In: KulturPoetik 2006, Heft 1


Hans J. Rindisbacher


Representations of Medicine in Modern Literature and the Arts
Bettina von Jagow/Florian Steger (Hg.), Repräsentationen. Medizin und Ethik in Literatur und Kunst der Moderne. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2004. 295 S.




A central problem of modern science is doubtless its need for (verbal) representations of its inquiries, both specific and technical, as well as general. The former, as hypotheses and working assumptions, provide the internal sign posts for research; the latter serve the purpose of disseminating its findings to the larger public of interested laypersons. Repräsentationen is concerend with literature and the arts as sophisticated fields of such communication for medicine and psychiatry, with both sides – the arts and the sciences – providing each other with their specific tropes and structures. The time frame is, by and large, the twentieth century. The volume is a collection of fourteen papers, following the general introduction by Jagow and Steger, which provides a quick contextualized abstract of each contribution. The book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with »Medizin in Literatur und Geistesgeschichte«, the second with »Medizin in Medien und Künsten«. The first part, after an overview by Dietrich von Engelhardt, breaks down into contributions focused on »Literatur« and »Geistesgeschichte«; the second opens with an essay by Sigrid Weigel on imaging and modeling, followed by two contributions on the media and three on the arts and their function in representing medical, especially psychological and psychiatric, issues.

The volume is the result of a 2003 conference, sponsored by the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation, and aimed at bringing together the natural sciences and the humanities for an interdisciplinary exchange in a spirit of cultural studies. As is often the case with conference volumes, it is a rather heterogeneous but also multi-faceted and stimulating collection. As each contribution is usefully and competently summarized in the introduction, this review takes a step back and tries to place the collection into a broader framework of modeling the human body and mind in the arts and humanities.

Engelhardt provides an excellent overview of existing literature incorporating medical topics, weaving a dense network of themes, authors, and titles that address the issues. Individual analyses are left, in examplary rather than comprehensive fashion, to subsequent contributions. But Engelhardt’s list of topics ranges from »Pathophänomenologie« and »Äthiologie«, via subjectivity, the image and roles of medical doctors in literary accounts, and topics such as diagnostics, pain, and social issues (the perception of medical-mental institutions, for example), to the literary use of medicine as a symbolic textual dimension. He insists on the mutuality of literary-medical fertilization and emphasizes three functions: the role of literary texts as sources for medial historiography as well as for holistic descriptions of patients and diseases in their complex social environment; the function of medical knowledge in interpreting literary works; and the dissemination of medical knowledge via literature into a broader social discursive context.

The subsequent articles provide examples of such connections, even if only for a small selection from Engelhardt’s list: Horst-Jürgen Gerigk discusses Liebe, Krankheit und Tod in Thomas Manns Erzählung ›Die Betrogene‹ und Philip Roths Kurzroman ›The Dying Animal‹; Bettina von Jagow and Florian Steger present Ulrike Draesners »autopilot-Gedichte«; Maximilian Gröne analyzes the »medialisierte Krankheit des Hervé Guibert« (67), the French author who made »sida-fiction«, AIDS literature, and his own personal case a provocative and controversial media event in France in the late 1980s. Stefan Willer’s contribution analyzes hermaphroditism in two well-received novels of 2002, the British Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and the German Mitgift by Ulrike Draesner. Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff’s contribution deals with two novels thematizing the emerging public discourse on organ transplants. Although statistically the kidney counts »als ›Leitorgan‹ der medizinischen Entwicklung der Transplantationschirurgie« (99) – the recent film Dirty Pretty Things (Dir. Stephen Frears, UK, 2002) certainly confirms her claim – the two novels deal with heart transplants. With its ancient associations with emotions, notably love, the heart makes for a richer literary and cultural context than the kidney and facilitates the uncanny insinuation of the donor’s personality into the lives of the recipients.

Two theoretically focused articles, one by Axel Gelfert on Das Zweifelhafte und das Pathologische, the other by Stefan Artmann on the prominent Darwinian scholar William Donald Hamilton, conclude the first part of the book. The former points out that the body, as the interface between the subject and the world, has provided medico-philosophical links since classical antiquity. Philosophical skepticism aimed at the certainty of knowledge is analogous to the medical inquiry in pathology aimed at drawing a firm dividing line between health and disease. With the ascendance of bioethics as a growing social regulatory force and a source of medical, legal, and philosophical agenda setting, skepticism ought to be our constant intellectual and moral companion. Artmann, on the life and work of the twentieth-century Darwinist W. D. Hamilton, discusses the intriguing connections between autobiography and evolutionary biology, with the latter investigating »dasjenige Phänomen im Allgemeinen [...], von dem im Besonderen eine Autobiographie erzählt« (143). Any ethics emerging from this framework has to be an evolutionary ethics, resting on local maximums rather than on a theology of global optimums; it will have to operate without a categorical imperative, always adjusting its edicts for specific forms of life at specific times.

Sigrid Weigel’s article on Phantombilder zwischen Messen und Deuten opens the second part of the volume, on »Medizin in Medien und Künsten«. She sets out from a claim made by Antonio R. Damasio in his 1999 book The Feeling of what Happens, that the neurosciences have finally discovered emotions. As a consequence, the role of the brain and – at the center of Weigel’s article – measuring, imaging, and representing its activities, is emerging as a key area of neurological inquiry. While Gelfert deals with the convergence of philosophical and biopathological modes of inquiry and Artmann with the interconnections of evolutionary biology and ethics, Weigel focuses on imaging the interior of the »black box« of the human mind, its topological features and outward manifestations of its workings. Historically, Weigel ranges from Lavater and phrenology, via Duchenne de Boulogne’s electrophysiognomy, the FACS (facial action coding system), the IAPS (international affective picture system) to the cutting-edge contemporary imaging technologies of fMRI, PET, EMG, and others that have by and large replaced those older models and their tenet of the face as the representation and reflection of internal emotional processes. The modern biometrics of the mind holds out the prospect of a direct view of mental and emotional activities and, hence, the replacement of interpretation by measuring – very much a desideratum in the »hard« sciences, as which neuroscience would like to see itself. Weigel warns us however, that, in accordance with Luhmann’s systems theory, the relativity of the observer’s standpoint is often only moved into the system of observation itself, obscured but not eliminated in its subjectivity. The images of the brain at work that we are increasingly accustomed to seeing, are misleading; they provide merely functional topographies, themselves reflections of prior modeling – made visible through interpretative tools that also operate as models – levels of glucose, for instance, or electrochemical differentials. The seemingly direct access to the processes of thinking remains elusive, although closer than ever. Weigel’s contribution is theoretically sophisticated, historically far-reaching, and conceptually up-to-date in its description of the ongoing paradigm shift in the mind-body dyad. Precisely in recalling the historicity of modeling the human mind – from the humoral-temperamental body to the nervous organism (for details see Koschorke, Körperströme und Schriftverkehr) better and better understood in its electrical and chemical aspects and complemented in recent decades by the computer analogies – Weigel emphasizes the interdependence of research agendas and modeling, of technological progress and communicative representations.

The remaining articles deal with more traditional issues of representation: Giovanni Maio looks at images of the psychiatric hospital in film; Felix Tretter applies social-science and statistical methods to the same field of inquiry in Psychiatrie, öffentliche Meinung, Massenmedien und Filme, with special emphasis on the role of the media in establishing and transmitting an image of psychiatric institutions to the broad general public. Lorenz Welker discusses Wahnsinn auf der Opernbühne as exemplified in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Weber’s Freischütz. Karin Tebben, too, addresses art – its representation of angst: Zur Phänomenologie von Angst. E. L. Kirchners Holzschnitte. Illustrationen zu Werken Döblins, Chamissos und Heyms. While interesting and informative, these contributions do not push the envelope of traditional comparative-literature approaches. Somewhat different, not least because written by a practicing artist, is Reinhild Gerum’s Es ist nur eine Haaresbreite, the discussion of one of her installations (2002) that unites her artistic and forensic interests in a representation of the crucial moment in a perpetrator’s mind just before a killing. She represents the inside-outside flips of perspective through a large cube made of semi-transparent plastic foil, inscribed and imprinted with text and images. The viewer can enter it – no longer the Skinnerian »black box« but an »opaque box« of the human mind, yielding some insights but far from a complete picture of its workings.

What is impressive overall in this volume is the high awareness and familiarity with research and literature in different countries and languages, notably the United States. This reviewer, writing from within the American context, knows, however, that the reverse is not the case and American scholars, at least partly due to the decline in foreign language knowledge, are increasingly ignorant of non-English research, notably of a historical-conceptual kind. This is a pity, for at least some of the contributions to the present volume deserve a wider audience than they are likely to get.

Hans J. Rindisbacher, Assoc. Prof. of German, Pomona College, 550 N. Harvard Ave., Claremont, CA 91711, USA. E-mail: