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GGIS Colloquium | Monstrous Microbes: Race, disease, and ontology

Event Type
Geography & GIS
Room 2049 Natural History Building
Sep 15, 2023   3:00 pm  
Dr. Patricia Lopez, Dartmouth College
This talk is free and open to the public.
Zoom attendance link
Geography & GIS
Originating Calendar
Geography and Geographic Information Science

Dr. Lopez will draw on her current book project, Monstrous Microbes, in which she examines the co-emergence of new geographies, race and racism, and disease and outbreak narratives from the first instances of colonialism across both North and South America, and the hauntings of these onto-epistemologies for marking the boundaries of ‘humanity’ in the present. The ‘monstrosity’ of some lives, the book contends, does not stop at the exterior determination of the Other – the legible expression of the human form – but is further articulated down to the very microbes believed to originate (or at least hold originary myth value) in the not-quite or less-than human – a distinction that is, she argues (and following on Katherine McKittrick (2006)), as geographical as it is historical. 

In this talk, Lopez will focus on one chapter, “The ontological anxieties of treponematoses.” which opens with a court martial case in which treponematoses (which includes yaws, syphilis, bejel, and pinta) figure prominently, to illustrate one way in which racial science materialized through frames of health and disease in the U.S. occupation of Haiti beyond medical institutions and practices down into the microbial level of a racial germ theory. She suggests that at work in the court martial case is what she has come to call ‘monstrous microbes’ — an ontological distinction that confers racial significance to the microbe (in this case, the Treponema pallidum), at once racializing the bacteria and further distinguishing degrees of humanness through its perceived differential virulence, and, as she shows, through its presumed metamorphosis during transmission. she further illustrates how this thinking is not a relic of the past, but continues on in the unitarian theory of treponematoses, and in racial anxieties about infectious diseases, generally, into the present day.

Patricia (tish) Lopez is a historical and contemporary geographer whose work is situated at the intersections of health and disease, race and racial science, and care. At the root of much of her work is an attention to how health and disease are exercised in the making of worlds both real and imagined. Since March 2020, her work has almost exclusively focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. She is currently working on a book titled Monstrous Microbes: Geographies of Disease and the Human

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