The UTMB Health Institute for the Medical Humanities is pleased to welcome Eric Weissman, MA, PhD as a Visiting Scholar. Dr. Weissman will be in residence from February 1, 2014 through September 30, 2014.
Dr. Weissman is a filmmaker, writer, artist and educator. He earned a Master of Arts in Sociology at the University of Toronto in 1986. Between 1987 and 2009, Dr. Weissman was successful as an artist and scenic painter, working on feature films, museum installations and various private and public commissions. At the same time, he worked as a researcher for Exile, a literary quarterly in Ontario Canada and as a documentary filmmaker amongst homeless groups in Toronto. The theme of his documentary work is that housing and housing policy cannot be thought of as separate from ethical issues inherent to systems of healthcare. In fact, housing is requisite for healthcare, and, homelessness is, therefore, a concern for academic and practical inquiries into community health.
Dr. Weissman's film series, Subtext – real stories follows the rise and fall of Toronto’s illegal and infamous shantytown, Tent City between 2000-2002, and then follows a group of ex-residents as they navigated transitions into mainstream housing. He was awarded the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) Filmmaker Assistance Program Grant, and the Ontario Arts Council, Emerging Video Artist Grant in 2004. Subtext was featured at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) as the video component for an exhibition on street art and poverty called Housepaint Phase II, which ran between 2008-2009. This work continues, 13 years later and became the basis for his recent dissertation research.
In 2013 Dr. Weissman earned a Doctorate in The Special Individualized Programs at Concordia University in Montreal. His dissertation, Spaces, Places and States of Mind: a pragmatic ethnography of liminal critique explores intentional homeless communities by focusing on Dignity Village, Oregon, the first city contracted emergency homeless community in US history where he did participant observation in 2010 and 2011. His dissertation incorporates debates about the use of public space on the basis of perceptions of “worth,” exploring how massive displacements of citizens from economic roles create more tolerant moral and political discourses on spatial occupations by poor people. It also addresses the question of what it means to be an activist citizen within the context of constitutional democracies. He problematizes what freedom means when winning the right to self-govern in unhealthy and poverty-stricken tent camps and shantytowns is seen as an expression of constitutional rights. At a theoretical level, he addresses the classic post-structural conundrum of how to reinvest critique with the power to influence social change. In his research, the liminal aspects of classic critical positions provide a positive opening to transformative thinking. Finally, the dissertation asks public ethnographers and applied social science to think about the ethical implications of doing visually supported research in communities of struggle, especially by addressing the risks of producing critical knowledge about communities, knowledge that can be divisive just as it might be liberating.
Dr. Weissman's dissertation was granted “outstanding” status, and was recommended for the thesis award. A version of this research appears in his book, Dignity in Exile, tales of struggle and hope from a modern American shantytown (2012). It is towards understanding how bioethical and often implicit understandings of healthcare expressed as the stories we tell ourselves and each other about rights to space and care, deserving-undeserving categories of poverty and ethical treatment of the other, that his research now looks. Importantly, image systems such as, photos, fine art and film figure prominently in his research because of the evidential weight we tend to give things we can see.
Dr. Weissman's main research interest while in residence at UTMB Health is to initiate and publish the results of field inquiries in which members of various communities will be asked to look at and comment on their emotional and ethical attachments to images of poverty and homelessness. Working with scholars at UTMB and the University of Houston, Dr. Weissman will investigate how an online visual mapping tool called VWIRE, can be used to integrate, even unite practitioners, service workers, policy makers, homeless folks and various others by revealing how the stories we use to understand poverty and health issues, despite our diverse socio-economic or mental health histories (including addiction) link us along continua of other common experience. Just how other is the Other? Currently in the US, close to 146 million people must choose between food, clothing, rent and healthcare each month. Of these, only 47 million are considered by federal policy makers to live below the poverty line. Dr. Weissman's research will reveal how traditional narrative divides about deserving and undeserving poor are collapsing into a general awareness about citizenship as a continuum of democratic experience. The fact that residents of tent camps, shantytowns and other forms of poverty activism, understand themselves to be fighting for their constitutional rights, suggest that at a profound and basic level, all citizens are united around certain basic ethical premises that are often lost in the stories we tell.