For as long as I can remember, my relationship to my body has been mediated by the media. As a child, I can remember watching television and looking up the maladies discussed in commercials (allergies, heartburn, yeast infections) in our family guide to medicine--in this way much of my knowledge about the body, especially illness, was mediated by visuals and text. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the spring of 2003, this mediation was taken to another level as medical technology and imaging isolated parts of my body for study and in this way led to a sort of fragmentation or dis-membering.
Even before my own illness and surgery, bodily wellness and illness were topics of discussion amongst my family members--who's sick, who's dying, who's getting better, how everyone's digestion has been. Nearly all of us have had major illnesses or surgery and time is often measured for us in relation to these events--the summer Sara had her thyroid out, the fall Bernie ruptured his Achilles tendon, the extended period of time during which Hoagy had no hair. I often wonder why we spend so much time thinking and talking about illness. Are we particularly sickly? Or particularly morbid?
As a result of personal concerns, I decided to begin collecting illness narratives from my family and friends. I was impressed by the response from people interested in contributing and began asking myself and others why we like to talk about illness so much. My mother posits that it's because people like to talk about themselves. My friend Ethan contends that it's because naming things gives us dominion over them. I think it's a little of both.
On a theoretical level (more akin to Ethan's thinking about pain) the genesis for this project emerged from a number of sources and questions.
- Gregg Bordowitz' meditation on his colonoscopy "Present Tense," particularly through his discussion of becoming "witness to [his] body's history" as he watches footage of his intestines on a TV screen and his discussion of viewing one's body as a spectator.
- N. Katherine Hayles' discussion of flickering signifiers, particularly her suggestion that "the longer [a] chain of computer codes, the more radical the transformations that can be effected," which suggests a link between the shared language of informatics and genetics, vis-a-vis coding and mutation.
- Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto discussion on the melting boundaries between humans and machines always makes me think of my mother's titanium knee or the pills that my dad takes with the label that essentially says: "IF YOU ARE A WOMAN, DO NOT COME WITHIN A 10 MILE RADIUS OF THIS MEDICATION."
- What happens when the family tree becomes a web?
- What happens when I put my family (with whom I share a genetic code) into cyberspace (which requires that I "code" our narratives in html)?
- In what ways can this project be used to explore cyborg identity?
- In what ways can this project underscore and/or problematize the ways in which our relationship to our bodies are mediated by the media?
- How do people remember illness? What kinds of details do they focus on?
- What happens when I link my families stories about their bodies to images of other people's bodies available on the web?
- What do I make of this?
With that, I give you Re-membering Dis-membering.
*Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life. Eds. Jennifer Terry and Melodie Calvert. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. 103-105.