An Economy of Immunity: Race, Exposure, and the Spatial Lives of Antibodies in the American Plasma Economy

When and Where

Friday, October 14, 2022 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Room 2125
Sidney Smith Hall


Kelsey Johnson


This paper uses the commercial collection of Covid-19 antibodies found in blood plasma as an entry point into exploring the racial commodification of disease exposure. Part one considers the spatial history of antibody-derived plasma products, utilizing historical research to examine how inmates at predominantly black plantation-prisons in the US south were valued for antibody production in the 1960s. Against this historical relief, part two examines the spatiality of antibodies in the current practices of the plasma industry, as well as the potential racialization of immunity at work in the blood plasma industry's response to the Covid-19 pandemic (even as those efforts eventually failed in clinical trials). If geographical literatures on toxicity and environmental exposure, as well as on Covid-19 transmission, discuss exposure as an outcome of racial capitalism, here I examine how racially uneven exposures also constitute novel resources for capital accumulation that are profoundly useful to biomedicine. By critically scrutinizing the practice of "sharing immunity" and attending to its decidedly geographic constitution, we can see how what Ruth Gilmore calls the "death dealing logics" of racial capitalism also work through the seemingly affirmative practices and communal imaginaries behind the redistribution of antibodies as medicine.

Kelsey Johnson is a Social Science & Humanities Research Council and Faculty of Arts & Science Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto. She holds a PhD in Geography from the University of British Columbia.

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