William Viney writes – This is the third of five posts introducing individual papers from a special issue of Medical Humanities, edited by myself, Felicity Callard, and Angela Woods. A more general overview of the special issue can be found here.

In “Unpacking Intoxication, Racializing Disability” Mel Y. Chen shows how concepts such as ‘toxicity’ and ‘intoxication’ are far from scientifically neutral. Her development of a critical medical humanities approach to intoxication exemplifies the complex permeability of medicalised language that finds elaboration through discourses of economics, anthropology, human rights, and colonial governance. In a manner that draws attention to the dispersed geographies and histories of where the ‘medical’ arises – with case studies ranging from contemporary economic crises in North America to the politics of opium trading and colonial authority in nineteenth century China – Chen argues that twenty-first-century economics is saturated with the language of unhealthy or contaminated bodies. Since the banking crisis of 2008, ‘toxicity’ has been used to naturalise and give a body to economic disparities and to uphold a global developmental model that renders people, communities, and environments ‘non-performing’ and thus invalid. Within this transnational context, toxic people, objects, and communities are marked by a set of ‘incapacities’ whose non-performance is strongly predicated by norms of race and physical ability.

By illuminating the co-substantiating power of the ‘toxic’ with race and ability, Chen’s aim is not to replace one sleek explanatory narrative with another but to explore and call attention to the alternative temporalities, chronologies, and epistemologies of the intoxicated subject. This calls for a richer historical understanding of people deemed to be intoxicated – moving us beyond the individualising diagnostic criteria and therapeutic management of addiction and towards a thorough critique of standards of cognition, productivity, health, and sociality. Resonant with work in critical disability studies, Chen’s challenge to those working in the medical humanities is to appreciate how, through intoxication, we can interrogate the denigration of certain groups for their association with toxic states. She encourages us to be bold in occupying a paradoxical and potentially uncomfortable position: actually being intoxicated may in fact form an important critical site for resisting taken-for-granted dogmas that have sought to bind economic and medical well-being to a narrow set of functional norms. This is a particular challenge to the medical humanities, whose authority and sense of purpose can be built upon accepted notions of rationality and intellectual ability. As Clare Barker asks in her response to Chen’s paper, ‘how might medical humanities scholarship be altered if ‘health’ is defamiliarised? If states of putative unhealth are taken as a basis for our critical practice? This is the challenge that Chen sets for the medical humanities, and it is one that promises to reanimate work in the field.’

For a limited time only, Mel Chen’s paper is freely available online.

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