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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Photograph of a man being lobotomized
Still from Transorbital Lobotomy, Part 1 (1950)

Paradoxically, the body epitomizes our most unequivocally physical reality even as it eludes our attempts to conceive or define it. Our flesh reminds us of our mortality and of the most corporeal (and occasionally mortifying) dimensions of our existence; it leaks, excretes, ages, and embarrasses us. The body can be bruised, spent, diseased, and broken; it limits and humbles us. And yet the body is also the site of untouchable things: the seat of consciousnesses, the place where our minds live. For many of us, this pairing of the ineffable with the corporeal makes sense only because it has to — these are the incommensurable truths we live in. Making sense of this dualism requires that we explain our bodies to ourselves; that we integrate mind and matter in an attempt to sort out our own existence.

The body, it seems, is irrefutably physical, but it is just as importantly a construction. We defer to the reality of our flesh, but we believe that what constitutes our deepest selves is more than bone and tissue. History possesses an analogous duality. Our past is the inescapable material of our existence, but it is just as surely a story we tell ourselves, about ourselves. We start from solid ground — chronicles of facts, documents of events — and wade into uncertainty as we connect events into meaningful sequences. The material facts of history slip in and out of view, and we acknowledge that our attempts to contain them invariably involve uncomfortable decisions about inclusion, exclusion, and causality. Yet we feel about history — just as we do about our bodies — that a certain set of ground truths limit the liberties we’re permitted to take.

Diagram of the circulatory system
Still from Circulatory System (1924)
To turn a set of events into comprehensible discourse requires the act of narration. This act, fundamental to human experience, is the solution to the “problem of how to translate knowing into telling,” writes Hayden White, “the problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning that are generally human.”[3]  To narrate is to turn raw detail into useful truths. Naturally, historians have a particular interest in narrative, since their great task is to mold the past’s flotsam and jetsam into a form that makes sense in the present. Histories, of course, can take many forms. They can be tragedies, comedies, romances, myths, legends, or meta-analyses. But they must contain sensible sequences of cause and effect, and it is the historian’s job to select these events and string them together. We tell history as narrative, writes William Cronon, “because narrative is the chief literary form that tries to find meaning in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality.”[4]

Film, of course, is not excused from these questions about how and when we narrativize real events. Indeed, because the classical Hollywood mode of cinema privileges narrative above all else, viewers generally expect film to deliver logical, emotionally satisfying stories. But, as legions of film scholars have pointed out, legible narratives don’t happen by accident. They require a slew of editing and cinematographic choices. In this dissertation, I argue that the same principles must be put in place in order to make the human body legible and coherent. I show that the body on film cannot on its own exist as a legible, logical set of processes. To know the body requires its telling, through the use of narrative conventions we might associate with Hollywood cinema.

[3] Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1980): 5.
[4] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History 78, no. 4 (March 1, 1992): 1349.
[5] White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” 8.

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