Panel 8: Media, Care, and Conflict

Tuesday 6th September

By Zoë Shacklock and Gaby Smith

  • Marie Allitt (University of York): ‘Whom We Fear to Touch’: Medical Violence and the Conflict of Medical Care in Military-Caregiving Narratives
  • Hannah Tweed (University of Glasgow): Writing Care and Nursing in the First World War
  • Robert Hemmings (University of Leeds): Performances of Care: Film Shell-Shock and Spectatorship

Takeaway points:

  • Discursive accounts of wartime caregiving often reveal a tension between healing and violence, and between passivity and agency
  • Important to reflect on how historical accounts of care are presented to us, interrogating who has the authority to speak
  • The affective/performative experience of wartime caregiving is crucial to understanding military-medical systems

Most of us expect that the violence of war ends at the threshold of the medical tent, drawing a sharp distinction between spaces of war and spaces of care. Marie Allitt issued a challenge to this belief, arguing that the frontline military-medical space is complicit in the violence of war. First hand accounts from war are marked by the tension between care and cruelty, pain healing, and safety and violence. Allitt traced the ways in which the language of war persists in the language of caregiving – nurses ‘combat’ against death, doctors ‘dig’ and ‘plunge’ into skin. WWI caregivers were highly ambivalent about the role, in which care seemed to be more a form of intrusion into passive subjects than a therapeutic form of healing.

Sharing a focus on care in firsthand accounts of WWI, Hannah Tweed discussed the writing of WWI nurses, who have too long been neglected in favour of the physician-writer and the soldier-poet. Tweed analysed the diaries of Alice Lighthall, who (along with her contemporary Clare Gass), used multi-year diaries with entries for multiple years on the one page. This gives Lighthall the opportunity to reflect on past events as she writes, turning her diary into a contemporary historiography of care and conflict in WWI. While the diary entries are often highly factual in tone, affective reflections on care-giving emerge in the paratextual material (such as annotations and sketches), which are lost in published versions. Tweed concluded by arguing for the importance of researching these ‘medical paratexts’, particularly when working with issues of ethics and authority in the medical humanities

Shifting the discussion from written language to film, Robert Hemming introduced the audience to Arthur Hurst’s film War Neuroses, filmed in hospitals at the end of WWI. Hurst treated soldiers with movement disorders, and the film was produced as a supplement to his clinical lectures, presented as evidence of the success of his treatment. Yet Hurst’s film tells us more about the performative regimes surrounding caregiving than about any practice of care. He believed that these disorders arose because the body had been imitatively shaped by warfare, and so could be shaped back through the performance of normality. The environment in which these performances took place were also performances in themselves: Hurst created bucolic country environments for his patients, and caregivers were also required to perform optimism, affectively shaping the environment in which body shaping could occur. Unsurprisingly, patients’ improvement did not persist once they left these spaces. Hemming concluded by reflecting on the enduring political and ethical relevance of the film, suggesting that it invites us to think about the ethics of spectatorship, and how we participate in particular performative truths of war and care.

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