Monthly Archives: September 2012

I have to say, this takes the idea of corporeal autobiography in a whole new direction. what does transposed flesh tell? Whose stories does it tell? And where’s Donna Haraway when you need her?

From the article:

“In what could be the ultimate in personalized medicine, animals bearing your disease, or part of your anatomy, can serve as your personal guinea pig, so to speak. Some researchers call them avatars, like the virtual characters in movies and online games.”


Today’s post brought to you through the good folks at Nursing Clio, a really fabulous blog on all things histories, bodies, medicine, gender and politics. The blog’s tagline – “Because the personal is historical” – says it all. On Sunday mornings, Nursing Clio publishes a post called “Sunday Morning Medicine,” a compendium of random blog posts, newspaper articles and images that relate to the kinds of things the blog’s authors find interesting, important and relevant.

Here, for your delectation, is one of those links from yesterday’s Sunday Morning Medicine:
What’s interesting, at least to me, about this anatomy book are the assumptions made by the authors: medical students are male, medical students are hetero and therefore, medical textbooks that cater to these normative (and yes, essentialist) categories will be successful. It’s an equation that many of us try to make in current courses as well: how do we best make our material accessible and engaging to our audience? But these assumptions – together with the images themselves – also tell us a lot about the society in which this text is produced. They tell us about how desire is imagined, who gets to imagine desire and what counts as desirable, for example.

And another thing this book reminds us is that, in the words of Edward Halperin (in a link helpfully provided by one of the commenters on the blog post), author of an article on the genesis of this particular book:

“medicine is fundamentally a social activity which occurs in the context of social mores and customs, that there is rarely a consensus on how to display the human body for anatomical education, that mutual respect between student and teacher or author and reader is an essential element of education, and that a teacher must be mindful of the risks of imposing his/her views regarding controversial social subjects on students.”

We all bring our biases into our research; it’s an inevitable aspect of the human condition. We can’t escape it. Our histories, our politics, our heritage, our experiences…all of this affects the questions we ask, the ways we go about finding answers, the kinds of analyses we undertake and the stories we ultimately  tell. And while we might just see this textbook as a curious find of nothing more than antiquarian interest, I think it can serve a higher purpose: it might just, even for a moment, allow us to make our own world strange; it might allow us to consider some of the bodily assumptions that we take for granted, assumptions that, I suspect, will form the basis of the next generation’s cabinet of medical curiosities.

I’m thinking about the margins today. To be honest, I’m usually thinking about the margins. I love abjection. I love Anzaldúa’s mestiza consciousness, I love Chandra Mohanty. I’m all about borders, boundaries, margins and the liminal spaces between otherwise fixed categories (or at least seemingly fixed categories).

But I’m thinking about literal margins today. You know, that white space between the text and the edge of the page. For some, it’s a hallowed space that needs to be kept fresh and clean and neat and, above all, white. For others, like me, it’s a space to draw stars and arrows. It’s a space for question marks and sometimes, for exclamation marks. It’s a space to write notes, scribble words and ideas. It’s the best part of the book, in fact, because it’s there where the thinking that unites author and reader manifests itself.

Margins can also be politically productive spaces. At the 2010 conference of the International Auto/Biography Association, I learned about a resourceful suffragette who, even while jailed (and officially forbidden to write), managed to write her autobiography.  Inmates were allowed to read, but not allowed to write…so how did she do this? Well, she brought in a book of her favourite poems and sewed a pencil into the hem of her skirt. Poetry has the advantage – for the autobiographer – of wide margins. This suffragist (whose name escapes me, unfortunately, and the conference program is at work rather than here, at home) filled every single blank space in her volume of poetry (I seem to recall it was Byron, but perhaps that’s not the case. It seems too good to be true…). An artist, she also drew in the margins. And now, because of her resourcefulness – and because of those conveniently wide margins –  we have an auto/biographical fragment that otherwise would not have been written. Magic in the margins.

Margins can also be a site for initiating conversation.  Interviewed in a feature article on marginalia in the National Post (which was, evocatively, published complete with its own marginalia), David Spadafora observes that:

“There are clearly occasions where the maker of the marginalia has an intended audience — perhaps even future people who do not yet exist — and who are writing so as to touch someone else, somehow. Why did Thomas Jefferson, in The Federalist [essay collection], see it fit to annotate the text with a key that tells us who wrote those anonymous articles? Surely, Jefferson didn’t do that just to remind himself. Surely, he had another audience in mind.”

Margins are important in my work as well. Patients use margins to disagree with their doctors, for example, or to add details that they had forgotten. Doctors use marginalia to expound on a certain point. Margins, in this sense, are part of an ongoing conversation. Sometimes the margins serve a purely practical purpose: the correspondent has run out of room and uses the margins to finish off the letter. Other writers leave us with no margins at all. Instead, they fill every corner of their paper, cramming it completely full of text.

Michael Stolberg, who has examined extant copies of Tissot’s Avis au people sur sa santé, a book that a large number of Tissot’s patients claimed they’d read (and that they said they relied on for any medical need they had), observes that marginalia can give clues as to how individuals read. In the case of the Avis, it seems that the book was used as an encyclopedia. Patients read – and commented on – passages that were directly relevant to their health. The extant copies do not provide evidence that they were read from cover to cover. Perhaps, then, we might be best taking patient ‘truths’ with a grain of salt; perhaps their comments were nothing more than posturing, the genuflecting required in the presence of greatness.

But I’m not entirely satisfied with that response. After all, this conclusion is based on an examination of extant copies, and that, in itself, is limiting. For a work that was so immensely popular (going through innumerable printings and several translations, even before the end of the eighteenth century), there are relatively few extant copies, and this begs a number of questions: Were some copies so well read that they fell apart with age, their pages so well thumbed that, over time, they crumbled and the books destroyed? Is it possible that other books – filled with marginalia – existed?

“It’s International Book Week,” many of my Facebook friends’ status updates proclaim this week. They then invite me to take part in the latest meme: going to page 52 or 53 or 54 of our nearest book and typing out the fifth sentence.

These sentences, taken out of context, are sometimes amusing, sometimes curious, and sometimes, just plain gruesome. One friend hastened to clarify that “her” sentence, which featured a woman apparently stroking a sinewy male arm, was not taken from the erotic bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey. Others, it seems, have also taken care to present themselves in a flattering light. The sentences are all miniature masterpieces. It’s clear that not just any book was chosen; rather, these sentences appear to reflect the personalities of their tellers.

It’s a careful balancing act, to be sure. Take my own case, for example. When I noticed the request, I was getting final touches ready for my graduate seminar in Feminist Methodologies and Epistemologies. Among other readings, we’re using Allison Jaggar’s edited collection, Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader for that course. But I had also just returned from the library, where I’d picked up a brand new book, the 2011 English translation of Michael Stolberg’s 2003 book, Homo patiens. Krankheits- und Körpererfahrung in der Frühen Neuzeit.

Now it’s pretty obvious – at least to me – which book would have the tastier morsel to share.  By sharing, I also ensured that my name – and my identity – aligned themselves neatly with Stolberg’s conceptual world. And so I pulled Stolberg into the meme-web and shared sentence five from page 52:

“Tongue biting, which is considered typical today, was hardly ever mentioned, but many patients and their relatives did report foaming at the mouth, and, as a particularly characteristic symptom, thumbs turned inward toward the palm.”

Ten minutes later, I received a satisfyingly disgusted response from my friend.  Presentation of self through the words of others successfully completed. You see, it’s all in the packaging. I also carefully used Stolberg’s German title. After all, in North American climes, a German title sounds much more exotic and, indeed, scholarly and intellectual, than this decidedly prosaic English title:  Experiencing Illness and the Sick Body in Early Modern Europe.  Serviceable, yes. Scintillating, not so much. As a marker of identity, German tongue biting was by far the best option.

So what does Prof. Dr. Stolberg have to say? In essence, he lays out groundwork that will be essential for my own project. Examining a formidable array of primary source documents, among them extensive letter collections, Stolberg paints a picture of how it was that patients experienced and understood their illnesses, and further, how their understandings intersected with those of medical professionals during the early modern period. In this, he extends terrain originally explored and mapped by Barbara Duden in her still revolutionary book, The Woman Beneath the Skin. It also contributes to ongoing conversations in the history of medicine and the history of the body in the early modern period.

With its impressive archival foundations – drawing on material from archival collections in Amsterdam, Arnhem, Avignon, Bamberg, Basel, Bern, Bologna, Bremen, Dresden, Erlangen, Frankfurt, Geneva (phew! I’m exhausted and I’m only at ‘G’!), Hamburg, Köln, Lausanne, Leiden, London, Munich, Nürnberg, Paris, Regensburg, Schwerin, Stuttgart, Utrecht, Weimar and Wiesbaden (and now, I’m definitely out of breath) – this book offers a fantastic overview of the situation across Europe during the period that concerns me most, while still leaving untouched the ideas that interest me most;  namely, the role of the body in the construction of political virtue.  Body politics. That’s where my heart lies. Unsurprisingly, it’s also where a lot of my blog postings seem to go. Like the fifth sentence of page 52, they, too, function as a sort of autobiographical repository…

I’m handing the microphone over to one of my graduate students today. Margot Maddison-MacFadyen is a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary PhD program here at MUN and she’s been working on The History of Mary Prince, the first black woman to escape from slavery and to publish her story (a story produced in collaboration with Susanna Strickland – later Susanna Moodie of Roughing it in the Bush fame – and Thomas Pringle, both of whom worked for the Anti-Slavery Society in the UK).

Margot’s interests stem from her time living on the Turks and Caicos Islands and she’s already done some fabulous work situating Mary Prince not just as a literary figure (which she’s been since Moira Ferguson resurrected the History in the late 1980s) but also as an historical figure. Margot’s passion is also driven by her discovery that many children on the Turks and Caicos Islands had no idea who Mary Prince was, even though her story was so evocative that the History appeared in three editions within the first year of its publication (and was contested in court), and even though the Islands’ slaving past is literally carved into the landscape: the vestiges of the salt ponds and the slave quarters still remain today, physical scars of a painful and troubled history.

Margot is also an active “creative” writer, whose writing extends through creative non-fiction and into stories and poems.

It’s this mix of interests, passions, activities and writing that comes together in a piece that Margot wrote for the Newfoundland Quarterly in 2011. “Looking for Annie Saint” describes Margot’s journey in search of her great-great grandmother.

“”Listen,” said Aunt Sue,” this piece begins.

“”Someone’s got to go to Newfoundland and find Annie before it’s too late.” Someone turned out to be me, accompanied by my husband Gary, who is always up for an adventure, and that’s how we two mainlanders, me a British Columbian and Gary a New Brunswicker, wound up traipsing through the cemeteries of Bonavista in the summer of 2007. Although we never found Annie’s grave, we found much, much more. We found my family.”

Years ago, I read that those who worked in ice-cream parlours knew an awful lot about their customers. Apparently, the kind of ice cream and number of scoops chosen gave insight into an individual ice cream consumer’s career. I don’t remember what the links were, but these scoopers were clearly able to associate certain flavours with certain professions.

Autobiography emerges in the most curious of spaces.

I thought of this as I walked to school this morning. It was 7:30. A wonderful, sunny day. And the streets were far more active than they’d been throughout the summer. It’s garbage pick up day in my neighbourhood, which meant that I had to be careful to walk around garbage bags along the route.

I’ve always wondered if garbage collectors have the same kind of insider knowledge as ice cream scoopers. I wonder what stories our garbage tells and I wonder if those stories are at all reflective of who I consider myself to be. To my neighbours, these stories remain shrouded in mystery, buried behind the black “walls” of our garbage bags. This is, I suspect, as it is meant to be: a garbage bag is a covenant of privacy. If you can’t see mine, I also can’t see yours. Your stories, your secrets are safe.

Of course, those covenants are, sometimes, broken. When we lived in The Hague, the garbage police (well, that’s what we called them) had no qualms about pawing through garbage if they discovered that you had put your garbage out improperly.

Garbage, too, has been a most useful source of insight for archaeologists. Privies – and their contents – can be treasure troves. In this case, one person’s junk is, quite literally, another person’s treasure.

But let’s get back to our own world. And our demure black garbage bags filled with hidden mysteries, hidden treasures. They don’t tell me much. They just tell me how much garbage, on average, a given household produces in a week.

But today isn’t just garbage day, it’s also recycling day. Unlike garbage, recycling only gets picked up every other week. And unlike garbage, it’s placed in transparent blue bags; one for paper and one for plastics and metals.

Suddenly, my walk to work becomes an exercise in illicit voyeurism. Suddenly, my neighbours’ stories are visible. Suddenly they are right there in front of me. And just as suddenly, I’ve become an ice cream scooper, parsing people’s identities through the traces of products and selves they leave behind.

If I wanted to, I could tell you who drinks 1% milk or 3.25% milk. I could also tell you who doesn’t drink milk at all. In the next block, I see tissue boxes, flour bags, cans of dog food, and a bar fridge box. Down the road, I see orange boxes, the plastic containers that washed spinach comes in. I see newspapers, magazines and cans of Pepsi. Across the street, I spot juice boxes. And I can tell if you use the store brand or the name brand. I can tell your shoe size. And when you pass me by, you, too, have read my story in the cans, bottles, papers and boxes that I have left behind.

Do I know you by what you consume? Do you know me?