Moving on from Election 2016

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/Suffrage_universel.pngIf you follow this blog, you know that our primary focus has been health and humanities, the intersection of medicine and social and cultural studies. But today, half the country feels they have swallowed a bitter pill. The other half feel that they’ve been vindicated, perhaps, but all can agree that this has been the most unhealthy election cycle in living memory. I found myself listening to the results in the wee hours, and then reflecting on what this might mean, not only for our nation, but also for our small communities and families. I want to provide here some encouragement, some insight, and we as a forum want to give our readers a sense of solidarity–for we are with you.

To those who supported Sen. Hillary Clinton, I say this. The grief you feel is real and you have a right to it. As with any loss, the anger and shock are feelings that we must work through. But let’s remember that despair and hope are not feelings, but choices. We must work against despair, even at our darkest moments, because despair is paralyzing. We must choose hope, because hope cannot stand without us. But also, while you mourn the loss of a dream, be assured: this was still a historic moment. You voted for the first Continue reading “Moving on from Election 2016”

Book Review: Bob Stevenson

BookReviewLogoReview by Burcu Alkan

Richard Wiley, 1987 winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction, takes a new path in his latest novel, Bob Stevenson (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016). Having lived in Korea, Japan, Nigeria, and Kenya, his previous novels mainly deal with distant geographies and cross-cultural encounters. Yet, with his eighth book, he brings his storytelling closer to home. Set in New York City, Bob Stevenson tells the story of a psychiatrist who falls in love with a patient and the very-human difficulties of emotions that arise from such a knotty affair.

29363262-1The novel opens with Dr. Ruby Okada rushing off to meet a fellow doctor and a friend, Bette, for dinner. In the elevator of the clinic, she meets an enigmatic man with unidentifiable charms that grip her attention. What happens next is unravelled in the rest of the novel, as Ruby tries to come to terms with the consequences of her impulsive decision. The mystery of the man in the elevator, and Ruby’s relation to him, is presented through a curious narrative that touches upon the emotions underlying and shaping one’s filial, social, and romantic relationships. Continue reading “Book Review: Bob Stevenson”

Anti-Vaccination and Bioinsecurity

dailydose_darkstrokeThis morning we have a post from Travis Chi Wing Lau of the University of Pennsylvania, Department of English. You may contact him at laut@sas.upenn.edu.

Contemporary anti-vaccination debates have frequently been reduced to simplistic narratives of either neoliberal individualism, anti-science or anti-intellectualism, or religious fundamentalism. While this has enabled those in favor of vaccination (colloquially called pro-vaxxers) to dismiss the arguments of their counterparts, I want to resist this reductionist thinking, which not only ignores the historical underpinnings of anti-vaccination but also misses how the movement relates to equally sensationalized rhetorics of national security or what critical theorists have recently termed biosecurity.

Biological health, long tied up with the well-being of the nation, has now become deeply connected with national security concerns since 9/11. In response to the 2001 anthrax attacks, the Bush administration made the decision to initiate a mass smallpox inoculation of US citizens based purely on intelligence reports suspecting Russia of experimenting with their stores of smallpox virus. Crucial here is that there were no actual cases of smallpox in the US; rather, speculations and paranoia about smallpox potentially becoming the next global bioweapon merited swift preventative action. Postcolonial scholar Neel Ahuja rightly reminds us that such an event is all too familiar: “With steady media attention to health care policy, humanitarian intervention, abortion, prenatal genetic testing, drug patients, assisted suicide, animal rights, environmental regulation, and biosecurity, the idea of the vulnerable body as an object of governance—its transformation for better or worse through state policies, technological intervention, and ecological forces—is today quite conventional.”1 The US citizen’s body and the preservation of its health has become a means by which national security functions in the contemporary security state.

From the early inception of vaccination as a practice developed in England during the 1790s, national health has been mobilized as a justification for often invasive interventions into individual bodies. In fact, Edward Jenner’s project to make vaccination a nationwide practice inaugurated a culture war that debated the right of the state to literally puncture the bodies of its citizens with a lancet purely on the grounds that England was “threatened.” Conservative writers like Edmund Burke likened England to a body whose boundaries were being permeated by both metaphorical and literal contagions be it revolutionary ideas or smallpox and cholera epidemics. Working-class people, too often the target of mandatory vaccination programs enforced by state-appointed vaccinators, experienced the lethal consequences of hasty impulses toward such intervention deemed necessary for the self-preservation of the state. If the national body could be consistently imagined to be at risk, the state could be prescriptive about individual bodily practices (i.e. compulsory vaccination) and the relations between those bodies (i.e. quarantine). It is no surprise that during this period the anti-vaccination movement emerged out of a populist recognition of the state’s dependence on rhetorical and ideological mutations of “national health” as an explanatory mechanism for its violent interventions. The rise of vaccination always came with reservations as to what state medicine was truly trying to prevent or regulate.

Through a similar framing of the public as a population of vulnerable bodies constantly threatened within and without, US national policy depends largely on a logic of preemption and prevention. This anticipatory mode, characterized by virtual disaster modeling and the proliferation of agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, projects threat by underscoring the precarity of American bodies or their bioinsecurity in the face of diffuse threats like global terrorism.2 Particularly salient examples of this are Donald Trump’s campaign promises of constructing a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants or enacting a nationwide ban on Muslims. This impulse to “make America great again” by purging the country of individuals marked out as contagious or dangerous echoes the xenophobic overtones of the English vaccination debates during the late eighteenth century. Such political fearmongering prioritizes white American life as that which urgently requires securing against externalized others that are necessarily figured as parasitical or latent pathogens that can strike unexpectedly. Public health initiatives like Bush’s Smallpox Vaccination Program (SVP) literalize this paranoia by underscoring the vulnerability of the American body to deliberate infection by terrorists increasingly more difficult to identify and isolate in our globalized world. The vagueness by which such threats are defined allow them to be persistently and conveniently mobilized in national security discourses to a feverish pitch.

Rather than affirming the anti-vaccination position, I want to contextualize the anti-vax movement as one that directly challenges the state’s potential co-optation and (mis)use of medicine in the name of national security. A turn to the long history of the anti-vaccination movement since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries3 reveals that vaccination’s prophylactic function has never been purely a biological issue but rather one of political importance involving the problematic relationship between body and state. We must linger on the question that anti-vaxxers rightly raise: can and should the state be able to monitor, regulate, or even make compulsory health interventions based on projected or imagined national threats?


1. Ahuja, Neel. Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions: Empire, and the Government of Species. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. vii.

2. See Brian Massumi’s Ontopower (Duke UP, 2016) for a thorough analysis of how this preemption operates in contemporary state politics.

3. See Nadja Durbach’s Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 for a rich historical account of the development of the anti-vaccination movement in Victorian period.

Book Review: Annals of Pornographie

BookReviewLogoReview by Katelyn Smith

In his first full-length book, Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad (2016), Brian Watson traces the long history of pornography in the West, reiterating throughout his work the need to place our modern understanding of porn in context. Porn became popularized through the printing press, which allowed cheaper reproductions of obscene texts, and Watson has made use of the modern day printing press for his own description of the obscene, self-publishing his research in e-book format. The book is an expansion of Watson’s masters’ thesis on the Society for the Suppression of Vice (Drew University, 2013), which attempted to regulate and exterminate “smut” in nineteenth-century England, one of the many organizations Watson discusses.  

29232094Watson argues the book is an “attempt to trace a history through the ‘underside’ of Western culture, its art, literature, philosophy, sexology, psychology and its changing laws. It is an attempt to explain the modern view—to explain exactly why, where, and how porn became ‘bad’”(9). He disputes the belief that pornography is a modern conception and instead that we must ‘begin at the beginning.’ His history begins with the 14th century Italian Renaissance and Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 work, The Decameron. While recognizing the text is not usually labeled pornography, Watson points to its underlying philosophy, humanism (where “living people deserve as much attention as the future world”), claiming that this philosophy would significantly impact the development of porn in the centuries to come (18).   Continue reading “Book Review: Annals of Pornographie”

“Not Dead Yet!” Medieval Medicine Beyond Monty Python

dailydose_darkstrokeToday’s author is Lucy Barnhouse, a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department of Fordham University, New York. Her dissertation, which she will defend this winter, examines the effects of religious status on the development of hospitals in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the place of hospitals in the religious and social networks of late medieval cities in the central Rhineland. She has presented on medieval medical history for lay as well as academic audiences, and has been involved with the Footnoting History podcast for the last three years. You can follow her on Twitter at @SingingScholar.

Teaching medieval medicine to undergraduates with widely varying degrees of background knowledge on both medicine and the Middle Ages might seem like an unenviable task. I found it, though, to be one of my most rewarding pedagogical experiences. The medieval, as I’ve discovered, can often function as a safe space for students to explore new ideas and reexamine old ones. Largely unknown, and imagined as definitely Other, it provides room for thoughtful engagement with large issues that might elsewhere be treated as resolved. Discussing medieval hospitals, for instance, can enable students to discuss many questions with contemporary resonance, e.g. how do we access care? What are spaces and places of healthcare, and what do we expect from them? Who is involved in administering hospitals, and what are the implications of how such institutions are involved in other networks, religious or civic… or both?

Author photograph of Bodleian MS Laud Misc 237, original recipes written on the binding leaf of a medical miscellany.
Author photograph of Bodleian MS Laud Misc 237, original recipes written on the binding leaf of a medical miscellany.

Due in part to the interdisciplinary topic, and in part to an early morning time slot that accommodated the needs of students taking labs, the class was a remarkably vibrant mix of humanities and science majors. This enriched our experience immeasurably, as science majors were able to see things in the sources that I was not. Having class discussions led by teams of students proved particularly fruitful. Students proved very ready to share their diverse experiences—and cultural expectations—of medicine, and to work through difficulties and uncertainties together. Such efficient functioning of the class as a body (pun intended) was, I like to think, facilitated by a personality quiz designed to diagnose humoral complexions! As a class, we turned out to be fairly evenly divided between the sanguine and the melancholic, with a few outliers. This assessment led to a lively discussion about the logic or illogic of diagnostic observation, the value of experience, and the dangers of prejudice.

Examining medieval ways of conceptualizing health and evaluating medical practitioners did not come without challenges or surprises. I’m sure that several of my former students still think of Willibald, an eighth-century bishop who smuggled balsam out of the Holy Land, as a drug dealer. But even the rather frustrating source discussion that established this consensus provided an illuminating challenge to my own categories of thought. I realize that, even to historians of medicine, the medieval might seem dauntingly unfamiliar. But the Black Death can provide an effective opening to conversations about compassion fatigue. Getting students to discuss how race and gender affect how bodies are imagined and feared is made easier by engaging with thirteenth-century examples. With diverse and visibly changing cultures of medicine and health, the Middle Ages make a great place to introduce students to the kinds of questions typical of work in the medical humanities.