Student Anne Mckeown worked on these drawings over the period of ten weeks that our “Humans and Non-Human” course lasted this 2020 Spring Quarter at Kalamazoo College. I’m grateful she agreed to let me post these images she sent.
About this art, Anne says: “It has a lot of humans and non-human themes tied it to take you through the piece starting in the bottom left corner we have a piece of blueberry pie that was the focus of a lot of face-times that my two friends and I had. you can see the pie is holding my phone with my friends on the screen represented here as a bunny and a cat! Under that we have two tea cups with flowers and butterflies on them to represent the tea my friends drink together when we do homework. We then have cookies to the left of that which I would bake as an excuse to see my friends. in the bottom right there is my computer with a little explosion of light coming out of it on top of a stack of books that reads Pedagogy of the Oppressed referencing the book of the same name by Paulo Freire, a very important text now more than ever and one that has had a lot of influence over my world view. Above that we see a teenage bunny riding a bike with a backpack which is a reference to all of the teenagers I see getting together in the park across the street from my house. Above that are some houses I see on my walks around the neighborhood and on the top middle sit my two dogs Donner and Rosie with bows around them to look like leashes to symbolize how the walks we take together are really a gift. And then along the left side of the page are some native Illinois wild flowers that I planted in my yard and have had a really great time watching them grow.”
Anne continues, “I’m pretty sure that’s everything in there but this piece was really a helpful way to show appreciation and digest and physically look at the ways I have been spending my time at home and who and what has been contributing to my time here. I think looking at the world through a lens of human vs non-human helps put your world view in perspective and you can easily flush out your personal priorities from there. Doing this work definitely helped me work through what mine is.”
Share your responses to these drawings below in the comments section or email the artist at Anne.McKeown18@kzoo.edu.
Avani S. Ashtekar recorded this awesome podcast focused on the politics of the current pandemic in India and around the world. It’s easy to listen to Avani go off! She has a lot to say and this podcast shows her sharp critical skills.
Nora Blanchard was registered for both my classes this quarter (poor Nora!) so she recorded one podcast where she addresses both courses and shares her reflections on the pandemic and this strange academic term. Highly listenable!
Priya Pokorzynski recorded an impassioned, well-considered, and incisive podcast on COVID-19 and social inequality with regards to health care for her final reflection on “States, Bodies, and Epidemics.” A clear and urgent call for change in the health care system and for justice on a global level.
Thinking about an epidemic, while we all are living through one provokes a vulnerability to be confronted. Human life as well as death is quickly and singularly associated with individual biological conditions in the Coronavirus’s context. Human mortality, as we are made to think about it by mainstream news portals and other information systems, is only linked to a bacteriological and viral entity that encroaches upon the body and feeds on human life –however, viruses and bacteria do more than simply modifying immunological information of the body and becoming entangled in etiological pieces of evidence.
As an epidemic renders morbidity as a part of the collective consciousness, it also exposes and at the same time reproduces injustices in socially lived places, within diverse contexts. Although viruses do have a “frighteningly arbitrary [tendency in] selection of victims” some populations at a micro and a macro or global level, are unequivocally more vulnerable (Rosenberg 1992, 296). In India for example, there is an ongoing exodus of migrant workers. As the daily wagers are hiking on foot on highways and jungles in the excruciating heat to reach home – the epidemic for them plays out differently, and quarantine means mass displacement instead of stagnancy within domestic milieus, making the active marginalization visible.
As we consider that an epidemic can mean different things to different people, in dissimilar geographical positions, and at distinct temporalities while inspiring the adoption of unique survival strategies, can we ask and even attempt to suggest a uniform understanding of what an epidemic is while capturing the varying realities of the populations and their lived experiences? How can we demarcate a singularized comprehension of the virus, when the realities are plural and polar? These questions may be of significance however, we need to understand an epidemic and the shock-waves it sends out by decentering individuals as ‘choice-bearers’ and instead look at states that intensify the imprints, that the disease(s) can leave on the human body which is made vulnerable.
In Merrill Singer’s (2010) essay, Ecosyndemics: And the Coming of Plagues of the Twenty-first Century he defines a syndemic in a “biosocial framework,” where “diseases interact synergistically” (25-26) and impact and infect bodies, and collective meanings of heath or the state of being healthy, by intermingling and crystallizing of two or more diseases, or epidemics. In this process, the interactions between the diseases rather than the individual sub-set of symptoms, become pivotal, and “co-infection” creates a palimpsest of layered oppression among subjugated groups (Singer 2010, 27). Instead of dissecting an epidemic into its various symptoms, its virus or vector, and its consequences on social, biological, characteristics, might it be useful to view them in a conglomeration along with the other disease(s) which already sap the body? In the process of doing so, we cannot remain oblivious to the effects of structural violence and other diseases on the body systems. In the Indian context, COVID-19 can be seen as an additive to the diverse pre-existing conditions like malnutrition, and others such as living in constant stress and compression. This is even more heightened for the migrant workers who are currently walking across state borders to reach their homes.
The nature of interaction amongst the factors becomes even more pernicious for the workers, as they carve out their long paths in the hottest month of the year of India. Singer in his essay points to faster rates of global warming, as “the poor migrate to megalopolises” where “ever-growing, concentrated populations are created and placed at risk of swift-moving infections” (32). In India, the migration of the poor due to COVID-19 is reversed, and there are different ways in which this configures. An urban exodus is used as a means to disproportionately criminalize them, like spraying them with chemical disinfectant liquid, moreover, the migrants become subjected to the extremely high temperatures. This can cause heat-strokes, and wearing inappropriate footwear like rubber-soled flip-flops often causes heat boils, many have rashes from the synthetic fabric of their clothing due to friction too. In this way, the migrants share an additionally oppressive relation with these material objects which adds a layer of subjugation, apart from the external factors. Something as intimate as clothing gives rise to a diseased condition.
The anthropocentrically (over)produced heat along with socially generated oppressions implicates that the syndemics and ecosyndemics in fact, cannot remain distinct subsets but overlap in the bodies and lives, here of the migrant workers’ which has “direct, indirect, multiple, interacting, and significant” (34) consequences, threatening mainly the structurally disadvantaged. Although Singer calls these disease “coterminous,” (35) in this case instead of being absolutely coextensive, they act together asynchronously as they affect and infect the human body, with different intensities at unique points in time which is constantly dominated by social structures that are hierarchically concretized. The migrant’s body is now made to become a host to a “supersyndemic” (Singer 2010, 30). The condition of a “supersyndemic” (30) is dynamic and fluid and exceeds the traditional meaning of what an epidemic may consist – apart from biology it is also the social relations that consist of it. This allows us to have an expanded understanding of an epidemic as an entity which when it comes even seemingly in contact with a human body, whether infecting it or not, can intensify the previously existing conditions and marginalize an individual or a population further. An epidemic acquires a social life of its own, and the narratives of the experiences suffer from lethal discourses from those in power.
In my attempt to conceptualize what the characteristics of an epidemic may consist, Charles Rosenberg’s tripartite dramaturgic model was of significance (1989). In India, it is significant to suggest that in fact, two different temporalities of the same model circulate(d). While a part of the Indian population followed the three acts of epidemiological pattern linearly, the migrant workers did not experience it in the same manner and temporality especially due to a lack of information.
As “Act I” “Progressive revelation” (3) unfolded, it created an equal amount of awareness and panic amongst people. The “Act II – managing randomness” (4) was a violent and instructional response of the state and affected populations disparately. As the lockdown was announced, with only four hours in advance the task of urban dwellers to store up essentials was relatively simpler than those who were forced to make the decision to travel thousands of miles to their home towns and villages. We can begin to see how migrant workers slip away from the linearity of the model, and swing in between the Acts I and II, as the workers attempt to understand what the virus is and accept its predominant presence, they are constantly revealed to the consequences directly unrelated and at the same time linked to the virus while walking – like dehydration, starvation, and excessive fatigue, while also being subjected to the government’s (in)action as well as managing the randomness and unpredictability of the situations they face. In the deviation of the second act, the disparities become painfully visible and necropolitical in nature. Various times some migrant workers were not allowed to enter their home-towns or sent back or away from the borders.
Similarly, Act II and “Act III – Negotiating Public Response” (7) meddle as well. The special Shramik trains were announced finally in the first week of May to transport the workers to their home states. However, Karnataka state’s chief minister canceled them because multiple builder corporations expressed that the mass departure of the workers would slow down or completely halt the construction work that must jump-start after the lockdown ends. There was resistance and fortunately, the order was taken back. Embroiled in capitalist schemes of dispossession and dehumanization, we see the many gradations and tiers of the multiplicity of characteristics of an epidemic that cling to the socially marginalized communities, which may remain obscure if we insist on a model of a linear form.
The “Act IV” proposed by Adriana M. Garriga-López and Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz suggests a “phase of resolution” or “the establishing of the narrative” (91) to grasp the characteristics of an epidemic. This phase emphasizes the making of a narrative or a meaning-making post-epidemic, which is unique to each community, however, this does not have to be limited to the decline of the epidemic as narrative making is continual. Can we say that an epidemic is only what we remember from it? The fourth act becomes complicated as the authors suggest when we think about ‘who’ participates and ‘how’ they do in the course of remembering (Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz 2019, 91). Significantly, but not solely, the Coronavirus discourses are presently dominated by those in positions of power. Active operation of the “narrativization” of the Coronavirus began for the government of India, within days of the quarantine period: The Prime Minister requested the nation to thank essential workers, first with claps and clamoring, in the following weeks by the lighting of diyas and phone torches, and most recently when the military showered flowers on frontline workers (Garriga-López 2020). In considering ‘who’ remembers and ‘how,’ government also gives meaning to a ‘when’ and ‘for whom’ this narrative is produced. Within the modes of the subjectivity of understanding an epidemic, there are constant interactions between these elements that are forming, de-forming, and re-forming a volatile “discursive field,” where the epidemic risks becoming a socially dictated memory itself (Foucault 1972, 28). The attention that the acts of the government receive, systematically fractures and conceals the narratives of the migrant workers, like the deaths of 14 migrant workers who were killed under a goods train, as they were exposed to bare life.
The spatial power dynamics also play a role in the making of the narrative, as much in present as in the future. Pathology induced spatialization reifies hierarchies of power, the body of the homeless migrant worker is criminalized, even though the homelessness it is a byproduct of the state’s choices. This spatialization offers a highly subjective “telling of the story.” (Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz 2019, 90). As the workers are forced to the exterior – of the home, the home-city, and the home-state, they become storied instead of being story-tellers, by the government, and by us via Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp forwards. Paradoxically, as we are confined within our homes, our reach is pervasive by being connected to the virtual networks, as we move within the virtual spaces, whereas the workers on the outside are rendered stagnant due to the inability to voluntarily move and also by them being disconnected the networks. Thus, the relationship enforced upon an individual that is to be shared with the state evolves differently within the context of an epidemic. Criminalization is heightened and reflects a certain embodied understanding of a body that not only is or could be infected but one that could also infect. The narrative shifts quickly from the virus to the stigmatized potential infector.
Even when the individual is a temporary host, and the vector is permanent in the environment, the state’s politics are concentrated on the body. This is internalized and the epidemic also becomes a part of the embodied memory. Thus, as Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz suggest, in the making of the narrative there are “discursive battles,” (91) implying not only the difficulty of the making of a narrative, but also sustaining it in the collective memory. To conclude, the virus and its discourses thrive on the unaccountability of the government in India, like in many other parts of the world. In the case of the migrant workers, they forced into a subjugation and perform it by the movements which interplay with the “supersyndemic” conditions, however, their actions constantly alter, mold, and memorialize the epidemic in ways that might show us if not what, then how an epidemic becomes what it does.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
Garriga-López, Adriana M and Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz. “Becoming Endemic: The Zika Virus Epidemic and Gendered Power in Puerto Rico.” In Gender, Health, and Society in Contemporary Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Ronnie Anthony Shepard and Shir Lerman Ginzburg, 83-91. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019.
Singer, Merrill. “Ecosyndemics: Global Warming and the Coming Plagues of the Twenty-first Century.” In Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present, edited by D. Ann Herring and Alan C. Swedlund, 21-37. New York: Berg, 2010.
We are all in the midst of transition as this wild term winds down…I’ll be taking a lot with me from “States, Bodies, and Epidemics” and I thought it would be appropriate to mark the end by sharing what I’ve been thinking about during this time.
As the weirdest and most unimaginable term of school winds to a close, my thoughts in general come to ending and closing- death in a certain way. Death is naturally a topic that is parceled into the landscape of pestilence. In navigating death and dying, we rely heavily on the shared meaning held in our communities and the histories of our communities to breathe meaning into our experience. Now more than ever, individuals and communities are faced with death and its significance on a totally unprecedented scale.
With the convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent wave of protests against the racist murder of Black Americans at the hands of state power through the police force of this land, death and dying in the Black community must especially be the voice of our collective listening, the suffering for which we must have space in our hearts, and the dignity which we aim to humbly uphold. The death care industry in this country is one made up largely of small businesses who serve local communities, and it is small businesses which suffer disproportionately by the hand of pestilence.
Furthermore, it is small businesses that were formed by Black Americans, create employment in Black communities, and provide services in the Black community that will suffer the most among those businesses. The terrible irony of the plague is that even small businesses in death care are put at grave risk, because not a single COVID-19 body may be taken into their care. And the dead are denied the appropriate rites of passage that give meaning to the living. The contagion and the state prevent it. Indeed it is in the name of public health, but what public health is there where people can neither make peace with their grief nor share the joy of life with family after the death of a loved one? How will we live our lives if we are forced to accept a grief which is itself half-buried? We MUST grieve to live, and there is no life, no health, in this.
Any philosophical individual who wishes to understand the meaning of life must first understand the meaning of death, because it is from this that we fashion our glimpse at the world. They are of the same substance. And to jeopardize one’s path to making meaning in life and in death is to strike at the very core of their humanity- an offense that should deeply terrify us all. An offense made possible by racist institutions and the limits of human empathy, and magnified by pestilence.
This is an injustice acted out on the basis of our differences as human beings, but it strikes at that life-giving process of meaning-making that we all, though in different forms, are intimately linked together in. This is a call to justice- to act out of love for manyness and oneness- an injustice on the basis of difference is an injustice against what we all share, and to threaten what we share must be felt by us all. This is the call to justice and love in the time of the plague and the somber harvest we must reap from it in the time to come as well.
Here are some great examples of powerful student work from students in my “Humans and Non-Humans” class this Spring Quarter 2020 at Kalamazoo College. Below is a list of student blogs and websites. I’m impressed by the range and depth of student work, as well as the depth of feeling, compassion, and, why not, the humanity of their entries. Enjoy!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!