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Vincent Colapietro

There is, at the center of the various contexts in which illness must be situated in order to be understood (above all, the archeological, the phenomenological, and clinical contexts) a reflexive task. That is, there is the task of interpreting our practices of interpreting the signs of illness (at least, that of assembling the materials for such an interpretation). In my own investigation of this task, I am oriented by the conception of illness as an alteration in our comportment toward the world. Hence, illness is, first and foremost, a modification of our orientation toward the everyday. The relevant phenomena – the most salient ways in which illness shows (or announces) itself – are in effect somatic signs, broadly conceived: the manifest intimates the latent, the perceptible insinuates the hidden, but this occurs in reference to what Maxine Sheets-Johnstone calls intercorporeality, not only (not even primarily) in reference to the body either in isolation from others or in abstraction from its engagements with the world. The investigation of illness in this and indeed any other legitimate sense depends, above all else, on the complex interplay between two dynamic factors – the free play of the theoretical imagination and a fidelity to the disclosures of experience. The discourses of medicine as well as those of literature can contribute to both of these factors. Both do so not least of all by exposing the unsuspected limitations and distortions inherent in our habitual or customary frames of meaning. They expose these limitations and distortions by suggesting alternative frames, rival schemes, of intelligibility. The movement back and forth from wider to narrower spheres of significance is a mark of intellectual vitality and health, whereas the inability to move from more restricted to more encompassing contexts – and back again – is a symptom of intellectual illness. Even more radically, illness and literature can expose the dulling or deadening of sensibility that results from a tyrannical preoccupation with significance, a stultifying fixation on intelligibility. The final conclusion to which we are led in this provisional investigation (hence, only a provisionally final conclusion) is this. The most pathological frameworks of interpretation are precisely those that occlude the fateful paradoxes of illness in their irreducibly paradoxical and uniquely fateful character. Literature is especially effective in making visible these occlusions, in exposing this pathology of interpretation.

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Vincent Colapietro