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Having And Being Had With Eula Biss: An Interrogation Of Capitalism, Leisure, Work, and Health

In University Writing: Readings in Medical Humanities last fall, some sections had the chance to read, discuss, and respond to “Sentimental Medicine,” a thought-provoking essay by Eula Biss. In this October Virtual Narrative Medicine Rounds event, we had the opportunity to hear from Eula Biss herself, this time exploring the pervasive nature of capitalism and its effects on our lives and health.

On Wednesday, Columbia Narrative Medicine hosted a discussion with writer Eula Biss on her new book, Having and Being Had. The event was split into three segments—the first being a reading and talk about her new book, the second being a discussion between novelist and Medical Humanities and Ethics lecturer Nellie Herman and Biss, and the third being a chance for audience members to ask Biss questions of their own. The virtual event took place on Zoom, with participants of all ages from all over the country tuning in. 

During the first hour of the event, Biss read excerpts from Having and Being Had as a way to explore the pressures capitalism has put on the work of medical professionals, artists and the quantification of the value of work as a whole. The excerpts she read highlighted the ways in which capitalism seeps into every part of our lives—from the trading of Pokémon cards on the asphalt of a children’s playground to Scooby-Doo villains to peaches and Monopoly. With each day-to-day mundanity, she asks us to reconsider how capitalism as a culture has changed the way we value work and worth, art and medicine, care and the purpose of our jobs. She also dives into the psychological effects of capitalism, shedding light on the mistrust capitalism has bred in attaching a cost to care in the medical industry, fostering circumstances where the possibility of external motives and personal gain lurk behind each touted benefit of a drug or vaccine, especially in a divided time where the our citizens’ trust in the government has eroded. In that vein, she considers the possibility of capitalism creating a certain paranoia using wealth-seeking Scooby-Doo villains to ask: is there always now a trap door to access profit greater than the original investment? As she put her thoughts in conversation with the work of Mariana Mazzucato and David Graeber to explore the way work that benefits others often is of inverse proportion to their economic value, she leads us into a compelling interrogation of what gives value and worth to the work that we do.

Building off her compelling interrogation into the day-to-day, Herman began the second segment asking Biss to share more details of the hybrid essay-prose genre she wrote in, the process by which Biss wrestles with alternate viewpoints and her personal relationship with her work. Biss’ answers gave audience members an idea of what it means to write in argument with yourself while inviting argument from readers, what luxury is with regards to being of service to the art being created, and how creating rules with the hybrid-genre could be liberating in the directions those rules pushed her in new directions.

The audience members, some of which have come across her work while looking into a writing career after completing a long journey in health care or while studying for Ph.D. candidacy exams or while as a pre-med undergraduate student, had the chance to interact with Biss and gain encouragement and insight at the intersection between medicine and her writing. Bridging the gap between medicine and writing, Biss shared the connection she found between the economic word choice of poetry and medicine in that both are engaging in conversation and analysis, looking for words that hold more importance than the others around them. She also helped audience members reconcile a worth of work beyond the monetary and offered personal insight into pushing back in a world where the luxury of leisure time to engage in deep thought is increasingly being eaten away by the need to work to earn a living.

At the start of the talk, Nellie Herman said that Biss’s work is one that grows your brain. In this compelling event, we were challenged to find what Biss had found when writing her book—the ability to dwell in ambiguity and hold contradictions with other contradictions to notice what perhaps hadn’t been seen before. As a writer, she compares this experience of looking at these small, day-to-day moments and conversations between her work and others as one of the gatherings of small data. Where medical researchers are often focused on big data, her small data has found itself a place among medical workers and researchers, some of who have shared the ways in which her observations have informed their teaching and practice. And from this event, we too, are left to wonder how these small observations she makes contribute to our lives, community, and the greater society.

This event was recorded. You can watch it here.

Image via Columbia Narrative Medicine

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