- The Resuscitation of Dead Metaphors
When I told the Canadian Customs official that I was presenting a conference paper, she languidly enquired what the conference was called. “Incorporating the Antibody,” I replied unthinkingly. She perked up and scrutinized me more closely. “Are you bringing any samples?” she fired back. I looked back at her blankly. “Specimens?” she continued. She laughed at my bewildered gaze. “You’re just reading a paper, right? You’re not carrying any viruses?” I finally and belatedly awoke to my own metaphor and hastened to reassure her that I studied English, not epidemiology, and that the only infectious agents I might be harboring would be the cold viruses I’d contracted on the plane. I recount this anecdote because it illustrates some of the points that “Incorporating the Antibody: Women, History and Medical Discourse” succeeded gloriously in making: namely, that we have become so accustomed to hearing medical discourse employed in figurative contexts that we are no longer alert to its full implications, and that, conversely, practitioners of medicine just as frequently fail to examine the assumptions and consequences of the metaphorical language that they themselves borrow from imaginative writing and other disciplines. The conference title, “Incorporating the Antibody,” expressed, according to conference organizers Elizabeth Harvey and Barbara McLean (Western Ontario), a desire for interdisciplinary feminist scholarship to reclothe with flesh (to re-incorporate) the increasingly disembodied dry bones of medical discourse about women (who have been historically figured as “anti-bodies” in binary opposition to men) and to provide a kind of antidote or antibody to medical and rhetorical complacency. The conference attracted participants from three continents and several walks of life. Speakers included professors, graduate students, and independent scholars of English Literature, Anthropology, History, and American Studies; health-care workers from Australia, Canada, and the U.S. (some of whom expressed anxiety at the growing commercialization of their fields and its uneasy alliance with care-giving); professional and amateur artists; community activists; and concerned parents.
Plenary speaker Emily Martin (Princeton) spoke of her wish to revive or recover clichés and dead medical metaphors and follow them through to their logical conclusions. Her beautifully illustrated presentation on “The Woman in the Flexible Body” began by contrasting early twentieth-century images of the body as machine or fortress, protected from a germ-laden, disease-ridden outside world by the skin, with the “flexible,” three-dimensional, transparent body more familiar to us from images over the past decade. Early depictions of the body’s immune system figure the body as a fortress or castle, surrounded by ramparts and battlements; in this model, the working body and its parts function like a stable mechanical apparatus. More recent images, in contrast, display the body’s struggle against infection as one that takes place both inside and outside the body; they use three-dimensional imaging techniques to treat the skin as an active, permeable boundary rather than a barricade, and the healthy human body as a system working according to the rules of chaos theory—quick, subtle, and responsive to infinitesimal changes in its environment. 1Martin found that these metaphors of flexibility and adaptability travel between popular and scholarly writing on the body’s immune system and advertising campaigns for, among other things, ink-jet printers and employment agencies, and suggested that chaos models might offer us a new way of regarding women’s health. Such a model might, for example, regard menopause as the body’s dextrous response to changing conditions rather than as the shutdown of “normal” functions. She also offered a caveat: while the flexible body might seem to offer us a new and exciting way of looking at the world, it appears in current advertising campaigns as the telosof a late capitalist neo-Darwinism. In today’s employment market, “flexibility” is the key to survival.
The ways in which we figure our bodies reflect our historical notions of selfhood and identity. The postmodern subject’s constantly...