Video / Audio

Highlights: The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is one of the plants that has stood longest at the side of humans — and one of the most ambiguous. It can be deeply harmful; it can also be miraculously helpful. It is a European native that somehow became an enduring symbol of Orientalism. Today, it continues to serve as the raw material for a host of copyrighted and hugely valuable pharmaceutical compounds, while also exemplifying a bygone medical tradition. This talk sketches out three ways of looking at opium within a bounded historical context. We will look first at the deep history of Papaver somniferum, which has an ancient heritage of medical and recreational use in Europe. The second way of looking at an opium ball raises the question of why opium became so closely associated with Persia, India, and eventually China from the seventeenth century onward. I link this shift to the emergence of new theories of medicine, biology, and empire in early modern Europe, and, perhaps even more importantly, to unheralded technological changes such as the invention of the opium pipe and the hookah. The third view of an opium ball is to look not at it, but inside it: opium itself is not in high demand today, but the opiate molecules it contains are more popular than ever. The final section of the talk will consider how the isolation of morphine from opium (circa 1803) transformed not just this particular drug, but the history of drugs and pharmaceuticals as a whole. These three views of an opium ball are meant to highlight both the protean identities of the drug in different times and places, and the surprising continuities between them.

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is one of the plants that has stood longest at the side of humans — and one of the most ambiguous. It can be deeply harmful; it can also be miraculously helpful. It is a European native that somehow became an enduring symbol of Orientalism. Today, it continues to serve as the raw material for a host of copyrighted and hugely valuable pharmaceutical compounds, while also exemplifying a bygone medical tradition. This talk sketches out three ways of looking at opium within a bounded historical context. We will look first at the deep history of Papaver somniferum, which has an ancient heritage of medical and recreational use in Europe. The second way of looking at an opium ball raises the question of why opium became so closely associated with Persia, India, and eventually China from the seventeenth century onward. I link this shift to the emergence of new theories of medicine, biology, and empire in early modern Europe, and, perhaps even more importantly, to unheralded technological changes such as the invention of the opium pipe and the hookah. The third view of an opium ball is to look not at it, but inside it: opium itself is not in high demand today, but the opiate molecules it contains are more popular than ever. The final section of the talk will consider how the isolation of morphine from opium (circa 1803) transformed not just this particular drug, but the history of drugs and pharmaceuticals as a whole. These three views of an opium ball are meant to highlight both the protean identities of the drug in different times and places, and the surprising continuities between them.

Last Works: Lessons in Leaving by Mark Taylor. Living in the shadow of death may enhance the gift of life. In 2006, Taylor (Religion/Columbia Univ.; Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left, 2014, etc.) developed an infection after a biopsy, resulting in septic shock that took a month to stabilize; five months later, he underwent surgery for cancer. That life-threatening experience, he reflects, was like “dying without dying,” and the last 10 years have seemed like “life after death for me,” a reprieve that made him feel unexpectedly liberated. Trying to make sense of the experience, he turned to writers whose works he has read, taught, and cherished during his long career. The result is an erudite intellectual autobiography focused on 11 writers’ insights about the end of life: several (Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and Freud) committed suicide; two (Nietzsche, Poe) died in delirium; and two (Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida) are likely to be unfamiliar to readers without a background in philosophy. Kierkegaard, Melville, and Thoreau round out the cast. None could be characterized as bright spirits but rather echo the abiding depression that Taylor believes he inherited from his mother. “In one way or another,” he admits, “everything I have written over the years has been an effort to overcome the melancholy of unhappy consciousness.” From his father, however, a science teacher, poet, and artist, he inherited an uplifting love of nature and artistic talent. Living in New England, Taylor senses the ghosts of Melville and Thoreau close at hand. As he watches the sun rise each morning over the Berkshires, he is struck by the moment before light appears and “reality remains virtual and all things seem possible.” As an artist, “exploring ways of writing without words,” he has created large-scale land art from steel, stone, and bone that depict letters from the signatures of Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. They stand as impressive homages to a trinity of beloved philosophers. Taylor’s personal recollections emerge as the most engaging passages, punctuating analyses of often challenging works.

Full Title: Fire, Water, Moon: Supplemental Seasons in a Time without Season, If the Anthropocene names the geological epoch defined by the radically destabilizing effects of human activity on geophysical processes, this talk asks about the continued relevance of other, relatively unchanged seasonal cycles and patterns of fluctuating intensities and regulated dearth and abundance (both cultural and geophysical). According to recent work on the Anthropocene, petro-extraction economies have messed up our relationship to the sun by liberating capital from dependence on the “yield of present photosynthesis” (Andreas Malm). At a time when climate scientists are declaring the end of “seasonality,” and when technology appears to have caught up with lyric’s power to expand and compress, accelerate and distort the diurnal rhythms determined by the earth’s relation to the sun, I turn toward the moon and the micro-seasons afforded by its monthly cycles as well as to other comparably stable, cultural modes of distributing abundance and scarcity across time. What is to be gained by opening up the concept of seasonality to these pluralizing, supplemental seasons within seasons, and what healing powers might they still afford?

Full Title: Fire, Water, Moon: Supplemental Seasons in a Time without Season. If the Anthropocene names the geological epoch defined by the radically destabilizing effects of human activity on geophysical processes, this talk asks about the continued relevance of other, relatively unchanged seasonal cycles and patterns of fluctuating intensities and regulated dearth and abundance (both cultural and geophysical). According to recent work on the Anthropocene, petro-extraction economies have messed up our relationship to the sun by liberating capital from dependence on the “yield of present photosynthesis” (Andreas Malm). At a time when climate scientists are declaring the end of “seasonality,” and when technology appears to have caught up with lyric’s power to expand and compress, accelerate and distort the diurnal rhythms determined by the earth’s relation to the sun, I turn toward the moon and the micro-seasons afforded by its monthly cycles as well as to other comparably stable, cultural modes of distributing abundance and scarcity across time. What is to be gained by opening up the concept of seasonality to these pluralizing, supplemental seasons within seasons, and what healing powers might they still afford?

Full Title: Beyond Mindfulness: Buddhism and Health in Historical Perspective As a set of disciplines, the humanities face the challenge of how to write about embodied experiences that resist easy verbal categorization such as illness, pain, and healing. The recent emergence of interdisciplinary frameworks such as narrative medicine goes some way to address these challenges. Yet conceptualizing a field of medical humanities also offers a broader umbrella under which to study the influence of medico-scientific ideas and practices on society. Whether by incorporating material culture such as medical artefacts, performing symptomatic readings of poems and novels, or excavating the implicit medical assumptions underlying auditory cultures, the approaches that emerge from a historiographical or interpretive framework are different from those coming from the physician’s black bag.

Full Title: Beyond Mindfulness: Buddhism and Health in Historical Perspective As a set of disciplines, the humanities face the challenge of how to write about embodied experiences that resist easy verbal categorization such as illness, pain, and healing. The recent emergence of interdisciplinary frameworks such as narrative medicine goes some way to address these challenges. Yet conceptualizing a field of medical humanities also offers a broader umbrella under which to study the influence of medico-scientific ideas and practices on society. Whether by incorporating material culture such as medical artefacts, performing symptomatic readings of poems and novels, or excavating the implicit medical assumptions underlying auditory cultures, the approaches that emerge from a historiographical or interpretive framework are different from those coming from the physician’s black bag.

Full title: The Whiteness of Bones: the Emergence of the Human Skeleton as a Commodity, 1500-1800 The human skeleton became an object—scientific, natural, artistic, and artisanal—in the period between the late 15th century and the late 18th century. While retaining its symbolic value, in this period the skeleton became essential both to anatomists and to artists as the bedrock of the human form. As a valued commodity, skeletons were bought and sold, and entered public and private collections. Anatomical manuals included instructions on their crafting. This talk will examine who owned skeletons, who used them, and who made them, and the fact that their origins as dead humans remained curiously unexpressed.