Health and Society Working Group
October 26, 2017 at 2 PM
Adia Benton, Anthropology Department, Northwestern University
Care, Compassion, Conflict: A Walk in the Fever Museum
What can practices to commemorate official epidemic responses tell us about the logics of response itself? Specifically, what do they tell us about the visions and logics of care that such practices represent? In this paper, I compare two exhibits that describe efforts to respond to the 2014-6 West African Ebola epidemic: the Imperial War Museum’s “Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS” (London) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Ebola: People + Public Health + Political Will” (Atlanta). Even as they rely on remarkably similar objects – rubber boots, protective gear, tippy taps, short, looped video interviews with frontline workers – to tell their Ebola stories, they differ with respect to how objects are oriented in space, in relation to other objects, ideas, and experiences, and their strategic positioning within museum (and institutional) agendas, more generally. These differences form the basis of my analysis, which is still quite preliminary. For the military museum, Ebola represents an instance of the ‘extreme’ and the extraordinary capacity of the armed forces to provide care under challenging circumstances. The exhibit showcases the tensions of militarized humanitarianism (referred to elsewhere as the ‘empire of hugs’): the military’s need to sustain itself through expansion of its work to humanitarian interventions and the counterinsurgency battles that are increasingly employing private military contractors. The CDC exhibit, while highlighting the contribution of its workers and ‘partnerships’ so central in US public health discourse plays to intimate dimensions of ‘population’ – suggesting that acts of care may occur outside the frame of the interpersonal. I end by discussing a recent trip to the in-progress National Ebola Museum in Njala, Sierra Leone, where questions of local ownership, memory and immunity linger in the archives.
Adia Benton is an assistant professor of Anthropology and African studies at Northwestern University. Her recent book, HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota Press 2015), recently won the 4S Rachel Carson Prize. The book explores the personal, professional and moral stakes of vertical funding for HIV, and the social, political and interpersonal relationships that are premised on the notion of HIV as a valued resource. Her work has appeared in Current Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, the African Studies Review, Dissent, The New Inquiry and The Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post. Her more recent projects include the global surgery movement, the politics of disease eradication and of race in humanitarianism.