Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

Linking the Living and the Dead by Paul Koudounaris

In anthropology, religion, society, sociology, South America on July 30, 2014 at 16:57

From: Linking the Living and the Dead: Skull Worship in Bolivia by Paul Koudounaris, United Academics,

In a corner of the interrogation room of the homicide division at the police headquarters in El Alto, the largest barrio of La Paz, Bolivia, two skulls sit in plexiglass cases on a table top. Respectively known as Juanito and Juanita, the latter has been kept in the room for over thirty years, while the former has been there for perhaps a century. They are not evidence in some unsolved murder, however, nor are they reminders of some grisly local slaying. Instead, they are there to solve crimes, the same as the detectives who use the room to question suspects. While it might seem unlikely that these silent crania can provide much assistance in criminal investigations, they are credited by Colonel Fausto Tellez, a retired commander of the department, with helping to solve hundreds of cases during his tenure. He even refers to Juanito as “longest-serving officer on the force.”
Identically dressed in knit caps and wide-band sunglasses, Juanito and Juanita are surrounded on the table top by various offerings. These include coca leaves, cigarettes, votive candles, and candy, all left by officers in thanks for services rendered. On difficult cases, homicide detectives traditionally write requests for information on slips of paper, which are placed in the shrines of the skulls. If need be, prayers may also be offered to the pair. Tellez estimates that the use of the skulls cuts investigative time in half, and notes that they also assist in interrogations. “They are brought in during the questioning of difficult people,” he explains, “and even if they want to lie, they cannot if the skulls are present. When the skulls are involved, people always tell the truth.”
To an outsider, this all sounds at the least unusual, if not downright bizarre, but it is not so here. Juanito and Juanita are ñatitas — the term literally means“the little pug-nosed ones,” but specifically refers to human skulls which house souls of the deceased, and act as protectors, helpers, and intercessors for the iving. While the veneration of these crania is little known outside Bolivia, within the country, and particularly in La Paz, their powers are renowned. Juanito and Juanita are merely two of thousands of similar skulls, found in homes or offices, their shrines familiar enough to be quotidian. Here, high up in the Andes, where traditional belief systems were never fully eradicated by European colonization, the ñatitas provide a unique insight into the bond
between the living and the dead.
Not every human skull is a ñatita. Those so designated are ones which have been adopted by individuals, families, or groups, who then perform rituals to honor the soul housed within the skull. The ñatita, then, is not simply the skull, but rather the  combination of the skull and a spirit which uses the skull as a locus, and provides various forms of supernatural assistance for its benefactors. Treated as close friends or family members, many ñatitas are passed down over several generations — it is not uncommon to find people who report that a skull has been with their family for many decades. In some cases, such as that of Juanito in the homicide division of the El Alto police office, a ñatita’s history of service may stretch back an entire century.

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Reposted with permission from: United Academics

Photography, Automatism, Mechanicity by Charles Palermo

In art, philology, photography on July 30, 2014 at 16:38

From: Photography, Automatism, Mechanicity by Charles Palermo, NONSITE,

Since photography’s beginnings, descriptions of photography have emphasized its mechanical character—the fact that it makes images without the kinds of human actions, such as drawing, traditionally associated with image making.  Philosophical objections to calling photographs signs or representations continue to center on this feature of photography.  Increasingly, as photography has gained wider acceptance as a medium for artistic work, the photographic image’s independence from certain kinds of action traditionally associated with image making has come to seem less like a liability or source of doubt and more like a source of artistic value for the medium.  Either way, and without forgetting the variety of work that can be accomplished with photographic materials and processes, we can speak of pictures made photographically—images of the world made in cameras—as having been made mechanically.  In this sense, “mechanically” clearly means something like “with a machine.”

Of course, cameras do not work purely mechanically.  The operator always plays a role in photography.  Photographs require human agency.  Further, agency has always been understood to depend on the agent’s intention.  That is, we generally exclude from discussions of agency those acts performed (or events precipitated) unintentionally.  If I leave a Polaroid camera on a windowsill, and a breeze from the open window causes the curtain to billow, and the billowing drapery knocks the camera to the floor, and the resulting jolt actuates the shutter causing the camera to make a picture, we may call the result a photograph, but a generally accepted account of agency will stop short of calling the making of the photograph an act.  That is because the act I did perform—setting the camera on the windowsill—cannot be understood (on the account I’ve given) as comprehending anything we could call my intention to take a photograph.  Much less this photograph, the one the Polaroid actually ejected after the fall.

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Reposted with permission from:

What Is the Body Worth? by Ari N. Schulman

In ethics, medicine, science on July 30, 2014 at 16:25

From: What Is the Body Worth? by Ari N. Schulman, The New Atlantis,

In 1951, a thirty-year-old woman living in Baltimore was experiencing abnormal bleeding and felt a lump on her cervix. She checked herself into the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where four months earlier she had given birth to her fifth child. The doctor found a tumor the size of a nickel — which was surprising, as it had not been seen in the checkup following her recent delivery. A biopsy confirmed the presence of what turned out to be an unusually aggressive cancer.

The woman returned to begin treatment; with the patient under anesthetic, the doctors cut two tissue samples — one from the tumor, another from her healthy cervical tissue — before inserting pieces of radium in an attempt to shrink the tumor. The samples were passed along to a researcher who was continuing a decades-long, so-far unsuccessful scientific effort to keep human tissues alive in culture indefinitely. While the healthy cervical tissue failed to culture, the tumoral cells began dividing at a remarkable rate — doubling every 24 hours. It soon became clear that the culture was the first line of human cells that could potentially be kept alive forever. By the end of the year, the power of those cells had taken the life of the patient they were taken from.

Market considerations aside, it is rightly a point of wide agreement among bioethicists and patient advocates that informed consent procedures ought to be strengthened. But it is wrong to think of informed consent as a panacea for bioethical concerns of all sorts — a mistake derived in part from the presumed sufficiency of information in making good decisions. Before turning to the question of how much information is necessary for consent to be considered adequately informed, it is worth examining how difficult it can be to obtain information that is even reliable about complicated scientific subjects. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for better or worse, provides an instructive case study — for considering that it is the product of years of research, and has effectively become the canonical public discussion of HeLa cells and the Lacks story, it turns out not to have been as carefully fact-checked as readers might suppose.

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Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

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