Sexual (Dis)Orders and HIV Science: Towards a Global Health Ethics

Venue: Emory main campus, Bowden Hall 323.

Speaker: Kirk Fiereck, MPhil, MPH, doctoral candidate in medical anthropology in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. 

Abstract: Representations of sexual life in South Africa have become increasingly oversimplified. Such flattening has proliferated through the circulation of media images and other cultural and academic texts. This includes scholarship in gender and sexuality as well as African studies, but perhaps even more problematically this has occurred within HIV science and global health. Anthropologists have pointed out that the ethics frames used within global health knowledge production and governance have yet to explicitly account for cultural difference. These criticisms solicit global health to account for other, local moral worlds and histories by contrasting particular contexts to the universalizing ethical frames of biomedicine, psychiatry, public health, and epidemiology. Such contrasts bespeak the ontological anxieties that exist within these disciplines, and the changing interdisciplinary field of global health. This is particularly so when global health experts engage with questions and knowledge production practices concerning various ‘others.’ To be sure, the relation of global health expertise to ‘the other’ is ethically fraught, particularly when this expertise acts within ‘resource-constrained’ contexts, which is to say the quintessential spaces of global health. Such a relation exposes the inadequacy of normative ethical frames used in global health and places questions regarding the ethics of global health at the limit between two seemingly incommensurable philosophers: Michel Foucault and Emmanuel Levinas. This paper will explore how the ethics of knowledge production about sexual personhood and behavior within HIV science and global health would be productively informed by a reading through of the meditations of both thinkers on ethics. To explore these concerns, this paper draws on my ethnographic research examining the emergence of queer personhood within South African black and medical cultures. The analysis will examine how Foucault’s notion of ethics as a practice of freedom is related to the Levinasian idea of infinite responsibility for the other as a way of thinking towards a global health ethics.