The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power, and the Care of the Dying by Jeffrey P. Bishop

Is it possible that death in some significant way constitutes the core, the very heart of contemporary medicine? Jeffrey P. Bishop argues in his recent book, The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power, and the Care of the Dying, that such is not only possible but is in fact the case. As both a physician and a philosopher, Bishop offers not only a philosophical analysis of how we have come to view death and the body, but he also unmasks—as an insider to the world of medicine—the violence present in contemporary medical practices.

In chapters one and two, Bishop elaborates the historical and philosophical basis of his critique of medicine. In chapter one, “Birthing the Clinic,” Bishop presents Foucault’s analysis of how in contemporary medicine the dead body becomes epistemologically normative. The new epistemology of death coupled with a metaphysics shorn of final and formal causes provides an ideal framework for viewing the “living body as a machine, as dead matter in motion” (60). In chapter two, Bishop shows how medicine and the state are intimately connected. As we move into the 19th century, the state is more and more focused upon protecting public health.  Once the categories of “normal” and “pathological” are taken up in various knowledge-networks (e.g. psychology), the role of medicine in the state is sealed. Chapters three through seven then deal more concretely with how this new logic plays itself out in contemporary practices concerning end of life care. In these chapters, we find such topics as physician-assisted death, how brain death has been redefined, the “real story” about organ transplantation, and debates over how to care for patients in a persistent vegetative state. In the final chapter, Bishop offers an alternative epistemology—an epistemology of life wherein theology plays a central, saving role. Here Bishop takes Foucault’s call to imagine ourselves otherwise quite seriously. Rather than viewing the body as dead matter in motion, perhaps we should not so quickly write off the religious communities whose narratives and traditions are “informed by a different understanding of space and time, where location and story provide meaningful contexts to offer once again hospitality to the dying as both cura corporis and cura animae” (313).

Medicine is one of the most important and powerful institutions in the contemporary West. Yet, The Anticipatory Corpse is not only a book about medicine. Rather, medicine serves as an occasion for Bishop to examine the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions that animate much of modern Western technoscience, and thus much of Western culture. The book’s interdisciplinary nature, along with its careful analyses combined with concrete stories of real human struggles with death and dying , no doubt, will be of interest to those engaged in medicine, bioethics, philosophy, theology, and debates concerning public health policies; but all those interested in the place of the body in modern technoscientific culture will find it engaging and cogent.