Dementia and the Body-Subject: The Margins of Agency in Philosophy and Literature (Public lecture, Newcastle University, 8 March 2017)

Dr Liz Barry (University of Warwick) will be the guest speaker in the School of English at Newcastle University, as part of the Visiting Speaker series. Her lecture will take place on Wednesday 8th March, 5-6:30pm in Room 1.19, Percy Building, Newcastle University, NE1 7RU.

Dr Barry’s paper will discuss the way in which phenomenological philosophy, and Merleau-Ponty in particular, has been martialled in sociological writing on dementia to argue for diametrically opposite positions on the personhood, autonomy and rights of the subject with dementia (see e.g. Davis 2004, Kontos 2005, Hughes et al 2006). Authors mount different arguments, and bring phenomenology to bear from their different perspectives, on how long the dementia patient remains a meaningful and autonomous subject at all, and, further, at what point the rights and needs of their carers, as agents purportedly more worthy of the name, start to outweigh their own.

This paper contends, as do the sociologists who use phenomenology (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty) in this way, that the philosophy of embodiment and lived time has a lot to say in relation to both the concept of personhood in dementia and the lived experience of the dementia sufferer. But the radically divergent uses of this philosophy seem to point to a conceptual instability in current understanding of the subject with dementia, an instability that obviously opens the way to very different ethical stances. The paper will survey the uses of phenomenology made in the sociology of dementia, reconsider what phenomenology might have to offer (in relation to the patient’s experience of language, the body, memory and lived time, and how this bears on their construction as a subject), and investigate fiction and memoir as a source of knowledge about the lived experience of dementia.

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