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Alas and a Kind of Field Trip: Is the Back about Pain?

by Mary Ann Hushlak

I do a Google search.  I do several Google searches. On different days, no less. As if  typing in the same or similar keywords will suddenly slip through a crack in the automated “crawlers” and “spiders” and get past popularity.  Alas, not.

I’m looking for a book title or articles about the human back, something akin to Claudia Benthien’s Skin: on the cultural border between self and the world or Steven Connor’s The Book of Skin with its sources from literature, non-fiction and medical texts as well as art, photography, film and folklore, popular song and language. Alas,  I can’t find anything. 

And so I leave the convenience of computer search engines and head into Central London for the pleasure of a bookshop and the possibilities of references that might exist in a chapter or in footnotes.  A more elliptical approach.  The excursion begins to feel like a kind of field trip.

My first stop is the specialist Wellcome Collection bookshop.  True to the Wellcome Collection’s remit of exploring the connections between medicine, life and the arts in the past, present and future, they have a swathe of books on the body.  On art and the body.  Cultural Studies. Mind and Brain. Art and the Brain. Art and Science.  Art Theory. Psychology.  Philosophy.  History of Medicine. Diseases. Public Health. Medical Ethics. Learning for Life.  Popular Science.  Fiction.  A London section. 

Alas, nothing on the back. Other than anatomy drawings, that is. 

I speak to the bookseller, explaining that I’m looking for a cultural study or history or theory of the human back. 

‘Something like this,’ I say, pointing to one of the books on skin. 

The bookseller, who unpacks and stacks the books on the shelves, can’t recall anything apropos the back.  He avidly enters into the curiosity of the task though. Goes to the sales desk and the computer.  As he does his book subject search, I more fully register the Mind and Brain section.  The stretch of six shelves.  I could count the number of books, but instead I simply reflect on such emphasis on the brain.  I then turn, once again, to the shelves on the body and that they extend to sex and sexuality and food politics and diet cults.

The bookseller comes back with a title - Anatomies: The Human Body, Its Parts and the Stories They Tell. As the Guardian quote on the cover puts it, it’s a relentlessly entertaining cultural history of the human body.  Which it is, though while reading it I noticed that in Carving up the Territory in The Parts section, there is, alas, no back. I begin to wonder, could it because of the back’s links to the spine and the spine being more skeleton?

‘Give it ten years,’ the bookseller says, ‘there’s bound to be something by then.’  

Hmnn. Surely not and I continue with my field trip, to my second stop, namely Waterstones bookshop on Gower Street, with its five floors of academic (and popular) books. I trudge up the stairs to the third floor and Cultural Theory and Cultural Studies. Alas, no titles nor footnote references. If anything, the body in cultural theory seems to especially apply to women’s body issues and identity.  My, my.
This bookseller isn’t as familiar with the stock and immediately retreats to her computer.  As she searches, she keeps saying ‘Oh.’ ‘Oops.’ ‘Oh’. She’s obviously frustrated by the titles coming up.  She does, however, suggest performance because actors, of course … goes without saying … articulate body … expressive body. And indeed in the performance section I do find The Body Speaks:  Performance and Physical Expression, but, alas, nothing about the back.  At seeing the cover of The Artist’s Body (a primer re working with the body in performance art), I’m initially wildly hopeful.  The cover photograph is of a naked performer’s back.  Alas, no discussion of the back, only of the naked woman performer.

Finally, I sigh and give in. I head down the stairs to the Lower Ground basement floor.  To Medicine and Health.  And here - it is cornucopia.  Fourteen books on back pain. Complete Back Workbook.  Back Sufferers BibleDo You Really Need Back Surgery? Treat Your Own Back The End of Back PainThe Truth About Back PainBanish Back PainFree Your Back.  To name a few.  The Google searches spew up even more titles.  Far be from me to belittle back pain;  I certainly have experience of how many Nurofen can be taken in a day.  But is that it? 

Is pain our main relationship to our backs?  Do we only notice the back when it metaphorically shouts at us?  The primacy of the physical and medical?  Well above the artistic, let alone the cultural or social or historical. If my field trip is anything to go by, seemingly so.  Alas, seemingly so.

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