Graphic Medicine & Time
In a couple of weeks, I will be speaking at the Graphic Medicine conference in Riverside, California. This will be my first trip since my recent round of medical adventures began (we are including a couple of days at Comic Con and a few quiet days in the Hollywood hills where I will try and pull all the disparate pieces of my Riverside talk together). It will also be my last trip until October at the earliest, as I no longer trust myself to travel—and certainly not alone.
As I prepare for the Graphic Medicine conference, I wanted to look back on the shorter talk I gave last year at their gathering at Johns Hopkins University, in my beloved Baltimore. When I gave the talk a year ago I was not sick—or at least did not know I was sick. In fact, following my adrenal surgery in 2012, I was going through a period of profound health-consciousness, losing weight and many bad habits, exercising regularly and feeling quite virtuous and optimistic about the future for the first time in many years. Nonetheless, my attraction to narrative medicine—and of course graphic medicine in particular—continued to grow for intellectual reasons as well as personal. I had spent much of my life in an antagonistic relationship to my body and my health, and my new-found (and as it would turn out, short-lived) health consciousness was only bringing that relationship and its dysfunctions into a new kind of relief.
In any case, here is the first part of the talk I gave at the John Hopkins University medical campus on June 28, 2014. In sharing it here, I wish to reflect on how it reads and feels a long year later, when I now write (and read) as a patient as well as a scholar...
One of the few universals of illness is our experience of time as out of joint—the synchronicities on which we rely in our daily lives suddenly broken, as if we are moving in a parallel time. Even those fortunate enough to have never experienced a long-term or serious illness will recognize what I am describing here. Something as familiar as a common virus will leave us feeling more than simply out of sorts, but also out of sync, out of time. For those whose illness, diagnosis and treatment extends potentially indefinitely into the future, however, faith in time can be seriously shaken.
Temporality—our experience of time—is always a tenuous ground: like the air beneath Wile E. Coyote’s feet, we cannot look at it too closely because to do so is to risk confronting the void on which our conception of time rests. Among the many challenges facing the patient is that illness shatters our shared temporalities, the synchronized clock time which we agree to put our faith in even though we should, for more than a century now, know better.
In 1905 Albert Einstein wrote a series of papers that would change forever the way in in which time would be understood scientifically. After centuries of Newtonian physics, time was no longer absolute, nor was it any longer separate from the three dimensions that defined space. Einstein’s thought experiment famously imagines two lightning strikes and two observers, one in a moving train and one on a platform. For the observer on the platform, standing directly between the two strikes as they hit, the strikes are perceived a simultaneous, as the light moves towards the observer at the speed of light. For the observer in the train, moving forward in space toward the strike on the front of the car, the strikes are perceived as serial—lightning first striking the front of the train followed by the rear of the train. Science requires that we know which of the observers is right; the scientific answer, Einstein assures us, is that they both are true.
Einstein’s special theory of relativity was conceived while he was working in a Swiss patent office, looking at countless new inventions for ever-more accurate clocks and related technologies designed to coordinate time across increasingly complex networks of trains, cities, and commerce. His revelation was in part the result of an attempt to rethink the model of time that these technologies were dedicating to synchronizing and refining. No longer was time a universal constant: it was relative.
Despite Einstein’s work and numerous experiments to follow—all of which deepened our understanding of just how “wrong” our experience of time truly is—we continue to experience time as a Now ceaselessly carried toward the Future and away from the Past. After all, like the value that we consign to gold or paper currency, we rely on this social fiction and its tautologies. Time moves at one second per second, because, science and philosophy notwithstanding, this tautology continues to describe our experience of time, allowing us to coordinate an increasingly complex, networked society.
In fact, much of our narrative media—in the 20th century, most spectacularly cinema—has worked to reinforce and endorse our sense of natural “tensed” time—of a time moving inexorably in one direction, three tenses, three acts. But even as physics and philosophy were first grappling with Einstein’s 1905 theory of Special Relativity, comics had already begun mapping an approach to time that was not rigidly bound by our conventional experience of time as “tensed.” As cartoonists and readers discovered early in the form’s development, to read comics is necessarily to see past, present and future at once, and to experience time not (only) as serial, but also simultaneous. Comics have spent the better part of their history not only illuminating Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity but pointing readers towards ways of navigating a previously unimaginable tenseless model of time. After all, even the basic thought experiment used to illustrate Einstein’s theory depends on a comic.
When we are ill we experience time as “out of joint” or “broken”—but in many ways what we find so unsettling and alienating is the rending of the veil in our conventional experience of time; far from disabled by illness, we are given glimpses our daily life does not afford into the relativity of time. The emergence of graphic narrative as a central tool for communicating the experience of illness, treatment and recovery has everything to do with comics’ unique capacity to represent spacetime.
The truth is that what we experience as “broken” is actually a more complicated model of time than our normative lives afford us; recovery often involves a return to the illusion of synchronized clock time, so that we might resume our jobs, our proper roles in society. But there are insights in illness, both mental and physical, that require communication, and not only for doctors and fellow patients.
As Susan Sontag writes, “Everyone one holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” But when we leave our other home in the kingdom of the sick we leave more than our other native language behind. If that land “where night is day,” to borrow the phrase from James Kelly’s book about the ICU, is a world where all hold dual citizenship, then we are only half ourselves when we forget the experiences and powers that our other home country has to offer. Comics offers a mechanism for smuggling those powers across the borders.