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Treatments

Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness

2007
Author:

Lisa Diedrich

Treatments

Delving into the controversial relationship between illness and art, philosophy and politics

Lisa Diedrich considers illness narratives, demonstrating that these texts not only recount symptoms but also describe illness as an event that reflects wider cultural contexts, including race, gender, class, and sexuality. Looking at narratives including Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “White Glasses,” Diedrich demonstrates how language both captures and fails to capture these “scenes of loss.”

This powerful and illuminating study examines the myriad stories of illness that increasingly shape modern understandings of disease and suffering. In the compelling vision of Treatments, illness is no longer what patients have; it is also what they do.

Paula Treichler, author of How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS

Creative expression inspired by disease has been criticized as a celebration of victimhood, unmediated personal experience, or just simply bad art. Despite debate, however, memoirs written about illness—particularly AIDS or cancer—have proliferated since the late twentieth century and occupy a highly influential place on the cultural landscape today.

In Treatments, Lisa Diedrich considers illness narratives, demonstrating that these texts not only recount and interpret symptoms but also describe illness as an event that reflects wider cultural contexts, including race, gender, class, and sexuality. Diedrich begins this theoretically rigorous analysis by offering examples of midcentury memoirs of tuberculosis. She then looks at Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “White Glasses,” showing how these breast cancer survivors draw on feminist health practices of the 1970s and also anticipate the figure that would appear in the wake of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s—the “politicized patient.” She further reveals how narratives written by doctors Abraham Verghese and Rafael Campo about treating people with AIDS can disrupt the doctor–patient hierarchy, and she explores practices of witnessing that emerge in writing by Paul Monette and John Bayley.

Through these records of intensely personal yet universal experience, Diedrich demonstrates how language both captures and fails to capture these “scenes of loss” and how illness narratives affect the literary, medical, and cultural contexts from which they arise. Finally, by examining the ways in which the sick speak and are spoken for, she argues for an ethics of failure—the revaluation of loss as creating new possibilities for how we live and die.

Treatments

Lisa Diedrich is assistant professor of women’s studies at Stony Brook University.

Treatments

This powerful and illuminating study examines the myriad stories of illness that increasingly shape modern understandings of disease and suffering. In the compelling vision of Treatments, illness is no longer what patients have; it is also what they do.

Paula Treichler, author of How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS

Treatments makes an important and relevant contribution in the cultural contextualization of illness narratives. It will add to the ongoing debate about the worth and place of illness narratives in medicine and social science research.

Alan Radley, Loughborough University, UK

Diedrich closely examines the texts under question and finds fascinating links to broader cultural issues that include considerations of race, gender, class and sexuality. She begins by considering mid-twentieth-century memoirs of tuberculosis, Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, Lorde's The Cancer Journals and Sedgwick's ‘White Glasses,’ tracing how they do or do not express loss. Diedrich considers how societies assume illness is loss, and argues for an ethics of failure in which we reevaluate loss as creating new possibilities.

SciTech Book News

Carefully situated within contemporary discourse of illness and pain, this book explores the exchange between language, politics, and culture in memoirs of disease. The book is exceedingly thorough and well researched, and is thus a terrific bibliographic resource for scholars of illness and disease. Recommended.

Choice

Lisa Diedrich has much to offer . . . In the end, Treatments easily exemplifies one measure of a good book: it sparked strong reactions in this reader and would have, if I had read it in a community, led to vigorous debate not only about its immediate topics, but also about the very nature of a profession.

Literature and Medicine

Like its object—sickness—itself, the book winds silently and organically toward a systematic entropic halt. This is not a bad thing. It is a very powerful, proto-biological process that moves toward a disorderly dismantling of imposed structure and function. Instead of sanitizing and comforting (and ultimately false) emplottedness of conventional biography or fiction or journalistic reports, or indeed the stories we generally tell ourselves about who we are, the ill person can—with courage, honesty, and sight—see the Lacanian real, confront the ‘thing itself’ of life that is concealed, usually, under the conventions of ordinary life.

Biography

Diedrich has uncovered an overlooked genre and shown successfully that it is highly complex and worthy of attention. Much of her analysis is sharp and insightful, and the questions she raises are exactly right.

Contemporary Literature

Both the narratives and the way that Diedrich first presents them and then reads them against each other are fascinating. The material stuck with me long after I read the book and I found myself thinking about some of her examples and explanations weeks later. Obviously, then, the book was worth the read.

Feminist Theory