Events update

Vital Circulations:Bodies and Microbes

The Vital Circulations Network has organized a few events so far. We had our inception event for the network on 28th June, 2021 (you can find some reflections and a few provocations arising from this event from our blog) and two meetings over the latter half of 2021, before our well received symposium Vital Circulations – Biomes, Bodies and Buildings took place on 6th January 6, 2022. This symposium was the first one among a series of three (the second one will be on Tissue Donations: tissues and reciprocity and the third one will be about Databased Circulations: genes and inheritance), so please keep an eye out for updates about our events to come! We will soon post some reflections about the symposium on 6th January 6, 2022, but I wanted to briefly reflect on the two meetings we had over the later half of 2021.

In the meeting which took place on 28th July, we heard from Professor Rory O’ Connor on disability, its imagination versus reality from a medical practitioner’s perspective. Rory, based on the context of his medical practice, commented on the insufficiency of the medical model of disability and some concerns about access. In particular, he talked about some instances in the medical setting where access to test/donation facilities are restricted due to lack of consideration for people living with impairments.

This discussion evokes a social model of disability, and raises questions about how exactly to mobilize this in the medical setting. In the social model of disability, “disability” is due to the “the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers”. Therefore, infrastructure in terms of the physical, attitudinal, communication ad social environments should adapt to the needs of people with impairment so as to enable their participation in society and access to resources.

In the second meeting, which took place on 22 October 2021, we heard from Professor James Stark on a completely different topic. We went back in history to look at the portrayal of microbe in public communications in history, its changes and stabilisation across different periods and the important questions this raises. We were presented with some intriguing and colourful visualisations throughout history. In those visual depictions, we saw how germs are portrayed as other, invader and alien. And in the depiction of germs, the social imaginaries creep in, in terms of race, gender and class and so on. In such a way, those representations are sites where we can look closer in terms the changing relations between humans and microbes, as well as broader social concerns.

The two meetings, from different perspectives, point to different inequalities in vital circulations. For me, they both speak to the current pandemic in intimate ways. The pandemic has perhaps forced many people, for the first time, to face the lived reality of not being able to move freely and do things as they wish – perhaps just like the world people with impairments face on a daily basis, a world without appropriate infrastructure for them to thrive. Things like working from home, online meetings and conferences perhaps can be incorporated in a post-pandemic world to give better access. On the other hand, our depictions of the virus, its different variants are not just biological depictions void of social imageries; they often can be biases and full of process of othering – I speak from the perspective of a Chinese person who has faced racism because of coronavirus.

(posted by Lijiaozi Cheng)


Provocations, Vital Circulations: Swabs

Spit is powerful stuff. As Kragh-Furbo and Tutton point out, it can disgust, it can cause offence, it can even (as we have seen acutely over the last 18 months) harbour and transmit disease. Spit, however, also holds promise. With the development of biotechnology over the 20th century, there’s now a the capacity to locate in spit the so-called building blocks of life (to employ the kind of rhetoric that Nelkin and Lindee in the DNA Mystique might describe as everyday ‘gene talk’). It’s because of this that when you register as a stem cell donor in the UK, you don’t even need to provide a blood sample. The registries can get everything they need to know about your genetic profile from just your spit. Enter, the flocked swab.

These swabs – you’ll likely have put one up your nose and down your throat to test for COVID in recent weeks – are used to collect cells from your cheek. The swab is packed, sent to a lab and typed, your genetic information stored on a database so you can be included in future searches for patients who need a stem cell transplant. During my current research project, Mix & Match, I spent lots of time at events where smaller charities register people using these swabs. It’s hard to imagine it now, but we’d peel where it says ‘peel here’, allow the registrant to take the swabs, rubbing their inner cheeks for up to three minutes with them. Then we might hold out an envelope, let the registrant slide their swabs into it, and post off the envelope to the registry.

They’re an interesting site for a lot of circulations. What’s to be done with all the single use plastics for example (think of all the lateral flow tests that need to be discarded after use)? The flow of human cells from the mouth, to the swab, via the post, into the lab, where the material is taken out of the swab and tissue-typed. The data, too – when a tissue-type is entered into a registry, and then searchable globally for patients who require transplants. The data may flow far further than the original cells on the swab ever did. And then, prhaps the most incredible flow of all: the cells from one human donated (because of that original decision to swab and register) perhaps even being flown to another country, to be transplanted into somebody else.

(Author: Dr Ros Williams)


Provocation, Vital Circulations: Making Donor Citizens

“Learning About Blood Donation Book: Blood Donation, the Shape of Love (For Primary and Middle School Students)” by the Japanese Red Cross Society. The booklet cover features the Japanese Red Cross’ blood donation character Kenketsu-chan at the centre, who poses as the guiding voice throughout the text. The cute drawings contrast with the phrase on the bottom right reminding the solemnity of the core message, “It is only human, who can save humans.”

If organ donor cards work as semiotic objects signalling their carriers’ allegiance to the cause of ‘saving lives’, a host of other mediums circulate beside them to instil such a virtue of bodily giving in the first place. Take this booklet on blood donation disseminated by the Japanese Red Cross, for instance. Targeting primary and middle school students, who are yet ineligible to donate blood in Japan, the booklet conveys the alarming figures of falling blood donation rates among the younger generation, juxtaposed with the constant demand for blood transfusion. Cute fonts, bright pastel tone colours, and the manga characters cast blood donation as a children-friendly activity, possibly to dispel any fear associated with blood or needles (The pain and dislike of needles continue to rank the top self-reported reason of not donating blood among young people in the national blood donation consciousness surveys conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare!) The manga interspersed throughout the booklet ends with the two (phenotypically Japanese) protagonists declaring “We will also donate blood, when we turn sixteen!” The message here seems to be that becoming virtuous members of (Japanese) society means becoming donors. Or, put differently, growing up means being able to save lives by bodily giving to other citizens. While tissues like organs and blood circulate across bodies to ‘save lives’, the virtue of bodily giving also needs to be kept alive across generations through the circulations of objects like this booklet. What other things, images, virtues and affects are circulating here? Where do they end (what are the parameters of circulations)? Can we talk about the lives, afterlives and aborted lives of vital circulations?

(Author: Dr Jieun Kim)


Provocation, Vital Circulations: Organ Donor Cards

Do you carry a donor card? In May 2020 organ donation law has changed in England, moving from consent to an opt-out system of organ donation based on presumed consent. The organ donation card suddenly looks like an obsolete object. Why carry a card, if one’s consent is presumed? The solution for those wishing to opt-out might be to carry a non-donor card? No such object exists so far, and one can surmise why not? Non-donor cards are in circulation in Japan, for instance. In England, opt-outs can be expressed via the online donor register only.

Yet NHSBT continues to encourage people to carry donor card. It is still valued, not as a form of consent, but as one of the relevant signs of one’s intention. Donor cards were never legally binding, but this does not mean they are legally, socially, culturally insignificant. There is a long tradition of public health messaging encouraging people to sign their donor card, and that carrying that signed card could save life. In reality, the card was always limited, and subdued by other mechanisms of certifying consent.

In recent years, in England and elsewhere, there is more open admission and discussion that to the same extent that consent forms do not represent consent, donor cards do not stand in for consent to donate. The emphasis in public health messaging has shifted in recent years to encouraging people to talk about organ donation with their family members. The most recent version of the organ donation card (they are still very much available, in circulation and encouraged) certifies not only the wish to donate, but that the card holder has spoken to their family. Tensions between family consent and individual consent are still at the heart of tensions in ICU and organ donation units. Is it time for a socio-legal history of organ donor cards?

(Author: Professor Marie-­Andrée Jacob )

Events update

Vital Circulations Inception event: a personal reflection

The inception event for the project,Vital Circulations: A Framework for Understanding Social Dynamics in and beyond a Pandemic, a White Rose Collaboration Project, took place on 28th June at the University of Leeds. As the project assistant who joined the team only recently, it was my first time to meet all the project members (find out more about this project and it’s project members here). It was also my first face-to-face academic event for quite a while. I have lost count of how long it has been!

The inception event was set up in a hybrid manner, that is, a combination of socially distanced co-precence in a room, and a zoom meeting. I did attend physically – so my first impression of this event is the act of actually travelling there, the whole experience of traveling to a venue, to be on the train, to come in contact with people for a non-virtual discussion, as well as the tea and coffee from the venue (Oh I do miss it!)

A photo of the event

After each making a self-introduction, and a brief orientation from Jini, a really interesting audio fragment, from an experimental theatre in Japan was played as a provocation. It is a performing acupuncture theatre in which the body is turned into a stage. An ordinarily personal and private encounter of acupuncture, was given some special touch and gains theatricality and make me think about the body and its boundaries. The needle thus became a potent symbol for the crossing of boundaries and became the first object that fascinated me for the day.

For me, such a case of alternative health practices also sets a interesting backdrop for the discussion of the day on vital circulations in bio-medicla models.

Another material for provocation was a report on the risk of transmission in different scenarios (see the link here). In these reports, the body, the different bodies, are put under spotlight, the distance between bodies carefully calculated. Hence comes knowledge about risk and obligations. It goes without saying that being at the event itself is filled with such considerations – the care taken in maintaining ventilations, the distances, the masks, the hesitation in passing around objects.

For this inception event, every participant has been asked to bring a prop related to their research that has some bearing to the theme of vital circulations, to showcase the prop and to talk about it. This has turned out to be such a fascinating and thought-provoking exercise. There are different kinds of objects: hand sanitiser and hand cream -that have grown to become ordinary everyday objects since the pandemic, T-shirt from bone marrow donation charity, doctor’s outfit when working in covid wards, pin from patient groups, blood donor card, pamphlets for blood donation in Japan, different images about rare blood diseases in India. Everyone has also been given post-it notes to take notes of their thoughts on the props and the readings they think of, which have been collected at the end of the event.

A photo of the collected post-it notes

The post-it notes later gained a virtual life online.

Post-it notes on Miro board
Props from Professor Rory O’Connor, which pictures the scrubs, respirator and goggles that he needs to wear when working on COVID-19 wards.

There are mundane objects and more specialist objects, objects imbued with personal meanings, images that give a glimpse into different values in relation to different conditions/acts of vital circulations in different parts of the world. And as can be seen in the collection of post-it notes, there was a lot of food for thoughts!

I have been collecting images of the props and provocations and might be posting more about them in the blog in the next couple of weeks! One prop that definitely rings a bell for everyone is the hand sanitizer and hand cream, which Lauren brought along:

Photo Credit: Dr Lauren E White

From Lauren:

This photo includes two material objects – 1) hand wipes and 2) hand cream. These objects relate to the two most recent projects I have been involved in which include exploring the experiences of hospitality workers and food delivery drivers/couriers as they have worked throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Hand wipes relate to the availability and/or lack of toilet and hand washing facilities for delivery drivers. For many of these workers, this has meant having hand wipes in their vehicle in the absence of provision. The hand cream relates to experiences of hospitality workers who have described getting incredibly sore hands and damaged skin as a result of increased cleaning procedures in hospitality settings. Together, both of these objects represent “quiet materialities” (Pink et al., 2014) in caring for and protecting the hands of workers.

Find out more about Lauren’s project here.

Keep an eye out for more props and more provocations!

(posted by Lijiaozi Cheng)