Traces of the Future: An Archaeology of Medical Science in Africa

Traces of the Future: An Archaeology of Medical Science in Africa. Paul Wenzel Geissler, Guillaume Lachenal, John Manton, and Noemi Tousignant, eds., With special contributions by Evgenia Arbugaeva and Mariele Neudecker, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 256 pp.

This book is a work of art as much as it is a historical or anthropological narrative. It is an enactment (sometimes a re-enactment), a provocation, and an invitation. The layout of text and images on the oversized pages of thick paper make reading itself a sensual experience. The authors’ attention to the senses involved in the practice of reading contribute to cultivating the forms of attention they invite readers to bring to their exploration of five sites that were important to the production of biological and medical science in the 20th century.

These five sites are all in Africa: (1) Uzuakoli leprosy center in Nigeria (Manton); (2) Ayos sleeping sickness camp in Cameroon (Lachenal, Owona Ntsama, and Manton); (3) Amani Hill Research Station, Tanzania (Geissler with Gerrets, Kelly, and Mangesho); Niakhar, Senegal, a continuously if unevenly maintained “study population” (Tousignant, Mbodj-Pouye, Ouvrier, and Desclaux); and Kisumu, Kenya, a city that has been transformed by HIV research (Prince, Madiega, and Geissler). The sites are diverse, although their histories are at times entwined. Their scalar dimensions are uneven, yet they all embody a historical moment that the authors refer to as the long 20th century. This makes them rich places to examine the ways of living with these pasts that are possible today. The authors worked in teams to make the shadows, erasures, ruins, and remains of these once “solidly modern places” visible (p. 17).

Each of the authors engages two central questions: How do we live with the past in the moment? How do the ruins and debris of these scientific and medical sites present particular moments in the landscape of our present? Since the moments of highest scientific modernism were, in these sites, also colonial moments, these questions of how the past is alive today are also questions about the postcolonial landscape.

Traces of the Future seeks to evoke as much as to describe the multiple, fragmentary, and at times contradictory affects animating the life of the traces left in these sites. The authors argue that the significance of traces is “to be established and reestablished in material engagements” (p. 16). In reflections, short essays, personal narratives, fragments of conversation, excerpts from archives, and artful images, they grapple with what it means to be in place and in time. The book asks readers to consider the ways it might matter to put our bodies back into places. What is the relationship between memory and embodiments? How might we build a sense of solidarity with past bodies? In what ways might we feel through ruins and debris to enliven our histories?

By drawing readers into the affective dimensions of 20th-century medical and biological science, these authors conjure a sensibility that also offers analytical leverage on the neoliberal enclaves of 21st-century global health. Each of these sites are still lived in/with/through. They ground social and political ways of being and, as such, hold hopes for different futures. Not the past futures of African science but the aspirations that emerge through the continual experience of places that have been marked by African scientific modernism. They support forms of remembering and forgetting that enable creative approaches to being in the present.

The authors explore the various ways that temporality itself has been, and is being, performed in each of these sites. In their introduction, Geissler and Lachenal articulate the collective project as an examination of the ways that modernization theory creates a very specific sense of “coevalness”; that is, the ability of social actors to act “as if in the same time” (p. 15). In addition, each section mines the traces of these institutions of modernization for evidence of the many times at play in the everyday practices of those who inhabited them. Today, as scientists and former scientists, technicians, groundskeepers, drivers, and nannies and their children work in, move through, and reflect on that which is left of these institutions, it is all the more apparent that they are “saturated with temporality, whose vestiges are as futuristic as they are proud of their past” (p. 17).

The authors of this collection put their bodies in and attune their sense to the ruins of scientific projects and their landscapes. It is, in a sense, a prepositional story: a book that explores being with the past, living in an archive, working through a history. Traces of the Future strives to invent ways to stay attuned to the presences that might be animate futures for Africa and for medicine that are not overdetermined by dominant ways of holding the past together.

The authors approach research not only as a process that might account for the practices of the past but also as a process of seeing, feeling, and making other “temporal collectives” as well as recognizing persistent incommensurabilities and (re)assertive contradictions. The multiple, incommensurable temporalities are, in part, a product of the contradictory political projects that animated these five sites: imperial subjugation, colonial welfare, national independence, socialist internationalism, and economic liberation. In addition, they lie, in part, in the varied experiences of Africans and Europeans, scientists and staff, medical personal and patients, populations of continuous study and participants in one-time trials, colonial and postcolonial subjects, workers and family members living with the legacies of these workers, and women and men. Different visions of the future were always at play in these institutions, and it was (and often still is) competition over them that animated their structuring differences. These visions take on new and often unpredictable and unintentional life in the present. As the authors engage workers, current residents, families of earlier medical personnel and technicians, buildings, gardens, collections of instruments, termite-eaten records, and patchy archives, they highlight the fact that a variety of possible pasts remain alive in these spaces.

In many ways, this book feels raw, in that it invites the reader into the authors’ intellectual process as well as their field sites. The searching yet playful methodology of the teams contributing to this collection raise, for me at least, a sense of field notes; that is, of those many ways that one engages and reengages a place, of the ways that researchers’ bodies encounter archives and move through space, the way that we reconstruct time and sensation with our readings and remake space with our movements. For this reason, I am tempted to recommend this book in a seminar to discuss methodology. The fragments, ruptures, and reclamations ask us what we might do with our notes and encounters.

In their introduction, Geissler and Lachenal write that, “Our approach is not ‘evidential’ [‘indiciarie’]. Nor do we seek to build an ‘alternative’ archive, not even ‘our own archive.’ Rather, we look at archives ethnographically (treating them as subjects and forms, not merely as sources), and see them archeologically, by acknowledging them as artefacts and as our contemporaries” (p. 21). The writings in this volume resist being cast as evidence of a place, a moment, a story in the past. A shared “archival sensibility” unites these authors in a project “to excavate the affective resonance of the historian’s relation to the document and the archive, as well as to what is concealed, degraded, and occluded” (p. 32). Traces of the Future is about losing archives, finding archives, commemorating archives, re-creating them, tracking their transformations through time, and experiencing them as they are “in time.”

Traces of the Future tantalizes. It startles. It often seems to asks more questions of us as readers than it answers. At times, the frustrations, sighs, and impatience describe by Lachenal, Manton, and Ntsama as they were pulled down the same paths that documentary film makers and other educational tourists before them took in Ayos may also be felt by readers. But they show us that no ethnographic account is closed. Indeed, story itself embodies the tension that there is more than can be captured in any one telling, no matter how subtle. Traces of the Future highlight this excess. In the spaces between its fragments, readers are invited to do their own work. As we are provoked by the juxtapositions, fragments, images, and chronologies of this book, pulled in by their invitation to think of historical ethnography as art, our reading also becomes “a permanent, shared, sometimes impatient, reflection on how we are guided” (p. 83).