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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15.3 (2004) 123-156



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Visions of Anatomy:

Exhibitions and Dense Bodies

The jumping, modulating lines of heart and brain monitors abound in medical dramas. In them, life is translated: from a living, breathing body into a visual representation. Contemporary popular culture is fascinated with medical machines and their representations and makes them part of everyday public life: X-rays, microscopic views, patients' charts with their temperature graphs, ultrasound scanners—these are all familiar sights in shows such as ER and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (the top-rated show on U.S. television in the early years of the twenty-first century). These popular cultural representations create the large pool of medical vision machines that drive and maintain popular narratives of selves, bodies, death, and life. These images arrive on television screens with a history and a certain authority. As Martin Kemp notes: "We are all likely to have acquired a very definite sense of how images function in modern medicine—seeing their role as broadly educative, ranging from specialist instruction to public information" (13). Discussing different historical moments of medical imagery, Kemp points to some of the issues that open up when photographic realism presents the body (he discusses stereoscopic slides of photographic representations of skin diseases): [End Page 123]

[E]ven such apparently obvious pieces of mechanical realism proved to be fraught with social frissons, particularly with respect to the portrayal of recognizable individuals and the potentials for voyeuristic viewing. No image ever exists within a purely neutral field, no matter how hard its originators may think they are trying.
(15)

Issues of recognizability and identification, pleasure, knowledge, and education are at the heart of the present essay. It traces medical images and their functions in two visualization practices that cross popular culture, art, and science.

The proliferation of medical vision machines, not only in the history of modern Western medicine, but also in many of popular culture's accompanying translations and reimagings, testifies to the problems and desires of vision itself.1 The inside of human bodies is one of the latest frontiers of knowledge. Bodies are messy, unknown, disavowed in their materiality in large parts of everyday life—the body is "the dark, concave, inner side" of visibility (Foucault 237). Foucault describes how the shift from eighteenth-century natural history to nineteenth-century biology engendered a shift of observational emphasis from the outside to the inside. The object, "the body," haunted the new diagnostic vision, since the "life" of the body could only be translated by various representations. In the words of Lisa Cartwright: "Whereas the grid of natural history brought living beings to full knowledge, biological representation seeks to get at what cannot be seen in a process that makes all the more evident the disjuncture between representation and 'object' (or body)" (10).

For Foucault, this shift between different paradigms of medical knowledge is a shift in visuality, characterizing a form of specialization, a new diagnostic gaze. In much popular culture, for instance in TV series such as CSI or in films like the Alien trilogy, the resulting dark places that are nevertheless holders of "life" are border areas, the points where wet inside and dry outside meet (see Creed 42, 50). By virtue of their strange generative function, they are places of abjection. And, as historians of science show, the history of anatomy and its correlating visualization techniques is tied to the desire to find secure knowledges, to find stable referents in relation to the messiness of human bodies.2 Part of this messiness is the sensory emptiness of so much of the body's workings, and the sites of this emptiness are not culturally neutral: different ways of knowing bodies, that is, different bodies, create different blind spots and sensitivities. [End Page 124] Although we tend to perceive our own bodies as an object in space (proprioception), the inside of our bodies offer unchartered areas to our senses. Drew Leder observes that "[u]nlike the completed perception of the proprioceptive body, our...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1986
Print ISSN
1040-7391
Pages
pp. 123-156
Launched on MUSE
2004-10-29
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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