Friday, June 05, 2015

Building Theory

This weekend, I am at the RSA 2015 Summer Institute attending a workshop on Theory Building in the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. I'm excited; I've not attended an RSA workshop before, the leaders and other members of the workshop are doing work that's interesting and exciting, and I really enjoyed the reading materials.

I had forgotten how fun that experience is--to get a reading list from a group of experts, read it, think about it, and then get together with other engaged people to discuss it. I haven't really gotten to do that since coursework, which ended four years ago at this point (yikes). Of course I read a ton of things all of the time and take notes and am motivated to read more by recommendations I hear, but it's not the same as working in a group with some really smart folks leading the charge.

According to the pre-workshop documentation, we're focusing this week on theory building with Ebola as a common example, which I found to be a fascinating choice. I was obsessed with Ebola in the fall but, with the rest of America, quickly forgot about it once the initial fervor had passed (in my defense, I became obsessed with measles instead, as the Disneyland outbreak picked up steam, but that's no real excuse for ceasing to care about real people infected with a real deadly disease). I was thinking about that viral amnesia today when re-reading Paula Treichler's How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, another reading assigned for the workshop. Treichler includes a lengthy quotation from Stuart Hall in the prologue, some of which states,

"AIDS is indeed a more complex and displaced question than just people dying out there. The question of AIDS is an extremely important terrain of struggle and contestation. In addition to the people we know who are dying, or have died, or will, there are the many people dying who are never spoken of" (3-4).

I believe these observations point to the importance of the work that medical rhetoricians, medical humanists, and cultural theorists undertake. Right as Hall is about the invisibility of many of the early AIDS victims--and AIDS as a disease, no less--it strikes me that many diseases have their own forms of invisibility, of silenced and muted voices, of blind spots and amnesias that blot out victims from view. Sometimes those victims of disease go unnoticed for years, sometimes they come into focus and benefit from attention, sometimes they come into focus only briefly and then flit away. No one knows (or cares) where they went or what happened to them. Sometimes they come into focus only to be heavily stigmatized, and benefits to the victims are few (maybe this is the case with Ebola?). Visibility isn't always a good thing; invisibility isn't either. Both may be inevitable.

Who, why, when, and how visibilities are created and negotiated in public spaces is the task of the medical humanities and medical rhetoricians and those who study and understand culture and communication. Disease, though it has undeniable objective components and consequences, is only partially those things. It's also a social phenomenon that needs to be understood if the disease is ever really grappled with. This is what makes me excited about my job, my research, and this workshop. Looking forward to an illuminating weekend.

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