Following the Evidence

Gill Partington revisits the collective process of indexing evidence at a recent workshop series.

Following the Evidence is a seminar series which has been running during the month of July 2021. The events explored the uses and meanings of evidence in contemporary health contexts – but also beyond them. Each session was focused on a particular type of interaction with evidence, and the kinds of things we do with it: indexing it, narrating it, waiting for it, and perhaps increasingly, doubting it. The series was hosted by the Index of Evidence, a Beacon Project based in the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health (WCCEH) at the University of Exeter, which seeks to piece together a picture of evidence in the contemporary moment, from multiple interdisciplinary perspectives and contexts.

This seminar series had the same broad, interdisciplinary and cross-cultural scope as a project as a whole. It began with indexing evidence, an event which put Dennis Duncan, lecturer at UCL and author of Index, A History of the (Penguin, 2021), in conversation with the New York-based artist Alejandro Cesarco. The discussion centred around how factual evidence might be codified on the page in this most recognisable form of paratext – but also on the unexpected affordances of the index form. What kinds of things can make their way into an index? Emotions? Humour? Tears? Cesarco’s ludic indexes ‘to books that don’t yet exist’ raised the question of whether the index can be an autobiographical form, performing a very different evidentiary function than we associate with it.

The question of whether indexes might constitute a narrative in themselves was a strand of discussion picked up in a different context in the second seminar, ‘Narrating Evidence’. For this event, Lara Choksey, postdoctoral researcher at WCCEH and author of Narrative in the Age of the Genome (Bloomsbury, 2021), was in conversation with Kelechi Anucha, a doctoral student at the University of Exeter. They discussed the ways that evidence makes its way into narrative, or conversely, eludes or interrupts it. Choksey reflected on the often uneasy relationship between genomics and literary narrative. As she writes in her new monograph, “While genomics offers a powerful metaphor for reading the past – ‘an autobiography of our species’ – it cannot do the cultural work of caring for history.”

Our third seminar shifted to some very timely notions of deception and scepticism, in a session entitled ‘Doubting the Evidence’. Caitjan Gainty and Agnes Arnold-Forster of the Healthy Scepticism project based at KCL were in discussion with Patricia Kingori, Associate Professor in Global Health Ethics at the Ethox Centre, University of Oxford. All three were keen, in different ways, to challenge the polarising impulse of contemporary debates over authenticity and ‘fake news’ in medicine. The concept of scepticism as deployed by Gainty has the potential to open up a complex and nuanced history of dissenting voices stretching back over the twentieth century. The concept of the fake, meanwhile, as Kingori showed, complicates reductive and simplistic conceptions of ‘genuine’ science versus the mere imitation. In conjunction with artist A.R. Hopwood, Kingori is currently establishing a Museum of Revelatory Fakes, exploring the potential of certain kinds of fakery to trouble the boundaries between the real and the false. This territory of the in-between, as all three speakers showed, has a rich history and a great deal to tell us.

The fourth and final seminar in the series, took place on Friday 16th July, and turned to another very current concern – that of ‘Waiting for Evidence’. How do we understand or attend to evidence that is in the process of revealing itself, and to the uncertainties and confusions of being in the midst of an event? Isabel Davis, Reader in Medieval Literature and Culture at Birkbeck discussed the notion of ‘unpregnancy’, an indeterminate state that has historically generated multiple, sometimes controversial strategies of divining and predicting. Sophie Day, Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, pointed out the distinction between ‘waiting for’ and ‘waiting with’: While the former may be a largely passive state,  the latter can be generative of sociability and agency. Felicity Callard, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Glasgow, spoke from a personal perspective about the complexities of evidence in the context of Long Covid, and above all the drive to know and document. The question of how those waiting for a diagnosis or resolution can take control of their own narratives and shape their waiting into a meaningful or active state was one that ran through all three presentations.

Dr. Gill Partington is a postdoctoral researcher in the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health at the University of Exeter and the organiser of the Index of Evidence project. Keep up to date with upcoming activities this autumn online at and on Twitter @indexofevidence.

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