How Do Collectives Come to Believe Collectively?

Dr. Priscilla Wald discusses our society’s “mythistories” in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley

Last week’s Faculty Fellows Seminar was led by our Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Priscilla Wald, R. Florence Brinkley Professor of English at Duke University. The seminar followed Dr. Wald’s Wednesday evening lecture, “Cells, Genes, Stories: HeLa’s Journey from Labs to Literature,” in which she discussed the cultural

Cell Culture of HeLa Cells
Culture of HeLa Cells

narratives around the immortal HeLa cell line developed from the cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks. Dr. Wald sees the narratives about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell line—particularly the racist language of contamination used to describe the cells themselves—as what she calls a “mythistory,” a mythic belief or story shared by a collective that produces conventional narratives and sets of belief beneath the level of conscious thought. Dr. Wald came to her current project by way of a central question running through her research: how do collectives come to believe collectively?

In her current book project, “The Human Being After Genocide,” Dr. Wald draws on literature, science, law, and gender and sexuality studies to examine narratives about what it means to be human post-World War II. This research has three foci: (1) the coinage of the word genocide and what it tells us about humanity, (2) the emergence of science fiction as a mass media genre around the question of what it means to be human, and (3) biotechnology. In her research, Dr. Wald draws on a key idea from Georg Simmel’s essay “The Stranger,” in which Simmel defines estrangement not as a moment of one’s encounter with an other being (an alien, per the Latin), but as the moment when one begins to recognize similarities between the self and the other. When an individual begins to recognize in the other the same characteristics that he believed made him uniquely human, or uniquely American, or some other descriptive category, he experiences a moment of estrangement from his own identity. These descriptive categories can expand to encompass the other, or they can contract and cause estrangement or demonization of the other. Mythistories, Dr. Wald argues, behave similarly.

These mythistories can be found at work in the debates on cloning that took place in the 1990s. In 1997, the scientist and public intellectual Leon Kass published an article in The New Republic called “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” in which he condemned the practice of cloning, describing the science as “grotesque” and “disgusting.” As head of the Presidential Commission on Bioethics under George W. Bush, Kass condemned scientists, arguing that they were creating Frankenstein monsters in their laboratories. Dr. Wald argued that this visceral, emotional reaction to cloning (and previously to the practice of in vitro fertilization) enacts a shared cultural narrative, or mythistory. These narratives, she argues, deserve attention and recognition as they may inform public policy and bioethical decisions even while operating beneath the level of consciousness.

The seminar participants discussed other examples of mythistories, including those centered on concepts of bodily ownership inspired by the story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells, as well as by the Moore v. the Regents of the University of California case, which focused “on the issue of whether or not the law should treat human body parts and other human tissue as tangible personal property.”

Fellows also drew connections between “estrangement”—the crisis of categorization that arises from the encounter with the other—to phenomena in their own respective fields. For instance, J. Brent Crosson noted that during the colonization of the Caribbean, Europeans were unable to see spiritual indigenous practices as a form of religion, and so classified these practices as magic. This encounter with indigenous religious practices, a moment of estrangement, revealed a flaw in the Europeans’ mythistorical paradigm, calling for a redefinition of religion.

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