Conversations across the medical humanities, Autumn 2021

This term, CHH has been facilitating conversations across departments and faculties at KCL, putting researchers in different fields into contact with one another in order to bring out new dimensions of their individual research.

On November 10th, we were joined by Dr Martina Zimmerman from the English Department and Dr Sridhar Venkatapuram from the Global Health Institute, who discussed their work on ageing.

Dr Martina Zimmerman is Lecturer in Health Humanities and Health Sciences, whose work focuses on the boundary between science, medicine, and literature. She delivered a talk exploring the ways that culture has tended to represent dementia as a loss and considering the different ways in which dementia patients and their carers write about the experience. While carers tend to frame dementia as a loss or burden, people with dementia focus on asserting their identity and autonomy. Martina posed the question of how culture frames scientific research on ageing.

Dr Sridhar Venkatapuram is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Global Health and Philosophy. He is based at the King’s Global Health Institute where he is Deputy Director, and Director of Global Health Education and Training. His talk considered the ageing global population and its implications for healthcare. He explored the ageism of the idea that healthcare spending on older people is pointless, an attitude which has been particularly noticeable during the pandemic, and suggested shifting from a concept of ‘successful ageing’ to one of ‘healthy ageing’.

The discussion afterwards was wide-ranging, covering ideas of normativity, the notion of personal responsibility for health (which, it was observed, fails to take into account social and economic conditions), and the ethics of policy around ageing.

On November 24th, our co-director Professor Neil Vickers was joined by Professor Nick Wilson from the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries to discuss the topic of care, which Neil described as the central subject of the medical humanities.

Professor Nick Wilson is the Head of the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries (CMCI) and Professor of Culture & Creativity. His talk was entitled ‘Caring about experience & developing cultures of care’. He noted that COVID-19 has offered a window of opportunity for a reassessment of cultures of care, and that care work and the ‘care crisis’ have been the subject of widespread discussion. With reference to his 2019 book The Space that Separates: A Realist Theory of Art, Nick discussed the idea that it is a core need to be able to do and be what is valuable, and in order to do so, we must be able to recognise what is valuable. He suggested that to do so is to care about experience.

Professor Neil Vickers is Professor of English Literature and the Health Humanities and co-director of the Centre for the Humanities and Health. He gave a talk on ‘ The Intersubjective Precursors of Care’, in which he argued that we in the Medical Humanities must strive to be as explicit as possible about how we define care, and drew on D.W. Winnicott to talk about mirroring and holding as they relate to care.

In the ensuing discussion, Nick suggested the idea of ‘holding open’, while other participants highlighted the importance of a degree of containment being included in the idea of holding. It was highlighted that care is not transactional and that it requires us to exist in an in-between space of knowing and not knowing.

We look forward to the continuation of these discussions, which draw on the rich community we have in the medical humanities at King’s.

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