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.
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.