In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Cristina Mejia Visperas. Visperas is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California. Her book is Skin Theory: Visual Culture and the Postwar Prison Laboratory.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Cristina M. Visperas: Rigorously tracking coronavirus infections and deaths in prisons and jails nationwide, The Marshall Project had early in the Covid19 pandemic emphasized the exceptional place of incarceration in the understanding of “herd immunity.” That is, because the architecture and everyday operations of imprisonment prevent social distancing, prisons provide a cautionary lesson about taking the pandemic and our collective response to it very seriously. Situating the prison space within histories of US medicine, Skin Theory examines the prison as having this kind of scientific significance.
As large-scale productions of new vaccine technology were underway in the latter half of 2020, incarcerated populations were appraised as possible subject pools in clinical trials for the novel vaccines. This was never implemented, given the nation’s fraught history of medical abuse and exploitation of captives. I write about this history in Skin Theory, which connects post-WWII medical science programs in prisons to the country’s longer history of human experimentation on enslaved populations during the antebellum period. As Skin Theory shows, these ethical questions remain with us today, precisely because the hypersurveillance and spatial control endemic to imprisonment makes the latter capacious for doing scientific research.
For example, early this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed suit on behalf of jailed individuals who were unknowingly treated with the anti-parasitic drug, ivermectin, when they were quarantined for Covid19 in August last year. Likely spurred by anti-vaxx conspiracy theories about the drug’s effectiveness in Covid19 infections (there is no scientific data supporting this nor is the drug medically approved for such use), the doctor’s decision to administer ivermectin without the prisoners’ knowledge and consent amounted to gross violations of medical practice and ethical guidelines concerning clinical trials. Skin Theory contextualizes such abuses and other forms of neglect and exploitation in prisons during public health crises like the ongoing pandemic.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope the book helps cement bridges being made between health practitioners, policy makers, and activists and community organizers. I was most inspired early in the pandemic when a number of public health experts called for decarcerating jails, prisons, and detention centers, pointing to the enhanced vulnerabilities of imprisoned individuals to infectious diseases. In turn, this catalyzed discussion on how best to serve the care needs of those who would be released.
As Skin Theory illustrates, care has often been weaponized against incarcerated people. The book shows how experimentation was coupled with care, such that receiving better forms of care (or care from trained staff at all) became contingent on the prisoner’s participation in studies. This is medical coercion, and I hear resonances of this in earlier discussions about using prisoners in Covid19 treatment trials. The thinking goes, “If imprisonment makes one more susceptible to pathogens, then why not target them for novel treatments?” This sounds benevolent. It sounds compassionate. But there is still an element of coercion there. I think this constitutes one tension between reformist and abolitionist ideologies—we don’t want to deny care to already medically underserved populations like prisoners. Yet, we have to be mindful how coercion remains operative in prison settings and how care narratives and care work can be co-opted for the ends of control.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
It’s bit loaded for me to say this in a context of growing distrust in expertise, but I hope readers will understand that the sciences are not value-free. All knowledge is political insofar as it is social—people produce it. Knowledge creators bring their histories, assumptions, beliefs, values, interests, and unconscious wishes to their intentions. This is not to say that we should not trust experts—we should—but it is also not to say that non-experts should simply watch from the sidelines. Everyone has a stake in scientific research. Hence, science for the people entails democratizing literacy or a working competency among non-experts, so that technical knowledge is not siloed and that policies ensuing from them reflect many voices. This is consciousness-raising work performed by educators, activists, community organizers, and practitioners.
In turn, I hope experts themselves not only see the politics of their work but actively embrace it as well. Again, this is a loaded statement given knee-jerk reactions against politicizing facts (e.g. climate change, mask-wearing, vaccines, etc.). However, we have seen that claims to objectivity and universality do not obligate trust, and that they have in fact been used to legitimize scientific racism, thereby increasing distrust among marginalized communities. Instead of running away from the politics inherent to their work (and from their problematic histories), experts should acknowledge them unflinchingly. This paves the way for mobilizing that politics in the service of the people.
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
Black feminist theory grounds this book in two significant areas. First, Black feminists spearheaded scholarship on prisons. Skin Theory is deeply indebted to the work of Angela Davis, Joy James, Assata Shakur, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Given its roots in chattel slavery, modern prisons cannot be understood apart from the longstanding world-making processes of racial captivity. On this, the book borrows from the works of Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Katherine McKittrick, and Christina Sharpe. Collectively, these writers inspired the book’s abolitionist commitments. Second, Skin Theory follows from Black feminist scholarship on science and technology, especially works by Dorothy Roberts, Harriet Washington, Ruha Benjamin, and Simone Browne. This scholarship foregrounds the racist assumptions built into scientific, medical, and technological practices and the challenges of demystifying and transforming the latter.
Perhaps the single most influential intellectual in my work is Frantz Fanon. It is significant that Fanon was a psychiatrist, a health practitioner. And so his radical ideas—including his well-known, in-your-face justification for violence in decolonization (and also his cautionary stance about it!)—are grounded in a praxis of care. He very clearly argued the necessity of social change for the health and wellbeing of oppressed peoples. Individual care in the clinic (if one can get it) is not enough to compensate for the everyday injustices of racial and class domination. Revolution is good for the body and mind.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair is a must-read. It is one of the most important books I have ever read, because it skillfully tracks harm and the possibility of repair across scales, from the personal to the institutional. Reading it brings a lot of discomfort, because it challenges the reader to be accountable in their everyday interactions. We can hold very strong principles about liberation and justice, and we can show up for them in the public sphere. But how are we showing up for them in our personal relationships? Or even in our relationship to ourselves? The possibility of repair is everywhere, and I realized that I could be better at recognizing it and putting into practice.
Relatedly, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality by Jennifer C. Nash demonstrates the difficult work of putting our cherished values and ideologies under scrutiny. It is an important reminder that languages of liberation are not themselves politically innocent, and that they must be deployed with critical reflexivity. Indeed, this might be an expression of love and care—that we demand of our concepts that they do better for us in the same way that we demand of ourselves that we live up to them.
My next project is looking at collective trauma and emotions in the context of global warming and increasing climate catastrophes. We are truly living in unprecedent times, socially and geologically. The work of Schulman and Nash are helping me explore what repair and care can look like in the face of unrelenting, overwhelming, distributed harm. The scientific data doesn’t look good for many, many species, including our own. I’m grappling with that—how can we hold onto care no matter the outcome? How do we repair even if it might be too late?
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.