Elizabeth Klaver, ed. The Body in Medical Culture. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009. ix + 255 pp. $74.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-2585-6; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4384-2586-3.
Reviewed by Ian Miller (University of Manchester)
Published on H-Disability (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
The Construction and Objectification of the Medicalized Body
Within The Body in Medical Culture, Elizabeth Klaver and her contributors engage with themes related to how concepts and constructions of the body ultimately shape people’s experiences of agency and objectification within medical culture. It is argued throughout that the medicalized body is central to the work of doctors, nurses, medical examiners, and other professionals as an object of scrutiny, and that these groups mediate broader cultural understandings of pathology, illness, and physical transformation during their interaction with the body. Metaphors and models of the body are frequently used to understand medical phenomena, research, and diagnosis. Klaver carefully situates her collection at a mid-point between culture and medicine, adopting a constructivist realism approach, which suggests that an external reality exists outside of cultural representation. In other words, she recognizes a place for the body’s materiality as distinct from the medicalized body.
One of the most impressive features of this volume is the wide range of disciplines represented throughout. It is essentially an interdisciplinary collection, with scholarly contributions drawing from English literature, women’s studies, medical humanities, folklore, sociology, history, and cultural studies. The themes covered are equally diverse, and include discussion of polio and masculinity, sex reassignment surgery, drug marketing, endography, “designer vaginas,” and hospital humor. In relation to disability, the volume is successful in opening up “other” places and “other” people as being included in a much larger set of questions about Western medicine in both historical and contemporary contexts. Similarly, a diverse range of time periods are covered throughout, ranging from analysis of early modern texts to visual cinematography of the present era.
One of the most notable contributions is Hilary Nunn’s discussion of matters related to weight in Renaissance women’s medical manuals, within which she challenges the view that obesity was perceived to be a desirable condition representing access to money and leisure. Instead, she observes that maintaining a more svelte body size was considered to be a highly significant health issue at the time. A further outstanding contribution is made by Hayley Mitchell Haugen, who expands our historical understandings of the patient experience by analyzing the "disabled imagination" of American author Leonard Kriegel. She explores his fascination with a masculine ideal to which he aspires, but can ultimately never achieve. The most fascinating part of this chapter concerns his reflections on the disability and death of Christopher Reeves, who famously played the character Superman, which provide us with a unique insight into the dialogues existing between sufferers of particular conditions.
Catherine Belling offers an insightful analysis of the themes raised within Robin Cook’s novel Coma (1977), within which the body’s living interior is established as a site where doctors can tell gripping stories. The context of a mystery plot concerning coma patients emerged in a time of uncovering of hospital-managed conspiracy to induce coma in healthy patients in order to remove their organs and to sell them. The gendered potency of the 1970s medical profession is also creatively considered, and the novel (and subsequent film) is situated within the context of the rise of bioethics, which incorporated an insistence on patient autonomy and informed consent. This had its roots in the women’s rights movement, which called into question paternalistic power, as well as the power over knowledge of the physician.
Finally, Lisa Gabbert and Antonio Salud II’s piece on hospital humor is particularly noteworthy, challenging Foucauldian ideals of rationalized order, and suggesting instead that human bodies don’t always follow institutional scripts in practice. Humor is often found in high-stress occupations, being an important communicative strategy for doctors and health-care professionals in the hospital setting, and subverting biomedical discourses. Hospital humor is notoriously off-color, scatological, sexual or gallows-orientated, and is typically directed at patients, their diseases, their bodies, necessary medical procedures, and even medical workers themselves.
Overall, Klaver's collection of essays on the body in medicine is interesting, intelligent, and readable, as well as being a good take on an important topic in both cultural studies and the medical humanities.
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