Attentive Writers’: Healthcare, Authorship, and Authority. Conference Review by Jac Saorsa

I have powerful memories of Glasgow. I studied philosophy in the cloistered halls of the fourth oldest University in the English-speaking world as my children developed a slight, yet resonant Scottish ‘burr’ in their accents. It was a joy therefore to go back to city, and to the University, to attend and present at the Attentive Writers: Healthcare, Authorship, and Authority conference.

The conference was organised by Dr. David Shuttleton, Dr. Gavin Miller, Dr. Elizabeth Reeder, and Dr. Megan Coyer and was hosted by the Medical Humanities Research Centre, University of Glasgow on the 23rd to the 25th of August. The program, as most do, included panels and parallel sessions, although as there were just two panels running at any one time, and delegates were free to travel between individual presentations, it was much easier to get the most out of the three days. Plenary speakers were Professor Rita Charon of Columbia University, Professor Paul Crawford of Nottingham University, Professor G. Thomas Couser of Hofstra University and Darryl Cunningham, by his own admission a ‘creator of Psychiatric Tales, cartoonist, writer, and ‘thing’.

Having flown from Bristol to Glasgow at an outrageous hour of the morning I arrived at the conference early. Early enough indeed to have a coffee and get to know some fellow attendees. As the crowd built up around the well-stocked bookstall in the foyer I succumbed, as did many others, to its intellectual delights and when I left Glasgow my bag was significantly heavier than when I arrived!

After a brief and to the point conference opening address the first parallel panels began and I listened as Geraldine Perriam spoke about Gender, Medical Authority and Location in Fiction by Women. Her talk focused primarily on two texts, Asylum Piece by Anna Kavan, and The Pumpkin Eaters by Penelope Mortimer, wherein a woman with mental health problems, despite in each case being the central character in the narrative, was caught up in a ‘network of practices’ where her choices were made for her by doctors and male relatives. Perriam’s stated aim was ‘to show how these (the novels) interact to form a narrative of locational and gendered disempowerment where medical ‘authority’ acts in complicity with the women’s male partners to subdue and/or confine the women’, and she achieved this through a talk that was absorbing, and also very moving. One quote she mentioned in particular, taken from the Asylum Piece, stayed with me and resonates still, ‘drugs and exhaustion had destroyed her appreciation of time’. As an artist I tend to think in images and Perriam gave me a very powerful image of a women in a kind of pain that dare not show its face.

Panel 1b was taking place in the downstairs seminar room so I quietly exited the main lecture hall – with its architectural details including clear glass walls that beautifully resolved the traditional/contemporary divide – to attend Gavin Miller’s talk on Animals, Animality and Mental Health. Quoting ‘intellectual traditions in anti- and critical psychiatry’ and recalling Jaspers and R.D.Laing in particular, Miller argued that despite the idea that attributions of animality to humans is demeaning and reductive there is nevertheless a more sympathetic approach to the issue that is especially brought out in philosophical-theological literature and in creative writing. Listening to Miller’s argument I was reminded of Gilles Deleuze’s concept of ‘becoming animal’ from The Logic of Sensation, his work on painter Francis Bacon.

The shadow escapes from the body like an animal to which we give shelter. Instead of formal correspondences, what Bacon’s painting constitutes is a zone of the indiscernible, of the undecidable, between man and animal. Man becomes animal, but he does not become so without the animal simultaneously becoming spirit, the spirit of man, the physical spirit of man presented in the mirror as Eumenides or fate. This is never a combination of forms, it is rather a common fact: the common fact of man and animal.

Andrew Gardiner’s talk with its intriguing title of Is Herriot History was next on my list and was as interesting as its promise. His concept of ‘Herriotism’ as a ‘powerful imaginative force within contemporary veterinary medicine’ suggested a way of questioning the nature of veterinary practice, the role of the vet in contemporary society and the ‘status’ of the animal. Reminding us of the mountains of livestock carcasses burning in UK fields only a few years ago, Gardiner evoked images that were themselves burnt into our memories and made us consider whether we may have felt differently had the bodies been of our pets rather than our food source.

Although all the sessions I attended were well chaired it did feel sometimes as if there was too little time for questions. This was not so much of a problem however given the richness of the conversation during coffee and lunch breaks. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the conference dinner so cannot comment on that, although judging by the way people seemed to be making the most of the opportunity to discuss ideas and issues raised in the panels I am sure there was – and to use Glaswegian terminology – some ‘good crack’ to be had there.

On Saturday morning I presented my own paper, The Argument of Images, on the ‘Beyond Pathography’ panel. Fellow panelists Clare Best and Izabela Morska each gave powerful presentations, Best’s Self Portrait without Breasts being especially so. Her striking black and white photographs juxtaposed against the drawings in my own presentation quite naturally brought the discussion at the end of the session around to the diversity of impact in terms of the relation (or not) between photography and visual art, with interesting and thought provoking results.

As the first presentation in the ‘Interrogating Narrative and Autobiographical Practices’ panel, Claire McKechnie’s paper, Writing Trauma and the Limits of Narrative, was an excellently delivered advocacy of the narrative model in the face of Wood’s critique in The Limits of Narrative: Provocations for the Medical Humanities. McKechnie sought to shift focus from the expresser to the witness of the expression through a re-examination of ‘the act of storytelling itself in the interpretation and analysis of the illness narrative.’

Rita Charon gave the plenary talk on Saturday afternoon and, having heard her speak a few weeks ago at the Narrative Future for Health Care Conference at Kings College London I was looking forward to her presentation. Charon used no visuals, no props, she simply drew us, the audience, into her world and into the worlds of the patients whose experiences she spoke about in terms of her own experience of their problems. It was impressive and inspiring and a wonderful demonstration of the value of attentive listening!

As always at conferences like this it was not possible to go to all the presentations that I would have liked. Often it was a difficult choice to make as the program was so very strong and were I able to split myself in two I would have willingly done so! This not being possible I sacrificed the ‘Representing Madness: Re-evaluation and Response’ panel in order to attend the one that focused on creative writing, and I was not disappointed. Pam Morrison’s evocative Fields of Gold: A co-authored journey of life, love and deathoffered as anexamination if attentive writing as creative practice’ was for me one of the highlights of the conference. In a presentation that was part paper, part performance, Morrison recited excerpts from a soon to be published journal co-authored with her dying sister. It was powerful and evocative, and, in conclusion, these are words that I would use to describe the conference overall. I have returned to Wales with a head full of ideas and words and partially conceived images that are continuing to form and coalesce. This is the nature I believe of attentive process.

Abstracts of all of the papers presented at the Attentive Writers conference can be found on the website.

About Jac Saorsa

Independent visual artist, writer and researcher in philosophy and contemporary art practice, primarily in the field of Medical Humanities and the relation between art and biomedical science. Director and Senior instructor at The Broadway Drawing School in Cardiff.
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