The Speculum: A Brief History of Medicine without Humanities

Consider the speculum. Roughly half of us are personally familiar with this device. At the same time, it’s likely that the other half do not even know of its existence.

Even as a material object, the speculum tricks the eye. A pair of metal spoons joined at the hip. A throwaway wench made of transparent plastic. A bloody corkscrew made of iron and wood, slipping through the surface. For some us, this is the opened hinge through which we see the landscape of our shared being. For others, it is the unconsidered opening through which our bodies are colonized, subjugated, oppressed. It is the story of human history—a simple medical device that was developed by a misogynist and a racist who performed surgeries on female slaves and refused to look at the vaginas on which he operated. (Zhang, 2018)

The word itself derives from the Latin specere (to look), and speculum (mirror). How fitting that these two words joined together describe not only the act of looking, but more specifically, the act of looking inwards, of turning sight around and into the unseen body. In that regard, a speculum is a device for seeing that which is felt, that which is unseen, that which is refused.

And so, spread out upon the table of our Medical Complex, we find ourselves seeking a mirror, a reflective interface that can help us understand these systems that save lives, while at the same, perpetuate racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia, all oppressions that occur under the watch of Medicine.

Though we can all acknowledge that we need something to help us see, more importantly, we need something that does not “penetrate to see.” We need a method for slipping into and feeling out the “mess of our being.” Perhaps something soft. Maybe a “soft” science. A science without definition. A science that resists definition.

The medical humanities can be that science. Because from our beginning, the medical humanities (and the humanities writ large) have refused to definitively know us. Because to know something is to suggest ownership, boundaries, definition, reification. And the humanities resist that possession. They resist bondage. The humanities refuse us because the humanities are in us.

The humanities are the softest science with the stickiest insides. They are not clear. They obfuscate. They want us to know that we cannot know, and that rather than trying to know, we should open ourselves up to the not-knowing, to the uncertainty. The humanities compel us to resist the bondage of knowing.

Which brings us back to medicine, which is the desire to know illness, to slaughter death, to generate beauty, to rehab the un-beautiful. The medical humanities show us that these and other ways of knowing exhibited in the greater medical industrial complex fail us. The totality of these strata subjugates human bodies, organizes them without organs, makes them docile and filled with shame.

For those of us who have seen and felt the speculum, we know that the medical system cannot heal us. A scalpel will not save us, not if we are to do the work of making a “medicine of resistance,” of reducing marginalization and oppression, of feeling the pain of the other, of being able to care for the other as a living subject, of being able to care for one’s own self. We desire a Medicine against certainty, because it is in uncertainty, in resisting the center, that we turn the mirror towards the other and begin to see ourselves.

Here, in the medical humanities, we come to share stories, to share pain, to share in the empathic work of being a body among bodies. To give up the study of autonomous medicine and take up the study of organs and flesh and interiority. As doctor-poet Raphael Campo has written, we come to “look inside…mouths/and see the wet interior of souls.”

Catherine Lockmiller is an editor for TRR.