Thursday, September 10, 2020

Alondra Nelson, Society after Pandemic & cross-disciplinary reading

You've ever encountered an idea that sent you back to the drawing board or prompted you to read more? You know, an idea or spark that unsettles your initial thoughts, an idea that makes you rethink some things? Well, in many ways, Alondra Nelson is that idea. 

Yesterday, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities hosted Alondra giving a talk, “Society after Pandemic" on Zoom. Listening to her presentation motivated me to rethink some things and do some reading across more fields. This wasn't the first time.

I used to think I knew something about the Black Panther Party, but after reading Alondra's Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (2011), I realized I didn't know nearly enough about the group's health activism. After reading her book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome (2016), I shook my head at the disparity between my pre- and post-knowledge concerning genetic genealogy and black folks.


Back in early March, a little before the schools and businesses began to shutdown and folks were still wrapping their minds around corona, Alondra went into her reader-researcher bag. In response to someone noting that we should teach the moment, Alondra started a bibliography known as the #coronavirussyllabus. It's a "crowdsourced cross-disciplinary resource" highlighting podcasts, film, visual arts, music, and literature related to the histories of viruses, pandemics, health, and other issues.  

For her talk yesterday, Alondra was giving some of her thoughts on the pandemic and some of the ongoing implications. She addressed three main topics: 1. The Myth of Social Stasis and Racial Progress, 2. The Fallacy of Enduring Social Categories and the Emergence of new ones, and 3. The Myth of “Solutionism” and the reality of technological Patchwork Surveillance.

Overall, she was working through this question: "How do the social conditions exposed, exacerbated, and created by the novel coronavirus demand that we revisit and substantively rethink our ideas of society, social institutions, technology, and politics?" (If the Institute for the Arts and Humanities makes the recording available on their site, I'll link it here). 

Her coverage in those three areas was really informative. She's clearly been paying attention to what's taken place over the last several months. Moreover though, she's been working to place those concepts into historical context and within a variety of domains related to science, technology, African Americans, and so forth. Put another way: she's serious about engaging cross-disciplinary resources. 

I enjoyed the whole talk, but I was especially intrigued with the questions she was exploring concerning the potential limits of long-term social categories like race, class, and gender, and the emergence of new concepts like "essential worker," "those with preexisting conditions" and so forth. My mind moved well beyond the context of the pandemic and wondered what the emergence of new social categories might mean in a variety of fields and domains.   

During the talk and the question and answer period, I was reminded that Alondra is a voracious and creative reader. In my field -- literary studies -- and likely many others, it's not uncommon to encounter folks who've read a lot. But I don't always get the chance to listen to talks where someone is drawing on their readings across so many different fields the way Alondra does.

At one point, she quickly cited articles in science and technology, health, and history, and then ended up referencing an essay by Amiri Baraka. She mentioned work by Simone Browne, Ruha Benjamin, Dana Fischer, and on and on and on. She made these references in an organic way as part of the conversation, not  -- no shade -- the cite just to cite approach. She was basically letting us know the routes of her thinking. 

“I believe in the power of scholarship," she said at one point, while noting how several works by researchers and scholars had become part of mainstream or broadly public conversations. She acknowledged, responding to a question, that some good scholarly items have trouble moving beyond a limited, academic audience. On the other hand, there are so many exciting instances where helpful research and writings do gain traction.    

I left the presentation mindful that in order to produce even better, more useful work, I'd need to do even more cross-disciplinary reading.

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