Since April is National Poetry Month in the US, it is our tradition to offer a poem each week of the month to celebrate our poetry collection. Today’s poem is from Rafael Campo’s 2018 collection Comfort Measures Only. As more and more people get vaccinated and the deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19 decline, we celebrate the beauty and power of science. Check back here each Tuesday in April to read a featured poem.
On the Beauty of Science
A colleague at my hospital has won a major prize, for seminal research into the role of lipid bodies in the eosinophil. How I once loved the eosinophil, its nucleus contorted, cytoplasm flecked with red. Of course, I wondered at its function, why it self-destructed on encountering some allergen or parasitic egg, how it killed by dying. Now we know so much that joy in the mysterious seems quaint. Its valentine to us undone by thought, the blushing eosinophil explained: embarrassed by its smallness, or enraged that all its selflessness should be betrayed.
Rafael Campo teaches and practices medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and is author of several books, including Alternative Medicine, The Enemy, and Landscape with Human Figure, all also published by Duke University Press, and The Desire to Heal: A Doctor’s Education in Empathy, Identity, and Poetry.
What guided your interest in editing this special issue? What questions or problems shaped your study?
Jared Sexton wrote of the fated entanglement of anti-Blackness and AIDS in Amalgamation Schemes (U Minn, 2008): “the fate of AIDS and the fate of the Black are fundamentally intertwined.” This entanglement is an extension of what Saidiya Hartman reveals in her work as “the entanglement of slavery and freedom.” Freedom, then, is property, in the sense of the carceral and anti-Black metaphysics of possessive individualism, and property is freedom, in the sense of life as economized by the valuations of racial capitalism and as demonstrated by the politics of AIDS and COVID-19 and big pharma as a technology of racial capitalism. Post-AIDS ideology, which figures AIDS is over and HIV as manageable and livable, performs an anti-Black epistemic erasure of how both HIV and AIDS are necropolitical. The ongoing global criminalization of HIV is a death sentence for Black queer, trans, poor, sex workers and AIDS activists. Black AIDS activism in its “aesthetic sociality,” to take up Laura Harris‘s brilliant formulation, and in its poetic sociality (thinking here of Black AIDS poetics), has always been a struggle against premature death. Gregory Smith, Black gay ACT UP activist who died in a New Jersey prison after being sentenced under HIV criminalization laws; Melvin Dixon, whom we know is somewhere listening for his name; Marsha P. Johnson, and many others who are part of what Cedric Robinson called the “ontological totality” of the Black radical tradition, struggled against what Dixon called the “double cremation” of premature death through genocidal anti-Blackness and—but also as—AIDS. Rather than the foreclosing of AIDS as somehow over, instead we open out onto pressing questions posed by the proximity of and the friction between queerness, Blackness, transness, and disability.
What makes “Trans in a Time of HIV/AIDS” unique or essential? What do you think it does, or can do, that no other collection has done before?
In some ways the answer is simple: there is an urgent and pressing need for the field of trans studies (including the field-defining journal of TSQ) to focus on transwomen, particularly Black transwomen, who are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. The statistics are startling—and ongoing!—and trans studies must ask why and center that problem in their analysis. Even as attention to materiality and ontology in trans studies grows, nowhere is there a sustained engagement with how AIDS has literally made trans subjects, histories, bodies, activisms, and academic discourses. You cannot be seriously interested in trans materiality or embodiment without understanding how AIDS continues to forge the lived realities of trans people and the very metalogics of trans studies itself. This absence is not isolated to trans studies; it continues in what is left of queer studies that attends to race, trans, or debility. There is a presumption that AIDS in the US has gone, that we live in the afterward of AIDS. This is simply wrong. What our special issue fore-places is that AIDS continues to function as a material and political process in administrating ontological and epistemological racial and sexual order in the contemporary. We ask how the emergence of US-centered trans studies in the ’90s—at the height of the AIDS epidemic—was shaped by the trauma of that moment. One theme we consider is how engagements with gender transgression in queer theory—that difficult twin of trans studies—promoted an anti-libidinal structure that turned gender identity into sexuality itself. As much as sexed essentialism seemed the target of gender transgression, the unconscious of that maneuver was sexually repressive—perhaps an effect of the collapsing anti-Black and homophobic violence of the epidemic.
Trans studies, it would seem, only succeeded in territorializing gender transgression. The collapse of identity as sexuality rendered gender a metaphysics that could then circulate in critical discourse as either absence or presence. No gender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, or the indeterminate pronoun “they” are as gender-y as the regressive “she” or “he” pronouns. Simply, resistance to gender itself operationalized through abstractions and de-materializations of gender trouble. From this vantage, we begin to ask how the anti-Blackness and homophobia of AIDS shaped and reshape the subtending logics that continue to institutionalize trans studies. In our introduction we frame this argument, and our contributors offer their own, and sometimes differing, approaches to these interlocking problems that define trans studies and AIDS. In our introduction, and in the issue more broadly, we turn to Black transwomen and femme artists who are reimagining and reworking the racial and sexual violence of AIDS; Black artists who are interrogating the ongoing trauma of AIDS, but in ways that fore-place sexuality and Blackness. Trans, in their work, is de-essentialized through commitments to pleasure and the reimagining of memory and archive. Our hope is to invite new questions, to reinvigorate curiosity where “obviousness” has taken control. Reexaminations of structuring logics is not a cancellation, we argue, but an opportunity to recognize that fields like trans studies are worthy of rigorous thinking and deepening investigations of our possessive investments.
Why the turn to art and aesthetics to think together trans and AIDS? How are artists guiding the way?
“I’ve lost the future tense from my vocabulary.”—Melvin Dixon. Dixon’s pandemic poetry is heart-rending, even more so now at the nexus of premature death from AIDS and COVID-19. The work is striking for how it uncovers grief and both echoes the call to “defend the dead,” as the incredible poetics of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Wesleyan UP, 2008) enjoins, and resonates with the ethical praxis of what Christina Sharpe in In the Wake (Duke UP, 2016) so powerfully calls “wake work.” In his writing Dixon talks about AIDS, anti-Blackness, and disability; about archival erasure and loss and historical responsibility; and about desire and the flesh. What comes into view is not only AIDS as biopolitics, but AIDS as the politics and poetics of the flesh—flesh in the sense imbued the term by Hortense Spillers and also in the sense of Toni Morrison’s ethical call in Beloved to love the flesh in the face of peril. Loving the flesh that is hated is also central to the aesthetic pedagogy of Black queer and trans desire and sociality.
Another important guide in this moment is Marlon Riggs, particularly his short music video, Anthem (1991), which is a musical and visual ensemble of Black queer/trans aesthetic and politics—glimpses of Marsha P. Johnson and Jesse Harris. Our first encounter with Jesse Harris was watching the film Tongues Untied (1989), and this film, like so much of Riggs’s work and the work of those involved in his films, was about loving the flesh and desiring what is hated. Tongues Untied first aired on public broadcasting, amidst Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal anti-Black, anti-gay and HIV/AIDS genocidal regime, and the National Endowment for the Arts was condemned for funding it.
We are so elated to have the artist Kiyan Williams’s work, an image from Reflections(2019), adorn the cover of this issue of the journal. Williams, whose profound work we explore in the issue and whom we interview as well, spent significant time in Riggs’s archive at Stanford and found in the archive an interview with Harris, which was not incorporated in the film. Williams made the interview and Harris the foreground of their own work, which thinks about the liminality and peripherality of Black trans femmes in representation of AIDS and its archives. Reflections was shown at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the exhibit Nobody Promised You Tomorrow, the title of which is a quote from Marsha P. Johnson.
In our introduction we also write about artist, activist, archivist, and filmmaker, as well as author and co-editor of Trap Door (MIT Press, 2017), Tourmaline’s films: Atlantic is a Sea of Bones(2018); Happy Birthday, Marsha (2018) directed with Sasha Wortzel, a visually stunning speculative film and for which Arthur Jaffa was the cinematographer; and Salacia (2019), which was also on view at the Nobody Promised You Tomorrow exhibit and is now a part of the permanent installation at MoMA and the Tate in London, UK. Tourmaline’s radical visual and cinematic theorizing of Blackness, transness, HIV/AIDS, and the afterlives and archive(s) of slavery are indispensable for thinking and teaching about trans in a time of HIV/AIDS. What we have done in this issue that feels special—meaningful and important—is to bring together trans artists and activists outside of and/or in an open relationship with academia to show how trans and AIDS are being taken up through registers of performance, theater, visual art, and cinema.
We interviewed Cecilia Gentili, who wrote a beautiful eulogy in the New York Times, “What Lorena Borjas Did for the Trans Girls of Queens,” that memorializes the radical legacy of Lorena Borjas. Borjas passed away of COVID-19 while the journal issue was being put together. She lived and organized with Latina trans and sex worker communities and for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in Queens, which is one of the boroughs most impacted by COVID-19. “We will pick up her work where she left it, work that is essential to the well-being of ‘mis pajaras’ as she called the trans girls of Queens under her wing. Without her we are a motherless brood, but we will thrive nonetheless. In the end, she gave us the greatest gift of all—she taught us how to fend for ourselves.” In our interview Gentili writes about her one woman show, The Knife that Cuts Both Ways (2018); using humor as a weapon; and the problems with redemption narratives, as well as her profound analysis of and work in HIV/AIDS and trans health, and activism against detention, cages, borders, and the protocols of proper citizenship.
How do you imagine the issue could be used in courses or for future scholarship?
We hope that our issue might be used in course designs and future projects that are committed to not already knowing what trans studies is and isn’t. Perhaps our issue would invite students to revisit arguments that seem “already rehearsed” or “over,” to better understand the structuring logics of trans studies—for instance, to ask how trans studies always been the story of AIDS. We wanted our special issue to be in the form of a question—to both question what is understood as settled and to recognize that we might not yet know how to ask good questions about trans and AIDS—and to risk field-forming investitures. In these ways, our issue could support a course that starts with the supposition that trans studies hasn’t happened yet (it isn’t dead or over because it hasn’t quite arrived), and emerging architects of trans studies might walk away from the post-queer politics of queer theory (its obsession with conclusions and temporal certainties).
Greetings, 4S-ers! I am excited to attend this year’s virtual conference. While it has been difficult to miss out on the conversations and connections facilitated by in-person conferences, virtual conferences offer new opportunities. I’m not usually able to attend 4S on the years when it’s held outside of the U.S., so this is a bit of a bonus for me. I’ll be waking up early on East Coast time to attend panels, many of which include Duke University Press authors. My schedule is overflowing with panels that focus on more-than-human worlds (including the viral, of course); trans, queer, and feminist approaches to science studies; race and indigeneity; the environment (especially work on the elements, energy, and toxicity); and data and algorithmic thinking.
Finally, unlike an in-person conference, where I spend most of my time meeting with potential authors and hearing about projects in the works, this year I will be focused on attending panels and deepening my knowledge of the field. However, I am still eager to hear about your book projects. You can send me an email or submit a proposal through our online submission portal. I look forward to seeing you around the conference.
We hope you’ll check out these recent titles that we would have enjoyed showing off to you in our booth. In Anaesthetics of Existence, Cressida J. Heyes draws on examples of things that happen to us but are nonetheless excluded from experience, as well as critical phenomenology, genealogy, and feminist theory, showing how and why experience has edges, and analyzes phenomena that press against them. In Rock | Water | Life Lesley Green examines the interwoven realities of inequality, racism, colonialism, and environmental destruction in South Africa. In Wild Blue Media, Melody Jue destabilizes terrestrial-based ways of knowing and reorients our perception of the world by considering the ocean itself as a media environment—a place where the weight and opacity of seawater transforms how information is created, stored, transmitted, and perceived.
We have a number of recent books that engage with agriculture and resource extraction in Latin America, placing the non-human at the center of their studies. Vital Decomposition by Kristina M. Lyons presents an ethnography of human-soil relations in Colombia. In An Ecology of Knowledges, Micha Rahder examines how technoscience, endemic violence, and an embodied love of wild species and places shape conservation practices in Guatemala. Kregg Hetherington’s The Government of Beans is about the rough edges of environmental regulation in Paraguay, where tenuous state power and blunt governmental instruments encounter ecological destruction and social injustice. Seeds of Power by Amalia Leguizamón explores why Argentines largely support GM soy despite the widespread damage it creates. In Resource Radicals, Thea Riofrancos looks at Ecuador, expanding the study of resource politics by decentering state resource policy and locating it in a field of political struggle populated by actors with conflicting visions of resource extraction. And in Bolivia in the Age of Gas, Bret Gustafson explores how the struggle over natural gas has reshaped Bolivia, along with the rise, and ultimate fall, of the country’s first Indigenous-led government. Look for an online conversation about these issues featuring Riofrancos, Gustafson, Hetherington, and Leguizamón later this fall.
Also examining agriculture, Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis immerses readers into the workplaces that underlie modern meat, from slaughterhouses and corporate offices to artificial insemination barns and bone-rendering facilities, outlining the deep human-hog relationships and intimacies that emerge through intensified industrialization. Check out Blanchette’s recent conversation with Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker.
One of our favorite conference traditions is the in-booth selfies that our authors often take with their books. We can’t do that this year, so we’ve asked some of our science studies authors to send them in. Check out our book selfie album on Facebook or look for the photos on Twitter this week.
Save on these and all our science studies titles on our site with coupon 4S2020 (North and South America, Caribbean) or at Combined Academic Publishers with coupon CSF20EASST (UK, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia).
Also check out Environmental Humanities, a peer-reviewed open-access journal that draws humanities disciplines into conversation with the natural and social sciences around significant environmental issues. Start reading here.
We invite you to return to the blog tomorrow to read a message from Executive Editor Courtney Berger.
Today’s guest post is curated by the editors of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, Jih-Fei Cheng, Assistant Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Scripps College, Alexandra Juhasz, Alexandra Juhasz is Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Nishant Shahani Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Department of English at Washington State University. The contributors to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises outline the myriad ways that the AIDS pandemic exists within a network of varied historical, overlapping, and ongoing crises borne of global capitalism and colonial, racialized, and gendered violence.This post is a part of a short series. The following posts will be shared to the blog once a week over the next two weeks.
The contributions below grew out of our investments in marking and launching the publication of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises in late April. More importantly, we wanted to continue conversations that we began in the book about HIV/AIDS in light of COVID-19. We wanted to continue the format of “dispatches” in our book that allowed for more scattered and informal meditations. After contacting all the contributors to the edited volume, we planned logistics around synchronous conversations and asynchronous writings. For both formats, we asked our contributors to respond to the following questions:
How can we think of AIDS and COVID-19 through logics that are both synchronous and asynchronous, temporally distinct yet overlapping, convergent and simultaneously divergent? How do we temporalize multiple durations of multiple crises, especially given that neither AIDS nor COVID-19 have singular histories or monolithic subjects?
Since we collectively theorized the distribution of crises in our book (what Emily Bass evocatively theorized as “scattering”), how might we attend to the scattered logics of pandemics in the context of COVID-19? How do modes of social distancing magnify our experiences of being scattered and how do we find each other in its midst? In what ways does the pandemic simultaneously warrant a “scattered” lens so that we can think of COIVD-19 not just in epidemiological terms, but one that attends to crises in housing, access to water, migration and movement across borders, incarceration, racialized and gendered structures of wage labor.
How might we hold accountable structural racism in the midst of pandemics? Plans for abating the COVID-19 pandemic have called for more data to demonstrate structural needs. This means increasing tracking systems and surveillance to illustrate the higher rates and incidences of infection, sickness, and death–particularly among Black, Native, Brown, and global south communities. Simultaneously, advocacy groups are collecting data on anti-Chinese/Asian discrimination and violence. How do we leverage data intersectionally to track and address structural vulnerability and systemic violence without resorting to carceral logics, such as policing and prisons?
We have been struck by the casual invocations of phrases such as “when this is over,” “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal,” and “we have the right to work.” How might the presumptions about the temporary conditions of crises train our attention on quick social, political, or economic fixes rather than structural changes? What is the role of biomedical solutions (i.e., drugs, vaccines, plasma with COVID-19 virus antibodies, etc.) in addressing pandemic crises? How can we learn from histories and ongoing realities of HIV/AIDS in attending to these questions?
Discussions on Temporality, AIDS, and COVID-19:
Moderated by Alexandra Juhasz
Respondent: Emily Bass, Bishnupriya Ghosh, Pato Hebert, Cait McKinney, Juana Mariá Rodriguez, Julia A. Jordan-Zachary
Introduced by Nishant Shahani:
If I’m getting my dates correct, Jih-Fei, Alex, and I started working on AIDS and the Distribution of Crisesin 2016. At this initial moment, the impetus behind the book was to offer a social and political barometer of the times and the current state of AIDS, both politically and academically. Part of our motivation was to attend to the distribution of HIV and AIDS at precisely the moment when it was increasingly being framed as over or as something that belonged to the past. In the book we call this retrospective framing “a national fiction of democracy, which served the tools of US empire and global capitalism.”
Fast forward to 2020 when our book comes out last month, right as COVID-19 escalates into its moments of crises. When sharing the book with friends and colleagues, I casually commented on the strangely coincidental timing of its release: who would have thought that a book about one pandemic would come out precisely during the midst of another one? But I now think this initial casual observation is actually a bit misplaced. If, as we argued in our book, that AIDS indexes multiple and ongoing crises, if we refuse idea of AIDS and pandemics in general as having singular points of origin and finite conclusions, then the overlap of AIDS and COVID can never be reduced to the temporality of coincidence. So in today’s conversation, we want to draw on this temporal critique of first occurance and triumphant biomedical end points to think about the ongoing nature of pandemics, especially in light of COVD 19. In their own way, each of our contributors in the book grapples with what AIDS looks like if we begin with contesting the supposition that AIDS began in the early 80s among a cluster of white gay men and ended when combination therapies hit markets in the mid 90s. Rather than constituting the concluding moment of the book, several of our essays begin with the axiom that crises are not simply epidemiological, but also socially and politically produced. We of course see this with COVID 19 and its scarcity models—of hospital beds, ventilators, and protective equipment. These forms of scarcity are not simply inevitable or axiomatic, but are consequences of austerity logics that are central to the project of neoliberalism, and which produce multiple crises in the plural. Rather than simply investing hope in medical cure, perhaps we can turn to investing in diagnosing a failing globalized system and move on from there to name strategies of collective survival.
If we can understand pandemics through the lens of enduring structures such as environmental racism, settler colonialism, incarceration, militarism, and gentrification, then rather than focusing on when they begin or when they will end, we can ask how pandemics scatter and proliferate. And then more importantly, we can ask how we will respond and act. I look forward to hearing our respondents’ thoughts on some of these questions.
Discussions on Solidarity: AIDS and COVID-19:
Respondents: Marlon B. Bailey, Andrew Jolivette, Theodore (Ted) Kerr
Moderated by Jih-Fei Cheng
Introduced by Nishant Shahani:
While today’s prompts are distinct in their approach to thinking about the relation between AIDS and COVID-19, they once again build on the discussion we began last week on the limits of theorizing AIDS through definitive periodizations. The idea of pandemics as crisis moments or singular turning points can be useful, but in some senses they also can be quite reductive. On the one hand, they foreground urgency and the necessity of solidarity and action; but they also frame these modes of urgency as states of exception rather than modes of slow death or crisis ordinariness, to use Lauren Berlant’s terms, that are diffused over long durations and distributed over different geographical and geopolitical contexts. We are interested in both what precedes putative first occurences of pandemics and also in what persists in their supposed aftermaths. So in the introduction to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, we ask, and I think this in many ways is the guiding question of our book: “How is AIDS one or many of the outcomes and expressions of crises that are made ordinary and exceptional at the same time? And how are the durations and intensities of crises experienced in specific contexts?”
In thinking about the contexts of crises distribution, one of the goals of this book was to refuse making whiteness and the global north a default referential point for an understanding of AIDS. The goal was not simply to insert ignored groups into founding narratives without questioning the centrality of those narratives in the first place and interrogating how they came to be. So for example, in decentering the global north, we were not interested in simply theorizing the global south through what Bishnupriya Ghosh calls in her contribution in the book, a “cartographic projection.” The attention to difference without essentializing difference is particularly important as we extend our conversations about AIDS into thinking about COVID-19. For example, it is not enough to simply stop at foregrounding the disproportionate impact of COVID on black and brown people which tends to naturalize predisposing conditions to race rather than attending to the environmental or structural conditions of racism. It is worth recalling the work of scholars like Dorothy Roberts who have refused biological understandings of race that end up naturalizing socially made health disparities to logics of genetic difference. We thus have to be careful that our understanding of differential impact does not shift the conversation away from limited resources about access to healthcare to one of personal responsibility so that disproportionate impact can then be explained through individual failing rather than state neglect and state-sanctioned violence.
In relation to the two prompts that Jih-Fei began with, I’d like to leave us with a few quotes from our book that begin to grapple with these questions. In a roundtable on the globalization of AIDS in our book, Theodore (Ted) Kerr, one of our respondents today, asks: “I wonder what histories could be uncovered, what actions could be taken, and what discussions could be had if we took a longer approach to AIDS history.” And I’ve been thinking a lot about these words in light of the state-sanctioned police killings these last few weeks since a longer approach to AIDS history would also incorporate an understanding of white supremacy, and of the criminalization of black and brown bodies. In the same roundtable in our book and in a similar vein, Eric Stanley suggests that “the epidemiological foundations of what we have come to know as HIV/AIDS are the haunts of conquest and chattel slavery.” If we take longer approaches to past and futures of AIDS, how might we think of these hauntings as constitutive of our current crises in terms of housing, access to clean water, sick leave, and food security among various other issues?
In this light, the invocation for a moment when the pandemic is over undercuts the persistent nature of crises. It also obscures their multiple and intersecting iterations. Just as we understand pandemics as not exceptional but constitutive of capitalism, similarly, we cannot think about black and brown death as if it were simply a glitch in the system—it is, in fact, the system’s feature and intrinsic to US democracy –or US empire: these terms are and have always been fungible. But perhaps we can use this desire for a post-COVID world as an occasion to think about and enact abolitionist critiques since pandemics be can only ever be over if we imagine and fight for the abolition of prisons and white supremacist and settler logics of policing, containment, and incarceration. It was important to us to end our book with C Riley Snorton’s piece on crisis and abolition. So I want to end by reading just one important idea from Riley’s concluding essay as yet another prompt for this conversation today or for our thinking in general:
AIDS is not the only metaphor for premature death. So is the prison, or living under occupation, or in underdevelopment, or living while Black, while trans, while undocumented, while poor. Many folks living with AIDS are also living with a combination of the aforementioned conditions. But if one believes that AIDS, and its precipitating and attendant crises, are structural and ideological, then one must consider how those very spatiotemporal formulations also forge abolitionist strategies and imaginaries.
Welcome back to our weekly poetry feature. For our final April posting, please enjoy the poem “Lost in the Hospital” from What the Body Told (1996) by physician Rafael Campo. Much of Campo’s early poetry was in response to the AIDS epidemic and readers may find resonance during today’s COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s not that I don’t like the hospital. Those small bouquets of flowers, pert and brave. The smell of antiseptic cleaners. The ill, so wistful in their rooms, so true. My friend, the one who’s dying, took me out To where the patients go to smoke, IV’s And oxygen tanks attached to them– A tiny patio for skeletons. We shared A cigarette, which was delicious but Too brief. I held his hand; it felt Like someone’s keys. How beautiful it was, The sunlight pointing down at us, as if We were important, full of life, unbound. I wandered for a moment where his ribs Had made a space for me, and there, beside The thundering waterfall of his heart, I rubbed my eyes and thought, “I’m lost.”
Rafael Campo is Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of several books, including Comfort Measures Only, Alternative Medicine, The Enemy, and Landscape with Human Figure, all also published by Duke University Press. Campo’s most recent poem, “The Doctor’s Song,” featured in Harvard Magazine, attempts to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic from the physician’s perspective. His books (and all in-stock titles) are currently available for 50% off with coupon SPRING50 during our sale.
A coronavirus transmitted from a bat to a pangolin at a wet market in Wuhan, and then to humans all over the world: what does this mean to you?
We are living in a changed world, but Europe has only just realized this with COVID-19. China and what I call its “sentinel posts”—Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore—have known this for some time. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was also caused by a coronavirus, these countries invested massively in virology research and in technologies to detect, screen and monitor populations to prepare for a crisis like this one. Chinese researchers were expecting a virus causing a respiratory disease to be transmitted from bats. After the initial three weeks at the end of December and up to mid-January, the Wuhan authorities controlled the epidemic, and they did what they had to do, according to the WHO report of 28 February. In Europe we simply refused to imagine this could happen to us. Little affected by SARS, Europe just didn’t understand the global shift that it caused—the fact that China has controlled pandemics not only on its own territory but also at the global level, and the fact that the Chinese authorities have influenced the nomination of the head of the World Health Organization after 2006. Europe doesn’t just lack the equipment to deal with the pandemic: we lack the imagination to understand what’s happening to us.
Can you say more about what you mean when you say that Europe lacks the imagination needed to prepare for pandemics ?
In Europe, public health is based on prevention not preparation. It’s led by nation states within defined territories, as with vaccination against tuberculosis or smallpox. But viral infectious diseases require global preparedness, swift detection, and containment. In the 1990s with avian flu, Chinese societies learned that this is about preparing for a catastrophic outbreak, with “sentinel” chickens in poultry farms, simulations of pandemics in hospitals, and stockpiling masks, vaccines and antivirals by national states and multinational companies. Back then, American strategies for anticipating nuclear attack was one model, but there are others: Japan has the frame of earthquakes; France has that of industrial action—preparing for a strike. The point is that industrial strike, an epidemic outbreak, an earthquake are catastrophic events which halt economic activity—they requires different forms of preparedness.
Can you tell me about the analogies you make between Chinese preparedness and hunter-gatherer societies, andbetween European “prevention” strategies with the world of pastoralism?
We can see virologists as “hunters” of microbes or viruses. That’s why they get along well with ornithologists, who also operate by tracking. The anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies allows us to reassess this figure of the hunter-tracker. The virologist isn’t just someone who observes invisible wild entities under the microscope: more than that, they seek to adopt the point of view of birds, bats, and monkeys. The virus is a warning signal that affects animals; the “hunter” follows its transmission from birds to pigs to humans, or bats to pangolins to humans. This tracking is a kind of “hunting,” and it sees uncertainty in relationships with animals. That which is hunted can also kill.
So, the hunting relationship is reversible. But pastoralism relies on what Foucault called biopolitics. Shepherds control their flocks, decide which animals are cared for, which killed or sacrificed to protect the herd. Biopolitics is the power to ‘make live’ and to let die. Now, this was Boris Johnson’s initial approach in the UK—on which he’s now reneging because it was of course an indefensible plan: to let the virus spread and to have 400,000 deaths among the old, the weak and the poor while city traders survive, with it all costing the smallest possible sum of money! Pastoralism made the modern state possible. That state is based on what I’m calling “prevention.” So today epidemiology and public health is on the side of the pastoralists.
Are we not obliged to use ‘pastoralist’ techniques when the pandemic is here ?
There is a middle ground between hunting and pastoral care, preparation and prevention: which I call “precaution.” Taken to its logical conclusion, pastoral care requires acts of sacrifice. It assumes that people must die since the most important thing is to maintain the health of the population as a whole – the so-called “herd.” But in contrast, Taiwan and Singapore quickly tracked down the virus and confined it, like hunters. Now of course if a “hunting” approach is applied badly or too late it becomes just precaution: it identifies maximum risk and shuts everything down. With “mad cows” and chickens with avian flu, all of a farm’s livestock were slaughtered if one animal was infected. Now we are the ones who are collectively confined.
What does this pandemic reveal about our relationships with animals ?
Since the 1970s, the ecology of infectious diseases, with major thinkers such as René Dubos and Frank Macfarlane Burnet, has been warning us that nature can “strike back.” Virologists have tracked Ebola (in 1976, from bats in Central Africa), AIDS (1981, from monkeys), mad cow disease (1996, cattle), avian flu (1997, chickens/migratory birds), SARS (2003, bats) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-CoV in Saudi Arabia (2012, camels). Then there’s what’s in store from the world of insects: Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is at the gates of Europe; in 5 years we may have to adopt containment measures against that! Every four or five years a new disease emerges which comes from animals, against which we have no immunity, no vaccine.
So this is a kind of “revenge” of nature ?
Not quite. In my work, I reframe Jared Diamond’s idea of diseases of domestication. In my view, the 1970s witnessed a revolution as profound as the Neolithic revolution: industrial animal husbandry and its corollary, globalization of trade, have produced new diseases because the relationship between humans and animals has been totally overturned.
But bats and pangolins are wild animals.
The geographies of diseases today no longer just involve places where humans and animals live together, as in the case of domestication, but to the unpredictable movements that come with industrial livestock farming, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change. The “wild” has been dislodged and is forced to find other niches, including in urban areas. We Europeans have been “good shepherds,” and pastoralism has enabled us to deal with the diseases of the Neolithic period. But now we have to become hunter-gatherers again.
What kind of world is emerging out of COVID-19 ?
In the middle of a deeply unpredictable crisis, what’s certain is that China is ahead of Europe. Not because of a dictatorship capable of confining its population authoritatively and without resistance, but because of the experience of health disasters in China and in East Asia more generally. My argument is anthropological. We find it difficult to face our fear of disease-transmitting animals because we believe in a firm divide between nature and culture. Our “naturalist liberalism,” which has already done such a lot of harm to the planet, now needs to learn some humility.
In “Care in Translation,” contributors investigate what care is, becomes, and brings in its wake in health care settings across Asia—and what stories we might tell about this. Essays highlight different styles of care-ful research relevant to STS, anthropology, and feminist studies. The production and the consequences of care are traced through techno-scientific mediations, situated ways of sense-making, political economies, historical trajectories, and public imaginaries of care.
Curling up on the couch with a great book is an excellent way to practice social distancing this month. All these titles will deliver before our sale ends on May 1, so check our website regularly. You can save 50% on all in-stock titles with coupon SPRING50.
Tyler Bickford traces the dramatic rise of the “tween” pop music industry in Tween Pop, showing how it marshaled childishness as a key element in legitimizing children’s participation in public culture.
The contributors to Playing for Keeps examine the ways in which musical improvisation can serve as a way to negotiate violence, trauma, systemic inequality, and the aftermaths of war and colonialism. This volume is edited by Daniel Fischlin and Eric Porter.
John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place is the definitive biography of Sun Ra—composer, keyboardist, bandleader, philosopher, entrepreneur, poet, self-proclaimed extraterrestrial from Saturn, and a founder of Afrofuturism. We are pleased to be bringing this classic back into print with a new preface.
In Vital Decomposition, Kristina M. Lyons presents an ethnography of human-soil relations in which she follows state soil scientists and peasant farmers in Colombia’s Putumayo region, showing how their relationship with soil is key to caring for the forest and growing non-illicit crops in the face of violence, militarism, and environmental destruction.
Micha Rahder explores how multiple ways of knowing the forest of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve shape conservation practice, local livelihoods, and landscapes in An Ecology of Knowledges.
In Relations, Marilyn Strathern provides a critical account of anthropology’s key concept of relation and its usage and significance in the English-speaking world, showing how its evolving use over the last three centuries reflects changing thinking about knowledge-making and kin-making.
In Virtual Pedophilia, Gillian Harkins traces the genealogy of the transformation of cultural construction of the pedophile as a social outcast into the image of normative white masculinity from the 1980s to the present, showing how his “normalcy” makes him hard to identify and stop.
In A People’s History of Detroit, Mark Jay and Philip Conklin use a Marxist framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present, outlining the complex socio-political dynamics underlying major events in Detroit’s past, from the rise of Fordism and the formation of labor unions to deindustrialization and the city’s recent bankruptcy.
In Revolution and Disenchantment, Fadi A. Bardawil explores the hopes for and disenchantments with Marxism-Leninism in the writings and actions of revolutionary intellectuals within the 1960s Arab New Left.
In Tehrangeles Dreaming, Farzaneh Hemmasi draws on ethnographic fieldwork in Los Angeles and musical and textual analysis to examine how the pop music, music videos, and television made by Iranian expatriates express modes of Iranianness not possible in Iran.
The Lonely Letters is an epistolary blackqueer critique of the normative world in which Ashon T. Crawley meditates on the interrelation of blackqueer life, sounds of the black church, theology, mysticism, and the potential for platonic and erotic connection in a world that conspires against blackqueer life.
Drawing on Whitman and Adorno, Morton Schoolman proposes aesthetic education through film as a way to redress the political violence inflicted on difference society constructs as its racialized, gendered, Semitic, and sexualized other in A Democratic Enlightenment.
In Kwaito Bodies, Xavier Livermon examines the cultural politics of the youthful black body in South Africa through the performance, representation, and consumption of Kwaito—a style of electronic dance music that emerged following the end of apartheid.
Reflecting on the experience, philosophy, and practice of Latin American indigenous and Afro-descendant activist-intellectuals who mobilize to defend their territories from large-scale extraction, Arturo Escobar shows in Pluriversal Politics how the key to addressing planetary crises is the creation of the pluriverse—a world of many epistemological and ontological worlds.
The contributors to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises outline the myriad ways that the AIDS pandemic exists within a network of varied historical, overlapping, and ongoing crises borne of global capitalism and colonial, racialized, and gendered violence. This collection is edited by Jih-Fei Cheng, Alexandra Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani. It is currently available to read free online as part of our Navigating the Threat of Pandemic syllabus.
If one of your resolutions for 2020 is to read more books, we’ve got you covered. Ring in the new year with these captivating new releases!
In Beneath the Surface, Lynn M. Thomas constructs a transnational history of skin lighteners in South Africa and beyond, theorizing skin and skin color as a site for antiracist struggle and lighteners as a technology of visibility that both challenges and entrenches racial and gender hierarchies.
Weaving U.S. history into the larger fabric of world history, the contributors to Crossing Empires de-exceptionalize the American empire, placing it in a global transimperial context as a way to grasp the power relations that shape imperial formations. This collection is edited by Kristin L. Hoganson and Jay Sexton.
Engaging contemporary photography by Sally Mann, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and others, Shawn Michelle Smith traces how historical moments come to be known photographically and the ways in which the past continues to inhabit, punctuate, and transform the present through the photographic medium in Photographic Returns.
Spanning the centuries between pre-contact indigenous Haiti to the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, the selections in The Haiti Reader introduce readers to Haiti’s dynamic history and culture from the viewpoint of Haitians from all walks of life. This volume is edited by Laurent Dubois, Kaiama L. Glover, Nadève Ménard, Millery Polyné, and Chantalle F. Verna.
The contributors to Futureproof (edited by D. Asher Ghertner, Hudson McFann, and Daniel M. Goldstein) examine the affective and aesthetic dimensions of security infrastructures and technology with studies ranging from Jamaica and Jakarta to Colombia and the US-Mexico border.
Examining abjection in a range of visual and material culture, the contributors to Abjection Incorporated move beyond critiques of abjection as a punitive form of social death to theorizing how it has become a means to acquire political and cultural capital in the twenty-first century. This volume is edited by Maggie Hennefeld and Nicholas Sammond.
Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Díaz-Barriga argue that border wall construction along the U.S.–Mexico border manifests transformations in citizenship practices that are aimed not only at keeping migrants out but also enmeshing citizens into a wider politics of exclusion in Fencing in Democracy.
In Politics of Rightful Killing, Sima Shakhsari analyzes the growth of Weblogistan—the online and real-life transnational network of Iranian bloggers in the early 2000s—and the ways in which despite being an effective venue for Iranians to pursue their political agendas, it was the site for surveillance, cooptation, and self-governance.
In Invisibility by Design, Gabriella Lukács traces how young Japanese women’s unpaid labor as bloggers, net idols, “girly” photographers, online traders, and cell phone novelists was central to the development of Japan’s digital economy in the 1990s and 2000s.
Presented in the context of the nonprofit arts collective More Art’s fifteen-year history, and featuring first-person testimony, critical essays, and in-depth documentary materials, More Art in the Public Eye is an essential, experiential guide to the field of socially engaged public art and its increasing relevance. This volume is edited by Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, and Emma Drew, and we are distributing it for More Art.
Shana L. Redmond traces Paul Robeson’s continuing cultural resonances in popular culture and politics in Everything Man, showing how he remains a vital force and presence for all those he inspired.
In The Complete Lives of Camp People, Rudolf Mrázek presents a sweeping study of the material and cultural lives of internees of two twentieth-century concentration camps and the multiple ways in which their experiences speak to and reveal the fundamental logics of modernity.
In Avian Reservoirs, Frédéric Keck traces how the anticipation of bird flu pandemics has changed relations between birds and humans in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, showing that humans’ reliance on birds is key to mitigating future pandemics.
Collecting texts from all corners of the world that span antiquity to the present, The Ocean Reader (edited by Eric Paul Roorda) charts humans’ relationship to the ocean, treating it as a dynamic site of history, culture, and politics.
The contributors to Blue Legalities attend to the seas as a legally and politically conflicted space to analyze the conflicts that emerge where systems of governance interact with complex geophysical, ecological, economic, biological, and technological processes. This collection is edited by Irus Braverman and Elizabeth R. Johnson.