Medical (Post) Humanities? Reassessing and Reimagining the Human

Jo Rodgers reports on the ‘Medical (Post) Humanities?’ conference held on 27th April 2022 at the Mowbray in Sheffield

 

The Medical (Post) Humanities? conference offered participants the aim of ‘reassessing and reimagining the human.’ Given this aim, and after two years of online-only academic events, it seemed particularly fitting to have this conference in person, surrounded by other humans! The conference took place on 27th April 2022 at the Mowbray in Sheffield. The informal nature of the setting seemed immediately conducive to a discursive atmosphere, creating interdisciplinary conversations sparked by papers covering a broad range of medical humanities subjects. Conference organisers Rosie Crocker (University of Sheffield), Eva Surawy Stepney (University of Sheffield), Shauna Walker (University of Leeds) and Mary Dawson (University of Leeds) selected papers which addressed the theoretical and the legal, the clinical and veterinary, the performative and the literary, producing a nuanced and productive discussion of the human. The presenters leaned into the complexity of the term ‘human’ and its parameters, often engaging with the ideas of posthuman heavyweights such as Braidotti, Hayles and Haraway, to consider the human not as individually-bound entity, but as expansive and fluid. The combination of papers and presenters from a variety of disciplines ensured that the ‘human’ was considered in terms of its experiences and sense of being, alongside its fleshy materiality.

Professor Dan Goodley’s keynote, ‘Posthuman Health Studies: No Humans Involved?’ established some of the day’s key themes and discussions. Dan introduced the work of the University of Sheffield’s iHuman research institute, which pursues disruptive interdisciplinary research into what it means to be human. A consideration of value and how it is attributed ran through the conference, beginning with Dan’s unpacking of the animal and human division, as well as differing values placed on human lives in Covid discourse’s individualism and ableism. His exploration of the paradoxical need to use the language of humanism, even in spaces which aim to question humanism and individualism, led to his discussion of ‘friction’, as informed by Jasbir Puar work. This sense of friction, tension and paradox was a fitting way to open the day’s conversations around a reimagining of the human.

The first panel centred on a destabilising of the person and the assumptions made about their needs and themselves. Kerri Betts (University of Leeds) used Katherine May’s memoir Wintering to establish her framework of autistic inflection. She explored how May’s writing demonstrates the opportunities which autism can create for linguistic play and an inversion of life writing. Kerri considered the implications of voluntary and involuntary visibility, and the effects of labelling writing as autistic or disabled, particularly when the writing does not address autism directly. Vanessa Ashall (University of York) presented some of her new research on practitioner opinions on end of life care across veterinary and medical contexts. Continuing the conversations of human and animal value from Dan Goodley’s keynote, Vanessa considered interspecies entanglements and the disparities of euthanasia and ethics across species. She invoked the similarity of medical treatments of humans and animals, which appears to stop with conversations around death and the decision-making process around dying. Vanessa’s discussion of which animals are perceived as needing a ‘good death’, and her suggestion of a potential convergence of human and animal approaches to this good death, speaks to the conference’s wider conversation about reassessing human wants and needs. Finally, Jamie B. Smith (Charité Universitätsmedizin, Berlin) explored the issues with person-centred care, considering who the ‘person’ is in this context. He argued that a person-centred approach to medicine assumes the person to be a rational agent without vulnerabilities or contingencies, and additionally that evidence-based approaches rely further on the patients’ body fitting normative categories. Informed by his nursing career, Jamie established the limitations of person-centred care by exposing the imagined ‘person’ as a neatly-bounded, and therefore impossible, individual. He used the example of the messy physical intra-active entanglements of nurse and patient, and the need to understand the patient as connected to community and environment. Looking forward in the Q & A, he considered the possibilities of relationship-centred care, as an alternative method within medical care to understand the human and how it expands beyond the threshold of the skin.

This theme of transgressions of human thresholds continued into the following panel; these three papers from rather different disciplines and approaches worked surprisingly well together to consider where the human ends using fiction, art and legal personhood. Nicholas Griffin (University of Sheffield) presented his work on William S. Burroughs and addiction, examined using Bakhtin’s Other. Nicholas explored how Burroughs’ depicts a humanistic regression, as the body and the humanness of the subject degenerate through addiction. Continuing this sense of rethinking the body and its (re) constitution, Olivia Turner’s (Newcastle University) paper on reimagining medical encounters made use of photographs and video of her art. Recalling the idea of tensions and frictions from Dan Goodley’s keynote, Olivia demonstrated how art and performance can explore the visceral body as medical subject and object. Using motifs of worms and tongues, she offered a reading of the human body which leans into the fleshy, slippery, malleable, going beyond the static flatness of medical scans. To finish the panel, Donrich Thaldar and Bonginkosi Shozi (University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) presented their findings on South Africans’ opinions on human heritable genome editing. Participants in the study discussed genome editing for disease prevention, immunity and enhancement of traits, and the potential issues such genome editing could cause, such as disability stigma. Donrich and Bonginkosi found that the participants generally did not identify strongly with their own genome, but had stronger views on the ownership, exploitation and manipulation of the genomes of future humans. This paper in particular sparked discussion in the Q & A, as delegates considered the importance of inclusivity in participant selection for such discussions which reimagine the human so radically, and Donrich’s question on ownership of genetic material similarly generated lively debate.

The final panel of the day returned to some of the earlier panels’ themes of visibility and value, with the common ground of transparency connecting the two papers. Ellie Wakeford (University of Leeds) presented on surveillance under pandemic and capitalist conditions. She drew on the reimagined panopticon, the Coronopticon, to investigate the evolving nature of privacy and agency. Using pandemic fictions, Ellie explored the human as caught between public duty and personal privacy, as well as the slippage of the human into the technological via the digital afterlife. Bentley Crudgington (University of Manchester) finished the conference by reflecting on their immersive theatre project which invited participants into the fictional Biocore facility to consider ethics of animal testing. Bentley explored more-than-humanities methodologies and considered immersive theatre’s potential to rethink human-animal value judgments with an audience making decisions in a fictionalised space.

Benefitting from a richly diverse and interdisciplinary set of papers, the Medical (Post) Humanities conference was a well-considered and thought-provoking discussion of the human, the perceived boundaries of the human and the body, and how the perceptions of others constitutes the human in potentially limiting ways. While working in such varied methods, the presenters shared significant commonalities in reimagining the human. The panels and the discussions they sparked seemed to work towards a reimagining of the human as expansive and inclusive, rethinking limiting parameters of human-ness and otherness. Perhaps one of the key issues raised through the day was Vanessa Ashall’s concern around publication of posthuman work. Speaking on her own work as sitting between human medical and veterinary care, Vanessa commented on the difficulty of publishing interdisciplinary writing on posthuman subjects, and of the need to find or forge spaces for this kind of work. This in-between-ness and the frustrations it causes are, it seems, another consideration which ran through the day’s papers.

Many thanks to Rosie, Eva, Shauna and Mary for their work in organising the Medical (Post) Humanities? conference, and to the Arts & Humanities Research Council through the White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities for funding the event. Further thoughts and insights on the day can be found on Twitter via #MedPostHums.

 

Jo Rodgers is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Based in the School of English, her research investigates the representation of abortion in American near-future reproductive rights dystopias written in the 21st century, and fiction’s potential for reframing understandings of abortion.

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