Monday, January 30, 2012
Saturday, January 21, 2012
I’ve been invited to deliver a masterclass in using classical literature to teach ethics at the Institute of Medical Ethics Conference next month. I’m really looking forward to it, not least because three former students are up for the Mark Brenner prize for creative approaches to ethical issues in clinical attachments. Good luck Matt, Rory and Rebecca.
Classical literature for narrative source material for ethics, as distinct from contemporary literature, has made me think about the characteristics of classics. For a novel or short story to be considered a classic, it has to have withstood the rigours of time and competition. Its themes, characters and/or plot have a value that transcends period and place, making it worthy of our attention – and still relevant -- many years after it was penned. Classics are paradigmatic. They are touchstones for cultural excellence. But does their status mean we come to them with a less open mind about the moral stances they might advocate?
Reading a classic absolves the reader of the judging whether something is ‘good literature’ or not. That decision has already been made collectively for us by cultural consensus, aided and abetted by those who decide school syllabuses, write textbooks or are editors for publishers’ ‘Classics’ series. I find that I approach the reading of a classic with a different mindset to when I read contemporary literature. When a text is taken for granted as ‘good’, I feel an obligation as reader to ‘be improved’ by my reading. I must seek out what has been deemed good about a text and be appropriately appreciative. Happily, this is rarely onerous. With the possible exception of Ulysses, I have enjoyed reading the canonical texts in medical humanities: Middlemarch, Madame Bovary, Magic Mountain… (is there a correlation between titles starting with ‘M’ and classic status?).
Writing in the introduction to the excellent book Stories and their Limits, Nelson says that ethics took a ‘personal turn’ in the 1980s away from the impartialist approach (with its emphasis on universalism) to focus instead on the value of moral significance of individual relationships (love, friendship, community). Might the ‘classic’ status of a text imply a framework of universalism that sets it at odds with the preoccupations of the personal that are intrinsic to narrative ethics? Do classics already have a presupposed strong moral force that is inescapable for the reader? It is well known that we practise ‘confirmation bias’ in that we tend to favour stances that support positions that we are already committed to. If a narrative has attained classic status, it might well be because it tells us a story that conforms to a collective sense of morality. Can we then be sufficiently critically available enough to really open up a text to moral investigation? After all, as John Arras writes in his sardonically entitled chapter ‘Nice story, so what?’ (Stories and their Limits), ‘Ethics without judgment is not ethics.’
A counter-argument would be that classics are often provocative rather than complacent in their moral stances. The moral ambiguity in the writings of Shakespeare, Kafka, Shelley, Tolstoy, Chekhov and many of the other ‘greats’ is what helps to elevate their texts to ‘classic’ status. It contributes to why they are still amenable to seemingly inexhaustible analysis, in spite of all the intervening years of scholarship and debate.
Does a certifiably good story intrinsically have a moral dimension? The French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve certainly thought so. He wrote in 1850: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth” (my emphasis). I think it is almost always possible to find a moral dimension in classic texts that have a medical motif. If ethical issues do not suggest themselves in the plot or character, there may be discussion points around the relationship of the author to matters medical, or about how medicine is represented as a profession. One of the advantages of studying classics is that it demands a consideration of context. It compels us to put aside current legal frameworks and norms, and really think about how morality is narratively shaped.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto Biomedical Communications Program, University of Toronto, Office of the Vice-Principal, Research, University of Toronto, Mississauga
The third international interdisciplinary conference* on comics and medicine will continue to explore the intersection of sequential visual arts and medicine. This year we will highlight perspectives that are often under-represented in graphic narratives, such as depictions of the Outsider or Other in the context of issues such as barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability, and the silent burden of caretaking.
The conference will feature keynote presentations by comics creators Joyce Brabner and Joyce Farmer. Brabner, a comics artist and social activist, collaborated with her late husband Harvey Pekar on the graphic novel Our Cancer Year (1994), which won a Harvey Award for best graphic novel. Farmer is a veteran of the underground comics scene who nursed her elderly parents through dementia and decline as shown in her graphic memoir Special Exits (2010), which won the National Cartoonists Society award for graphic novels.
We invite proposals for scholarly papers (20 minutes) or panel discussions (60 minutes) focusing on medicine and comics in any form (e.g., graphic novels, comic strips, graphic pathographies, manga, and/or web comics). In particular, we seek presentations on the following— and related—topics:
• Graphic pathographies of illness and disability
• The use of comics in medical education
• The use of comics in patient care
• Depictions of the illness experience from the perspective of loved ones and family caregivers
• The interface of graphic medicine and other visual arts in popular culture
• Ethical implications of using comics to educate the public
• Ethical implications of patient representation in comics by healthcare providers
• Trends in international use of comics in healthcare settings
• The role of comics in provider/patient communication
• Comics as virtual support groups for patients and caregivers
• The use of comics in bioethics discussions and education
We also welcome workshops (120 minutes) by creators of comics on the process, rationale, methods, and general theories behind the use of comics to explore medical themes. These are intended to be “hands-on” interactive workshops for participants who wish to obtain particular
skills with regard to the creation or teaching about comics in the medical context.
We envision this gathering as a collaboration among humanities scholars, comics scholars, comics creators, healthcare professionals, and comics enthusiasts.
300-word proposals should be submitted by Friday, 28 February 2012 to
Proposals may be in Word, PDF, or RTF formats with the following
information in this order:
• email address
• title of abstract
• body of abstract
Please identify your presentation preference:
• oral presentation
• panel discussion
While we cannot guarantee that presenters will receive their first choice of presentation format, we will attempt to honor people’s preferences, and we will acknowledge the receipt of all proposals submitted. Abstracts will be peer-reviewed by an interdisciplinary selection committee. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be completed by 14 March 2012.
Please note: Presenters are responsible for session expenses (e.g. handouts) and personal expenses (travel, hotel, and meeting registration fees). All presenters must register for at least the day on which they are scheduled to present.
More info & updates at graphicmedicine.wordpress.com
*Information about the 2010 conference, “Comics and Medicine: Medical Narrative in Graphic Novels,” in London, England, and the 2011 conference, “Comics and Medicine: The Sequential Art of Illness,” in Chicago, Illinois, USA, can be found at http://www.blogger.com/www.graphicmedicine.org.