Critical Medical Humanities Symposium – Review by Avishek Parui

The first international Critical Medical Humanities Symposium was held on November 4 and 5 at Durham University. In the second of two reviews, Avishek Parui, recent PhD graduate in English Studies, writes:

The Critical Medical Humanities Symposium at Durham University on 4-5 November 2013 brought together a wide range of researchers and research interests. Opening the symposium formally, the organizers highlighted the complex issues they were aiming to investigate through the event. Angela Woods offered a series of delightfully provocative questions on the nature and significance of critical medical humanities. Pervasive in her opening speech was an intellectual invitation to look beyond the primal diagnosis scene in medicine notionally designed to humanize medical care. Angela alerted the audience to the dangers of essentialism in medical culture and instead invited attention to the politics of knowledge-production in clinical medicine and how the same is ceaselessly underpinned by cultural, economic, and social factors in the complex world of healthcare. Drawing on the interfaces between clinical and critical theories, Angela’s address demonstrated how a study of humanities is not merely an additive but is vital to a fuller understanding of health, care and social emotions. This set the stage perfectly and persuasively for what was to follow in this extraordinarily eclectic event. Following on from Angela’s opening address; Will Viney spoke on the understanding of the critical element in critical medical humanities and emphasized the urgency of collaborations and interdisciplinary affiliations. Will’s account highlighted the necessity for dialogues across various disciplines without the dangers of divisive discourses which efface the agency of critical thinking. Felicity Callard’s speech incorporated a study of disagreements and thinking processes through the politics of critique. Referring to the works of Bruno Latour, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, Felicity offered a series of stimulating questions about the objects and subjects of critique and the relation between critique and practice. Clearly, the organizers were keen to arrive less at a consensus-driven agenda than a forum of healthy differences and debates which articulate the context-sensitive culture of critical medical humanities. Thus, even before the speakers had begun, the symposium was well under way in terms of identifying the rich range of research clusters it sought to address.

The first speaker of the day was Andrew Goffey (University of Nottingham), whose paper was entitled ‘Immune from Criticism: A Case Study in the Ecology of Practices’. In his presentation, Andrew defined immunology as the discursive site for proliferation of cultural critique and demonstrated how human responses to pathogens are loaded with contemporary cultural metaphors. Describing his talk as one intended to cause trouble to the tectonic plates of medical science and cultural theory, Andrew nevertheless warned the audience of the dangers of loose generalization, which is counter-productive to critique. Referring to works of Derrida, Foucault and Roberto Esperito, Andrew’s paper investigated biopolitics as a reorganizing of the growth of capitalism, concurring with the theory of nation, state, welfare ideals and neoliberal thinking in the twenty-first century. Andrew’s paper produced a series of interesting questions and debates. Lucy Burke enquired if there was any distinction between metaphor and analogy in Andrew’s analysis, Marc Botha was interested to know of the difference between effective and ineffective metaphors, Jan Slabycommented that the pharmaceutical industry appropriated the mode of capitalist production by relying on abstractions and Keekok Lee offered an historical analysis of substance ontology in medicine, following Andrew’s presentation.

The second speaker of the day was Bronwyn Parry (Kings College London) whose paper was entitled ‘Narratives of Neoliberalism’ and offered two different case studies of the complex locations of ‘labour’ in the epistemology of clinical practices and medical cultures. Describing her paper as a vehicle for critique of neoliberalism which informs the social and notional construct of health, rationality and progress, Bronwyn offered a cautionary tale and a corrective to the context-insensitive assumptions about bio-political labour and its motivations. Referring to how the corporeality of the subject has been the key form of labour in the post-Fordist neoliberal economies, Bronwyn offered three key questions: (a) How is philanthropic labour accounted for in the biopolitical economy? (b) Who is being served by philanthropic labour and (c) Who is the benefactor? Looking at two specific examples in her paper, sperm-donation industry in California, USA and surrogate motherhood in Jaipur, India, Bronwyn interrogated the easy assumptions about labour, privilege, philanthropy and gratitude in neoliberal biocracies, exposing the blurring borderlines between these categories. Her paper ended with provocative questions about the strategic valorization of certain forms of labour designed to cater to a privileged heteronormative narrative in health and medicine.

The symposium began the following day with a paper by Mel Y Chen’s, entitled ‘Toxic Zones.’ Discussing the normative, affective and subversive models of toxicity, Mel demonstrated its pervasive presence in public discourses in three different forms: pollutant in children’s toys, industries which relied on the toxic as asset and perhaps most interestingly, in the figures of undead un-accommodated zombies in popular cinema. Studying toxicity as a discursive as well as medical category of knowledge, Mel Chen offered rich analyses about how the contaminating presence is almost always premised on the politics of proximity, proclivity and privilege of immunity. Especially significant in this reading was the manner in which health and agency seemed located in relation to each other in a culture that is quick to classify deviance as pollution and resistance as anti-social contamination.

The issue of illness as anti-social behaviour was one which featured also in the next paper of the day, one presented by Jan Slaby (Freie Universität, Berlin), entitled ‘Biocapital: A Template for a Critical Theory of the Neurosciences.’ Offering an account of the diverse and interdisciplinary field of critical neuroscience, Jan demonstrated how health emerges as a sanctioned state of being, mediated by a complex web of technology, capitalism and desirable modes of subjectivity. Foregrounding how the massive projects of neuroscience proceed with totalizing tendencies, Jan depicted the disturbing claims of perfection by the medico-scientific industries backed by a degree of industrial and economic capital which ‘cannot go wrong’. Pervasive in Jan’s paper was a study of the systematic subjugation of micro-narratives of human agency by the medical industry and its empirical models. Investigating the ‘circular looping of material constitution’ and ‘objective self-fashioning’ which inform the hubris of health-driven medical science, Jan’s paper alerted the audience to the vital significance of critical neuroscience. In particular, he asserted the importance of a study which deconstructs the presuppositions in hegemonic medical knowledge and underlines the value of human agency. Agency emerged in Jan’s paper as a real as well as philosophical category of being which may be more fruitfully investigated through a convergence of phenomenology, sociology and psychology.  The respondents to Jan Slaby’s paper offered interesting extensions as well as interrogations of the potential of critical neuroscience. Stacey Smith offered an insider’s account of how hope and human agency are deeply and immediately embedded in real medical and health-care practices and affirmed a cautionary stance against the easy assumptions of loss which frequently mark critical theory. In my response, I offered an example of how critical neuroscience may be extended into a study of human social and embodied interactions in postcolonial contact-zones underscored by racial and cultural differences.

The final speakers of the day were Lynne Friedli (Centre for Welfare Reform) and Robert Stearn (Birbeck College), whose joint presentation was entitled ‘Whistle as you Work for Nothing: Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy and the Case of Workfare’. Robert started the proceedings with a question about the fundamental definition and nature of welfare in twenty-first century UK, offering examples of forced unpaid labour in institutionalized and personal forms. Lynne analysed the hegemony of positive affective definitions of work as a coercive strategy supplemented by the neoliberal societies which rely on psychological referrals as retribution for non-conformity. Together the speakers aimed to interrogate the politics of positive psychology drummed up in neoliberal discourses and the recalcitrance of British psychological societies to engage with welfare politics. One of the arguments in this presentation is the manner in which the area of workfare, as opposed to that of work, is conspicuously and perhaps strategically under-theorized and this connected to one of the connective themes in the symposium, the problematic relationship between critique and practice in neoliberal biopolitics. Through a series of demographic data and sociological surveys, the speakers highlighted the epistemic injustice experienced by jobseekers in the UK, an experience which requires urgent academic and critical attention.

The symposium ended with concluding remarks by Laura Salisbury and Martyn Evans on the nature of the event and the possibilities it pointed towards. Laura Salisbury asserted the importance of inculcating a shared rhetoric of research which operates at local as well as discursive levels. She emphasized on models of collectivity, whereby issues such as fairness and justice may inform a criticality which can actively intervene through a non-hierarchical process. The critical realm, Laura asserted, should ideally be collective. Martyn Evans spoke on the vibrancy of the field of medical humanities, one which is ceaselessly informed by new critical energies. He highlighted the subjective as well as the philosophical significance of agency in cultural and critical practices, affirming that the pain of being made to feel of no account is worse than the pain of material hardships. Defining the term ‘critical’ in medical humanities, Martyn located four possibilities of meanings: censorious, analytical, vital, and the key moment of the point of crisis. He highlighted the importance of speaking in one’s own voice as an articulation of agency and stated that the lingua-franca of medical humanities should be characterized by an accessible vocabulary which welcomes participation and triggers change.

The Critical Medical Symposium was a remarkable event which brought together an astonishing range of research interests, critical thinking and intellectual energy. It included medical practitioners, philosophers, literary scholars, social activists and critical theorists, among others, in a shared space of debates and dialogues. This was a symposium which highlighted the urgency to break the exclusivity and elitism often invested in knowledge production and instead looked at ways in which intersubjective exchanges among scholars, theorists and practitioners can inform richness, complexity and humility in human understanding. In an age overdetermined by the hegemony of sanctioned and circulated information and the specialization of skills, the value and potential of this kind of a forum can hardly be overestimated.

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