Conceptualizing the Patient in Medical Humanities: A Posthumanist Intervention

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Stock, Danielle
conference paper description
Discourse from within the medical humanities field focuses on the importance of humanizing medical practice—that is, reaffirming liberal humanist interpretations of the person in order to promote empathetic engagement in healthcare. This perspective encourages doctors to abandon atomistic thinking in order to see patients in a more holistic light. Support for the personalization of healthcare is also prevalent within cultural discourse related to patient empowerment and participatory medicine. Despite the undoubtedly positive goals of both popular and institutional rethinkings of the patient, I argue that these conceptualizations effectively reinforce unproductive humanistic ideas about the body. Indeed, the same thinking that idealizes completeness and autonomy also produces the very conceptualization that medical humanities says must be reimagined—that is, what Cary Wolfe identifies as the “fetishization of agency” and a view of the diseased body as something that can be taken apart and put back together. This paper therefore questions the humanistic focus of some scholars’ expressed mandate for the medical humanities. Applying the posthumanist theories of Cary Wolfe and Jane Bennett, I will attempt to construct a more nuanced model of the human being within medicine that deprioritizes goals of heteronormative compliance and instead imagines the body as never complete in and of itself. In testing the viability of posthumanist models in this context, I will outline a way of reimagining the doctor-patient relationship that addresses the philosophical implications of the human as always already externalized, fragmentary, and coextensive with his or her environment.