The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science, and the Great War (Review)

In this post, Botsa Katara reviews The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science, and the Great War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), authored by Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers.


Virginia Woolf’s quote, ‘but with the hook of life still in us still we must wriggle’, (137) aptly summarises the entire premise of The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science, and the Great War. The book, jointly authored by Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers, critically analyses the changed dialectics of the integrated and disintegrated self in the wake of World War 1. The text traces how the notions of individuality originating at the site of the body-physic are reworked, reconstituted, and assimilated in the larger domain of the body-politic. The prefatory remark of the book is Walter Canon’s rather poignant question– ‘Why don’t we die daily?’ This question spearheads the central theme of the book and brings forth the pressing concern of diverse medical enquiries of WW1, each struggling to find a convincing explanation to the fragility, and self integrating tendencies of the human body which not only enable its survival and but also initiate self induced collapse.


The book is divided into three progressive parts. The first part comprising three chapters explores the inception of various medical theories, namely–physiology, psychology, neurosciences all suggesting the body as a conjoined whole working in union so as to enable smooth working of the organism. This section largely surveys the grim manifestations of biological disintegrations of the human body whilst facing extreme, abrupt crises and imminent mortal threat. Since the enquiry is based on WW1, the chief aberrations delved into are the baffling pathologies of surgical shock, wound shock, and shell shock. The symptomology of shock escaped contemporary medical explanations, and cures which heralded extensive research from diverse strands of biomedicine eventually culminating in the rise of case studies, and a reconceptualisation of the human body as individualised and systemic:

What shifted with the London Shock Committee‘s work was the understanding of what shock was for the body, and what it made it do. With this changed the concept of the body, the logic of its functioning, and integration, the sense of its response to the environment’s intrusion. (69)


The book then proceeds to part two that delineates a more comprehensive notion of individuality bearing multiple denotations for researchers coming from different disciplines of biomedicine. The medical practitioners propounded the concept of the ‘body as a tenuous whole’ where ‘normal processes were constant efforts to avert incipient, internally generated disaster, as if disaster lived within them’(156). This section provides a detailed description of neurological research on brain injury carried out by neurologists like Sherrington, Goldstein, and Head. They extensively studied the maladjustments of brain injury but most significantly their research highlighted, ‘the way in which the loss of an autonomous, abstract level of thinking as a result of brain injury leads to complex, body-wide counter-efforts’ (115). The chapters that follow project the same idea through the lens of Canon’s physiology and his much propounded concept of homeostasis, ‘which was the name of shared implication of multiple processes of stabilization, integration, and regulation that made the body not an agglomeration of parts, but a unit that was always under threat as one’ (156). This section ends with a detailed and convoluted account of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle propounding on the role played by one’s psychotic death drives in war neuroses.


After establishing the view that the body is a flimsily integrated and self -integrating mechanism from multifarious biomedical perspectives, the concluding section suggests the resonance of these eclectic theories of biological integrationism and individualism on contemporary social, economic, and political thought. The most intriguing facet of the concluding section is that it critically investigates the category of the individual unlike the preceding sections, which were thoroughly descriptive of the rise of individualism in medicine. This section surveys the incorporation of Canon’s homeostasis in myriad fields of inquiry where the individual became the central figure while discussing information technology, communication sciences, economic reforms, and cybernetics.


In the domain of medical humanism, biological individualism promoted a holistic view of ‘patienthood’ where health was prioritised over ‘physical soundness’. The last chapter titled “Closure” gestures towards inaugurating new ways of thinking about the individual as not just a category but also an entity who is readily subsumed in myriad discussions and popular debates but ironically remains effaced and invisible. The text ends with a poignant metaphor where the individual has lost agency over his/her (mostly his) life despite having a ubiquitous presence which is at once dominant and dominated.


Photo credit: Pixabay (marcelabr)


For both Geroulanos and Meyers the individual as a category largely remains non-categorizable, fluid, and ever accessible. They pose some gruelling questions – ‘What kind of construct is the individual? How does one establish the individual’s place in thought and life? What scope, what kind of framework, can reveal the purview of a concept so slippery, woolly, and seemingly ever-present?’ (316). This discussion is fascinating an utterly riveting in contemporary medical humanities and biomedicine where the individual is either viewed as a closed system or an ever becoming creative entity that escapes any rigid categorisation, and a standard medical cure. In so doing it lays bare the perils of superseding patienthood over personhood, curing over healing, wholeness over fragmentation. Thus the text suggests a need to rethink about the social constructs of physiological and physical wholeness revolving around illness, disease, human enhancement, and augmentation. In fact, the case studies of soldiers projected the phenomena of symptom discordance, a tendency in the soldiers to feel and perceive sensations of pain, trembling, breathlessness etc. in the sheer absence of any objective or external markers of the reported symptoms. This disparity shows the impossibility, and difficulty of objectifying any form of ailment, since it escapes any easily quantifiable signals, and measures.


The book’s exclusive focus on the male white soldier gives way to huge epistemological gaps, which the authors are not reluctant to acknowledge.  Nonetheless, The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe invites a diversity of readers, from medical historians to anthropologists, sociologists, even bioethicists. Since the text is a scholarly enquiry it deploys concepts, and terms that might be unfamiliar to untrained readers. The notes provided at the end might not always provide apt explanations.


It is evident that Gerounalos and Meyers have endeavoured to give the book a historical and critical form yet the structure of the narrative dwindles at times. The chapters appear to be imbued with excessive information which staggering meanders through the narrative until there is an abrupt leap on a different sub-topic. This was especially evident in the first section  where  the detailed description of wound shock is loosely handled and discordantly attached to the structure. The progression from the study of wound shock to the medical significance of case studies happens in a disjointed manner where the narrative flow seems to be broken.


That aside, the book opens portals for new discussions that are not only restricted to the specific historical moment of WW1 but move beyond that and engage with present day issues as well. It heralds the need to incorporate diverse experiences of different voices of gender and race which have largely remained latent in contemporary dialogue on war neuroses and medical humanities. The book’s intriguing account of the WWI medical investigations around shock and its gradual dehiscence into concentrated discussions on the individual as a biological and socio-political entity, that is frail, indefatigably robust, at once omnipresent, and complexly ethereal, makes us wonder if its apropos to move away from the generalities of categories to the singularities of self.



About the Reviewer:

Botsa Katara is a second year PhD student in English literature and medical humanities from Durham University. Her research focuses on the depiction of amputations, disability, and movement in postmodern literary fiction, life writing, graphic novels, and comics.

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