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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 599-600

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Book Review

The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Gender, and Science

The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Gender, and Science. Edited by Paula A. Treichler, Lisa Cartwright, and Constance Penley. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Pp. vii+400; illustrations, notes/references, index. $19.

These essays purport to be about medical imaging and related scientific inscription, about "the development of several key medical and scientific technologies" and "their claims to make the human body--specially the female body--newly visible" (p. 1). New visual and imaging technologies are an important topic for cultural studies and feminist analysis and raise fascinating questions about technology, ideology, politics, and the visible. Several essays in The Visible Woman live up to that promise, notably Lisa Cartwright's on the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project--thoughtful, well argued, and informative; Stacie Colwell's on the then-new technology of cinema in the campaign against venereal disease during World War I; and Sandy Stone's interesting "The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto," which contemplates the male-to-female transsexual's visualization of her new-sexed gender identity.

Some essays take the visual of the title metaphorically and merely harken back to that old feminist chestnut in women's history, "becoming visible." Visible in this reading means "coming into discourse," as in Paula Treichler and Catherine Warren's cogent indictment, "Maybe Next Year: Feminist Silence and the AIDS Epidemic," Anne Ekman's "Beyond 'The Yentl Syndrome': Making Women Visible in Post-1990 Women's Health Discourse," and Mark Rose's elegant and powerful "Mothers and Authors: Johnson v. Calvert and the New Children of Our Imaginations."

Also included are a number of essays simply on women and various medical topics, ranging from endometriosis to allergic and immunological disorders to a lengthy piece on Todd Haynes's Safe (Culver City, Calif.: Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1995), long on plot summary and short on analysis. The rationale for inclusion is sometimes mysterious. This is the case with Michael Bérubé and Janet Lyon's narrative recounting their response, as parents of a Down's syndrome child, to Count us In, a book by two young men with Down's syndrome; with Richard Cone and Emily Martin's well-documented study of allergy, the immune system, and global food economies; and with Vivian Sobchack's petulant, autobiographical account of her angry response to Jean Baudrillard's reading of J. G. Ballard's techno-pornographic novel Crash.

In short, the collection includes some terrific work, but frequently fails to deliver on its initial promise. Some of the most interesting essays do not fit the stated topic, some of the more problematic do. Take Carole Stabile's "Shooting the Mother: Fetal Photography and the Politics of Disappearance," which claims "to analyze the conditions that have made possible the ideological transformation of the female body from a benevolent, maternal [End Page 599] environment into an inhospitable wasteland" (p. 172). Stabile attributes this shift to "the ideological work performed by visual representations of fetal autonomy in the service of New Right politics," and argues, via a reading of the much-analyzed work of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson, that "the division between woman and fetus is historically unprecedented" (pp. 171-72). Yet there is a long history of precisely such division, as I have indicated in Fetal Positions: Individualism, Science, Visuality (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996).

Stabile's useful analysis is undermined by its presentism. Cartwright's essay on the Visible Human Project, by contrast, is powerful in its articulation of a change in anatomical representation precisely because she situates her claims in the context of the long and enduring history of anatomical illustration. Similarly, Rose's essay on what constitutes a mother in the age of new reproductive technologies, and his analysis of the court's appeal to copyright law and intellectual property in surrogate mother cases, owes its power and persuasiveness in part to his discussion of the historical development of the relations between property and authorship.

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