Beyond Life or Death: Afterlives of Pandemics Past and Present

saturday, November 21, 2020 | 3:00 – 4:30 PM EST

Facilitators: Jessica Martucci and Britt Dahlberg

A note and invitation from the organizers:

We hope you are doing well – or as well as can be. In fact, that opening refrain and its many meanings and interpretations in our current context is the reason for our gathering in November.

We (Jessica Martucci and Britt Dahlberg) would like to invite you to participate in our National Council on Public History-funded program “Beyond Life or Death: Afterlives of Pandemics Past and Present,” which is scheduled to take place between 3 – 4:30 pm EST on November 21st via Zoom (CART captioning will be available).

In putting together this free virtual program, we are interested in creating a dedicated space for 30 or fewer attendees to join us for a focused, historically-informed, reflection on the current moment with other colleagues in disability studies, history of medicine, and public history.

This is an invitation to join us in a relaxed, fun, thoughtful, and creative space where we will name and think about Big Questions on the nature of and relationships between health, illness, disease, disability, bodies, and society. We look forward to a lively and generative discussion that we hope will give all of us an opportunity to breathe and think together about the bizarre possibilities of this historical moment. We will not as you to prepare anything significant for the meeting in advance. What we ask for is simply your presence: the fullness of whatever you bring, experience, feel, think about in this space.

What is it?

As we write this, it is now the second week of October 2020, and it has been about 40 weeks since a new coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China. From the WHO to universities and local communities in the US, the spread of this pandemic has been measured primarily in terms of positive viral and antibody test results, deaths, hospitalizations, and recoveries. Meanwhile, very little has been done to understand what it means to “recover” from this complex virus. Stories of pandemics past – from the 1918 influenza pandemic, to the mid-century polio epidemic, to the emergence of HIV in the 1980s – all suggest we can expect lasting consequences in how we individually and collectively experience, think about, and define health, illness, and disability.

We invite you to explore with us how paying attention to disability stories and frameworks in the midst and aftermath of epidemics might help us expand the kinds of questions we as scholars and public historians can ask now about the unfolding crisis of COVID-19. We anticipate a conversation that will start to explore a greater range of questions than the language of “mild cases” or “recovered” can engender. Ultimately our program invites participants to think with us about what forms of attention and individual and collective meaning making and care might be made possible through a disability-informed public history lens on COVID-19.

Who is involved?

Jessica Martucci is a historian of medicine, bioethicist, and public humanities scholar. Britt Dahlberg is an anthropologist of science and medicine, and public humanities scholar. In this program, “Beyond Life or Death,” we hope to bring together a small group of others who share our interests in disability and public history to help name and examine some of the big, central questions, ideas, and connections raised by the experiences and implications of pandemics past and present. To that end, we have designed a program that will facilitate a generative conversation/workshop to explore these ideas with others working at the intersection of medical humanities, public history, and disability studies. While not expected, we are hopeful that the result of this program will be new and firmer connections and future possibilities. (As an aside: We will share the list of attendees with participants in advance of the meeting so that you will know who you will see there).

What does it mean to participate?

A few weeks before the meeting, participants will receive an email with information on registration along with access to a small, curated list of suggested reading materials (for inspiration and orientation, and the pleasure of exploring – not required to read ahead), 1-3 organizing questions that we will build our conversation around, and instructions for a fun and brief activity to complete in advance of our meeting. In the larger spirit of the meeting – to create space in a time of chaos, stress, and exhaustion for conscious thought and reflection – the activity will require you to find a moment of quiet to complete it.

After you register, you’ll receive a Zoom link to join the meeting on November 21st.

What is our goal?

We recognize that for many years of academic experiences, we’ve both been seeking more generative spaces to connect with fabulous people, and although we’ve had and created a lot of these opportunities, we’ve also found an overriding focus on finding ways to be more productive, more busy, and more fast paced, that can be disconnecting. In this moment, we realized that what we needed – and what we suspect others may desire – is space to explore our thoughts in a community steeped in a deep knowledge of history and public scholarship.

On the one hand, we hope this gathering might provide generative support to next stages of projects we each – alone, together – may seek to build or grow. On the other hand, fundamentally, we hope this gathering supports everyone involved just through showing up together; that it creates an opportunity to revisit existing relationships and build new ones, supports an eclectic community around disability justice, pandemics, and public history, and creates grounds that might be generative in all sorts of unanticipated ways, even if that’s “just” offering us thoughtful space and time together, chances to discover your own thoughts, and those of others.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you have any questions about this program or the broader project: [email protected].