The big theme of the book is of course how the discovery of plasticity upset the classical concept of the brain as a fixed and immutable structure. But there is no overall core argument that would organize and arrange the stories assembled in Plastic Reason. In fact, I could say that one of the major points of Plastic Reason is precisely to not have a core argument.
At the beginning of June 2018, I set off for my first field season in the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, to learn more about traditional medicine involving edible insects. One day, the group of students that I was traveling with stopped at a restaurant to have comida (lunch). We were offered an array of snacks, soups, salads, meats, and a make-it-yourself tostada bar. Amongst the toppings offered in the tostada bar was a small bowl of chapulines (the local name for grasshoppers), and I convinced a few of the students to try some along with me. Most were afraid, some willingly put them on their tostadas like I did, while others struck up the courage to eat a single chapulín to say that they did it.
Any kind of anthropological future is enmeshed with the future of the people that we study. In my case, these people are psychiatrists. News-style answers to the question of what lies ahead might feature big data, artificial intelligence, or wearable technologies. Yet psychiatry’s future is also more uncertain at the moment than it had been in a long time.
“Every time one of these shootings happens, it puts us three steps backwards,” Paula said to me during my first summer of preliminary fieldwork in 2012. Her concern stemmed from media discourse following the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting at a midnight movie theater screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Paula, a staff member at Vista, a New Orleans-based organization that provides various mental health programs for individuals with mental illness and their family members, has good reason to be concerned about how mass shootings, like the one in Aurora, portray individuals with mental illness as dangerous and violent, further exacerbating existing stigma that individuals with mental illness face daily. This discourse further discourages individuals from using such services because they might be seen as dangerous or violent.
There are many people in Tanzania—though no one knows exactly how many—with skin that is significantly lighter than others’. Biomedically speaking, they are said to have albinism, a recessively inherited genetic condition that affects melanin production and results in low vision. In recent years, albinism has become the hegemonic conceptualization of light skin, in large part due to medical humanitarianism and deliberate efforts by the postcolonial state and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to make albino a salient category.
The most prevalent form of lead exposure in Mexico City today is culinary; lead glazed ceramic dishes that are prized within families. Lead glaze makes the dishes shine and the food taste sweeter, and the enormous ollas (pots) that hang on kitchen walls connect current generations to past and future family celebrations. What if anthropology could tell the broader story of what these pots do, and their effects, by intertwining their social and chemical lives? Our bioethnographic project, Mexican Exposures (MEXPOS), seeks to do just that; we insist that, to understand lead exposure and working-class life in Mexico City, we need to keep glaze, sweetness, celebrations, and toxicity together.