The intelligible body: machines and cartographies
In the opening of ‘An Everyday Miracle’, part 2 of The Human Body, a voice-over tells us, ‘Professor Winston continues his remarkable journey inside the human body.’ Then we are told, over a pulsating red fleshy wall in a white circle:
You ’re looking at a baby’s heart. It’s beating 120 times a minute. But that’s not the only thing keeping this baby alive. That’s done by the most sophisticated life support machine on earth. To find that machine we have to leave the heart and travel through an artery the thickness of a drinking straw.
A zoom takes us through a dark inner and red outer circle until we hear swooshing noises, and we are told: ‘Through a wall comes the sound of the engine room. It’s a mother’s heart and we’ve just made the journey from the inside of an unborn baby.’ In less than thirty seconds, the spatial and functional relations governing our viewing of the pregnant woman’s body have been established in a combination of visual imaging techniques with verbal analogies using metaphors of a journey. This offers us an imagined geography of the body that is reminiscent of the ‘ethnographic gaze’ of the wildlife documentary but in which the body of the other has been metaphorically transformed to a machine.
It locates the professor as the organizing point of view: it is his journey that we are being invited to share (and admire as ‘remarkable’), and it is his words that will interpret the shifting kaleidoscope of colour we see along the way. The journey metaphor also applies to sperm in what is introduced as the ‘drama of conception’. In a purposeful, but dangerous, journey the sperm race against time to be the first to break through the walls of the egg, while facing ‘many mortal dangers’ in the hostile terrain of the vagina. The egg isn’t simply passively waiting. ‘As they get near the sperm are lured towards their goal by a chemical signal sent out by the egg.’ As Deborah Lupton (1994: 10) argues, ‘Once it is recognised that the ovum plays an active role in fertilization, metaphors of entrapment and aggression, the representation of the ovum as a femme fatale replaced the passive metaphors of the medical texts.’ Thus a heroic masculinity is established, from the single sperm to the eminent professor, both engaged in a quest that typically includes discovery and conquest and tests of prowess. It uses a spatial metaphor to construct a here and there with a clear border between – in this case outside and inside the body – that places the body of the observer within the scene of the ‘other’ who is to be observed. It constructs authenticity – I know, I was there – and thereby underwrites the truth claims of the documentary, especially when the person who knows is already positioned as an expert in the field.
Nicholls (1994) argues that this form is a vehicle of domination, an exercise in know – ledge/power that disavows the acute contradiction between impersonal scientific knowledge and the personal experience on which it is based. It is a tradition that works to legitimize scientific discourse over experiential knowledge. This involves disavowing whiteness and maleness in the body of the observer that constitutes their subjective experience. So too it disavows the representational conventions that construct the knowledge as meaningful, including the conventions of heroic western narrative, the emotional impact of the image and the erotics of the gaze. Instead it references the institutions of science and technology that legitimize knowledge (ibid.: 66-70). Nicholls concludes that in this way of looking, ‘Rather than seeking to make strangeness known, “we” seek to know strangeness. By being beheld at a distance strangeness eludes full comprehension but supports an imaginary coherence. . . what we might more generally call the self that constitutes itself through an imaginary geography’ (ibid.: 74).
Imaging the body as a machine, rather than, for example, a house or a temple, emerged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The nature of this machine has changed alongside technological developments. It has been imagined as clockwork, a combustion engine, a chemical factory and, most recently, as a computerized cybernetic system. It was the discovery of DNA and the genetic code in 1953 that enabled the body to be imagined as a chemical factory, with DNA as the blueprint for manufacturing chemical building blocks. These blueprints were in turn imagined as ‘maps’ to an undiscovered and unchartered territory, a new frontier for the scientist to explore and document. The metaphorical language used is imbued with meanings that work to naturalize gender differences. These metaphors operate within male – dominated scientific and medical institutions that emphasize competition in the race to be the first to make a discovery. The body thus becomes positioned as the focus in a battle for male supremacy in which technology confers an advantage (Lupton 1994: 60-4).
These technologies allow for the unveiling of the body such that its feminine mystique is ‘rendered open to the masculine gaze’ and to exploration (ibid.: 69). ‘A biotechnical gaze restructures space to see the invisible and makes the body intelligible, and controllable on an infinitely small scale as a mosaic of detachable parts’ (Harding 1998: 31). Technical intervention by a male medical profession gradually displaced the midwives’ role in childbirth during the course of the nineteenth century (Lupton 1994: 147). As a consequence, scientific knowledge that emphasizes looking rather than listening became valorized over experiential knowledge. Technological developments in digital imaging have refined this process, allowing for an increasingly mediated visual knowledge of the inside of bodies and their workings (Treichler et al. 1998).
In The Making of the Human Body (BBC Worldwide 2001) we are told that the producer’s intention was ‘to link the outside world with the inside world’ using the imaging techniques made available by medical technology. Imaging technologies offer a simulation of bodily processes through visual analogy. The images on the computer screen depend on existing conceptual models of the body both in the programming of the computer software and in their interpretation (Treichler et al. 1998: 10). Analogy is used in order to restabilize our sense of self, just as in the ethnographer’s film when any strange scene is ‘domesticated by being naively explained as analogous to something in our culture’ (Nicholls 1994: 78). The journey inside of the body can be imagined as analogous to space exploration. The ‘landscape of the interior’ is imagined as a science fiction space adventure, Haraway (1992: 320) argues, where we journey through ‘blasted scenes, sumptuous textures, evocative colours, and ET monsters’. In The Human Body, the producer wants to use the ‘aesthetic charm and style of television graphics’ to simulate the sensation of ‘flying through the body’. Winston’s commentary also draws on this space imagery: ‘We’re inside one of the fallopian tubes – heading towards the ovary – and at the end of the tube there it is – that huge white moon’. In Haraway’s view these strange, alienating scenes destabilize our sense of perspective about our bodies as a self-contained, knowable part of self and ‘we seem invaded. . . by our own strange parts’ (ibid.).
The use of existing cultural imagery to interpret these medical images is one of the many ways in which film and television cultures cross over with medical imaging (Treichler et al. 1998). The image of the foetus provided by foetal ultrascans has been compared to the already circulated image of astronauts floating in space, joined to the space ship by the umbilical cord. It has given impetus to the notion that the foetus is a fully constituted human being, distinct from the mother (Lupton 1994: 151-5; Harding 1998: 31-3; Stabile 1998). This ultrascan image has been incorporated into diverse social relations and practices, from anti-abortion campaigns to its inclusion in the family album as the first picture of the new baby. In The Human Body, the emphasis is on its facilitating the inclusion of the father in the experience of pregnancy: ‘I feel like I’m only looking on from the outside – there are times when I wish I could feel the physical side of things so I could understand more.’ In fact it is only when he sees the ultrascan image that he realizes there is something in there. Imaging technologies can help men to overcome their sense of exclusion from women’s embodied experience of pregnancy, allowing them to establish a relationship with the foetus that exists independently from their relation to the pregnant woman.
The appropriation and control of pregnancy and childbirth by a technologically oriented medical profession is argued to have been accompanied by a down-grading of embodied knowledge. As a consequence, women’s own experience of pregnancy as a source of knowledge is considered inadequate (Lupton 1994: 147-60). ‘An Everyday Miracle’ is consistent with this tendency. The programme is entirely motivated by the possibilities created by visual technologies to create a spectacle of pregnancy, rather than to explore how it feels. Although it chooses to focus on a couple, who are interviewed about their experience of the pregnancy, they are completely subordinate to the computer graphics and to Professor Winston’s commentary. Winston assures us that, ‘Even when we live through it, experiencing the months of pregnancy first hand, our bodies still conceal the marvel of what’s going on within.’ While we might overlook this use of ‘we’ as simply the product of a desire to be inclusive of the audience’s experience, it is also an example of Nicholl’s complaint against the universalizing tendencies of the scientific mode of address in documentaries. By including himself in this ‘we’ who will experience the months of pregnancy first hand, Winston evades the gender-specific nature of this knowledge and his own embodied subjectivity. Although his own role as an infertility consultant who creates life outside the womb might give him more excuse for thinking he can share in this experience, the truth is he can only see what is going on. The ‘real’ of the woman’s body, the secrets of its interior, remain in experiential terms forever beyond the panoptican ambitions of ‘the deeply predatory nature of the photographic consciousness’ (Haraway 1991).
The feminist critique of the medical control over childbirth emerged in the 1970s from the belief that women’s experiential knowledge, grounded in the female body, offered a way to counteract male dominance. Women’s supposed closer relation to the body and to nature was appropriated as offering a source of resistance to technoscience as a system of domination. Since then, the development of technofeminism, following from Haraway’s (1991) publication of The Manifesto for Cyborgs, questions any necessary connection between technoscience, the machine metaphor and male domination over nature and, by extension, women’s bodies. She argues that feminist politics should refuse the binary distinctions that sustain the hierarchies of modernity. In this view, rather than evading technological domination through calls to a return to nature, women should be embracing its possibilities. In a context where technoscience is using the manipulation of genetic binary codes to generate new life and the manipulation of electronic binary codes to create intelligent machines the boundary between humans and machines is, anyway, rendered indistinct. In refusing the equation between women and nature, the connection between women’s bodies and reproduction can be broken and more diverse potentials realized. It also opens the scientific method itself to revision, since the separation and distance on which it is founded are thereby undermined (Jacobus et al. 1990: 1-10).