Sites, Contexts and Beyond: Mapping Health Humanities

© Media Watch 12 (1) 3-6, 2021
ISSN 0976-0911 | E-ISSN 2249-8818




Sites, Contexts and Beyond:
Mapping Health Humanities


Sathyaraj Venkatesan*
Issue Editor, Special Issue on Health Humanities


As an emerging trans-disciplinary field of inquiry, health humanities actualizes C.P. Snow’s vision, that is, to integrate “the two cultures” of sciences and humanities. Health humanities evolved from medical history/ethics and medical humanities via narrative medicine to form what is now called health humanities. Unlike scientific and medical approaches to disease, health humanities, while embracing the major stakeholders (patient/caregiver/doctors), offers insights into the experience of illness and how the individual constitutes the meaning of her health-related experiences. As health humanities demystify illness by talking of it, they also critique contemporary medical practices and their over-dependence on technologies at the expense of human empathy. The concerns of health humanities are too broad. They include the social determinants of illness, health justice, application of the creative arts, cultural contexts of medical care, global disparities, and ethical challenges in medicine. In recent times, particularly with the onset of COVID-19 pandemics, there is a discursive move to integrate planetary health, environmental and health humanities to emphasize interspecies intermingling, entangled existence, and embeddedness. Put differently, health humanities are many things at once because it works so well at different levels and, hence a significant cultural discourse in the post-millennial times. 

This collection aims to think through the recent discursive, practical, and narrative meanings of health humanities. Given the global traction and urgency of health humanities, this special issue published by Media Watch is one of its kind in India. It seeks to curate the historical, cultural, psychological, literary, and philosophical dimensions of health, illness, and well-being. This special themed issue of Media Watch titled “Health Humanities” is the first of its scholarly intervention in India’s academic journal. This special issue aims to expand the ongoing critical conversations on health humanities, deepen the academic discourse surrounding the same, cover a wide range of issues/texts, and understand our entangled existence with non-humans, including plants, animals, microbes, and the planet itself. The essays curated in this special issue gesture toward the ideological, artistic, ethico-political complexities of health, illness, and well-being and showcase current, integrative humanities and arts approach in medicine. In so doing, the special issue seeks to foster a cultured conversation between and among these issues.

As a response to the call for papers, I received more than seventy interesting abstracts. However, I had to limit the number of essays to nine. The essays are curated based on the diversity of issues covered, cross-cultural, empirical, and multi-genre approach to health/illness/well-being. The essays range across a variety of texts, from comics through Facebook. While several qualitative studies focus on health humanities, little attention (except medical science journals) is paid to the quantitative/hybrid (involving qualitative and quantitative) approaches to health humanities. Addressing such a glaring gap, this special issue has included two articles that comprehensively use quantitative and qualitative methods to address health and illness issues. 

The first group of essays, using little-discussed texts, address one of the major themes of health humanities: representation. Representation, in the context of health humanities, not only involves the study of production and consumption of presentations, meaning and cultural work of such (re)presentations, investigation into the material and non-material consequences of representations but also takes in modes of perception and representation that move between medical science, art, and popular culture. The representation in question is heterogeneous and accommodates various forms ranging from literature, popular films, paintings to visual data, medical imaging (CTs, MRIs) in (health) sciences. In this collection, three different essays deepen the debates about the meanings attached to representations and narratives in Hindi film and graphic medicine contexts. By turning detailed attention to the visual grammar and thematic concerns of Hindi films, Shivanee and Manoj Kumar Yadav’s essay “Disability and Mental Health: Reflections on the Contemporary Hindi Cinema” studies various representations of disability and mental illnesses in Hindi cinema to illustrate” the factors that influence the portrayal of disabled or mentally ill people on the screen and their reception by the Indian audiences.” The essay asks the readers to contemplate the assumptions undergirding “normal,” “normalcy,” or “abled-body,” and pathologization of disability in Hindi   films. In a different direction, Meenakshi Srihari’s “Data Matters: The Informatized Body in Cancer Narratives” through close reading cancer narratives (Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s graphic memoir Cancer Vixen, and Brian Fies’sgraphic caregiving memoir Mom’s Cancer and Tom Corby’s digital data documentary the relentless informatization and the limits of generalizable data—the “objective”—within medical institution and practice. Informatization implies converting a patient experience into a set of data, records, and case files, which ultimately ignores, neutralizes, or overwrites the individual’s affective experiences of illness. Graphic pathographies, on the other hand, via verbal-visual codes, counters such inexorable informatization “through a textual refashioning of the self” and through emphasizing the importance of understanding the human experience of illness. Treating graphic medicine as “palimpsestuous layering of affect” and as an ekphrastic response, the author concludes with a radical suggestion that “the term “graphic medicine” be no longer confined to the comics format” but should be considered in its “connotation of the excessive.”Continuing with graphic medicine and the questions related to the representation of Arya Suresh and Sathyaraj Venkatesan’s essay titled “Sequential Sadness: Metaphors of Depression in Clay Jonathan’s Depression Comix” problematize as well expose the limits of representation in the context of mental illness. While the physical illness is easy to represent, “languaging” mental illness in comics has always thrown challenges both to the creators and readers. After briefly reviewing Ian Williams’ “Ways of Showing” and theoretical postulates of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, the authors deftly trace the role and implications of metaphors in Clay Jonathan’s Depression Comix. The article concludes by stating that verbs-visual metaphors are prominent ways to capture the realities of mental illness. Put together, all these essays, while teasing out the various aspects of representation, also underscore the possibilities, conditions, and limits of representation as a signifying practice. 

Another emerging trend within health humanities is cognitive turn in health humanities, which invests in, as Karin Kukkonen et al. state, “the processes of thought, feeling, and imagination” (2019). Drawing philosophical strength from Spinoza and the likes, some prominent practitioners of cognitive health humanities include Shaun Gallagher, Antonio Damasio, Darian Leader, Catherine Malabou, and Georg Northoff and others. They draw attention and seek convergence of the neurobiological, cognitive, philosophical, and empirical/materialistic tenets of embodiment, embeddedness, and distributed/shared agency of the self. Borrowing insights from such contemporary cognitive, clinical and neo-phenomenological scholarship on sleeplessness and thoughtfully engaging Haruki Murakami’s Sleep, Avishek Parui develops a systematic account of embodied mind in his deftly argued essay, “The wakefulness was always beside me”: Sleeplessness, Memory, and Embodiment in Haruki Murakami’s Sleep.”After tracing the functionalist notions of sleeplessness, the article offers a cultural perspective. It links sleeplessness as a metaphoric and gendered condition of a capitalist and industrialized economy. Against such a background, Parui offers a careful investigation of Murakami’s character, who contests “the capitalist masculinist notions of endless productivity” and sleeplessness. As a way of conclusion, Parui goads the readers to treat Murakami’s Sleep as “a modern allegory of the release of the repressed female subject through a strange sleeplessness initially appearing as liberating in a patriarchal and capitalist setting, a release resulting ultimately in alienation, entrapment, dédoublement, and symbolic death.” His emphasis on the cognitive and phenomenological underpinnings of health and well-being will grow as an important avenue of analysis in health humanities.

Environmental health humanities is an emerging cross-disciplinary approach that studies environment-triggered disease/disability to fully gauge the ecology of health, disease, and well-being. Some of the significant concerns of environmental health humanities, a subfield of health humanities, include climate variability, industrial disasters, toxicity, catastrophe and consequences, environmental change and uncertainty, and health (in)justice. The nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power plant (Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham, Chernobyl and Its Aftermath by Robert E. Ebel) and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (Japan), among others, are cases in point. Closer to home, the Bhopal Gas tragedy in Madhya Pradesh and Endosulfan pesticide case in Kasaragod district of Kerala(for instance, M. A. Rahman’s OaroJeevanum Vilappettathaanu (trans. Every Life is Precious) are some examples. Rahul Vijayan and Nagendra Kumar’s essay “Disability, Disease and the Deceased: Reading Health and Justice in Animal’s People” develop such an approach through close reading Animal’s People by Indra Sinha and investigates how the Bhopal Gas tragedy of 1984 not only affected the environment but also intensely impacted life, health, and the wellbeing of the public. Considered one of India’s worst industrial disasters, the Bhopal Gas tragedy refers to a toxic chemical gas leak incident at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal in December 1984. Dramatized through the life of a disabled boy in a post-apocalyptic fictional city of Khaufpur, Animal’s People emphasizes health injustice and environmental toxicity and, in so doing, embodies the global and local politics of disaster and its intergenerational health impact. Through operationalizing concepts related to health humanities, ecocriticism, and toxicity, the article demonstrates how “the injustice inflicted by both the government and the multinational corporations” permanently deprive “the people of their right to a healthy life.”

Biopolitics and bioeconomics are progressive branches within health humanities. While biopolitics via Michel Foucault, Roberto Esposito, Nikolas Rose connotes political rationality and administration of life, bioeconomics implies commercialization/monetization of individual life within capitalist governmentality. Bothbiopolitical and bioeconomic approaches would treat life and body as commodities and as an administrative entity. Among the many versions of bioeconomic and biopolitical tendencies in contemporary times, commercial surrogacy draws everyone’s attention because it is a convergence of biopolitics and bioeconomics. Taking cues, as it were, Eva Sharma and Isha Malhotra’s essay, “Wombs for hire”: “Biopolitics and Neoliberal Eugenics of Indian Surrogacy Industry in Meera Syal’sThe House of Hidden Mothers and Amulya Malladi’sA House for Happy Mothers” examines commercial surrogacy in the light of recent government policies and the neoliberal global order. In India, surrogacy translates into an economic arrangement where the commissioning couples (usually from developed nations) and the surrogates from socioeconomically weak backgrounds enter into a deal. Women belonging to economically weaker sections of society often become victims of such contemporary neoliberal biomarkets. Close reading Amulya Malladi’s A House for Happy Mothers and Meera Syal’s The House of Hidden Mothers. The authors tease out the bioeconomic exploitation and the trajectory of “gendered” clinical labor.  Grounding their discussion in the varying definitions of eugenics and neoliberalism, the authors show “the collusion between neoliberal eugenics and state-led biopolitics where bodies and babies are sold and purchased as commodities by the medico-legal practitioners, intended parents, and surrogates.” In a different way, Manali Karmar’s “Trying out different medications make you feel like a dartboard”: Selfhood, Agentic Crisis, and Mind-Altering Pills in Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon” and Jamie Lowe’s “Mental” offers counter-narratives and contests the neurochemical selves of Nikolas Rose. Instead, Karmakar proposes how the self is ever-evolving and constantly revised by technological interventions. Karmarkar convincingly argues that these narratives model the “distributive order of agency and selfhood that is inherently plastic in nature and hence, is always in a state of flux.” In so doing, the article proposes a non-essentialized and malleable notion of selfhood.

Another approach to health humanities is quantitative (using complex mathematical or statistical modeling) methods to harvest valuable insights into how we conceptualize health, illness, various wellbeing experiences, and behaviors. While there are articles in this issue that expose the limitations and the problems of over-relying on hard data, such quantitative approaches capture recent trends and, more importantly, establish cause-effect relationships among the variables. Rather than treating quantitative and qualitative as diametrically opposing practices, the researchers should treat them as complementary. Two essays in this special issue using data and metrical tools analyze two important aspects of health, viz., the impact of infodemic during COVID-19 and dating apps and sexual behavior in India. Of course, any journal issue on health humanities published after 2019 without referencing COVID-19 is incomplete. While COVID-19 certainly created radical uncertainty, it is also the first pandemic where social media was (ab)used on a massive scale. Taking cues, as it were, Sandhya Rajasekhar, Deepa Makesh, and S. Jaishree’s essay “Assessing Media Literacy Levels among Audience in Seeking and Processing Health Information during the COVID-19 Pandemic” address a relevant issue in our current moment, that is, misinformation and rumors. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple myths and misinformation about the virus populated our inboxes, WhatsApp chats, messengers, and social media feeds. As such, the current pandemic has accelerated the free flow of conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and misinformation and has deepened the post-truth condition. Absent a concerted effort, and misinformation will be the cause of as much harm, mischief, and death as the virus itself. Deploying multiple theories of media studies (such as media literacy, active audience, media dependency theory) and deftly linking with the theories of health humanities, the article, while capturing the complications and consequences of misinformation, also reiterates the importance and the need for high media literacy among the public to handle the information pandemic successfully. The second essay this cluster titled, “A Narrative Review of Motivations for Dating App Use and Associated Sexual Behaviors: Recommendations to Promote Safe Sex among Indian Dating App Users” by Prathyasha George, Mahati Chittem, Helena Lewis-Smith, and Tracy Epton’s is an interesting case study which investigates and reviews the use of dating applications and how such applications motivate risky sexual behaviors. The article using self-affirmation theory explains the psychology behind such applications’ usage and offers insightful suggestions to promote safe sex behavior. The article concludes by stating that “self-affirmation interventions aimed at improving self-esteem and positive body image may be an effective means of promoting safe sex.”  

Put together, the project of health humanities is urgent, for the power of human illness stories to effect change, but in an industrialized and bureaucratized health care. After all, as Susan Sontag reminds: “[b]ut the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.”



Karin Kukkonen, Anežka Kuzmièová, Steen Ledet Christiansen & Merja Polvinen (2019). The place of the cognitive in literary studies. Cogent Arts & Humanities, 6(1). DOI: 10.1080/23311983.2019.1691841

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

*Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, 

National Institute of Technology, Trichy, India