Browsing the Catalogue of Medical Bodied Experience

Dominic Berry

There are things that medical professionals can and will do to you, either for the right price, or under the right circumstances. What those things are, what the price might be, and what conditions must pertain, are different all over the world. Of course, it is also possible for people who are not medical professionals, or would not identify as medical professionals, to do some of these things to you too, in settings that are domestic, commercial, or have some other not immediately ‘medical’ significance. Indeed, some of these practices might begin to blur boundaries, and cease to be recognisable as medical or health-related at all. The very largest sphere covering all of this we could think of as the sphere of bodied experience. But I am interested first and foremost in those bodied experiences which are intended to achieve a health outcome, be it reparative, prophylactic, enhancing, assistive, what have you. This smaller sphere we can refer to as that of medical bodied experience.  

I say bodied, rather than embodied, because there are multiple persons involved, each with different kinds of access to, or residence within, different bodies. At one moment the focus of our interest might be on users, or patients, or doctors, or designers, or surgeons; at another moment we might attempt to see the problem-situation from the perspective of a user, or a patient, or a doctor, or a designer or a surgeon. My opening sentences were therefore a little misleading, because we are interested in not only what medical professionals do, but also what patients can have done. I want an analysis that can chop and change between these bodies, and consider experiences of bodies that will only sometimes be from an embodied position (i.e. the experience of intervening inside someone else’s body). My interests are therefore skewed towards activities, events, processes. These are only small parts of overall experience and the many aspects of embodiment that matter.

How could we fill up a catalogue of medical bodied experience? When I first started thinking about this, I began listing verbs: stroke, cut, bruise, poke, pierce, massage, chill, inject, attach. I invited additions on social media, and Hannah Murphy suggested lance, cup, and graft, and Troy Astarte added flay and flense. Doubtless there are a great many more. This was only a quick and light-hearted exercise (admittedly with a somewhat sinister edge). If somebody wanted to do it properly, I suppose they could take a collection of medical textbooks, push them through corpus linguistics software, and collect the set of results on the other side.

Medical bodied experiences co-occur with things. The variety of things that ‘medical technology’ or ‘medical device’ or ‘medical equipment’ covers completely boggles the mind. Those who attempt to place some order on it (regulators, industrialists, policy makers, administrators, lawyers, economists, social scientists, historians), know that they will fail, but take solace in its impossibility. Some new things pop up that are interpreted as fitting existing sectoral or regulatory ideas (an iteration of an old hip design, a new kind of chemical diagnostic test), others pop up that are interpreted as not fitting them (engineered tissue, nanotech diagnostics). When brought into use, aspects of them have the potential to add new pages to the catalogue of the medical bodied experience, while other aspects will simply get listed on existing pages.

Speculative as my verbing/cataloguing exercise is, it provides early steps as to how I might deal with this heterogeneity when writing new histories. My focus is the history of biological engineering and the world of implantable medical devices. I am researching the latter with colleagues on the Everyday Cyborgs 2.0 project, research that understands contemporary medical devices, particularly implantable ones, as both products of – and objects of attention for – the law. A focus on implantable devices is clearly pragmatic, making our materials more manageable, but is not arbitrary, thanks to the particular legal questions which help to motivate our project. It might matter now and in the future whether the things which integrate with your body belong to you entirely, whether they are recognised as private property or just another part of your body, and who is responsible for the software and data they produce. Who is responsible for the maintenance of yourself and the equipment your life depends on? These kinds of question take on particular urgency at a time when UK legislation is being re-written. Here I want to consider possible interactions between our project and the Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures project.

The above notion of medical bodied experience is partially inspired by Stuart Murray’s work on disability embodiment. Examples from science fiction can clearly help to fill up the catalogue of medical bodied experience alongside those shared first-hand. For myself, I am particularly excited by the effect that stories such as Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild can have on our discussion. For those who haven’t read it, do! And without spoiling too much, thinking about what it would be like to become the host of a very foreign body, the actual physical process that this would entail, is not only entertaining and disturbing, but also gives us alternative frames for implantable things in general.  Experience and imagination co-mingle. This is true in our own lives, and also when we are learning from those with identities that we do not share, and which we can only access by listening to those who do embody them.

My thinking is also influenced by scholars who emphasise user experiences, technologies for bodily accounting, the panoply of new means for intervening on bodies, and times when body-technology alignments can go wrong. Historians of technology and disability stress the need to focus on users. The ambition is to make cultures of medical practice and innovation that incorporate the knowledge and experiences of the people who these practices and technologies are intended to serve. Another benefit from thinking about use, one which matters for me in particular, comes with that word knowledge. The co-occurrence of bodily experience and technology require some prior knowledge be brought to the setting, and also creates new opportunities for learning. I am interested in understanding what kinds of biological, engineering, medical and embodied knowledge have been used and needed in the pursuit of medical technology development. My hope is that a user equipped with such a history would know what critical questions to ask about how the device before them came to be, which in turn would empower them with more options for interpreting their relations with it. This motivation seems to be shared by Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures and Everyday Cyborgs 2.0 alike, though their means of expression and emphasis may differ. There are people paid to think of new things to do to your body. We should know how they know what they know.

Work on this was generously supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award in Humanities and Social Sciences 2019-2024 (Grant No: 212507/Z/18/Z).

About the author
Dominic Berry
@HPSGlonk

Dominic is a historian and philosopher of science, technology, and engineering. He is dedicated to historicising the Everyday Cyborg. At the outset he is focussing on the history of attached and implanted medical devices as objects of research, industry, medicine, and regulation.  Previous projects have concerned the functions of narrative in science, understanding contemporary biological engineering, and the history of intellectual property in plants. In 2019 he co-founded the Biological Engineering Collaboratory, and in 2021 his article on the history of DNA synthesis was awarded the Maurice Daumas Prize.