“Feminist Encounters with the Medical Humanities” Review

Maryam Golafshani writes: I have been waiting years for a book or journal issue dedicated to the intersection of feminist thought/praxis and the medical humanities—and this issue of “Feminist Encounters with the Medical Humanities” (guest edited by Sherri L. Foster and Jana Funke) did not disappoint. What is most impressive about this issue is the spectacular range of feminist methodologies deployed and the immense variety of objects/subjects encountered through these methodologies. The methodologies include phenomenology, performative art, (art) historical analysis, science and technology studies, literary analysis, and more. And the objects/subjects encountered include online health advice, artworks, comments from a health sciences ethics committee, feminist movements, a novel, memories, a clinical case, architectural space, and more. In these ways, the issue truly lives up to its title of Feminist Encounters—with an “s”—with the Medical Humanities. I was especially happy to see such robust engagement with feminist science and technology studies in this issue. It has always surprised me how little the medical/health humanities engage in direct dialogue with STS despite how well the two fields complement each other, so I hope this special issue inspires other medical humanities scholars to take up more STS scholarship (and vice versa).

By exemplifying the myriad ways in which feminism(s) can encounter the medical humanities, these authors inevitably end up also demonstrating just how plural the medical humanities really are. In this issue, the medical humanities moves beyond the field’s previously limited focus on medical education and the clinical encounter in two ways. Firstly, several authors explicitly take us beyond those scenes: Bee Hughes moves us to the internet as a scene of medical authority/knowledge; Ben Kasstan and Sarah Crook move us to contemporary and historical feminist movements as scenes of reproductive healthcare; Venla Oikkonen moves us through time, memory, human and non-human communities as scenes of partial immunity; Sophie Jones moves us into a novel’s genres as scenes of oppression and revolution through hormone use; and Annmarie Adams moves us from the patient’s medical history to the scene of the physician’s history. These authors importantly remind us of all the many ways and places in which medicine occurs, and thus all the many ways and places in which the medical humanities should focus its attention. Secondly, two authors get us beyond the scenes of medical education and the clinical encounter by—rather unexpectedly—diving right back into them in new ways that open them up to broader cultural-political concerns: Carla Tsampiras and Alex Müller move us from the scene of medical education to a broader concern for counter-cultural knowledge production in South African academia; and Jo Winning moves us from the isolated scene of the clinical encounter to a clinical encounter situated in the broader politics of race and gender in the UK. These authors importantly remind us that the call to move beyond the medical humanities’ previously limited focus on medical education and the clinical encounter should not be a call to leave them entirely behind; rather, it should be a call to re-invigorate our analyses of these sites with renewed perspective from everything that lies beyond.

Diving Deep

Now I want to dive deeper into specific points about each article, beginning with Bee Hughes’ “Challenging Menstrual Norms in Online Medical Advice: Deconstructing Stigma through Entangled Art Practice.” Her analysis of online medical advice is exceptionally thorough and detailed, getting beyond the oftentimes superficial “thematic” analysis that unfortunately still characterizes some qualitative health research. Hughes’ already highly nuanced analysis of online menstrual health advice was made even more rigorous and—most importantly—meaningful through her artistic practice. Her article exemplifies how bringing the personal into academic scholarship is not merely a feminist flourish, but rather a strategic move that brings forth reservoirs of insight that are often otherwise inaccessible. I was, however, surprised that Hughes overlooked intersex menstruators and wonder how that would have further troubled the online medical advice’s normative assumptions about menstruation.

Bee Hughes, Cycles, 2016-2017. Acrylic and menstrual fluid on hand stitched linen scrolls, installation size variable.

Carla Tsampiras and Alex Müller’s article on “Overcoming ‘Minimal Objectivity’ and ‘Inherent Bias’: Ethics and Understandings of Feminist Research in a Health Sciences Faculty in South Africa” was an important reminder that the medical humanities should not so rushed to move past the scene of medical education: there are still urgent concerns to be addressed and lessons to be learned, especially when one looks beyond the dominant sites of the UK and the US. The first half of this article risked reifying the assumed flow of knowledge from the so-called global north “down” to the so-called global south, as the authors almost exclusively cited British and American scholars, applying their ideas to their South African academic context. By contrast, in the second half of the article, we learn much more about the South African medical humanities context through Tsampiras and Müller’s highly original theorization of “disciplinary curiosity” and “epistemic generosity,” which offer fruitful frameworks that will hopefully be applied to interdisciplinary work more broadly.

Ben Kasstan and Sarah Crook’s “Reproductive Rebellions in Britain and the Republic of Ireland: Contemporary and Past Abortion Activism and Alternative Sites of Care” is a rare example of a peer-review publication that is quick to addresses a recent phenomenon: in this case, Ireland’s recent referendum to repeal the Eight Amendment on 25 May, 2018. This timely piece reminds medical humanities scholars how (feminist) political activism is so often the site of urgent healthcare reform, thus meriting more scholarly attention if the medical humanities truly hopes to provoke traditional biomedical culture to consider new models of care. To borrow Winning’s later turn-of-phrase, Kasstan and Crooks incite the medical humanities to “think-with” political activism in order to recognize how political activism is in many ways a form of (self) care. This kind of activist healthcare, like mainstream medical care, comes with attendant risks: in this case, Kasstan and Crooks emphasis on the activist rewording of extra-state abortions as abortion exile reminds us of the potential costs of activist forms of care.

Venla Oikkonen’s article on “Partial Immunities: Rethinking Communities and Belonging through Viral Memories of Influenza” importantly pushes forward the immense amount of theories of immunity to recognize the partiality of immunity and, in turn, the partiality of related concepts like memory. Oikkonen’s article ended much stronger than it started: while it was important to situate her argument within the highly saturated scholarship on immunity, I lost sight of the significance of her intervention for much of the article’s first half. But by the end, I was deeply convinced of her two most provocative points: that partial immunity reveals important interspecies relationships as well as power inequalities in the scene of global health. Her provocation for medical humanities to consider interspecies entanglements is urgent when one considers the use of animals in medical research as well as the growing use of animals as therapeutic aids for mental/physical disability and illness. Finally, Oikkonen’s point about global health yet again emphasizes the entire special issue’s overall call for medical humanities to better engage with global health concerns.

Sophie A. Jones’ reading of “The Biodrag of Genre in Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era” brought the medical humanities back to literature in new, exciting ways. Jones’ close attention to the novel’s juxtaposition of genres yields original insights that reinvigorate literary analysis in the medical humanities. For example, she argues that the genre of pornography in Testo Junkie reveals how texts are never merely representations but also technologies: texts, like hormones, elicit and even circumscribe affect and thereby produce subjectivities. This kind of reading reminds us just what is at stake in the production, dissemination, and critique of texts by medicine and the medical humanities: affective subjects—from the subjects Test Junkie addresses to the subjects who rely upon online medical texts to determine what is a “normal” menstrual cycle.

Jo Winning’s “Learning to Think-with: Feminist Epistemology and the Practice-based Medical Humanities” brings us back to the scene of the clinical encounter and postgraduate medical education in new ways. Considering how reflective writing is largely taken for granted as an assumed “good” addition to undergraduate and postgraduate medical education, it is especially important to have Winning remind us of reflective writing’s urgent ethical, political, and legal considerations through her analysis of the way Dr. Hadiza Bawa-Garba’s reflective writing was used against her in the case of six year-old Jack Adcock’s accidental and tragic death. I was, however, not so convinced of Winning’s turn to and praise of Julia Kristeva and Eivind Engebretsen’s recent “appeal to the medical humanities” in order to build her arguments. Here I bring the personal into this own review: as someone who grew up in the “West” with a so-called “strict” Muslim family, I am rather tired of academic disciplines having a go at saving us Muslim girls and can’t help but wonder if Kristeva et al.’s intervention in the medical humanities is symptomatic of this problematic scholarly urge. Considering Winning’s nuanced analysis of the intersections of race and religion in the Bawa-Garba case, I was disappointed that she did not continue to “think-with” Kristeva et al.’s article in a similarly nuanced way. If she had done so, I think Winning would have at least acknowledged the possibly problematic politics reproduced via Kristeva et al.’s use of the “saved Muslim girl” trope as an exemplification of their argument getting beyond the biomedical/cultural divide.

Finally, Annmarie Adams’ article on “Encountering Maude Abbott” flips medicine’s—and oftentimes the medical humanities’—focus on patient histories on its head by instead focusing on the physician’s history. Or perhaps to be more accurate, Adams focuses on what previous histories of Dr. Abbott—a Canadian cardiologist (1869-1940)—missed through her own original attention to material culture and space. I especially appreciated Adams’ nuanced consideration of the role of the medical museum in Abbott’s life as something that both granted her agency and yet also circumscribed it. This is attention to juxtapositions and contradictions is a foundational feature of this entire special issue and is precisely what makes feminist methodologies so rich and rigorous: they are able to simultaneously hold critique alongside appreciation and oppression alongside revolutionary potential.

Maryam Golafshani is postgraduate researcher at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University (Canada). She spent this past summer at Durham University’s Institute for Medical Humanities and does research on decolonial and diasporic literatures/theories and medicine.

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