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Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us by S. Lochlann Jain (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 87, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 255-267 | 10.1353/anq.2014.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I had not intended to become a cancer anthropologist. I can say, without shame, that when I finished my first project, the intent behind my move to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) was to follow the money. Acknowledging the NCI as the 800-pound, pink ribbon-festooned, funding gorilla of the NIH, the epitome of Nixon’s War on Cancer, it was a move to understand one of the single, greatest public efforts to address human illness. I wanted to understand cancer disparities as an anthropological object, the dual construction of science and politics, a research agenda and grant portfolio made real by health scientist administrators who themselves would constitute my new “village” (Lee 2009a). It was also a four-year post-doctoral fellowship with full healthcare benefits. Cancer science and cancer care is truly an enormous configuration of contemporary American undertakings, and we should not overlook the (ancillary? derivative?) academic enterprise that grows alongside it, albeit dwarfed in scope and dollars.

“Cancer may start as a series of dividing cells…but it is more richly understood as a rhetorical term that can powerfully organize relationships and as a key player in the broader history of the United States and elsewhere” (233). More simply, “cancer can’t be inside so many people and remain outside society” (221). It is in this light that Jain’s new text comes together as a meditation on cancer as part of a uniquely American contemporary landscape. Three previously published essays are adapted here in a new configuration with four new chapters, building new arguments while simultaneously weaving an analysis that draws on her prior projects in injury and malpractice law (Jain 2006). To push the metaphor, Malignant started as an idea evolving into something new to progress and proliferate, to take a life of its own. Jain’s choice of title was not benign, which should tell you something about her thoughts on the matter. Jain describes her book as an effort to map out cultural containment strategies (221), exposing or calling into question how the organizing of information about cancer—even with the aim of finding cures—does violence to the lived experience of the disease and its effects. Malignant uses cancer as a framing device to present a different take on the downstream consequences of the rise of population thinking (Porter 1995).

Scholarly writing offers an inherent challenge, none more so than anthropology. To be scholarly, the author has to immerse herself in the phenomenon, deeply, perhaps for years, such that the strangeness of the thing in question becomes familiar, thereby understandable. And then, in the moment of writing, an author must bring readers close enough to see that thing in stark relief, all the while conveying the daily-ness—the routine of what is, in truth, simply other people living their lives—such that readers are compelled to recognize how this account can only be true.

Jain uses Maurice Blanchot to provide a philosophical vignette for “Living in Prognosis: The Firing Squad of Statistics” (Chapter 1). Her engagement with the Frenchman pivots on the juxtaposition, “I am alive. No, you are dead.” This is an interesting invitation that I take up because it helps me think about Jain’s positionality across the texts that she has assembled to create Malignant. Blanchot, who writes poignantly elsewhere about literature and the right to death, says of Thomas Mann’s fiction:

…he does not respect the rule of nonintervention: he constantly involves himself in what he is telling, sometimes through interposed persons, but also in the most direct kind of way. What about this unwarranted intrusion? It is not moralizing—a stand taken against a certain character—it does not consist of illuminating things from outside—the thrust of the creator’s thumb as he shapes his figures the way he wants them. It represents the intervention of the narrator challenging the very possibility of narration—an intervention that is, consequently, an essentially critical one, but in the manner of a game, of a malicious irony.

(1981:137)

The first chapter, then, is about survivorship: what that word means in the cancer context but, more importantly, what that experience means in this day and...



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