German Studies Lecture Series: Drawing on Experience: Graphic Medicine and the Concept of Erlebnis

Tue April 2nd 2024, 12:00 - 1:15pm
Event Sponsor
Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages
Building 260, Pigott Hall
450 Jane Stanford Way, Building 260, Stanford, CA 94305
Room 216

Abstract: Graphic medicine is a subgenre of comics that unites several different discourses, such as comic studies, medical humanities, disability studies and trauma studies. Graphic medicine can loosely be understood as comics and graphic novels about illness, trauma and disability. While graphic medicine can include everything from informative pamphlets at the doctor’s office, to signs in a museum exhibit, there is a significant amount of graphic memoirs which fall into this category as well. Authors of such graphic memoirs are frequently individuals who have experienced or continue to experience a cognitive or physical condition that has had a profound impact on their lives, their relationships and their interaction with society.  In this talk, I consider how graphic medicine can help challenge philosophical discourses on the distinction between Erfahrung and Erlebnis. In Walter Benjamin’s understanding of Erfahrung and Erlebnis, as expressed in his essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939), Erfahrung is something you gather through observation, while Erlebnis is something you have actually lived through. According to Benjamin, while Erfahrungen allow for the integration of information into a coherent narrative, this is not possible with Erlebnisse, because in the regime of Erlebnis, one lacks the aesthetic ability to relate with the environment. Using examples from both German and non-Germans comics and graphic novels, I argue that graphic medicine helps us question hierarchical thinking that would denote Erfahrung as more positive or more useful than Erlebnis. I propose that graphic medicine constitutes Erlebnis in two senses of the word, potentially uniting the phenomenological with the aesthetic discourses of the term. First, graphic medicine is a vehicle that allows people living with disabilities, trauma and illness to convey lived experience. Second,aesthetically, its combination of image and text allows for representations of illness, trauma and disability which would otherwise be impossible to convey solely through written or visual language alone. Rather than suggesting that Erlebnis is as useful as Erfahrung for helping a subject create a coherent life narrative, instead I propose that graphic medicine fundamentally calls the notion of stable, coherent subjectivity into question, instead embracing fractured and constantly changing identities, in the hope for creating a less ableist future, more inclusive of people who think, look and live differently.