"Cavity Sam" and the Clinical Gaze


In 1964, University of Illinois industrial design student John Spinello invented the classic Milton Bradley game Operation. Currently made by Hasbro, his invention carries an estimated franchise worth of $40 million even though Spinello sold it to MB for a mere $500. The game features the cartoon-looking patient “Cavity Sam” lithographed atop an operating table in which there are a number of cavities filled with plastic figures of silly ailments, such as Brain Freeze, Writer’s Cramp, and Water on the Knee. The objective? Players must “operate” on Sam by removing the ailments with a metallic pair of tweezers, taking care not to touch the metal edges of the cavities. Should the tweezers bump the edge, Sam’s red bulb nose lights up and a startling electric buzz zaps the player. But, should the player successfully avoid the edge of the cavity opening, he or she earns cash just as a doctor or specialist would--$1000 for the Bread Basket, double if the player holds a Specialist card. Evidenced here is Michel Foucault’s notion of the “clinical” or “medical gaze.” Essentially, the progressive development of knowledge about the human body has led to modern society’s profound trust in medicine to cure disease and save lives, thus rendering medical knowledge powerful and valuable. Operation signifies the gaze in action—the body is simultaneously dehumanized by the medical separation of the patient’s body from his or her whole person or identity (i.e. the disease not the person is treated), and the body serves as a “cash cow” that sustains (and bloats) the healthcare market. See how the Specialist earns more, and governments use medical knowledge for capital gains. Global healthcare expenditures, for instance, are projected to reach $8 trillion dollars by 2020 in order to meet the increase in life-threatening ailments, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory diseases, and diabetes. We could question why, with all this progressive medical knowledge, such diseases are on the rise instead of the decline. Or, we can keep playing games. Whatever the choice, think on Foucault’s words: “Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has power to make itself true.” And, remember, despite Cavity Sam’s anatomy, the human body has no Wish Bone.