Roberta McGrath, Seeing Her Sex: Medical Archives and the Female Body (The Critical Image), Manchester University Press, 2002. 205pp. ISBN: 0719041686
This book sets out to explore a particular visual narrative about the reproductive female body: coming “sharply into focus” as an object of investigation from the eighteenth century, only to disappear “in contemporary reproductive technologies”. Rather oddly, the story only goes up to the introduction of microscopy and does not, for example, consider the famous 1965 Life magazine photos of foetuses apparently within the womb, nor modern imaging technologies, which one might have thought relevant.
While a significant amount of primary research has gone into Seeing Her Sex, the usage of “archive” seems somewhat perverse (apparently shorthand for any primary historical resource). There are allusions to those who “disappeared into the archive” (a strange perspective on something which preserves the detritus of the past) and to “drawers which slide out effortlessly to reveal a darker side to the history of photography” (pp. 5-6), but most of the argument actually deals with published works.
The reader continually stumbles on statements which are challengeable, or entirely too absolute, and tend to vitiate the strengths of the work. Early on we read that “There is a strict division of labour: it is women who produce perishable bodies, while men make lasting cultural artefacts” (p. 10): not placed as a rhetorical trope evoking question. We are apparently meant to take on bare assertion the statement that “Within the male psyche, woman bears a close resemblance to death” (p. 123). Nineteenth century anxieties over male masturbation and spermatorrhoea rather problematise the claim that “women's bodies, rather than male ones... are perceived as leaky” (p. 138).
Certain phenomena are positioned, somewhat arguably, as unique. Photography may be “an impure art of uncertain beginnings” (p. 7), but most “eureka” narratives decay into fuzzy uncertainty when interrogated. Was radiography really “the last modern invention to be haunted as much by popular belief and superstition, by the irrational... as by scientific or rational thought” (p. 117)? The argument that the “much less ordered place” of the nineteenth century, in which people lived in material and spiritual “worlds that were not modern at all”, was swept away by the process of modernity (p. 22), fails to recognise the persistence of “magical” thinking (even if expressed in the rhetoric of “science”). Analogues and continuities are ignored. The concern that technology erodes attention to the individual patient’s story and creates a “distanced, increasingly remote and technologically mediated gaze” (p. 11) has recently been expressed vis-à-vis computer software packages for recording clinical case-histories. Stockdale’s exploitation of Dr John Roberton’s “medical works of a sexual nature” (p. 47) has parallels in the constant recirculation of out of copyright sexological texts which continues to this day.
The narrowness of focus detracts from the value of the arguments. It might be helpful to locate anatomical representations of reproductive women within the wider tradition: were male bodies never shown as detached parts? Was a head and shoulders portrait photograph really cutting off “threatening knowledge of what lies below” - or was it following a long-standing (less gendered) convention in portraiture? Indeed, does close attention to the part, the detail, the microscopic microcosmic, necessarily mean lack of awareness of the whole? There is also an uneasy sense that the males visually probing the reproductive female can never be in the right: condemned for obliterating the identities of the women depicted (pp. 132, 137), would it not also be offensive and intrusive to have named the women, according to contemporary ideas about patient confidentiality?
In a curiously mimetic (perhaps self-reflexive? way) Roberta McGrath has produced a narrative itself heavily framed and over-determined and the product of assumptions about gender and visuality.