Masks and Monsters: 2020 in Review

Fiona Johnstone, outgoing Acting Editor-in-Chief at The Polyphony writes:

What a year. In early 2020 the world went into a lockdown from which it has yet to fully emerge; The Polyphony was at the forefront of the medical humanities’ response to the coronavirus crisis as it unfolded, and unsurprisingly, our top five most-read posts of this year directly addressed the pandemic.

  • Of Monsters and Men (May 2020) written by Guddi Singh, a paediatric doctor and doctoral researcher in philosophy at King’s College London, reimagined the covid crisis as a modern-day Greek myth and morality tale. Drawing on her own experience as a frontline healthcare worker, Singh argued that the dominant media discourse of NHS heroism effectively exonerates the state from their responsibility to protect and preserve public health.
  • Art in Isolation: Artist responses to Covid (June 2020), written by Elodie Marandet, Harriet Barratt, and Aristea Fotopoulou from the ART/DATA/HEALTH project, explored early artistic responses to Covid-19, identifying recurring themes including the affective experience of isolation, the symbolic and material meanings of home, and the importance of connection with digital technologies.
  • COVID-19: a perspective for the Arts and Humanities (March 2020) by Polyphony columnist Nathan Fletcher was an important call-to-arms for the arts and humanities community, and a timely reminder of the value of our disciplines in times of crisis.
  • Of smell and loss: Tweets from a Covid-19 Sickbed (April 2020), by Felicity Callard, is an autopathographic account for our time, based on a series of tweets made by Callard as she lay sick in bed with suspected Covid-19 in the spring of 2020. This offers a fascinating compendium of the symptoms of so-called ‘mild’ covid, and is an important meditation on the place of anecdote in constructions of the medical case and case-based thinking.
  • Muzzles, parrots and lifejackets: the uneasy objectification of the face mask (July 2020) by Harriet Barratt explored the extreme emotional responses engendered by the mask.

A milestone year for The Polyphony

2020 has been a significant year for The Polyphony in other ways as well. We officially launched in October 2018, and have now received well over 100,000 visits to the site and published more than 270 original articles foregrounding the best new medical humanities scholarship. Having passed our second birthday, we are currently in the process of reshaping our editorial team to ensure that the site remains polyphonic in both name and nature.

We say goodbye to Katrina Longhurst, who has been with the editorial team since The Polyphony’s launch, and has played a significant role in developing the platform and ensuring its ongoing success. We wish Katrina the best of luck with her next adventure. We asked Katrina to nominate her three favourite posts, as follows:

  • Shelley Saggar’s Secret Items in the Wellcome Historical Medical Collections explored the handling and display of ‘culturally sensitive’ objects in medical museums, and considered the entanglement of such museums in colonial histories of collecting and cultural erasure.
  • Our Resistance to Recovery Narratives, by activists Kaz DeWolfe and The Borderline Academic, unpicked the pressures of adhering to ‘consumer/user’ and ‘survivor’ recovery narratives. This post was part of a week-long series of specially commissioned pieces responding to Angela Woods, Akiko Hart, and Helen Spandler’s article “The Recovery Narrative: Politics and Possibilities of a Genre”.
  • Making Space for Self-Harm, by the Make Space project, drew attention to the way in which public discourse about self-harm is almost always directed towards the single goal of stopping it. Challenging this normative focus on cessation, this article invited readers to consider the ways in which self-harm, as an object, as a topic, as an experience, could exist without needing to be solved or shamed.

Finally, I will be stepping down as Acting Editor-in-Chief at the end of this year, and returning to the rather less all-consuming role of associate editor. It has been a truly fascinating year to be at the helm of a thriving medical humanities platform, and it has been an absolute privilege to help shape the identity of the site whilst working with a wonderful and talented team of people. Sarah Spence will take over as Editor-in-Chief in January 2021.

We wish you a very merry Christmas break and a happy new year from all at The Polyphony.

Fiona Johnstone, outgoing Acting-Editor-in-Chief

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