Medical Self-Fashioning. Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Case Studies at the Intersection of Medicine, Public Discourse, and Literature
Panel at the 38th Annual Conference of the German Studies Association
Moderator: Stefani Engelstein (University of Missouri)
Commentator: Johannes Türk (Indiana University)
The panel discusses the intersections of medical expertise, public expectations and individual experience in the context of 20th and 21st century surgery, psychiatry, disability politics and dementia care. Drawing on the genre of ›case history‹ whose narratological and epistemological implications are currently widely discussed in numerous academic disciplines, the four papers by scholars from literary studies, art history, cultural studies, and history of medicine analyze those (sometimes competing) stories and self-descriptions that medical doctors and patients tell about themselves. How do these stakeholders use written stories (e.g. stories that are transferred into medical reports and newspaper articles or are published as autobiographies and literary texts) as a means of narrative ›self-fashioning‹? How do they construct their identity and agency against the background of public expectations (e.g. to ›heal‹, to accept a given diagnosis, to ›act reasonably‹ as a disabled person, to comply with specific regimes of medical care)? Do the texts have ›transgressive‹ qualities or do they seek to (re-)establish clinical norms and medical identity politics? What kind of differences resp. continuities can be traced back to their respective historical context, political framework (early 20th to early 21st century, medicine in GFR or GDR) and the specific medical field (plastic surgery, psychiatry, disability politics, dementia care) they come from?
Michelangelo’s Scalpel and Leonardo’s Ruler. Representing Plastic Surgeons as Artists
No other branch of medicine seems more closely associated with the fine arts than plastic surgery. It is not surprising then that plastic surgeons often compare their work to that of great artists, and are seen or see themselves as creative masters on a par with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. This paper analyzes the surgeons’ (self-)stylization as artists, and examines the function of the artistic role models »Michelangelo« and »Leonardo« in the medical and popular discourses on plastic surgery.
Constructing ›Disability‹ and ›Normalcy‹ in the Germanies
The talk will trace the changing constructions of disability in the political and social discourses of the two Germanies from 1945 until today. Both nations dealt in various ways with the culturally pervasive view of disabled people as »unwertes Leben« (unworthy life) during Nazism, and its implementation in the extermination program T4. The talk will trace general attitudes towards and definitions of disability in the wake of Nazi genocide in the GFR and GDR. Attention will be given primarily to the discursive circumscription of disabled people: initially defined in both Germanies via capacity for work (partly to process masses of disabled veterans), the definitions and politics start to differ in East and West in the late 1960s. While the East included some disabled people in the general socialist workforce and marginalized the so called »severely feebleminded« in special homes, the West developed a »special needs«-attitude towards people with disabilities and introduced integrative programs for children in the 1970s. The talk will discuss decisive events like the Contergan-Scandal (1961), the 70s »Krüppelbewegung« (cripple movement) and further exemplary legislative, medical and media views of physical difference.
Contested Cohesion. Fiction and Autobiography in Dementia Discourse
Today, most patients, relatives, and health care professionals as well as the broader public agree that even people suffering from progressive forms of dementia should be supported in giving voice to their own needs for as long as possible. Against this background, (auto-) biographical accounts of people with Alzheimer’s disease (usually written with a co-author) are highly esteemed, since they allow afflicted persons to speak for themselves, sometimes even against the medical profession’s prerogative of interpretation or the paternalist attitudes of caregivers and relatives. Recent fictional narratives try to offer insights into the emotional life of Alzheimer’s patients. By analyzing German (and a few English) autobiographical and fictional texts, my paper addresses the following questions:
How are narrators who ›speak as‹ Alzheimer’s patients constructed as authentic and reliable? To what extent do the texts reflect on the emancipatory or manipulative aspects of ›giving voice to‹ the lived experience of dementia with the help of techniques of ›assisted writing‹? What concepts of (remaining) personal identity are offered in autobiographical and fictional narratives? How do the different texts negotiate the challenge of narrating the limits of narration (as based on memory and coherent language)?