Alberti, Fay Bound, This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture

Fay Bound Alberti, This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016) 302 pp. £20.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780199599035

This Mortal Coil is an ambitious work that attempts to contextualize representations of the human body through eight metonymical body parts: the spine, the breast, the vagina, the heart, the brain, the skin, the tongue and the gut. The work is interesting and useful but the author does not allow enough space to fully engage with the complicated issues that emerge from her reading. The author is conscious of these limitations, ‘explicitly situated in Britain, dealing in part with North America’ (4), and the general reader looking for an overview of cultural representations of the body parts would benefit from this text. The more specialised reader, however, or one looking to understand some of the issues opened up, will need to look further afield.

Building on the emotional personal experience of her daughter and her scoliosis, Alberti’s core investigation is into the cultural associations of bones and skeletons, exploring the ‘skeleton-as-scaffolding’ (p
7) conceptual metaphor residing in our culture. Chapter One explores the unconscious connections between uprightness and morality, tracing related anti-disability sentiment through Shakespeare’s Richard III and beyond. It then jumps to the contemporary issue of gendered bones in anthropology. The reader is left to piece together the connection and the argument is disjointed. We then leave these important issues to return to the scoliosis of the author’s daughter before receiving a history of the (very physical) treatment for this condition and the lack of data on the efficacy of contemporary treatment. Whilst interesting, this disconnected mode of argument does not make for a coherent conclusion. Alberti jumps between personal circumstance and important bioethical topics such as the psychological implications of prosthetics, the emotional impact of corrective surgery, current medical specialisation and the resulting division of selfhood, before coming back to the spine and the Victorian connection between nervous disorders and ‘spinal irritation’ (37). As with many chapters in this book the author voices related fears and issues for the first time in the concluding paragraphs to the chapter before moving on, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

The second chapter is perhaps the strongest in the book and tackles the complicated cultural interactions with the female breast. Alberti interestingly evidences Roman rhinoplasty and cosmetic surgery from more than two thousand years ago. There is then quite a jump as we investigate the dramatic development in cosmetic surgery due to the First World War and the interwar pathologization of small breasts driven by the Hollywood image. There is then a rich and detailed interrogation of the development, popularisation, health scares, and continued use of silicone implants. Alberti importantly puts the individually affected bodies back into medical humanities through the tale of Lindsey and the unwillingness of North American and British governments to ‘get involved in the complex rights and responsibilities around cosmetic surgery’ (60). Alberti then considers the implications of breast enhancement surgery on feminist thought, grounding her argument in the history richly outlined in the previous section.

A less effective chapter is the sixth that briefly reviews connotations of the skin. Alberti rapidly outlines various roles and understandings of skin such as a communicative medium (blushing), as a physical boundary, as a veil, as a mediator between our environment (thermoregulation) and a surface for communication (tattoo and body art). The collected associations of these understandings of skin are hinted at but the analysis is only superficial. Alberti provides some contextualisation through an introduction to humoral medicine and Victorian galvanic instrumentations that ‘read through the skin’ (152) the mind of the individual, a precursor to the current lie detector. Whilst useful, there is far more to these understandings, and before these can be analysed in any great detail Alberti moves on to examine the role of skin in Victorian racial discourses. There is a suggestion that Foucauldian biopolitics may have a role, but this thought is quickly left behind as she tackles the current phenomena of ‘psychodermatologic disorders’. The argument is not well connected, and all of these disparate parts have been ‘cherry-picked’ as interesting aspects of our relationship with skin. The analysis is neither exhaustive nor deep, in contrast to the previously examined chapter.

Overall, Alberti’s work is a thought-provoking attempt to chart North American and British representations of the body, mainly focusing on the late Victorian and early twentieth century periods. Written from the personal lens of a parent of a child with medical difficulties that have obviously caused great stress and suffering, the investigation shows meaningful interrogation of the current medical system and the weight that we unconsciously attach to the body and it’s cultural associations. Unfortunately, the arguments of the text are not always well supported. Whilst the conclusions are intuitive, the author has not allowed space to provide sufficient evidence. For example one sonnet of Shakespeare seems to serve to articulate all Elizabethan associations of the breast (42). Further, in many places intriguing issues for researchers in medical humanities are mentioned and then dropped before moving on. This treatment is given to important issues such as the twin rise in labiaplasty and FGM (76), the role of the skin in Foucauldian semiotics (144), or the genderization of ‘taste’ (173) all topics that are discussed in a couple of lines at the very end of a chapter. If the author had not sufficient space for these issues they should not have raised them. Despite this disjointed methodology the overall argument of the text warrants further attention. Alberti revisits her examined body parts holistically in a strong concluding chapter, arguing that the current system of medical specialisation has a rich history of evolving and complex cultural associations. There are insightful and detailed discussions of some important issues, but the work surveys more than it interrogates and researchers looking to unpick the cultural associations of the body should use this primarily as an introduction.

Joe Holloway, University of Exeter