Remembering Anarcha: Objection in the Medical Archive
This is an essay, fragmented across a hypertext. The object of this essay is two-fold -- presenting a historical case objectively, as a past event that wounded the bodies of women, and as an entry in the histories of disability culture. And at the same time, my object is to enact in my writing my objection: my attempt to find ways of distancing my story from the only way we have of knowing of it, the medical archive, the clinical distance of description. I am talking about this: A young white doctor in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1840s developed operative procedures to close vaginal fistulas, that is, tears in vaginal tissue (caused by prolonged labor, or by inexpert use of forceps). Fistulas cause constant leakage of urine, and, if the fistula affects the rectal canal, fecal matter. The doctor developed his methods through extensive experiments executed on the bodies of a number of un-anesthetized black slave women. He operated on at least one of these women over thirty times.
Listener, Reader, do you not come up short, arrested, even against these deliberately flat and unemotional sentences about --what happened--? The objectivity of the medical, the scientific way of knowing, sets an object: something to look at, diagnose, categorize. But I ask you, as I write, to resist the distance of the objectification. What kind of writing in the realm of medical history can object objectification, and undo the distances both archives and language itself places between us? This is the horizon on which this essay teeters -- and teeters precariously.
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and what we did with it
------ Petra Kuppers