S1E4: Christopher Mayes: Transcript

In this episode I speak with Dr Christopher Mayes.

We discuss dance and the biopolitics of lifestyle; food and cultural appropriation; and music, film, death, and grief.

Dr Christopher Mayes is an interdisciplinary scholar with backgrounds in sociology, history and philosophy. His research interests include history and philosophy of healthcare, sociology of health and food and bioethics.

Dr Christopher Mayes, thank you for joining Concept : Art.

Well, thanks a lot for having me. It’s nice to be on this programme.

Can you begin by telling us a little about yourself and how you came to be doing your academic work?

Yeah, I can. I started honours in philosophy and was looking at the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer looking at his hermeneutics. And at the time I was working at a hospital, just doing, well, sort-of, functions coordination.

So that gave me a bit of a window into the hospital and healthcare environment. So that was one influence that then led me into doing a PhD. My supervisor at the time, when I finished my honours thesis sort of directed me more towards, sort of, contemporary political philosophy rather than—I was considering, you know, should I continue on with the hermeneutics and maybe look at Plato? He then said that I probably need to learn Greek to do that. So that was a short conversation.

So, yeah. Then I started a PhD programme starting to look at these questions of, sort of, healthcare, bodies, sort of, shifted theorists; again, based on a new supervisor’s recommendation to start reading [Michel] Foucault.

And that, sort of, then led me into, sort of, looking at biopolitics of health, healthcare, and at that time as well, I moved into a sort of interdisciplinary research institute and taught bioethics and ran a Master’s of bioethics programme.

The other day I was writing this short, reflexive piece. The editor organising that said, “you know, put more of yourself in here”, you know? And then, sort of, suggested that I use phrases such, “as a bioethicist I X Y Z”. And that sense of identification, I still baulk at a little bit.

I think, like a lot of disciplines, you can throw critical on the front of the disciplines so you can be a critical bioethicist.

So if you have to call yourself something, is that what you call yourself: a critical bioethicist? Or is it more a philosopher, or a historian? Or?

I’d say philosopher, or I guess another thing I’d be interested in as an identifier would be something like history and philosophy of medicine or history and philosophy of healthcare.

You talked about a whole bunch of different threads, I guess, in your academic formation. Has art influenced your academic work?

When I was just an undergraduate overhearing a conversation between a professor and one of their PhD students. And they said to them, you’ve probably got just as much chance of being a rock star as you do of getting a job in academia. And so throughout, for me, I was in a band, I think, like a lot of people. So during my PhD, I guess I was trying to sort of roll the dice on being the rock star or get a job in academia.

Unfortunately, I got the one in academia.

But I think music in particular has been very important for me, both as a way of expressing myself and expressing a different part, I guess, of myself than what gets expressed in the context of academic work as well as, I guess, writing sort of more, I guess you know, saying something like lyric poetry sounds a bit, sort of, grandiose, but those sorts of expressions have been, for myself, important.

But then also I think art as— Engaging with art, thinking through art, thinking about the way, you know, works of art can convey both moods as well as ideas and concepts, and then also just, I guess, thinking about visuals and aesthetics has also been important for me, particularly in relation to healthcare, and I think a lot of concepts of health are very much bound up with aesthetics and concepts of beauty.

And, and what sort of music do you like? What sort of what aligns with that lyric, sort of, poetry stuff?

I like a lot of different music. You know, I think particularly when I was, you know, particularly, a serious young man kind of music like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, that sort of cheery stuff.

You know, they— Obviously I do think that they write, you know, quite profound and moving lyrics. I think there is also— I’m self-aware enough to know they sort of perform a particular type of masculinity and there’s some awkwardness about that at times.

But, yeah, in addition to that I think just kind of broaden out from that sort of base to, yeah, a whole range of different forms of musical and lyrical expression.

So you know, I guess a more current or contemporary figure I really like and find very moving ANOHNI – A N O H N I – and their music, I think is particularly profound in capturing, you know, their album HOPELESSNESS – I think, another cheery album – but in sort of thinking about, you know the Anthropocene and climate crisis and those sorts of things.

So I tend to like music that, I guess, has some kind of social-political depth to it.

But, you know, I also have a six-year old daughter and have been enjoying sort of more just fun music as well. I can be a fun guy.

No doubt, no doubt about that!

In your first two books, The Biopolitics of Lifestyle and Unsettling Food Politics, you analyse how lifestyle and especially foods and attitudes to eating have been brought into the discourses of health.

In those books you show how individual choices are expected to conform to the way these things are framed by health experts.

The first book has quite a striking cover. It’s a photo of the dancer Michael Cutrupi performing in a production called “Nothing to Lose” by the company Force Majeure. Could you say something about this dance production and how this photo came to be on the front of your book?

Yeah. So, I’m glad, you know, to be able to talk about this just because it was unfortunate timing in the way I was finishing writing the book. Then at the Sydney Festival at the time I went and saw this dance production, the “Nothing to Lose” dance production, and it was, yeah, extremely powerful and interesting the way that a troupe of fat dancers who would be sort of playfully and provocatively pushing against body norms, gender norms as well, about what’s expected of you know, fat people, really, to be ashamed of their bodies, to adopt medical language around their bodies – so to be obese – and the way that those bodies should be hidden. And so, this this production really, sort of, confronted a lot of those norms, both explicitly.

Like, there was one particular part of the performance where, you know, skimpily clad fat people would sort of be walking towards and then into the audience and they would have microphones and be voicing these sort of very common phrases that are directed to people whose bodies don’t conform with ideals of health, such as, you know, “have you tried dieting?”, “such a pretty face”, you know, “are you sure you need that?” and those sorts of tropes and phrases that are often used to sort of police the behaviours and bodies of people.

So I saw that as I was sort of like, yeah, just unfortunately, doing the copy edits and the editors were not keen to have a sort of introduction of a new preface or chapter. So I spoke with or emailed Tony Burrows who was the photographer.

In the promotions there were a lot of these different images used, and this quite striking one of Michael Cutrupi and yeah, spoke to him and, you know, told him about the nature of book and then he was said, look, contact Michael and if Michael’s happy with it then you can use that. And so, yeah, told Michael about the nature of the book and how that image I think in particular really sort of captures sort of what I was hoping to do.

So this sort of almost like this sort of Christ-like dance pose of this Michael dancing. And then I think, you know, I was thinking about what they were doing in this production and it reminded me of what Chantal Mouffe had to say about public art and the role of public art, quote from her saying, you know, public art “brings to the fore the existence of alternatives to the current post political order… [and] making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate”. And so I see that, you know, these sort of proud and unashamed fat bodies dancing really sort of shows and makes visible what the dominant consensus tries to obscure and obliterate.

So unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get that into the book, but hopefully in some ways the reflected that and I did write a short blog post about it.

What you’ve given us there, just art being able to, through subversion or even through an emphasis that we don’t usually have on how the world is structured, is able to bring our attention to those things. I think that’s really that’s really quite powerful and that’s a, it’s a really powerful image, I think, on that that book as well.

You’ve written and commented on the on the so called Headless Fatty media trope. Could you tell us about what this trope is and how it’s used?

Headless Fatties, everyone would have seen one, on news reports or in the newspapers. There’ll be some story about, you know, the obesity crisis, and they’ll show somebody either walking through a shopping mall – but usually the favourite, I think, is sitting on a park bench, probably eating some fast food – but you’ll only— you won’t see the person’s head.

Journalists and photographers have said, well, you know, “we’re protecting their identity” and the implication being like, “who would want to have their disgusting body be shown and identified?” I mean, they’re always shot in such unflattering ways anyway. And sometimes you wonder whether they’ve actually got this person’s consent or have they sort of taken a picture of some random person in the mall and cut out their head.

So there’s that sort of common thing. And so people have challenged this, myself and Jenny Kaldor, we wrote about this a few years ago and, and the way that these justifications of attempting to be ethical by not showing the head are actually stigmatising images.

These are images that sort of dehumanise because they’re sort of taking away the humanity of the person and they’re portraying a particular feature of them – you know, their fat body in this case – and they are taking away their agency because they aren’t, you know, posing for a picture, but something’s taken from them in that picture that, that image.

I think one of the overarching things is when it comes into healthcare as well, is the aesthetics around, umm— You know, people like Samantha Murray, for instance, have researched the way healthcare providers. They look at fat bodies and already assume that your, any kind of ailment you have is reducible to your body and that your body is the result of you making poor choices around diet and exercise.

So the patient may be presenting because they’ve got, you know, cancer. But the doctor will send them away with encouragement to eat better and do a bit more exercise, so I think that the dangerous aspect of this is the way that it plays into sort of healthcare.


Your second book Unsettling Food Politics has the subtitle, “Agriculture, dispossession and sovereignty in Australia”. In that book you refer to the artist Richard Bell’s 2002 manifesto called “Bell’s Theorem” and its accompanying artwork, “Scientia e Metaphysica / Bell’s Theorem”, and it’s got an alternative title as well: “Aboriginal art. It’s a white thing.” So Bell’s Theorem calls out particular exploitative practices relating to Aboriginal art. But it’s also critical of the appropriation of Aboriginal art and imagery to colonial categorisations.

I wonder if you could just tell us how you use Bell’s Theorem in that book, that second book of yours on unsettling food politics, and if you want to reflect on appropriation generally.

The straightforward answer to how I use Bell’s Theorem in that book was really just pointing out parallel between the art world and Aboriginal art, as well as what’s happening in Indigenous food and the ownership and who controls that and—

So you know, Richard Bell points out the way that Aboriginal art – particularly at that time – you know, he was pointing to the way that there’s a lot of exploitation that the actual Aboriginal artists and communities that are producing those artworks are not recognised either financially or just in the recognition of the work that they do.

Just on that fundamental level of there’s a parallel in a lot of the Indigenous food and bush, things labelled as Bush Tucker actually owned and operated by settlers and non-Indigenous people and there’s not a uniform— I know people are looking at developing some kind of uniform label or uniform way of working out, you know, where these foods come from.

But also I think, and this is what I mean by the other dimension of recognition, you know, Bell’s Theorem and Richard Bell’s criticism as well is the way that a lot of Indigenous art, both in Australia and elsewhere, you know, is seen as, you know, folk art. There’s no genius of these movements. Whereas when Picasso paints the masks that different tribal groups produce he’s recognised as a genius, whereas the people who actually produced the initial mask that he paints, and so likewise.

I think in, say, around Aboriginal culture, Aboriginal food ways, that there’s not sort of a recognition— these are these are things that can be just repurposed and appropriated, to use that term, as people see fit without any need to acknowledge the communities and the cultures that have developed and produced these things.

So that’s sort of, I guess, the straightforward way in which I was sort of drawing out a, a parallel between the art world and food and cuisine.

The other aspect with Richard Bell’s work and I would highly recommend – I think on SBS On Demand now there is the recent documentary about him “You Can Leave Now” – but I think for me and in the food area something I think is really interesting with people like Richard Bell but also like the novels of Alexis Wright and Claire Coleman. This idea of speculative Indigenous futures and the aesthetics around that which relates to Afrofuturism as well, as another kind of movement within sort of black politics, particularly in the US. And I think there’s opportunities and interesting ways in which Indigenous artwork speculates in this sort of way about the future, both in terms of living through the dystopia of colonisation and the continuation of that.

But also the way that they’re sort of freed from a particular history to imagine futures in in a different kind of way. So yeah, I think that in the area of food, there is— and particularly agricultural practice a lot of people, say, in white settler regenerative agricultural communities develop a food ethic that’s sort of nostalgically looking back to a romantic past of the family farm.

Whereas I think for a lot of indigenous people the family farm was a place of violence and dispossession, and that being freed from that burden of trying to resurrect some romantic past, there can be an embracing of sort of more speculative thoughts about the future, I guess, and engagement with different technologies without burden of romanticism.

I can’t help when you’re talking about sort of genius and folklore and the, I guess the stripping of Indigenous cultures for parts, really, I can’t help but think about some of the attitudes that many people have towards traditional medicine and that traditional medicine isn’t really medicine at all – it might be traditional practice or, you know, some sort of cultural practice – but it’s only when it’s analysed and refined and the bits that have been proven according to, you know, Western epistemology to work are extracted and isolated from that practice, that it becomes “medicine”. So I find that really that is interesting just in the context of health: that you kind of, you disregard all the actual, you know, the knowledge and the practice that surrounds that knowledge and just isolate it in a very Western way, the same way that Richard Bell is criticising there about that kind of Western need for categorisation.

Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I think that there’s clear parallels. And overlapping, really, in the same sort of logics and approaches to these, whether it’s healing, whether it’s food and also the way that we separate out these different practices. You know, even if we’re talking about ancient Greek philosophy, the sort of lines between philosophy, theology, medicine are not as demarcated as they are created to be through the dominance of, you know, Western and Enlightenment epistemology.

You’ve done a lot of work on the history of medicine, medical ethics, and bioethics. One doesn’t have to go very far back into depictions of history or the Enlightenment or of medicine to encounter the genre of art known as memento mori, a visual reminder of the inevitability of death. So sometimes it’s a skull, or there’s some wilting flowers or something like that.

Have you thought about these kinds of memento mori depictions? Have they informed you?

They have in different ways. So, you know I mentioned, I guess, gave a brief sketch of my sort of academic path and what led me there. There was one time early on in when I was sort of formulating what would I do a PhD on where I was thinking of doing something around the philosophy of death but that never kind of eventuated explicitly.

But I think underlying sort of my interest in you know what was to become, I guess the focus on lifestyle and the biopolitics of lifestyle, the way that we are encouraged to shape our lives in particular ways around sort of health-related choices.

I think underlying that is what you know in some ways is a way to stave off death, as a way to: what are the things that I can be doing in my life to avoid an early death. Which in some ways is similar— Some of those practices similar to ancient practices, but in many respects very different in the underlying purpose of them.

So the ancient practices of memento mori to remember that you will die were about a meditation and preparation for the inevitability of death, whereas a lot of the lifestyle and wellness literature is kind of a denial of death in many respects in a way that we can modify and shape our lives in particular ways to avoid that. So that’s sort of one way that has come about and played in my work.

But for me as well, I think as a practice to remind myself of my death and not just to sort of theoretically think about how these things play out. But you know, I too am a human and a mortal and to think about how that attitude perhaps shapes the way that I work, what I work on, whether I choose to get riled up about certain things or not.

So those sorts of practices play out, I think, in my own life too.

And you don’t see a lot of memento mori around. Do you think that is a reflection of, you know, these approaches to lifestyle and to health that we might have adopted in the last few generations?

Maybe. I mean, it’s certainly, you know, there are strong religious connotations with some of it as well, which could contribute to part of it being out of vogue. There’s also, you know, some could say that it’s sort of a defeatist or fatalistic view when applied to, you know some areas – we were talking about AHNONI before and their album HOPELESSNESS and thinking about sort of the climate crisis and those sort of big political struggles. I think death is present in those art forms and reflection on that, but I guess also in a way, in a very different, less existential and more trying to motivate us, which I think is a very different kind of prevention of death, to the modifying one’s lifestyle to ensure longevity as possible.

I think in healthcare you know there is this, on the radical side of it, radical life extension stuff, which is an explicit attempt to sort of use biomedical technologies and those sorts of practices to try to reverse ageing and those sorts of things. So that’s an extreme form of it.

But I do think medicine in general does have a problem with limits and acknowledging those. You know, there are those ongoing jokes about oncologists wanting to put one last round of chemo into the corpse, you know, just to sort of know that they’ve done everything. So, yeah, I think memento mori is a personal practise that one should consider, but also I think as a way of looking at medicine and particularly sort of heroic medicine, I think has lessons for us.

So the concept of— So you were talking about memento mori maybe not appearing so much in in, in visual art, but still being present in other art forms such as music and the concept album “Hospice” by the band The Antlers roughly follows the relationship between a hospice worker and a terminally ill patient. And I think you can also interpret that album in different ways, around abusive relationships and things like that.

The album touches on many of the things that we’ve already discussed, so the inevitability of death, the tension between hope and reckoning with the reality in medicine. But I was wondering if you might be able to tell us about the track Wake (Letting people in) and whether that’s, sort of, whether that’s had an influence on you on you or whether that kind of exemplifies some of this music that you’ve spoken about a few times.

Yeah, I mean, I find this album to be one that, you know, it was of a particular time, came out in 2009, that was sort of, yeah, just when I was in the midst of my PhD.

And you know, as a concept album, it’s, you know, beautiful album, Very, very moving. It’s also one that, yeah, it’s not as – from your description people probably realise it’s not one that you sort of, if you’re in a good mood, you wanna throw on and, you know, kick back and have a laugh – But it is, yeah, quite, I guess, sombre.

And for me, I think it’s kind of like medical humanities, really. A medical humanities kind of album in the way that it talks about the in sort of sometimes explicit, but other times sort of, I guess, opaque ways about these relationships, and Peter Silberman, the songwriter, has not spoken a lot about, you know, the actual details of this; he has confirmed that part of it is autobiographical.

But yeah, the song Wake in particular, it’s really, I think it’s about a seven minute song. It’s from the last five minutes is really where I think it is, is what interests me. It’s not necessarily even my favourite song on the album, but the final sort of verse before, or the penultimate verse, sort of ends with this line: “Some patients can’t be saved / That burden’s not on you”, which I think is quite a profound and poignant saying before launching into, I guess, a coda to the song, which is just the repeated line getting more and more moving as, as it goes: “Don’t ever let anybody tell you you deserve that.”

And I think for me, that line captures a lot. It is kind of a powerful response to a lot of the dominant discourses about health medicine, dying, what have you. I think it’s it applies in a lot of ways, but at just this very I think powerful repetition of that, “don’t ever let anybody tell you you deserve that”.

And particularly I think in relation to a range of illnesses. You know, research shows this sort of internalising guilt and blame and self blame. And that you know, for whether it’s with, we were talking about obesity, depression, cancers, what-have-you people do sort of have that sense that they’ve done something to deserve this. And I think for me, that lyric and that song in particular is a sort of, I guess, a refreshing, powerful response.

This is towards the end of the, the album the song before, before Wake is Shiva, which is, sort of, a practice of being by the bedside as, as the person passes away. And I wonder if there are any resonances for you with this album with this song and the idea of grief?

I mean on the one level the whole album I think is about grief. And I think Peter Silberman sort of working through his own grief with whatever the album is describing, and certainly in this track, I think and the one before and sort of this part of the album is a process, I guess thinking about, you know, this idea of a good death, what is a good death?

And how that is intersubjective. It’s not, you know, I think for some that’s the – say, voluntary euthanasia discourse. You know, “it’s my decision”. The individual’s decision. And we don’t need to get into all of that politics. But I think this and what other people talk about the intersubjectivity of death – that, you know, your death is tied up with my continuing to live and all of that sort of stuff.

So I think this is part of that process, you know. I think in terms of the philosophy of grief, that is something that I’ve been thinking about. You know, so, Michael Cholbi, a philosopher, has written a book on Grief: A Philosophical Guide, I think.

Part of that’s great from what I’ve– I haven’t read all of it, but I have also listened to him being interviewed. In that interview, I think something that disappointed me was the classic philosophical move of removing oneself from, you know, I think he was asked, you know, what’s his interest in this? And he was like, it wasn’t because I was grieving or going through anything it was sort of more a, I guess, a philosophical exercise and you know they had worked on philosophy of death and felt that this was an area that there hadn’t been a lot of discussion of recently. So they wrote a book about it.

A point, I remember clearly them saying that it wasn’t because they were grieving or anything like that. And so I think for me, yeah, I mean I’ve, I think revisited this album a lot since Courtney [Hempton]’s death, friend of ours, and her passing.

She didn’t like those words, like “passing”. But you know her death, I guess, has motivated me to think more about this with the tools that I have, philosophical and historical tools are the ways that I think about things.

Yeah. So, I think that this album in particular provides a really sort of rich window into that intersubjective nature of grief and grieving and dying.

Thanks, Chris. So, the last artwork that I want to talk about is Tree of Life, which I think itself is an epic film and we could, we could chase it down a whole bunch of different rabbit holes.

Well, I think the Tree of Life thinks about the kind of the problem of evil and the problem of suffering in the world, but it does so through individual lives and the grief that the characters feel there. So it tries to deal with some of those, you know, maybe cosmic sort of themes in a way that maybe Cholbi doesn’t try to do, brings it back down to that individual level. So I think that’s really interesting. And if you want to talk about grief in the context of that.

Yeah, well, I mean, I think and this is a sort of not entirely intentional sort of the linking of these three, I guess, artworks, the memento mori, Hospice and the Tree of Life, but I think a theme that goes through them all is that inevitability, or that death is here for all of us.

That film starts with, you know, a quote from [the Book of] Job, this challenge from God like to sort of remind Job of their place in the sort of cosmic order that they don’t know the answers. They don’t know the, the way the universe was set up. With Tree of Life, there is this sort of both sort of cosmic level of, you know, if you haven’t seen the film there is this sort of whole creation scene in it that sort of oscillates between the extremely personal moment of the mother character being delivered a telegram informing her of her son’s death, and then her grief in the context of receiving that telegram and, and, and the, the film sort of traces working through their grief.

And I think part of that sort of linking again, sort of like with Wake in Hospice, “don’t let anybody ever tell you you deserve that”, this sense that or this drive that we have to find a reason for why bad things happen. You know this theodicy; this either God is in control or I’m in control or someone’s in control.

And that’s, you know, this tension in in Tree of Life is between the way of nature or the way of grace and his sort of mother represents the figure of grace who very strongly rejects this idea that – she’s in some ways, I guess, a Job kind of figure – but strongly rejects this idea that. you know, her son, there’s some reason for her son’s death, but also that, you know, she’ll overcome her grief at some stage.

So she sort of has these friends who try to console her with these platitudes.

And then the father figure, who is this very sort of authoritarian, you know, pushes the neighbours away to say that we’re okay, we’re okay, you know, and he sort of, I think, tries to deal with his grief in a, you know, suppressing it and controlling it and moving on with life.

And I think the film, sort of, does many things, but one of the things I think it sort of shows is how to move forward with one’s life in the context of those kinds of tragedies.

So what are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a book manuscript that is going to be this history of bioethics in Australia. The nub I guess is looking at the transformation of moral authority in Australia, so sort of tell this story of how there’s been this sort of contestation over moral authority, particularly in relation to medicine and healthcare.

Listeners can find links to Dr Mayes work and some of the art we’ve discussed today in the show notes and on the Concept : Art website.

Dr Christopher Mayes, thank you for joining Concept : Art.

Thank you very much. It’s been good fun.

Concept : Art is produced on muwinina Country, lutruwita Tasmania. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.


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