Monday, January 30, 2012

Sublime Body seeks performers

A newly formed Arts Organisation called Parlour Arts is looking for artists and performers for their upcoming exhibition, "The Sublime Body". The exhibition will take place in the Parlour Space in Kentish Town 27th February- 4th March. They have already begun taking submissions of visual artworks, but are now looking for performers to perform on the closing night of the exhibition. The performance can take any form from spoken word to dance to music to film or short plays. This is a great opportunity for new artists and performers to show off their work and one not to be missed. For more information and to register interest, please contact Fiona Bradley, Parlour Arts

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Classics for ethics?

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

Medfest 2012

News of a wonderful medically themed film festival touring the UK. This is the second year of the festival which aims to provoke debate on the ethics and politics of doctors on film. This year's theme is 'HealthScreen - understanding illness through film'. The first event is at Birmingham University on 7 February with 15 further events at medical schools around the UK. Education films, health information films and mainstream Hollywood movies will all be considered. Each event is free with no ticket required. Entry is on a first-come basis. More details here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Blog redesign

When this blog was started some eight years ago, it was envisaged as a place where students from the Imperial College Medical Humanities course could share their writing and any medical humanities activities. This worked well for many years, but since then, the websphere has changed, as has the nature of medical education. An explosion in social media means that students no longer need a formal space in which to showcase their writing. Many have blogs of their own or rely on Facebook to raise their profile. Also students have such full timetables that it is unrealistic to expect long-term commitments to writing for a group blog. So, whilst I still envisage inviting posts from students and others associated with the course at Imperial, I'm going to take ownership of the blog and try to write more myself. I'm pretty sure this was the first blog devoted to medical humanities, and it's been nice to see other groups set up their own blogs to tell us about their activities. I'll be posting links to UK medical humanities conferences and events, so please let me know if you would like anything included. I won't be adding or accepting sponsored links. I'm in the process of updating the blog roll, so will be accepting suggestions for relevant sites.

Comics & Medicine: Navigating the Margins

22-24 July 2012
Toronto, Canada

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:
• author(s)
• affiliation
• email address
• title of abstract
• body of abstract

Please identify your presentation preference:
• oral presentation
• panel discussion
• workshop

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

*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