Laughing at / with the Dead

I recently had the pleasure of attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of medicine in Baltimore. It’s a great conference, filled with friendly and interesting people doing what academics generally do at such events – talking, schmoozing, drinking, and so on. If you work on the history of health, disease, or medicine I heartily recommend attending. There are always at least a few panels about drugs, and there are always people around who know a tremendous amount about the history of addiction and related topics. Plus, there’s always good food. This year they gave away free Haagen-Dazs ice cream and warm chocolate chip cookies. What’s not to like?

Anyway, I attended a number of interesting presentations at the conference, two of which got me thinking – not so much about the topic of the talks, but about the question of how we talk about the past. The first was a presentation on biomedical research in which the presenter made a number of amusing comments, some of which were at the expense of the people she was talking about. This is actually a pretty common dynamic at this conference – speakers will sometimes describe something objectionable that physicians did in the past, for example, and then sort of smirk or otherwise indicate their disdain for the behavior they are describing; audience members will react by chuckling or perhaps groaning in a sort of “I can’t believe they did that” type of response. In this particular case, the presenter made a few humorous comments about the research subjects who had been experimented on, at one point poking fun at one of their poems that she had discovered in an archive. The poem was admittedly quite bad, but there really wasn’t any reason to include it in the talk except for comic relief. Those people sure did write terrible poetry, didn’t they? Hah hah!

This sort of thing always makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me that we should be respectful of the people we study, even if they are dead and even if we disagree with what they thought or how they behaved. I’m not sure why I feel this way, but I do: it just strikes me as sort of rude to make fun of people, especially if those people don’t have the opportunity to make fun of you back. Of course, I also realize that I’m a bit uptight when it comes to these types of issues, and I recognize that I sometimes come off as a bit of a prig. I mean, really, what’s wrong with poking a bit of fun at people, especially if they aren’t around anymore to take offense? Beats me. All I know is that it makes me squirm in my chair and want to go out and get one of those cookies that I mentioned earlier. So there I sat, listening to the jokes about people being experimented on in years past, feeling both slightly offended and somewhat defensive about my own stuffiness. I probably should have just called it a day and gone back to my room for a nap.

Not Funny!

On the other hand, I also saw a talk in Baltimore in which the presenter was very serious – and I mean very serious – and spent a significant amount of time chastising other historians for not adequately addressing the suffering of the many people who died due to a certain catastrophic event. The speaker didn’t seem to realize that he was speaking to a friendly audience – I mean, historians of medicine are more than happy to talk about death and destruction, and to assign blame for said death and destruction – and he came off as both insufferable and self-righteous. That was a decidedly unfunny talk, and I can’t say that I left it any more pleased than I left the talk about medical experimentation. One was too funny, or perhaps funny in the wrong way, while the other was decidedly not funny enough, or at least not enjoyable enough. In both cases I probably would have preferred to be somewhere else.Read More »

History at Work and Play: Thoughts on the AA Archives Workshop

Dig AA History in Montana this Weekend

Points readers interested in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous will be interested to know that this weekend (22-25 Sept.) is the 15th Annual National AA Archives Workshop— a get-together dedicated to collecting and preserving the history of that fellowship at the local, regional, and national levels.  Points readers who are not interested in AA history should still take note of this event: the National Archives Workshops are part of a robust movement within AA to create “citizen historians” (for lack of a better term) actively engaged in the process of doing history–an example of what Rob MacDougall (late of Old is the New New) a few years back called “history at play.”Read More »

Reminder: Pub/Street/Meds is Going Fast

The window is closing fast for next month’s scintillating Alcohol and Drugs History Society Conference on The Pub, the Street, and the Medicine Cabinet, 24-26 June in Buffalo, New York.  By “window” in this instance we mostly mean “conference hotel special discount rates.”  Those bargain basement prices will be available to all and sundry starting 15 May, and are only guaranteed through the 23rd, so make your reservations NOW by clicking here.  The conference will feature ADHS celebrities from around the globe, and I’ve heard rumors that upon registration participants receive P. Diddy goodie bags stuffed with Big Pharma swag.

If I Had Only Registered for the ADHS Conference in Time, My Life Might Feel More Meaningful Right Now

All session rooms are apparently equipped with chocolate fountains, perpetually re-stocked raw bars, and all the Four Locos you can drink (shrewdly sourced before it was banned by wily conference organizer and Points contributing editor David Herzberg). If you do only one conference this summer, this should be the one.  Don’t delay, register today!  Otherwise you might end up like this small plush cow, looking out at all the festivities and wishing you could join in.

Historical Scholarship as a Subordinate Enterprise

I was recently speaking with a very prominent psychiatrist about the history and science of various mental illnesses, and he told something along the lines of “what historians can do to help is to explain how diseases came to be defined as they are; that way we can have a better idea of what we are dealing with.” I looked at him for a moment, and thought to myself: “Fine, but what can you do to help me?” Of course I didn’t say that. The question of what he could do to help historians better understand the past had clearly never crossed his mind. So I just nodded and smiled and muttered something that he didn’t find particularly interesting. We soon moved on to talking about the beer selection.

I mention this anecdote to bring up what I consider one of the central problems facing historians and other scholars in the humanities interested in doing interdisciplinary work: our relatively lowly status in the institutional and epistemological academic food chain. I’ve very much enjoyed reading both Michelle McClellan‘s and Trysh Travis’s posts about the general lack of interest among feminist scholars toward addiction studies, but my initial response to both posts was: “hey, disinterest may not be so bad. At least they aren’t insulting you.” I’ve spent a bit of time here and there working with people from the so-called “hard” sciences, and I’ve found it surprisingly easy to walk away from those conversations feeling a bit put off. I don’t think the scientists involved in these conversations have been intentionally trying to insult me, but they sure have done a good job at it nonetheless – and I’m not particularly sensitive to such things. Here, then, is an issue that I think those of us working in the humanities need to confront: the assumed subordinate position of our disciplines to the sciences in the hierarchy of academic knowledge production.Read More »

Work in Progress: Between Biological Reductionism and the Social Construction of Addiction

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Randolph Nesse about the evolutionary origins of addiction – Nesse is perhaps the leading expert on the evolutionary basis of disease and immunity, and in 1997 he wrote an influential article on drug use in evolutionary perspective. The conversation got me thinking about the relevance of contemporary scientific claims about the causes of addiction to the art and craft of writing history, and it led me to return to a paper that I first presented back at the 2008 meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine. It occurred to me that this blog would be an interesting place to have a conversation about the relationship between what scientists do and what historians do, and perhaps also to get some feedback on the arguments I’m trying to make in the paper itself. So, please consider what follows very much a “work in progress.” I’d certainly appreciate feedback, either in the comments of through email, but I’m also interested in hearing what you think about these sorts of issues. Do scientists and historians have anything useful to say to one another? And if so, what?Read More »

On Moving Beyond “Context”

Perhaps it is because I teach in a medical school, rather than a traditional academic history department, but over the past two years I have become increasingly interested in thinking about how historical scholarship can directly contribute to solving current problems. When people discover where I teach they often ask me, in a somewhat quizzical way, what I actually do. How do I spend my time? What do I contribute? Why have a historian at a medical school at all?

It’s a good set of questions. I typically respond with something about “context”  – how history helps us understand the present, or raises interesting questions about the direction we are going, or some other such formulation. This is all true, of course, and its important. I wouldn’t be a historian if I didn’t think in these terms. But I have also started to wonder if historians can do more – and, if we can, whether or not we should. So, I’ve started to ask myself: what can historical scholarship contribute to the design and implementation of health interventions? To the crafting of public health policy? To the definition and measurement of quantifiable problems and outcomes? To the generation of grant money? Can historians do more than talk about the past in order to provide “context” for the labor of others? And should we?

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