Jason Bate (Exeter), ‘The limits of medical history: archives, photographs, and encountering facial disfiguration from the First World War’

Jason Bate of the University of Exeter will be speaking at the Effaced from History conference on April 2. To register and view the full program, visit the conference website.


This paper explores photographs of facial plastic surgery cases from the First World War. Drawing on the assumption that a photograph’s meaning comes from its use and the context in which we view it, and emerging from the archive experience and the affect that this encounter has on me as a viewer, I examine how the photographs elicit readings, affect my historical imagination, and shape their content for me as a viewer. The paper begins with a definition of Foucault’s concept of medical discourse as a means of putting the photographs into their historical context. Nevertheless, reading the photographs through medical discourse only takes us so far in understanding what they mean today. These photographs raise difficult questions about their function within, and potentially, across historical discourses. The surgical images are historical photographs, meaningful within the kinds of discursive frameworks Foucault proposed. And yet they can affect me—and not only me—in a way that seems to cut across time and cultural convention, that generates a spark of recognition, a connection—however brief—that cannot be discursively contained. The surgical photographs complicate, or even undermine, my own understanding of history. From one point of view, they are important historical documents, but from another they function in a completely different way.

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