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Reviewed by:
  • Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness, and: Illness and the Limits of Expression
  • Rita Charon (bio)
Lisa Diedrich. Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007. 224 pp. ISBN 978-0-8166-4698-2, $67.50.
Kathlyn Conway. Illness and the Limits of Expression. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2007. 158 pp. ISBN 978-0-472-11619-5, $50.00.

Scholarly and creative writing about the events and experiences of illness has escalated recently for reasons too numerous to count and too telling to say. Even those who write about these phenomena, I submit, do not know exactly why they do so. There seems to be a summons to write about the body, as if some powers of the cosmos have directed our collective attention to corporeal situations—pain, pleasure, bliss, aging, dying, being ill, sometimes getting better. Two recent publications, one by a psychotherapist and the other by a literary scholar, illuminate in startling ways both the subject and the summons to examine it.

Psychotherapist Kathlyn Conway admits that she herself has been seriously ill with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer. Having published a memoir (Ordinary Life: A Memoir of Illness), she moves here into a conceptual/ reflective stance, taking advantage of her own having lived through the ordeals she examines to achieve meaning-making theorizing for herself and her colleagues in illness. Lisa Diedrich does not reveal any personal motives for having embarked on a study of other peoples’ illness narratives, nor should she feel a duty to do so. As a scholar of cultural and literary studies, Diedrich deploys the formal approaches of textual criticism to expose the inner workings of narratives published by seriously ill and dying persons. Illuminated by one another’s efforts, these two books reveal to us—shockingly and primally—what is at stake not necessarily in being sick, but in an existence that includes illness at all.

Treatments promises, in its introductory apparatus, to be an analyticodiagnostic examination of representing illness and even of being ill—or, as Diedrich oddly calls it, doing illness. Initially, the book seems as if given from a plateau of academic separation—a bit cool, hyper-referenced, seeming to want to prove itself a rigorous scholarly undertaking. Its reader is reminded that this book began its life as a doctoral dissertation, and some early stretches, whether written early in the process or not, seem destined less for one’s readerly eyes than some supervisor’s corrective marginalia. But something happens to the writing and the thinking and the experience of absorbing it along the way. Gradually, as account after account of horrible illness and tragic loss unfold in the author’s treatment of the works under study, the reader is suffused with a deep sadness, a sense not of the literary merit of this [End Page 740] memoir or that, but rather, of our collective tragedy as organisms destined without fail to sicken and die.

Although Diedrich explores the political and cultural currents of the changing landscapes of professional dominance and patients’ rise to power (e.g., in AIDS and breast cancer activism), she seems most committed to exposing the individual, interior, subjective, existential ramifications and potentials of illness. Calling illness a “crisis of subjectification,” Diedrich aligns her project with Foucault’s study of sexuality and power, hinting that, today anyway, being sick propels the individual not on a simple search for cure or care, but rather, a do-or-die, no-stakes-higher, elemental transformation and then confrontation with the self one is (25). As Treatments proceeds, the psychoanalytic aspects of “doing” illness—following Leo Bersani’s notion that writing (and other aesthetic works) makes desire visible—govern the discussion of the function of illness writing. A controversial though ultimately supported hypothesis is offered that “illness has the capacity to unbind the ego from the internal super-ego, and from the external, cultural super-ego as well” (59). Such a claim almost makes illness seem a necessity in post-modern life, as perhaps it has become.

Like its object—sickness—itself, the book winds silently and organically toward a systemic entropic halt. This is...