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This article is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

Catchwords 24 Iain Bamforth

According to that indispensable contemporary trove of hip idiom The Urban Dictionary, the aforementioned term – a portmanteau of ‘doctor’ and ‘retard’ – is a medical student or doctor who wears his or her stethoscope around the neck in public in order to get noticed.

I thought all American doctors did that: certainly most of the actors who portray doctors in film and television series do it.


Calling the products of computer tomography, scintigraphy, magnetic resonance and all the other kinds of imaging scans is not an anodyne act. It suggests that these images, which are in the last instance both the archival records and artefacts of a highly technical culture, offer a direct empirical ‘slice’ of reality – which in the most lurid of cases, with fMRI, is brain activity. Yet a ‘brain scan’ is a composite, manipulated image of blood-oxygen levels in the cerebral microcirculation: it does not provide an ‘index’ (indexical images are direct mechanical imprints like a brass rubbing or a coin of the realm that have a direct material relation to what they show) of brain activity itself, although hundreds of articles implicitly invite us to share in the supposition that it does (‘as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen’, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase). The courts are now confronted by defence lawyers who seek to shift the blame from culture to nature, as if acts cannot be understood separately from our biology (in which case, of course, the very term ...

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