Anxieties of communication: the limits of narrative in the medical humanities

What is and should be the role of narrative in the medical humanities? Responding to Angela Woods’ 2011 paper The limits of narrative, Dr Claire McKechnie (Glasgow Centre for Population Health) advances the discussion in her recent article for the BMJ Medical Humanities journal “Anxieties of communication: the limits of narrative in the medical humanities.” The abstract appears below, and access to the article (for subscribers) is available here. We welcome your contribution to this debate!

Anxieties of communication: the limits of narrative in the medical humanities
Claire Charlotte McKechnie
Med Humanities doi:10.1136/medhum-2013-010466

Abstract: This paper aims to provide an initial response to Angela Woods’s endeavour to ‘(re)ignite critical debates around this topic’ in her recent essay ‘The limits of narrative: provocations for the medical humanities’ (Medical Humanities 2011). Woods’s essay challenges the validity of the notion of the narrative self through her discussion and use of Galen Strawson’s seminal ‘Against narrativity’ (2004). To some extent in dialogue with Woods, this article will examine three exploratory concepts connected with the topic. First, it will explore ways in which we might seek to re-place narrative at the centre of the philosophy of good medicine and medical practice by reassessing the role of the narratee in the narrative process. Second, it will reconsider the three alternative forms of expression Woods puts forward as non-narrative—metaphor, phenomenology and photography—as narrative. Finally, and connected to the first two areas of discussion, it will reflect on ways in which narrative might be used to interpret illness and suffering in medical humanities contexts. What I hope to show, in relation to Woods’s work on this subject, is that in order to be interpreted (indeed interpretable) the types of non-narrative representation and communication she discusses in fact require a narrative response. We employ narratology to engage with illness experience because narrative is so fundamental to meaning-making that it is not just required, it is an inherent human response to creative outputs we encounter. This is a quite different approach to the question of narrativity in the medical humanities, and it is therefore related to, but not entirely hinged upon, the work that Woods has done, but it is intended to spark further discussion across the emergent discipline.

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