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”

Yale’s Film Studies program is old-school in certain ways, and one of those ways is that we have an exam at the end of our Ph.D. program to test our knowledge of various essential films and film scholarship. We students have nicknamed it the “canon exam,” although it seems as though the professors avoid calling it that.

I was remembering how, the summer before I started grad school, I wondered what films I should watch to make myself conversant with other film students. I think I just ended up checking out every Criterion Collection movie I could find.

I thought you might be interested to see what we’re drilled on, and I don’t think the canon exam is a private affair (quite the opposite, actually, since it exists in part to assure prospective employers that we’ll be up to speed on the canon). So I’m posting the film list below. I’ll post the reading list later. [Update: here’s the reading list.]

As to the politics of a “canon,” or the wisdom of these particular choices … well, I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that I don’t think this is a bad list, though it’s missing a lot of my favorite movies. (And the movies it does contain are so somber!)

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