Kim Adams

Building the Body Electric: Reproducing Race with Technology in American Medicine

Building the Body Electric uses a health humanities framework to examine the cultural politics of medical technology in the US from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era. I argue that nineteenth century theories of race and reproduction became embedded in technological devices, which exerted a wide societal influence, informed contemporary literary texts, and guided medical practices. Addressing the cultural logics of modern medicine and technology, my project turns to electricity as a specific context for understanding how scientific abstractions produced political subjects. Electric medicine signified the application of modernity to the individual human body, just as clearly as the electric grid signified national unity. The literary history of electricity in medicine foregrounds the human and social components of disembodied narratives of technological progress.

Americans have long imagined that electricity would make them modern by shaping their bodies into dominant, desired forms, which would grant them access to modes of political and economic power. Electricity could make you whiter, stronger, faster, healthier, and more sexually potent, it was insinuated, yet it also could give you visions, allow you to read the minds of others, drive you insane, and teach you your place. While electrotherapies and diagnostics sought bodily perfection in the terms of the dominant culture, mesmeric passes and convulsive shocks transformed the mind, revealing the terms of an otherwise invisible order.

My project tells the remarkable story of how and why existing structures of social power absorbed such technological promise: if electric medicine could raise the dead and reveal the secrets of white supremacy for African American woman writer Pauline Hopkins in 1900, for example, by 1952 it would shatter the myth of American individualism and transform black men into experimental subjects, as depicted in Ralph Ellison's legendary novel Invisible Man. A major force that mediates this absorption is eugenics, a dominant biomedical paradigm of the twentieth century that yoked scientific racism to technological progress through control of human reproduction.

Building the Body Electric I conclude, speaks directly to our contemporary moment. Modern medicine dominates the news cycle, while the ongoing pandemic reveals the extent of structural racism in our healthcare system. Uncovering the historical role of electricity in our persisting narratives of health can inform, if not also change, the response of educators, researchers, and healthcare professionals to systemic racism and sexism in US medicine and culture. As a work of critical medical humanities, this project seeks to contribute to the growing conversation on structural inequality in healthcare, a conversation made more urgent by the voices of social justice movements within the current global health crisis. Revealing the ways in which new technology is shot through with the politics of the past, this project opens up the history of our investment in technological visions of health, and asks us to envision an equitable, sustainable medical future.

Please refer here for the dissertation abstract.