What do posthumanism and pop culture offer the medical humanities?

Beata Gubacsi introduces her regular column Medical Humanities 2.0:

I discovered medical humanities over two years ago, halfway through my PhD research into posthumanism and fantastic literatures, through the gateway of trauma studies. I have found it an unprecedentedly complex interdisciplinary conversation, and am particularly drawn to explorations of the relationship of medical professionals and patients to each other, and to the environment, technologies and wider systems of care.

What do posthumanism and popular culture have to offer to medical humanities? Posthumanism, an emerging, future-oriented philosophical trend, seeks to revise the connections between human and non-human, technology and the environment, by deconstructing binary oppositions and advocating symbiotic relationships. In this sense, posthumanism and popular culture are inherently entangled: they extrapolate contemporary problems, imaginine alternative consequences and speculate on sustainable solutions. This entanglement can foster new ways of thinking about health and illness, the multiplicity of relationships within the medical context, and the potential in modifying the natural and urban environment for medical purposes, focusing on interactions and exchanges rather than boundaries. This re-setting of our thinking is becoming more and more pressing, as the general consensus is that the gap between fictional technologies and reality is slowly disappearing.

There have been plenty of examples for such intersections between medical humanities, posthumanism and popular culture, focusing on the potential in medical posthumanities at the first and second NNMHR Congress, hosted by Durham University and the University of Leeds. Gavin Miller and Anna McFarlane (University of Glasgow) who presented the Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project at the market place in Durham. The display showcased the applicability of fantastic narratives to medical humanities, in the form of the edited collection A Practical Guide to the Resurrected: Twenty-one Short Stories of Science Fiction and Medicine and a BMJ special issue. In September, the significance of speculative fiction to medical humanities was also emphasised in the opening keynote lecture. Esther L. Jones (Clark University, Massachusetts) drew attention to the unequal application of bioethics in medical practice at the intersections of race, gender and sexuality and the way these narratives of systematic abuse in the memory of communities are extrapolated into speculative fiction, emphasising that the failure to act ethically is due to a lack of imagination.

Posthumanism was also well represented in both years. The first panel in 2017 was dedicated to “Medical Posthumanities”, where Amelia De Falco (University of Leeds), drawing on examples from both literature and film, discussed how companion and caregiving robots embody and possibly subvert the gender and racial inequalities surrounding the economies of care work. In nothing less than an embodiment of science fiction, I was fortunate enough to meet MiRo, an adorable companion robot, capable of responding to movement and sound and mimicking the behaviour of a pet, through Stuart Murray’s (University of Leeds) “Augmenting Human” table at the market place. The questions surrounding care robots resurfaced a year later in Annamaria Carusi’s (University of Sheffield) presentation, “Can Artificial Intelligence (Artificially) Care?”.

Studies of non-human carers and companions were presented by Nicholas Jenkins’ (University of the West of Scotland) presentations in both years, “When Species Meet in Dementia: A critical posthumanist exploration of ‘animal assistance’ for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and associated disorders” and “’He Thinks He’s a Human’: Exploring the Connections Between Dementia Studies and Animal Studies”, reminding me of the complexity of care, involving animals in many ways. Another important addition to the intersections with posthumanism and popular culture was the “Transplantation” panel. Sara Wasson (Lancaster University) addressed medical and cultural narratives around transplantation and the recurring theme of the right to organs in science fiction. As an example, she brought up Ninni Holmquist’s novel, The Unit (2006). Margrit Shildrick, (Linköpig University) talked about heart transplantation and the phenomenon of michrochimerism, the presence of a small number of cells in the recipient’s body that are genetically different from the host’s cells, leaving recipients wondering about his or her own identity after transplantation. Posthumanism has used chimeras and hybrids to describe a desired construction of subjectivities, emphasising the connectedness of humans to each other and other species.

Another addition to medical humanities, doubtless under represented at conferences but no less fascinating for all that, is gaming. Over the past few years, gamers and game developers have begun important conversations about mental health and especially the representation of mental illness. There have been several initiatives to lift the stigma surrounding mental health, to achieve a more accurate and less pejorative way of portraying dementia, depression, trauma and psychosis. One of the most recent and talked about projects is Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a game designed to ’simulate’ the symptomatology of psychosis in its game mechanics, storytelling, visual and sound design. The game marks an unprecedent collaboration between game developers, medical experts and voice hearers which has been facilitated by the Wellcome Trust and Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project. A few days ago, Ninja Theory also announced Senua’s Scholarship funding which is available for mental health professionals to support their training.

Turning to the future, I would like to end this first post with my hopes for the column. I would like to channel my enthusiasm and the joy of new discoveries and making connections into ‘Medical Humanities 2.0’. Ultimately, I would like it to be fun. You may thus come across posts on books you have read at some point, or series you have watched on Netflix, or artist and/activists you might follow on social media, and games that you have not heard of but may wish to try. The column will explore new research areas and draw attention to innovations in technology, media and art, which may change our lives in the future. Lastly and most importantly, ‘Medical Humanities 2.0’, as part of The Polyphony, is seeking to become a platform for researchers, artists and activists to share their expertise, visions, lived experiences and concerns surrounding the future of technologies, medicine and our overall understanding of health and illness. If you would like to contribute then please get in touch.

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