body logics

I’ve been spending considerable time thinking about the logic of the body; that is, how is it that we, as individuals and communities and societies, make sense of the stories that our bodies tell us?

What do we do with the information we receive when we enter into conversation with our bodies? You know, the toothaches, or the sinuses, or the headaches? Or the blood? The pus? The sudden rashes? The aches? The pains?

How do we make sense of these stories? How do we respond to them? What logics govern our engagements with our bodies? How do we ensure that all of this makes sense to us?

It’s a question that came up last year while I was teaching a special topics course on “the body” as a critical concept. We were reading parts of Barbara Duden’s still foundational work, The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany. The students were, for the most part, fascinated. But they were also baffled. The bodily logics that governed the thinking of this doctor and his patients were completely alien to them. How could they think this way? And what on earth might that way of thinking have to do with our ways of thinking? For some students (and certainly not all), these eighteenth-century patients (and doctor) were hopelessly naïve, unschooled, primitive….

Ah, the grand metanarrative of progress rears its ugly head….

But then…. serendipity….in the form of a news story from British Columbia: a woman, Rachel Suttie, had gone into labour along the West Coast Trail. Sensational enough as that was, the story was even more remarkable: the woman in question – already a mother of one – didn’t even know that she was pregnant.

It was a perfect opportunity to think about body logic, a perfect window into examining how it is that we make sense of the stories our bodies tell us, and a perfect bridge linking the lives and experiences of those women in eighteenth-century Eisenach with those of my students in twenty-first century St. John’s.

Reading the news more closely, it was quickly apparent that the story was much more complex than the sensational headlines would have had us believe. The woman in question had been pregnant. But at a certain point relatively early in her pregnancy, she miscarried. Her doctor did an internal exam and said things were fine, but referred her to further care should she experience cramping or bleeding. But she felt fine so she didn’t take up the referral.

As far as she was concerned, she wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Shouldn’t she have experienced other symptoms of pregnancy? Especially since she’d had a child before?

Well, yes.

Sure, her period didn’t return, but that can happen after a miscarriage and her period, even prior to her pregnancy, appears to have been somewhat erratic. And sure, she gained some weight, but it wasn’t huge (15 pounds), and she knew from her own experience that her body weight fluctuated. And yes, she was tired, but that, too could be attributed to other causes; namely, the depression that followed the miscarriage (a depression that contributed to her decision to work out and plan for the West Coast Trail hike with her dad). And she hadn’t had any sex since the miscarriage, so why would she be pregnant?

But what about the other bits? You know, food cravings? Needing to pee? Well, even those could be explained away: food cravings could be entirely psychological. Needing to pee could be a side effect of a medication.

Suttie’s body was telling many stories. These stories could be interpreted as pregnancy. But, in the aftermath of a miscarriage, these stories were interpreted and lived very differently: they were experienced as depression and the vagaries of an already relatively “irregular” body.

Our bodies have many, many stories to tell. They are, in fact, always telling us stories. But the way that we interpret those stories is shaped by the world in which we live: by social conventions, cultural practices, histories, politics, religious belief systems, and so much more. And our bodily stories are also shaped by our own lived experiences. My headache may mean something very different if experienced in your body.

And because of this, our sometimes very similar bodily stories have very different – even oppositional – meanings.

It’s this logic that I’m trying to tease out as I return to the eighteenth century. How did individuals interpret the stories their bodies were telling them? How did they make meaning out of their corporeal experiences? And what might any of this have to do with how we live, understand and respond to the stories our bodies tell us today?

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