In their new anthology, Culture and Medicine: Critical Readings in the Health and Medical Humanities, Arden Hegele (SOF 2016-2019; Lecturer in the Discipline of English and Comparative Literature) and Rishi Goyal (Board Member 2019–2022; Director of Medical Humanities at ICLS; Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine) engage with the question of how biomedical knowledge is constructed, negotiated, and circulated as a cultural practice. The book features eleven chapters and an afterword by a group of writers who represent disciplines as diverse as early modern literature, medical anthropology, and emergency medicine.
To celebrate its publication, Hegele and Goyal discuss the book, major concerns regarding the medical humanities, and how cultural practices define health and the body:
How did this book come about?
Culture and Medicine: Critical Readings in the Health and Medical Humanities developed out of our work as co-founding editors of Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal. We created a space where early-career scholars in all disciplines of humanities and health could share their insights in what we refer to as a "department without walls." Our goal, both in the journal and book, is to feature public-facing, scholarly writing on some of the most important topics in health and medicine today—as analyzed and interpreted through the lens of the humanities.
Culture and Medicine is a collection of some of Synapsis writers' best and most impactful work. The chapters are on topics as varied as how Victorian vampirism helps us see the maternal body in a new way, how the Electronic Health Record alienates doctors from patients, how the lived experience of the ill body troubles time itself, and how the label of "dystopia" unexpectedly neutralizes intelligent critique.
How do you see this book expanding our understanding of how cultural practices define health and the body?
Biomedicine is not neutral: it is a force that shapes and is shaped by culture. Our book investigates how institutions, power structures, and professional norms decide what counts as health and illness and who counts as human. Whether written by literature professors, by historians of science, or by doctors, all the chapters in our book work together to interrogate the power of biomedicine.
We believe with Samuel Johnson in the potential of medicine to provide the "greatest benefit to mankind," but we are very aware of how it doesn't always live up to that ideal. By understanding the power of biomedicine to shape culture, our aim is to strengthen biomedical progress through multiple perspectives. We also want to use the tools of the humanities to help contest a global epidemic of science denialism.
What's the biggest question facing medical humanities, and how does this book address it?
The medical and health humanities constantly grapple with how to bridge the gap between loci of knowledge in the humanities (the department, the classroom, the library, the humanities center) and the clinical world of the hospital. These spaces are separated not just by their deeply specialized bodies of knowledge but by an unwritten curriculum of norms and dialects distinctive to each culture. The greatest challenge faced by the medical and health humanities, then, is how to bridge that gap by using a shared language to articulate a set of common values.
Our book tries to do just that. We talk about three "attitudinal orientations" we believe can and should be held in common between medicine and the humanities: an ethics of inclusion and justice, the importance of critique, and clear and accessible communication. If both medical professionals and humanities scholars adopt these values, we believe that important and impactful work can be done in the future.
What do you see as the future of the discipline of medical humanities?
We think this field has no limits for growth. From pre-conception to the end of life, a humanities lens can transform the human body's encounter with the institutions of medicine. The medical humanities can take many forms: training doctors to be attuned to patients' stories, alleviating burnout in care providers, reducing bias within institutional regimes, and exploring the many rhetorics of science denialism.
One area that we see as especially exciting for future work is medical and pharmaceutical research. The pace of discovery is so rapid that new technologies, drugs, and treatments are enthusiastically taken up, sometimes without full recognition of their political, legal, sociocultural, or psychoanalytical impacts. In the future, the medical and health humanities will work hand in glove with biomedicine to illuminate the unintended or inadvertent ethical impacts that trail existing and emergent technologies.