CHHS research seminar + English Department (online) – Dr Doug Battersby, Dr Louise Benson James, Dr Sarah Daw

On the 6th of October the CHHS co-hosted a research seminar with the English Department.

Dr Doug Battersby presented his paper ‘The Novel and the Heart’. In his talk, Battersby introduced his Marie Curie Global Fellowship project, “The Novel and the Heart: 1840–1940,” which will be carried out at Stanford University and the University of Bristol. The heart is perhaps the single most important trope in Western literary culture, widely exploited by writers to explore questions about authenticity and self-knowledge, virtue and ethical commitment, emotion and embodiment, illness and health, and volition and sexual desire. Such questions became the central preoccupation of literary fiction in the Victorian and modernist periods, and it is therefore not surprising that the heart features prominently in numerous canonical works, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). But whilst previous interdisciplinary studies have shown how the heart’s cultural meanings have changed dramatically from the Medieval period onwards, these studies have not extended beyond the mid-19th century and have explicitly set the novel form aside as less worthy of interest than poetry, with its apparently more intuitive connection to cardiac rhythms. Battersby’s project will examine how representations of the heart in novels by canonical British and Irish writers evolved in dialogue with scientific and medical understandings of the organ specifically and the body generally.

Dr Louise Benson James presented her paper ‘Intracorporeal Narratives: Reading Internal Biology in Women’s Literature, 1880s-1930s. This paper introduced Benson James’ Marie Skłodowska-Curie project at Ghent University, entitled ‘Intracorporeal Narratives: Reading Internal Biology in Women’s Literature, 1880s-1930s’. The project examines British and American women’s fiction for its depictions of internal anatomy: organs and systems, circulatory, nervous, reproductive, and digestive, to analyse how women’s writing communicates bodily experiences and depicts the ‘intracorporeal’, narrative journeys through concealed and invisible organs. Benson James questioned: how do visualisations of the body’s insides and internal workings change through time? Does literature reflect medical developments and discoveries, for example echoing the shift from the nervous to the hormonal body? How are metaphors employed to aid us in visualising these systems and parts: the nervous system as a network of vibrating strings, hormones as postal packages or chemical messages, the sperm and egg as static and kinetic, the biological clock? Benson James is interested in the persistent desire to find a physiological rationale, to map pain internally, even when that pain has an emotional or psychological source. The project also explores how changing conceptualisations of the body interact with gendered notions of pathology and disorder. Comparing fictional texts to medical writing and advertising of the same era, it will track the development of and interaction between the medical understanding of the internal body, communication in the public realm, and exploration in literature.

Dr Sarah Daw presented her paper ‘Imagining the (Eco)Future: Ecotopian Thought in an Age of Climate Breakdown’. ‘Ecotopian’, or ecologically-ideal, visions of humanity’s future in the Anthropocene are a negligible presence within contemporary British and North American climate change discourse, particularly in comparison to the abundance of apocalyptic and dystopian depictions of the future. Apocalyptic narratives of the future are increasingly prevalent in contemporary discourse, as the climate crisis becomes ever more acute and rises further up global news agendas. There is also mounting evidence that, in the years since ecocritic Lawrence Buell argued that apocalypse constitutes the “single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal”, far from promoting action and engagement, apocalyptic framing actually works to compound inaction and avoidance. However, despite the growing body of ecocritical work demonstrating the problems arising from the prevalence of apocalyptic imagery and thought within environmental writing, relatively little critical attention has been paid to its antithesis – depictions of ‘ecotopian’, or ecologically ideal, futures. This talk introduced Daw’s Marie Curie Global Fellowship research on ‘ecotopia’, which investigates the presence and absence of ecotopian visions of the future within contemporary climate change writing across disciples. In order to contextualise this new research, Daw outlined the Cold War history of modern environmentalism, considered the contemporary influence of this mid-century history, and discussed the lack of critical attention to ecotopian writing and thought within the field of ecocriticism.

CHHS Party

On the 30th September members of the University were warmly invited to a Centre for Health, Humanities and Science party. This event provided an opportunity for current CHHS members and those interested in learning more about the Centre to meet with colleagues, discuss shared research interests and hear more about the work of the Centre over light refreshments.


CHHS Research Seminar (online) – Dr Anthony Fernandez

On Wednesday, 2 June Dr Anthony Fernandez spoke at the Centre for Health, Humanities and Science Research Seminar. The title of his talk was ‘How to Empathize by Objectifying’.

In the literature on empathy in medicine, it’s common to contrast empathic openness with an objectifying attitude. In empathic openness, the clinician perceives the patient as an embodied subject expressive of intentions, desires, and emotions. In an objectifying attitude, on the other hand, the clinician perceives the patient as a mere body or as an organism with a physiological dysfunction. Beginning with the phenomenological studies of Drew Leder and S. Kay Toombs, and continuing through the present discourse in the field, phenomenologists have typically argued that clinicians should avoid objectifying their patients because it’s harmful, dehumanizing, and undermines effective care. Fernandez argued that these popular phenomenological characterizations rely on an oversimplified understanding of the relationship between empathy and objectification: The empathic and objectifying attitudes should not be understood as fundamentally opposed because, in some cases, fully empathizing requires that the empathizer partially objectify the empathee. Using the example of interacting with someone with Tourette’s Syndrome, Fernandez demonstrated how objectifying certain aspects their movements actually facilitates rather than impedes empathic understanding. Moreover, Fernandez argued that this example should motivate phenomenologists to rethink some key aspects of their traditional understanding of objectification.

CHHS Research Seminar (online) – Dr Elizabeth Barry

Dr Elizabeth Barry presented her paper ‘”We Hang Up Laughing”: Laughter, Dementia and Time’ to CHHS members on the 3rd of March.

Barry’s paper explored the phenomenology of time for those with dementia, exploring the implications of the loss of the ability to expect, as well as to remember, and how this conditions lived experience. The paper was informed in this endeavour by neurophenomenological explorations of expectation and surprise undertaken by Francisco Varela and Natalie Depraz. The paper considered the interaction of this disordered experience of time with the chronometric, task-oriented temporality of the care setting. Finally, it explored the role of laughter, and its own particular temporality, in communication, care and therapy for those with dementia. It took as its evidence memoirs by those with dementia and by caregivers, as well as qualitative studies in psychology, sociology and linguistics that investigate the lived experience of dementia.


CHHS Research Seminar (online) – Dr Luna Dolezal

Dr Luna Dolezal addressed CHHS members on February 3rd to discuss ”Fat Shaming’ under Neoliberalism and COVID-19: Examining the UK’s ‘Tackling Obesity’ Campaign’.

Dolezal’s article explored the dynamics between fat shaming, neoliberalism, ideological constructions of health and the ‘obesity epidemic’ within the UK, using the Tory Government’s recent Tackling Obesity campaign in response to COVID-19 as illustrative. Dolezal drew attention to the ways in which ‘fat shaming’ as a practice that encourages open disdain for those living with excess weight operates as a moralising tool to regulate and manage those who are viewed as ‘bad’ citizens (LeBesco, 2004). In doing so she begins by outlining how the ideological underpinnings of ‘health’ have been transformed under neoliberalism. She then considers the problematic use of fat shaming language that is often used as a tool to promote ‘healthy’ lifestyle choices by those who view it as not only an acceptable way of communicating the health risks associated with obesity, but also a productive way of motivating people with overweight and obesity to lose weight (Brown and Baker, 2013, p. 24). Drawing on Graham Scambler’s theoretical framework regarding shame and blame (2020), Dolezal discussed how “heaping blame on shame” has become a “wilful political strategy” under neoliberalism, particularly as it relates to individuals with excess weight or obesity, and how the Tacking Obesity campaign leverages fat shaming as a means to encourage normative models of self-care and self-discipline.

CHHS + English Department Research Seminar (online) – Dr Maria Vaccerella

On December 2nd we were joined by CHHS Steering Group member, Dr Maria Vaccarella, who discussed ‘Illness as Fiction’.

Vaccarella noted that amidst the rise of fake news and Internet hoaxes, bogus illness accounts are particularly troubling, given their potential to undermine the benefits of online peer-support communities, to erode trust in expert medical knowledge, and to promote ineffective, if not lethal, alternative therapies.

In this talk, Vaccarella presented her project “Illness as Fiction: Textual Afflictions in Print and Online”, which investigates the narrative construction of fake patient identities both in book form and on social media. With the help of illness narratives scholarship, Vaccarella questioned whether these texts constitute an extreme form of pathographical writing and she illustrated what they can teach us about the relationship between autobiography and fiction.

CHHS Research Seminar (online) – Dr Agnes Arnold-Forster

We were pleased to host Dr Agnes Arnold-Forster on November 11th, who presented a paper to the Centre for Health, Humanities and Science members entitled ‘Complaint and the 1979 Royal Commission on the NHS’.

In 1979, the Royal Commission on the National Health Service was published. Chaired by Sir Alec Merrison, the Commission covered England, Scotland, Wales and the parallel services in Northern Ireland and received 2460 written evidence submissions, held 58 oral evidence sessions, and met and spoke informally to about 2800 individuals. According to Merrison, ‘we were appointed at a time when there was widespread concern about the NHS’ following ‘a complete reorganisation of the service throughout the UK in 1973 and 1974 which few had greeted as an unqualified success’. Indeed, the commission’s report described a polarised set of perspectives about the health service, ‘In the evidence submitted to us we found a complete spectrum of descriptions of the present state of the NHS ranging from “the envy of the world” to its being “on the point of collapse”’.

This paper used the submissions of evidence from self-proclaimed ‘ordinary people’ – both workers and patients – to explore the various ways British citizens engaged with the welfare state, investigate how they felt about its services, and consider the affective and political function of complaint. In responding to calls for evidence published in newspapers, magazines, and broadcasted on television, the authors of these letters were participating in a conversation about staff and patient experiences of the NHS and demonstrating their commitment to the service’s future.



CHHS Research Seminar (online) – Dr Lindsey Porter

We were joined by Dr Lindsey Porter on the 7th October who presented a paper on ‘Harm Reduction and Moral Desert in the Context of Drug Policy’.

The target of Porter’s discussion is folk intuitions that lay people have about justice in the context of drug policy – intuitions that take on a more or less moral-desert-based shape. Porter argued that even if we think desert is the right measure of how we ought to treat people, we ought to still be in favour of harm reduction measures for people who use drugs (dHR).

dHR approaches are those approaches to drug use that seek to reduce the harms of use without seeking to reduce the prevalence of it. Needle exchanges and supervised injections sites for IV drug users are taken to be the paradigm examples of such an approach. These measures are controversial with members of the public, and much of the opposition seems to come from something like an appeal to a desert conception of justice – the notion that a just state of affairs is one in which everybody gets what they deserve, no more, no less. A recent study, for example, found that ‘moral outrage’ predicts a preference for prevalence reduction (via criminal sanction, etc.) over dHR. The thinking seems to be that since drug use is wrong, letting people who use drugs suffer, and / or die, as a consequence of their use is just. Aiding their health and safety, while perhaps compassionate, is unjust.

Porter argued that there is a bad desert fit between using drugs and suffering avoidable harm even if it is the case that using drugs is morally wrong. Many of the possible harms of drug use are socially / policy driven, and much more problematic drug use is context dependent, not cleanly attributable to the decisions of the person who uses drugs. This means that even if drug use is wrong, people who use drugs deserve dHR policies, at minimum.