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American Literary History 14.1 (2002) 115-129

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Bodies in Waiting:
Representations of Medical Waiting Rooms in Contemporary American Fiction

Laura E. Tanner

In interrogating the assumptions associated with the "normal" body, critics working in the relatively new field of disability studies have problematized conceptions of the body that construct it as a seamless, unfragmented whole mirroring and guaranteeing individual autonomy. The need to regulate and contain the disabled body, Lennard Davis argues in Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (1995), results in a tendency to divide bodies into "two immutable categories: whole and incomplete, abled and disabled, normal and abnormal, functional and dysfunctional" (129). I argue that the medical waiting room provides a space in which the seemingly "immutable" cultural categories Davis describes are fraught, contested, or blurred. As it assigns its inhabitants a body that is symbolically--and often biologically--impaired, the waiting room threatens the mobility and mortality of the "living-moving body." 1 If our culture defines the body as a malleable extension of subjectivity and polices the public presentation of bodies to obscure signs of potential difference, the medical waiting room represents a rare space of public display for the otherwise private fact of illness or imminent death. 2

By revealing the body in the context of its imperilment by mortality, the waiting room also exposes its inhabitants to what Julia Kristeva describes as the threat of the abject, of "death infecting life." The medical waiting room uncovers the body's vulnerability to illness and injury along a continuum that ranges from the physical--the amputated leg of a diabetic or the visible tremors of a patient's hand--to the symbolic--the threat of serious illness that shadows even the most routine mammogram or colonoscopy. My interest in the medical waiting room, then, results in part from [End Page 115] its tendency to collapse the physical and symbolic boundaries between death and life, illness and health, the infected body and its apparently healthy counterpart. As it thrusts into view that which the subject "permanently thrust[s] aside in order to live" (Powers 3), the waiting room both enforces and exposes cultural assumptions about subjectivity, productivity, and health that govern our understanding of our own embodiment.

Critical analyses of the waiting room are, not surprisingly, scarce. Katharine Young's recent study, Presence in the Flesh: The Body in Medicine (1997), touches briefly on the significance of the waiting room in its spatial inventory of the transformations subjects undergo as they gradually move from the identity of "person" to that of "patient." Young locates the transformations she describes in the examining room, on the operating table, and even written on the scars that track the passage of the surgeon's knife across a patient's body. For Young, the medical waiting room functions as the place in which "persons await realm-shift, and await too, the cues that tell them when to shift realms" (17; emphasis added). In moving rapidly through the waiting room, Young's study implicitly reinscribes the purely formal function of a space that resists analysis because it seems to lack content.

Young's willingness to exempt the waiting room from her otherwise comprehensive analysis of medical spaces may register the invisible force with which this liminal space simultaneously asserts its marginality and enforces its symbolic practices. A waiting room, by definition, functions as a place we pass through on the way to somewhere else, a temporary stop rather than a destination. By and large, time spent in a waiting room represents time wasted; the shorter the wait, the more successful our stay. A place where, it would seem, nothing happens, the waiting room holds us only briefly before it sends us on to spaces more visibly marked by content.

The apparently "empty" space of the medical waiting room, however, stages many of our most important cultural assumptions about illness and the body. Although the body always structures our relationship to space, the medical waiting room serves as a place in which we are immobilized in and as...


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