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SUGAR MACHINE: Medical Technologies and Plantation Legacies in the Caribbean Diabetes Epidemic

March 24 @ 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Amy Moran-Thomas, Associate Professor of Anthropology at MIT
LACIS Lunchtime Series

Sponsored by LACIS and Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies

“Sugar… has been one of the massive demographic forces in world history,” anthropologist Sidney Mintz famously wrote in Sweetness and Power. Today, this observation holds an additional layer of meaning as diabetic sugar has become a leading cause of death in many countries in the world, including in the Central American country of Belize.  Amid eerie injuries, changing bodies, amputated limbs, and untimely deaths, many people across the Caribbean and the Americas simply call the affliction “sugar” — language that trails many layered histories of proximity to premature death and disproportionate injuries. “Sugar machine” was what one woman called her broken glucose meter, for which she could no longer afford the device’s expensive test strips.  “Sugar machine” was also what she called the rusted wheels and abandoned machinery of a nearby colonial sugarcane plantation.  Thinking with the terms people themselves commonly used to describe living with diabetic sugar, and investigating them as a form of “implicit memory” (Michel-Rolph Trouillot), this talk explores the patterned injuries that continue to compound in a new era of unequal sugar economies and industrial profit engines.  It explores the uneasy ways that sugar’s role in racial capitalism and settler colonialism materially reshaped the biologies of landscapes and impacts their inhabitants across generations, and highlights the ongoing work of the families and communities struggling to repair and remake systems of food, land, technology, and medicine.

Amy Moran-Thomas is Associate Professor of Anthropology at MIT, interested in questions of ecological change and ethnographic approaches to science, technology, and chronic conditions. She received a PhD in Anthropology from Princeton in 2012, and taught courses in medical and environmental humanities as a postdoc at Princeton and Brown University before coming to MIT.  Her book about the rise of diabetes across the Caribbean and Central America, Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic (University of California Press, 2019), ethnographically explores issues of “planetary health” and unequal debility.  An open-access version will be released in June 2020.

Amy Moran-Thomas