Critical Medical Humanities Symposium – Review by Abi Mcniven

The first international Critical Medical Humanities Symposium was held on November 4 and 5 at Durham University. In the first of two reviews, Abigail Mcniven, PhD candidate in Geography, writes:

Introducing the ‘Critical Medical Humanities Symposium’, Angela Woods presented attendees with a provocation: to think beyond the primal diagnosis scene underpinning the ‘re-humanising medicine’ mantra familiar within the medical humanities. The invitation was set to unabashedly direct attention to—for example—issues of gender, race, disability, health policy, and material-economic underpinnings. Evident throughout the symposium was the realisation that this would (and should) be a multifaceted endeavour, involving different disciplines and theories, with attendees comprised of (often simultaneously) academics, medical practitioners, artists and/or activists. As Will Viney articulated, the symposium was not intended to be a divisive, ‘David and Goliath’ struggle – rather it was an opportunity, though necessarily intense at times, to ask some challenging questions of ourselves and one another.

Six invited speakers provided five fascinating talks, all of which were incredibly generous in offering an array of rich empirical and theoretical material. Following each paper, two discussant-respondents would give reflections before the floor was opened to all attendees, making for—as was remarked—a very ‘meta’ approach and iterative dialogue. Andrew Goffey (University of Nottingham) began the first day by discussing the culturally loaded metaphors of immunology, cautioning that we must be aware of the generated thinking that can occur when one doesn’t ‘take care’ of one’s conceptions. Andrew, remarking that “abstractions are vectors of forgetting”, emphasised that we must not explain away gaps and uncertainties in knowledge, but instead encourage an acceptance of (but not complacency with) ‘shared perplexity’.

The second speaker, of particular interest for my own research, was Bronwyn Parry (Kings College London) who delivered a knowingly provocative paper about labour in the bioeconomy (using the case studies of sperm donation in California, US, and surrogacy in Jaipur, India). Within this, Bronwyn incited the need to interrogate otherwise unnoticed presumptions entrenched within bioeconomy scholarship in order to arrive at a critique of the generalised critiques of neoliberalism. The complexity within the label ‘clinical labour’ was considered, linking to gendered and globalised disparities, with questions raised about the ways in which different labourers are allowed (or not) to occupy particular positions as benefactors (instead having their multifaceted lives reduced to being ‘oppressed’).

The discussant-respondents, Luna Dolezal and Maria Fannin, certainly rose to the task of reflecting on some of the provocations posed. Luna reiterated the need to continue attending to power relations and imbalances, albeit whilst recognising that situations are more complex than the crude characterisation of surrogacy equated with oppression. As Maria commented, the specifics of—historical, spatial—contexts must be utilised to disrupt the ways in which academic conceptualisations can insulate from the “messy realities of tissue economies”. Within the dialogue following the paper, some fascinating queries emerged about the implications of framing reproduction in economic terms. The embodied subjectivities of pregnant bodies and the language of ‘life’/‘a child’ emerged as significant to the crux of discomfort with equating reproduction with capitalist labour. Listening on, the discussion brought to mind works such as Ruddick’s (1989) Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace, Baraitser’s (2009) Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption and Taylor et al’s (2004) Consuming Motherhood edited collection.

The following day, Mel Chen’s (U.C. Berkeley) paper explored toxicity as a concept, affect and trope: something dangerous and proximate, crossing individuated bodies, and animated in the three examples given (lead pollutants in children’s toys, ‘toxic asset’ industries and the popular entertainment figures of zombies). Tracing the discourses of toxicity to arrive at a “more textured grasp”, Mel articulated vital questions about vulnerability in terms of proximity and imbricated propensity. Knee-jerk responses of disapproval were cautioned against given the ways in which these entail particular notions of ‘health’ which can erase disability. Clare Barker, the first discussant-respondent, drew upon her own research to speak about developing a politics of (corporate) accountability in relation to disabilities caused by toxins. A sense of exposing unjust undercurrents was also posited by Matthew Clements as he spoke about the ways in which the language of the ‘toxic’ can obscure (class, race, gender) issues within entire environments and institutions.

Next, Jan Slaby (Freie Universität, Berlin) discussed the concept of biocapital as a framework for the critical neurosciences. Describing biotechnologies as a speculative terrain of “forward-looking” biocapital, Jan outlined the ways in which technoscience, subjectivity, politics and capital weave together in ‘health consumption’. Emerging from Jan’s paper and his discussant-respondent interlocutors (Stacey Smith and Avishek Parui) was that the critical neurosciences involve the simultaneous adoption of an ‘adventure model’ which is also uncertain. Echoing, but also somewhat transforming, the primal scene of diagnostic delivery Angela Woods mentioned the day before – Stacey provided an example from her research in which possibility is not foreclosed and hope is retained.

Robert Stearn (Birbeck College) and Lynne Friedli (Centre for Welfare Reform), the final invited speakers of the symposium, examined some of the ways in which ‘positive psychology’ is obligated and punitively deployed in relation to UK workfare. Robert and Lynne considered the ways in which psychological coercive strategies to produce the ‘right kind’ of affectual being attempts to counter “residual yearnings” evident in anger about, and resistance to, injustice. Resonating with (and spurring my re-reading of) Ehrenreich’s (2010) Smile or Die, Robert and Lynne discussed how—for example—motivational quotes emphasising personal responsibility overlook structural inequalities and can detract from the value of collective, shared analysis.

The ‘Critical Medical Humanities Symposium’ set itself a tall order in seeking to foreground and engage with questions of—as invited respondent Laura Salisbury summarised—justice, fairness, resistance, politics and solidarity. The format of the two days, with plenty of scope for conversations, heavily denoted the hopes of the organisers that this would be only the beginning. I certainly found it an intense and mentally demanding experience but one which was nonetheless invigorating. As Felicity Callard and Dan O’Connor (Head of Medical Humanities, Wellcome Trust) implied, it is perhaps precisely because of the disturbance and discomfort entailed in such challenging conversations that this kind of productive work within the medical humanities can emerge. With the language of ‘possibility’ constituting a core presence throughout the symposium, what happens next remains to be seen. It seems, however, an exciting prospect that on-going and generated engagements in the medical humanities will continue to further the dialogues between the ‘critical’ and the ‘hopeful’.

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