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Screening the Body

Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture

1995
Author:

Lisa Cartwright

Screening the Body

Traces the fascinating history of scientific film during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and shows that early experiments with cinema are important precedents of contemporary medical techniques such as ultrasound. Lisa Cartwright brings to light eccentric projects in the history of science and medicine, such as Thomas Edison's sensational attempt to image the brain with X rays before a public audience, and the efforts of doctors to use the motion picture camera to capture movements of the body, from the virtually imperceptible flow of blood to epileptic seizures.

Traces the fascinating history of scientific film during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and shows that early experiments with cinema are important precedents of contemporary medical techniques such as ultrasound. Lisa Cartwright brings to light eccentric projects in the history of science and medicine, such as Thomas Edison's sensational attempt to image the brain with X rays before a public audience, and the efforts of doctors to use the motion picture camera to capture movements of the body, from the virtually imperceptible flow of blood to epileptic seizures.

Lisa Cartwright’s new book has expanded the very boundaries of the analysis of medical culture. Her work on the visual culture of medical cinema provides the very first comprehensive overview and analysis of early medical films in the United States. But it does very much more-it forces all of us to rethink our measure of the distance between technology and medical culture. In a society that is still wrestling with this problem, Cartwright’s book will serve as a major impetus to a substantial rethinking of the meaning of technology in the mediation of a scientific culture. A brilliant and superb book, clearly written and extraordinary in its reach!

Sander L. Gilman, Professor of Germanic Studies and Professor of Psychiatry, University of Chicago

Moving images are used as diagnostic tools and locational devices every day in hospitals, clinics, and laboratories. But how and when did they come to be established and accepted sources of knowledge about the body in medical culture? How are the specialized techniques and codes of these imaging techniques determined, and whose bodies are studied, diagnosed, and treated with the help of optical recording devices?

Screening the Body traces the fascinating history of scientific film during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to show that early experiments with cinema are important precedents of contemporary medical techniques such as ultrasound and PET scanning. Lisa Cartwright brings to light eccentric projects in the history of science and medicine, such as Thomas Edison's sensational attempt to image the brain with X rays before a public audience, and the efforts of doctors to use the motion picture camera to capture movements of the body, from the virtually imperceptible flow of blood to epileptic seizures.

Drawing on feminist film theory, cultural studies, the history of film, and the writings of Foucault, Cartwright illustrates how this scientific cinema was part of a broader tendency in society toward the technological surveillance, management, and physical transformation of the individual body and the social body. She unveils an area of film culture that has rarely been discussed but that will leave readers with a new way of seeing the everyday practice of diagnostic imaging that we all inevitably encounter in clinics and hospitals.

Screening the Body

Lisa Cartwright is an assistant professor of English and visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester. With Paula A. Treichler, she is coeditor of Imaging Technologies, Inscribing Science, a forthcoming anthology on gender and the visual and inscriptive culture of medicine and science.

Screening the Body

Lisa Cartwright’s new book has expanded the very boundaries of the analysis of medical culture. Her work on the visual culture of medical cinema provides the very first comprehensive overview and analysis of early medical films in the United States. But it does very much more-it forces all of us to rethink our measure of the distance between technology and medical culture. In a society that is still wrestling with this problem, Cartwright’s book will serve as a major impetus to a substantial rethinking of the meaning of technology in the mediation of a scientific culture. A brilliant and superb book, clearly written and extraordinary in its reach!

Sander L. Gilman, Professor of Germanic Studies and Professor of Psychiatry, University of Chicago

Anyone who studies the history of the moving image knows how central the scientific investigation of motion was to its development. In the effort to measure and regulate human body movement, movies, as we know them, were born. Lisa Cartwright's Screening the Body is the first history of the specifically medical and scientific origins of cinema. In this superbly researched study Cartwright shows the important ways in which science has controlled, disciplined and constructed the human body in its own image.

Linda Williams University of California-Irvine

In Screening the Body Lisa Cartwright extends the boundaries of cultural studies to include the inside of the living human body. The book treats the astonishing medical history of optical penetration of the body by means of motion pictures, and then brilliantly exposes the network of relations between modern artworks in film. The seemingly innocent medical practice of making the inside visible and drawing diagnostic conclusions from graphic evidence, Cartwright shows, is fraught with unsuspected political and social significance, no least in its bearing on meanings of the term ‘life.’ The book places the motion picture directly within the process by which institutional science and medicine reconfigured ‘body’ and ‘life’ as fields of activity to be monitored and controlled. To reveal the shadow of surveillance within the act of optical diagnosis is Lisa Cartwright’s breathtaking achievement in this original, challenging, and important book.

Alan Trachtenberg, Yale University

Screening the Body is an immensely valuable contribution to both the history of the cinema and the ongoing theorization of technology and a politics of representation. Cartwright demonstrates in brilliant detail how the cinema-understood in its earliest years as the most effective technique for representing life as "movement"-has colluded with other techniques of a scientific visual culture (the microscope, x-rays, the graphic method of physiology) to produce and manage a specifically modern understanding of life. The 'vivifying physiological gaze' she outlines with impressive historical rigor surveys, regulates and controls bodies, but is also consistently confronted with its own epistemological limits and with resistant and recalcitrant bodies. Cartwright's history is crucial reading for anyone interested in the politics of contemporary imaging systems in medical science and in the intersection of these systems with popular forms of entertainment.

Mary Ann Doane, Brown University

Cartwright’s remarkable work, like the glossy images it frames, reveals an uncanny depth that resists the adamant superficiality of the medical archive. In fact, the strength of Cartwright’s study lies precisely in her ability to engage the medical idiom without succumbing to the tremendous lure of its conceptual imperatives. Screening the Body makes invaluable contributions to a multiplicity of fields including the history of science and ideas, film criticism, and feminist politics.

MLN

Cartwright offers a provocative exploration of the cultural repercussions of medical cinema. The book is well illustrated and uses excellent examples as case studies. It crosses several disciplines, embracing the history of science and medicine, philosophy, and art history. In particular, the connections Cartwright draws to movements in contemporary art are fascinating and give this study cultural implications that go beyond the history of science. Screening the Body nonetheless broadens our understanding of medical cinema and its place in the history of medicine and in our society.

Isis