Cristina Mejia Visperas, "Skin Theory: Visual Culture and the Postwar Prison Laboratory" (NYU, 2022)


An abolitionist approach to STS and the history of the life sciences: this is the model that Cristina Mejia Visperas offers in her book, Skin Theory: Visual Culture and the Postwar Prison Laboratory (NYU 2022). By now, scientists’ experiments on captive men at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison are well known, thanks to the brave and important testimony of former captive-subjects in books like Allen Hornblum’s Acres of Skin. Building on this documentary work, Visperas turns attention to the prison experiments’ “optical rationality,” the way of seeing images that came out of a space that was simultaneously prison and laboratory. For Visperas, skin is a scientific apparatus and a metaphor for what science makes visible—and what it leaves as a void, namely, the endurance of anti-Black racism in the US, from slavery to mass incarceration. At its core, the book asks “What is the relationship between science and the project of freedom?”—and it hopes towards a reparative bioethics that dismantles scientific racism and the prison nation that it upholds.

This interview was a collaborative effort among Professor Laura Stark and graduate students at Vanderbilt University in the seminar “Critical Bioethics.” Please email Laura with any feedback on the interview or questions about how to design collaborative interview projects for the classroom.

Your Host

Laura Stark

Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society.

View Profile