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Recent Dissertation Defenses

Yelena Gluzman (2021): "Cognitive Neuroscience and the Experimental Theater of Other Minds"

Yelena Gluzman

Title: "Cognitive Neuroscience and the Experimental Theater of Other Minds"

Committee: Morana Alac (Chair), Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Catherina Gere, Fernando Dominguez Rubio, Patrick Anderson, Ricardo Dominguez


Science and technology studies (STS) literatures have long demonstrated how laboratory experiments are shaped by their political, social, and interactional conditions. Only recently, however, has a collaborative turn advocated for bringing STS perspectives to directly bear upon scientific practice. I take up these literatures from the perspective of experimental theater, an approach rooted in the historical coarticulation of theater conventions and experimental science. “Going experimental” entails reflexive engagement with laboratory encounters as both staged and lived. Drawing on theater and centering ethnomethods, I embed myself in sites of cognitive neuroscientific practice, working with researchers and research subjects to collaboratively consider and reconsider how experiments are conceptualized, enacted, and interpreted. More broadly, I argue that engagement with the interpretive practices of both scientists and subjects in the doing of experiments allows for STS to productively reconfigure science’s “replication crisis” as a crisis of interpretation, a move that aims to recognizes broader challenges to science’s epistemic supremacy from marginalized communities.

I focus primarily on a collaboration with a cognitive neuroscience lab that was interested in designing a novel way to investigate autism and creativity. Our collaboration began with close readings of previous creativity studies. Thinking of these previous studies not as simple tests of a hypothesis but as complex unfolding events shifted our shared attention from experimental data to the ways that data was produced. Taking up lived perspectives of experimental subjects challenged how these previous studies interpreted their data, and contested the claims of autistic deficits that rested upon such interpretations. Moving from a critique of these literatures to incorporating such critiques in the design of a novel experiment was an opportunity to collaboratively grapple with staging an experiment outside of a deficit framework that configures autistic minds as lacking. In response to previous research that used animated geometrical figures based on Heider-Simmel animations (1944) to demonstrate a mentalizing deficit in autistic children, we designed and conducted an experiment that asked autistic and typically developing children to create their own animated films. This experiment serves as an empirical case to consider the challenges and promises of critical collaboration in expanding interpretive possibilities in the cognitive neuroscience lab.  

Riley Taitingfong (2021): "Editing Islands: (Re)Imagining Isolation in Gene Drive Science and Engagement"

Riley Taitingfong

Title: "Editing Islands: (Re)Imagining Isolation in Gene Drive Science and Engagement"

Committee: Brian Goldfarb (Chair), Akosua Boateng, Angela Booker, Cinnamon Bloss, Daniel Hallin, Elana Zilberg


Westerners have long imagined, represented, and treated islands around the globe as “natural laboratories” given their perceived geographic isolation. It was on islands that colonizers first conducted “experiments” in imperial expansion via the establishment of plantation economies and maritime military infrastructure, and where scientists developed myriad ecological, evolutionary, and anthropological theories predicated on views of islands as enclosed systems containing human and nonhuman subjects amenable to scientific observation.  In this way, island isolation represents an enduring mythology fundamental to the entangled projects of settler colonialism, militarism, and scientific knowledge production. This dissertation employs interdisciplinary methodology to examine the meaning-making processes that continue to uphold myths of isolation in contemporary scientific practice, focusing on an emerging genetic engineering technology known as gene drive.

 This examination is organized into three chapters. Chapter 1 considers the historical basis of the myth of the isolated island laboratory, focusing on appropriations of Pacific Islands as military outposts and sites of nuclear weapons testing. Against this history, it considers the incommensurability of the conception of island isolation with Indigenous relations to islands as connected by the ocean. Chapter 2 examines presumptions of island isolation embedded in calls to trial genetically engineered organisms containing gene drives on remote islands. The third and final chapter provides an ethnographic account of emergent community and stakeholder engagement practices meant to facilitate just decision-making surrounding the deployment of gene drive technologies, focusing on two Hawaiian Islands where gene drive research is underway. I identify isolation and containment as salient frames structuring scientific practices related to gene drives, and argue that these are ill-equipped to facilitate the just use of these technologies, which hold unprecedented capacity to alter wild species and ecosystems. I invite a reimagination of gene drive science and engagement through oceanic and archipelagic ways of knowing that embrace connectivity and attend to history and power

Monika Sengul-Jones (2020): "The Liminal Work of Online Freelance Writing: Networked Configurations of Gendered Labor, Technologies, Subjectivities"

Monika Sengul-Jones

Title: "The Liminal Work of Online Freelance Writing: Networked Configurations of Gendered Labor, Technologies, Subjectivities."

Committee: Kalindi Vora, Elizabeth Losh, Martha Lampland, Lilly Irani, Dan Hallin, and Lisa Cartwright (chair).

ABSTRACT: This dissertation is a theoretical, interpretative, and empirical study of online freelance writing work in the 2010s in the United States. The aftermath of the 2008 recession saw a rise in remote writing work opportunities and online platforms facilitating and scaffolding such work. A field of precarious work that was predominately occupied by women, the dissertation tracks freelance writing work done on explicitly feminist online platforms for women readers and writing work done by women on crowdwork marketplace platforms brokering low-paid content writing piece work. Using ethnographic methods, participant observation, and interpretative, historical textual analysis, this dissertation advances the neologism "liminal work" to ground my analysis over four chapters. Liminal, which comes from the Latin word "threshold," suggests a physical crossing from one place to another. The "liminal work" of freelance writing online is the maintenance of ambiguity, accomplished through attachments to historical and speculative concepts of autonomy and the liberal human subject. I advance this argument with attention to the mythology of entrepreneurialism as a frame that enables contemporary, situated dependencies to perpetuate in platform design. I scope the intersection of historical debates about freedom to access information online before the commercial internet with the gendered work of library service professionals as prefiguring commercial online websites and writerly work. I analyze empirical reports from women doing online freelance writing, interwoven with my own experiences as a researcher and writer. I focus on stories that are told, from the stories in published articles, stories justifying practical work processes and their logics, to stories about professional alignments, hopes, disappointments, and dependencies. The dissertation diagnoses the liminal work of online freelance writing as a technology of a compulsion to possess a subject position that is not quite realized. My analysis is grounded in theories of feminist infrastructure studies and intersubjectivity, and I give close attention to the function of apostrophe, metaphors and non-representational myths as devices of intersubjective feelings and the networked configurations of technologies and subjectivities that they are realized within. The outcome is a modest recuperation of less visible work histories. This is an interpretation of a snapshot of the inner workings of this moment in the early 21st century economy and a map of the ways that gendered intersections of networked configurations of labor and technologies open up certain futures, and also make destabilization possible. While this work is about the 2010s, the dissertation may stoke the imagination beyond the time of this writing, into the 2020s, a period during which we face yet another, even harsher, economic turndown and an unprecedented reliance on commercial and mediated digital work practices.

Ned Randolph: Clear As Mud: The Struggle Over Louisiana’s Disappearing Wetlands

Ned Randolph

Title: Clear As Mud: The Struggle Over Louisiana’s Disappearing Wetlands

Committee: Patrick Anderson (Chair), Angela Booker, Kelly Gates, Valerie Hartouni, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza

ABSTRACT: The dissertation is about power and the landscape that power produces. It explicates a paradox of modernity, which is this: how one of the most vulnerable places to sea-level rise organizes its economy and culture around extractive thinking and the production of fossil fuels. To do that, it tracks how power produces its own conditions of possibility through crises and responses to such crises that guarantee future action. The dissertation likewise interrogates structures of discourse, science, and common sense. It analyzes and problematizes the state of Louisiana’s historic responses to various environmental crises of flooding, storms, and, starting in the late 20th century, its disappearing coastal wetlands. It frames the state’s efforts to restore its coast as part of a complex but ongoing continuum that began three centuries ago with the 1718 colonial settlement of New Orleans and recently made visible by Hurricane Katrina. I argue that the state’s political economy organizes itself as the solution to the environmental crisis of its own making. The dissertation relies on mixed methods of archival research, interviews and discourse analysis from a variety of texts, policy position papers, historic newspaper articles, scientific studies, and transcripts of public meetings and court cases. It gestures to traditional and emerging critical fields in the Humanities and Social Sciences such as political geography and political ecology, cultural studies, environmental humanities, science studies, and cultural history. The dissertation is conceptually grounded and organized around a material component of Mississippi Delta Mud. Through mud, it explicates a cultural and environmental history of New Orleans and Lower Mississippi River Delta region. This is a story of both the natural environment and the social conditions and histories entangled within it. Far from being a passive object that has meandered through the backdrop of national identity and struggle, the Mississippi River and its mud functions as agents in the production of difference – racial and ethnic, colonizer and colonized. This dissertation attends to stories as they have been told and uses these moments to provoke a discussion of the way in which natural history becomes a venue for violence

Poyao Huang: How to Become “HIV Negative, on PrEP” in the Post-AIDS Era: The Material Culture of Gay Taiwanese Men’s Sexual Health

Poyao Huang

Title: How to Become “HIV Negative, on PrEP” in the Post-AIDS Era: The Material Culture of Gay Taiwanese Men’s Sexual Health

Committee: David Serlin (Co-Chair), Lisa Cartwright (Co-Chair), Patrick Anderson, Dredge Byung'chu Kang, Kalindi Vora

ABSTRACT: This dissertation is an ethnographic study of contemporary gay Taiwanese men's sexual health with a focus on the circulation of HIV prevention medicine and blood management. In the 2010s, the governance of HIV/AIDS has undergone a significant shift, moving from biomedical treatment to prevention: pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is prescribed for HIV-negative individuals to prevent sexually contracting HIV. PrEP engenders a new serological condition, "HIV negative, on PrEP." By signaling the absence of virus and personal use of HIV biomedicine, "HIV negative, on PrEP" implies that this medicine works at the molecular level of human blood to suppress viral incubation and replication, and entails a medical and social urgency of constantly bringing the drug into an individual's body. This dissertation asks what it means to be “HIV negative, on PrEP” in the neoliberal, transnational context of drug consumption and regulation. In this project, I argue that serostatus associated with HIV biomedicine should not be seen as a fixed scientific category about one’s wellbeing, but instead a dynamic process of becoming “HIV negative, on PrEP.” I tell the story of how gay men, governments, AIDS advocates, pharmaceutical companies, and other social actors utilize "HIV negative, on PrEP" as a means to redefine sexual health during a time when drugs are newly introduced and not yet widely available or financially accessible. In doing so, I unearth the socio-economic tensions, health inequalities, and hegemonic oppressions against gay men amid the HIV biomedical prevention regime. A multi-sited ethnography conducted in Taiwan and Thailand from 2016 to 2019, this dissertation traces PrEP’s social trajectory and gay men’s socio-sexual practices to document the transformation of sexual health in four main chapters: government-led medical support programs, the AIDS advocacy organizations initiated drug-delivery model, gay men’s medical tourism to Thailand, and gay men’s sexual communication through smartphone social apps. Drawing on the theories and methods from the science and technology studies (STS), new feminist materialism, medical anthropology, and media studies, I offer an expansive and performative interpretation of health, safety, risk, and other taken-for-granted notions in public health, illustrating how gay Taiwanese men have undergone a biomedical and social transformation of blood management and body modification. In moving toward self-health enhancement, their bodies and sexualities have become intertwined with the economies of pharmaceutical innovation, governmental regulation, and personal mobility and pleasure. Ultimately, this dissertation contributes to the emerging scholarship of “Queer STS” by addressing the broader issues of the politics of self-medication, the marketization of HIV medicine, and the making of queer sexuality in the digital environment