Medical humanities as a place for feminist and queer resistance, emancipation and joy

Rebecca Rosenberg and Benjamin Dalton report on the “Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Medical Humanities Seminar Series, 2020-21”

How does contemporary women’s writing—in all of its diverse forms across fiction, poetry, non-fiction, (auto)biography, philosophy, comics, etc.—encounter illness, medicine, and public health? What are the distinct responses and innovations that contemporary women’s writing brings to the medical humanities? And vice versa: what do the medical humanities bring to the study of contemporary women’s writing?

These are some of the central questions explored across the Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Medical Humanities seminar series. The series, supported by the Centre for Contemporary Women’s Writing (CCWW) based at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), London, comprises fortnightly online sessions, showcasing work from international researchers at the intersections of contemporary women’s writing and the medical humanities.

The series began in September 2020 and will continue until March 2021 with a follow-up summer conference and an edited publication planned. The seminars so far have explored encounters with medicine emerging across contemporary women’s writing, from the representation of clinical spaces and forms of autopathography, to death and mourning in (auto)fictions. The series brings together postgraduates and early career researchers from around the world with the online format enabling a fantastic level of accessibility – people have been joining from numerous countries and time zones! The series has received expressions of interest from researchers, medical practitioners, and artists all analysing and writing diverse medical narratives about and for women. The research presented each week has catalysed rich discussion in the question and answer sessions, always suggesting fertile new directions for exploration.

Looking forward to upcoming weeks, researchers, artists and medical practitioners will present their work on themes such as sexual and reproductive health and pleasure, gender and sexual identity, as well as narratives of disability and mental illness.

Who are we and what led us to create the seminar series?

We—Rebecca Rosenberg and Benjamin Dalton—are both working in the field of medical humanities and researching contemporary Francophone responses to medical institutions and structures by writers, philosophers and artists identifying as women.

Rebecca Rosenberg in Surrey and Benjamin Dalton in Paris

Rebecca is currently finishing a PhD thesis in the French department at King’s College London entitled: ‘Autofictional Narratives of Female Despair: Chloé Delaume, Nelly Arcan, Linda Lê and Chadortt Djavann’. This work focuses on how contemporary women’s writing approaches themes of mental illness, looking in particular at how therapeutic encounters are depicted in autofiction. For example, I am exploring how writing and reading are spaces for encounters with the alterity of the self and of the other.

Benjamin has just completed a PhD, also in the French department at King’s, entitled: ‘Plasticity in Contemporary French Thought, Literature and Film: Witnessing Transformations with Catherine Malabou’. This thesis explored Malabou’s interdisciplinary work on the transformability and ‘plasticity’ of the body across philosophy and biomedical science in relation to depictions of corporeal metamorphosis in contemporary French literature and film. For instance, one section looked at how Marie Darrieussecq’s famous depiction of a woman’s transformation into a sow in Pig Tales (1996) resonates with Malabou’s account of neural transformation between continental philosophy and neuroscience. Benjamin is currently developing a monograph on Catherine Malabou in relation to literature and film.

We wrote a lot of our PhDs sat side-by-side at adjacent desks, and so we have always had a lot to talk about by way of the crossings-over between our research projects. This research seminar has emerged out of hours of writing side-by-side and hours of conversations.

Through these conversations, we decided we wanted to create a research hub in which we could explore further how the medical humanities can act as a place for feminist and queer resistance, emancipation and joy. Medical institutions have been and can be places that are violent or traumatic towards womxn and queer people. We wanted to explore how the opposite might today be true: how medical institutions can function as sites of feminist and queer critique; places of activism and emancipation; even places that privilege pleasure and transformation.

We aim to create a digital archive of the research being presented, which is an added benefit of the virtual format. All our seminars are recorded, edited, and made publicly available on the IMLR events webpage. You can already watch the first seminar on ‘Rewriting the Clinic in Contemporary French Women’s Writing: Linda Lê and Catherine Malabou’, where we both presented papers on conceptions of the clinic in Linda Lê’s autofictional writing and Catherine Malabou’s philosophy; the second seminar on ‘Feminizing Illness and Medicine: Narratives Methods, Forms, and Aesthetics’ with papers by Marie Allitt and Diana Novaceanu; and the third seminar on ‘Death and Mourning’ with papers by Jordan McCullough, Tamarin Norwood, and Cristina Robu.

We want the seminars, both live and recorded, to be a practical tool for other students and researchers to learn about a heterogeneous group of international artists and writers as well as the researchers working on them. In this way, we hope our series will create an online community of researchers and students looking at the medical humanities and forecasting the themes that will dominate medical humanities research in the future.

Some of our participants have already started to forge links and share ideas, perhaps even collaborate in future projects. Our own aim is to organise an online conference next year (2021) consolidating and expanding the research presented in the seminar series with a particular focus on womxn and LGBTQIA+ experiences. We hope there will be future publications based on the research presented, and we have already had expressions of interest for an edited collection. To stay in touch with news related to the series, our blog will feature all updates concerning future projects.

The future of the series

At the time of writing, our next session is on ‘Sexuality, Sexual Pain, and Sexual Pleasure’ on 3rd November 2020. This session will feature NHS doctor, RSE expert, and sexual health advocate Dr Jennifer Dhingra talking about her work in sexual health, and Hannah Loret, who will be talking about her research on female sexual pain, as approached both through qualitative interviews and the philosophies of Marie-Dominique Arrighi and Hélène Cixous. Please sign up to join us via the link above – there is no limit on numbers, so the more the merrier! The sessions always begin with talks by the researchers, practitioners, or artists, before opening up for a public Q&A.

Please feel very welcome to ask questions or enter into the discussion in this section. Conversely, feel free to turn your webcam off, and just enjoy listening with a cup of tea. The sessions take place 5:30-7pm UK time, and a lot of people have commented on how they like to see how the sun goes down on everyone’s webcams throughout the session (unless those presenting are in different time zones)!

Keep in touch with us and let us know what you think of the series by emailing us or by finding us on twitter @benbgdalton and @rhrosenberg! After each session, we also encourage people to continue the discussions either on twitter or by email, and many of our speakers go over to twitter to engage with further questions or comments.

We currently have 13 sessions lined up, but we are still very much open to new abstracts or proposals for sessions! Find the full CfP here. We’ll also be sending out a CfP for an international online conference for the series to be held in 2021!

Join us! Hope to see you there!

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