A discussion of Cristina Mejia Visperas's new book, Skin Theory: Visual Culture and the Postwar Prison Laboratory (NYU Press, 2022). The author will be joined in conversation by Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu (NYU) and Anthony Hatch (Wesleyan University), moderated by Nayan Shah (USC). Co-organized by the Institute for Diversity & Empowerment @ Annenberg and the Center on Science, Technology, and Public Life. Registration is required. REGISTER HERE


About the Book: In February 1966, a local newspaper described the medical science program at Holmesburg Prison, Philadelphia, a “golden opportunity to conduct widespread medical tests under perfect control conditions.” Helmed by Albert M. Kligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor, these tests enrolled hundreds of the prison’s predominantly Black population in studies determining the efficacy and safety of a wide variety of substances, from common household products to chemical warfare agents. These experiments at Holmesburg were hardly unique; in the postwar United States, the use of incarcerated test subjects was standard practice among many research institutions and pharmaceutical companies. Skin Theory examines the prison as this space for scientific knowledge production, showing how the “perfect control conditions” of the prison dovetailed into the visual regimes of laboratory work. To that end, Skin Theory offers an important reframing of visual approaches to race in histories of science, medicine, and technology, shifting from issues of scientific racism to the scientific rationality of racism itself. 

In this highly original work, Cristina Mejia Visperas approaches science as a fundamentally racial project by analyzing the privileged object and instrument of Kligman’s experiments: the skin. She theorizes the skin as visual technology, as built environment, and as official discourse, developing a compelling framework for understanding the intersections of race, incarceration, and medical science in postwar America.


About the Author: Cristina Mejia Visperas is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California. Building on her background in molecular and cellular biology, Visperas examines the politics and cultural histories of the life sciences, with a focus on race and state violence. Her book, Skin Theory (NYU Press, 2022), is an abolitionist study of postwar medical science research conducted in prisons and the emergence of modern American bioethics. Her next project addresses the political role of emotions in the Anthropocene. Visperas currently sits on the editorial board of “Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience”, an open-access, academic journal publishing feminist texts on science and technology.


Open to attendants outside of USC. An excerpt of the book will be made available to registered attendants. Registration before the event is required. 


Levan Institute for the Humanities Book Chats—Cristina Mejia Visperas, Skin Theory: Visual Culture and the Postwar Prison Laboratory


This event is part of the Levan Institute for the Humanities' “Book Chats” series, conversations about new books published by USC scholars in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. To see more events in this series, including recordings of past events, visit https://dornsife.usc.edu/levan-institute/book-chats/.

Event Details

  • Nayla Ramalho
  • Diane Winston
  • Rena Heinrich
  • Luisa Luo

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