Thursday, August 23, 2012

On planning a course on Alzheimer's literature &

When I said I write about Alzheimer's, Prof. Jon Goldberg-Hiller of Political Science quickly shot me a note. "Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded," it read in cramped handwriting (I thought the name was Maladou, which echoes the illness, the malady). The argument of this book, now in front of me, is at once astonishing and obvious. While her thinking is not all about Alzheimer's, it comes of her experience of her grandmother's disappearance into dementia: "it seemed to me that my grandmother, or at least, the new and ultimate version of her, was the work of the disease, its opus, its own sculpture." This early assertion brings Alzheimer's and art together, but as a form of destruction, not construction. "Behind the familiar halo of hair, the tone of her voice, the blue of her eyes: the absolutely incontestable presence of someone else" (xi).

The larger ambition of Malabou's book is to shift psychoanalysis away from a Freudian model, built on sexuality and a belief in the continuity of self, toward a model based on "cerebrality," or cognition, affect. This model shifts emphasis from the mind as an internal engine separated from the outside, toward one where the brain/mind is susceptible to outside forces, accidents, illnesses. Where the self can change irrevocably. Where my mother, your mother, is not a constant but someone whose identity can change "before your eyes" (my phrasing). As Malabou begins to develop this model, she pauses to reflect on connections between brain injury and political trauma, discovering "the impossibility of separating the effects of political trauma from the effects of organic trauma." As someone who linked my mother's Alzheimer's to the effects of the Bush administrations lies-unto-war, this more intimate link makes sense. Mine was a metaphor; hers is closer to fact. The trauma of that time (including the shock of 9/11) in the USA can be linked to organic dementia, or so Malabou's argument suggests. To say nothing of all the anguish that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A subject who has become someone else (15). That, then, is what is at stake in a course on writing Alzheimer's, along with more practical concerns of caregiving, legal definitions of competency, and the architecture of Alzheimer's homes, among others. (There will be visiting speakers and, I hope, a co-instructor, Prof. Lori Yancura, of Family Resources.) Malabou puts it beautifully, when she describes this process of becoming someone else "not as absence of form but as the form of its absence" (18). Yet, as I found during my time in my mother's Alzheimer's home, that absence is hardly without content--it's full of events and crises and calling out for reasons why we are there, why we are not in our homes, as opposed to the home. The competent writer may be embarked on a search for meaning, but so too are the residents, at least until they lose the language by which to express such longings (and perhaps also the longings themselves?)

Here is a course description with list of readings, so far. I've stolen the title of Lauren Berlant's symposium of last November at the University of Chicago, Losing It, which has the virtues of wit and range.

Prof. Susan M. Schultz (English)
Prof. Lori Yancura (Family Resources)
Spring, 2014

Losing It: Dementia and Questions of Self in Literature & Family Relations

This interdisciplinary honors course will pose the following questions: who is (still) human? Who is competent according to the law? Who cares for the incompetent? What is the politics of care? How can we best write about dementia? How do writers use dementia to reflect on other concerns, public and private? What is the architecture of the care home? Why structure the care home that way? Who grieves, and for how long, when the person who is lost is still alive? We will ponder these questions through the (chaotic) frame of dementia and Alzheimer’s, reading literature by and about Alzheimer’s sufferers; we will also address issues of biology and caregiving. Students will be expected to write two essays, contribute to a class blog, and do a final project that (to some extent) combines the concerns of the course.

There will be guest presenters and speakers throughout the semester, as well as a field trip to an Alzheimer’s care home.

Readings will include (on the literary side):

--excerpts from Self, Senility, and Alzheimer’s Disease in Modern America by Jesse Ballenger (history) and from Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded (philosophy)

--Thomas DeBaggio, Losing My Mind (memoir)

--Samuel Beckett, Rockaby, Footfalls, Eh Joe (on YouTube)

--Walter Mosley, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

--Jennifer Montgomery, The Agonal Phase (video)

--Poetry (Shi), Korean film

How I'd love to include novels by B.S. Johnson, Alice LaPlante, David Chariandy, and Annie Ernaux, and poems by George Oppen, Julie Carr and others.

But for now, back to courses on poetic form and documentary writing for this semester . . .

Note: Many thanks to Shantel Grace for writing about this blog in the Honolulu Weekly's "Best of" issue.


Steel said...

Susan, this sounds like a wonderful course. I'm glad you're teaching it. I'm curious to know how approaches to Alzheimer's and dementia/senility differ in various cultures? Do you have any sense around comparative 'alzheimer's studies' for want of a better phrase?

susan said...

Great, necessary question, Steel. Will be looking into that, along with my co-instructor. Here, need to look at Hawaiian and local Asian, Pacific Islander views, and then also internationally . . . will keep you updated.