Subjective objects

Madeleine Mant //

As an anthropologist of health, I am deeply invested in both bodies and objects relating to bodies. I want to know how access to healthcare becomes embodied in varied sets of data, from human skeletal remains to institutional records to material culture. Traces of lived lives wait quietly, some beneath the soil, others in acid-free archival boxes, and some hidden away in houses, awaiting an estate sale to be observed, listened to, and amplified. Likely unsurprisingly, among my favourite pastimes is a stroll through an antique market. Perusing a carefully curated collection and discerning a vendor’s pet theme is equally thrilling to picking through precarious piles of potential treasures. Ephemera alongside heirlooms.

Last September, with COVID-19 case numbers dwindling in my home province, my partner and I ventured out on a rare non-essential trip. We visited our local antique mall on a weekday afternoon, predicting correctly that it would be uncrowded. This indulgence is what led to the image shared here, of a woman wearing her favourite face mask (not an item she could have predicted would yield a hierarchy of favourites), and gleefully posing on a vintage Torcan vibrating belt exercise machine. The juxtaposition of health promoting materials – the mask and the belt, the useful and the useless – gave me the giggles for the first time during the pandemic.

The author striking a pose.

I think of the medical items I have encountered, some retained, most discarded – tiny elastics attached to my orthodontia, biteguards, needles for vaccination and for drawing blood, radiographs (film, digital), pill containers, prescription receipts, tensor bandages, one AeroChamber from a nasty chest cold in 2019 etc. etc. etc. – and wonder what tales this assemblage would tell about my navigation of health and medicine. What would Prufrock say about measuring one’s life in tongue depressors and cervical swabs rather than coffee spoons?

Paperwork from my endoscopy immediately conjures the sociable but nervous nurse who bruised my hand attempting to put in an IV: “the first one of the day is always a struggle!” Each time I spy someone with a cast, I am transported to the hospital where a much younger version of myself is being terribly disappointed by the doctor’s diagnosis that I only need a sling for my crumpled arm: “but Mommy, what are people going to sign?!” Back at the antique mall I gently rummage through a pile of prescriptions for codeine from Dayton, Ohio in 1915 and squint at the remaining contents of a curious cure-all bottle promising the alleviation of symptoms from lumbago to hoarseness. Every item is infused with memory and hope for relief.

Health care artifacts are a special category of material culture. What outdated exercise equipment, public health quarantine posters from vaccine-quelled epidemics, and rusty Elastoplast tins communicate is a sense of people taking charge of health through time. The conversations had over such items, the infusion of their use with acute (or chronic) moments of pain or fear, perhaps the supporting (bandaging/splinting) or crossing (insertion/piercing) of the corporeal border engenders them with a special thingness (after Brown, 2015). These archaeologies of the near contemporary provide a direct lens into human experience. Ask me about the scar on my chin, absolutely, but please also ask about the basket of masks by my front door.

References

Bill Brown. (2015). Other things. University of Chicago Press.

And, of course,

T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock

Cover image: https://www.linkauctiongalleries.com/auction-lot/collection-of-antique-and-vintage-medical-bottles_10C44ADA97

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