For Western minds, the human body has conjured many metaphors, that can in turn signal cultural attitudes. The body has historically been compared to a book, a text, a landscape, a territory, a container, a vessel, a temple, a house. Thus, it has been conceived as material to read and interpret, as a domain over which to have mastery and a terrain to colonise, and a designed space in which the complexity of the interior is marvellously organised into structures and systems. Even to a contemporary, secular, eye, the sight of the body’s interior has led to a sense of wonder at its remarkable complex and efficient design: “The argument from design has long been discredited, but its seductive attractions are evident when you look inside the human body. Everything seems so lovingly packaged and arranged, like a cabin trunk stowed against breakage with just those items necessary for the voyage” (Dibdin, Michael, Chapter 1 ‘The Autoptic Vision’ in Sawday, p.6).
It is hard not to feel somehow that the scientific theory of evolution has some poetry to it. The body itself constitutes a highly complex set of structures and systems that work internally as a kind of interdisciplinary dialogue, and in turn ensure the greatest protection for itself from outside threat. The skin, that enormous organ that protects us from the elements, the brain that is carefully nestled into a very thick bone crash helmet of a skull, or our precious heart and lungs protected by the strong structure of rib-cage, each provoke awe at their intricate efficiency. We are, as a recent advertisement proclaimed “amazing”. Cutting open the human body to discover what it is made of, how it works, and how it moves has been an enduring, compelling, endeavour across the ages.
The Western mind has of course constructed ideas about the human body according to prevailing ideology. The concept of the body for the Chinese, for example, is quite different from ours. The body is perceived as an entire and holistic system, picturised quite differently than early anatomical images of the same period. Shigehisa Kuriyama opens his extraordinary cultural history of medicine with the striking evidence that, whilst the ancient Greeks idealised the human form as muscular – and so muscles are distinguished from the rest of the body parts – a Chinese drawing shows only an outline of the human form “Muscularity was a peculiarly Western preoccupation” (Shigehisa Kuriyama. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. p.8). His other comparisons that demonstrate utterly divergent concepts of human anatomy, he argues so persuasively, are the result of cultural looking (“my thesis is that the history of conceptions of the human body must be understood in conjunction with a history of conceptions of communication” (ibid., p.107). Kuriyama also discusses vital knowledge such as of the pulses: the several in ancient Chinese medicine as still used in Acupuncture and Chinese medical practices today, as compared to the one pulse that the contemporary Western doctor will feel. If a doctor is asking only one question of the pulse – heartrate – then there is only one pulse to feel. By contrast, the Chinese system understands the body as a complex set of relationships, with several pulses giving different kinds of readings of these. Furthermore, he stresses the importance of language in what he calls ‘styles of seeing’:
“[in Chinese medicine, where touch is used for diagnosis] Qualities thus defined themselves and each other, clustering closely, and differing by fine, gossamer veils of sensation, subtle shades of faintness, weakness, softness. No trace here of crisp, categories such as size, speed, rhythm, and frequency – the geometrical logic of space, time and number […] In the porousness of the intercourse among words, we couldn’t be further from the sharp demarcations that European doctors thought necessary to secure science” (ibid., p.94-5).
In short, knowledge – even knowledge of the convolutions of the human body, how to read these and cure ailments, is framed by ideology. There is no absolute Human Anatomy, only the evidence of its materiality, its structures and its (culturally-specific) naming; and that it can be comprehended, only and precisely, according to the ideologically informed gaze upon it that in turn conditions those questions being asked of it.