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Monthly Archives

February 2011

New web technologies for biomedical self-presentation

By Biomedicine in museums

Like biography, autobiography has always been an important genre for science communication — like Francis Crick’s autobiography What Mad Pursuit (1988).

A couple of decades ago, only a tiny scientific elite had, in practice, access to present themselves autobiographically in the form of book-length memoirs and interviews in newspaper and magazines.

Science communication through self-presentation was thus largely restricted to famous life scientists, medical doctors and their famous patients.

Now, thanks to the web, and especially social web technologies, public self-presentation has become an opportunity for the global biotechnoscientific multitude.

Medical and nursing students, life science PhD students, and all kinds of ordinary patients are blogging, facebooking and twittering accounts of themselves in dialy work in labs and clinics or their experiences of being medicalised.

No doubt, these new practices of communication and self-presentation are contribution to changing public understandings of biomedical culture and its place in culture at large.

This conference promises to inspire to more thinking along these lines.

Patrick Crowley, Kerstin Fest, Rachel MagShamhráin and Laura Rascaroli at the University College Cork are inviting papers about new media, film and “new theoretical approaches to autobiography post-Lejeune“, as they put it, for a conference titled ‘Technologies of the Self: New Departures in Self-Inscription’, which they are organising 2-3 September in Cork, Ireland.

In an era in which self-expression has undergone an exponential growth fuelled by technological innovation, most importantly, perhaps, the creation of an internet that hosts an ever-increasing number of blogs, tweets, personal webpages and other forms of audiovisual self-expression such as YouTube, it seems timely to think again about the phenomenon of writing, filming, recording and, indeed, publishing or publicizing the self: what innovations in self inscription have recent decades witnessed, what continuities and discontinuities can be traced, what changes in attitudes to the self and to self-revelation or exposure have been witnessed, how have developments in the channels of broadcasting altered how, what and why we engage in various, if always elusive acts of self-expression, are there now new practitioners of self-inscription because of these changes, and, finally, with so many outlets and such a market for narratives of self, how is such material consumed?

The organisers particularly welcome 250-300 words abtracts on the following themes:

– new theories of autobiography: thinking beyond Lejeune
– technologies and self-inscription: the Internet and new media innovations
– the avant-garde: experimentation and the changing boundaries of the self
– on-line writing and freedom of expression: the blogosphere as political third space
– auto-ethnographies: new ways of recording the self in its sociocultural context
– issues of veridicality
– consuming selves: the appetite for self expression

Send abstract proposals to, before 4 April. And please consult the conference website,

The perfect journal — it's all about rejection

By Biomedicine in museums

Some speak about the perfect storm. Here’s the perfect scientific journal: Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR).

It’s all about rejection. The perfect rejection, i.e., universal rejection. In other words, the journal’s policy is to reject all submitted manuscripts, regardless of quality.

Here’s their reasons for why you should send your manuscript to them:

  • You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.
  • There are no page-fees.
  • You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).
  • The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.
  • You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.
  • Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.
  • JofUR solicits all types of manuscript: “You name it, we take it, and reject it. Your manuscript may be formatted however you wish. Frankly, we don’t care.”

    After submitting your work, the decision process varies. Often the Editor-in-Chief will reject your work out-of-hand, without even reading it! However, he might read it. Probably he’ll skim. At other times your manuscript may be sent to anonymous referees. Unless they are the Editor-in-Chief’s wife or graduate school buddies, it is unlikely that the referees will even understand what is going on. Rejection will follow as swiftly as a bird dropping from a great height after being struck by a stone. At other times, rejection may languish like your email buried in the Editor-in-Chief’s inbox. But it will come, swift or slow, as surely as death. Rejection.

    More details and selected authors’ furious complaints on JofUR’s blog.

    The materiality and sensuousness of fat

    By Biomedicine in museums

    Very interesting stuff for our forthcoming exhibition on obesity — the planned special issue on the materiality of fat edited by Christopher E. Forth at the University of Kansas for the Journal of Material Culture in 2012.

    “The Materiality of Fat” is inspired – but in no way limited – by the problem of “obesity” as the master pathology of the moment. In today’s world, where warnings of the “obesity epidemic” are front-page news, it is hard to avoid the problem of fat. Too much of this substance is regularly cited as unhealthy and unattractive, and a major source of “disgust.” Scholars and activists who critically engage with fat stereotypes usually emphasize the visual concerns of size and beauty, but accord less attention to fat as a material substance with tactile and olfactory properties that are capable of generating ambivalent reactions independently of physical corpulence. Even though fat people are regularly lampooned as sweaty, sticky, and smelly, as well as large and ugly, the materiality of fat as a problematic substance has rarely been the focus of serious historical, anthropological, or literary analysis. The materiality of fat cannot be discounted if we are to approach stereotyping as the complex multisensory phenomenon that it is.

    Given that fats are frozen oils, and therefore closely related substances, this collection inquires into the spectrum of practices and meanings enabled by the physical properties of fatty and oily matter as well as the various social and cultural responses that such substances have elicited. Rather than demanding a focus on “obesity” per se, it seeks articles addressing the “material entanglement” between human embodiment and animal/vegetable fats and oils, assessing the various ways in which the qualities of the latter have become enmeshed in a range of cultural locations. This cross-disciplinary collection welcomes the contributions of anthropologists and archaeologists as much as classicists, historians, and scholars studying art, literature, and religion.

    Possible topics include anointing and smearing; the phenomenology of fat embodiment; theories of abjection and disgust; materiality and the senses; magic, divination, and illumination; harvesting and employing human fat; symbols of fertility and decay; fats and oils in medical discourse and practice, etc.

    Interested authors are invited to submit ~250 words abstracts to Christopher Forth ( by 15 March. If this special issue proposal is accepted, authors will be asked to submit final submissions of no more than 8,000 words each by mid-February 2012.

    Identity: how little we actually change over time

    By Biomedicine in museums

    I’ve spent some time last week watching, in fascination, Buenos Aires-based photographer Irina Werning’s “Back to the future”, a series of juxtapositions of images of individuals at different ages.

    She finds people who have portraits of themselves as a young child (not very difficult, most of us have) and then re-enacts the portrait with a contemporary version of the same person placed in the same position, showing the same face expression, wearing the same clothes. Here, for example, is “Lucia in 1956 & 2010, Buenos Aires”:

    I think these images are fascinating, because they support the experience I’ve made through biography writing, namely how little people actually change over time. They have an identity (from ‘identidem’: repeatedly, continually, constantly). In spite of many attempts in the humanities and social sciences over the last dacades to deconstruct the notion of individual identity, people usually remain the same over decades.

    In the case of biography writing, one is confronted with the constancy of individual thoughts and verbal expressions over time. In the case of Werning’s photo series, one is confronted with the constancy of physiognomy. The re-enactment in terms of positioning, clothing etc. only enhances the physiognomic identity.

    (thanks to Carsten Timmermann for the tip about Irina Werning)

    En Leonardo for det 21. århundrede?

    By Biomedicine in museums

    De sidste 15-20 år har humanister været optaget af sundhed og sundhedsvidenskab. Det er blevet lavet meget historisk forskning, fx. for at forstå, hvordan epidemiske sygdomme er opstået og har spredt sig, så vi kan lære af historien, når næste influenzapandemi kommer. Filosofferne har været med til at analysere sygdomsbegrebet, og etnologerne har bidraget til at forstå, hvad der skal til for at skabe sunde livsforløb.

    Grundtemaet for den her slags humanistisk forskning er, hvordan humaniora kan nyttiggøres og bidrage til befolkningens sundhedstilstand. En sådan nyttig brug af humaniora for sundhedens bedste var den røde tråd i Kultur og sundhed: Humanistisk forskning i krop, sundhed og sygdom fra 2005, som Anne Løkke redigerede for det daværende Humanistiske Forskningsråd. Det er også nytteaspektet, som i grunden motiverar medicinske fakulteter rundr om i verden til at ansætte humanister inden for forskellige varianter af  ‘medical humanities’: ‘medical philosophy’, ‘medical ethics’, ‘medical history’, ‘medicine and literature’, ‘medicine and art studies’ m.m. Der satses mange millioner på forskning indenfor bioetik, medicinhistorie, medicin og kunst og desuden på public outreach f.eks. i form af museumsudstillinger, biblioteksvirksomhed og event-virksomhed på området. (Wellcome Trust i Storbritannien, som hvert år støtter sundhedsforskning med ca. 6 mia. danske kroner, støtter herudover ‘medical humanities’ med ca. 450 mio. danske kroner.)

    Men det ville også være frugtbart at vende på nytteargumentet, dvs. “don’t ask what the humanities can do for health and the health sciences — but what health and the health sciences can do for the humanities”. Med andre ord, kan den medicinske forskning inspirere humanister til at tænke humaniora i nye baner?

    Forskning i visuelle kulturstudier er et eksempel på hvilke muligheder den omvendte tænkning kan indebære. De biomedicinske videnskaber genererer i stadigt stigende omfang billeder af mennesket i alle tænkelige funktioner og forstørrelsesgrader. Ikke bare klassiske røntgenbilleder, men i stigende grad avancerede digitale imaging technologies: CAT-scanningbilleder, 3D-ultralydscanningsbilleder af fostre, fMRI-billeder, som lægger en fysiologisk-funktionel billeddimension oven i den klassiske anatomiske, etc.. Det vælter ud af digitale billeder af kroppen i alla afskygninger og der er en sand eksplosion af billedmateriale på vævs-, celle-, og molekylært niveau.

    Den biomedicinske videnskab og teknologi åbner i dag op for helt nye visuelle erfaringsverdener – visuelle verdener, som kunsthistorien næsten ikke har beskæftiget sig med. Det interessante i denne udvikling er, at hvis der for alvor bliver sat turbo på den slags nye visuelle verdener, bliver også et helt nyt spektrum af visualisering af mennesket – dvs. et af humanioras klassiske foci – sat på dagsordenen. For den her slags forbliver jo ikke inden for forskningsverdenen. De mange billeder, som produceres inden for den biomedicinske forskning, diffunderer langtsomt men sikkert ud i kulturen gennem massemedier, via internettet, på YouTube, på blogs, på FlickR, i museumsudstillinger, i de kulørte videnskabsmagasiner, og ud i det formelle uddannelsessystem (om end lidt langsommere). Gradvist bidrager dette fyrværkeri af biomedicinske billeder til at forme et nyt menneskebillede og dermed også et nyt billede af mennesket. 

    Forskning i materielle kulturstudier er et andet eksempel. De biomedicinske videnskaber åbner op for en ny form for materialitet. I de sidste 30-40 år har humaniora været præget af tanken om sproget som det helt centrale. Den ‘sproglige vending’ (‘the linguistic turn’) har præget humaniora. Den ‘sproglige vending’ har været nært forbundet med en næsten hegemonisk socialkonstruktivisme inden for store dele af humaniora og samfundsvidenskaberne, hvor samfunds- og kulturfænomener er blevet set som sprogligt, intersubjektivt konstruerede, og videnskab og teknologi er blevet behandlet som sociale konstruktioner.

    Men materialismen er på vej tilbage i humaniora. Ikke som en firkantet materialisme, fx i historie-materialistisk og marxistisk forstand, men som en mere sofistikeret materialisme. En materialisme, som begynder at se mennesket og dets kulturelle interaktioner grundlæggende som interaktioner mellem molekylære væsner. En materialisme, som gør Kants dystre profeti om umuligheden af en naturvidenskabelig forståelse af mennesket og livet til skamme.

    Med udgangspunkt i kortlægningen af det humane genom er den biomedicinske forskning i fuld gang med at kaste lys over det detaljerede cellemaskineri. Komplicerede fysiologiske reaktioner og anatomiske strukturer bliver kortlagt ned i de molekylære detaljer: hvordan transporten af vand, ioner og signalmolekyler foregår, hvordan sansereceptorerne fungerer, hvordan proteinsyntesen reguleres. For 50 år siden var maskinanalogien for menneskekroppen blot en kulturel metafor. Nu begynder den at blive realistisk.

    Det mest kendte udtryk for denne nye molekylære materialisme er ambitionerne hos en del hjerneforskere, der mener, at de allerede nu kan sætte menneskelige følelser og endda tankeprocesser på materiel formel, f.eks. ved hjælp af fMRI. Meget af dette er formentlig hype. Der er lang vej endnu. Men det konstante bombardement af molekylære nyhedsbulletiner har en stor påvirkningskraft, også på humanister. Vi kan begynde at se humaniora med andre øjne.

    Det gælder fx den aktuelle satsning på proteinforskning. Når det gjaldt udforskningen af det humane genom i slutningen af sidste århundrede, foregik meget af forskningen inden for et slags sprogligt paradigme. Grundmetaforerne var ’livets bog’, ’livets kode’ og ’livets sprog’, og man talte om DNA som kroppens styresystem i kybernetiske termer. Analogien til computer science og sprogvidenskab var nærliggende. I mange årtier var den biomedicinske forskning på linje med fortolkningsparadigmet inden for de humanistiske videnskaber.

    Proteinforskningen vender op og ned på metaforikken. Grundmetaforerne er nu ’maskineri’ og ’kroppens arbejdsheste’ i klar kontrast til styresystemmetaforerne. I den biomedicinske forskningslitteratur fylder proteinerne mere og mere på bekostning af DNA. De er allestedsnærværende, og de introducerer en sofistikeret materialitet som erstatning for ’livets bog’.

    Set i det lys er humanioras udfordring at lade være med at udgrænse en sådan molekylær forståelse af mennesket ved at kalde den for ’biologisk’ eller ’humanbiologisk’ reduktionisme og derved slippe for at forholde sig til den. Opgaven er snarere at inkorporere den biologiske forståelse for derved at udvide humaniora, så de kommer til at rumme den komplekse materialitet, de biomedicinske videnskaber lægger for dagen.

    Så i stedet for at blive ved med at opretholde et kunstigt fakultetsskel mellem humaniora og sundhedsvidenskaberne eller kun gøre humaniora nyttig for sundheden, kan man håbe på, at det humanistiske fakultet vil tage hjerteligt imod den nye visuelle og materielle menneskeforståelse, sundhedsvidenskaberne producerer i disse år.

    Are bioart works ever 'finished'?

    By Biomedicine in museums

    A lot of people on Facebook have recently been excited about art critic and historian James Elkins’ analysis, in a recent Huffington Post chronicle (“Exploring Famous Unfinished Paintings in Google Art Project”), of what it means to ‘finish’ an artwork. It’s a well-written and beautifully illustrated piece, but it’s not unproblematic if you think in terms of other creative genres than art.

    “How does an artist know when a painting is finished?”, Elkins asks. I’m not sure I really understand what the problem is. When I write an scholarly article, it’s by definition finished when I send the proofs back to the publisher. That doesn’t mean my thinking is finished; the article will most probably be followed by another article, and yet another article, and then maybe a book. Most scholars see their articles/books etc. as finished partial products in a network-chain. But this never-ending, unfinished intellectual process doesn’t change the fact that each individual article is finished when the proofs have been sent off. One way to make Elkins’ analysis meaningful outside the narrow field of art is therefore to ask if there is a deeper difference between article production and artwork production.

    I guess this also means one has to weigh in ownershap as a parameter. If the artist is in physical control of his/her art work, well then it is still open for change. But when it is sold, it is, for all practical purposes, finished. A more interesting question is therefore how the market situation affects the closure of the work.

    An even more interesting problem is whether a bioart work is ever finished! Oron Catt’s tissue cultures continue to grow and defy his alleged attempt to closure.

    2010 Medical Blog Awards goes mainly to earlier winners

    By Biomedicine in museums

    Unless you’ve alrady seen it, here are the winners of the 2010 Medical Blog Awards:

    Not surprisingly, several of this year’s winners have been awarded before. What’s good, continues to be good.

    Hvorfor sætter danske videnskabsjournalister mure op for kommentarer?

    By Biomedicine in museums

    For et par dage siden påpegede jeg at Foreningen Danske Videnskabsredaktørers blog Open Access (!) kræver at man opretter konto og logger ind hvis man vil skrive kommentarer.

    Jeg troede det var en idiosynkratisk grej for Foreningen Danske Videnskabsredaktører. Men nej: for et par minutter siden ville jeg skrive en kommentar til en artikel på Samme problem:

    Hvorfor gør de det så besværligt? Jeg har aldrig hørt om en blog (undtagen Open Access), som kræver indlogning eller kontooprettelse for at skrive kommentarer.

    Det ligner et mønster. Er videnskabsjournalister bange for kommentarer?

    The transhumanist freak show

    By Biomedicine in museums

    Ari N. Schulman has an interesting point about the current transhumanist movement. His point of departure is the blog of Lepht Anonym, who famously (see for example this feature in Wired) writes about her home-made enhancement surgeries, such as magnets under her fingertips and others kind of implants and mutilations, which sometimes gives her medical problems.

    Schulman thinks there is something strangely refreshing about Lepht Anonym’s blog, because it’s the only transhumanist writing he has come across which seems to be written by an actual person with a reasonably complicated inner life. In his vew, transhumanists “seem to lose interest in expressing their inner lives when they give their thoughts over to the boundlessly incoherent muddle of transhumanist theorizing”. They have no conception, he suggests, “of any relevance to beings alive today of what it means to flourish, and neither, then, of what sorts of acts and states of mind constitute a profound lack of flourishing”.

    What has triggered Schulman’s comment is the alleged fact that Lepht Anonym has recently been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. The transhumanists’ enthusiasm for her DIY bio practice thus reflects, in his view, their lack of ability “to evaluate self-mutilation as the self-destructive behavior of a person in need of help, but encouraging it — both by reporting on it so enthusiastically, and by fostering a subculture in which it could be understood as a laudable act of creation and self-expression”. Accordingly, Schulman sees the celebration of Lepht Anonym and similar DYI bio practies as a step backwards in human betterment.

    Is our fascination with body-artists like Orlan and Stelarc fuelled by our tacit awareness assumption that they actually need care and support? Is the point of the contemporary freak-show the sublime contrast between their public self-mutilation in the name of art and their private craving for love?