What happens when skin becomes flesh, and the cut—a scar? This conference paper participates in an ongoing intervention into theories of film form from the disciplinary vantage of critical transgender studies. Following the work of Jack Halberstam, Eva Hayward, and Eliza Steinbock in transgender cinema and media studies, this conference paper works towards a minor grammar of film form through a close reading of P. Staff’s Weed Killer (2017), a video installation inspired by Catherine Lord’s lesbian cancer memoir The Summer of Her Baldness (2004).
P. Staff’s Weed Killer considers the messy affinities of pharmaco-logics of chemotherapy and hormone replacement therapies. Staff’s poetic text works in and aestheticizes the underbelly of transgender representation by way of a video form that challenges persistence of vision and recalibrates bodily integrity through the use of FLIR Systems thermographic cameras. Here, transition does not find completion, and bodies work against themselves. Riffing on the resonances of screen and skin explored by Laura U. Marks, this paper situates itself with the failures of transition and the challenges to the truth of the body by thinking the cut as incomplete, an open wound.
My attention to the narrative, formal, aesthetic, and bodily forms of Weed Killer challenges cinema and media studies to take seriously trans studies critiques of the transition. I offer this analysis alongside my own experience as a transgender woman with a chronic illness. Through this, I question what it means to want a scar.
Haley Hvdson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California’s Division of Cinema & Media Studies. Situated in the instances of stickiness between media studies, Black feminist epistemology, and abolitionist theory, Haley’s dissertation work is a media archaeology that investigates the interfaces that constitute the borders of the prison—from the rolled steel of jail bars to the LED screens of video visitation pods—and looks after the fugitive possibilities that flicker in the formation of intimacies at these boundaries. Her work is forthcoming in Journal of American Studies and Synoptique.
In her eye opening book, Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington identifies the slave owner as the true patient in the Antebellum South’s medicinal treatment of slaves. Tracing the historical development of medical knowledge in the U.S. and its violent dependence on Blackness, I draw connections between the “care” of slaves and the supposedly curative attention Black Americans receive today. My presentation claims that contemporary attempts to collect large scale medical data, rather than emphasizing the environmental and structural vulnerabilities of the Black population, often are instead deployed to evidence Blackness as faulty, inherently broken, and, therefore, less worthy of healing, perpetuating 19th-century scientific racism.
Reinscribing the logic of the plantation, medical data and the algorithms that utilize it then determine the expense necessary to treat Black Americans a bad investment. Focusing on racialism in the field of lung health and the various ways Black lungs have been thought less efficient via spirometers (the instruments that measure lung capacity) or lung cancer screening guidelines, I ask what part computers play in this equation—what remains the same and what changes in both data collection and patient care. Further, comparing the intense proximity between the Antebellum doctor and his Black patient to the growing distance of the doctor-patient interface today, I take up questions of closeness, contagion, and absence, and problematize thick and thin descriptions of medical engagement. Overall, I explore the way these systems overwrite the truth of Black experience and lead to a depredation of the Black body.
Alex Hack is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. Having a background in communication and UI design, her current research examines digital media, the invisible, and matters of minoritized experience and embodiment that remain unreal and undervalued. Her dissertation project takes up medicine and its software as fertile ground for humanistic analysis as they force us to consider that racial harm lies too in supposed benevolence, that it has become elemental and rhizomatic, and that its killer instinct doesn’t simply resolve with better data or more training.
During the coronavirus pandemic, thermographic systems have been implemented in transportation hubs and workplaces for contactless fever screening, prompting a surge in demand that has massively expanded the global thermal imaging market. However, thermographic screening is of limited value from a public health perspective because core body temperature is difficult to measure accurately with such devices and serves as a poor proxy for having COVID-19. How, then, do we account for the prevalence and appeal of this practice?
This presentation draws on media studies and critical theory to propose several interconnected answers. First, as numerous officials and agencies attest, thermographic screening performs a security spectacle that inspires confidence and compliance by activating imaginaries of penetrative technological sight whose genealogy can be traced to the beginnings of radiography. Secondly, thermographic devices function as Trojan horses smuggling biometric surveillance into previously protected spaces under a pandemic state of exception. These uses are both indebted to thermography’s third, overriding function: its medial promise to visualize the invisible menace, to render disease perceptible and therefore available to rational bureaucratic intervention.
During an era when the transnational mobility of disease, people, and heat pose fundamental challenges to state sovereignty, thermography offers a compensatory sense of control over borders. Despite its purported racial colour-blindness, it operationalizes the logic of racialization that differentiates bodies by classifying them within a fixed regime of visual signification that distributes in/security unevenly. Against these optics, I conclude by exploring how thermographic aesthetics can also make forms of thermal co-implication sensible.
Sasha Crawford-Holland is a doctoral student in the Department of Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Chicago who studies how people use nonfiction media to (re)organize power relations. Current research examines the aesthetic politics of thermal evidence in documentary film, television, and digital media. Sasha’s writing on the politics of media is published in Film History, Television & New Media, Synoptique, and American Quarterly, and received Screen’s Annette Kuhn Debut Essay Award.
Bishnupriya Ghosh is Professor of Global Studies and English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her first two books, When Borne Across: Literary Cosmopolitics in the Contemporary Indian Novel (Rutgers University Press, 2004) and Global Icons: Apertures to the Popular (Duke University Press, 2011), addressed cultures of globalization. Her recent work is placed at the intersection of global studies and environmental media studies. She has co-edited (with Bhaskar Sarkar) The Routledge Companion to Media and Risk (Routledge, 2020) and is completing a book on viral emergence, The Virus Touch: Theorizing Epidemic Media.