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  • Body Politics: Webs of Embodiment, Medicine, Science, Technology, Nature and Culture
  • Carolyn DiPalma (bio)
Zillah Eisenstein, Manmade Breast Cancers (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001)
Susan Greenhalgh, Under the Medical Gaze: Facts and Fictions of Chronic Pain (Berkeley: University of California Press 2001)
Roddey Reid and Sharon Traweek, eds., Doing Science + Culture (New York: Routledge, 2000)
Gail Weiss and Honi Fern Haber, eds., Perspectives on Embodiment: The Intersections of Nature and Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999)

Body politics refers to the operations of power in topics ranging from issues about abortion, anatomy, anorexia, and opinions on tattoos, toxicology, and transsexuals, to facts about diseases, death, disciplines, and convictions about race, rationality and research. The history of the human body is political: it has been conceptualized, illustrated, re-presented, explained and interpreted differently at various times. It has been lived differently, brought into being within widely dissimilar material cultures, subjected to various technologies, medical interventions, scientific expectations and cultural controls, and incorporated into diverse cadences of production and consumption, pleasure and pain. These differences are the result of various powers at work. Biology, for example, is not the body, it is a discourse — a story we tell ourselves. Cultural ideals of sex, gender, race, and sexuality masquerade as scientific wisdom or “facts of nature,” changing over time. Medical knowledge is often a best guess judgment call based on fashionable facts, limited lenses, and the politics of promise. And, the legal requirements placed on juridical subjects are often grounded in bodily-based vectors of power that are later revealed to be passing social constructions or results of current scientific style. Body-building, pacemakers, artificial hearts, dialysis, cosmetic surgery, cinema, television, photography, airplane seat size, electric carts, wheelchairs, swim-suit material, sports equipment and other technological innovations have subtly altered the dimensions and markers of what counts as “natural” and “abject” bodies. Boundaries set by academic disciplines, research agendas, organizational membership, corporate interests and personal anticipations function as perimeter patrols for knowledge composition and embodied possibilities. Nodal points within this complex web of narratives offer sites for interrogating body politics. Investigating their presentation within these four books advances the politics of recognizing and re-organizing the production of both overt and covert themes shaping cognitive associations, daily practices and vectors of power.

When this fruitful but mercurial assortment of books questions relationships, probes issues and interweaves notions of the body and embodiment with those of medicine, technology, science, nature and culture, a variegated fabric of — often strange — encounters result. Here are four memorable examples yielded by this curiously informative blend. First, from Molly Rhodes’ essay in Roddey Reid and Sharon Traweek’s collection: Wonder Woman, the comic book heroine, was authored by the inventor of the polygraph, Harvard-trained lawyer and psychologist, William Moulton Marston, Ph.D. Second, from Zillah Eisenstein: of all women living in western countries, San Francisco Bay Area women have the highest rate of breast cancer; and, breast milk is now the most contaminated of all human food. Third, from Kevin O’Neill’s contribution in Gail Weiss and Honi Fern Haber’s collection: the appearance of “funerary professionals” in the mid-nineteenth century affected a slow change in the photographic representations of the dead from portraits of the dead to familial mourning scenes, thereby literally reimaging life and death as mutually exclusive. And, fourth, from Susan Greenhalgh: the highest rates of fibromyalgia, a young disease defined by committee in 1990 and a painful disorder affecting muscles and other fibrous tissues, are found among women who are fifty or older; and, nearly half of all Americans suffer from one or more chronic conditions. Taken together, this mixed set of examples illustrate the diverse substance of body politics.

Zillah Eisenstein and Susan Greenhalgh have each written poignant feminist accounts of personal encounters with illness. Both books stress an analysis of power at work in medical and cultural practices. A political commentary of her family’s affliction with breast cancer, Eisenstein’s reckoning connects environmental damage, women’s health, and racial variations in both the occurrence and treatment of breast cancer. Greenhalgh’s autoethnography accents power plays and creative interpretations that enable the biomedical domain to create and inflict suffering, to...

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