Thomas Wadsworth reports on the Hematopolitics Symposium held at the University of Leeds in May 2022
‘Blood occupies a special place in human history for the strong associations and deep sentiments it provokes about identity, kinship, vitality, danger, and sacrifice.’ Drawn from the call for papers, this passage stood out to me and framed the two-day Hematopolitics Symposium organised by Jieun Kim at the University of Leeds on 23-24 May 2022. Having started my PhD just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with resulting multiple lockdowns in the UK and move to digital conferencing, I was honoured to be invited to present my research face-to-face for the first time on one of the panels titled ‘Bleeding Through the Skin: Anxieties, Stigma, and Resistance’. Across the two days, and alongside four other sessions, a range of international speakers and attendees discussed related themes ranging from contagion to blood’s materiality to the role of blood in building nation and community.
A clear thread arose from the role of blood in reconfiguring spacio-temporal relations. This began with Jacob Copeman’s (Santiago de Compostela) keynote address ‘Blood, Space, and Time’ on blood donation in India. In Copeman’s thinking, Hindutva blood donation camps and blood mediatisation draws a link to a Hindu past, which helps to legitimise a specific nationalist present and future. Similar connections with ancestry, land, and genetics were raised by Samiksha Bhan’s (Max Planck Institute) talk ‘“Not in our samaaj”: Contesting Bloodlines in the Identification of IBSs in India’ and Isaac C.K. Tan’s (Columbia University) presentation ‘The Imperial Japanese Military and their Bloodtype Appropriations, 1910-45’. These blood explorations focused not only on history, but also the ways the materiality of blood mediates contemporary society. Sangeeta Chattoo (University of York) then expertly weaved this link in her discussion of sickle cell anaemia and mapping of Indian health policy intervention and activism in relation to race, tribe and caste.
Many papers considered whether the present and potentiality of blood’s mediation could be radical – or if it was a reactionary force. Reactionary elements came to the fore through discussions of classification and calls to nationalistic ancestry excluding and limiting futures. This was also discussed in Bo Kyeong Seo’s (Yonsei University) talk ‘”Blood will Splash”: Contagion, Containment, and the ‘end of AIDS’ in South Korea’, where blood, and its symbolic rendering as ‘risky’, became a means to refuse medical care to those living with HIV. Within this same presentation, blood took the form of something more than a reactionary and excluding force. Through examining and supporting discrimination cases brought to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, and the activism alongside these, blood was discussed as a space of shared solidarity and community.
The radical role of blood as community was also explicitly raised. The session led by Leigh Bowser (a Leeds-based artist), titled ‘Blood: Stitching Together Community’ focused on her craftivism and production of textiles to do with menstruation and blood donation. Bowser passed around blood-bag textiles to participants to play with that she had co-created with others to raise collective awareness of blood donation in response to her niece’s diagnosis of Diamond Blackfan Anaemia. Blood’s role in creating community was mentioned further in my talk ‘Self-Harm on Social Media: Visibility and the Witnessing of Digital Bodies and Blood’. I discussed social media hashtags that form around self-harm, in particular wrist-cutting, through which imagery of blood and the associated captions and interactions call for care and an Other that does not yet exist. In the penultimate presentation, Ros Williams (University of Sheffield) complicated the notion of blood as community. In her discussion of stem cell donation, she examined the push to encourage mixed-raced racialised communities to enrol, detailing highly affective stories of individuals attempting to find ‘immunocompatible’ donors. Here, blood as community was considered as both constructive, yet potentially limiting through its racialization of immune relations.
In a concluding session reflecting on the symposium’s themes, participants discussed the complex forms, meanings and significance of blood in society – through extracted blood, images of blood, blood as a gift, blood bags, as quantified, and as contaminated. After the symposium, organiser Jieun Kim asked whether it would be useful to think about ‘the blood multiple’, and if so, how are the range of forms blood takes held together, if at all? While there are undoubtably numerous answers to this provocation, I look forward to engaging this discussion in future workshops and scholarship, and also contributing to discourse as a response develops.
Throughout the range of presentations and materialities of blood and blood research on display, one thing was clear: blood fascinated us all. Blood captured us and made us follow its histories, presents, and futures. To take these conversations further you can follow the Hematopolitics project on Twitter at @Hematopolitics and online at hematopolitics.org.
About the Author
Thomas Wadsworth is a PhD student in Visual Sociology and Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Their research focuses on self-harm and online spaces, with particular attention to the circulation of imageries, and different ways mental healthcare is co-constituted within affected communities beyond medical and clinical settings.