History, Narrative, and the Body

Want to read a great big chunk of formal prose? Of course you do! This is an excerpt from the introduction to my dissertation, which is called Depth Perception. Here, I attempt to explain why anyone would write (or care) about medical films.

Photograph of a man, with a diagram of a large intestine superimposed
From Jacob Sarnoff's The Human Body in Pictures (1927)

When we picture the human body, what do we see? The answer is less obvious than it might seem, and it depends a great deal on whom one asks. We might care about this question because the answer suggests that seeing the body is not a simple matter of opening our eyes. Making the body coherent — arranging its parts in logical, comprehensible sequences of cause and effect — requires complex sets of cognitive operations. The complexity of these procedures should give us pause: if visualizing something as “universal” as the human body is so complicated, perhaps the body is not so universal or so self-evident as we’ve thought. Nor is the body so immediately comprehensible; indeed, bending the body into coherence takes deliberate, continuous effort. The body, I argue, has a tendency to fall into disarray. It is only by telling stories about our bodies that we can make the pieces cohere.


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Yale’s film studies “canon”: the readings

My desk in the wake of oral exams
This is what my desk looked like in the wake of my oral exams, back in 2006

Long, long ago, I posted the the filmography from the “canon” exam that Yale’s Film Studies Ph.D. program administers to all of its graduating students. I promised to post the readings, too, and then promptly forgot. Anyway, here they are, in case you’re interested in some light reading. Apologies for the formatting errors; I didn’t have the wherewithal to clean this list up.

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PowerPoint as a mode of knowledge production

I think about PowerPoint a lot, and judging by the reams of blog posts, screeds, and instructional books on the topic, I’m not the only one.

The interesting thing about PowerPoint is that it’s not that new. Well, PowerPoint is, relatively speaking (the software package emerged in 1980), but the basic idea — the slide presentation as a way to convey specialized knowledge — has been around a really long time.

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Depth Perception: Surgical Film and the Problem of Anatomical Legibility

Jacob Sarnoff (1886–1961) was a pioneering physician-filmmaker. He was an early and enthusiastic proponent of using film to educate new physicians and demonstrate surgical procedures. He made hundreds of films, some of which survive in the archives of the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

I’m interested in Jacob Sarnoff because I think his films show us something interesting about the endeavor of putting human anatomy on film. Sarnoff makes use of a wide range of techniques — everything from animation to dissection — to make the body legible on film. They show us how hard it is to capture human anatomy on film, and how much manipulation is required to make the human body conform to surgical diagrams.

Sarnoff and his films are the subject of the second chapter of my dissertation. In this presentation, which I gave at the Society for Cinema Studies in New Orleans in March 2011, I explain who Sarnoff was and what his films can tell us about surgical sight.

I’ve written a bit more about Sarnoff on my website, and you can also check out my sources.

The best thing I found at NARA

I was recently doing research at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. I was looking at documents related to the military’s venereal-disease prevention efforts during World War I. Here’s the funniest document I found:

Image of the letter, transcribed below

The more I work on this subject of venereal disease prevention the more I am impressed with what seems to me to be the fact that a considerable number of women indulge in sexual intercourse for the same reasons that men do, for the pleasure and excitement that they get from it. Happily, the number of them is very much less than the number of men who do so.

That’s from a letter dated Dec. 30, 1919, from Colonel P.M. Andrews, Colonel, Medical Corps, to Dr. Charles L. Miller of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the Surgeon General’s Office General Correspondence, 1917–1927, Record Group 112, Box 421.

The iPad in academic settings: what I like, what I’d like to see

Woman using her cat as an iPad Stand
"iPad Stand" by Veronica Belmont

One of the developers here at the library asked me to tell him a little bit about my experience using the iPad in an academic setting. Here are his questions:

  • Where do you find your self using the device the most?
  • What do you really enjoy/hate about the device?
  • Is there anything that you think is really missing(software or hardware)?
  • How would you use the device in an academic  setting?
  • Is there any app that you think must be written for use in the academic setting?

And here are my answers:

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Anatomy on film: the imaginary archive

Frame from Circulatory System (1924)
Frame from Sarnoff's Circulatory System (1924)

A lot of my research is on medical filmmaking: films that physicians and other medical professionals made for each other. It turns out that there are a lot of these. Doctors have been making movies since the invention of the medium.

I’m fascinated by a strain of thought that recurs frequently in discussions of anatomical films. Here’s an example from 1919:

The films of the Surgeon General’s Library will be available to teachers in the army and medical schools and the profession, just as the books in the Surgeon General’s Library are for study and reference.¹

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Film Study: an iPad app built for cinephiles

Film Study iconI’ve been using an iPad for about six months now. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but it hasn’t been the life-changing device I’d sort of been expecting. I haven’t found that many apps that really take advantage of the specific qualities of the iPad: its shape and size, the multi-touch surface. (Some exceptions: Flipboard, for reading news, and Aweditorium, for discovering new music.)

I’ve been excited about one particular app, though, because it evinces such careful attention to the way that film scholars want to spend time with their medium. Film Study is a free iPad app that makes it easy and natural to take time-stamped notes on films as they play.

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Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States

Film-Based Teaching Machine
"1975: And the Changes to Come," by dbostrom. Apparently it's a "film-based teaching machine."

I’m excited that we have a publication date for an essay collection I’m contributing to. Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States will be published by Oxford in winter 2011. The editors are Marsha Orgeron, Devin Orgeron, and Dan Streible. From the flyer:

Learning with the Lights Off is the first collection of essays to address the phenomenon of film’s educational uses in twentieth-century America. Nontheatrical film in general and educational films in particular represent an exciting new area of inquiry in media and cultural studies. This collection illuminates a vastly influential form of filmmaking seen by millions of people around the world. The essays reveal significant insights into film’s powerful role in twentieth century American culture as a medium of instruction and guidance.

My essay is on Thomas Edison’s Red Cross Seal films, which I’ve posted about here. I really liked working with Marsha, Devin, and Dan. Their edits made my work much, much stronger. The full list of contributors:

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Batch-processing photos from your archive trip

The National Archives in College Park, Maryland, where it seemed most researchers were using digital cameras or scanners.

Today at THATCamp Southeast I helped organize a session (with Andrew Famiglietti from Georgia Tech) called Research Hacks. We brainstormed ways to use technology to enhance research, both at the archive and when examining born-digital sources. After I proposed the session, I had a moment of panic when I realized I didn’t really have any great hacks to offer. Luckily, I had a few hours and the impetus to finally put together some techniques I’d been meaning to investigate.

Like many researchers, I use a camera to take photos of documents during archival research trips. My problem comes when I arrive home with a bunch of photos that look like this:

File full of images labeled "DSC ..."

Ugh. What to do with all these “DSCs”? Here’s a way to convert those images into documents that are actually searchable and usable.

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