Vulnerable Machine: Writing a Personal Illness Discourse

Ryan, Alyssa (2007). Vulnerable Machine: Writing a Personal Illness Discourse MPhil Thesis, School of English, Media Studies, and Art History, The University of Queensland.

       
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Author Ryan, Alyssa
Thesis Title Vulnerable Machine: Writing a Personal Illness Discourse
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies, and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2007-06
Thesis type MPhil Thesis
Subjects 420217 Textual Transmission and the Material Record
429999 Other Language and Culture
Abstract/Summary The Vulnerable Machine is a book-length collection of poems that explores my ideas of the ill identity and the ill body. The title, The Vulnerable Machine, reflects both the personal—vulnerable—aspect of illness, and the cultural aspect, where illness is a construction and the body a machine that can be broken, fixed, and changed. The collection attempts to reveal my personal experience of illness, current social constructions of illness, and cultural representations of illness to arrive at a point where a personal voice of illness emerges. Many of the first person—and therefore more personal—poems explore my reactions to illness, as both a patient and a writer. With poems such as “I remember my body,” “the results come back,” and “writing on codeine,” I comment on the effects of illness on my sense of self; the effects of illness, hospitalisation, and medication on personal identity and body; and the shifting relationship between the self and the body as it changes from healthy to ill. In other poems such as “the doctor’s inheritance” and “a brief history of pain,” I investigate the social aspects of illness by examining the history of illness and medicine and the constantly changing body of medical knowledge and ‘truth.’ Such poems were inspired by the research I had done for the critical essay and illustrate a more critical engagement with illness. Different poems such as “Charles Bukowski,” “Virginia Woolf,” and “Charlotte Brontë” come from my position as both a patient but also a writer learning from other writers, and express the cultural representations of illness by considering the works of other writers, the cultural trends in illness writing and the demands placed on the ill by cultural expectations. The illness discussed in the work remains unnamed and undefined in the hope that from a beginning that avoids labels and categories a personal voice of illness is free to emerge. With this in mind, the speaker also remains anonymous. My desire with both the creative and critical works is to focus on the experience of illness as a phenomenon, and not a particular illness. In the critical essay I consider how to write an inclusive discourse for illness. The essay begins with an analysis of the processes of narration and its cultural imperatives to deduce ideas about the control of biomedical rhetoric in personal illness voices. With this idea in mind, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean- Dominique Bauby, is discussed as an example of the heroic quest; the essay argues that it is a contemporary manifestation of Talcott Parsons’ concept of the sick role, which leads into an interrogation of new ways of writing illness. I briefly analyse Eric Michaels’ AIDS diary, Unbecoming, as representative of a resistant narrative. The work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray offers suggestions for the restoration of ��criture féminine—feminine language—that sheds light on the development of a new discourse for illness. Exploring feminist ideas about destabilising patriarchal language leads to an exploration of the potential of lyric poetry to facilitate such renegotiations of language. This draws on the lyric technique of using personal experience to inform universal ideas, and the use of image and refrain to structure meaning. The discussion of the lyric is followed by an examination of “The Glass Essay,” by Anne Carson, in order to develop a method that may offer an alternative to current representations of illness. This is done by suggesting Carson’s work offers a technique to represent an independent, personal voice in illness. The essay suggests that the lyric poem is an ideal form for expressing a personal, subjective voice that nevertheless discusses larger issues and therefore removes the patient from their isolated social position.

 
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