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Cristina Mejia Visperas, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of Southern California

November 3 @ 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm

“to touch with our finger all the wounds”: Knowledge in Captivity and the Problem of Freedom

5055 Vilas

also on Zoom: https://uwmadison.zoom.us/j/95667478499

The Enlightenment tradition and its preoccupation with human progress conjoined rationality with liberation, a sentiment where the exercise of reason is thought to issue the accumulation of knowledge and the advancement towards freedom. Scholarship on US slavery and incarceration, however, illustrate how expertise, technical development, and institutions and norms can spring from spaces of unfreedom. The postwar prison in the United States was such a space, where captivity was instrumental to the work of medical science, public and private, and to the founding of the nation’s first federal guidelines on bioethics. Revisiting the notorious dermatological experiments conducted at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison, 1952-1974, I emphasize the visual nature of these interlocking carceral and biomedical regimes of bodily control. From scientific photography to the hard site of the prison, from the physical wounds of experimentation to the reformist optics of modern American bioethics, racial subjection and pained expressions of captive agency were inextricable from the systematic practices of scientific inquiry. In turn, this relationship demands a rethinking of what reason is to liberation: What is knowledge to getting free?

Cristina Mejia Visperas (she/her) is the author of Skin Theory: Visual Culture and the Postwar Prison Laboratory (NYU Press, 2022)