This is an important contribution that analyzes, critiques, and aims to correct structural inequalities (racism, sexism, capitalism) that influence contemporary medicine, with particular attention to the technical influences of computers, “big data,” and underlying values of neoliberalism, such as individualism, exceptionalism, capacity, and progress through innovation.  

Introduction: Theorizing Communicative Biocapitalism
Banner writes, “biocapitalism is comprised by the new economies and industries that generate value out of parts of human bodies” (p. 12). Parts include DNA, ova, and organs, but there’s also data from medical care, where patients are reduced to their physical bodies and/or to their “digital status” in medical records, research, even personal information volunteered on the Web, all which is indicated by the term “communicative.” As an example, Banner cites the large realm of patient on-line groups that are exploited by large companies as free labor, thus reducing the voice of the patients. Approaches of narrative medicine and medical humanities have not dealt with digital health, market forces, and the implied power relationships. Perhaps the new subfield of health humanities has promise to do so, if not also captive to “the logic of the market” (p. 17).   

Ch. 1. Structural Racism and Practices of Reading in the Medical Humanities
Banner writes, “Medical racism is a product of structural and institutional racism” (p. 25). She finds that current approaches from interpretive reading are insufficient because “the field’s whiteness has contoured its hermeneutics” (p. 25). Instead of the “reading-for-empathy” model, we should read for structures of racism, sexism, privilege, as well as economic and political inequality. She illustrates such reading with texts by Junot Dìaz, Audre Lourde, and Anatole Broyard.  

Ch. 2. The Voice of the Patient in Communicative Biocapitalism
 Patients have flocked to networking websites, voluntarily posting much personal information. Banner analyzes how technocapitalists mine these sites for data to use or sell. Patients’ information, given voluntarily, amounts to free labor and, even, work-arounds for companies that avoid expensive double-blind controlled studies. Rhetoric for these sites speak misleadingly of the “patient voice,” “stakeholder,” or “story sharing” and hide the exploitation involved. The chapter is specific for websites, drugs, and drug companies.  
Banner discusses (1) the “feminized labor” involved with sites for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (both “contested diagnoses”) and (2), more abstractly, the medicalization of the clinical gaze on patients who participate in websites and yearn for “an imagined state of purity,” and/or “an ableist vision of norms and reparative medicine” (p. 61). Overall, the digitalized-patient voice is colonized by forces of whiteness and should be decolonized. She discusses writing by Octavia Butler and Linda Hogan, both women of color.

Ch. 3. Capacity and the Productive Subject of Digital Health
This fascinating chapter describes and critiques “digital self-tracking,” or the use of devices such as Fit-Bits that help create and maintain the so-called “Quantified Self” (or “QS”). Banner finds this fad within the tradition of the Enlightenment (Ben Franklin) so that “exact science” may “optimize” individuals by being “responsibilitized” in a “self-sovereign” way. QS users understand that “Everything is data” (p. 83). She argues that this trend emphasizes “masculine objectivity” while “disavowing debility” (p. 85). Collected data may contribute to a “worried well” status or conditions of “precarity” or “misfitting.” She writes, “QS practice remains an inscription of the self as a self-surveillor, engaged in masculinized practices of neoliberal self-management” (p. 91). She discusses the technologies of the devices Scanadu, Melon, and Scarab. She provides and interprets photos of visual arts representations by Laurie Frick, who is a “self-tracker.”  

Ch. 4. Algorithms, the Attention Economy, and the Breast Cancer Narrative
Banner discusses Google Analytics, later Alphabet, which includes Calico and Verily, which have partnered with pharmaceutical companies. Such combinations of algorithms, capitalism, and media aim to capture the public’s attention, especially online. Messaging about breast cancer becomes reductive, emphasizing medical solutions, not prevention, and it avoids discussion of causes such as environmental pollution. Some critics decry “pinkification” of breast cancer. Public stories, such as Angelina Jolie’s, emphasize individual empowerment, a “hegemonic construction of illness”’ (p. 112), and these are amplified by mass media, both print and electronic. More diverse messages would value “heterophily over homophily” (p.121).   

Ch. 5.  Against the Empathy Hypothesis
Drawing on several commentators, Banner critiques the notion of empathy as a goal for caregivers as condescending to the patient and suspect when allied with productivity and efficiency for institutions. Further, the notion of “resilience” (in a “bleed” of neoliberal rhetoric into health humanities) has been misused in applied literature, parallel to notions of self-help and self-management. Some hermeneutics still support values of “state and capitalism” and ignore writers of color. Banner discusses the work of African-American poet Claudia Rankine, some of whose work is “postlyric,” and J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” that illustrates “necropolitics.”  

Throughout the book Banner illustrates reading “for structure” in her interpretation of texts and visual images but also in medical institutions and practices and, still further, in the enormous and pervasive world of government forms and programs, big data, computers, and beyond. She finds structures of capitalism, sexism, and neoliberalism within existing “heteropatriarchal, ableist, and racist frameworks” (p. 154) despite claims of neutrality. She urges medicine and the humanities to develop new methods. She mentions specific collectives and communities that now challenge such norms (such as Gynepunk and CureTogether), and she calls for thinkers in many disciplines to confront demeaning technology and to “engender spaces in which care is more just, and more humane” (p. 156).      


This is an intelligence and helpful contribution; it is welcome as the subfield of medical humanities, it appears, is evolving to become health humanities, with a wider range of concepts, uses of the arts, and applications not only to medicine but to health promotion in many forms. Banner offers probing evaluations with sharp focus and extensive research. This book is deep, important, and challenging. It should be widely read and discussed.  

Four very useful aspects.

Concepts of digital health and communicative biocapitalism Banner clearly presents concepts from the online electronic world of computers, free labor, and captured data and the economic world that profits from biology, medicine, and other health-related materials, behaviors, and concepts. Much of this information was new to me and probably to others in the lit. and med, world and beyond.  She makes clear issues of privacy, justice, and exploitation.

The patient’s voice vs. economic exploitation Banner provides a powerful critique of the exploitation of free labor on websites and the many reductive ways (including rhetoric) that stifle, ignore, or colonize the true voice of patients (and others). The impulses for market share, market control, and increased profits combine with the power of computer to control communications, public attention, and do little for disease prevention and health promotion.

Synthetic use of many disciplines The book uses many disciplines to illuminate the complex problems of evolving technology, economic exploitation, social inequities, and esthetics. They include disability, gender, feminist, queer, cultural, and media studies, also science and technology studies (STS), as well as philosophy (Foucault) and literature. The large range of concepts and information comes with thorough documentation.

Demonstration of reading for structure, and reading for structure
Focusing the abstraction of many concepts and dynamics, each chapter provides specific readings for structure: works of literature, an art work, even diseases, thereby illustrating issues of racism, sexism, elitism, or other repressive ideologies that lie below the surface.  

A few terms, concepts, and arguments are problematic. There is a very wide range of terminology, some of which are explained in the text and some not. Some become clear in context; some have new meanings, and some could be replaced with ordinary usage. Examples include: imbricated, interpellated, coaxed affordances, ableism, agential, heteronormativity, heteropatriarchy, elide, whiteness (used pejoratively), granularity, and precarity,  Whatever their advantages for representing new meanings may be, they will be obstacles for general readers and perhaps others.

Although not in the Index, there are half a dozen references to “white” or “whiteness” that equate to elitism, wealth, and privilege; while such is often the case, this usage ignores difficulties in white cultures, including stress, addiction, and, in some cases, poverty and lack of resources for education, jobs, or healthcare. (See Hillbilly Elegy.) Further, capitalism, neoliberalist or not, is now dominant elsewhere, including non-white Asian and Near Eastern nations. Banner writes, “the now-canonized scholarship in medical humanities and narrative medicine has prioritized authors of the race category [white] whose privilege insulates them from questions about how race informs illness, health, and/or the patient-doctor relationship. The narratives upon which they elaborate their arguments… are authored out of social locations little troubled by the realities of racism” (p. 30). I find these broad-brush characterizations reductive and harsh for several reasons but especially because hospitals, cities, and many other places have all-too-ample instances of racism and other forms of injustice.            


The wide range of Banner’s careful scholarship is evident in the 22 pages of notes, many containing further interesting discussion.

The 33 pages of Works Cited detail print sources and the websites consulted.            
In tune with a health humanities aim of involving more of the arts, the book's cover image shows an attractive microscopic view of astrocytes (brain cells) that are color enhanced.


University of Michigan Press

Place Published

Ann Arbor



Page Count