Decades of medical anthropological work have helped disrupt notions of biomedicine’s soteriological basis, its unquestioning moral rightness, and its fundamental commitment of doing no harm. In our cross-border research on public health systems in Indian and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, respectively—two of the most militarized places on earth—we try to trouble and even undo the assumed good or neutrality of medicine by evaluating its darker, shadow side. As medical anthropologists, we are interested in how long-term conflict leaves traces in public health infrastructures, and how medicine’s soteriological foundations are manipulated, twisted, or mangled in everyday clinical practices, such that the lines between practice and malpractice can become exceptionally blurred.
Beginning with a statement of non-attachment to fixed space—a clear indication of her preference to speak in terms of relationality rather than spatiality—Maya described the conditions for what she believed to be an optimal healing space for Black people. It must be safe and welcoming, and further, it is one of her duties as a healer to hold it. Maya is an affiliated practitioner of the new up-and-coming Black-owned wellness café in Brooklyn where I have been conducting fieldwork.
A small sub-field within medical anthropology has focused on the social organization, power relations, and politics of health policy and systems. This scholarship takes policymakers and health staff—at various levels of the health system—as points of ethnographic entry. This requires a somewhat different epistemological orientation than anthropologists’ usual focus on recipient populations, one which works through the multiple individuals and bureaucracies that produce a culture—such as the culture of biomedicine. High-quality ethnographic work is perhaps the best way of understanding the complex systems that may impede progress in fighting disease or enable the promotion of good health.
Timelessness is cruel because it is dehumanizing. As a mad anthropologist who researches madness, I have spent considerable time tackling timelessness. Timelessness is the name I have given to a phenomenon many researchers have witnessed among people experiencing madness—a broad experience of extranormativity that is predominantly defined and addressed as mental illness in the United States.
What intrigued me about plasticity was that it was not yet tamed into something consistent: my fieldwork unfolded in a situation in which the old truth of cerebral fixity had already been dissolved by plasticity—but plasticity had not yet been stabilized. It still could be many different, in part mutually exclusive, things. To me, it was a bit as if the brain—and along with it the human—had been released from a form of knowledge that claimed to exhaust it. It was as if the brain and the human as constituted by the brain had broken free.
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.