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Book Club: The Collectors of Lost Souls

August 23, 2010

During the first year of my PhD program, I took a class with Mary Steedly about colonialism in which she assigned one of the most memorable and fun scholarly articles I’ve ever read:  “Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution” by Warwick Anderson, a historian of medical science [from Critical Inquiry. 21(Spring 1995):641-669].  It’s “an essay on the medical production of colonial bodies and colonial space—in other words, an essay about feces, orifices, and toilets.” (641) Anderson playfully shows how public health was an important component in producing the modern subject in Southeast Asia.  American colonial public health discourse characterized Filipino natives as abjected “promiscuous defecators,” while proper Americans, by contrast, were especially anal retentive.  At the article’s end, Anderson makes hilarious use of Mary Douglas:  “The decent, delibidinized, closed space of the modern laboratory had conferred on shit the ‘epistemological clarity’ of just one more specimen among many.  On the resulting abstractions and inscriptions did the colonial scientists’ reputations and career prospects depend.  ‘Within the ritual frame,’ Douglas reminds us, ‘the abomination is… handled as a source of tremendous power.’  The abomination propelled Richard P. Strong, for instance, from Manila—where he helped identify the dysentery bacillus—to the first chair of tropical medicine at Harvard.” (669)

Book Cover for "The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen" by Warwick Anderson

Colonial scientists and the transformative “ritual magic” they perform with their extractive “specimens” is the graphic thread that ties Anderson’s studies of colonial medicine in the Philippines with his other major historical research project in Papua New Guinea (PNG), written up for both a scholarly and a layman readership in his new book The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen. If in the Philippines colonial scientists were collecting shit specimens, in PNG they are collecting brains and other “biologicals.” He gives a compelling account of the decades-long search for the cause of kuru disease among the Fore tribe in the highlands of PNG, once hypothesized as a slow virus, but then eventually shown to be pathogenic protein fragments (prions).  The cast of characters includes doctors, biologists, anthropologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, colonial security agents, the Fore themselves, and a range of local field assistants.  All are drawn in and transformed by the kuru mystery, some to great acclaim including a Nobel prize, others to great shame and scandal, and many more to an abject death. We see how social relations among the Fore and among scientists are defined and extended through networks of asymmetrical exchange. Then we see how a few from each group are able to transect parallel exchange networks, producing new hybrid identities and even more social inequality in the process.

It’s this element of transformation of engaged parties in the contact zone that fascinates me, “making visible the modern primitives and sorcerer scientists.” (7) It’s a theme that animates a lot of the anthropological writing I’ve read ranging from studies of colonialism to subjectivity. It was the concluding thought of a chapter my academic advisors and I wrote about our experiences working in postconflict Aceh. Riffing on Emmanuel Levinas, my advisor wrote: “we are drawn time and again to Aceh and we never return unscathed to our point of origin.” (I will soon return to this recently published chapter in another post) I shouldn’t be surprised then that this too will be a persistent theme in my own dissertation given my own thoughts and feelings about several undeniably scathing engagements during my fieldwork in Aceh.

There isn’t much more I need to add about this book that isn’t already summarized handily on the Johns Hopkins University Press webpage for the book (linked above), which lays out the broad themes, lists two book awards, and quotes a long list of accolades. I’m just glad that I finally got around to reading more of Anderson’s work, and look forward to catching up on his other work in the near-ish future for more dissertation inspiration.

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