Partial Publics: The Political Promise of Contemporary Traditional Medicine in Africa
With Stacey Langwick (Cornell University)
The publics of public health and those of public domain are reshaping one another in efforts to commercialize and manage modern traditional medicine in Africa. This paper examines the publics at stake in scientific and clinical efforts to exploit the therapeutic and commercial value of therapeutic plantsin Tanzanian universities, government laboratories, non-governmental clinics, and ministry offices. I argue that struggles over the practices that constitute the public to which contemporary traditional medicine appeals are also struggles over who is obliged to respond to pain and debility, to mediate the consequences of misfortune, and to take responsibility for the inequalities that shape health and wellbeing. Post-independence, socialist dreams cast traditional medicine as the basis of an indigenous pharmaceutical industry which promised freedom form multinational pharmaceutical companies and global capitalism more broadly. Post-socialist formations are experimenting with political and social philosophies, with biological efficacy, and with new forms of wealth and property. The uneven, contradictory, and partial projections of the public at play in these efforts are raising thorny questions about the forms of sovereignty that are possible within the neoliberal restructuring. Furthermore, accounting for contemporary traditional medicine suggests ways of theorizing the public that have broader implications for social analyses.