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Finding a Leg to Stand On: Clinical, Critical and Creative Approaches to the Human Body


Module description

What does it mean to be and have a body? How do we speak about and define bodily experience? What happens when the body fails? How do we diagnose and treat the body? Patients and healthcare practitioners might answer these complex questions in very different ways, yet both play a fundamental role in the practice of medicine.

This module is an innovative collaboration between clinicians and artists from St George’s Medical School and academic staff from Birkbeck. Using an applied medical humanities approach, in which the different humanities disciplines (philosophy, cultural studies, literary studies, sociology, history of art) and medicine and clinical practice are used as lenses through which to analyse illness, human experience and clinical practice, we will take the leg as our primary focus.

The leg, as a component of the body, allows us to explore the ways in which bodies are constructed culturally, clinically, politically and experientially. We will explore ideas such as surface and depth, normality and abnormality, presence and loss, visibility and invisibility, beauty and ugliness, illness and health. We will examine the relations between culture, society, the body and illness.

This is an exciting, unique opportunity to be taught by a cross-disciplinary teaching team, and learn alongside medical and healthcare students. You will have the chance to study materials drawn from the fields of literature, the visual arts, critical theory and clinical medicine, and take part in field trips to the Wellcome Collection and St George’s Pathology Museum. As part of the exploration of the body, each week involves short movement exercises (no level of fitness required!).

Indicative syllabus

  • Introducing the leg: ‘journeys and movement’
  • Embodiment and Cartesian dualism: understanding the body through philosophy and cultural theory
  • Bipedality and subjectivity: how does the human body make the human subject?
  • What is a leg? I: anatomy from different disciplinary perspectives (supported by a visit to the Wellcome Library)
  • What is a leg? II: introduction to St George’s Pathology Museum - observation, interpretation, collaborative mark-making and writing
  • Theory of the absent leg I: pain and the phantom limb from artistic and philosophical perspectives
  • Theory of the absent leg II: prosthetics: evolution and representation
  • Identity and disability: looking at the leg through the lens of critical disability studies
  • The leg and its erotics and aesthetics: exploring cultural concepts of beauty, ugliness and taboo
  • Moving legs: running and subjectivity

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • have discussed and interrogated the complexities of the human experience of identity, embodiment, illness and pain
  • understand and value the application of the critical skills of humanities disciplines within clinical practice and cultural analysis as well as biomedical constructions of the body and clinical practice within and beyond medical culture
  • have undertaken critical reading of primary and secondary theoretical and cultural texts, as well as aesthetic objects
  • have reflected critically on your own clinical, intellectual and/or creative practices both individually and in a group
  • have written in critical and more exploratory or experiential ways about the nature of your own clinical and intellectual practices
  • be willing to take intellectual risks and form your own research questions supported by sustained, critically rigorous arguments.