I’m working on turning small projects into big projects, and coming to terms with a research agenda that looks at things like public health, rhetorical theory, and social movements. The project that best develops this (and god willing it will land somewhere soon) makes a case for a theory of rhetorical refusal. This is a tactic that anti-vaxxers and others use as a way of self-definition and attainment of specific goals, which I pull largely from Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno. Negri and Virno help to separate refusal from more common social movement rhetorical forms of resistance or confrontation. That is, resistance, for anti-vaxxers, looks something like pushing doctors to alter vaccination schedules; though this is a common form of anti-vaxxer activity, it’s still an engagement with medical institutions in a way that reads as problematic for many social movement theorists. Refusal, conversely, is in my mind saying “NOPE. No vaccines. I’ll homeschool my kids. The rest of you can poison yourselves!” I think we can (and should) theorize how that functions rhetorically, or what that tactic of persuasion actually does and to whom. (The image here is from the Vaccine Resistance Movement, who have been fairly central to my research on anti-vaccination activism to date.)
The other side of this is an attempt to figure out how public health as a discipline figures “publics” in ways that create pockets of animosity. This question brought me to dig through some old, old issues of the Lancet, where we find the earliest mentions of the phrase “public health” in connection to medical institutional concerns. Early-19th Century British medical officials appear to be obsessed with whether or not the poor are bathing and doing laundry enough (American medical officials, to be fair, had way weirder obsessions). And the proposed interventions are both condescending and coercive. There’s no sense among these writers that the urban poor have no ability to refuse, which is to say that the way health/hygiene in these texts is discussed reveals an assumption that the poor will use facilities as intended once provided (except one writer who’s convinced that laundromats will be the launching ground for women to overthrow London). It also seeks to actively demarcate spatial movement, and assumes that such demarcations will not be read by the public as “nuisances” of their own. This highlights things like “refusal” in a really important way; in many ways I think refusal could be an unseen variable for institutional forces. (And here we have a snapshot of some early Lancet writing.)
Another project I want to gesture toward is through Dr. Schneider’s social movements class. My partner, Kate, and I went digging through the basement of the local American Federation of Musicians. I’m fascinated by this group because (1) they seem to be the lone local hold-out of an era when unions formed around discrete trades that were read as “arts” as well; (2) their early history features this character Ernesto Natiello, who constantly caused problems for the rest of the group and other unions in the city; and (3) because there’s a moment in 1913 where, in the wake of a public dispute between local radical socialists and the Presbyterian Church, the Federation disavowed socialism and increasingly aligned itself with the church. I’m not certain if this is an ideological or political move, but in the era of Debs, this seems to be a rather conservative move for the union to make. In some instances these alliances form around charity work (e.g. playing Easter mass at the county jail), yet elsewhere they’re found offering free services to major players on the Christian lecture circuit (which I’m learning was a thing, to the point where they sold out theaters on the regular). (The image here has nothing to do with my research project, but is part of the Federation of Musicians archive and incredible.)
The above is all a little scattered, and that’s OK with me (perhaps too OK at this point). It reflects this slow circling of something that will look like a dissertation, ideally, at some point in the next two years. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but there are political implications here, and medical ones, and some really interesting rhetorical ones, too. And that’s a starting point.
Patrick’s a second-year Ph.D. student, a founding editor of MASH: A Journal of Media, Arts, and Humanities, and an editorial assistant at the Henry James Review. His research interests are in this post, but he contains multitudes beyond that, too. For example, he has opinions on John Cusack, is a fan of Irish literature and possesses a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the history of ska, which has proven to be entirely useless knowledge.