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.
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.
“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.