What is “capacity”? In science research and health interventions, it typically refers to the relative availability of equipment, infrastructure, personnel, and skills needed to get a job done. Noémi Tousignant’s book, Edges of Exposure: Toxicology and the Problem of Capacity in Postcolonial Senegal (Duke UP, 2018), feels its way into the experience of capacity to observe a crucial characteristic. Capacity has “temporal qualities.”
Waiting, interrupting, prolonging, repairing: these processes show that the elements of lab science and public health called “capacity” operate with different rhythms that often fail to synchronize or to be formally acknowledged. Yet the material world of capacity also implies a direction, which orients scientists to (im)possibilities for better futures, “to moral imaginations of responsibility and commitment.”
The book won the 2020 Ludwik Fleck prize for outstanding book from the Society for the Social Studies of Science. The award signals the book’s broad relevance for anyone interested in critical studies of science, technology, and health; intrigued by the phenomenology of time; keen to combine training in history with ethnographic methods; or interested in postcolonial studies, especially Africa.
The book is based on Tousignant’s field work in Senegal from in 2010 and 2011 studying professional toxicologists across three institutions as they “improvised and imagined a more capacious and protective toxicology.” In terms of empirical content, this work is important for anyone interested in environmental contamination and the politics of poisoning lands, waters, and bodies.
The interview also refers to the work of Gabrielle Hecht on exposure and imaginaries of Africa, Julie Livingstone on improvisation and slow risks, Joanna Crane on commodification of global health, and Monika Krause on how NGOs perform worthy projects. This interview was a collaborative effort among Professor Laura Stark and students at Vanderbilt University in the course “American Medicine & the World.” Please email Laura with any feedback on the interview or questions about the collaborative interview process.
Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society.