Book Review: “Body Talk in the Medical Humanities: Whose Language”

by Teodora Manea

Jennifer Patterson and Francia Kinchington (eds): Body Talk in the Medical Humanities: Whose Language, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019, pp. 311

Body Talk in the Medical Humanities: Whose Language?This book explores different discourses around the body, focusing on the idea of body-talk and body language. The complexity of this topic is generated by the fact that we all have individual bodies defined not only by biological and physical particularities, but also by our complex socio-cultural environment. The interest of medical humanities in exploring different expressions of body-talk is motivated by the idea that modern biomedical discourse – in its scientific construction – operates with an abstract, generalised idea of body that loses individual particularities. Therefore, the book offers multiple perspectives on analysing, understanding and perceiving bodies and lays out a good platform of reflection especially for clinicians and medical education in generally. There are rich ideas here appealing to medical sociology, history, philosophy of medicine, art and humanities in general.

The contributing authors’ backgrounds cover the medical humanities’ polymorphic shape from medicine to art, encompassing psychiatry, radiology, music, printmaking, neurology, gerontology, visual arts, history, paediatrics, etc. The book is refreshing by gathering voices of people with particular body experiences like syndactyly (Stephen Bell), disability under different gender perspectives (Abha Khetarpal and Satendra Singh), women’s experiences of ageing with HIV (Jacqui Stevenson) and ageing and losing agency (Toni Mortimer). Paul Dakin explored the deaf culture and the sign language through what he calls the ‘speech without sound’.

After exploring various experiences and constructions of bodies in the first two sections, the following three sections investigate the idea of language covering voices, communication (Bridget MacDonald), narratives of doctors (Haris Haseeb) and translations of images (Deborah Padfield and Caz Greenwood). An excellent chapter by Nicola Demonte discusses Frida Kahlo’s work through her medical experiences and artistic expressions of a broken body.

The leitmotif of the book, body-talk, manifests itself in many voices, many systems of reference, and these are culturally and symbolically transmitted by different types of discourse. The contributors’ various nationalities and cultural experiences help the reader understand a complex range of body politics and political agendas generated by different healthcare cultures and institutions.

A thought-provoking chapter is written by Im Kyung Hwang around the politics and ethics of immunity – a topic that has suddenly gained such a global relevance during the pandemic. He analyses several metaphorical representations of illness in conjunction with body politics along history, from Chinese texts presenting the body as a bureaucratic system to the Greek humoral theory emphasising the harmony and balance of bodily fluids. The connexion between body, hospital and society leads to the idea that only a doctor-philosopher can diagnose the contradictions of a society, contradictions reflected in the social and individual bodies. Etymologically, ‘epidemic’ referred to demos (people) and had a geopolitical meaning. On the same note, ‘immunity’ is a complex concept shared between law, medicine, philosophy and biology, with an initial ancient Roman meaning of ‘being exempt from public duties and responsibilities’ (p.106). From there, immunity connects life and politics in various ways, with a dominating recent understanding – especially under the discourse of immunology – as a military metaphor.

The style of chapters is very different, ranging from scientific (Elisa Groff) to poetic (Hilly Raphael, Sarah Frossell and Jenni Mair) and other aesthetic forms of expression (Saam Idelji-Tehrani and Muna Al-Jawad). Essential for this topic is also the cross-cultural experience, present here from the Chinese medicine perspective (Cinzia Scorzon) to French elderly and palliative care (Patricia Floriet). The book somehow reflects the heterogeneity of medical humanities, with different discourses often complementing each other.

While different perspectives on the same topic are refreshing and thought provoking, there is a general impression of an eclectic collection of texts, with some texts better engaging with the main topic than others. For example, Groff’s text on Reading Bones combines medicine and archaeology, but remains in several places quite technical and hard to follow without specialist knowledge. Similarly, technical and discipline-specific is J.A. Smith’s chapter regarding the normal and the pathological as ‘ecological phenomena’. Smith uses thermodynamics, sociology, and theoretical biology to introduce three very specific concepts: ‘systems far-from-equilibrium, path dependency and the next adjacent-possible’ (p.128). To those, four other key concepts are added (1. the auto-eco-organisation and auto-exo-reference, 2. the adaptive unconscious, 3. affect theory and 4. the contribution of adaptive/transformative learning theory). However, his conceptual frame is too complex for the purpose and space of the present text, entangling the readers in a dense semantic structure rather than inviting them to further reflections within the field of medical humanities.

Nikolova’s text combining history and etymological enquiries with psychoanalysis is also not entirely convincing. She discussed the role of the doctor in connection with power, from ruler, leader and seer to demiurge and master, but the historical references mixed with psychoanalytical notes do not deliver many sound arguments for her conclusion that science transformed ‘man to a body’ in opposition with the “Greek medicine, which healed man as a person” (p.123).

On the opposite side, Patricia Floriet presents in a humble, understated way her experience as a body listener in French care homes. The text covers a beautiful and significant practice of being-there for people facing death. Her text is moving not only at a personal level, but also opens new spaces for a phenomenological and ethical reflection regarding the role of listening. An excellent chapter by Whalley and Miller approaches the practice of being a patient with sensibility and scholarly skills, combining personal experiences with linguistics, philosophy and performative arts, while remaining faithful to the book’s topic and to the delicate balance that medical humanities have to achieve in order to be able to unify so divergent discourses:

“Language is positioned as the ultimate mediating force from which everything else comes into being. The stories we tell are told from the specificities of our mouths, starting out soft but ossifying into truth as they dry in the air. The sclerotic nature of truth turns us into gladiators, fighting to police the boundaries of our narratives” (p.85)

To conclude, this book invites the reader on a voyage that can teach sensitivity to different forms of body perception, from a visual to a more complex metaphysical one, where the presence of the body of others brings together the most fundamental existential experiences from birth to death.

Dr Teodora Manea is lecturer in medical ethics at the School of Medicine, University of Liverpool.


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