Journal Article

The alien within: Cancer and the creaturely


Cancer is a disease for which the English language reserves some of its most sinister epithets: cancer is said to ‘devour’, ‘ruin’, ‘ravage’, and ‘deform’, and to relentlessly consume flesh with insatiable rapacity. Conceived of as an unknowable and uncontrollable force from the outside, cancer is paradoxically created within the cancer subject’s own body, a body which profoundly questions the comfortable separation of the human from the animal. For many writing of their experiences of the disease, the ramifications can be multi-faceted: robbed of faith in the body’s willingness to bend to regulation, objectified by economically straitened health bureaucracies, trapped in the headlights of mortality, unable to find adequate means for conveying contradictory emotional registers, and disabled by others’ fear of the abject, these individuals often understand their subjectivity as inhabiting the liminal space between the human and the creaturely. This essay explores the ways in which cancer subjects represent the processes of defamiliarisation that diagnosis often initiates through three recent autobiographical accounts of men coming to terms with their incurable cancers. Philip Gould’s When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone (2012), Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality (2012), and Tom Lubbock’s Until Further Notice I Am Alive (2012) are autopathographies that give utterance to experiences of subjectivity that are increasingly compromised due to the effects of illness and the knowledge of the irreversibility of the cancer subject’s condition. Through examining the writers’ use of creaturely metaphors to describe both the nature and the effects of their cancers, this essay argues that in an age of advanced medical intervention, the language we use to describe cancer still reveals potent anxieties about the exceptionality of the human and the proximity of the animal.

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Lea, Daniel

Oxford Brookes departments

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences\Department of English and Modern Languages


Year of publication: 2015
Date of RADAR deposit: 2016-09-01

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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