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104 THE MINNESOTA REVIEW seemed insoluble. As western culture set about solving all problems or developing all markets or opening all wildernesses with its ordering and rationalizing capacity, certain people began realizing the terrible consequences of this. Faced with an apparent frenzy of reason.they reached back into the cultural past or into their own minds for something to redress the balance. If the results have been overly, sometimes sentimentally, atavistic or occasionally dull and self-indulgent, or if instinct and spontaneity are overpraised or praised at the expense of reason, the reasons (if I may say so) for this are real, and it would be reckless to ignore or condemn this poetry. Roger Mitchell Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. Ferrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1978. $5.95 In an essay written in 1967, Susan Sontag described the preoccupation of modern art with silence and its ambivalent attitude toward thepoweroflanguage. "Language is experience not merely as something shared but as something corrupted, weighed down by historical accumulation." ("The Aesthetics of Silence") It is this focus upon the "weight" of language—its absolute structuring of our actions, feelings, and interpretations into a specific field of words, phrases and meanings that precede and ultimately enslave us that has become a dominant theme in literary, sociological, anthropological, and phychological analysis today. Theorists in all of these fields have sought to locate the interconnections between the alienation of human consciousness and the alienation of language. The turn toward language as the foundation of a critique of modern society is ultimately tied to the claim that the deciphering of the linguistic organization of social relations can lead to the uncovering of domination as it expresses itself in the speech and in the sign systems that define daily life. Sontag, in her most recent work, Illness as Metaphor, further develops this theme. Through her short essay, she shows us how metaphor has encapsulated our experiences—how it has reflected as well as formed the most fundamental assumptions of our society. By reading Illness as Metaphor, we are moved to reflect upon the origins of one system of metaphors—the metaphors ofillness—to decode a system of signs and of meanings that offer a significant clue to the unraveling of a society's priorities. Sontag thus shares with such language theorists of society as Berthes, Winch, Habermas, Apel, Foucault, Bernstein and Douglas, a basic claim: to recognize the ways in which a society names its actions and labels its members is to recognize its basic form and the nature of its commitment to the quality of life within its realm. In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag develops a social history of the language of disease. She confronts the reader with myriad examples of TB and cancer images as they provide a vocabulary for the expression of the self, the society, and the polity, in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It is almost as if by explicitly stating these metaphors of disease, we as readers are participating in a ritual exorcism that can allow us liberation from a structure of myth that has created its own victims. In REVIEWS 105 both her descriptions of TB and cancer imagery, Sontag shows us how a "popular mythology" can become imbedded in our everyday conversation; how it takes on a reality of its own; how it attains the status of truth. Sontag has begun to recognize a specific "order ofthings," a "positive unconscious ofknowledge"—and thus, her project shares with Michel Foucault's aninterest in the basic structures ofthought, an archaeology that can aid us in understanding past history as well as our own society. By examining the specific ways in which TB and cancer were used as explanatory tools, Sontag offers many valuable insights significant to a general history of the "self," and to a specific analysis ofthe emergence ofa deeply psychologized social world. However, Sontag's own "archaeology"—her own set ofassumptions—are never carefully examined within her essay. While painstakingly setting forth examples of illness-metaphors, and showing how any metaphor must be considered an historical and social construction, only rendered decipherable through an analysis that seeks to connect language with society, Illness as Metaphortoo easily accepts the total dependency of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 104-106
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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