Into a new interdisciplinary space

'Given the lamentable gulf between science and arts education in South Africa we need to begin to learn how to frame a shared conversation.' (Supplied)

'Given the lamentable gulf between science and arts education in South Africa we need to begin to learn how to frame a shared conversation.' (Supplied)

Given the lamentable gulf between science and arts education in South Africa, we have felt for some time that we need to begin to learn how to frame a shared conversation.

This week's ground-breaking conference, titled Body Knowledge: Medicine and the Humanities in Conversation, which the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research hosted from September 2 to 4, was the first major outcome of this new learning.

From disciplines as diverse as literary studies, psychology, anatomical science, haematology, history, anthropology and public health, more than 80 speakers talked to one another about how we approach the questions that animate our common interest in living productive, healthy lives and in managing ailment and decline. The variety of papers and the vibrancy of discussion testified to the capacious potential of this multidisciplinary field of enquiry, which is still in its infancy in this country. 

While we were in the thick of planning for the conference in July this year, we travelled to Aberdeen, the rich oil capital of Europe, to present papers at the annual conference of the Association of Medical Humanities.

This was a big-deal conference at which one might expect to glean a sense of where the global field is at. Tellingly, however, the theme of the event was Global Medical Humanities, and the underlying, and clearly troubling, question before the gathering was: Why is there so little medical humanities in the Global South? 

We weren't convinced that a compelling set of answers emerged from the Aberdeen conference, particularly because there were very few of us there who were from the South, but we felt inspired by the questions. 

Among the provocations put by the Aberdeen conference planners were these: 

• "Can medical humanities nurture an appreciation of the importance and nature of the global interconnectedness of public health issues?";

• "How do the challenges of using medical humanities to nurture an appreciation of spirituality and pluralism in medicine and health vary globally?";

• "Can medical humanities serve as a counter to the fragmentation of medical knowledge?"; and

• "In what ways can the humanities help in increasing cross-cultural understanding and exchanges in relation to health?"

Sitting this past week in the crisply finished glass rooms of the brand-new Wits public health building, and looking out over the city of Johannesburg, we probed these questions, and more, together with colleagues who are not usually part of our conversations back on the humanities campus. 

One of the ways in which the conference helped us to fashion a multidisciplinary "commons" was through its eclectic mix of forms.
There were traditional conference panels of wide-ranging prepared papers and there were round-table discussions in which a group of experts on the subject in question ("the reverberations of the HIV epidemic" and "the city, the mine, the hospital", for example) spoke spontaneously from their experience and from their scholarship, improvising a way forward on some of the most pressing questions facing labour rights, healthcare and citizenship in this country.

Another exciting event at the conference was a workshop led by musician and University of Cape Town primary healthcare professor Steve Reid and University of New Mexico musician-composer Patrice Repar. Titled Subjectivity and the Arts in Health and Healing, the workshop's tools included texts and discussion as one might expect, but also musical instruments, coloured pens and intuition. 

Reid and Repar encouraged participants to reflect creatively on their work and lives as practitioners and academics, asking them: "How can we harness the whole spectrum of the subjective human experience in order to be better practitioners, teachers, researchers and citizens?" 

South African writer Dawn Garisch, who is also a medical doctor, drew audiences unaccustomed to narrative medicine and "eloquent bodies" into critical reflection. Clinician Janet Giddy drew on autobiographies of healthcare workers living with tuberculosis. Humanities scholar Thabisani Ndlovu articulated his work in inner-city Johannesburg on the advertisements for body alteration (penis enlargement and the like), and his work, along with that of Wits fine-art associate professor Raimi Gbadamosi, deepened our understanding of the search and yearning for the body perfect. 

One of the most exciting aspects of the conference was the presentation of papers by a host of recent graduates with master's degrees and doctorates, from universities around Southern Africa, animated by this emerging interdisciplinary space. 

Graduates from health communication, anthropology, nutrition science, public health, HIV medicine, literature, philosophy, psychology and law offered papers from their works in progress, generating rich and engaged debates that spilled over into the tea and cocktail events. 

The conference showcase art exhibition, A Fine Line, on the work of Colin Richards, at the Origins Centre, and the conference dinner, held in the Adler Museum of Medical History, showing works on body and knowledge by fine-arts students, framed an evening filled with the marimba music of Magda de Vries and Steve Reid.

Ashlee Masterson and Catherine Burns are researchers at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research

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