Writing Life No. 14: An Interview with Hélène Mialet

This article is part of the series:
Image 1: Hélène’s home office.

The pandemic has revealed the fragility of our lives and the vulnerability of our bodies. It has also revealed the importance of fleshy connections that drive our energy, and our fundamental dependence on others, humans and non-humans, without which we couldn’t survive. Hélène Mialet has been exploring such themes in her work, most notably in her books Hawking Incorporated (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and L’Entreprise Créatrice (Hermès-Lavoisier, 2008). She continues to explore them in more recent work on Type 1 diabetes and its management.

Hélène and I share an interest in writing, bodies and practice. She traces the bodily forms that creativity and competency take, often distributed across more than one body and dependent on the capacity of “becoming the other.” Her writing is empirically exuberant and philosophically precise, and I love that her written English hasn’t been stripped of the influence of her native French. My own interest in the writing body and its practices grew out of the sort of personal struggle many academics know all too well. My writing has always been so meaningful and dear to me, and yet, navigating academia’s demands for productivity and my own expectations has also cast a constant shadow of not-enoughness.

Hélène and I met in an “embodied writing” workshop I developed as part of my second career in life coaching and personal development. The pandemic crystallized something about writing, life, and its embodied forms, for both of us, coming at it from different angles. This brought us in regular contact with one another and sparked the idea of doing this interview. We decided to write it as “a cadavre exquis” (meaning one of us wrote a turn and then sent it to the other; the other would pursue the writing where the first one left it – a form of distributed writing to borrow Hélène’s terms). It was then discussed and edited on video calls between Berkeley, California, and Girona, Spain.

Catelijne Coopmans (CC): What’s your writing life been like during the pandemic?

Hélène Mialet (HM): Write. It is the only thing I did when my sabbatical started a few months before the first confinement. I was enjoying a moment where one has the privilege to be paid to stay at home and do research. Lucky I was, though I remember complaining (yes, I dare to say this!) that I felt isolated when everybody was going to work… until the pandemic hit. The confinement’s sentence fell like a guillotine’s blade on our heads; everybody came back home, the outside world moved back into our intimate world, all of us stuck on our screens; for me, it was the same, I was still writing every day, but it was different, because unlike others who have social and work-related demands to fulfill online now! right now!, my work suddenly seemed completely superfluous. It’s hard to feel motivated to produce any kind of intellectual work when everybody is locked up, and the planet is in crisis. What for? But then, is it not what we are supposed to do, intellectuals: think, provide tools to think about what’s happening?

As a philosopher and anthropologist of science, I’m currently writing a book on Type 1 diabetes and its management. I’m especially interested in questions related to the senses, subjectivity, bodies, and human-machine-animal interaction. The link between my topic and problematic, and what we were (and are still) experiencing, struck me. People who have diabetes know what it means not to take their health for granted, not to rely on a stable body, and to live everyday anticipating the worst. They know that their survival relies on a complex collective of health care workers, doctors, statisticians, family, insulin, insurance companies, technology of all kinds, and dogs, that I study today. All of this matters. They can’t survive without collaborating and cooperating with others that also have to collaborate in return, and neither can we. Whoever we are, we need support to survive, whether we have a chronic illness or not, whether we are sick or not.

Confined, reduced to our bodies, unable to move, relying on invisible others doing work for us, permanently connected to machines, my first study of Hawking was also reappearing. We were like Hawking. We were all Hawkings! —or what I called “distributed centered subjects.” The pandemic was reminding us once more of the urgency of understanding that we are not atomistic, lone individuals, but that we are dependent on others on so many levels. And yes, this is also true in the lonely process of doing research and writing. This is where I met you, at a specific juncture in place and time where fleshy interactions and connections through embodiment and movement were cruelly missing. Your workshop on exploring the stop and go of the life of writing through the lens of body movements offered a new space to think.

CC: I was so happy when you signed up for it! When confinement started, I also experienced several weeks of low energy and motivation. It shifted when I started to co-host online sessions of mindful movement and body-based meditation to alleviate pandemic isolation. The sense of community there, and of service, was very real: “I lead this part, you lead that part, we do this for each other.” Nothing fancy either; in mindful movement I’d guide people through things like moving your shoulders up and down while really experiencing the journey. What’s the sensation of moving them up, of being at the top, of moving down, of being down? Those became moments to inhabit ourselves, to regain the sense of being a living, breathing body with lots of movement in it. An antidote to the feeling of being hemmed in that so easily comes with physical confinement, and from the Zoom boxes that seem to fix us on the screen. And then I had this surge of urgency for bringing my writing workshop to people, connecting the movement our bodies want to the wish to keep our writing moving. People would say: “Oh that sounds useful for graduate students.” But then it also attracted really seasoned writers, like you. Because you were once again experimenting!

HM: My new book project on how dogs are trained to recognize hypoglycemic episodes in the case of Type 1 diabetes is heavily based on months of fieldwork where I became entangled in tails wagging, slobber, hair, and minute interactions with another, who doesn’t speak with words, but with every part of his or her own body: a dog. How to talk about or describe this fieldwork ‘accurately’? How to carry the readers into the infinitesimal details of the fabrication of this complex living and loving tool, a Diabetic Alert Dog, who translates, manages and makes visible the contours of a threatening disease? How to translate and make palpable the ephemeral and invisible world of smell, and human and non-human senses? Here I was, experimenting, exploring what I had previously done with human cognition, the body and identity by stretching them to their surroundings. Here I was testing some of the tools I had developed previously for speaking about singularity and distributed agency, extending them to dogs’ cognition and senses. Fundamentally, I want to show how adding the skills of these animals to our world reconfigures the contours and the definition of what being a human means, and how it extends our bodies, or stretches their edges, to those of others. How do bodies of different sorts become one another while keeping their own alterity? This is what I’m currently exploring in this book and through other writing.

CC: You wanted to write about bodily practices; my emphasis in the workshop was on writing itself as a bodily practice. How did you end up linking the two? 

HM: At the beginning I wasn’t sure what to do with the exercises I was doing with you. Moving like “Earth,” “Fire,” “Water” or “Air,” what does this mean? But I realized that the practice was allowing me to transform movements into writing by giving me the possibility to shape my writing material into a story that was following this embodied movement. Moving the body was also allowing images and sensations from my fieldwork to come back, reminding me that bodies, practices, discipline and play were also the daily bread of those I was observing being trained. We all had bodies, yes, intimate connections… We, both humans and dogs, were imitating, reacting, interpreting, and “writing” in our own ways. What is writing then I wonder?

CC: We move and then we write. How are these two connected? I think that making the connection is really a creative act. What you’ve just said is a great example. I don’t know what will happen when I ask people to follow a movement prompt for “Water” or “Earth” and then let what happens in their bodies inform their writing. For you, it brought up images and sensations from fieldwork and gave you a vision for how the story could unfold. I really like that! For me, with a history of often feeling defeated by my writing, it’s almost always about finding new possibilities for bridging the gap between not-writing and writing – that gap that Janelle Taylor also talked about with Anna Harris (in Writing Life No. 3).

Right now, as I am typing these words in conversation with you, I am noticing the “Earthy” bodily state I’m in. My breath is very slow and full. With every exhale, I feel my shoulders and upper arms relax a little more. I am typing, yet the touch is light. I move my gaze from the screen to the view outside: there’s a big tree with leaves that are swaying in the wind. I enjoy feeling like this: my eyes are quite soft, my hands are quite soft. More soft than light. My fingers touch the keyboard softly. When I pause and let them rest there, with my wrists on the desk, my hands feel soft and warm. I feel my feet, my legs, my butt on the seat. I hear my husband talking on the phone with his mom in the other room, but it doesn’t break my concentration. There are certain words that come in this mode, a certain kind of thinking space. This is what I am interested in: both the specific way it feels good to inhabit myself in this way, and the possibilities for writing it gives me.

HM: Do you have any specific expectations when you do this embodied practice? 

CC: When I do or teach, for example, an Earth exercise, it’s different from saying: “I will now do an exercise in order to feel calm.” “Am I calmer already?” “Does that help with my writing?” Such an instruction that tells you the desired result doesn’t invite much curiosity about what’s actually available to you in this experience. It is so prescriptive! I immediately want to rebel. I don’t know if this Earth exercise will make me feel calm. I am not trying to produce a specific effect in myself or you, even as I am using the understanding that Earth, and groundedness, and feeling calm, are related at a metaphorical and somatic level. I want us to risk letting our bodies have an experience of movement and letting that offer something for how we write or how we create the possibility of writing. It’s always you, in the moment, who gets to wake something up in yourself through movement and then bring that to your writing. It’s a way of giving up some head-control. Of remembering we are more than thinking/cognitive beings. Something that you have explored a lot in your work.

HM: Yes, we are bodies, even when our bodies are in distress, disabled, unbalanced or stuck… or especially when they are, at least this is when we notice them the most. It is also in these moments or states that we can see the unseen or what we often take for granted. I think this question of how writing links with bodily practice is really at the core of my book about Hawking, whose capacity to think without being able “to move” and especially “to write” equations, seemed to reinforce the common idea that to think, write, produce abstraction, or any intellectual or theoretical work was the work of the mind, not of the body. Taking Hawking as an extreme case – someone who was celebrated because he represented the incarnation of the Thinker as Rodin and most of our Western tradition imagined him – I showed, using ethnographical tools, that contrary to what we thought, he was more embodied, more materialized, more distributed than anyone else. And yet, because of this, he was, paradoxically, the most singular, and he was able to do shortcuts that others could not do.

CC: Could you give us an example?

HM: He was able to “embody the Universe” through “mental” manipulations of images based on diagrams drawn by his students. Inhabiting other spaces, literally the entire Universe, through and via the writing and drawing hands of others is a talent, of a manager perhaps! that is not given to anyone…

CC: Such a powerful assembly to make thinking and writing “material”!

HM: Thinking, writing, and also creativity. I was, and I am still, exploring questions related to creativity as a concept and as an activity. I think that creativity has either been banalized and erased especially in the world of STS, with a few exceptions; or it has been glorified and mystified especially in the world of philosophy, or continental philosophy of science, to be more precise. The form of creativity I describe is at the same time distributed and singular, fleshy and idiosyncratic. Indeed, what kinds of “manipulation” and what forms of embodiment are at stake in the world of abstraction? With Hawking I insisted on the role of “his extended bodies,” stretching his body to other bodies or bodily practices, that were allowing him to collect information, write and resolve equations, on one side. On the other, I also showed that, because he could not rely on external forms of memory, such as the act of writing or drawing, he was forced to retain and manipulate more information in his head through very specific kinds of mental, pictorial or metaphorical gestures.

I had previously explored some of these ideas with Montel, an applied researcher working for a multinational corporation and how he was identifying himself with the petroleum fluid he was manipulating. Though in his case, he was able to write and manipulate with his hands. In my current book, I follow different forms of embodiment that trainers, dogs and people who have diabetes have to experience to create a dog with very specific skills. These different kinds of transformations, metamorphoses, go hand-in-hand with bodily practices and capacities to absorb and enter into relationships with other modes of being and other ways of experiencing the world. Trading competences is what I follow here.

CC: Can you tell us more about what you mean by trading competences?

HM: In a way, your idea of “acting” like Earth, associating it with a certain rhythm, regularity, slow pace, etc., and translating “this embodiment” into writing, is exactly the kind of translation I’m studying in order to understand how creativity and transformation happen. How are these displacements produced and what forms do they take? How does the way we breathe translate into the rhythm of a text? How does one learn to embody the world of another to transform it in return while being sensitive to their own way of apprehending the world? Maybe, a petroleum fluid, the universe, or a dog? What kinds of negotiations does this entail? What does it mean when someone who has diabetes feels like a “prisoner” of his or her own body? Could the description of what a prisoner in jail feels help them cope? These are the kinds of translations, or trade-offs, I’m exploring in the content of my work and also in my practice of writing.

CC: If I follow your idea here, what competences are you yourself trading, in and through your writing practice?

HM: We are all distributed into the texts we are using, mobilizing the voices and arguments of others. They do part of the work for us, we are entering into conversation with them, their voices make us think and act, which is not the same as being in the presence of one another as we all realized so poignantly during the pandemic. In this regard, I feel that my fieldwork has been transformative, it healed certain personal wounds related to diabetes, but also made the idea that human beings are more than merely human very palpable. I discovered a world that was much larger, much more complicated, much more plural than the one I had imagined. Not only was it populated with living beings other than human beings, that were able to think critically, but also their way of engaging with the world was allowing humans to have access to a reality that was beyond what they could grasp.

How to tell this story? I was overwhelmed, overflowed, overcome, by interviews, recordings, fieldnotes, videos, and drawings. I could feel the dogs’ training in each part of my body, trying to pursue my questions while being engulfed in this fleshy fieldwork, trying to think how to write a compelling story that would talk to, and attract the academic, but also the non-academic, while at the same time letting the story emerge from the material I was dealing with. I wanted to find a way to make content and form meet. On the one hand, fleshing out into writing the rhythm or the concept I was trying to grasp, and on the other, making others feel what I felt, not only by playing with words, but also structures and forms, and write a “performative” text or a “performative” ethnographic study. All of this without losing the details upon which the whole “edifice” or… “sandcastle!” stands. This is, in a nutshell, the story of my writing life and its bodily investments during—and after—the confinement.

Image 2. Catelijne’s home office

Hélène Mialet is a philosopher and anthropologist of science and technology. She has published widely in both popular and academic venues on cognition, subjectivity and scientific practice.  Hélène is currently writing a book on Type 1 diabetes and its management. She is studying hackers, biohackers and diabetics alert dogs now retrained to diagnose Covid 19. She is particularly interested in the implications that human-animal-machine interactions have for our understanding of subjectivity, cognition, and human and Artificial Intelligence. Hélène is presently Associate Professor of STS at York University, Toronto.

Catelijne Coopmans is a part-time Research Fellow at the Department of Thematic Studies, Linköping University, Sweden. Her most recent publications are on fakes as good-to-think-with, and on (self-)care in relation to one’s publication record. She is also engaged with the writing life as a coach and facilitator who works with the body; a video introduction to embodied writing and other resources can be found on her website catelijnecoopmans.com.

About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, many exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative – an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

We continue to openly invite further contributions to the series. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest.

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