It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, War and Medicine, except that after worrying about it for several days — worrying about the way in which going around the exhibition reduced me to unfamiliar near-speechlessness — I’ve concluded that this is, in fact, indication less of some fault or flaw either on my part or that of the curators, than a token of War and Medicine‘s real, if often uncomfortable achievement.
So let’s start with that achievement. Most of us — and here I mean, specifically, young to middle-aged Anglophone civilians, whose experience of conflict is both historically atypical and in most ways extremely enviable — generally avoid thinking very clearly about war, that persistent form of highly specialised cultural practice in which the norms of everyday life are suspended, if not wholly inverted. War, much of the time, seems to give us the world we want — but oh, how easy it is to leave the question of means to others, and then to feign shocked disapproval when confronted with those means, when of course what we ought to admit is more like a willed and culpable ignorance. And if we are ever asked to come to grips with war, as of course sometimes we must be, our society is richly resourceful in the provision of pleasant packaging. War appears, if at all, wrapped up in the tritely interchangeable visual tropes of 24-hour news broadcasts, the inhuman calculus of strategy, patriotism and its ceremonial symptoms, the voyeuristic sentimentality of literature or film, the affectless and numbing repetition of video games, even the not-quite-redemptive aestheticisation of my own beloved, if not quite critically respectable, official war art.
And by the same token, most of us avoiding thinking much about medicine, except in conventional, generously mediated, indirect ways: which is to say, through the subjectively occluded vision of medical dramas, twinges of hope induced and dispersed again by the steadily-thumping pulse of the Lancet‘s press department, sly fingering of our own hypochondrias, the sternly encroaching inevitability of whatever will harm, hinder and eventually slaughter us in the end. Continue reading