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Graphic medicine and literary pathographies: The aesthetics and politics of illness narratives in contemporary comics and literature

Narratives in the genres known as graphic medicine and literary pathographies both address liminal experiences such as illness, chronic disease, and disability, offering individual stories of patients, family members, and health care professionals. Both genres can hence be understood as recent artistic contributions to debates on what it means to be human in the age of life sciences and biopolitics. The research projectGraphic medicine and literary pathographies: The aesthetics and politics of illness narratives in contemporary comics and literature (PATHO / GRAPHICS) analyzes English and German works from an inter-medial and cross-cultural perspective. Opening a dialogue between literary studies, media studies, cultural studies, history of science, and medicine, it pursues historical, aesthetic, political, and epistemic questions.

The research project is situated at Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies (Freie Universität Berlin) and will be funded by the Einstein Foundation Berlin from 2016 to 2018. Research project leader: Prof. Dr. Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff, Freie Universität Berlin, in collaboration with Einstein Visiting Fellow Prof. Susan Merrill Squier, Ph.D., Penn State University.

The project PATHO / GRAPHICS will pursue four focal points which encompass 1) historical, 2) aesthetic, 3) political, and 4) epistemic aspects. In addition to Irmela Krüger-Fürhoff and Susan Squier, the research team will consist of one postdoctoral researcher, one predoctoral researcher and a student assistant. The project will offer PhD classes, public workshops, and lectures; it also seeks to open a dialogue with the Berlin based comics’ community.

Research focus 1, Historicity: Both literary and graphic illness narratives rely on genre expectations of a ‘confessional mode’ that can be traced back to religious treatises, autobiographies and fictional works of literature. The project will explore the kind of subject being produced by literature on illness and contemporary works of graphic medicine.

Research focus 2, Aesthetics: Literary pathographies and graphic medicine both incorporate intertextual and intermedial references to other cultural works. What can the analysis of graphic medicine draw from (literary) concepts of text-image relations? And vice versa, what can intermedial narratology learn from graphic medicine?

Research focus 3, Politics: Scholars frequently claim that both literary pathographies and graphic medicine are emancipatory and subversive. Do the stories that literary and graphic narratives tell – and the aesthetics they use – call into question, subvert or do they rather affirm Western societies’ expectations of ‘compliant patients’ and individual disease-management? How and to what extent? Do North-American and German works offer divergent perspectives which refer to the competing health-care systems and to diverging concepts of the healthy self?

Research focus 4, Epistemology: How are artistic and literary works in conversation with the research of science studies theorists? What can science studies learn from literary and graphic works of art? Do contemporary literary pathographies and works of graphic medicine share, or differ, in the extent to which they call into question the epistemological and operational boundaries of medicine?


For more information visit the Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies Patho/Graphics project website


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