Efficiencyism vs Narrative – a conversation with June Boyce Tillman

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On October 26 I interviewed June Boyce Tillman who works as professor of Applied Music at the University of Winchester and is extra-ordinary Professor at North West University South Africa. She is an amazing person with a true passion for music, spirituality, education, and healing, cultivated with academic studies and human compassion.

I knew that but I had never had the chance to speak with her face to face. The topic of the interview was efficiencyism, which I defined as the tendency to achieve high performance at any cost, even to the detriment of health. I sent her the questions in advance as I always do, but, as soon as we started talking, it was clear to me that I would have never been able to conduct the interview as I normally would, let alone transcribe as just question and answer.

So, what follows is the account of a conversation which begun on totem and taboos and explored many urgent issues of today western world as well as family stories, and education.

medicine, arts and the crystallisation method

I started asking her my first question which was what taboos and totems are for her. She answered that every discipline has things that are acceptable and things that are not. Those totem and taboos are what makes disciplines distinct from one another. She made the example of medicine and music, one traditionally founded on a quantitative approach and the other on a qualitative one. Narrative medicine, she told me, may be the way to bridge two reals, to grasp a different side of the truth, that evidence based medicine attempts to grasps with numbers.

She introduced me to the crystallisation method: truth is a crystal, which you can look at through a variety of facets, you can look at it through numbers, you can look at it through a story, you can look at it through a poem, you can look at it through a piece of music, and only when you look through all the facets you will get at the totality of the truth. She praised Maria Giulia Marini’s work and the EUNAMES commitment to a multifaced narrative approach to medicine. June then mentioned that her students, following her method write theses that are part traditional academic writing and part songs or stories.

beyond the enlightenment, eurocentrism, and anthropocentrism

This made me thing of my experience with the eco movement in literary criticism. Many are the essays that push the standard way of writing in academia with new forms, like memoirs and pictures. She agreed with me and told me how she had worked very hard in England to get performance or practice as a form of research. Her idea is that writing a song is as valid a way of expressing a truth as writing an academic paper.

June then explained that she believes that our idea of truth, one and only, solid and mathematical is still the Enlightenment (she actually called it Endarkenment) heritage. She told me she has been working on the idea that not only humans have truth, but also trees and animals, and they all have a different one. This really resounds with my studies in ecocriticism. She concluded with a Native American saying: 

‘Do trees talk? Of course they do. It is just that white people can’t hear them’.

This was the bridge to a broader discussion on anthropocentrism and eurocentrism in our western medicine and health. She spoke of shaman traditions and their view of healing that includes the use of the drum, the rattle, praying, dancing, and being aware of the environment and the weather. She smiled and said she is preparing a book on Neo-shamanism and European psychotherapy, before mentioning her fascination for Hildegard of Bingen, a Mystic in Germany, lived 1098 to 1179, who worked within the mediaeval system of health, which was called the doctrine of humours. June briefly explained what it was to argue in favour of a tailor-made approach to healing, mentioning the fact that in England is now possible for doctors to prescribe social activities such as year of community choir, six months at the gym, going fishing or joining a sewing group.

health is a process, health takes time

I then asked her how health as a biological, social, psychological, and spiritual/existential issue related to efficiencyism, meaning with it the tendency to achieve high performance at any cost, so an approach to things that it is more result or product oriented. This led us to discuss of the difference between healing as practice focused on the result and healing that cares for the process. The first, she said, is the philosophy of the pharmaceutical industry that built much of its empire on the idea that a drug is the solution because makes things immediately better. June argued that this might be true, but in doing so the problem is not actually solved, you just have an immediate result.

She believes that health is the constant rebalancing of life, you are never absolutely healthy nor absolutely ill. Thus, health is a process, but every process takes time. And here we were talking of time and its relation to health. If health is not just black and white, but a spectrum or a process, then an immediate solution is not actually a solution. A body needs time to adjust to any new condition, either of health or of illness.

The discourse then took us to discuss of the indifference of western culture to processes, over the result, the product. We exemplified it in the clothes industry:exemplify it in the clothes industry: if a piece of garment makes you feel terrific, then it is considered a good product, regardless of the ethically unethical process used to make it..

factualised narratives and the Foucauldian society

I then pointed out that even these ideas is the result of a narrative. To enter culture such idea needs to be told many times as a fact. It is only by the factualization of narratives that we get this culturally embedded ideas.This is easily proven by looking at other cultures which cherish different values and ideas.

It was here that June confessed me that she is Foucauldian in her way of seeing society. Any society has a dominant set of values which are regarded as the best set of values, and any other ways of knowing is subjugated. In our society individualism, challenge, product, and excitement are dominant values. Nurture, rather than challenge; community, rather than individualism; process, rather than product; relaxation, rather than excitement, those values are subjugated and not valued. She made the example of work and nurturing. Why are we fitting, bearing children around work? Why don’t we see bearing children and caring for them and bringing them up as central?And then we could fit work around that. I didn’t know what to answer.

We summed up these points in the attitude of Europe of just going to get what it needed regardless of the consequences on others.

History: witnessing, memory, trauma and teaching

This last exchange merged into a debate on how history should be taught in school. How not to present only the version of the winners? Is really history all about war? We discuss museums set-ups and names: : she told me she visited a war museum that was converted in a peace museum: not guns, but letters from soldiers to their loved ones. We discussed how England should deal with its colonial past and Italy with its fascist one. I pointed out that my generation (I’m 24) is the last one to have the chance to speak with direct witness of the Second World War. 

Thus, the conversation moved to witnessing and memory. She told me the moving story of her late husband’s father who went to fight in Italy, was wounded and taken as a prisoner to Germany, but managed to go back to England after the war. He took out all the trauma on his family first, but then worked through it by going back to Italy on holiday. She told me this story as a proof of the fact that many people don’t remember the heroism of war but the sadness of its consequences, especially women.

I then shared my grandmother’s story and how I only had a grasp of her experience when she made me read a novel about her birth place during the conflict and here and there on the book’s pages with her nervous writing there were notes saying “I experienced this”.

conclusion: escape the box!

It was almost one hour that we were talking but seemed minutes and years at the same time. We then tried to wrap up the conversation which was turning in feminist debate about women in positions of power who embraced Men’s value systems (Margaret Thatcher above all, for June: a better man than a men). We ended on what was the core of all these issues: the necessity to work our way out of the box we are put in. Away from efficiencyism, away from simplistic dichotomy, towards narrative, towards taking the time, towards process over result.

Enrica Leydi

Born in Milan, she obtained a three-year degree in Modern Literature at the Alma Mater Studiorum - University of Bologna. She is currently completing her Master's degree in Italian Studies at the same university in Emilia. She has been collaborating with ISTUD since April 2021 as coordinator of the journal "Cronache di Sanità e Medicina Narrativa".

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