My Little Buttercup, Or what happened when I visited a community health center near Bo

I wanted to see a community health center, where clinicians might have seen suspected Ebola cases three years ago. So, I asked my driver, Idrissa, whether he could ask some of his local contacts about the location of the health center in Gondama. I hadn’t been to Gondama since 2003. It wasn’t too difficult to get to, we knew. I had, in fact, seen a sign for the place when we were driving elsewhere. So, on Wednesday morning, we drove over a weather pitted road to the health center. When we arrived, a guard opened the gate to the modest facility. At least a half dozen men and a few women were in the waiting area.

Odd, I thought. My experience was that women tended to go to health centers, but not a lot of men – not because men don’t get sick or hate health centers, but because women and children are often the target of community health interventions (but that is another discussion for another day).

Two women greeted me, and nodding toward the group of men and women in the waiting area, told me that the community health workers (CHWs, they called them) were all there, ready.

Odd, I thought. Impolitic as it was to think or say, I didn’t really care about CHWs. Not today. But I did ask whether there were any female CHWs because, judging from the small group gathered, there didn’t appear to be any. “Yes, there are women there,” they said almost indignantly. I corrected myself and asked sheepishly, “But are there more men than women, or about the same number of both?” They laughed – more like harrumphed – and told me, “Well, it’s not 50-50,” a reference not to an actual ratio, but the way gender parity was often discussed colloquially in Sierra Leone’s development industry.

I followed the women – I’ll call them Amie and Fati – into an office where we sat at a table. The small room was crowded with furniture, and the walls were covered, predictably, with posters from the ministry of health related to women and children’s health. They began to interrogate me about what I wanted to know, and asked me if I wanted to look at their rosters, and when I would be talking to the CHWs who had gathered to meet me. The CHWs had been waiting and were becoming impatient.

Then it occurred to me: they thought I was someone else! (The reference in the title of this post is to that mistaken identity scene from Three Amigos, if you hadn’t caught it). I told them, “I’m not here to meet with CHWs.” I told them that I was just around and happened to come to Gondama. I didn’t have any specific questions, really, but did they happen to see Ebola three years ago? Yes, but they referred them to the district hospital. Having been a consultant once upon a time, I mentioned that unlike a consultant, I was not interested in extracting information from their registers, their CHWs or them. I simply wanted to observe. Their eyes widened. But surely, I was from an NGO. Nope, I wasn’t. This kind of admission – that you had no NGO affiliation or specific agenda besides ‘observing’ — can make you seem unserious if not untrustworthy. Everyone has a mission, whether they admit to it or not.

The facility’s in-charge, as in most of the places I visited during this short, unannounced trip, had been called to Freetown for a meeting. Whatever his shortcomings, among them was that did not give them enough information about who would be visiting, their purpose, or even the time these inquiring strangers would be arriving. I suspected that their confession was a bit of shade towards their co-worker, but it was also some shade towards the process itself: people were coming all the time to gather information; strangers like me were interchangeable with each other. The logos on our white Land Cruisers could be swapped and they would be none the wiser; the stranger could be from Boston or Washington or London, Johannesburg or Nairobi. The source of the information to be extracted was a circle of gathered CHWs or maternal registers, or immunization charts mounted on the walls or…

“Won’t you come and look at our labor and delivery area?” asked Amie. Inside the maternity ward were a couple of midwives who asked me if I too was a midwife. I told them no, but I’m a mother of two. (No comparison, though. Their work can be rough). There were four or five padded tables separated by curtains and fitted with stirrups. In a separate room, there were a few beds for new mothers who would, after their deliveries, be discharged after 72 hours. On a wall near the entrance, I read the instructions about when to deliver oxytocin, and briefly recounted the induced delivery of my daughter five years ago. Then I told them about the worried look on my obstetrician’s face when she couldn’t stop the bleeding during my second delivery. I mentioned how my son’s heart rate began to decline rapidly, how I strained to block out any semblance of panic by pushing. “Eeeeeehhh,” they said almost in unison, sucking their teeth at the very real trauma of childbirth. But the boy was healthy and strong. I would have panicked for nothing. I reached for my phone. “Yu wan si mi pikin dem?” Yes, sure, they said. I showed them pictures of my babies. Then I gave them my card and said I’d be going so they could prepare for the real guest.

They wished me luck on my quest — whatever it was. I wished for them a not-too-much longer wait for the stranger who wanted to meet with the CHWs.

Facebook reminded me that streets have names: a dispatch from Freetown

When I was in Bo on August 15, 2017, I received a reminder on Facebook that I had a appeared on Democracy Now three years ago, with Laurie Garrett and Lawrence Gostin, to talk about the then escalating Ebola crisis in West Africa. During her epic screed — it nearly left me speechless, that’s how epic and screed-y it was — Garrett emphasized that if the disease hit a “chaotic” megacity like Lagos, it would be a disaster of epic proportions.

Because there are no street maps. (Trust her: she’s been there. And oh, yes, Boko Haram.)

She might have been right about the disaster a generalized Ebola outbreak in a megacity would have caused (there’s a reason that Contagion starts in Hong Kong, no?), but where she was wrong: there ARE maps and the streets DO have names. (Yes, U2 is on tour and I plan to milk the shit out of the Joshua Tree album when it’s all said and done).

Anyway, this idea that there is a place where the streets have no name, and that is a threat to disease control efforts: That’s both beside the point and constitutive of it.

Garrett was correctly suggesting that one tends to understand dynamics of disease transmission, and therefore, of disease control, in relation to person, place and time. That’s epidemiology 101. Her mistake was in suggesting that people cannot be properly assessed in relation to their place, simply because she finds a place to be disordered, or ‘chaotic’ (to use her words). But make no mistake: somebody knows that place’s name and how to get there. And some of that knowledge is, indeed, on maps. Mental and cognitive maps, formal paper maps, and yes, GPS enabled mobile phones. (Lagosians, they’re just like us!)

This seems like a rather literal, practical and basic point, but I was so mad when she said that, that I nearly punched something. (The camera man confided to me afterwards that he was also angry and annoyed by her remarks, and he had much less invested in this whole thing, as far as I could tell). I was mad because she foregrounded her own discomfort with spaces she found illegible, and therefore, ungovernable, and projected it on to what was ultimately a successful campaign to suppress the transmission of Ebola to others in Lagos. (There are many opinions on why it was successful, but I am not here to talk about that. Let’s just imagine that it only had a little to do with the (non)failure of street maps).

So back to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, and capital of a district that witnessed many Ebola cases. Driving or walking around and asking people if they ‘sabi’ (know) a place is generally my way of navigating in cities and towns of Sierra Leone. This is because I am terrible with street names that don’t fall along a major public transport route, and because it’s a good way to know wetin olman sabi — what things ‘everyone knows.’ It is also a good way to practice my language, because let’s face it, if you can follow directions to “streets that have no names,” you are improving your language skills.

After visiting the district hospitals in Bo and Kenema during this woefully short trip, I realized that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. I wanted to see what became of ETUs. I am 100% sure I missed several places, but I wanted to see how easy it would be to find them without lots of planning or asking around beforehand. I asked folks for directions to community health centers. I found two and likely would’ve found several more if I had had the time. I googled ETU locations and found a WHO spreadsheet with GPS coordinates. I followed one set of coordinates to the wrong place, those ‘coordinates’ being the name of the place itself. And then, using the GPS on my phone, I followed the coordinates to a neighborhood where residents were pretty sure there had been no ETU. (The coordinates led to very small parcel of land beside a hotel). But when I talked to staff at the health centers, they would point in the direction of a place and name its location, explaining their place’s relationship to that place.

What does any of this mean, and why does it matter? For me, this trip to Sierra Leone was about wayfinding and orientation; there was no plight (as Auntie Mary, an in-charge at one of health centers called it) or mission, besides finding “there” — which seemed to change every few hours each day — and hearing what people had to say once I got there. Perhaps a fancier way to put it is that I am processing the ways I am reading landscapes in relation to others’ own readings, and the ways that landscapes are subject(ed) to “local” memories. How does this stuff matter for people in the everyday?


Politics and memory in the fever archive: A tribute to Rosalind Shaw

Here is the text for the talk I gave during a celebration of the work of Rosalind Shaw

Politics and memory in the fever archive

First, I need to apologize to the discussants and the audience.

Two things happened between the time I sent this already fragmented paper to Jean and Rosalind.

  1. I participated in a panel called “The Humanitarian In the Mirror,” which featured a cross-disciplinary discussion about humanitarian images, representation and whiteness. So the things I am going to say differ a bit from what I sent you last week.
  2. Immediately after that panel I went to the movies — this requires a celebration of grandmothers who are willing to watch a four-year old and an eight month old. I  saw the horror film, Get Out. So the apology to the audience is that this talk may contain some spoilers if you’re planning to see the movie.

From the panel in Baltimore, I met Catherine Mathers, an expert on student voluntourism and the racial politics and ethics of humanitarian representation. In her paper, she highlighted the role of parody, focusing specifically on Savior Barbie, and how such projects facilitate some degree of self-critique — specifically of whiteness and savior industry — without fundamentally challenging the unequal sociopolitical dynamics undergirding them. After seeing “Get Out,” I realized that a finer point to her argument, and she certainly confirmed this in a later twitter discussion,  is that a structural critique of whiteness, particularly today, requires a different narrative genre: not parody or satire — our most common fallback in this post-Colbert/White Savior Barbie era–BUT HORROR.

The film follows Chris Washington, a black photographer, as he travels with Rose, his white girlfriend (does she have a job?), to her family’s home in a wealthy white town (like the witch cities Rosalind describes in her work). He is warned by his close friend, Rod, a TSA agent, to not go on the trip, but Chris ignores his friend’s warning and finds himself the victim of a plot designed by whites to purchase and inhabit black bodies, which we ultimately learn is driven by their desire to appropriate and use what they perceive to be the most valuable elements of black life and existence.

Today, I want to read this insight alongside Rosalind’s body of work on politics and memory and my recollections of the Ebola outbreak in a book length essay entitled “The Fever Archive.” Some of you may recognize it as a play on Derrida’s Archive Fever, which I came to through my discussions with friend and mentor, Byron Good. I want to begin by telling you a bit about myself through recounting a bit about my parents, whom I also saw this past weekend, in South Carolina.

Searching for Mende-ness

During my visit to South Carolina, my father, an amateur genealogist and historian, and retired social worker, recounted his experience of his visit to Sierra Leone. His voice cracked under the residual strain of a mild stroke and congestive heart failure that put him in the hospital and through months of physical therapy last year. In many ways, I suspect dad’s long stories are a way for him to reckon with the possibility that he will eventually no longer be able to tell these stories, that the histories that he has foraged from the archives, his memories of the past, will vanish into the ether, never to be recovered.

I’m overcome by the exhaustion I hear in his voice but I hold my tongue about the choices he makes about his health: my father still drives himself 45 minutes to teach a course to young social workers at South Carolina State, a public historically black university in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where, nearly 50 years ago, patrolmen fired upon black students protesting segregated local businesses. My father’s weekly circular commutes to that place feels like a less grand return: it was his first landing spot upon his arrival from Seattle in the early 1960s to study ministry before he moved to Benedict College, in Columbia, SC, to complete a degree in sociology. The town is also one of the childhood homes of former republican South Carolina governor, and current US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. Her immigrant parents taught at another local historically black college when they arrived from India, and as I like to tell people, put her in a high school in Orangeburg, formed by white families who opposed desegregation — rituals of the past becoming institutionalized and embodied in figures who are held up by the current administration as evidence of “diversity.”

As Dara, my eight-month-old, cries in one of the bedrooms in the back of my parents’ house, my father has pulled out a couple of genealogy books, showing the migrations of his ancestors from Mississippi and Alabama, to Tennessee, Ohio and, later, to Washington state. A Seattleite born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, my father’s interest in the movements of his people had been a several decades long project. He pored over census records and consumed lay and academic historiography of the region, seeking not only origins, but also memories, which Rosalind has reminded us, are separate projects of reckoning with the past and with history, as it is embodied and experienced — as it lives in everyday social and cultural practices.

Dad stops to catch his breath. I jump in as he complains about tainted drinking water, and oversells the deliciousness of cold, crisp lagers like Star and Club. (They aren’t really that great). He reminisces about the winding bus route from Accra to Kumasi. His story quickly devolves into humorous accounts of intestinal upset, the embodied memory and experience of fevers and bodily discomfort that become an essential part of the story binding a certain class of fellow travelers. He detailed the sweats, shivers, shakes, and runs that indelibly shaped his bodily experience of moving through settings unknown, settings to which his body had no time to be accustomed: the two-week vacation does not allow one to sample and experience everyday life without consequence. Fever, chills, diarrhea, nausea, also become deep embodied memory of place.

In “Get Out,” Missy, Rose’s psychiatrist mom, sends Chris into his sunken place with the power of suggestion, and the faint tinkle of a silver spoon against a tea cup. We see a hypnotized Chris falling, descending into deep darkness, with nothing or no one to catch his fall. Law Ware describes the sunken place as a kind of “black collective unconscious wherein we hide our pain from ourselves.” Professor Christina Sharpe might call it the “hold” like that of a ship — a place that signifies and embodies both the life and afterlife of slavery.  In the process of extraction and appropriation of the black body by white, wealthy consumers at the parents’ yearly dinner party, it is the step before surgical “coagulation”, which Robert Johnson, Jr describes as “the inherent failure of integration, the danger it presents to black people and consciousness, and how proximity to whiteness…” may both divine some blessings (first configured as the relationship between Rose and Chris — or Chris and Rod, for that matter) but also the most “toxic of curses.”

Dara is still crying. My mom is with him, remarking on the old world knowledge passed down in her little segregation era village, called Britton’s Neck — the place with the dirt road named after Doc Taylor, the high school principal (her grandfather) who refused integration because of the damage it would do to black children and the quality of their education, leaving the Britton’s Neck School District — until recently, I believe — the smallest school district in the state of South Carolina. When my mother perused the census records to learn more about her mother’s childhood, she saw that this same principal grandfather had crossed out the racial classification of “Negro” and scrawled “African,” in its place. The US state project to erase African history and intimate connection between Africans and African Americans were captured in this minor act of refusal and reinscription, leaving a mark on how we came to understand my grandma Pauline’s revolutionary spirit and the continuity in feminist generations following.

During her visit to Sierra Leone, and armed with knowledge that she shares a genetic marker with Mende people in an African ancestry database, my mother searched for signs of the country in her childhood, in the way her parents and grandparents cultivated and ate their food (greens, sweet potatoes, and of course, rice — which we ate nearly every day in my childhood home). She wondered aloud about the names they called white people in their tight knit and all-black community — which sadly was not puu moi but buckra, which is said to be derived from an Efik word (mbaraka).

Ebola’s ethnographic archive

Angela Garcia has recently noted that it may be “productive for conceiving ethnography as a kind of archival endeavor that connects and unfolds affective, material, and temporal fields.” As I am listening to my father, brother and nephew go back and forth about the history of my mother’s people, a text from Paul Farmer, a mentor, old friend, and vocal admirer of Rosalind’s work, as if summoned by some ancestral spirit, pops up on my mobile phone. He needs a citation for something I’ve written. Paul knows all too well how the ethnographic archive — even when divorced from and no longer sheltered by the state or administered for use by the state — derives its value from/through a political economy of publication (making it (nominally) public), which includes increasing citation counts, mapping scholarly kin networks, and (viral) transmission and circulation of knowledge about the epidemic. In one of the pieces, Ebola’s Keywords, I wrote the following about the term “survivor” as it had been used throughout the outbreak. Here, I hope to draw on the conceptual connections suggested in its definitions, between property and what remains, between affect and kinship:


person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.

1.1 The remainder of a group of people or things:

1.2 A person who copes well with difficulties in their life:

1.3 A joint tenant who has the right to the whole estate on the other’s death.

As Ebola treatment units expanded in late 2014 and early 2015, health workers from all over the world came to assist in caring for Ebola patients. Ebola interventions focused on clinical treatment as much as prevention, isolation, containment and “dignified death.” With this expansion of resources in the affected countries, the number of survivors increased, bringing down previous case fatality estimates from 90% to 30-40%.  A person was said to have “survived” Ebola once she had cleared the virus and recovered from the worst of the symptoms.

But it wasn’t until clinicians and epidemiologists saw a large number of survivors that they learned that surviving an acute Ebola infection was not necessarily the end of illness. Months after being declared “virus-free,” individuals who had been infected with Ebola continued to transmit the disease through sexual intercourse; others suffered from post-Ebola syndrome, a collection of symptoms related to Ebola infections: ophthalmological problems; musculoskeletal pain; hearing problems; and other neurological disorders.

There were other implications of having survived an Ebola infection. Survivors were said to have developed immunity to the disease, at least in the short term. This caused some speculation (in many senses of the word) about the value and use of survivors. Most of this discussion was centered on how to enlist and exploit their labor as caregivers and their biological material — serum developed from their blood, for example — whether their blood is a gift, purchased, or obtained in other ways. It is no accident that this discussion occurred within academic institutions, rather than in spaces of humanitarian care. Ebola had created an opportunity to expand research portfolios, publications and institutional prestige. In a press release from the University of Texas, for example, a research scientist at the university describes his work in terms of using survivors or other immune individuals as laborers: “If we can reliably identify who they are, they could become people who help with disease-control tasks, and that would prevent exposing others who aren’t immune.” An Emory University press release is less subtle in drawing links between extraction and scientific research in Ebola-affected communities. The author describes how university scientists have received funding to “min[e] immune systems of Ebola survivors for therapeutic gold.”

Such statements raise issues about markets, the commodification of survival and survivorship, about the production, extraction, refinement and distribution of survivor blood and labor.  Who benefits from understanding survivors as repositories to be visited, excavated and processed to derive professional, cultural and economic capital? What can be done to ensure that the benefits of these efforts can be recalibrated to care for the people who will surely be affected in future outbreaks? That survivors may be experiencing symptoms that outlast their contagiousness and immunity, conditions that exceed the “use-value” of their blood or intimate labor, has only recently been discussed, and in a very limited manner. It is here, again, that the long history of the region’s fevers, feuds [1], and trade come together in the actual blood of survivors and the markets in which they are imbricated.

[1] I owe this phrasing to Paul Farmer, who is developing a manuscript around this theme.


Developing an analysis plan (ethnographic data)

The other day, I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of data I had collected over the past four or five years for my global surgery project. I’m trying to finish up the book proposal, and I realized that there were bits of data that I hadn’t taken into consideration: should that stuff be in the book, or should I write articles? Should I just assume that none of those materials would be used at all? After mulling it over, I decided I would create an analysis plan. Back in the consulting days, when I designed and coordinated survey-based data collection (and charged cash-strapped NGOs a daily rate for my services), I had very little time to collect and analyze data and write up my findings. To stay within budget, I would usually take a couple of planning days to develop an analysis plan — not only to get clients on board with the scaled back version of their overly ambitious terms of reference, but also to make sure I could write a useful report quickly and as thoroughly as these short timelines allowed.

I’ve since moved on to “academic research” using primarily ethnographic data (which, yes, can include surveys, but in my case, usually does not). But I think the analysis plan template remains the same. Here, I’ll use my Twitter data as an example, even though it is probably the “rawest” and under-theorized part of my data set. (In other words, I think there has to be more said about what Twitter as social data and as social practice can tell us about specific, evolving social phenomena. But that’s another story for another day.)

  1. Decide on an overall timeline for preliminary analysis. I would like to complete preliminary analysis in 8-12 weeks. This means that each of the column headings below will correspond to a week or set of weeks.
  2. List all sources/types of data (can be two columns, e.g. Twitter, tweets). I have “scraped” twitter on my topic for over four years, using a google script. The script has produced a fairly large spreadsheet full of tweets, with some basic information about each of those tweets (RTs, Faves, etc). I also have collected odds and ends on Evernote (screenshots, radio interviews, photos, maps/images),  compiled field notes during participant observation at meetings, written detailed notes on interviews, created a database of documents from various archives; and transcribed and translated interview transcripts. Each data type/source corresponds to a set of research questions that I came into the project with. As the project evolved, I added more (sub)questions to add texture to observations.
  3. Link data source/types with specific research questions. For my Twitter data, for example, I have the following questions: How, if at all, do my interlocutors on this topic (hashtag) use Twitter? What topics do people tweeting under this hashtag write about? What types of people are in the networks coalescing around this hashtag? How has this group changed over time? Who are the nodes in these networks? Has this changed?
  4. Add new sheets as needed. Other issues with analysis and collection may arise as you sort data piles and link them to their proper set of research questions. In the case of my Twitter data, I realized that I may need to reach out to more people for interviews so I added an “interviewees” sheet.
    • This question came up as I scanned the list of tweets and the most prominent Twitter handles: have I talked to these people, or researched the material they have made available about themselves?
    • The interviewee sheet includes columns like ID, Name, Title, website, twitter handle, link to interview notes or transcripts. (I also have an “interview” data source in my general list, so this is helpful for tracking those data).
  5. Finalize duration allotted for this piece of analysis. As far as timeline goes, I have decided that I can handle this set of Twitter questions in three weeks. (if you’re fancy, you might create a Gantt chart, or link this to an Asana project, so that you’ll have a nice visual representation of progress on the project). 
  6. Follow your plan and update as necessary. Flexibility is key!

So, this is a rough sketch of my plan. I believe it could have better/more detail that would allow for tracking themes, but I’m relying on my work in Dedoose for this. Do you have an analysis plan template? What does it look like?

Falling in love: the reductive seduction of social entrepreneurship

Or is it the seductive reduction of social entrepreneurship? I’ve seen Courtney Martin’s essay circulating for the past few days; I read it amongst a slew of development articles popping up in my Twitter timeline. The point of the essay appears to be: don’t go to work on development/social change projects in other countries simply because it sounds like their problems are more interesting and easier to solve than the ones in your own backyard. She provides this (and several other nuggets of) pithy advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs and aid types:

  • … don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.
  • Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.
  • Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.

Perhaps by design, the essay manages to reduce social entrepreneurship to its core virtues and values: a story featuring “you” as an agent of change, who, above all, travels (“go”), falls in love (“is passionate”), acts (“does something”), talks (“engages in conversations”) and solves (“complex”) problems.

It seems that the underlying premise is that if you expect the work to be difficult and complex and you at least act like you don’t have the answers, then … the work you set out to do will be successful? In some ways, it’s circular logic. Why go if you don’t have a “project” or business in mind? What are you listening to (and to whom), if not just for a place to slot in your idea? Why assume that there’s something for YOU to do and to FALL IN LOVE with?

There’s a lot more to say about the essay, including the Tostan case study (which raises questions of temporality vis-a-vis development-type projects and whiteness), the notion of the “unexotic” and her insistence that “reduction” isn’t malicious, but there is other writing to be done.

David Bowie and Sonic Parody

For most of my 20s and early 30s, I was an avid –some friends might even say rabid — karaoke singer. I often sang Bowie songs, even when I knew it was a terrible idea. (“Ziggy Stardust,” anyone?) “China Girl” was a staple when I sang weekly at Deon’s karaoke gig at the now-defunct Irish Eyes, in Somerville, Massachusetts.

The other day, I was walking my daughter to school, when we began to sing together. I drifted from ABCs to “China Girl.” As the words came out of my mouth, I cringed and immediately switched to what she calls “The Number Song.” (That’s the pinball song from old school Sesame Street). It should be obvious why that happened. I mean. On its face, the song just feels like your typical Pinkerton bullshit.  (Yeah, sorry-not-sorry, Weezer.)

I suck at writing about music, but the essence of my admiration for Bowie’s version of that song is that feels like sonic parody. It pokes fun at orientalism. A close friend who sang it at one of our karaoke spots in Atlanta said it always unsettled her to sing the “…visions of swastikas…” line because it was “the highest note in the song.” Is that the point? Or am I imagining it?

It’s in the white of my eyes.

Finally, I keep referring to “Bowie’s version” because, as you know, there’s an earlier Iggy Pop version. They co-wrote the song. And it wasn’t until I thought to play them back-to-back, that I could even begin to think of Bowie’s version as parodic. Both have the pseudo-Chinese lick/riff, but in Bowie’s version it feels so stark, clear, intentional. The music video doesn’t hurt. (Or maybe it does).

Anyway, this whole post is me trying to deal with my feelings about Bowie’s death. I am at a loss as I try to reconcile how gutted I felt about the death of someone I did not know, and who, like his musician cohort, did crappy stuff. But I did know his music, and it’s glorious.

Two videos. The first (h/t Erin McKeown) involves one of my favorite vocalists, Luther Vandross, who did the vocal arrangements on the Young Americans album. The second is the infamous “China Girl.”




A curious conversation about ‘the war on obesity’ and biopolitics

This month, I am using the blog to work through some sticking points I encountered during my month off of writing. This one is about biopolitics and race.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to attend two presentations by Susan Greenhalgh about her new book, Fat Talk Nation.  (How one ends up at the same presentation twice in a year is basically a story about scholarly obligation and ‘face’ that I don’t need to get into, but yeah).  I’ve been prompted to write about it because it’s a series of talks that has *bugged* me, so much so that I found myself talking about it over lunch with colleagues, riffing off it in the office kitchen with graduate students, and having this sort of ongoing monologue with myself about it. Yet, I haven’t found myself running to the bookstore or library to read the thing. A shame, because it might be even more generative than the talks. So little time.

The first time I heard Greenhalgh’s Fat talk, I was stuck on her methods. Greenhalgh calls the research ethnographic, but in her hour-long presentation, she primarily describes a bundle of essays her students at UC Irvine wrote in a course about gender and the body. It seems that she asks her students to write ethnographic essays about body image (but her presentation doesn’t exactly cover her precise methods. I assume the details about the terms of the assignment are in the book). During her talk, she read heart-wrenching accounts by students — largely Asian-American women from southern California — about having their weight and eating habits “policed” by their families, and their worth and value being strongly associated with body size. Based upon her presentation, it also appears that she analyzes US government documents and anti-obesity campaigns (and when prompted in Q&A, she suggests that she analyzes the policy discourse related to black and Hispanic youth. See also: how critics responded to the film Precious and Gabby Sidibe).

But of course, I was left wondering what she really knew about her students’ lives vis-a-vis these stories (which she asked them to write for class (an extra credit assignment?)) The stories were moving. But what do we learn from them about the so-called ‘war on fat,’ except that it sucks to be treated like shit by your parents, grandparents and friends — especially when that shitty treatment appears to be motivated by their dissatisfaction with your weight, body size, etc. Some members of the audience wanted to know if preoccupation with weight and body size were proxies for *other* familial and social dynamics to which she had (or, at least, appeared to have) little to no access. I wondered the same thing. She never quite answered that question. But I do think this book covers some of these issues quite well.

There’s also anthropological literature about eating disorders, body image, beauty and obesity that covers this ground. (Even as Greenhalgh suggests that there’s not.)

The second time I heard the talk, I got stuck on her theoretical framework. If I understood her correctly, the US ‘war on fat’ is essentially a war on fat people — one that divides people into good and bad citizens, based upon their body mass index and appearance. Individuals internalize these designations, and deploy them to assess and berate/praise others. During Q&A, I posed a question about race: how does this ‘war on fat’ articulate with racialized and gendered notions of citizenship in the US? Are there other ‘wars’ on segments of the population that disturb or complicate her good-bad citizen binary? Are there segments of the population for whom the ‘war’ never comes? Is it possible to talk about a US at war with itself without grappling with the specific populations under siege (fat or not)?

She responded with some examples of how poor black and Hispanic children have been the targets of anti-obesity campaigns and how their parents are vilified and blamed in the literature. She addressed the anxieties about immigrants’ health that may be wrapped up in obesity anxieties (e.g. Haitian diabetes, or whatever). But, no, she quickly added, there’s no race theory in the book.

Right there. That’s where I got stuck. I wasn’t really asking whether she was using critical race theory. I was telling her that she was. By virtue of engaging ‘biopolitics’ to talk about connections among US public/population health, the health, fitness and beauty industries, and the state ‘at war’ with its citizens, it seemed that it would make perfect sense to address questions of race. In other words, biopolitics *is* a critical race theory. To subsume that element in her analysis was to ignore not only what is explicit in biopolitical theories about race (state racism), but also to (unwittingly) negate the intellectual genealogy of Foucault’s ideas about biopolitics (Black Panther Party and prison abolition movement literature).

That is all.

(well, not really. an update: I meant to link to Welehiye’s fine book about race and biopolitics.)