The placebo effect and nothingness: A posthuman approach

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In this paper I shall discuss the placebo effect from a posthuman angle. The placebo effect
is a medical conundrum, as it is a medical effect that is produced by “nothing”. Placebo literally
means, ”I please”, and the placebo has, among other things, been defined as an inert
substance, often a calcium pill. Placebos are being used in medical trials to determine how
much of the medical effect is caused by other factors than medical. There is a vast amount
of literature on the placebo effect and it has been studied since the late 1940’ies, mainly for
the purpose of pre-elimination from medical trials. It has been studied as an effect of personality
traits, as an expectational effect, and from a physiological point of departure. Still it
remains a medical riddle how something that is “nothing” can cause a measurable effect?
In this paper I shall address this issue from a posthuman angle, applying Karen Barad’s concept of agential realism to the problem. I argue that the placebo effect is a cuttingtogether-
apart that produces specific agencies in the placebo phenomenon – that is, both
the subject under treatment and the placebo emerge in the placebo effect.
Through quantum physics, Barad proposes a reversal of cause and effect. In brief, before
measurement the qualiry of light is indetermined, and thus can be both particle and wave,
but after measuerement it can never be both. Even the very act of setting up an apparatus to
determine which way a photon will pass, will “turn light into particles”. Thus, examining the
placebo effect in these terms, I want to propose, that before the placebo effect, the placebo
can be both inert and active, and the subject receiving the placebo can be both reactant and
non-reactant – both are indetermined. But in the act of measuring the placeboeffect, the
substance becomes active, albeit dependent on other factors, which are non-visible in the
experimental setting.
Translated title of the contributionPlaceboeffekten og intethed: en posthuman tilgang
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventDASTS 2014: Enacting Futures - Roskilde Universitet, Roskilde, Denmark
Duration: 12 Jun 201413 Jun 2014


ConferenceDASTS 2014
LocationRoskilde Universitet
Internet address
  • DASTS 2014

    Tine Jensen (Organizer)

    12 Jun 201413 Jun 2014

    Activity: Participating in or organising an eventOrganisation and participation in conference

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