Talking about my thesis without talking about my thesis: infectious diseases and posthumanism

So, just last week, I had an exam that frees me (interesting choice of words, I know) to pursue the thesis of my choice in order to complete my master’s program. Now, I’m real grateful for the patience of so many people in my department, who has agreed to entertain my ever-changing thesis idea. I finally feel grounded in this one, and think good things (not simply academic) will come out of this commitment.

So, I’m going to attempt to talk about the general idea behind my thesis, without going into specifics. It has to do with vector-borne diseases (I have a specific one in mind) and how they manifest environmental and technological networks in the way they spread and are subsequently recognized my anthropic authorities as real diseases. I’m not going to go into epidemiology of the diseases exactly, but focus more on the actors present in “inventing” the disease.

To give you an example, think about malaria. While it has symptoms similar to other illnesses, the diagnosis is specifically based on the parasite (Plasmodium), and its vector (the female Anopheles mosquito). The symptoms of malaria include fever, vomiting, seizures, shakes, and headaches which are commonly associated with a number of other diseases, but the specific diagnosis of malaria calls for a specific treatment. When we try to look at treatment of malaria, we shouldn’t only look at the biochemical mechanism of the drug quinine, but also the fact that it was produced as a result of colonial interventions! Not only that, if we remove our reductionist lenses while trying to elucidate the network of connections that go into “inventing” malaria, we see other nonhuman species involved in a chain of command, acting through their own agency, and subverting human agency over their own bodies. This is biological posthumanism at work!

Yeah, it’s true, the critical theory of posthumanism is far more interesting to me than infectious disease itself, and I’m only using infectious disease narratives as a canvas on which I playfully tease out nuances of posthumanist theory, however, I’m also really excited by the prospect that posthumanist theory can offer pragmatic insights into these diseases.

I’d love to talk about this more with people who deal with infectious disease ecology in the traditional sense. I’m excited about this new application of STS theory!

Research narratives, writer’s (and reader’s) block, and the perfectionist’s paralysis

I haven’t written anything in a long, and as I do now, I squirm in my chair with acute self-consciousness.

For months I haven’t written a word, even in this blog, which was supposed to be a playground for my ideas because I’m plagued by perfectionism, and it’s time I admitted that.

My writer’s block was never really about running out of ideas, but merely, running out of the courage to work with very disparate feelings and notions, and feeling heavy and weighed down by the associated discordant emotions.

So I became what any reasonable person in this situation would do, just started reading, and ceased writing entirely in order to search for already manufactured thoughts in my mind that were flawless to begin with. I became increasingly self-conscious of going through the process of writing, and holding a million views in my head together, acknowledging doubt and incompleteness and thought I could go on a journey towards cohesion without any recorded bumps in the way. Eventually, I stumbled across the seldom-discussed reader’s block. I was paralyzed.

In short, I was ashamed to be proverbially naked with all the conceptual flaws in the process, even to myself. As if progress and change were to be self-concealing and never spill outside the echo chamber of my own mind.

Needless to say, this is by far the most counterproductive strategy I have ever adopted when it comes to learning. It’s not that my blogging suffered, or that my academic writing suffered, but when I let go of the agency to be able to formulate my own narratives of research and life, however imperfect, I was both figuratively and literally lost in chaos.

Writing isn’t simply about organizing your thoughts, it’s also a marker of where you stand in a transient and abstract space. It is in that space that creators and researchers of all kinds do the most work in, and once I had ceased to check in with myself and my progress in that space through writing, I let go any hope of having a record of my learning experience in the process.

So, I have tentatively promised myself that I’ll write everyday. No matter how bad it is, I will write 5 sentences about my work, everyday — and dear readers, if you are out there, I want you to hold me accountable.