The Birth of the Clinic

August 15, 2011

The human body is the space where disease originates, is spread and is spatialised. But this is not the only way in which one spatialises disease. Michel Foucault argues that there are three ways in which we spatialise disease. The first is through the ‘medical glance’. Disease is removed from the body and looked at separately without attachments. Before it is removed from the body it is categorised into families and species rendering the invisible disease visible in a series of grided symptoms where the doctor can follow the path of the disease to determine its origin. “Disease, which can be mapped out on the picture, becomes apparent in the body. There it meets a space with a quite different configuration: the concrete space of perception.”[1]

The second way in which we spatialise disease is by looking at the patient and the disease together. The disease develops through the patient and can move from organ to organ depending on the physiology of the patient. The only way which the disease communicates with the body of the patient is through the quality of the effects it produces in the organs that result in symptoms. “The patient is the rediscovered portrait of the disease; he becomes the disease itself”.[2]

The third spatialisation of disease is the way disease is bound into, and distributed from centres designed for the benefit of the sick. Before civilisation developed into a tightly knit web, life was simpler and disease was reflectant of that. But since, society has come together and folded into itself as disease has, becoming more complex and difficult to map. Foucault argues that the hospital is the artificial distribution and origin of disease. It is the place where diseases entwine running the risk of losing its identity. “Contact with other diseases, in this unkempt garden where the species cross-breed, alters the proper nature of disease and makes it more difficult to decipher.”[3]

Foucault argues that rather than the institution of the hospital, home care should be the norm for society. Disease becomes more difficult to record when artificial disease are embodied into the patient, and a “free spatialisation for disease, with no privileged region,”[4] would allow the disease to exist as itself.

[1] Michel Foucault, ‘Spaces and Classes’ in The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical

Perception, (London: Routledge, 1989) 09.

[2] Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception”, P16.

[3] Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception”, P18.

[4] Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception”, P19.


Adrian Rivalland


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