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System, Space and Ecobiopolitics: A Conversation with Valerie Olson About “Into the Extreme”

  [This week we present excerpts of an interview with Valerie Olson conducted by Lisa Messeri focused on Olson’s new book, Into the Extreme (U Minnesota P, 2018). Valerie Olson is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California – Irvine whose work focuses on the anthropology of environmental systems, technologies and extremes.  Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University focused on the role of place and place-making in scientific work and the author of Placing Outer Space (Duke UP, 2016). The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.] Lisa: Into the Extreme is an ethnography of human space flight based on fieldwork at NASA Johnson Space Center most prominently, but then also other space sites throughout the United States. What I think is most significant about this book is that it activates “system” as an ethnographic object. Valerie Olson, the author (read more...)

Does ‘Going Sighted’ Make Life Better? Undoing the Desire to Cure Blindness in Russia

In 2017, two Russian deafblind patients—Grigoriy Ulianov and Antonina Zakharchenko—received retinal implants, or so-called “bionic eyes.” Both patients were selected from a pool of applicants, having met the criteria of acquired blindness through retinitis pigmentosa and a capacity to perceive light but not contours of objects. Immediately after, the country’s major media outlets burst with numerous media reports. The titles ranged from the celebratory, such as Breakthrough in Russian Medicine: First Patient Got Bionic Eyes; Magician? Just a Doctor; The Miracle of the Bionic Eye; to the more restrained, with Second Russian Patient Will Receive a Cybereye This Fall; I See But Not Like You Do: On How The First Russian Patient with the Bionic Eye Lives. The overall tone of the reports was marked by magic, wonder, gratitude for the doctors, and profound satisfaction with the procedures. They were mostly celebratory and hopeful about the new possibility of converting up to (approximately) 50,000 blind Russian individuals to sight. In the context of a new federal policy orientation aimed at making Russia inclusive of different abilities, these reports emerged as a token of a hopeful future, in which problems with the well-being of blind individuals would be solved not through systemic measures, but instead, through eradicating blindness. I follow Alison Kafer (2013) in understanding this fantasy of desired technological enhancement as part of the normative curative public imagination. (read more...)

Emilia Sanabria on Bodily Plasticity in Brazil

Each year, Platypus invites the recipients of the annual Forsythe Prize to reflect on their award-winning work. This week’s post is from 2017’s honorable mention Emilia Sanabria, for her book Plastic Bodies (Duke, 2016). In early November of last year, Judith Butler was attacked during her visit to Brazil. She was in Brazil as a member of the organizing committee of a conference on “The Ends of Democracy,” held in São Paulo. Her visit drew protests from the Catholic extreme-right who assumed she was in Brazil to speak about gender and undercut catholic family values by questioning the biological “facts” of sex. (read more...)

A Second Project from Hedgehog to Fox and Back

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth entry in the Second Project Series. This series explores an often undiscussed moment in professionalization: the shift from the research you began as a graduate student to the new work undertaken as an early- or mid-career scholar. This series is especially interested in personal journeys and institutional features that enabled or constrained this transition. If you are interested in contributing, please contact Lisa. Almost a decade ago, I presented a dissertation outline to my graduate advisor. Scanning the page with rising incredulity, she decreed, “Well, it looks like a great book, but it’s not a dissertation.” Such encounters transformed my protean liberal-arts-trained being into someone who could play the hedgehog-like scholar (Berlin 1953). In his classic essay on The Hedgehog and the Fox, philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguishes the hedgehog, whose work builds one big idea or program, from the fox, who chases diverse ideas without subordinating them to a core claim. Hedgehogs: Dante, Plato, Proust. Foxes: Shakespeare, Aristotle, Joyce. We trickster-loving anthropologists may fancy ourselves foxes. But writing a dissertation reads as consistent with hedgehog culture and personality. The dissertation or dissertation-based book assembles ideas into an edifice, into one Idea. Foxes may lean more toward article-production. Berlin knew, of course, that the distinction was overdrawn. We’re all a bit of both. And, when I completed the dissertation and began to experience the academic job market, I had to learn, once more, when to play the fox and when to play the hedgehog. (read more...)