Can experience ever be ‘exemplary’?: Will Viney responds Agnes Arnold-Forster’s review of The Undying

Agnes’ review of The Undying leaves me looking forward to her forthcoming book on cancer and its history. I am particularly interested in what she says about the creation and maintenance of cancer as an incurable disease, and the problems that patients, researchers and healthcare staff encounter in managing cancer’s uncertainties. Her review has let loose a series of questions in my mind: what should researchers in the humanities and social sciences do about their own historically and structurally informed conceptions of ‘cure’ or its absence? How should our work, which may be in partnership with patients, staff, researchers, private industry, policy makers, and organisations like charitable funders and research universities, render the biological and social contingencies of cure? How might we avoid becoming dependent on extractive practices, whether they are in the name of description, advocacy or critique?

Some of these questions may or may not get aired at a forthcoming conference about chronic illness. 476 researchers will travel to Copenhagen in April 2020 for the conference Chronic Living: Quality, Vitality and Health in the 21st Century – three days of presentations about the treatment and care of people affected by dementia, diabetes, arthritis and Crohn’s and cancer, among others. It is hard to imagine curable diseases being examined with the same intensity. I wonder about the material conditions that made this concentration of interests possible, lead us to be more familiar with those inculcated into the extensive and wide-ranging literature of the incurable than the cured.

All this might be important for me because on the one hand I agree with Agnes when she notes that the language of remission cloaks a more simple reality. Despite rapid yet uneven advances in treatment most therapies offer few absolute guarantees of enduring success. Anne Boyer’s The Undying articulates this situation with poetic rage. But I cannot go along with the idea that Boyer’s experience is exemplary – whose experience can ever be so? – and I think that the oncologists, researchers, and cancer organisations I have encountered may wince at the accusation that they elide the precariousness of cancer survivorship – it is the effects of precariousness that they manage, treat, and it is through conditions of social, economic, and epistemological precarity that they care.

 

‘There are many Boyers in Britain’: Agnes Arnold-Forster responds to Will Viney’s review of The Undying:

Will’s thoughtful and intellectual review drew my attention to aspects of The Undying that I had not considered, but on reading his analysis now seems at once fundamental and obvious. His introductory point about who gets to produce first-person accounts and the assumptions that medical humanities scholars make about the value of the patient perspective caused me to pause and reflect on my own work as a historian of medicine seeking ‘experience’ in past sources and only sometimes succeeding.

The difference between our two takes on The Undying were many and various. Clearly we – as both scholars and individuals – had distinct approaches to Boyer’s account. Will’s review prompted me to consider why I took away from her book what I did – specifically, why I am so preoccupied with labour? It is a theme running through much of my current research and writing so it is perhaps natural that I would seek out discussions and descriptions of work in a book ostensibly about illness. But my attention to that theme – both in my review and elsewhere – is also no doubt a product of precarious employment. I see healthcare as having much in common with higher education and there are many similarities in the conditions of both clinical and academic labour. They are both beset by entrenched hierarchies, by increasingly vexed discussions about the emotional health of their workers, and by the fervent belief that their working cultures and demands are unique and unparalleled.

In his review, Will describes how, “the undying” names the process of individuation that renders cancer personal but, and also, provides the collective noun for members of cancer’s ‘social order’. This use of ‘naming’ and ‘noun’ is a neat – although possibly unintentional – way of suggesting something I also found while reading the book. One of Boyer’s skills and key contributions is to ‘put words to’ – beautiful words – and elegantly recapitulate other people’s arguments. Many of her interventions have been made by others – other scholars and other ‘cancer patients/writers’. This is not a critique – but rather an observation that despite her efforts to disrupt form and narrative by writing the way she does, she nonetheless circles around familiar themes and navigates well-trodden paths.

Finally, I found Will’s observation about the differences between the cancer process on either side of the Atlantic particularly productive. It made me think – what will other British readers like myself make of The Undying? Boyer’s experience confirms many of the assumptions we might have about the conditions of privatised healthcare. Might her account, therefore, allow us to avoid critical reflection on our own system’s shortcomings? Boyer’s sufferings surely could not be possible here? While I agree with Will that cancer treatment, ‘cannot…be the universal or global political opponent that Boyer imagines it to be’, we also cannot allow that truth to let us evade the inadequacies of cancer care under the NHS. There are, after all, many Boyers in Britain.

 

About the reviewers:

William Viney is the author of  Waste: A Philosophy of Things (Bloomsbury, 2014) and director of the documentary short Twins on Twins (The Derek Jarman Lab, 2017). He completed a three-year Leverhulme project entitled The Wonder of Twins at Durham’s Institute for Medical Humanities before joining Goldsmiths College as a Research Associate on the People Like You project.

Agnes Arnold-Forster is Research and Engagement Fellow for Surgery and Emotion, Department of Humanities, University of Roehampton. Recent publications include: ‘A Small Cemetery: Death and Dying in the Contemporary British Operating Theatre’, in Medical Humanities (2019), and ‘Mapmaking and Mapthinking: Cancer as a Problem of Place in Nineteenth-century England’, Social History of Medicine, (2018).

Anne Boyer’s book, The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness (2019), is published by Allen Lane.

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