Friday, January 23, 2009

Coughing your guts out (in theory and practice)

Like well-nigh everyone else around me, I have been ill for the last week or so and am only now beginning to emerge from the flu-like exhaustion and concussion-inducing coughs that have forced me to lie very low indeed.

There are good sides to being ill (if "ill" means the kind of ailment that I'm just getting over, rather than a fatal disease).

First, you appreciate your usual physical condition so much more once whatever virus has come to visit you unbidden has worked its way through your system.

Second, for the first time in ages you feel rested because you've had so much more sleep than usual.

Third, being ill provides a certain intellectual satisfaction, as it defies the infantile anti-materialism of the untested "theories" that suffuse your professional world and thus feeds whatever scepticism you might have been harbouring about the same for a while.

Being ill reminds you -- painfully, annoyingly, but also somehow pleasantly -- that you are not a discourse.

Which is why right now, with my lingering repertoire of coughs, rattles and pains, I am particularly sensitive to the eloquent stupidity/stupid eloquence of some of the popular ideas about the body vented in academia not too long ago (a fashion in which I, sadly, participated, too).

Take Jonathan Sawday's The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (1995) -- a study that was enormously influential during the late 1990s, when it fed into a general cultural craze about all things anatomical (manifesting itself for instance in the way that hitherto hardly known names like Andreas Vesalius and Nicolaes Tulp began to be dropped at sub-academic cheese and red wine parties like there was no tomorrow).

On page 16, Sawday writes:
In the twentieth century it is virtually impossible to think about the body outside a prevailing medical-scientific discourse.
Hm. There was a time when I thought lines like that were poetry. No more, though. It's all cheese, as we say here in Germany.

Just for the record, let it be noted that even in the twenty-first century I can still recognise that the stubborn blockage of mucus in my lungs is more than a mere narrative construct. What is more, I want my antibiotics, however prevailing the medical-scientific discourse that has brought me that marvellous gift.

And without the Foucauldian chaser, please!


mikeovswinton said...

I've had that bug too, and I know I am not a discourse. But, and I may be a bit befugged here by the aftereffects of the bug, doesn't your final paragraph rather prove Professor Sawday's point that you quote him on? After all, its anti-biotics you want, and not an exorcism.
"sub-academic cheese and red wine parties". If I were you I'd get that phrase copyrighted sharpish. You might make a bob or two there.

The Wife said...

"... doesn't your final paragraph rather prove Professor Sawday's point that you quote him on? After all, its anti-biotics you want, and not an exorcism."

I guess you're right: there's a bit of an argumentative gap here. I ought to have expanded on Sawday's general critical gist, which is highly compatible with the arguments of the anti science brigade. He is popular, for instance, with feminist historians such as Carolyn Merchant, who denounce modern science as it emerged in the early modern period as ruthless and violent (thereby paving the way for our own destructive relationship with nature).

It's very tempting to conclude from the reality of anatomical dissection -- for the purpose of expanding knowledge -- that real human relationships must have been similarly invasive. In my view, anatomy merely provided early modern people with a welcome and striking metaphor for a very human desire to know about each other.

Where do I get individual sentences copyrighted?

headbang8 said...

You are not a discourse. You are a discourse support system.