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The Wound and the First World War:

Cartesian Surgeries to Embodied


Being in Psychoanalysis, Electrification
and Skin Grafting
TOM SLEVIN

The emergence of modern warfare was premised upon humanitys technological


and industrial development. Indeed, the worlds greatest challenge throughout the
20th century was to avoid self-destruction through its own tools; now, humanitys
great crisis of the 21st century is an ecological one.
This article is directly concerned with the historical moment and cultural
trauma of the First World War. Europe underwent rapid cultural transformation
throughout modernity, yet, as Stephen Kern comments: It is one of the great
ironies of the period that a world war became possible only after the world had
become so highly united (1983: 24). As the 20th century approached, a rupture
occurred between the development of technological modernity and the culture
from which it arose. Kern argues that outmoded autocratic political bodies proved
unable to manage the new dynamic of modernism, resulting in war. As Paul Fussell
writes: In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two
persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot (1977:
Body & Society 2008 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore),
Vol. 14(2): 3961
DOI: 10.1177/1357034X08090697

www.sagepublications.com

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Body & Society Vol. 14 No. 2

78). It is therefore the collision between technological and cultural development


that frames this article. More specifically, it is the rupture between the speed,
dynamism and simultaneity of modern life and existing pre-modern European
subjectivities and institutions. In the first months of war, a vast number of unexplained casualties were produced, without bodily injury. For the first time, on
a mass scale, the embodied human being was inserted into a completely new and
utterly traumatic modern environment. This highlighted the inability of state
institutions and technologies to deal with the consequential problems.
The first three sections of this article examine the experience of war and the
inherent problem of the existing mindbody dualism in the Cartesian surgeries
of psychology and electrification employed by the state in response to the trauma
to embodiment. In psychoanalysis the subject was imagined as possessing an ego
boundary that became shattered through an excess of stimulation, while electrification directly worked upon the body using an invisible force in order to recoup
the subject as an ideologically docile soldier. In the final section, the article rethinks this idea of the body, conceptualizing it through the representation of the
wound and deconstructing the traditional selfother, containercontained, binary
distinctions that informed the states attempt to deal with the new and little understood pandemic. Embodied being, pain, the wound, resist easy assimilation into
such a framework, yet the trauma was conceptualized as a Cartesian problem, and
it was this epistemology that informed the states subsequent care for the subject,
rather than the soldiers own embodiment.
Technology and Subjectivity
The institutions of Europe were unprepared for the crisis in embodied subjectivity
that occurred as a consequence of the outbreak of war in 1914. Some avant-garde
movements notably Futurism had anticipated and attempted to represent
subjective responses to modernity based on a new dynamic, phenomenological
interaction between self and environment. However, for the majority of the West,
the emergence of new modes of Being in a culture of modernity the reconfiguration of the subjects relation to the environment through the alteration of its
time and space brought about by technology arrived literally as shock. As Walter
Benjamin observed:
A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open
sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these
clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human
body. (1977 [1936]: 84)

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The unprepared soldier was subject to a different phenomenological order than


he had hitherto experienced. While the body of the soldier had undergone a
degree of prosthetic enhancement, through the rapid mechanical development of
his weapons such as the machine gun, the nation-state had only begun to manage
bodies of soldiers, not embodied soldiers. The human mind remained as fragile
as before, being still based on classical constructions of subjectivity and subject
to Victorian ideals of bravery and honour. War proceeded from, as Fussell notes,
a static world, where the values appeared stable. . . . Everyone knew what Glory
and what Honor meant (1977: 21). Indeed, Fussell actually points to the influence upon soldiers of a hero of medieval romance of his imagination. . . . For
most who fought in the Great War, one highly popular equivalent was Victorian
pseudo-medieval romance (1977: 135). This subject was more at risk in face of
the unprecedented destruction it now faced: a medieval hero hurling himself
towards the enemy would have his body torn apart through a simultaneous
shower of bullets. The Western production of a soldiers subjectivity along such
lines became destabilized amidst a new configuration in the relations between the
subject and the environment the dynamic between selfspacetime creating a
mass embodied trauma hitherto unseen, and for which the state was unprepared.
As Wendy Holden writes, just one month after the outbreak of war, Britain began
receiving cases of soldiers suffering from a previously unknown form of mental
breakdown: Tens of thousands more were to follow. No one had expected them
and no arrangements had been made (1998: 13).
Victor Tausk, an Austrian psychoanalyst recruited for psychiatric work during
the war, perceived that the new demands on subjectivity made by technological
development were highly traumatic. Tausk came to believe that existing state
apparatuses were outmoded: To the best of my belief, my subject has no scientific
history. I am not aware that any previous work has been done on the psychology
of the deserter (1991 [1916a]: 142). In addition to the failure of the state in dealing
with the psychology of trauma, as it continued to maintain the mythic heroic
attitudes as a standard, its judicial measures were also archaic. Tausk wrote that:
Laws do not change as quickly as mens views and way of living (1991 [1916a]:
143). Indeed, he identified a way of living that is in conflict with the ordered,
measured space of condemnation in the courtroom, that of self-preservation
in the face of the chaotic environment the subject experiences under artillery
bombardment, gas attack or machine-gun fire. Tausk reached the Kierkegaardian
notion of the cultural relativity of right and wrong, good and evil, believing that
existing laws no longer adequately represented a transformed culture. Controversially, he argued that the traditional fictions constructed around military performance are transformed into the realities of survival and therefore the soldier should

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not be accused of crimes that no longer bear any relation to the traumatic reality
of modern warfare: [the soldier] is interested only in saving his own skin in the
dreadful devastation that has come over the world (1991 [1916a]: 143). Medieval
myths had no place in modern warfare. Modern warfare induced a crazy mindless
fear . . . and . . . [the soldiers] valour consisted in surviving an inconceivable
ordeal (1991 [1916a]: 148). Indeed, he pointed towards the failure of existing
psychiatric institutions to understand and treat diverse cases, while tending to
group diverse symptoms into terminological pigeon-holes (1991 [1916b]: 128).
One example of this was the term neurasthenia. This was initially applied as a
diagnostic term for the condition of nervous exhaustion, if only to avoid the
feminizing term hysteric. Later, shell shock became a generalized misnomer
for what, as Holden (1998: 1920) charts, became known after thousands of cases
as kriegneurose in Germany and la confusion mentale de la guerre in France.
The Times wrote of this new phenomenon as The Wounded Mind and Wounds
of Consciousness. Shell shock, as a term, was developed after one soldier, who
had become trapped in barbed wire in no-mans land, had several shells explode
around him. While no bodily injury could be found, he exhibited somatic symptoms, becoming partially blind and losing his sense of taste or smell. According
to a senior lecturer in military psychiatry at the time, the term:
. . . made much sense. It captured what was happening. There were lots of shells around. There
were lots of blasts, lots of shock, and people after being blown up or buried after an explosion
were in a state of shock. It was a wonderful term. (quoted in Holden, 1998: 18)

The dominant psychiatric terms such as neurasthenia and shell shock were
based on the notions of an exhausted physicality (especially as mind wounds
were not always socially acceptable) and a disruption of a Cartesian economy of
body and mind. In other words, for example, it came to be believed that an excess
of stimulation upon the body consequently splintered the mind. In the shell
shock example above, excess mental stimulation produced somatic symptoms.
An excess upon one would economically fracture the other. However, perhaps
it is a soldiers own words, not a psychiatric text dominated by certain discursive ideology, that gives more insight into the trauma of warfare to embodied
subjectivity:
To die from a bullet seems to be nothing; parts of our being remain intact; but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is a fear that flesh cannot support. . . . The most solid
nerves cannot resist for long. (quoted in Holden, 1998: 11)

The first instances of a new, mass-produced, type of wounding through modern


warfare occurred in the American Civil War, producing the first cases of the
mind wound following such a fracturing of subjectivity. Indeed, the history of

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warfare is paralleled by rises in substance abuse from whisky in the Civil War
to marijuana in Vietnam an economic attempt by the subject to negate the
impact of fragmentation upon the internal coherent principles of subjectivity in
the fracturing experience of war: in other words, an escapist response to traumatic conditions. Alcohol abuse in Britain during the First World War prompted
Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, who later became Prime
Minister for the duration of the war until 1922, to declare in January 1915 that
while fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink . . . as far as I can see the greatest
of these foes is Drink. Similar problems around alcohol consumption occurred
in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Italy. Russia even attempted to outlaw
vodka in August 1914. The qualitative transformation of subjectivity as a result
of alcohol abuse was, unsurprisingly, preferable to the fracturing trauma of
modern warfare. Again, Tausk is incisive, recognizing the problems in On the
Psychology of the Alcoholic Occupation Delirium as a response to subjective
trauma, most toxicoses make their appearance as states of confusion. The chief
symptoms are temporal and spatial dislocation, total misconstruction of environment (1991 [1915]: 96). Summarizing rather more simply, he states: Alcoholism
has then to fulfil a twofold task; to daze the mind so that the painful reality is
forgotten, and to provide a surrogate pleasure (1991 [1915]: 112). The turn to
substance use is a turning away from the immediate environment of shock, of
immediate devastating instants, and towards insulated blurs. Fussell notes further
consequences of the actual importance of alcohol to the Allied powers, citing one
medical officers note regarding the treatment of shell shock that: Had it not
been for the rum ration I do not think we should have won the war (1977: 47).
On the other hand, he notes, a spectacular German advance stopped, then fell
apart, when they halted to loot, get drunk, sleep it off (1977: 17), after being
deprived of alcohol through the Allied blockade. The ensuing counter-attack was
significant, as it broke through German lines and continued to the end of war.
Psychologies at War
While Tausk was ahead of his time in some ways, in others he was conservative:
he conformed to the prevailing psychological tendency to regard the body as a
Cartesian container of the mind. This view is most clearly established in On the
Origin of the Influencing Machine in Schizophrenia (1991 [1919]). Tausk also
was a devoted disciple of Freud, whose project has been criticized for its neoCartesian framework, that is, updating bodymind dualities within a pseudoscientific discourse. While Freud did not write a great deal on psychiatry and
war, he nonetheless speculated upon it in several places. In his introduction to

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Psychoanalysis and War Neuroses (1950 [1919]), he proposed the existence of


danger-neuroses, caused by the conflict between libidinal repression and preservation of the ego that involves protection against stimuli as the source of danger
of the shock. The theory in many ways appears as an adaptation of the existing
common psychological symptom neurasthenia in terms of a subject that could
be fractured due to excesses of stimuli. Just a year later, in his essay Beyond the
Pleasure Principle, Freud writes: In the case of quite a number of traumas, the
difference between systems that are unprepared and systems that are well
prepared through being hypercathected may be a decisive factor in determining
the outcome (1991 [1920]: 303). In other words, the ego must discharge the excess
of stimulus otherwise trauma will result, and the ability to do this successfully,
he suggests, is a certain training of subjectivity. The problem of the Great War
was the use of conscripted men. As Fussell notes in the war, By the middle of
November [1914] these exertions had all but wiped out the original British
army (1977: 9). Conscription meant an influx of men who were not adequately
prepared for the conditions of war and cathecting mental processes, as an
increase of stimulus too powerful to be dealt with or worked off in the normal
way, and this must result in permanent disturbances of the manner in which the
energy operates (Freud, 1991 [1917]: 315). This prepared the way for Freuds
observation in 1920 that the fracturing of subjectivity through the hyperstimuli
(as in warfare) can economically be avoided if it is instead inscribed on the bodily
surface: a wound or injury inflicted simultaneously works as a rule against the
development of a neurosis (1991 [1920]: 281), as in tendencies for soldiers to
self-mutilation. This reveals something about Freuds view of the subject, placing
the mind inside the body, arguing that the bodily wound alleviates the rupture
of the mind through its projected displacement. Indeed, the transference of
symptoms from the mind to the body consistently reappears in Freuds work.
This is temporary, however, a deferral, as self-harm is subject to repetition,
whereby the cathexis does not deal with the original experiential rupture. As
Didier Anzieu notes, Mutilations of the skin sometimes real, but more often
imaginary are dramatic attempts to maintain the boundaries of the body and
the Ego and to re-establish a sense of being intact and self-cohesive (1989 [1985]:
20). In this example, by inflicting pain upon the surface of the body, the action
is intended to reinforce the sense of the selfs boundaries. However, Freud in
1920 is separating the body from the mind, even though he concedes they have
a connection:
The rupture on the body displaces that in the mind. Thus the rupture of the body and mind
are highly connected, and serve to offset each other. The trauma of the body thus can be identified and projected to by that in the mind. (1920: 305)

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The mindbody dualism is realized here by Freud; nevertheless they are mainly
divided throughout contemporary psychiatric discourse, even if Freud begins to
conceptualize the importance of an embodied subject after the end of the war.
The reality of war lay not in neo-medieval myths of valour and bravery, of
dynamic action, but in inertia in many cases: where embodied reaction was denied,
a suspension of reality developed. Reality bled into unreality as the subjects
resistance to trauma became a screen: What protected me was a curious kind of
sense of unreality, which cocooned me against the reality of what was happening
(quoted in Holden, 1998: 76); or: It was as though I had become another person
altogether, or, rather as though I had entered another life (quoted in Fussell,
1977: 114). Other symptoms could be more dramatic as the case of Private M
demonstrates. Having been forcibly restrained from suicide that is, the heroic/
insane act of individually confronting a German mortar attack he was sent to
England after becoming paralysed from the neck down and unable to speak.
When examined, he had no idea who or what he was and had no knowledge of
the meaning of words. . . . He delighted in childish toys and in a general way his
mind was that of a year-old child (Holden, 1998: 1415). The trauma to subjectivity was symptomatized through regression to an infantilism where the phenomenological relation to the world is, again (as in alcohol use) cocooned, nascent,
more flexible and less inscribed by the demands of the state. Other examples of
the subjects symptoms of a schism between the will of the body politic and
embodied will include the paralysis of the trigger finger, or the inability to
speak, as in the case of a senior officer when ordered to lead men to certain death.
Indeed, subjective disorder was on such vast a scale that army statistics reveal
40 percent of casualties in 1916 were shell shock cases. This figure would have
been higher but for an official cover-up of the scale of the problem. Furthermore, there were many men who had not been properly diagnosed, as physical
injury was far easier to diagnose, and for men to admit to, than psychological
wounding.
The Body: Container and Boundary
If the subject was predominantly perceived to conform to the Cartesian mind
body dualism, in which the body acted as both the minds container and boundary,
this was in accordance with a traditional Western conception of a self that resides
within a bodily core (indeed, Descartes attempted many surgeries of stripping the
body to find the soul that he believed lay in the brains pineal gland, but that
evaporated upon death). Freud continued this binary approach to imagining the
subject, hypothesizing the common traumatic neurosis as a consequence of an

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extensive breach being made in the protective shield against stimuli (1991 [1920]:
303). Somehow, and this is something he shared with contemporary philosophers
such as Georg Simmel, the self could protectively insulate itself. Through a
layering, a psychic skin could be developed to negate the breach in the shield
against stimuli (1991 [1920]: 303). To protect the interior self from trauma,
concern was moved to the periphery of the body as opposed to its Cartesian
core, and the realization that the body is open, always in interaction with the
surrounding other. The body is therefore an open juncture, hybridizing self and
other through its surface. As we have seen, great attention was given to the excess
of stimulation, attack, to the surface of the body, and thus the mind lay susceptible to attacks outside the skin ego, imagined as a boundary against a traumatic
environment. The body therefore needed to be closed to protect the mind.
Indeed, a common response to fear is to simplify the other as exterior, as alien
and foreign, threatening subjective interiority from without, mortifying the ego,
at first through the body. The idea of a rigid ego did not just appear in the work
of Freud, but also in that of Tausk and of Paul Federn. The ego boundary was
a concept formulated to describe a deficiency in the coherency of the self: if the
ego boundary became deficient, the subject subsequently displayed psychological
symptoms. This coherent boundary thus needed restoration in order to recoup
the subject from psychological fracture. Freuds own development of this notion
was the contact barrier in his Project for a Scientific Psychology of 1895 (Freud,
1966 [1895]). Tausk sums up the psychoanalytic assumption very succinctly
when he discovers a symptom in schizophrenia, which I have named loss of ego
boundaries (1991 [1919]: 198). The problem is summed up as weakness rather
than excess, and the key to his disorder lay in the ego. . . . Only if the patients
integrating capacities were strengthened could the boundary between his inner
and outer world become realistic (Roazen, 1975 [1971]: 313). The failure lies in
the subject who cannot regulate their peripheral boundaries to protect the fantasized core of their stable Cartesian self. Deleuze and Guattaris more recent criticism of Freuds treatment of Little Hans was directed precisely towards the
insistence on reinforcing his ego boundaries, that: You will be allowed to live and
speak, but only after every outlet has been obstructed (2002 [1980]: 14).
The Cartesian epistemology of the body as a container for the self, despite
inherent problems in Descartes thought, nevertheless became translated into
modernity through the psychoanalytic terms of a boundary for the self: the ego
boundary. Anzieu points out that even recent psychological approaches are still
based upon this conception, as the forms of pathology with which the psychoanalyst is increasingly faced in his practice today derive in large part from disturbances of the containercontained relation (1989 [1985]: 11). The same practice

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applies, whereby the analyst attempts to recoup the distinction between container
and contained through the restoration of a dividing ego boundary. This barrier
is disrupted when the binary separation between self and other is disrupted. For
example, the paranoiac believes that thoughts are stolen through the transgression of the imagined division beween self and other, but also, by the same
token, thoughts are transmitted into them, at worst controlling their behaviour.
Tausk highlights some interesting examples: first, that In the course of apparently normal existence they had been taken over, as it were, by some alien ago
(1991 [1916b]: 150). Again, on the other hand, confronted with the traumatic
environment of war and the constant threat to the coherency of self, the subject
withdrew into the fantasy of a shell that excluded the other. However, if such an
imagined boundary became unstable, the subject was deemed to be suffering
from a mental deficiency.
Jacob Mohrs picture Proofs from the Prinzhorn Collection works assembled between 1918 and 1921, made by patients in psychiatric institutions in the
prior 40 years is a fascinating representation of the ego boundary. Mohr was
diagnosed with dementia praecox paranoides (premature imbecility, replaced by
the term schizophrenia in 1911). The picture represents an unwanted transgression of the other into the interior subject. The ego boundary is breached
and the self is controlled by an influencing machine. This is a terrifying schizophrenic example, as the imagined boundaries of the self are penetrated by a force
from without. The fantasy of exterior control testifies to the loss of self within,
even if that rigid boundary does not exist in reality (indeed, living is very much
a perpetual negotiation between subjectivity and the other). The loss of self here
is accomplished either by means of suggestion or by air-currents, electricity,
magnetism, or X-rays (Tausk, 1991 [1919]: 187). Indeed, Tausk refers to cases
that create an influencing machine as a machine that is operated by the subjects
enemies: Buttons are pushed, levers set in motion, cranks turned. The connection with the patient is often established by means of invisible wire leading into
his bed (1991 [1919]: 187). One consequence of the threat to the selfs integrity
is the widespread use of harsh, bold lines when the patient draws their body,
executed in one motion and neither retraced nor corrected (Bader, 1961: 47).
The schizophrenic torment is evident in the continual attempt to imagine a
coherent ego boundary, played out as the subject desperately draws secure lines.
Indeed, the complaint existed that their thoughts were so corruptible that they
are spread throughout the world and occur simultaneously in the heads of all
persons. The patient seems no longer to realize that he is a separate psychical
entity, an ego with individual boundaries (Tausk, 1991 [1919]: 199). Hans Steck
made the observation: A schizophrenia patient suffering from a persecution

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complex was in the habit of writing keep the bodies whole on every scrap of
paper she could find and distributing these slips to patients and visitors (1961: 23).
The same processes appear to play out in post-First World War pan-European
culture, as the dissolution of the body through the annihilating effects of modern
technology in warfare was recouped in the shape of the body in its most ideal
form of integrity a return to the fantasy of the classical form of the body.
Already, the imagination of the hermetic, impenetrable self can be seen in the
development of the robot fantasy, representing in some ways the ideal modern
Cartesian subject. A number of stories envisioned the emergence of the robot,
such as Electric Man (1885) by Luis Senarens, but most famously perhaps, Karel
Capeks play R.U.R. (Rossums Universal Robots, 1921). Here, a definite demarcation of the body and other exists through a rigid, hard shell which housed the
motor drive that works the body. Psychoanalysts were not above referring to their
subjects in terms of their technological affinities. Freud uses a lot of mechanoscientific terms to describe the human subject: he describes drives, energy regulation, reactions, screen memories, syndromes, transferences, etc. For example,
Freud employs an economic, mechanical, understanding of trauma, of an increase
of stimulus to be dealt with or worked off in the normal way, and this must result
in permanent disturbances of the manner in which the energy operates (1991
[1917]: 315). The human subject is viewed in terms of the economic regulation
of energies. Tausks Influencing Machine (1991 [1919]) cites the fantasy of the
modern schizophrenic whose ego integrity is being ruptured through electromagnetic waves, coming from a machine attempting to control that person.
In contrast to Freud, who rejected the electrification of the human as a course
of treatment, equating such advances in German neuropathology to an Egyptian
dream-book, there were medical cultures that attempted to realize the fantasy of
connecting man with electricity. Such an approach synthesized modernitys fascination with electricity (see Armstrong, 1998) with an existing Cartesian epistemology. A consequence was a direct electrical intervention upon the body in order
to regulate the mind. Confronted with the pan-European epidemic of shattered
subjectivity, the body politic implemented a programme advocating experimental
science in an attempt to restore the subject in accordance with its own ideals. The
pressures of the war, with its overwhelming need for and consumption of human
bodies, saw the use of technologies to reinsert the body back into war. The
temporarily wounded needed to be rehabilitated, the fantasy of its ego boundary
restored, while it also had to be docile in relation to the will of the state. Governments at that time were more concerned with the application of bodies of men
than their minds, let alone the needs of an embodied subject. The electrification
of the subject was a Foucauldian nightmare as the state directly intervened upon

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the subject through a mobile, transparent source of power. Disturbingly, the


application of electricity to the soldier cannot be readily distinguished from the
fantasies of those schizophrenic patients, whose claim to be influenced by invisible energies were dismissed as madness. In Germany, Dr Fritz Kaufmann
devised his surprise-attack method for curing shell shock in one session (Holden,
1998: 30) by applying high-voltage shocks to limbs affected by hysterical paralysis. As psychiatry was concerned with treating the mind of the patient, which
for senior military personnel was an infuriatingly lengthy process, so electrification sought to recoup the subject more directly through the treatment of the body.
For the Allied powers, Lewis Yealland introduced faradization, inspired by
Kaufmanns combination of shock through electricity, while enforcing Victorian
ideologies of what was expected of a man through the force of Yeallands own
personality. Somehow, the economy of suffering needed to be greater than the
original trauma to restore the subjects relation to reality.
The state willed itself on the subjects supposed duality the mind through
the shell of the body. With regard to Private M, mentioned above the soldier
who had lost the ability to speak after fighting in some of the most horrific battles
of the war, including Mons, Marne and Ypres Holden cites Yeallands report:
He had been strapped down in a chair for twenty minutes at a time, when strong electricity
was applied to his neck and throat; lighted cigarette ends had been applied to the tip of his
tongue and hot plates had been placed in the back of his mouth. (1998: 50)

After an hour of continuous application of electricity and a contraction of uncontrollable spasmodic proportions, he uttered a sound. Meanwhile, Yealland used
suggestive techniques to inscribe ideologies of duty, control and masculinity. In
this particular case, the hysteria was seen to pass throughout the soldiers body,
and repeated electric shocks were applied to the affected twitching limb until the
body ceased such twitching. Such a technique became known as torpillage in
France, while the Nobel Prize winner Julius Wagner-Hauregg was reported to
have killed numbers of his patients using such a method. In the 1930s this
method developed into electro-convulsive therapy as well as the lobotomy, that
is, the removal of the brains frontal lobes in a medical attempt to re-engineer a
productive body.
While it is easy to demonize such practices and the individuals using them, as
indeed has been done before, these practices must also be seen to arise from a
historical moment at the juncture of Western philosophical traditions, modern
technology and the states consuming need for bodies. Although not apparent at
first, there are indeed fundamental similarities to more humane psychological
treatment. The intervention on the body was similar in some ways to that on the

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mind. As the mind is constantly functioning, responding to what is around it,


so the body was seen as a site of perpetual interaction. Anzieu notes, the skin:
. . . cannot reject any vibro-tactile or electro-tactile sign; it can neither close like the eyes or the
mouth, nor be stopped up like the ears and nose. Nor is it encumbered with excessive verbiage
as are the spoken and written language. (1989 [1985]: 1415)

The skin is spatio-temporally continuous, in perpetual engagement with its


environment. Thus, from one point of view, it is the ideal site to treat trauma as
it cannot refuse to talk or listen. The skin is an embodied organ that cannot be
dualistically distinguished through the supposed distinction of container and
contained, self and other. For example, pain that the subject experiences as a
consequence of something coming into contact with the body, lies at the juncture
between the self and other. The phenomenon of pain exists only at the nexus and
not by itself, thereby suggesting a critique of such binary categories. Indeed, the
subjective response to pain is neither merely bodily nor mental, it is embodied,
as Williams and Bendelow suggest: [pain] needs to be seen as a fundamentally
embodied experience: one which combines both physical and emotional dimensions of human suffering (1998: 7). The pain caused by the contact of electricity
with the body constituted an invisible assault upon the subject, until subjects
agreed to be cured by restoring their docile subjectivity.
The state therefore employed technologies to stratify the fissures in the, otherwise presumed coherent, subject. These Cartesian surgeries upon the subject
conceived it as divided into the body (the container) and the mind (the contained),
in order to remobilize the traumatized male into a productive soldier. In the case
of physical wounding, technologies of corporeal restructuring still applied,
although this was perhaps a far more philanthropic exercise than that of electrification. Nevertheless, the use of plastic surgery to restore the boundary of
the body, suturing the corporeal trauma to erase the sign of its interaction with
the other, was still another technology to control the body through applying the
boundary strata. In his introduction to the pioneering plastic surgeon Harold
Gillies book Plastic Surgery of the Face (1920), W. Arbuthnot Lane comments
that bodily wounds are not only the constant source of distress and anguish, but
materially lower the market value of the individual (1920: vii). While psychology identified the strength and weaknesses of the ego boundary, or the contact
barrier, in a continuation of the dualistic epistemology, the body was seen to exist
in various states of strength or weakness. The surface of the body was its ego
boundary that needed to be reinforced. It was the body that housed the mind,
and corporeality that would bear the physical, easily identifiable marks of the
collision of flesh and technology. A disruption on the corporeal surface signified

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the weakened body of the soldier, so, like psychology, surgery was literally being
researched through practice, innovations made as surgical interventions proceeded
through the desire to re-establish the perceived rigid, coherent body of the soldier.
The technique of plastic surgery of the face developed rapidly throughout the
war, as surgeons were presented with as many bodies as they could operate on.
Although plastic surgery had existed since Roman antiquity, it became increasingly common after medical developments toward the body during the Enlightenment, together with modern advances in chemically altering the body, particularly
in the use of anaesthesia for the patient. During the war, Gillies, originally an
otolaryngologist, came to be considered the father of modern plastic surgery,
being allowed to develop facial surgery techniques over the bodies of thousands
of soldiers.
The Wound, the Other
The importance of plastic surgery was to maintain that sense of ego integrity
beyond immediate work upon life-threatening conditions. The phenomenological horror of the wound lies not just in the revelation of corporeal interiority
that traditional sense of horror at the interior made exterior but in the particular individuality of each wound. Again, the subject underwent a process of restratification of its boundaries at the site of trauma, in this case, the wound.
Compared to other Cartesian surgeries depending on the maintenance of a
coherent ego boundary, surgery also sought to restore bodily integrity, disrupted
through the excess of stimulation. The wound demonstrates the juncture between
self and other, and disrupts their supposed duality. The wound of the body,
although treated as the mark of the other, nevertheless still belongs to the reconfigured flesh of the subject. Yet the wound demonstrates that human corporeality
is not a barrier nor a boundary, but a site, a territory that is in constant interaction with the environment. Of course, in war this dynamic makes traumatic
marks upon the body, but it should still be recognized that the subject is not
contained within a container against the outside world, but is in a continuous
process with the other. The site of the wound is a configuration of forces that
create a new form, born in the collision of the properties of each force at the nexus
of those energies. However, for Western culture, in its Cartesian development,
therein lies the possibility of true horror the alienation of ones embodiment
through its mutated assemblage with the materiality of the other. It is in this way
that the body no longer coherently belongs to the person indeed, ones own
body never has truly belonged to oneself, despite the perpetual attempts of the
person to claim ones body for oneself but is always at the negotiated juncture

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of self and other. The wound is therefore a manifestation of the interpenetrating


nature of subjectivity and environment that is denied to the self through a culture
based upon rigid Cartesian distinctions. Embodied Being is not exclusively
constituted by and for the self, while also not completely dictated from without.
There is no fixed, unchanging essence that is at the centre of Cartesian surgeries,
though attempts to restore the subject suggest precisely that. Self and other
are not oppositional, but rather part of the same process of being. However, given
the hysteria of the state regarding keeping the body whole, mechanisms of
physical intervention by the state were implemented to suture the open bodies
of soldiers into closed ones, to reinforce those ego boundaries, especially with
the hope of returning the body to the front. Figure 1 shows the collision of highvelocity projectiles and flesh, resulting in a hybridization of the two. In this case,
Gillies writes on repairing depressed scars:
They are usually the result of the exit of a bullet, of the glancing blow of a fragment, or the
entrance of a small shell of bomb fragment. The scar produced by an exit wound is stellate,
while that of an entrance wound, though it may be irregular, is usually concentrated in the
middle of the depression. (1920: 38)

Figure 1 A few days subsequent to a double shell-wound


Source: Gillies (1920: Figure 13)

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53

The treatment that would be afforded to victims of this mechano-corporeal


irruption would of course initially be to improve the bodys functionality. Indeed,
this was the concern of immediate surgery. More cosmetically, however, the intervention of plastic surgery was to restore the absence of the mark of the Other
upon the body. The removal of any trace of harm done to the surface of the
body became critical, even if those marks should be badges of honour in the
confrontation with the enemy (culturally, the possibilities and dangers of plastic
surgery are far more desirable than the disfiguring, although healed, wound).
There has been considerable academic work on the production of signifiers on
and through the body as important in claiming ones body for oneself (such as
in fashion and tattoos); however, the need for the absence of the sign occupies a
more neglected area in the process of writing the body. The subjects reclamation
of the body is premised upon a desire to restore plastic cohesion, thereby reconfiguring the bodys condition prior to its encounter with the other. Therefore, it
is a surgical process of cosmetically unwriting the body, as opposed to the writing
of the body normally associated with the exercise of subjectivity over the body.
More practically, however, the re-stratification of the body meant that it could
be recycled and sent back out to the front, as well as reinserted back into society.
Gillies comments upon his development of a method which hastens the mans
return to duty and conserves the energies and time of the theatre staff for more
important work (1920: 38).
This reconstruction of the body like psychological discourses and the invisible technique of electrification is based upon not dealing with the site of trauma,
but re-layering the boundaries of the subject to restore the traditional sense of
self. A surgery of absence is crucial to restoring the subjects sense of presence of
self, through the imagined removal of the other. Yet the effect of technologies
upon the body becomes most perceptible at points of tension and fault-lines.
Indeed, techniques are most visible, and afford their own critique, when the
processes break down. Plastic surgery demonstrates its own virtues as it attempts
to restore the body to the owner through re-stratification over the site of the
bodys transgression with the other. At first, the process appears to be an unwriting, but within this is the setting of layers over the deficiency in the imagined
body-as-shell. Figure 2 shows an example of the surgeons attempt to re-layer the
body at the site of the collision of flesh and projectile through removing skin
from elsewhere on the body and using it as a flap to cover the wound. At best,
plastic surgery can restore the body aesthetically and improve its functioning,
though at worst its excesses obviously do not naturally benefit the bodys
appearance. In the very worst cases, aesthetic surgery has been the cause of death
after the body itself had found a homeostasis with the wound, as the remarkable

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Figure 2 Rhinoplasty from chest, Gillies tube-pedicle method


Source: Gillies (1920: Figure 390)

profile in Figure 3 shows. Despite the extent of the wound, it healed naturally;
Gillies refers to it as: a very remarkable example of the explosive type and it is
instructive to note how this patients enormous gaping wound healed without
more than ordinary surgical methods (1920: 49).
The subject lies at a critical point. Their own fundamental sense of an experiential self can be ruptured if they disown their body through the traumatic misrecognition of themselves as other. Indeed, as part of the embodied being, at a
cellular level also, the body also will not always accept its own skin as a graft and
will attack it in an auto-immune response (as I discuss shortly). The subject thus
lies between the two poles of accepting their body within their own sense of
embodiment, or seeing the body as external, a rejected traumatized shell. Henry
Tonks renditions of injuries are testament to the ambiguity of the wounded body
as oscillating between being subject and object. Tonks had been educated at the
Slade School of Art, developing a classically anatomical approach to representing
the body. His task was to make records of Gillies patients, for whom he would
be undertaking facial surgery. As Emma Chambers notes: The studies of wounded
soldiers that Tonks drew at Aldershot occupy an ambiguous area somewhere
between portraiture and archival record, the aesthetic and the pathological (2002:
13). Interestingly, Tonks classical education towards anatomically structured work
appears to give way to a more phenomenological representation (see Figure 4),
despite his official role in making medical records.

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Figure 3 Condition on admission


Source: Gillies (1920: Figure 37)

The wound undermines Tonks ordered anatomy of the body. It is fascinating


to see how Tonks represented the wound, as something that evades the order and
structure of the anatomical draughtsmanship in which he had been trained. The
wound questions those dualistic boundaries between I and Other, interior and
exterior, subject and object. His portraits are neither objective nor totally subjective, the wound collapsing self and other as both. While the interesting aspect
of Tonks work is the uncertain representation of the wound, even so, he confines
the problem of the wound to an aberration of more classical, traditional idealism:
I have done some . . . rather fine pastel fragments! One I did the other day of a
young fellow with a rather classical face was exactly like a living damaged Greek
head . . . (cited in Chambers, 2002: 13). Despite Tonks approach to drawing, the
representation of the wound moves the portraits into an irresolute position
Tonks may well have prided himself on his ability to draw classical features based
upon anatomical proportions, but the wound undermines that same order of
verisimilitude to which he refers. In his portraits, the wound is represented most
subjectively, failing to be accommodated within the order of his objective anatomical representation. The portraits oscillate between objective and subjective

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Figure 4 Early condition


Source: Drawing by Henry Tonks, in Gillies (1920: Figure 262)

studies without ever being either. Despite originating from the self, the body
occupies an ambiguous conceptual and material shift into other. These pastels are
in direct contrast to other forms of bodily representation, most notably the reactionary ideology that informed the monumental body through the mass production of classical, ideal Greek youths throughout Europe, which showed no trace
of the reality of war.
The actual process of surgery was to restore the body from its traumatized
condition. Therefore Gillies sought to apply layers on the boundary. In a diagnostic archaeology of the faces structure he writes about understanding the loss
to the biological body through a series of layers, (1) the mucous lining, (2) the
bony or cartilaginous support, and (3) the skin covering (1920: 5). Again, he
emphasizes the reconstruction of strata, as the restoration is designed from within
outwards. The lining membrane must be considered first, then the supporting
structures, and finally the skin covering (1920: 8). The contours of the body are
made into a plaster cast with the aid of photographs and radiographs. These are
techniques that solidify the contact-boundary between body and other, so that
an archive of surface information can be built. This is then used to re-contour
the body in the process of unwriting the wound through the restoration of the

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57

physical boundary. While the reconfiguration of the body through the wound is
a violation, the same could also be said about the intervention of plastic surgery.
As in the case of Figure 3, the bodys harmonization with the wound was disrupted through the intervention of surgery and ended in fatality. Indeed, Gillies
himself recognized the dangers of surgery, and warned against something that
seems relatively innocuous:
In treating an early wound there is a natural disposition to try and close unsightly gaps. More
harm than good is done thereby, as the reactionary swelling and the frequent suppuration cause
more scar tissue than would otherwise have to be dealt with. (1920: 56)

The body reacts against further reconfiguration, as it is always in perpetual negotiation surrounding the homeostasis of itself with its surroundings.
There is nothing natural about being used as an organic palimpsest. The body
reacts against intervention, here, through swelling and suppuration it produces
discharge against sources of threat, whether that is from without, or from itself
(as in the case of auto-immune responses). Yet its own resistance to being rewritten upon the discharge produced to remove the object obstructing its own
homeostasis is irrigated by surgical techniques to allow greater invasion. The
body is, then, seen less as a brutalized organism, but rather as a shell whose
energies and flows must be regulated, once the mind has been isolated and
removed through anaesthetic. In fact, the bodys own defences against further
surgical intervention are a source of constant frustration to the plastic surgeon,
operating somewhat inorganically, as Gillies himself admits: sometimes in the
end the repair undertaken is a compromise between surgery and mechanics
(1920: 8). The rewriting of the wound therefore invites the question of whether
it is preferable to die as a result of surgery or to be superficially disfigured to the
extent of cultural exclusion (and this again raises the question of to whom the
body actually belongs, for both examples count social acceptance of the body as
more important than the subjects own embodied condition). In the worst cases,
drastic and dangerous surgery was undertaken in an economic relation to the
mental life of the patient. The homeostatic harmony found by the body with the
wound was undone so that the intervention of surgery could be made to repair
surface strata. Sometimes, necrosis occurred in tissue that had been transplanted
as the body rejected its own grafting. If suppuration is a preliminary immune
defence, then: In cases of suppuration, there may be necrosis (Gillies, 1920: 13).
Indeed, Gillies describes a tragic case whereby the patient after having survived
the ordeal of the burn, lived and regained a certain amount of strength twenty
months after the injury, died as a late result of a plastic operation (1920: 388).
The reaction of the body to aesthetic surgical intervention was a fatal one.

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In regard to the problems caused by bodily intervention:


. . . the use of any foreign body is to be condemned whenever it is possible to substitute a graft
from the patient himself. Any form of a foreign body is a tissue irritant, and tends to give
trouble early or late on. (Gillies, 1920: 12)

Gillies excelled in cutting flaps of skin away from parts of the body and reattaching them to the traumatized site, sutured with the existing skin. This is the
process of organic extraction and re-layering that occurred in the rhinoplasty
operation in Figure 2, and the skin pedicle process shown in Figure 5. This
acknowledged the skin more as a living organism and less as a surface boundary
to suture. However, like the mechanic: The preparation and manipulation of the
various forms of skin-grafts with a nice judgement in their use constitute an
important part of the plastic surgeons stock-in-trade (Gillies, 1920: 16). In
addition, electrical discharge, with its echoes of Yealland, was used on the body
to force it to perform according to the medical will, as vibro-massage for bonelesions, diathermy, ionization, X and other rays, is part of the routine aftertreatment (Gillies, 1920: 34). Increasingly, the body is treated as an electric shell
for mechanical intervention. While electric therapy is widely used today in a range
of treatments, fundamentally it remains a process of controlling bodily tissue, of
manipulating its functions through applying electricity in the strategic technique
of the application of electrodes to flesh. Electricity is utilized by technologies
restoring the boundary of the self, at some level realizing Jacob Mohrs fearful
anticipation of the body as a terminus in the age of electrification.
Surgical techniques operated upon the body while the mind was anaesthetized.
The bodys discharges were drained, its surface stratified and subjected to electrical applications and chemical alteration according to medical technologies
adhering to the will of the state. The process of rewriting the skin even created
cases in which the body attacked itself. The bodys own immunological agents no
longer identified the appropriate cells for regulation or expulsion; the continued
interference in the bodys own attempts towards homeostasis was denied in the
medical attempt to re-engineer the socially productive body. Cutting away,
appropriating, rupturing, manipulating, repositioning and suturing the organ is
an invasive process to restore the perceived deficiencies in the subjects psychic
and bodily shell, which was of such imagined importance. The interventions
of psychoanalysis, electrification and skin grafting imagined themselves to be
working on a Cartesian subject, making the mind/body available again for the
traumatic environment of war. However, as this article has suggested, the foundation upon which these Cartesian surgeries are premised fundamentally
precludes a notion of an embodied subject. In identifying certain treatments, I
have suggested how these technologies belong to an existing epistemological

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Figure 5 Photos and drawing showing facial reconstruction through suturing skin flaps
Source: Gillies (1920: Figures 28891)

tradition in their cultural development. From psychoanalysis to electrification to


plastic surgery, these very different procedures have fundamental similarities
with regard to perceiving the subject as having a fixed boundary, imagined or
physical, which needed to be reinforced to protect the cultural fantasy of an

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insular self. I have attempted to show that the human subject should not necessarily be conceived of this way, but rather considered as open, within a dynamic
interaction with its environment. The embodied subject could be considered
along Anzieus more progressive if still fragmented suggestion of a restorative treatment, recognizing the triple status of his body, as part of the Ego, part
of the external world and a boundary between the Ego and the world (1989
[1985]: 95). Subjectivity is produced by all three simultaneously, a temporal unfolding between them, rather than an internal self within a bodily or psychic
skin, the rigid boundary or container. The subject is never a static, coherent
object, but is fundamentally imbricated within its environment: this was the
condition of modernity that proved so traumatic for Western culture at this
historical moment.
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Tom Slevin comes from both a media and art historical background. His interests are predominantly
in modern visual culture and he is specifically concerned with the representation of the body as a
cultural index for the relationship between the subject and society. His PhD, coming to submission,
examines the transformation of the human subject in modern culture, as articulated within the
European avant-garde. He has also recently prepared an article on the Other and technological
modernity in Tarkovskys film Solaris.