Comics & Medicine freshman seminar

I’m teaching a freshman seminar on Comics & Medicine in the Science and Society undergraduate college at Stony Brook University this spring.

I’ve been working on the syllabus and here’s the almost-final draft:

Comics and Medicine syllabus

This is the description of the course from the syllabus:

In recent years, comics and graphic narratives have become a popular and innovative form for telling auto/biographical stories in a medium that artfully combines words and images. Our course will focus on one exciting sub-field of the form known as graphic medicine, which explores the conjuncture between comics and clinical medicine. We will discuss how comics and graphic narratives have become important resources for communicating a range of ethical and clinical issues related to the experience of illness, and how this hybrid verbal/visual form helps medical practitioners, patients, families, and caregivers creatively reimagine the boundaries of “health,” “illness,” “life,” and “death.” We will investigate the ways that graphic medicine/illness narratives can be read as symptomatic texts of our time in at least two respects: as texts that literally describe symptoms (and struggle with finding a form to describe the affective and physical experience of symptoms), and as texts that describe illness as an event that goes beyond any particular individual’s experience and account of it, reflecting wider cultural categories, including race, gender, class, and sexuality.

The image on the left is from David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite van Cook’s 7 Miles a Second and the image on the right is from MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. Both are portraits of the artists: in one, Czerwiec stands before and is dwarfed by one of the huge Keith Haring murals at Rush University where Czerwiec studied nursing; in the other, Romberger and van Cook portray Wojnarowicz at work spray-painting a canvas. Above the artist and his canvas, an image of Wojnarowicz’s lover Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS in 1987, looks down. After I initially mis-characterized this image as a Wojnarowicz self-portrait, Romberger kindly wrote to inform me that he and van Cook created it “informed by specifics that I knew well as his friend: the layout of his apartment and that he had that particular photo of Peter on the wall, that he is working on that particular hopeful painting he did of a cosmic scientist, and doing it wearing a protective mask, necessary for a person with AIDS working with aerosol paint and which also comments ironically on the text about him breathing the air his dead friends cannot.” The caption at the top is from Wojnarowicz’s writing and begins, “I’m acutely aware of myself alive and witnessing.”

These are two of the texts we will explore in Comics & Medicine. There is so much to say, as these two images of a page and panel suggest.

 

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Comics and Medicine 2017: Unpacking Building Stories

As anyone who reads my blog will know, one of my favorite annual conferences is the Comics and Medicine Conference organized by the Graphic Medicine collective. The reason I love this conference is that it brings together a diverse mix of people and projects: comics artists, health practitioners, and academics who teach and write about comics and graphic narratives. My recent work explores the conjunction of illness, thought, and activism in different times and places, and the Comics and Medicine Conference has shaped how I approach this conjunction.

This year the Comics and Medicine Conference is in Seattle and the theme is Access Points. The conference artwork was designed by ET Russian, artist, performer, and creator of the Ring of Fire zine, which is a remarkable document of queer/crip as a way of life.

I am presenting a paper called “Unpacking Building Stories at home and in the classroom.”

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is all about access, not as a condition of being but as a becoming that is enacted in everyday life through the interaction between bodies and environments. In this presentation, I consider Ware’s “building stories” as his title indicates we might, with building read both as: 1. a verb, emphasizing how stories are built and crafted; and 2. an adjective, suggesting the stories of a building, not simply those stories of its inhabitants, but stories that the building itself tells with a kind of agency that Ware seeks to give the reader access to through graphic form as much as through narrative. Building Stories tells the story of an unnamed disabled woman with a prosthetic leg, but the objects and spaces that surround and sustain her have a kind of agency too.

We can’t read Building Stories in a conventional way. The stories come in a box that we explore by unpacking its contents. The box contains several cloth-bound and stapled books, differently shaped and sized pamphlets, posters, a large folded board that opens into quadriptych of the building and its occupants, etc. The phenomenology of “reading” building stories is very different from the phenomenology of reading a typical book or comic book. In the process of exploring the contents, our taken-for-granted reading practices are challenged; we are made to feel both disoriented and invigorated in the process of unpacking. Building Stories was one of the required texts in my Cultures of Dis/ability class this past spring, and thus, I also discuss the phenomenology of unpacking Building Stories in relation to teaching the text. In teaching Building Stories I had students explore the text at home and in small groups in the classroom in relation to a larger discussion of how dis/ability is enacted in different spaces. In reading Building Stories in the classroom, we asked questions about access in terms of both the spaces that facilitate (or not) inclusion and participation and in terms of the stories we build in and about those spaces.

Graphic Medicine 2016: Stages & Pages

It was lovely to spend a weekend in Dundee, Scotland for the Graphic Medicine Conference at the University of Dundee. Despite coming on the heels of the Brexit vote (or perhaps because of–Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in Europe), the city and university provided a perfect location for doing graphic medicine. The University of Dundee is home to the Scottish Centre for Comics Studies and the vibrant DeeCAP (Dundee Comics/Art/Performance) scene. Participants were treated to fabulous keynotes (by Elisabeth El Refaie, Al Davison, and Lynda Barry, who also taught a comics and writing workshop with Dan Chaon). Check out the #stagespages hashtag on Twitter.

Comics&Medicine cfp image

I presented on a panel with Ariella Freedman (Concordia University), Andrew Godfrey (University of Dundee), and Sarah Hildebrand (CUNY-Graduate Center). Andrew was one of the main organizers of the conference and created the fabulous image for the conference above.

Our panel,”Performing Illness,” blended the theoretical and the personal in order to reflect on “illness as performance” in graphic narratives. Calling attention to both form and function, we analyzed how the genre shapes and is shaped by the experience of being ill, and how we might more critically engage with Graphic Medicine by making our own readings more performative. We asked: If comics are indeed stages upon which authors perform their illness, how might Graphic Medicine be used as a filter through which to view and respond to other people’s experiences, as well as our own? How might the subject “become” through drawing? And how might a better understanding of the performativity of patienthood help us break down obstacles to care?

Below is the abstract to my paper, “Drawing en abyme: staging illness and identity in graphic narratives” (for the sake of time, my paper focused mostly on drawing en abyme in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?).

Jules Valera, a comics artist from Dundee, sketched our panel presenting our papers. You can’t get more meta than being drawn while presenting on drawing en abyme! That’s Jules on the right with her drawing of Sarah and Andrew in the middle presenting his own drawing en abyme.

Meta-drawing-en-abymePerforming IllnessJules Valera's drawing of Sarah Hildebrand

 

“Drawing en abyme: staging illness and identity in graphic narratives”

In a reading of Jacques Derrida’s use of the concept of mise en abyme[1] as a “fundamental operation of the text” that is “synonymous with textuality” itself, art historian and critical theorist Craig Owens argues that what the mise en abyme does is show how representation is staged in the text.[2] For Derrida, the mise en abyme stages the staged-ness of textuality—textuality en abyme. With this double operation in mind, Owens discusses photography in general and several photographs with mirrors in particular—a “photography en abyme,” arguing that what is depicted in such photographs is not some truth of identity, but “the process of becoming self-reflective.”[3] I want to extend Owens’s extension of Derrida’s use of the concept mise en abyme in order to explore the double operation of what I call drawing en abyme in graphic narratives. Graphic narratives work formally to deconstruct subjectivity in general and the experience of illness in particular. By emphasizing the subject as becoming through drawing, graphic narratives work to render the subject not as something one is, but rather as something one does, in relation to nonhuman objects and other human subjects.[4] Through particular formal elements, including drawing en abyme, graphic narratives demonstrate the ongoing and recursive processes of subjectification and de-subjectification. In this paper, I will explore in particular the way the representation of illness and identity is staged through the doubling of mirrors, photographs, and other imaging technologies in the graphic narratives of Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Brian Fies.

[1] According to the OED, the phrase “mise en abyme” describes the heraldic device in which a shield includes a smaller version of itself at its center. Andre Gide borrowed the term from heraldry to suggest the device of self-reflection in psychological novels.

[2] Craig Owens, “Photography en abyme,” in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 20.

[3] Ibid, 22. Owens discusses Brassaï’s “Groupe joyeux au bal musette” (1932), Lady Clementina Haywarden’s “At the Window” (c. 1964), and Robert Smithson’s series “Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9).” In his essay, Owens is interested in historicizing the device of photography en abyme in relation to the changing understanding of subjectivity in modernity and postmodernity. Although beyond the scope of this essay, I find Owens’s analysis useful in contemplating the concept of self-reflexivity expressed in the age of the selfie.

[4] I am, of course, drawing on Judith Butler’s theorization of gender as something we do, and are compelled to do, not something we are or have as a kind of attribute, as first articulated in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990). I am also drawing on the work of Annemarie Mol, who describes illness as “something being done to you, the patient. And something that, as a patient, you do,” The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 20.