Recommitting to Public Scholarship
Last fall, I began “blogging my research” by writing about material I’m examining in preparation for conference presentations. With this post, I renew my commitment to public scholarship for the second-half of the academic year: I’m currently preparing a conference paper, which I’ll deliver in March at the PCA/ACA national conference. Here, I want to share an overview of the presentation and explain how my paper squares with the focus of the conference—popular and American culture.
My PCA/ACA Conference Presentation
My conference presentation is titled, “Discursive Rest: The ‘Little Presses’ of the Sanatorium Era.” In it, I concentrate on the Hoosier Res-Cuer, a magazine produced by and for TB patients who were receiving treatment at the Indiana State Sanatorium during the early twentieth century. Before the widespread availability of antibiotics, TB could not be eliminated from the body; however, it could be managed, and during the 1880s to 1940s, sanatoriums like the Indiana state facility in Rockville, Indiana provided hope, at least for some.
A mash-up of original and reprinted news items, poetry, non-fiction prose, jokes, and gossip, the Hoosier Res-Cuer was issued monthly from 1926-1946; patients who were well enough wrote and managed the writing of material for the magazine. Though certainly remarkable in its own right, the Hoosier Res-Cuer represents only one of several such publications; many sanatoria in the U.S. facilitated the creation and production of media during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. (Firland Sanatorium in King County, Washington, for instance, published a magazine called Grit and Grin, whose name later was changed to PEP and Courage.)
The production of magazines and newsletters not just on sanatorium grounds but also by patients themselves is curious, given the principles that were (and continue to be) associated with sanatorium-based TB management. Chief among them were physical and mental rest as well as “regularity”—that is, a “systemized” schedule in which every aspect of the patient’s daily life is planned and controlled. Not surprisingly, life at the “san” was infamously monotonous.
In my paper, I argue that the “little presses” of the sanatorium were more than diversion; they aided treatment by discursively re-inscribing rest at a key moment: when the patient’s treatment was almost complete. Not long before the patient’s reintroduction to life outside of the sanatorium, his or her body necessarily became more active. However, such activity violated the most sacred tenets of sanatorium treatment: total rest. As I see it, the creation and publication of diverse genres like poetry, first-person narrative, news, and even the gossip column helped newly ambulant patients achieve rest.
Physical rest, though, was only one of several pathways to improved health: the sanatorium also managed TB by instilling patients with appropriate habits, including those related to labor. Before leaving the sanatorium, patients received occupational training to decrease the likelihood of relapse. The sanatorium’s little presses were instrumental in fulfilling this goal.
Most significantly, the sanatorium’s little presses instilled emotional habits that were seen as crucial to long-term recovery. Across genres, patients expressed positive and eerily uncritical assessments of draconian sanatorium life, but whether this docility to authority was genuine or a subversive performance is unclear.
Reconceptualizing Participatory Cultures
Through its focus on the Hoosier Res-Cuer, my paper not only illuminates beliefs about TB treatment prior to antibiotics; more broadly, it also explores how the bodies and minds of the sick were policed and liberated through the creation of popular media. The context of this production—the who, how, and why—bears a striking resemblance to participatory culture.
As defined by Henry Jenkins, et al. in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, participatory culture is organized around the creation, sharing, and circulation of media by everyday individuals. Participatory culture also is accessible. As Jenkins notes, it is defined by “relatively low barriers to artistic expression” as well as systems for “informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (2)
Another significant feature of today’s participatory culture is the extent to which it is shaped by and produced within web 2.0 technologies that “make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful…ways” (Jenkins, et al. 8). Participatory culture, at least as Jenkins theorizes it, is a wholly postmodern phenomenon. However, my analysis of sanatorium magazines produced by TB patients asks us to consider the historical legacy of participatory culture and its roots in print.
The overlap between web 2.0 participatory culture and that of the sanatorium’s little presses is striking; however, I should note that I’m still exploring these similarities and differences at this point in the research process. Like today’s participatory cultures, those associated with TB magazines spawned “new creative forms” (Jenkins et al. 3). This is because TB magazines unabashedly addressed the contagious body as well as the subjective experiences of those defined by a certain kind of embodiment.
When Jenkins’s participatory culture and the sanatorium’s little presses are compared, significant differences also emerge. Consider that Jenkins has argued that participatory culture produces a “more empowered conception of citizenship” (3). However, without access to patient interviews, diaries, or personal letters, it is unclear if the Hoosier Res-Cuer or other little presses of the sanatorium enhanced patients’ communal identities and collective sense of agency.