The Beaumont Medical Club Presents: "Punch Drunk Slugnuts: Violence and the Vernacular History of Disease"
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy emerged in languages of violence, slur, and shame from the 1920s to the 1950s. This lecture explores the paradoxical effect that these origins had, creating at once the possibility for the disease's discovery, while also simultaneously preventing it from obtaining cultural visibility.
Punch drunk, slug-nuts originated in accents of a cultural industry that denigrated sufferers of brain injuries as having lost an admirable edge. Once great and glorious, the ‘punchy’ had deteriorated neurologically, becoming fit only for mockery and shame. Glass jawed, irritable and supposedly vainglorious, increasingly slurred in speech, often intoxicated, perhaps a bum struggling to find employment, the down-and-out victim often made desperate efforts to rekindle fame and fortune by fighting past their prime, taking risky jobs, and picking fights.
The mixed vernacular that created the punch drunk also created what medicine came to call by the 1950s chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease consequent of recurrent head impact exposure. It is striking that the disease’s creation in languages of violence should so rapidly have been adopted for clinical frames and pathological study. Yet paradoxically, having met the clinical threshold for biological specificity in the making of disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy resisted its opportunity to escape into that medicalization. The disease instead slipped into cultural ambiguity and linguistic indifference, remaining a referent for humor, slur, and innuendo rather than a provocation to public awareness about the dangers of normalizing brain injuries.
Clarkson UniversityStephen T. Casper, PhDAssociate Director, Clarkson Honors and Professor in the History of Science