Autobiography of a Disease

A conversation about autoethnography and literary representations of illness and medicalization


Fields of Knowledge
  • Health / Sustainability
  • Performance
  • Philosophy / Theory

Organizing Institutions



Kaja Silverman


Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought is pleased to announce Autobiography of a Disease, a conversation with Patrick Anderson and Kaja Silverman about autoethnography and literary representations of illness and medicalization, on Monday, September 11, 2017 from 6:30-8:30pm. Anderson will introduce and read from his most recent book, Autobiography of a Disease (2017), and then talk with Kaja Silverman about a topic they have often discussed: how does does one make sense of the indelibly vulnerable experience of being ill, and what does one "do" with that experience afterward? Merleau-Ponty says that Leonardo was given the life for which his work called. Is there a way of remaining true to this proposition without acceding to the notion that life is pre-given? Could it perhaps be by reversing the proposition? By saying that we should do the work for which our life calls?

Anderson's book is based on his own experience with the nearly-fatal effects of a virulent bacterial infection that left him in and out of a coma, and in and out of hospitals, for the better part of a year. Having undergone almost two dozen surgeries during that year—into his bones, muscles, and retinal tissues—and having been trained as both an anthropologist and a performance scholar, Anderson struggled to make sense of what had transpired. Finding his own perspective too altered by the pain drugs, anesthetics, and oft-recurring unconsciousness that had defined the year, he turned to the descriptive value of others: human caregivers, medical technologies, and more experimentally the microbial agents that had left their destructive traces upon and within his flesh and bone.

Unlike most medical memoirs, told from the perspective of the individual human patient, Autobiography of a Disease is told from the perspective of a bacterial cluster. This orientation is intended to make room in the social side of illness for others not typically summoned: bodies and cells, monitoring machines and imaging devices, and at the heart of it all, the prolific bacteria themselves.

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Seminar: The Afterlife of Illness

Tuesday, September 12th
Slought Seminar Room

Join us for an open discussion about research that attends to the embodied experience—and the structural realities—of pain, mortality, and finitude. Patrick Anderson will initiate the conversation with a brief discussion of two of his books, So Much Wasted (Duke, 2010) and Autobiography of a Disease (Routledge, 2017).

The first of these books concerns self-starvation as it is practiced in several forms (hunger striking, anorexia nervosa, and performance art) and in several domains (clinic, gallery, and prison). The second book is about extended, life-threatening illness and the many subjects and objects—nurses and surgeons, microbes and machines—that participate in and bear witness to illness and its aftermath.

Although the seminar will focus on methods used in this kind of work, it will also consider larger theoretical questions and concerns. Participants are not expected to have read the two books.

Patrick Anderson is Associate Professor in the departments of Communication, Ethnic Studies, and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of two books — Autobiography of a Disease and So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance — and the co-editor (with Jisha Menon) of Violence Performed: Local Roots and Global Routes of Conflict. He is also a founding co-editor (with Nicholas Ridout) of the "Performance Works" book series at Northwestern University Press.

Anderson works at the interstices of performance studies and cultural studies, focusing in particular on the constitutive role of violence, mortality, and pain in the production and experience of political subjectivity. Anderson has also worked as a director and actor in theater and film, as an anthropologist in Sri Lanka, Chicago, and New Mexico, and as an activist and organizer for anti-war groups in Sri Lanka, for the Berkeley Free Clinic in California, and for HIV/AIDS groups in various locations in the United States.

Kaja Silverman is the Katherine and Keith L. Sachs Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, the author of numerous books including The Miracle of Analogy (2015), the first volume of a 3-volume revisionary history and theory of photography, and a frequent curator at Slought. Most of the funding for this exhibition came from her Mellon Distinguishing Achievement Award.

"First we were there with him because he provided a safe place for us to be. Then, unwillingly perhaps, just out of trust for what the experts told him, he began to fight us, believing that we were all harm. And achingly, we grew stronger--learning the tricks of the tactics they used to hunt and eliminate us. ... After a while, we realized that we were exactly what he needed, an insurrection in the deadening habits of daily life, a wake-up to his own vulnerability. We held our ground for his benefit as much as our own. ... We grew to care for him then, or started to, as we watched.

The love came later. It took us utterly by surprise."

-- Patrick Anderson