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what is PathoGraphics?

“Illness and disability are very personal matters: they are located in individual bodies, connected to specific life stories, and may even be difficult to communicate, as in the cases of pain or grief. At the same time, they are always experienced in social contexts and shaped by cultural and historical frameworks: they are lived in the presence of family members, friends, and a (benevolent or disinterested) public; in the midst of institutions such as the private home, the workplace, the clinic, or the legal and health care regulations of a specific country; and they are formed by cultural expectations that they might affirm or seek to critique and transform. Ill/disabled lives—that is, all our lives, which are and will be subject to vulnerability and mortality—thus have far-reaching cultural implications and political repercussions.

In titling this conversation PathoGraphics, we pay homage to that vulnerability, returning to two ancient root words, pathos and graphe. Pathos is, at its origins, a complex amalgam of suffering and experience. In addition, it is a set of rhetorical strategies: the use of storytelling, metaphor, passionate emotion, and performance to engage an audience. Pathos also refers to the idea that every culture has a shared set of expressions to articulate, make sense of, and convey experiences of suffering. These embodied, sometimes verbal but more often visual expressions are culture specific but often work across long periods of time. As pathos formula (Aby Warburg), iconographies of illness (Sander Gilman), or dictionaries of gestures (Will Eisner), they remind us of a shared human condition of vulnerability, and also of the power of art to convey, critique, or cope with this condition.1 Along these lines, pathos might even serve as a common ground for political activity and community building.

Over the years the term pathos has acquired a fraught legacy to which we also gesture: the medical category of the pathological and its discursive offshoot, pathography, first-person accounts of disease, illness, and medical treatment. Disability communities now contest the very distinction between the normal and the pathological, and so, too, a new attention to health has joined, or even replaced, the focus on medicine. The health humanities, in particular, require us to acknowledge the various ways in which social injustices infuse our notions of illness, disability, treatment, and caregiving. We intend our use of patho to invoke not just the original meaning of the term but also its present contestation, which resists a narrow focus on pathology in order to plumb the experiences of vulnerability and pain that we share. W. J. T. Mitchell used the typographic convention of the slash, as in “image/text,” to emphasize the problematic gap, cleavage, or rupture in representation. From the earliest days of graphic medicine, the term medicine was equally the site of a debate rather than an institutional marker. The same problematizing perspective was evident when, in announcing its incorporation in 2018, the Graphic Medicine Collective stressed its commitment to challenging its key terms, graphic and medicine, by resisting associations that link the graphic line to the [porno] graphic image and refusing to limit illness to the individual body and healing to the zone of clinical medicine. In a similar vein, we in PathoGraphics—a 2016–21 international research project based at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, and funded by the Einstein Foundation Berlin7—also intend the typographical interruption of case between our titular terms to mark the dual premises of our work.

For us, the term pathography—a written, nonfiction narrative of illness—not only obscures the acts of fictive creation that are integral to every piece of life writing but also carries assumptions of human-centered individuality that must be questioned. We also believe that important ambiguities are inherent in the term graphics, which evokes both graphe (“I draw”) and its Derridean legacy graphein, the trace or the written word, and mingles the notion of explicit or shocking representation with the art of design. The two graphic endeavors embodied in our title term, PathoGraphics, thus seek to carve out the similarities of written and drawn illness stories in literature and comics without ignoring their media-specific, site-specific, or species-specific qualities. Inspired by Graphic Medicine’s attention to the connection between image and text in comic pathographies, our project in PathoGraphics is to fold into that rich mix an attention to the textual pathography embodied expansively in both literature and life writing. The core of our project, which we conceive of as proceeding in harmony with similar initiatives in Graphic Medicine but with a broader remit to speak to the fields of literature and life writing, is, first, to challenge any simple opposition between word and image, an opposition that has historically obscured a broadly shared project of using narrative and aesthetics to serve engagement and activism around the issue of human suffering and pain, and, second, to probe the unexamined assumptions that have narrowed the concept of pathos, or pain, and graphe/graphein to the human individual.”


Susan Merrill Squier and Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff: Introduction.
In: Susan Merrill Squier and Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff (eds.): PathoGraphics: Narrative, Aesthetics, Contention, Community. University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2020, pp. 1–6, here 1–3.