How to Cite

Caldwell, N., & Mills, C. (2001). Sick. M/C Journal, 4(3).
Vol. 4 No. 3 (2001): Sick
Published 2001-06-01

The keyword for this issue, "Sick," has produced a broad range of critical conceptualisations. The articles that appear in this Sick issue present a variety of different interpretations of sickness and the sick, and address a number of different "sick" elements of both past and contemporary society, of social issues in the United States, in Australia and in England, or those that cross cultural and geographical boundaries.

Everyone gets sick, but for our purposes the universality of the term is less interesting than its specific expressions; the way it attaches itself to certain contexts, certain bodies, certain modes and effects of discourse. If and when we get sick (sick in body, sick in mind, sick in behaviour or speech) our own and others reaction to this is governed by powerful representations and ideas that abound in culture. To some, this is a banal point, but the idea of sickness has a particular condition of privilege in culture. What is actually constituted by the term "sick" is subject to tremendous change historically and socially, but this slippery signifier is stable in its effectivity.

In this issue, we present articles that engage with and critique "sick" as it erupts into numerous biological, social, and historical discourses. The interventions range from pop culture, to medical science, to the intensely personal.

Our feature article, Tara Brabazon's "Welcome to the Robbiedome," begins this intervention into a discussion of sickness by addressing the application of the term "sick", with its simultaneously positive and negative connotations, to Robbie Williams and gender performativity. Beginning with the horrified reactions of talk-show hosts to the inherent "sickness" of Williams' "Rock DJ" film-clip, Brabazon follows the singer's example, stripping back the layers of performance threading through film-clips, interviews and recorded statements in an exploration of what is meant when the term "sick" is applied in this case, and what this appellation means to both performer and viewer.

In "Sick Puppies and Other Unbecoming Things," Laurie Johnson considers the complex effects generated by John Carpenter's breathtakingly gruesome remake of The Thing. Johnson traces some of the critical responses to the film, that connect its representations of bodily contagion to the then-new terror of the AIDS virus. He then develops a reading of the film as depiction of Deleuze and Guattari's notion of becoming.

Several articles in this issue indicate that a literary and critical focus on sickness is not an exclusively modern interest. Ilana Simons', for example, traces Virginia Woolf's commentary on the absence of illness as a literary device in the article "The Sick and the Unexpected." Through an analysis of Woolf's essay "On Being Ill," Simons emphasises the thematic potential for illness, with its "childish outspokenness" and obsession with the immediate moment. This article not only focuses on a critical study of a text explicitly concerned with physiological illness, but also engages in a debate between physical, literary and critical manifestations of sickness.

Sickness as a focus for critical thought creates a rich and often radical mix of theoretical approaches. Heath Diehl's article, "Performing (In) The Grave: Schizophrenic Subjectivities and the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt," perhaps belongs to the more creatively radical end of the spectrum. Diehl's analysis of the means by which the quilt, as a physical and cultural object, constructs those people who view it as fractured subjects, is an intriguing and original intervention into one of the more elaborate records of human illness and frailty produced in the United States.

Sickness as an idea is not one that is culturally or temporally stable. Susan Mckay in "Beyond Biomedicine: Renegotiating the Sick Role for Postmodern Conditions" describes and discusses transformations in relationships between culture, individuals, and the discourses that construct and mediate their experiences of illness and sickness. She shows how the ascendancy of scientific discourses about illness has pacified the suffers of sickness, subordinating their experiences to that of the scientific, knowing physician. But this relationship is changing. New avenues of expression are opening up, allowing patients to explore their own agency. McKay sees this as a postmodernist reaction to the modernist gaze of biomedical discourse.

"'There's Not Much Thrill About a Physiological Sin': Neurasthenia in Willa Cather's 'The Professor's House,'" continues the questioning of the role and presentation of sickness in literary texts which began with Ilana Simons's article. Todd Robinson assesses Cather's attempt to engage with and critique the nervous disorder neurasthenia. This paper not only concentrates on the discussion of this "lack of nerve force" in Cather's protagonist, Godfrey St Peter, but simultaneously highlights a dialogue between the presentation of illness within the text, and the language of the contemporary medical discourse.

The mobile phone is one of the most contentious cultural artefacts of our times. Its capacity to cause sickness, whether physical or social, is thoroughly embedded in the cultural narratives that surround it. Judith Nicholson, in "Sick Cell: Representations of Cellular Telephone Use in North America," considers these narratives to be examples of what Haraway terms "boundary breakdowns," disruptions in the culturally-negotiated barriers between human and machine, nature and artifice.

Adam Dodd, in "Paranoid Visions": Germ Theory, Ernst Haeckel, and the Biopolitics of Warfare, reveals a fascinating moment in the history of biological science, in his description of the peculiar ideas that abounded following the widespread adoption of microscopic imaging devices in the nineteenth century. In particular, he focuses on the hybridised scientific mysticism of Ernst Haeckel, whose pseudo-Darwinian claims about the status of the microbiological was one of the many threads that contributed to national socialism.

The focus of Leila Green's article, "Is it sick to want to live to 100? The popular culture of health and longevity," is one of the most popular of popular obsessions, alternative health practices. Taking as her target group the now-aging baby boomers, Green considers the ways in which movements epitomised by texts such as the aptly named RealAge: Are You as Young as You Can Be? encourage a "sick" obsession with healthy, vibrant, chronologically defiant old age.

Sickness is a state explicitly connected with the body of the suffering individual, with issues of invasion and intrusion, loss of privacy and loss of dignity. Janna Nadler discusses these issues in her article "Two Voices are Stronger Than One? Reconfiguring Breast Cancer Narratives as Collaborative and Communal in Sandra Butler & Barbara Rosenblum's Cancer in Two Voices." This article takes as its focus a text written by a breast cancer sufferer and her partner. From this perspective, Nadler opens up the traditionally incommunicable experience of personal illness to critical scrutiny, addressing matters from the subjective and objective status of the sick body to the broader societal reverberations caused by personal illness.

The relationships between worker, business, and the state have undergone massive change throughout the last century. In "Who owns your sickness in the new corporate wellness" notions of workers' health and the structures created to maintain and contain it are interrogated by David Leith. Leith shows how transformations in public policy and workplace practice are leading to a confusion as to who exactly is responsible for personal health.

Finally, the discussions of agency, of the importance of the individual voices of patients and sufferers, culminates in the poetry of Ric Masten, and its revelation of his own experience of sickness. Masten's work blends personal, chatty journal-style entries with poetic passages to create a year-long account of a struggle with prostate cancer. Ric's piece was first published on his website, at


Author Biographies

Nick Caldwell


Catriona Mills