Medicine and Empathy in Contemporary British Fiction [book review]

Anne Whitehead, Medicine and Empathy in Contemporary British Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017) 224 pages, £75.00      ISBN 9780748686186 (Paperback forthcoming in May 2019).

by Marie Allitt.

In order to unravel the concept of empathy, Anne Whitehead engages with many of the increasingly relevant and problematic topics in both medicine and medical humanities today, including cognitive sciences, neurodiversity, human rights, humanitarianism, neuroscience, biomedicine, and biocapitalism. It quickly becomes evident that ‘empathy’ is a knotty concept, one which is ill-understood, and particularly one that those of us engaging with medical humanities do not critically consider enough. Empathy is all too often discussed as an absence, but we need to figure out what empathy is and what it does.

This monograph develops from, and directly complements, The Edinburgh Companion to Critical Medical Humanities (2016), edited by Whitehead and Angela Woods, with Sarah Atkinson, Jane Macnaughton, and Jennifer Richards. In the Companion’s introduction, Whitehead and Woods established the new, specifically ‘critical’ directions in medical humanities, where they outlined a move from the ‘first wave’, part of which tended to focus on the humanities as an educational resource for medical practitioners. In Medicine and Empathy, Whitehead echoes and reiterates her urging that we must consider more than the practitioner-patient encounter as a focus, and also pay attention to other ways that medical knowledge and experience is enacted, especially through non-human objects, and emotions and feelings that flow and emerge. While this turn is not entirely new, it feels that Whitehead’s contribution refreshes and reinvigorates the field and these lines of enquiry.

Central to this work is recognition that empathy is not necessarily something you have (or lack), but is in what you do. This re-envisioning of empathy responds to the general trend of discussions about empathy as something that is lacking –a frustration and tired accusation aimed at doctors and institutions. Whitehead urges us to consider empathy in different ways, with a keener critical eye, which not only opens up what it means, but also makes us reconsider what empathy does, both inside and outside of the clinical encounter.

Intentionally, Whitehead moves outside of the consultation room to address the ways in which perceptions of empathy play out through medicine in different contexts. Each of the five chapters addresses a central concept in relation to empathy, with a specific British contemporary novel acting as a case study through which the argument develops. In chapter 1, ‘Mind’ is discussed in relation to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), exploring autism narratives through the cognitive sciences and Theory of the Mind. Chapter 2 extends a focus on the outward direction of empathy with ‘Ethics’, by considering human rights studies in relation to Pat Barker’s Life Class (2007). Chapter 3 engages with the issue of ‘Interdisciplinarity’ in and for the medical humanities, with a discussion of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), using the relationships between literature and biomedicine and neuroscience to engage with the ‘two cultures’ debate.

Chapters 4 and 5 explicitly engage with politicised bodies and notions of empathy. Chapter 4’s focus on ‘The Geopolitical’ considers humanitarian aid and the uneven distribution of medical resources through Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010). It explores how empathy circulates and where it ‘sticks’ (inspired by the influential work of Sara Ahmed), within a global or transnational context. This focus on the ‘flow’ of empathy moves to question if empathy is always beneficial to the empathised. Chapter 5 explores empathy in relation to ‘Capitalism,’ arguing for a re-envisioning of empathy in light of the biomedical revolution, with a specific focus on organ harvesting. Discussing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), Whitehead explores how empathy relates to questions of exchange, value, and commodification; issues which are central to contemporary biocapitalist culture.

While this book engages specifically with contemporary literature, it is by no means only for literary scholars. Whitehead’s talent at interdisciplinarity ensures that there are numerous provocative and stimulating critical subjects throughout this book that are constructive to most researchers in medical humanities. I am in no doubt that this work will be revisited by medical humanities scholars for a long time, and will be influential to future research, across disciplines. Whitehead offers an incredibly rich resource, which will develop, challenge, and continue to re-invigorate the field of critical medical humanities.

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