Skip to main content

Black History Month: Select Books 30% Off

Harvard University Press - home
Presence in the Flesh

Presence in the Flesh

The Body in Medicine

Katharine Young

ISBN 9780674701816

Publication date: 06/15/1997

Any woman who has been examined by a gynecologist could tell Descartes a thing or two about the mind/body problem. Is her body an object? Is it the self? Is it both, and if so, how? Katharine Young takes up this problem in a book that looks at medicine's means of separating self and body--and at the body's ways of resisting.

Disembodiment--rendering the body an object and the self bodyless--is the foundational gesture of medicine. How, then, does medical practice acknowledge the presence of the person in the objectified body? Young considers in detail the "choreography" such a maneuver requires--and the different turns it takes during a routine exam, or surgery, or even an autopsy. Distinctions between public and private, inside and outside, assume new meanings as medical practice proceeds from one venue to the next--waiting room to examining table, anteroom to operating theater, from the body's exterior to its internal organs. Young inspects the management of these and other "boundaries"--as a physician adds layers of clothing and a patient removes layers, as the rules of objective and subjective discourse shift, as notions of intimacy determine the etiquette of exchanges between doctor and patient.

From embodied positions within the realm of medicine and disembodied positions outside it, Young richly conveys the complexity of presence in the flesh.


  • [Young] offer[s] up original insights...Young, whose Presence in the Flesh is a broad look at the entire medical profession (with special attention to the pelvic exam), began her research by spending three years trailing a gynecologist, a surgeon, a pathologist, and two internists at an unnamed university hospital. Wearing a tape recorder, she followed these doctors and their patients from the waiting room to the exam room and occasionally to the basement morgue. She noted, along the way, how the medical establishment urged people to disassociate themselves from their bodies so that 'doctoring' could take place...Of course, the most obvious forms of body banter are the 'kidney in Room 311' or 'heart in Room 312' that St. Elsewhere and ER have made famous. But Young goes beyond that, exploring the ways in which patients are complicit in this disembodiment.

    —Village Voice


  • Katharine Young, an independent scholar and writer, is Visiting Lecturer in Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley.

Book Details

  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Press