Jenell Johnson

Jennell Johnson

Assistant Professor, Director of Disability Studies Initiative
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Most of my research has focused on the interaction between expert and non-expert discourse about science and medicine. The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain (Michigan, 2012) is a coedited collection of essays from humanists, social scientists, and neuroscientists reflecting on the promise and pitfalls of new “neuro” disciplines such as neurohistory, neurosociology, and neuroethics. American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History (Michigan, 2014) explores how representations of psychosurgery in American popular culture contributed to its development, decline, and memory in American medicine.

My next book project (still in the conceptualization phase) examines the rhetorical dimensions of human definition in vernacular and institutional bioethics. The first section explores what Tod Chambers (2005) calls “vernacular bioethics”: deliberation about bioethics by persons not trained as bioethicists. Looking closely at vernacular bioethics discourse (such as letters to the editor, websites, social movements, and political literature), this section will offer an extended case study in the constitution of what I am tentatively calling “biopublics.” While traditional conceptions of publics depend on private individuals speaking or writing from the position of citizen, biopublics are formed when such individuals speak from the position of biocitizen, that is, an embodied member of the human species (e.g. Petreyna 2002; Rose and Rovas 2000; Rose 2007). In this section, I plan to look at a number of case studies in which everyday people deliberate the ethical boundaries of science and medicine using the topos of the boundaries of humanhood: public commentary on in vitro fertilization in the 1970s popular press; the efforts of the contemporary UK nonprofit Genewatch; and animal rights discourse about nonhuman primate research. The second section explores how human definition is mobilized in institutional bioethics, focusing on moments when bioethicists enter the biopublic sphere on matters related to humanhood. The case studies include a brief genealogy of the bioethicist as pundit from 1970 to the present; an analysis of the volumes Human Dignity (2002) and Being Human (2008) produced by the President’s Council of Bioethics; and a study of how academic and clinical bioethics have ignored the field’s roots in environmental activism, thereby limiting health concerns to human health. To complete this project, I have been accepted as a Visiting Scholar in the Yale-Hastings Interdisciplinary Program in Bioethics for the Fall of 2014, where I will have the chance to workshop with and present my work to academic and clinical bioethicists.

key words to describe work

Medical rhetoric, critical neuroscience, science and technology studies, rhetorical history, vernacular bioethics

work in relation to symposium keywords

The word dissemination and ethics relate most to my work.

I picked these two largely because they resonate with my research interests, but also because dissemination and ethics are such natural interventions for rhetoricians. Dissemination brings to mind communication, translation, and framing, as well as the constitution of publics; ethics brings to mind contingency, values, and argumentation.

Participation Questions

  • How do you explain/define what you do to medical personnel and/or other stakeholders in the research process or to the public?

The definition I provided above comes close to how I describe my work to people in scientific or medical fields. I often highlight the point that language is not value-neutral (for example, calling something “precision” medicine orients the audience in a particular way to that field). I also find myself offering a full-throated defense of why popular culture matters: not only as a mode of public engagement (which is often how what I do is understood by scientists and doctors) but also as the origin of attitudes toward science, health, illness, disability, and medicine. (I might add that in interactions with natural, physical, and life scientists, I am always perceived as a social scientist. Humanists, I’ve discovered, rarely enter these folks’ epistemological airspace.)

  • How would you describe the relationship between medical rhetoric/health communication (however you see yourself) with other fields and sub-fields (e.g., rhetoric of science)?  For example, we struggled with what to name the symposium.  Some suggested medical rhetoric, but that doesn’t comfortably fit some from Communication nor from English Studies.  In other words, how do you align what may be a specific focus with broader disciplinary concerns and tensions?

I’ve never had much trouble with negotiating the relationship between rhetoric of science and medical rhetoric, largely because I primarily study biomedical research, where the line between science and medicine is especially blurry. One particular intersection that may be useful to explore, however, is that between medical rhetoric and disability studies, which creates productive resonance as well as generative friction (which mirrors the resonance and friction between disability studies and the medical humanities more generally). Disability studies brings a deep commitment to social justice that can help medical rhetoric avoid the oft-cited myopia of the medical humanities, which tends to focus on the clinical encounter to the exclusion of structural and institutional elements. To my mind, the keyword that brings both fields together in exciting ways is “health,” which is perhaps the ultimate “god term.” Health animates so many conversations—both inside and outside the lab and clinic—and it is supercharged with morality and normativity ripe for rhetorical analysis.

  • What other keywords would you add to the list above (connections, dissemination, ethics, methods, and theory) and why? (no more than three additions)

History. Medicine often deploys arguments for its present and future based on interpretations of its past, illustrated by the pervasive rhetoric of “change,” “development,” “transformation,” and futurity in public and professional discourse alike. For me, the rhetorical history of medicine not only involves crafting histories of medicine from a rhetorical perspective, but also examining how particular histories are rhetorically mobilized in the present.

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