Nothing/More: Black Studies and Feminist Technoscience


Cristina Visperas
University of California, San Diego

Kimberly Juanita Brown
Mounty Holyoke College

Jared Sexton
University of California, Irvine

The current special feature of Catalyst resituates specific themes, topics, objects, sources, and methods in science and technology studies (STS) within the vast interdisciplinary scholarship on Blackness and anti-Blackness. In many ways, it follows from a large body of work in STS that has charted and critiqued the troubled making of Blackness as a biological, medical, legal, and social category apart from “the human.”  The extensive literatures on the intersections of Blackness and technoscience collectively highlight both the urgency and difficulty of redefining the subject of STS and the human as “we” generally know it, examining the origins and continuance of racial classifications in scientific, medical, and technological advancements (Braun, 2014; Browne, 2015; Duster, 2003; Fullwiley, 2008; Pollock, 2012; Roberts, 2011; Wailoo, 2007), as well as analyzing the instrumental uses of Black bodies in the latter (Bankole, 1998; Tilley, 2008; Washington, 2008) and addressing local struggles against health inequalities (Benjamin, 2013; Nelson, 2011).  Reconfiguring the trouble that critical scholarship must stay with (Haraway, 2010), such works productively unmoor what are perhaps some of the most central terms of feminist STS:
the body

the posthuman


(situated) knowledge

worlding/ world-making

“Nothing/More: Black Studies and Feminist Technoscience” is grounded in these interventions and takes as its main concern how Blackness constitutes an object, target, and vehicle for knowledge production in science and medicine. One of the specific aims behind this gathering was to reposition writings generally under-examined in feminist STS as germane, or even foundational to, the latter’s rethinking of the human and non-human world. Sylvia Wynter (2003), for example, illustrates how the sciences have long been predicated on the historical overrepresentation of western, bourgeois “Man” as epitome of "the human," a fundamentally racialized and gendered way of knowing that posits the African, as it were, as the former's "most extreme" Other. Long before this, Wynter had called for a new science of human discourse (1987), one that rearticulates the terms of science itself and that thereby unsettles, in part, what Wynter discusses, pace Anibal Quijano (2000), as its crucial role in establishing the "coloniality of power" (2003).  Frantz Fanon (1956/2008), in a major point of reference for Wynter, imagined in his own time a New Humanism, a radically new way of thinking and being whose emergence signals nothing less than the "end of the world" (p. 76, 191), of the generative destruction of onto-epistemologies and subject positions borne out of and maintained by the force of anti-Blackness, including the recurrent negation of Black subjectivity occasioned by the white gaze in the natural scientific attitude. And Hortense Spillers (1987/2003) has long situated this onto-epistemological potency of Blackness in the stalled historical dynamics of racial slavery, in which the “entire captive community [became] a living laboratory” not only for medical experimentation or for the scientific management of slave labor, but also for the material evolution of capitalism, the philosophical articulation of modernity, and the speculative claims of the subject broadly understood (pp. 207-208). The editors of the current special feature read the essays collected here as demonstrative of this critical approach at the intersections of Black studies and feminist technoscience; an inhabitation of a problem or a set of problems that reach for nothing/more: both the nothing more of a practice of blackness sufficient unto itself and the (absolute) nothing or (too much) more that Blackness is figured to be (or not to be) in the anti-Black imagination.

This approach holds some implications for methodology, as shown aptly in Ruha Benjamin’s narrative sketch, “Ferguson is the Future.”  Set in 2064, the sketch follows protagonist Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanely Jones as she attempts to secure or protect a biobank under attack by “raiders” intent on its stem cell supply. The biobank is the largest among those constructed by a reparations movement advancing organ regenerative technology for victims of police brutality. A futuristic, science fictional approach to urgent issues in our own time, Benjamin’s sketch enacts to great effect what she calls “speculative methods” in her accompanying essay, “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods.”  In the social sciences, the speculative offers “refashionings” or “alternative realities” for exploring the complex relationship between race, fact, and fiction, or, to paraphrase Benjamin, how race becomes both fact and fiction as a lived reality of inequality and as a deterministic understanding of social differences. Envisioning and, more importantly, testing possible social worlds beyond existing ones where subjugation remains routine, Benjamin’s account of speculative methods recognizes the ingenuity of racism and helps us to “anticipate and intervene” in ever more advanced variations of its “logics of extinction.” A rigorously reflexive experimental approach, speculative methods thus also foreground the limitations and reproductions of dominant knowledge systems taken on by avowedly resistant narratives and practices.

Staying with the speculative register, Diana Leong's "The Mattering of Black Lives: Octavia Butler’s Hyperempathy and the Promise of the New Materialism" reads the work of the award-wining black feminist science fiction writer alongside developments in critical theory. It asks pointed questions about the latter's capacity to think seriously about race in general and racial blackness in particular insofar as its turn toward the object—and away from the supposed limitations of "identity politics"—is compromised by a systemic inattention to the political-intellectual project of black studies. After reviewing some of the more recent representative collections of new materialist scholarship and identifying along the way where that discourse fails to account for the sources and effects of racialization in its formulation of the Anthropocene, Leong pursues an illustrative reading of Butler's Parable duology (1993; 1998). In the academic reception of Butler's 1990s series, Leong finds a telling example of how the disavowal of race in theoretical production leads, in literature as much as in philosophy, to a profound misapprehension of a work's most critical insights and directs the unwary critic to follow the wrong implications and to draw the wrong conclusions from the encounter with a black feminist speculative universe. If new materialist thought, even as it intervenes on the Western humanist tradition, could repose some of its basic questions and unsettle some of its guiding assumptions, it might find that writers like Nalo Hopkinson (1998; 2000) and Butler are not only fellow travelers but also leading lights. In other words, it might begin to appreciate the complex simplicity of Leong's opening declaration: "Black lives matter and black lives matter and black lives matter."

Moya Bailey’s “Misogynoir in Medical Media: On Caster Semenya and R. Kelly” offers “Black feminist health-science studies” as a vital and far-reaching intervention in medical curricula, elucidating this analytical and pedagogical approache by scrutinizing two examples of misogynoir in popular and medical media. A cogent framework for examining the hypervisibility of Black women, Bailey’s mysoginoir combines “misogyny, ‘the hatred of women,’ and noir, which means ‘black’ but also carries film and media connotations”—making it an especially useful analytic for addressing the ways both anti-Blackness and misogyny inform media and medical representations of Black trans and cis women.  In her first example, Bailey discusses the invasive and much-publicized gender-testing of Caster Semenya, a South African runner who, in 2009, broke the world record in the women’s 800-meter race at the Track and Field World Championships and won silver at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. And Bailey’s second example considers the trial and acquittal of R&B artist R. Kelly, who was charged with possessing child pornography and soliciting a minor. In both examples, medical authority underwrites popular and legal accounts of Black women’s bodies and sexualities, reinforcing racist, gendered, and ableist standards positioning such bodies as always already non-normative: Semenya is figured as too masculine, while the minor—a thirteen-year-old Black girl—is regarded as too sexually mature or developed. Bailey's forceful analysis of these examples underscores the importance of what she describes as a science for social justice that centers “the health and well-being of marginalized groups,” and a health-science studies “with the collaborative strength to push for the changes they wish to see.”  

Also taking up dominant representations of the Black female body, and of the Black maternal figure in particular, Zakiyyah Jackson’s “Sense of Things” inventively reads Nalo Hopkinson's 1998 novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, alongside aspects of Sylvia Wynter's powerful critique of imperial modernity (1984). This reading bears crucially upon matters of sense perception as they are construed variously between natural scientific thought and the phenomenological reduction in the Western humanist tradition. For Jackson, some of the most fundamental ontological and epistemological questions raised in and by prevailing perceptual practices therein are brought to a productive structural crisis with regard to the non-representability of what she terms "the black mater(nal)." By this name, Jackson indicates "a figure of anxiety concerning the indefinite distinction between immanence and transcendence...reality and illusion, Reason and its absence, science and fiction, "or what might otherwise be understood as "the terms tasked with adjudicating proper perception of 'the world'." In looking, then, to the "mind-body-social nexus" as it is rendered in Hopkinson's acclaimed novel, Jackson points toward other ways and means of tracing the effects of a necessary disorientation produced through the literary—if not also the literal—inhabitation of a blackened reality. The resulting vertigo, evoked by Wynter and Hopkinson in turn, emerges from conditions of a paradigmatic captivity and yet enables "a redistributed sensorium" suggesting "a dizzying sense of vivifying potentiality."

James Doucet-Battle expands on the Black maternal in his essay, “Bioethical Matriarchy: Race, Gender, and the Gift in Genomic Research.” His incisive formulation of “bioethical matriarchy” charts racialized and gendered forms of exchange and obligation characterizing the negation of black kinship structures from slavery to the present. Doucet-Battle returns to the harvesting and genetic sequencing of the HeLa cell line, which was originally taken from the cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, a black patient in the once racially segregated facility of the Johns Hopkins University Hospital and who later died of the illness without ever knowing that her cells had been harvested for experimental purposes. Carefully tracing the evolving meaning of “matriarchy” and its roots in gendered and racial dispossession, Doucet-Battle illustrates how the term comes to obscure the material-discursive uses of the HeLa cell line as instances of bodily appropriation. HeLa’s participation in the “genealogical aspirations” of contemporary genetic ancestry testing is exemplary of this move. As Doucet-Battle shows, the sequencing of the HeLa cell line and its ascribed status as “African” are marshaled in scientific discourses about a “genetic Eve” or, more commonly, an “African Eve,” in which mitochondrial DNA—genetic material pass downed through maternal lines—is increasingly utilized for locating or sourcing “degrees of Africanicity” in samples of the “admixed” human genome. Doucet-Battle leaves us with pressing questions about reciprocity and justice in these “tissue economies” (Waldby & Mitchell, 2006), positing the (im)possibility of making the bioethical matriarchy “whole” in a context where redress for Lacks’ descendants, and for other subjects of biomedical research more broadly, remains profoundly incomplete.

Sandra Harvey’s “The HeLa Bomb and the Science of Unveiling” also provides a trenchant analysis of HeLa’s troubled history and the pivotal questions of justice that history raises. Taking up scientific and cultural narratives about HeLa and its donor, Harvey compellingly depicts the fear of miscegenation and Black racial passing underlying the 1966 “unveiling” of HeLa contamination in cell cultures worldwide.  Dubbed the “HeLa Bomb,” HeLa’s capacity to “pass” as other cell types was figured through language reflecting anxieties, fantasies, and paranoia about Black sexuality: the cells and sometimes the woman, Henrietta Lacks, herself were repeatedly positioned as aggressive, polluting matter—a “crisis of security”—properly subjected to heightened surveillance and regulation at the in vivo and in vitro levels. Against this, Harvey demonstrates an alternative interpretation of such narratives, whose anxieties betray precisely a veiled recognition of the destructive vitality and agency of the HeLa cell line.  Together, these narratives exemplify the complicated ways in which (bio)matter comes to matter. Harvey, moreover, imagines an “ethical practice of knowing,” one that can, for example, read HeLa cell contamination as an “accusation” of racial passing, a technology or “reading apparatus… steeped in epistemological violence.” Furthermore, this ethics of knowing does not privilege the biocitizen constructed through bioethical claims of inclusion, privacy, and anonymity—all assumed in principles of participation and informed consent. Rather, it affirms an openness to contaminating knowledges, or to contamination as an event of knowledge production, and actively incorporates refusal or non-participation within knowledge exchanges as potential unveilings of “new biocitizens.”

Beza Merid’s concept of “feminist biomedical knowledge production” also intervenes in analyses of the biocitizen by contributing a critical framework not only for fleshing out the structural dimensions of health inequalities but also for communicating them to communities they most affect. Examining public health campaigns targeting stroke risk in African Americans, Merid’s “‘Stroke’s No Joke’: Race and the Cultural Coding of Stroke Risk” shows how such messages can undermine their stated goals of ameliorating heath disparities when they center individual behavior in stroke risk and treatment.  Merid focuses on “Stroke’s No Joke,” a televised PSA spearheaded by the American Stroke Association and which deploys Back stand-up comedy as a means for conveying to African Americans the warning signs of stroke and the significance of seeking immediate emergency care. The PSA is informed by the “cultural competence” and “entertainment-education” models in health communication, the former expounding targeted outreach to at-risk populations while simultaneously encouraging clinicians to better focus on cultural factors of disease, and the latter aiming to educate or inform the public about health conditions and treatments by deploying entertainment media. Following from these models, the PSA’s individualization of stroke risk naturalizes and therefore depoliticizes the relationship between race and heart health, overlooking structural determinants of health and illness by deploying the African American humor tradition “as an instrument of institutional, prescriptive communication.” In contrast, a feminist biomedical knowledge production would center and maintain the political nature of health disparities and of the ways the public are informed about them.

Finally, Anthony Hatch’s inimitable critique of “colorblind scientific racism” in Blood Sugar: Racial Pharmacology and Food Justice in Black America explores another serious public health disparity, here examining the ways metabolic syndrome becomes an object of intervention by doctors and scientists, federal research policies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers. An endemic illness and costly public health problem, metabolic syndrome describes a cluster of risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high levels of blood glucose, which can lead to conditions like heart disease and diabetes. But as Hatch shows, metabolic syndrome is increasingly linked to race and ethnicity, social constructions that are applied as practical categories in the science and politics of metabolism. This is made evident in metabolic health research that center racial differences in the causes of and treatments for metabolic diseases, initiatives underwritten by the same cultural constructions of race and ethnicity that enable the very health disparities such initiatives profess to address. The current special feature provides an excerpt from the book’s introduction as an invitation to readers to explore the study in its entirety.

Taken together, the writings presented in this special feature represent some of the best emerging scholarship from within this crucial interdisciplinary endeavor across STS and black studies. We expect to see more such efforts in the near future as the contemporary issues raised under this banner gain greater urgency and our understanding of the ongoing histories they reflect and refract and refashion gains greater depth. Which is to say we expect nothing/more.


Benjamin, R. (2013). People's science: Bodies and rights on the stem cell frontier. Stanford University Press.

Braun, L. (2014). Breathing race into the machine: The surprising career of the spirometer from plantation to genetics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Browne, S. (2015). Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness. Duke University Press.

Butler, O. E. (1993). Parable of the sower. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Butler, O. E. (1998). Parable of the talents. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Duster, T. (2003). Backdoor to eugenics. UK: Psychology Press.

Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks. (R. Philcox, Trans.). New York, NY: Grove Press. (Original work published in 1952).

Fullwiley, D. (2008). The biologistical construction of race admixture technology and the new genetic medicine. Social Studies of Science, 38(5), 695-735.

Haraway, D. (2010). When species meet: Staying with the trouble. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, 53-55.

Hopkinson, N. (1998). Brown girl in the ring. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Hopkinson, N. (2000). Midnight robber. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Jones, D. (2010). The racial discourses of life philosophy: Négritude, vitalism, modernity. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Nelson, A. (2011). Body and soul: The Black Panther Party and the fight against medical discrimination. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Pollock, A. (2012). Medicating race: Heart disease and durable preoccupations with difference. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of power and Eurocentrism in Latin America. International Sociology, 15(2), 215-232.

Roberts, D. (2011). Fatal invention: How science, politics, and big business re-create race in the twenty-first century. New York, NY: The New Press.

Spillers, H. (2003). Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book. In H. Spillers (Ed.), Black, white and in color: Essays on American literature and culture (pp. 203-229). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Original article published in 1987).

Tilley, H. (2011). Africa as a living laboratory: Empire, development, and the problem of scientific knowledge, 1870-1950. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Wailoo, K. (1997). Drawing blood: Technology and disease identity in twentieth century America. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Waldby, C., & Mitchell, R. (2006). Tissue economies: Blood, organs, and cell lines in late capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Washington, H. (2008). Medical apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. New York: Doubleday.

Wynter, S. (1984). The ceremony must be found: After humanism. Boundary, 2, 19-70.

Wynter, S. (1987). On disenchanting discourse: “Minority” literary criticism and beyond. Cultural Critique, 7, 207-244.

Wynter, S. (2003). Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—An argument. CR: The new centennial review, 3(3), 257-337.


Cristina Visperas is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego, and a pre-doctoral fellow at the American Association of University Women.  She has co-published in the Journal of Neurosurgery and the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, and her current research examines the intersections of biomedicine and incarceration during the post-war period.
Kimberly Juanita Brown is an assistant professor in the department of English and the program in Africana Studies at Mount Holyoke College. Her research engages the site of the visual as a way to negotiate the parameters of race, gender, and belonging. Her book, The Repeating Body: Slavery’s Visual Resonance in the Contemporary (Duke University Press) examines slavery’s profound ocular construction, the presence and absence of seeing in relation to the plantation space and the women represented there. She is currently at work on her second book, tentatively titled “Their Dead Among Us: Photography, Melancholy, and the Politics of the Visual.” This project examines images of the dead in The New York Times in 1994 from four overlapping geographies: South Africa, Rwanda, Sudan, and Haiti. Brown argues that a cartography of the ocular exists in documentary images in order to normalize global violence as inextricably connected to blackness via photographic proximity. Brown is the founder and convener of The Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Studies Seminar. The Dark Room is a working group of scholars examining the intersection of critical race theory and visual culture studies. 

Jared Sexton teaches African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine.  He is the author of Amalgamation Schemes:  Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism.



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