spires of the Cathedral, the city traverses 600 m from sea level to the heart of the old town. It’s a wonderful city to get lost in and that holds particularly true of the old town centre. There you’ll encounter a most fabulous Saturday market as well as endless windy streets and, if you were there one Saturday in June a few years ago, like I was, you’d have met up with an ant-racist feminist protest as well. Walk a bit further and you’ll not only bump into the Cathedral (and the amazing views), but also into the town hall and, across the way, Tissot’s house. Did you know that in Tissot’s final days, a dictate went out asking citizens to remain quiet in the neighbourhood so that he could recuperate?

Lausanne Cathedral

Tissot's house, Lausanne

Lausanne is also full of hospitals. A centre of medical tourism, the city boasts numerous hospitals that treat myriad complaints and conditions. Spas, fertility treatments, cosmetic surgery, neurosurgery, laser hair removal – you name it and it’s there for you, all delivered, I would imagine, with standard Swiss professionalism, efficiency, and cleanliness.



Switzerland has been a centre for medical tourism for centuries. In addition to Tissot, whose fame in the second half the century brought patients from throughout Europe to Lausanne, there were also doctors active in Geneva. Théodore Tronchin, active slightly earlier in the eighteenth century, counted numerous members of the French elite among his clients, among them such women as Madame d’Epinay, who spent a number of months under his care.

Medical tourism provided the elite the opportunity to travel to other countries in order to seek medical care for their various ailments. Many of them had already tried out local doctors (and sometimes very famous local doctors) to no avail. Others didn’t like what their local doctor had to say. And it is certain that many sought the social cachet that a link with someone of Tissot’s stature could offer them. As my son’s fortune read last week: Flattery can get you anywhere.  Given the tone of the letters addressed to Tissot, it is clear that many members of the European elite shared this attitude.

Even today, medical tourism remains, by and large, the realm of the elite. It is the elite who, by their very economic status, have the ability to travel. Mobility rights might be accorded to all persons with valid transit papers, but it still costs to travel (and as an island resident myself, this is brought into high relief…). Travel for medical care costs even more. While Canadian provincial health care systems may still pay to have rare procedures done outside of jurisdiction, medical travel remains, for the most part, restricted to those who want to pay for special treatments in extra comfortable, privately-funded environments. Just as Lausanne has become a centre for medical tourism, so too do we see the rise of India as a destination, particularly for those seeking so-called “wombs for rent.” There is also a ‘healthy’ international trade in human organs, something recognized by the WHO (among others) as an issue of concern.  The right to a healthy body, it seems, is a right that is, in some cases, guaranteed to the rich on the backs of the poor.

During the eighteenth century, health was a prized commodity. From their letters, I learn that patients suffered for months with fevers, wheezing, headaches… I learn of traumatic birth stories. I learn of quack medicine. For these individuals, health was not something to be taken for granted. It could disappear at the snap of a finger, several years’ healthy living wiped away in the space of one short but damp and cold winter.

Health was capricious. It was something people courted, but not something they could ever rely on. This, in particular, was something Tissot understood. It is, in part, why he wrote the Avis in the first place, so that medical knowledge could be made available ‘on the ground,’ where it was needed most. The book provided practical knowledge that even the least learned lay person could apply. It was the perfect companion, particularly in remote rural areas.

Writing a letter directly to a doctor was, perhaps, the next best option. And from the letters in the Fonds Tissot, it’s clear that Tissot often responded with diagnoses and remedies. But then, as now, the face to face encounter remained the ideal option.

But during the eighteenth century, travel was difficult, even for the elite. From the letters, it’s clear that travel was often taken during spring or summer. Two seasons were closed to easy physical movement. And some patients, given their conditions, were not unable to travel at all. For them, a face to face visit with the doctor was impossible. Finally, the realities of the French Revolution, starting in 1789, also impacted travel and while many French expats found  new, if temporary, homes abroad (in such cities as Lausanne, which ‘welcomed’ hundreds of émigrés), others stayed at home. For them, travel was fraught with danger.

Others, however, had an easier time of it. Medical ‘tourists’ were not the only patients that Tissot saw. Numerous letters come from neighbouring communities, among them Morges, just two hours’ walk away (currently accessible through a glorious pedestrian footpath along the banks of Lake Geneva), and the bigger city of Fribourg (further away). Others wrote from Lausanne proper, or even from Geneva. In her final days, Suzanne Necker, one of Tissot’s more famous patients, resided at a family residence at Beaulieu, now incorporated into a suburb of Lausanne.

Morges, Centre-ville.