The human senses are capable of perceiving things outside the body in different ways. When looking at a picture, for example, one can compare and evaluate the things
perceived against earlier visual impressions. However, it is not possible to look inside the body. For medically educated people, as well as for medical laymen, it is a
challenge to get an adequate image of what exists in the body or what exactly happens. If you actually look inside, such as in the case of a serious injury, this is
usually an alarming and often traumatic experience. The inside of the body is a sphere to which one normally has no direct sensory access in spite of the directly
subjective feeling of it.
In the course of medical treatment it is often necessary to explain to a patient what the diagnosis means concretely or what kind of intervention is to be carried out. However, conventional graphical representations of the inside of the body are often perceived as unpleasant and disturbing, if not disgusting – especially when the illustrations are realistic or intended to depict a disease that affects oneself. Historian of science Marieke Hendriksen once put it this way: "sensory perception and a sense of beauty necessarily also includes the development of strategies to deal with the visceral disgust encountered in the process of gaining anatomical knowledge " (Elegant Anatomy, Leiden 2015, p. 205).
It can be said that this visceral disgust is on one hand a natural human reaction, but on the other, it can be disturbing in certain situations and can obstruct a clear view of what is happening. Anatomical representations in knitted form generally do not trigger this protective reaction. It seems to be an inherent characteristic of the medium to be associated with warmth, security and care, and this is a marked difference to graphic or even photographic presentations of a dissected body interior. Thus, knitted objects offer a way of dealing with this visceral disgust – outwitting it, so to speak – in order to gently convey medical content. A person looking at anatomical or pathological images will be particularly vulnerable if he or she happens to be helpless in the exact pathological state that needs to be explained or if specifically those parts of the body require clarification where the surgery is to be performed.
On this website you will find not only knitted anatomical illustrations but also histopathological tissue forms that show stages of tumour growth and possibilities for surgery. My basic hypothesis is that the specific abstraction inherent in knitting as a form of representation will prevent the disgust reflex that normally occurs with other forms of representation. I believe that this can facilitate reflection on one's own condition. When presented in knitted form, the anatomy appears harmless, familiar and not threatening. This may, I hope, contribute to patients being able to perceive and understand their somatic situation in a way that is less fraught with fear or other negative emotions.
Katharina Sabernig is a physician and medical anthropologist with a research history on depicted anatomy, visualized medicine and Tibetan medical terminology. Inspired by the diversity of anatomical representation and the ethical questions associated with this art, she began knitting anatomically in 2015. In the project presented here, she knits the topography of internal organs and their vascular supply of various anatomical systems. The macroanatomical structures are shown by knitted objects which are about the size of an adult person, histological structures in appropriate magnification.
Katharina Sabernig, September 2020