I was recently at a fado bar in Lisbon, listening to a piano player who was at once so expressive and over-the-top that one wanted at once to laugh and to burst into tears. Such unsettling, poignant moments are what I live for and strive to produce in my own small way in my scholarship and art.
Currently, I am engaged in two projects. The first conceptualizes a history of drowning. Beginning the mid-1700s in Europe, the revolutionary idea that drowned bodies could be revived became a subject of intense research and activism. The research starts there, and gets weirder – reading across art, resuscitation dolls, slavery, and Romantic poetry to try to understand the ways in which air, water, and breath have carried avowed and disavowed meaning across cultural and industrial lives. This project will be published as a book of prose and drawings entitled The Lung is a Bird and a Fish. Another component of the project involves the design and casting of a series of five medals based on life-saving medals, in a project entitled An Apocrypha of Drowning.
For several years I was fascinated by the various theories of HIV origins, and by what struck me as a reluctance to seriously engage plausible research suggesting that the species cross-over leading to HIV could have been the result of medical experimentation. Less interesting than where HIV “really” came from, which we will never know, is how easy it was for scientists to control the narrative, and how quickly journalists, other scientists, and scholars fell into line, dismissing other theories as “conspiracy.” Some of this research is published here [link], and I am completing a short book.
I’ve published three books. Most recently, a book of drawings, Things that Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity (University of Toronto Press, 2019), reconsiders and interrupts the ways in which categories underpin knowledge systems. I also wanted to join the growing cadre of scholars who believe that drawing can be a provocative method for interrogating social science questions.
I wrote Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (UC Press: 2013) in response the vast differences between the ways that medicine, regulatory agencies and journalism understood cancer, and the ways that people, once diagnosed, were called to make sense of the new world they were living in. The work has been praised as “a remarkable achievement,” (TLS), “a whip-smart read.” (Discover Magazine), “brilliant and disturbing,” (Nature Magazine), and having “the phenomenological nuance of James Joyce.” Malignant won several prizes for work in anthropology and medical journalism, including the Staley Prize, June Roth Memorial Award, Fleck Prize, Edelstein Prize, Victor Turner Prize, and the Diana Forsythe Prize.
Injury (Princeton UP: 2006), analyzed the twentieth century emergence of tort law in the United States as a highly politicized and problematic form of regulating the design of mass-produced commodities in light of their propensity to injure naïve consumers. The book analyzes the history of the way in which product design has encoded assumptions and biases that have impacted how injuries are distributed and subsequently understood in law.
My research has been supported by Stanford Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, the National Humanities Center, The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, a Guggenheim Award, among others. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have this career. In my spare time I run, kayak, and scuba dive.