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Indirect Action: Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, AIDS, and the Course of Health Activism 

(University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

The interconnectedness of illness, thought, and activism in the prehistory of AIDS

The experience of illness (both mental and physical) figures prominently in the critical thought and activism of the 1960s and 1970s, though it is largely overshadowed by practices of sexuality. Lisa Diedrich explores how and why illness was indeed so significant to the social, political, and institutional transformation beginning in the ‘60s through the emergence of AIDS in the United States. A rich intervention—both theoretical and methodological, political and therapeutic—Indirect Action illuminates the intersection of illness, thought, and politics.

Not merely a revision of the history of this time period, Indirect Action expands the historiographical boundaries through which illness and health activism in the U.S. have been viewed. Diedrich explores the multiplicity illness-thought-politics through an array of subjects: queering the origin story of AIDS activism by recalling its feminist history; exploring health activism and the medical experience; analyzing psychiatry and self-help movements; thinking ecologically about counter-practices of generalism in science and medicine; and considering the experience and event of epilepsy and the witnessing of schizophrenia.

Indirect Action places illness in the leading role in the production of thought during the emergence of AIDS, ultimately showing the critical interconnectedness of illness and political and critical thought.

Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness

(University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

Creative expression inspired by disease has been criticized as a celebration of victimhood, unmediated personal experience, or just simply bad art. Despite debate, however, memoirs written about illness—particularly AIDS or cancer—have proliferated since the late twentieth century and occupy a highly influential place on the cultural landscape today.
In Treatments, Lisa Diedrich considers illness narratives, demonstrating that these texts not only recount and interpret symptoms but also describe illness as an event that reflects wider cultural contexts, including race, gender, class, and sexuality. Diedrich begins this theoretically rigorous analysis by offering examples of midcentury memoirs of tuberculosis. She then looks at Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “White Glasses,” showing how these breast cancer survivors draw on feminist health practices of the 1970s and also anticipate the figure that would appear in the wake of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s—the “politicized patient.” She further reveals how narratives written by doctors Abraham Verghese and Rafael Campo about treating people with AIDS can disrupt the doctor–patient hierarchy, and she explores practices of witnessing that emerge in writing by Paul Monette and John Bayley.
Through these records of intensely personal yet universal experience, Diedrich demonstrates how language both captures and fails to capture these “scenes of loss” and how illness narratives affect the literary, medical, and cultural contexts from which they arise. Finally, by examining the ways in which the sick speak and are spoken for, she argues for an ethics of failure—the revaluation of loss as creating new possibilities for how we live and die.

Edited collections

Experience, Echo, Event: Theorising Feminist Histories, Historicising Feminist Theory, Guest editor with Victoria Hesford for a special issue of Feminist Theory 15, No. 2 (August 2014).

 Feminist Time Against Nation Time: Gender, Politics, and the Nation-State in an Age of Permanent War, co-edited with Victoria Hesford (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2008). (Paperback published November 2009).

Genealogies of Disability, Guest editor for a special issue of Cultural Studies 19, No. 6 (November 2005).

Peer-reviewed journal articles (sample)

Comics as Pedagogy: On Studying Illness in a Pandemic,” Rapid Responses: Comics in and of The Moment, Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship 12, No. 1 (April 2022), 1-9.

Graphic Trauma: Drawing as Working through Sexual Violence,” Lambda Nordica 2-3 (2021), 101-127.

“Illness (In)action CFS and #TimeForUnrest,” Front Matter, Literature and Medicine 39, No. 1 (Spring 2021), 8-14.

“Politics in Action: Teaching Alice Walker’s Meridian,” Feminist Formations 32, No. 1 (Spring 2020), 189-206.

“Articulating Double Binds: Between a Rhetoricity of Rights and Vulnerabilities (Relation, Pedagogy, Care),” South Atlantic Quarterly 118, No. 3 (July 2019), 573-594.

Being-becoming-monster: Mirrors and Mirroring in Graphic Frankenstein Narratives,” Literature and Medicine 36, No. 2 (Fall 2018), 388-411.

“Illness as assemblage: The case of hystero-epilepsy,” Body & Society 21, No. 3 (September 2015), 66-90.

“Graphic analysis: Transitional phenomena in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?,” Configurations 22 (Fall 2014), 183-203.

Introduction: Experience, Echo, Event: Theorizing Feminist Histories, Historicising Feminist Theory,” with Victoria Hesford, Feminist Theory 15, No. 2 (August 2014), 103-117.

“On ‘The Evidence of Experience’ and its reverberations: An interview with Joan W. Scott,” with Victoria Hesford, Feminist Theory 15, No. 2 (August 2014), 197-207.

Que(e)rying the Clinic: Practicing Self-help and Transversality in the 1970s,” in Journal of Medical Humanities 34, No. 1 (March 2013), 123-138.

Speeding Up Slow Deaths: Medical sovereignty circa 2005,” special issue on “Bioconvergence,” MediaTropes eJournal 2, No. 1 (2011), 1-22.

‘Breast Cancer on Long Island’: The Emergence of a New Object Through Mapping Practices,” with Emily Boyce, BioSocieties 2, No. 2 (2007), 193-218.

Doing Queer Love: Feminism, AIDS, and History,” Theoria, special issue on “Justice and the Politics of Health,” 112, No. 1 (April 2007), 22-50.

“Introduction: Genealogies of Disability: Historical Emergences and Everyday Enactments,” Cultural Studies 19, No. 6 (November 2005), 649-666.

“‘Without us all told‘: Paul Monette’s Vigilant Witnessing to the AIDS Crisis,” Literature and Medicine 20, No. 2 (Spring 2004), 112-127.

Breaking Down: A Phenomenology of Disability,” Literature and Medicine 20, No. 2 (Fall 2001), 209-230.

Invited articles

“An End to Innocence: Attending to Histories and Methods in Women’s Studies and Medical Humanities,” AtriumThe Report of the Northwestern Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program, Issue 7 (Fall 2009), 6-8.

Book chapters

“Comics and Graphic Narratives” The Cambridge Companion to Posthuman Literature, edited by Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 96-108.

Against Compassion: Attending to histories and methods in medical humanities; Or, doing critical medical studies,” in Franziska Gygax and Miriam Locher, eds. Narrative Matters in Medical Contexts across Disciplines (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2015), 167-182.

Lying and the Performance of Patienthood” in Harold Schweizer, ed. The Patient (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 2010), 131-152.

Complexity and Cancer: The Multiple Temporalities and Spaces of Cancer in Richard Powers’ Gain,” in Cindy Patton and Helen Loshny, eds. Global Science/Women’s Health (Youngstown, New York: Teneo Press, 2008), 87-116.

Gathering Evidence of Ghosts: W.G. Sebald’s Practices of Witnessing,” in Lise Patt, ed. Searching for Sebald (Los Angeles: ICI Press, 2007), 256-279.

Art Exhibition Catalogue Essay

“Trace, v. and n.: Practices of Subjectification in the Art of Christa Erickson,” Prosthetic Memory Show, University Art Gallery, Stony Brook University, Jan. 30-Feb. 24, 2007.

Interviews and Opinion

“Mysterious Sounds and Scary Illnesses as Political Tools” Op-Ed (with Benjamin Tausig), New York Times, October 10, 2017

Interviewed by Jesse Miller in the online journal Full Stop, August 2, 2017,

Book reviews

Review of Susan Fraiman, Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017); Leigh Gilmore, Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017); and Imani Perry, Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018) in American Literature 92:2 (June 2020), 409-412.

Review of Olivia Banner, Communicative Biocapitalism: The Voice of the Patient in Digital Health and the Health Humanities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017) in Literature and Medicine 38, No. 1 (Spring 2020), 211-214.

Review of S. Lochlann Jain, Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) in Literature and Medicine 33, no. 2 (Fall 2015), 396-398.

Review of Sayantani DasGupta and Marsha Hurst, eds. Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007), in Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal 14, No. 1 (2010), 107-109.

Review of Susan Merrill Squier, Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004) in Journal of the History of Sexuality 15, No. 3 (September 2007), 512-517.

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