Catherine Oakley on Cultural Materialism in the Medical Humanities

Catherine Oakley’s article ‘Towards Cultural Materialism in the Medical Humanities: the Case of Blood Rejuvenation’ is available through open access in the current issue of Medical Humanities

Oakley takes the shifting cultural, symbolic and scientific meanings of blood as her starting point, a shift that is, she argues, often understood as a consequence of changes to scientific understandings of the role that blood plays in the human body; from humoural conceptions of blood to a modern, more mechanistic understanding of blood’s purpose. Oakley argues that such a teleology underestimates the value of other factors on the creation of the meaning of blood. Instead, she draws the reader’s attention to ‘historicist, materialist readings that are alert to the nexus of social, scientific, economic and cultural factors that have informed its shifting meanings’. Oakley uses blood rejuvenation as a way into this topic, focusing on the regenerating powers that have been attributed to blood, comparing discourses on blood rejuvenation from the late-nineteenth century and in our contemporary period – something that has been in the news recently as a California start-up appears to be offering older people a chance of rejuvenation through blood transfusions from young people and rumours are circulating that PayPal founder Peter Thiel believes in the process’s efficacy. Building on the movement towards a critical medical humanities, Oakley argues for the importance of a cultural materialist approach in the medical humanities – or, as she defines it, a ‘medicocultural materialist’ approach – and demonstrates its possibilities through the example of blood rejuvenation.

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