Book Review: The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, edited by Anne Whitehead, et. al.

Review by Burcu Alkan.

Edited by Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods, et al., The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities (Edinburgh University Press, 2016) covers a wide variety of topics in the burgeoning field of medical humanities in four parts and thirty-six chapters. The term “critical” stresses the book’s theoretical and methodological concerns. The editorial introduction establishes the emergence of a “second wave” as a development from the earlier scholarship that was primarily preoccupied with ethics, education, and experience. In their chapter, “Entangling the Medical Humanities,” Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard ask:


How might the methodological and intellectual legacies of the humanities intervene more consequentially in the clinical research practices of biomedicine – situating accounts of illness, suffering, intervention and cure in a much thicker attention to the social, human and cultural contexts in which those accounts, as well as the bodies to which they attend, become both thinkable and visible?

This volume is thus a collection of essays that seeks to fine-tune the position of the field’s evolving theoretical framework.

The general editors, Whitehead and Woods are academics working at English departments, Newcastle and Durham universities in England respectively, and their professional skills in critical analysis inform their interdisciplinary endeavours. The writers of the collection are scholars from a variety of fields in humanities and social sciences and artists who are actively engaged with the biomedical in its various guises. This fusion proves to be particularly interesting as each chapter is in dialogue with the others, establishing an organicism that is not always found in edited collections.

There are four parts to the book, titled “Evidence and Experiment,” “The Body and the Senses,” “Mind, Imagination, Affect,” and “Health, Care, Citizens” that explore the personal and subjective components of the biomedical, as well as the artists’ interactions and encounters with its very materialism through their own bodies or the bodies of others. Each part is followed by an “Afterword” that pulls together the different trajectories of each section, maintaining the volume’s structural organisation against the risk of overstretching due to its length.

The first part focuses on the pressing imperative to be truly interdisciplinary in approach. Fitzgerald and Callard suggest the concept of entanglement, arguing that “the issue is not that illness and healing are multi-faceted phenomena that cannot be understood from a clinical perspective only, and that require a new, interdisciplinary perspective to be appreciated in their wholeness.” Medical humanities encourages the understanding of how “making, breaking and shifting boundaries constitute illness and healing,” as opposed to merely tackling those boundaries. Likewise, in her discussion on the modelling of systems biomedicine, Annamaria Carusi underlines the intertwinement of “bodies, technologies, expressivities” against the dualist modes of thinking. Each writer in this part, correspondingly, argues for methodologies that transcend the problematic mind-body dualism that hinder conversations among different fields. As Patricia Waugh defines in her “Afterword,” medical humanities challenges

the model of interdisciplinarity that envisages pre-packaged individual disciplines retaining and contributing their particular strengths in constrained and appropriate spaces and simply reframing epistemic objects already securely positioned in other specific disciplines.

It underlines the “recognition of the necessary vagueness and fuzziness of the epistemic object as it is displaced from disciplinary ownership to enter a place of experimental exploration that may bring forth something new and radically different.” These theoretical positions are shown in implementation from the second part onward.

The second part focuses on the materialism of the body and the senses as they are experienced by the patient, explored by the scientist, and expressively experimented upon by the artist. Some of the intriguing cross-disciplinary examples are Rachael Allen’s engagement with the materiality of the body in relation to the drawing of the cadavers at the anatomy lab and the morphological freedom of customising one’s own body for personal, artistic, and aesthetic reasons as examined by Luna Dolezal. There are also historical cultural analyses such as the depictions of pain through the centuries, the use of voice in Renaissance dissections as explorations of different mediums associated with different senses, and the relationship between the touch of the physician/surgeon and trust in early modern medical practice.

The third part is concerned with the affective and mental interactions with the medical through topics such as mental pathology in Victorian literary aesthetics and modernism’s affinities with aphasic disabilities. Discussions on the “grotesque” nature of the US death penalty and the trans-species encounters between autistic children and animals are also among the highly important and interesting subjects of the section. The urgency to question the liminality of the medical context of the lethal-injection executions in Lisa Guenther’s chapter highlights the kind of complexities upon which utilising a medical humanities approach might prove to be particularly valuable.

From methodological problems in understanding global health crises to the crucial place of the traditional counsel in modern clinical relationship, the final part looks into the many faceted dynamics of the biomedical and humanistic components of health care. Interactions between the past and the present of clinical encounters, alongside the need for integrated methodological approaches reveal the fault lines of medicine in isolation. The intellectual resonances between Rosemary Jolly’s analysis of the “postcolonial exotic in western medicine” and Rebecca Hester’s “culture in medicine” and “authority of competence” in medical sciences points out how same ideological issues are apparent to the critical lenses of different fields.

This volume exemplifies the richness in medical humanities research and exhibits how a truly interdisciplinary encounter between medicine and humanities would be beneficial to all parties concerned. The UK research scene is exceedingly progressive in this context, as the generous funding from the Wellcome Trust, which supported much of the research in the collection, attests. On the downside, while acknowledging that not everything can be covered in a single book, even one that is as voluminous as this one is, a stronger cultural diversity is wanting. As it stands, the chapters are heavily weighted on contents and perspectives from a “western” orientation, even when that orientation itself is being critiqued. Though the editors and authors recognise this issue, there is still much to be achieved in breaking patterns to enable true diversity in cultural exchange and scholarship.

burcu-alkan-photoDr. Burcu Alkan is a literary scholar and an editor currently based at Justus Liebig University, Germany. She specialises in comparative literature with an emphasis on the Turkish novel. Recently, she has been working in the field of medical humanities, on the relationship between psychiatry and literature, focusing on psychoanalysis, self-destruction, suicide, and mental health. She has co-edited the Dictionary of Literary Biography – Turkish Novelists Since 1960 (2013) and Dictionary of Literary Biography – Turkish Novelists Since 1960 Second Series (2016). Her monograph Promethean Encounters: Representation of the Intellectual in the Modern Turkish Novel of the 1970s will come out of Harrassowitz Verlag, in 2018.

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