Tuesday, February 01, 2005

George Rousseau's talk on Literature and Medicine

Thanks to Neil Vickers from Kings College for help with this synopsis.

The King’s Dialogues kicked off on Thursday 27 Jan with a very interesting talk by George Rousseau on ‘Literature and Medicine - the state of the field’. Professor Rousseau gave an account of the development of L&M as an academic discipline and how, during the 1970s and 80s it struggled to find a niche in the shadow of Literature & Science (L&S) which emerged as the dominant field. L&M never tried to develop according to its own lights. People who were interested in it tried to build it up by 1) establishing that a sufficiently wide and deep body of texts existed that would justify L&M's existence as an academic subspecialty and 2) by trying to help others interested in L&M to get tenure in humanities departments. It was hard work: there was no Athens, no BIDS, no bibliographic software to speak of. And the professional struggles were filled with the usual venality. Most importantly of all, L&M scholars never tried to get near the experience of illness.

Like many humanities scholars, L&M specialists were aware of Foucault from the 60s on and found his work fascinating. But they did not appreciate why it was destined to become so important. Prof. Rousseau said that with hindsight that importance was clear: Foucault grasped earlier than any other thinker of his generation the primacy of the body for virtually branch of progressive humanities scholarship that was then seeking to anchor itself in university curricula (feminism, history of oppressed groups, early queer theory, etc.).

Rousseau passed the lion's share of his professional life (1966-94) as Clark Professor of English at UCLA. He described how he witnessed the impact that the AIDS epidemic had on literary theorists. L&M specialists were slow to understand its relevance for their own discipline. They understood its relevance for themselves personally (Foucault's death from AIDS added poignancy to this recognition) but the response was ultimately inadequate, he said, in spite of Sontag’s inspiring work.

A major theme of the talk was how emergency medicine and the technological response have become paramount in medicine, whereas the doctor-patient relationship, especially trust, has been neglected. L&M, he argued, is healthier outside academia, witnessed by the abundance of patient and doctor narratives. Literature has much to contribute to medicine – ‘we are the stories we tell’ – but medicine also has much to teach literature. Anti-science prejudice in the humanities still needs to be challenged. In spite of attempts to come up with a grand theory of L&M, none has emerged. Professor Rousseau advocated a new field, ‘compassion studies’ that would focus on histories of trust, compassion and tolerance – elements he argued are especially lacking in American society, and are particularly poignant on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Professor Rousseau has recently published a collection of essays, Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture and Sensibility.

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