The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science and the Great War

Stefanous Geroulanos and Todd Meyers (writers). The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science and the Great War (2018), University of Chicago Press, 432 pp, £26.50.

by Linda Roland Danil

In this book, Geroulanos and Meyers mainly explore the emergence of a new approach towards corporeal integration in physiology during and after WWI. The first major issue with the book is that it is excessively descriptive at the expense of critical analysis, and the writing style has a tendency to be unnecessarily verbose. The chapters are also structured differently, with some containing conclusions and others not, which makes the book feel slightly disjointed. Another issue is that the main thesis, or theses, of the book are not unambiguously, distinctly set out at the very beginning of the book, and seem to unfold more concretely and fully as the book progressed. What is certain, however, is that the authors are interested in the emergence of the study of the body from an integrationist, whole-body perspective that is not based on an evolutionary and phylogenetic basis, as it had been prior to WWI; and the interplay of the biological and the social.

Moreover, physiology is a central focus of the book, specifically consequent to the identification of hormones in 1905 by the English physiologist Ernest Starling. Through a new approach towards corporeal integration, physiology comprised studying the ways in which integration occurred through the intertwining of the body’s agencies, organs and systems, and included sciences like neurology, endocrinology and surgery. The integrated, self-regulated body was not without its stakes, however, since as the authors point out, ‘[…] even minor disequilibrium could cause systemic collapse.’ (5) The authors also examine how systems of thought and terms such as integration, crisis and collapse in the medico-physiological realm migrated to, paralleled with, or interplayed with political, legal and economic thought. The parallels drawn in this regard, and the political and economic uses of language and systems of thought derived from the medico-physiological arena, are interesting. Here, some physiologists were drawn to emphasizing the metonymy between the physical body and the body politic, and to stress the importance of economic and social integration in the face of crisis. As the authors argue, ‘[…] political and economic uses were closely aligned with physiology’s metaphorical and semiotic universe precisely because they discussed the collapse and reconstitution of bodies politic and economic.’ (29)

In spite of the aforementioned flaws, the book does contain some very interesting discussions. For example, as the authors argue, war, and in this context WWI specifically—offered unique opportunities for the emergence of new medical understandings. As they argue, ‘By shattering and disfiguring the body, the war placed demands on medical thought that the laboratory had not’ (7). Regardless of whether or not war does indeed spur on medical advances—a topic that has received some attention and debate in war and medicine literature—the authors do offer an interesting point: war can provide situations and opportunities that peacetime does not. For example, the institutional and ethical dilemmas of directly experimenting on human beings were bypassed, since ‘Battle provided a ready-made experimental situation in which research and physiological experimentation came under the heading of care, therapy, and rehabilitation.’ (37) A quote by the American surgeon George Washington Crile brings to the fore the fact that WWI offered the opportunity for the study of fear and exhaustion in human beings and not just animals, and in Europe, such opportunities were ‘[…] now abundant and they may never again be available on such a scale’ (37; of course, we now know how wrong Crile would unfortunately turn out to be).

Another noteworthy discussion occurs in Chapter 7, in which Geroulanos and Meyers explore, amongst other things, the subject of psychoanalysis. Geroulanos and Meyers discuss one of the most thought-provoking insights that Freud propositioned in relation to trauma. For Freud, trauma involves not just the external traumatic event, since its effect and efficacy comes from within. Therefore, what is going on internally is just as important as the actual traumatic event. The breach of the barrier that the traumatic event causes results in a flooding of the mental apparatus with a large amount of stimulus. For Freud, and in contradistinction to the intrusion model by WWI theorists of shell-shock such as W.H.R. Rivers, it was not the stimulus that mattered as much as the interior preparation and response to it. Freud’s theory was therefore commensurate with his theory of deferred action—whereby trauma was posited as requiring more than a single event. The discussion raises important questions and tensions, such as: how much of Freud’s approach can be viewed as victim-blaming, that is to say, as blaming those who have suffered trauma for not being sufficiently internally prepared and for having responded inadequately—and inversely, how much can Freud’s approach be actually viewed as empowering for the victim, and in this conceptualization, the survivor of trauma?  Without a doubt, one of the advantages of Freud’s approach is that it returns to survivors a certain degree of agency and autonomy, and the opportunity to view trauma as something that can be effectively conquered. The downside, of course, is that Freud’s approach seems to implicitly conceptualize trauma as being part-and-package of the survivor’s lack of resilience and inability to effectively respond and deal with it—thereby partially blaming him/her/them for the trauma itself.

A further highly interesting moment occurs in Chapter 9, when the authors provide a close reading of an excerpt from Ernest Starling’s 1923 Harveian Oration before the Royal College of Physicians (with his speech being entitled ‘The Wisdom of the Body’) The speech, through its language of continuity and interdependence of the organs in ensuring bodily functioning, displaced the heart as the ‘sovereign king’ (294) (in the terminology of the 17th century English physician William Harvey) over the rest of the body. The description of the displacement of the heart as the reigning sovereign is both fascinating and beautiful, restoring as it does a rightful sense of dignity and parity to other organs. As the authors put it, ‘[…] the point of the law of the heart, like the force of hormones, was that there no single seat of power, no univectoral direction of force out of the heart, no hegemon and no subjects’ (295).

To conclude, the book offers some stimulating discussions in relation to developments in physiology during and after WWI, and specifically new understandings in relation to the body as an integrated whole. It further offers some discussions that this reviewer found particularly beautiful, some of which are discussed in this review, which made the book well-worth the read. Finally, the book could be of interest to those interested in the history of medicine, war and medicine, and psychoanalysis, amongst others.

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