Medicine, Literature and a Desire Called Utopia

November 30, 2023

Rishi Goyal
Rishi Goyal

Health Humanities Speaker Series

Start time: 4:00 p.m.

End time: 6:00 p.m

Location: Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU (601 W Broad St)

Register here

In this talk, Rishi Goyal will explore the framework of medical humanities and the possibility of utopic desire in medicine and literature. Reception and networking event to follow.

The Medical Humanities is an emergent interdisciplinary framework that engages humanities and social sciences ways of knowing alongside scientific worldviews and methods. These diverse fields are marshalled to emphasize a set of common principles extending across disciplines, including an acknowledgement of the vulnerability of human bodies, an adoption of anti-essentialist approaches to biology, a sensitivity to discursive and rhetorical factors in health, an attention to social justice, and an awareness of the structural determinants of health.

Emergent architectures of seeing and knowing sprout from the seeds of utopic desire. We hope to think better and know better and live better. Literature and medicine share this desire. The idea of utopia, from its earliest pre-modern examples, involves the question of proper governance, the ideal relations between a state and its peoples, and the responsibilities owed between individuals. But the idea of utopia is always haunted by its impossibility. In all of its forms, utopias create borders and insist on degrees of isolation.

The problem of isolation and utopia pierces the very heart of the novel as a genre. Literary pleasure, both within and outside of the text, involving both the work of the reader and writer, is often figured in terms of isolation. The rise of the novel as a genre tracks with the rise of peaceful, solitary time. But against this pleasure in isolation, we can see the frustrations and loneliness highlighted by contested contemporary public health interventions like social distancing and lockdowns. In a review of a novel by Margaret Atwood, Frederic Jameson suggested that, “the post catastrophe situation in reality constitutes the preparation for the emergence of Utopia itself.” During this talk we will explore the relationship between catastrophe, crisis and the possibility of utopic desire in medicine and literature.

Co-sponsor: VCU School of Medicine

About the Speaker

Rishi Goyal, MD, PhD is Director of the Medical Humanities major at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University, Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and Visiting Professor at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. Professor Goyal completed his residency in Emergency Medicine as Chief Resident while finishing his PhD in English and Comparative Literature. His research interests include the health humanities, the study of the novel, and medical epistemology. His writing has appeared in The Living Handbook of Narratology, Aktuel Forskning, Litteratur, Kultur og Medier, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. He is a Co-Founding Editor of the online journal, Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal, Co-founding Director of the Health Language Lab, and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. He is currently working on Increasing Vaccine Confidence through a grant from Columbia World Projects. He most recently co-edited the volume, Culture and Medicine: Critical Readings in the Health and Medical Humanities from Bloomsbury Press.