Humans and Non-Humans

Eating and Becoming

A few weeks ago, we read Chapter 3 of Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter, entitled “Edible Matter.” This chapter applies to food many of the same ideas as Chapter 2 applied to electricity. Bennett wants us to see food as an assemblage composed of many points of connection between or with other assemblages that are constantly in the process of becoming–becoming themselves and becoming other. That is, when we eat something, it becomes a part of us, but we also become a part of its history–the potato passes through us, but perhaps we also can be said to have passed through the potato.

This potato is disappointed in you.

Because like the potato we are also organic beings, when we die our bodies can become part of the earth that can again grow another potato or many other potatoes using the nutrients derived from our decomposed bodies. Into this cycle inserts itself capital, which attempts to isolate parts of this assemblage in order to exploit their process of becoming for the creation of wealth, or rather for the accumulation of value. Thus, the potato, whose intrinsic value lies in its own being as part of a living system, whether as root or as food, becomes instead a unit of value estranged from its own process of becoming.

Our dead bodies are also likewise estranged from this process when we prevent them from decomposing and returning to the earth. Like the embalmed corpse, the potato harvested through factory farming under capitalism is no longer a source of fertilization for the earth, nor of sustenance for hungry creatures who need food. It is now a unit of value, a commodified resource, i.e., a commodity, which if it cannot be sold must in fact be destroyed in order to preserve the capitalist order. This is why we have seen so much food being destroyed in the wake of this pandemic, despite simultaneously witnessing millions of people going hungry, waiting in soup kitchen and food pantry lines, and applying for nutritional public assistance (food stamps.)

Despite these important ideas, this chapter annoyed me because of its totally decontextualized references to obesity and its reliance on obscure philosophical ideas instead of or without a concomitant forthrightly materialist assessment of the relation between poverty, racism, discrimination, lack of decent health care, and bodily health. Body size is not the same as physical health. Not all skinny bodies are healthy and not all fat bodies are sick. If you want to read more about this, I highly recommend the work of Nalgona Positivity Pride.

Below is a video I recorded in response to student questions, comments, and my own reading of the Bennett chapter. I hope you enjoy it!

Please leave your comments and questions below in the comments section!

Humans and Non-Humans

The Assemblage Electric

A few weeks ago, we read two chapters from Jane Bennett’s book, Vibrant Matter (Chapters 2 & 3). The first of these is called “The Agency of Assemblages” and presents the example of a major power outage in North America that started in one node of the electric grid and triggered the automatic withdrawal of multiple charging stations from the grid, overcharging other parts, involving random events, such as a brush fire in Ohio that further complicated the situation, and leaving millions of people in the dark.

The idea here is to think about how one event (the power outage) has no definitive or particular cause, but is actually the result of multiple interactions taking place in both pre-determined and random ways throughout the electric grid. Every node within the assemblage/grid is itself composed of other assemblages in a rhizomatic or fractal relation.

This tree on my street has been shaped over many years in relation to the power lines that bisect it. (Photo by A. Garriga-Lopez, 2020)

Thinking about events in this way, as the result of agentive assemblages composed of infinite numbers of connections and continuously changing affects and effects in relation to each other allows us to de-center the human as the source of all events that take place in history. It’s not that the electricity grid has its own will, since it is clearly not a being in the same way that humans or even plants like the tree above are, but the grid is able to act upon us because we are in relation to it; we are part of its assemblage.

As this quote from Bennett that one of my students pulled from the text states, “There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today this mingling has become harder to ignore” (p. 31). Indeed, as this novel coronavirus (CoVid-19) has shown us, the intermingling of the human and non-human can have world-changing effects upon life on this planet.

I recorded the following video on this chapter in order to clarify some of these key concepts and ideas from the reading. Check it out below.

Please share your thoughts and questions below in the comment section! And you can read my post about Chapter 3 here.

States, Bodies, and Epidemics Syllabus

Syllabus and Mid-Term Paper Prompt for SBE

Without further ado, here’s the adapted syllabus for the “States, Bodies, and Epidemics” seminar for the pandemic spring of 2020.

States, Bodies, and Epidemics

Endemic Zika?

After reading Rosenberg’s foundational essays, we moved on to reading an essay I (Prof. Garriga-Lopez) co-authored with my friend Dr. Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz on zika virus in Puerto Rico. This essay, titled, “Becoming Endemic: The Zika Virus Epidemic and Gendered Power in Puerto Rico” was published by Lexington Books in an anthology edited by Shir Lerman and Ronnie Shepard called, Gender and Health in  Contemporary Latin America and the Caribbean.

This image shows the dominant media narrative at the time, which was concerned with the threat posed by people potentially infected with zika virus traveling to the continental United States.

In this essay, Carlos and I analyze the Puerto Rican state’s response to the zika virus epidemic in Puerto Rico. We pay particular attention to the ways that the bodies of working class women of reproductive age were targeted as the main points of intervention because of zika’s effects on gestating fetuses and babies. We were concerned to show the ways that preventing zika virus infection thus became the responsibility of women, while the state provided few resources and no structural transformations. In 2017, we published this (open access) article in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, along with two other colleagues from Puerto Rico, but this one (“Becoming Endemic,” 2018) gave us an opportunity to attend to some of the gender-power-based dynamics we had observed.

Poster from a bathroom advertisement that was part of a governmental zika prevention campaign in Puerto Rico. Photo by Adriana Garriga-Lopez, 2016.

Additionally, in this essay we propose a fourth “act” to add to Charles Rosenberg’s dramatic reading of the stages of an epidemic. This fourth stage represents a narrativization of the epidemic, or a telling of “the story of what happened.” This fourth act is very important, for it represents the way that an epidemic is understood as part of human history. The story can be very different depending on who’s telling it and why, so this is also hotly contested territory.

Diagram of a four-part dramatic structure for comparison.

Students engaged deeply with this text, raising many tough questions and pointing out that gender power and reproductive politics affects non-cis gender, non-heterosexual, and non-gender conforming people, as well as cis-gender, heterosexual women, and expressing a desire for more information about those effects. I recorded two videos in response to student comments and questions, which you can see below.

As a bonus, you can also check out this video art I created in 2016 about zika virus in Puerto Rico.

Did you or someone you know experience zika infection? Or is there something about this reading that you would like to remark on? Feel free to leave your comments or questions in the comment section below!

States, Bodies, and Epidemics

What is an epidemic?

The first couple of critical essays we read in this class (after having read the Camus novel) are two classic articles by Charles Rosenberg, “Explaining Epidemics” (1992) and “What Is An Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective” (1989). These two essays laid out a social theory of epidemics that still holds sway for many scholars in medical anthropology and in the history of medicine fields.

In the essay “What is an epidemic?,” Rosenberg proposes that epidemics can be ‘read’ like plays–that is, that their development can be understood to follow a certain dramatic arc. The three stages he proposes are 1) the “progressive revelation” of the presence of disease, 2) the management of “randomness” as a characteristic of epidemics, and finally 3) the negotiation of a “public response” to the disease.

You may be able to relate or apply this tripartite model to the current pandemic of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), as well as other epidemics. Look, for example, at the graphic below, developed by Prof. Mark Nichter that shows the phases of the 2009 Influenza pandemic.

In the essay “Explaining Epidemics,” Rosenberg discusses the different theories of disease causation that have been used over time to explain the origin of disease. He proposes the framework of “configuration” and “contamination” as the two main approaches. He closes the essay stating that, “these perspectives represent emphases, not answers–elements in a complex discourse about human-kind, fate, and social organization that is never answered, but only reconfigured by each new generation.” I discuss in more detail the relationship between these two theories of disease causation in the video below.

Here is a video I recorded responding to student questions and comments on these two essays. Please share your responses in the comments below!