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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Science in Captivity: The Visual Culture and Bioethics of Biomedicine behind Bars

  • Author(s): Visperas, Maria Cristina
  • Advisor(s): Anderson, Patrick
  • Cartwright, Lisa
  • et al.
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This dissertation analyzes the intersections of US incarceration and medical science during the post-war period, examining how interlocking carceral and medical regimes of controlling the body together form a race-making technology and racialized geography reconfiguring the nation's history of captivity from slavery to mass imprisonment, and how they may signal the possibility of a bioethics in line with prison abolition. The dissertation focuses on the notorious dermatological experiments conducted between 1952 and 1974 at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. Led by University of Pennsylvania doctor and professor Albert Kligman, experiments at Holmesburg were carried out in the service of U.S. war efforts, pharmaceutical ventures, and the field of dermatological practice more broadly, composing one of the largest prison experimental programs of its time. Revisiting Kligman's medical experiments at Holmesburg Prison, this dissertation takes up "skin" in three principal ways: (1) skin as an instrument or apparatus interfacing with test agents and mediating their effects, forming a screen through which the visualization of pain becomes inextricable from the construction of racial difference; (2) skin as the discourse or textual membrane of bioethics, forming a protective envelope of words and statements shaping its imagined subject of vulnerability and abuse; and finally, (3) skin as the space or surface of architecture, where intersecting geographies of the prison and the laboratory reveal how complex relations of power/knowledge are encoded in the built environment. The project brings to bear theories and methods from visual culture studies, science and technology studies (STS), and African American studies in its engagements with the visual and literary culture of racialized captivity, with the deep intertwining of bioethical discourse and mass media, and with the range of difficult materials found between university archives and the hard site of the prison.

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This item is under embargo until June 30, 2021.