Science in Action: The Flow of Plants, Knowledge and Neoliberal Politics

August 31, 2011 by

Review of Cori Hayden’s When Nature Goes Public: Bioprospecting in Mexico (2003)

plant extracts

My purpose is to track the ways in which a host of political liabilities and property claims, accountabilities and social relations are being actively written into routine scientific practices, tools and objections of invention and back out again… I see the key task for science studies in this context as one of analyzing how such relations are being activated and fashioned in articulation with neoliberal modes of participation – for a wide range of actors, including scientists and their rural and indigenous interlocutors. (29)

In her ethnographic mapping of the complicated exchanges and debates of bioprospecting in Mexico, Cori Hayden continually presses the point that bioprospecting incorporates nature, transforming it into a commercial enterprise. “Nature,” she states, “is one of the many things that has increasingly been treated, by development agencies, national governments in the North and South, organizations regulating global trade, and some conservationists, as a public good best regulated and managed through market mechanism” (48). She also makes the point that in this capitalization of nature individuals are also regulated and managed by being delegated roles, responsibilities, and financial rewards. Scientists and rural populations are drafted to expedite the extraction of plant samples with the ultimate goal of developing commercial drugs and pesticides. Government officials are similarly drafted to facilitate possible bioprospecting sites by doing such things as negotiating trade agreements, creating regulations and zoning laws that would be favorable to the industry, providing the necessary infrastructure such as building roads and power lines to remote areas, and encouraging venture capital from the private sector by providing financial incentives in the form of grants and tax credits. As a result of this concerted effort, the commerce of bioprospecting and everyday life for many Mexicans has become much more entrenched. As Hayden explains, this epistemic shift is not limited to rural Mexico but is part of a much broader shift that manifested with the rise of neoliberalism. The neoliberal agenda espoused by the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the 1980s has become predominant to the extent that not only has nature been transformed into a source of capital, but all of life has been similarly refashioned. In this shift biology, specifically molecular biology, has assumed a place of great importance. The biochemical process of synthesizing molecular compounds found in plants is seen as an effective way to develop pharmaceuticals and other products and is being herald as both a lucrative and sustainable model of economic development that is socially and environmentally responsible. Echoing Marilyn Strathern and Donna Haraway, Hayden refers to this neoliberal revision of life and microbiology as a matter of “enterprising up” (27).

What sets Hayden’s text apart from other critiques of neoliberalism and the capitalization of nature is her refusal to represent bioprospecting in Mexico as a well-defined ethical debate. Instead, she insists on the muddiness of bioprospecting, its ambiguous twist and turns, its aspirations and fears, its promises and setbacks. Rather than attempt to summarize the intricacies of Hayden ethnography, I want to focus on aspects of her methodology as a way to highlight some of the recurring aims of science studies. Alongside these aims I also want to flesh out possible shortcomings. Early on Hayden reminds readers that one of basic principles of science studies is the idea “that (scientific) knowledge does not simply represent (in the sense of depict) ‘nature,’ but it also represents (in the political sense) the ‘social interests’ of the people and the institutions that have become wrapped up in its production” (21). In other words, science brings politics to life, as it constitutes one of the main cultural forms/forums in which ideological values and norms manifests. Science studies in turn intervenes by tracing the political lines of thought that run through scientific knowledge. For Hayden’s project this is a matter of charting the flow of “Mexican plants and knowledge from the countryside and rural communities to the sprawling campus of UNAM in Mexico City; from UNAM to U.S. corporations and the University of Arizona; from these U.S. sites back to various agencies, institutes, and communities in Mexico” (10). By charting this flow, Hayden literally reveals some the geopolitics of science in action.

One of the ways Hayden can be seen as intervening in bioprospecting is to spend considerable time in the field observing how the necessary science and relationships are produced. The ethnographic demands lengthy periods of time spent observing your subject firsthand. Hayden’s ethnographic approach can be understood as a means of slowing down bioprospecting’s normal flow of plants and information. It is important to the political and financial success of bioprospecting that there is the appearance of a relatively smooth and consistent series of exchanges in which all the various parties are being treated fairly and efficiently. By being present on a daily bases with the plant-gathering teams, Hayden is in effect able to slowly dissect the various nodes in the bioprospecting network. This way of working coincides with Bruno Latour’s claim that slowness is one of the main strengths of Actor Network Theory or ANT. The ANT scholar, he declares, “prefers to travel slowly, on small roads, on foot, and by paying the full cost of any displacement out of its own pocket.” Latour argues that adopting this slow-paced approach (what he also refers to as a “slowciology”) allows the actors that make up a given network to speak for themselves. “The reason for this change of tempo,” Latour continues, “is that, instead of taking a reasonable position and imposing some order beforehand, ANT claims to be able to find order much better after having let the actors deploy the full range of controversies in which they are immersed.”1 So-called “reasonable positions” are the very thing the slow-moving ANT scholar tries to dispel. Accordingly, Hayden, for the most part, allows her interlocutors (the scientists, the plant venders, the rural community members) to speak for themselves, which results in a story of bioprospecting that is full of abrupt complications and contradictions.

One of the main things Hayden discovers during her extensive time in the field is that the UNAM scientists have found channels to gather samples and traditional knowledge without necessarily compensating local and indigenous communities or individuals. While as an observer on the UNAM plant-gathering trips Hayden witnesses how the public domain (in the form of public markets, publications, and roadways) is utilized as an effective way to avoid the messy issue of property rights. As the scientists explain, they are not doing this solely as a matter of convenience, but because it is next to impossible to determine who owns either the plants in question or the traditional knowledge associated with the plants. This ambiguity illustrates how the neoliberal strategy of establishing patents and intellectual property rights does not work in the favor of the local and indigenous communities. The plant venders in the markets are the only local people directly compensated for selling their wares. Here science seems to working to extend the patenting interests of the U.S. companies financing aspects of the project, while the questions of local and indigenous ownership are to a large degree being ignored. The situation also underscores the fact that for many indigenous people living in rural Mexico, the idea of owning plants and intellectual property totally contradicts their view of the world. Again, bioprospecting is as much a channel for the trafficking and expanding the ideals of neoliberalism, as it is a channel from for the flow of plant extracts.

While having access to these plant-gathering trips allows Hayden to witness science in action and to establish contacts with venders who serve as her main interlocutors, it also places her in a compromising position. Because the venders and other people she encounters came to associate her with UNAM’s bioprospecting project, she found herself at times acting as the project’s spokesperson. As such, Hayden is faced with the question if she was intervening in the flow of bioprospecting or facilitating it.2 To this end, she states in her introduction:

As many critical accounts of ethnographic work have suggested in other context, the very act of trying to “follow the networks” often makes us party to their materialization… Many scientists and activists with whom I spoke in Mexico in the early years of my research had not heard much about the UNAM prospecting project, if anything at all – a situation that implicitly made me the projects “representative” in many interviews. (13)

Hayden does not directly address this anxiety of the ethnographer being co-opted or incorporated into the flow of bioprospecting in the main body of her text, but it is always present, as readers are constantly reminded of how dependent she is on the cooperation of the UNAM scientists. However, despite this anxiety, Hayden still manages to give voice to the concerns and interests of the UNAM scientist along with her other interlocutors and still present a slow, critical version of bioprospecting that completely contradicts the polished neoliberal narrative of letting the free market establish fair competition and proper/reasonable forms of social and environmental development.


1. Bruno Latour. 2005. Reassembing the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford University Press. p. 23.

2. Adriana Petryna expresses a similar anxiety of being co-opted by the Ukranian medical apparatus in her ethnography, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. For a review of this text please see below.

A Self-help Guide for Cyborgs: Reading N. K. Hayles

August 11, 2011 by

Review of N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999).

If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival (5).

Hayles’ title could be rewritten in the form of a question: How and when did we become posthuman? How and when did we acquire our virtual bodies? How has cybernetics, contemporary literature, and informatics altered what it means to be human? What have humans become? And what were we before this metamorphosis? Reading Hayles’ book is to step into an x-ray machine or to go under the surgeon’s knife, as the inner self or consciousness is exposed as a precarious construct. The scene I want to reference is familiar, having been played many times in film and television to the point that it can evoke humor and sell running shoes and energy drinks rather than cause viewers to recoil in horror. The character, male or female, is lying on an operating table. A close-up shows the character’s face, as the surgeon removes it to expose the inner workings of circuit boards and blinking lights. The president is a robot. The quarterback is a robot. The prostitute is a robot. The sheriff is a robot. The housewife is a robot. Are these revelatory scenes revelatory? Do they have any impact? Do they reveal anything that we don’t already know? Have we become complacent to the idea that human agency is nothing more than a fantasy? Hayles’ book refuses to be complacent, to let us go quietly into the night. It is as much a manifesto as Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto.” It demands that we wake from our cybernetic slumber, that we reboot. It would appear to be too late for the human. The question now is: How can we become better posthumans, better cyborgs?

Reading Hayles’ text as a self-help book for cyborgs is not as flippant as it may sound (even though the “self” is the main thing that is threatened with the ascendency of the cyborg). My aim is not to undermine the seriousness or depth of Hayles’ arguments. I am simply trying to reiterate her call for action in a manner that underscores the difficulty of telling people something that they refuse to hear. This refusal speaks to the tenacity of the liberal humanist subject and the general refusal to admit that computer technologies have radically changed what it means to be human. For Hayles this is primarily a story of loss, in which information displaces embodiment. Alongside the cyborg, cybernetics is an important component in this story. As Hayles explains, cybernetics was a product of WWII, developing from the tactics and system analysis used to improve antiaircraft guns. Its main concern is to identify recurring patterns shared between entities, regardless of their being organic or inorganic. The advocates of cybernetics saw it as a grand explanation, a way of understanding everything. Leading this call were group of American and European scientists, mathematicians, and psychologists, including Norbert Wiener, John von Neuman, Claude Shannon, Warren McCulloch, and Gregory Bateson. The aims and expectations of cybernetics were developed during a series of annual conferences held in New York. These aims would eventually “coalesce into a theory of communication and control applying equally to animals, humans, and machines. Retrospectively called the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, these meetings, held from 1943 to 1954, were instrumental in forging a new paradigm” (7). This paradigm was founded on the principle of feedback loops that emerge from the randomness or chaos of life to help evolve or streamline systems of knowing and being. For example, my knowledge of frogs in a pond is constantly being revised and streamlined based on the facts and data I acquire of frogs. Frogs are constantly communicating variations and patterns of “frogness” to me, while I am constantly communicating variations and patterns of humanness to potentially receptive frogs. Existence is thus envisioned as an exchange of information. For the Macy collective, “humans were to be seen primarily as information-processing entities who were essentially similar to intelligent machines” (7). In this arrangement the body and its senses took a backseat to the brain and cognition. The body became more of a housing and relay device rather than unified property that helped to define what means to be human. It was in this context that the cyborg, with its enhanced capabilities, rose to prominence.

My example of frog-pond cybernetics is meant to echo the prominent position the frog holds in the development of what is referred to as a second wave of cybernetics. As Hayles explains, the frog helped articulate the important idea of reflexivity:

It all started with a frog. In a classic article entitled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” central players in the Macy group – including Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, and Jerry Lettvin – did pioneering work on a frog’s visual system. They demonstrated, with great elegance, that the frog’s visual system does not so much represent reality as construct it. What’s true for frogs must also hold for humans, for there is no reason to believe that the human neural system is uniquely constructed to show the world as it “really” is. (131)

These studies showed that frogs see the world as a reflection of what frogs need to see to interact with their environment. Frogs are able to see fast-moving objects but cannot see slow moving ones. This explains why frogs can capture darting insects with a relaxed flick of the tongue and are vulnerable to predators who slowly sneak up on them. A world of visible flies and invisible snakes is reflected back through receptors in frog’s eyes and through neurons in its brain so that they see their environment accordingly. The world, in other words, is made over to become, more or less, frog friendly. In this way the observer, human or frog, becomes central to the way the world unfolds. As a consequence of reflexivity, the world loses its solidity. Instead of a unified world of frogs and humans, cybernetics reveals an endless variety of interconnected worlds.

The notion of reflexivity caused a schism in cybernetics, with the first wave of thinkers on one side and the second wave on the other. The liberal humanist subject and how we are conventionally taught to understand the world around us was jeopardized by both waves but the second wave, with its emphasis on the observer and competing worldviews or ontologies, was seen by many of the founders of cybernetics as going too far. The main players in the second wave were two Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Working together, the two men focused on the notion of autopoiesis as a ruling principle in the creation of life. Autopoiesis is the idea of self-making or self-creation that results because of the relays and exchange of information that circulate between entities. “A living system’s organization,” explains Hayles,”causes certain products to be produced, for example, nucleic acids. These products in turn produced the organizing characteristics of that living system” (136). Maturana and Varela’s argument that biology holds the key to understanding all life can hardly be called radical. What was radical was the extent that they carried this argument. Following on this line of thinking, they propose a revaluation of both life and thinking. “Living systems,” they famously declare, are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system” (“Autopoiesis and Cognition. The Realization of the Living,” 1980, p. 13). In this declaration Maturana and Varela boldly call on us to acknowledge that the lines separating humans, animals, and machines are mere window dressing. Such a shift in thinking is echoed in repeating science-fiction scenarios in which humans find themselves trapped in the consciousness of a cosmic computer.

Implicit to Maturana and Varela’s declaration is a devaluation of the liberal humanist subject, which can be read as a posthuman credo: As posthumans we can no longer hold onto ideas of mastery or uniqueness, as technology has long surpassed human limitations. The human, has effectively been pushed out of essential feedback loops and has been replaced by an entity that is neither super nor subhuman. How we come to meet and acknowledge the posthuman is one of the main strands of Hayles’ argument. In something of a recuperative gesture of her own, Hayles argues for an embodied posthumanism, one that insists on complexity and the materiality of experience. By foregrounding complexity and materiality, she contends, we will be able to forestall reductive narratives that attempt to reinscribe ideas of human control. In contrast to a reductive or pessimistic view of posthumanism, Hayles argues for a position that takes into account the feminist critique of science:

In this account, emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism, distributed cognition replaces autonomous will; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligence machines replaces the liberal humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature. (288)

With these concerns in mind, Hayles urges us to engage the posthuman. “The best possible time,” she states, “to contest for what the posthuman means is now, before the trains of thought it embodies have been laid down so firmly that it takes dynamite to change them” (291). Part of this engagement is to encourage us to be critical readers and consumers of science-fiction and technology. By not being seduced by fantasies of either human supremacy or total annihilation we can strive to be better posthumans. Again, this is no easy task. The self keeps on trucking down the road. We seem to take a certain pleasure in seeing ourselves as an account number, a user name, a barcode, a seeder, a leecher, an avatar, an email address, but we continue to struggle with the idea that we are responsible nodes in a vast network that extends far beyond the individual and the human.

Artificial Life: Welcome to Tierra

August 6, 2011 by

Below Tom Ray’s computer program, “Tierra,” evolves through selection and mutation. Does this self-replicating program constitute, as Ray claims, an emergent form of life? Is the computer program living? Is it a superorganism?

Professor Borg

August 1, 2011 by

Professor Kevin Warwick: I don’t want to be a human, part of a subspecies. I want to be a cyborg.

On the Politics of Earthworms: Reading Jane Bennett

July 27, 2011 by

A review of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010):

Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies. (ix)

Bennett asks her readers to rid themselves of the illusion of human control, to shed their protective shells, by adopting what she calls a “vital materialism.” By focusing on an assortment of seemingly unrelated subjects, including earthworms, stem cells, omega-3 fatty acids, trash, and metals, Bennett argues for an ecology of things, in which the complex interconnections of life are fully acknowledged. Bennett speaks of vital materialism as a combined strategy of lavishing attention on commonplace objects and by adopting anthropomorphism, a trope that is widely censured as an essential trait of human arrogance. In contrast, Bennett sees anthropomorphism as a useful way of extending the notion of agency to include the nonhuman. “We need to cultivate,” she states, “a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world” (xvi). In implementing this strategy, Bennett echoes Bruno Latour’s call for “the Parliament of Things.”1 Where Latour could be criticized for not backing his arguments up with specific examples, Bennett grounds her argument in the everyday by tracing the significance of commonplace objects, showing how they have been used to establish scientific facts, political theories, and literary figures, and how they can physically transform humans and the world around us. Bennett contends that the main reason we have problems acknowledging the effectiveness of things, how they act on and through us, is because it conflicts with human exceptionalism. Where Latour defiantly argues that we never been modern, Bennett is equally defiant in arguing that we have never been exceptional.

Bennett’s most engaging implementation of her strategic anthropomorphism occurs in the penultimate chapter of her book, in which she presents the figure of the earthworm as something of an ecological hero. To add credence to her argument, Bennett points out that Darwin also ascribed a form of agency to earthworms:

Darwin describes the activities of worms as one of many “small agencies” whose “accumulated effects” turns out to be quite big. It would be consistent with Darwin to say that worms participate in heterogeneous assemblages in which agency has no single locus, no mastermind, but is distributed across a swarm of various and variegated materialities. (96)

For Darwin, earthworms exercise a degree of freedom, as they can be observed engaged in a variety of different behaviors in reaction to a particular change in their environment or the availability of food. The worms can also be seen acting in ways that conflict with the notion of a mechanical response. For an example Darwin turns to the commonly observed phenomenon of a worm that “fails to recoil and retreat to its burrow when exposed to bright light. Darwin notes that this overruling [of a normal physiological response] occurs when a worm is focused closely on a task, such as eating, dragging leaves or mating” (96). By exercising these impulses, worms will often suffer dire consequences, to the delight of hungry robins. Darwin’s earthworm is essential in creating healthy conditions for growth. Rather than being a passive and ineffectual creature, the worm is shown to be an indispensable component in the active forces that combine to transform dead vegetal material, such as fallen leaves, into enriched soil.

Latour also surfaces in this discussion of worm agency. Bennett references Latour’s sojourn into the Amazonian rain forest where he joins a group of scientists who are curious about the soil conditions of a strip of land separating the rich soil of the jungle from the arid soil of desert. This soil is “‘more clayey than the savanna but less so than the forest.’ How was the border between savanna and forest breached (96)?” The scientists wonder if this strip signals the deterioration of rainforest soil and the subsequent expansion of the desert or vice versa. Is the rainforest expanding into the desert and, if so, how it is accomplishing this feat? Again the earthworm takes center stage, as the scientists come to the conclusion “that, for reasons unknown to the humans, worms had gathered at the border and produced a lot of aluminum, which transformed the silica of the sandy soil into the clay that was more amendable to forest trees, and so it was the forest that was advancing into the savanna” (98). Bennett stops short of declaring earthworms environmentalists, even though they seem to be engaged in an active and organic form of reforestation. The point of her anthropomorphism is not to focus or fix agency as an attribute belong to humans or nonhumans. Instead, she speaks of anthropomorphism as a way of giving voice to an ecological notion of agency, one in which actions and actants are dispersed along a horizontal chain of unfolding phenomenon. “A touch of anthropomorphism,” she states, “can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontological distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (99).

Bennett’s reconfigured worldview shares much in common with Karen Barad’s “agential realism.”2 Both Bennett and Barad argue for a more integrated understanding of matter and meaning. And they both ask their readers to expand their understanding of what constitutes life by not reducing things to categories of the organic and the inorganic, the animate and the inanimate, the human and the nonhuman. Bennett explains that by blindingly deploying these categories, we create a vertical world of ascension in which we occupy the dominant position. An inherent sense of human mastery is what is reflected back to us as a result of how we have disciplined ourselves to view the world. She asserts that by seeing the natural world as a realm of instinctual and violent competition, survival, and dominance, we construct a worldview that cannot fail but confirm or reflect back a mirror image of human aspirations and fears of sovereignty. Here Bennett presents us with two versions of anthropomorphism: one in which the natural world serves as a mirror confirming humankind’s power; and another version in which humans are shown to be part of complex networks in which we have little or no control over. Most anthropomorphic fables come to the same conclusion: human hubris comes at price.

Bennett’s vital materialism leads her to the idea of reworking our notion of what constitutes a public according to an ecological model. This would involve acknowledging her list of things – earthworms, stem cells, omega-3 fatty acids, trash, metals – as political actors, as having tremendous political significance. By acknowledging that these things affect us both psychologically and physically in ways that are often beyond our comprehension and control, is to enter into a new understanding of human experience and self-interest. “A more materialist public,” states Bennett, “would need to include more earthlings in the swarm of actants” (111). An important part of this public awareness campaign Bennett argues would also involve acknowledging the collective nature of the human body:

Vital materialism better captures an “alien” quality of our own flesh, and in so doing reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman. My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. My fresh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners… The its out number the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say we are “embodied” We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes (112-113).

In this light, my self-interest, my survival, depends on the collective wellbeing of bodies and forces beyond my control. It would seem that I have always been a collective, an ecology, a diverse assemblage. Bennett’s desired goal is that this realignment of what it means to be human will bring with it a radical shift in how we treat the world. “If more people,” she asks, “marked this fact [of our collective nature] more of the time, if we were attentive to the indispensible foreignness that we are, would we continue to produce and consume in the same violently reckless ways?” (113) This question can also be asked as: Can we tell other stories of the world in which self-interest is always a matter of a collective interest that spreads horizontally to include figures that might initially seem to be totally unrelated, if not antagonistic?

I want to conclude by saying that I find Bennett’s book exceedingly inspiring, as it provides an instructive model for animating discussions of environmental politics. While reading her text I found myself making notes about my dissertation project, how I want to shape it and what arguments I want to make. My plan is to do a version of what of Stefan Helmreich and others refer to a “multispecies ethnography,” and after reading Bennett, I think it would make sense to approach my dissertation as a way of negotiating a multispecies public sphere. What would be the advantages and limits of negotiating and opening up the public sphere to include that which is usually excluded? How are our collective interests disturbed and modified when we acknowledge the contributions nonhumans have made to the wellbeing of the public? Can we be hailed or interpellated by a bicycle, a library card, a raccoon, a derelict building, and in the process come to imagine the public differently? Bennett’s text impels me to ask these sorts of vibrant questions.


1. Latour introduces the idea of “the Parliament of Things” in his We Have Never Been Modern (1991, 1993). For a review of this text, please see below.

2. Barad proposes “agential realism” as a strategy for reconfiguring the world in her Meeting the Universe Half Way: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter. For a review of this text, please see below.

Ants acting as a superorganism

July 23, 2011 by

These spiral circles of ants help to explain the related ideas of superorganisms, emergence, swarming, and swerving.

Pursuing imbroglios and slaying dragons

July 21, 2011 by

Review #6: Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991, 1993):

By combining bold declarations, schematic diagrams, and lengthy, circular explanations, Latour methodically builds on the polemical position of his title. Like an intrepid knight, Latour guides his readers through an impenetrable forest of both what it means to be modern and why we have never accomplished this feat. His overarching argument is that we have never been modern because modernity is based on a contradictory logic that is impossible to inhabit. We have never been modern because modernity has never really been achieved, despite our efforts to distinguish ourselves from so-called pre- or non-moderns. He further argues that this failure is for the best, for hidden behind the veil of modernity is an unwieldy construct, a self-effacing hybrid, a two-headed dragon or Leviathan that prevents us from living anything but a mitigated and fractured existence. In the shadow of modernity, Latour explains, Society and Nature are marked off as clearly opposing terrains or kingdoms. As a result, modern subjectivity is forever disconnected from the natural world. Latour’s task is awake us from this imposing slumber.

Latour not only insists this story of modern alienation is bankrupt but it also hinges on a double form of delusion or blindness: we have never been modern because we have never stopped being pre- or non-modern; and we have never been alienated from Nature because Nature, as a state removed from Society, has never existed. Following on Shapin and Schaffer’s 1985 publication, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the experimental life, Latour traces the origins of the modern condition to what he sees as a foundational schism: the eighteenth-century debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the former’s claims about the air pump as a guarantee of scientific truth. In constructionist fashion, Shapin and Schaffer delineate the socio-historic circumstances that inform both Boyle’s science and Hobbes’ politics to argue that it is impossible to separate these two realms. Latour extends this argument by insisting that these two opposing ways of seeing the world have been amalgamated and incorporated into our modern everyday actions as a ruling principle. In other words, living with this schism, so that we automatically identify things as either belonging to Science or Politics, Nature or Society, Human and Nonhuman, Modern and Pre-modern, is what has made us supposedly modern. To this end, Latour states:

Modernity is often defined in terms of humanism, either as a way of saluting the birth of ‘man’ or as a way of announcing his death. But this habit itself is modern, because it remains asymmetrical. It overlooks the simultaneous birth of ‘nonhumanity’ – things, or objects, or beasts – and the equally strange beginning of a crossed-out God, relegated to the sidelines. Modernity arises first from the conjoined creation of those three entities, and then from the masking of the conjoined birth and the separate treatment of the three communities while, underneath, hybrids continue to multiply as an effect of this separate treatment. The double separation is what we have to reconstruct: the separation between humans and nonhumans on the one hand, and between what happens ‘above’ and what happens ‘below’ on the other. (13)

As this quotation makes evident, modern subjectivity involves constantly juggling conflicting ideas. Thus, our sense of being disconnected and slumbering is compounded by the irony that maintaining this constitutional delusion demands a great deal of psychological work.

Instead of perpetuating this worldview, Latour argues for the recognition of a “Middle Kingdom” (48), a ubiquitous site in which human and nonhuman entities come together to form hybrids or assemblages that are neither solely natural nor cultural, neither solely unnatural nor unsocial. After criticizing a list of modern thinkers from Kant to Habermas and Baudrillard for perpetuating the modernist myth of disconnection, Latour challenges his readers to rethink and reconfigure their worldview. “Are you not fed up,” he asks, “at finding yourselves forever locked into language alone, or imprisoned in social representations alone, as so many social scientists would like you to be? We want to gain access to things themselves, not only to their phenomena. The real is not remote; rather, it is accessible in all the objects mobilized throughout the world” (90). In this call for action, Latour distinguishes his work from the constructionist arguments of science studies and from the deconstructionists and postmodernists of cultural studies.

To bring about this reconfiguration of the modern world Latour argues for what he calls a “Parliament of Things,” which would involve fleshing out the imbroglios or complicated networks that constitute everyday life. “Everything changes,” declare Latour, “when, instead of constantly and exclusively alternating between one pole of the modern dimension and the other, we move down along the nonmodern dimension”(96). What emerges is the active terrain of “assembly” in which “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects” come together to form events and artifacts, phenomena that refuse to be reduced to categories of nature or culture and are better described with the neologism “nature-cultures” (96). This onerous task of losing our modern constitution by installing a Parliament of Things is not lessen by that fact that we have never modern. But, as Latour contends, the cracks in modernist edifice have long weakened its hold. For example, the invincible march of progress is hard to coincide with widespread famine and global warming. In contrast to a blind faith in technological advancement, the mandate of the Parliament of Things would be to place the human and the nonhuman on more equal ground so that we could get on with the task of imagining a world beyond the conscripts of the modernity. Referencing his daily newspaper, Latour assures us this process is underway:

The imbroglios and networks that had no place now have the place to themselves. They are the ones that have to represented; it is around them that the Parliament of Things gather henceforth… However, we do not have to create this Parliament out of whole cloth, by calling for yet another revolution. We simply have to ratify what we have always done, provided that we reconsider our past, provided that we understand retrospectively to what extent we have never been modern, and provided we rejoin the two halves of the symbol broken by Hobbes and Boyle (144).

As it works to supplant the bifurcations of modernity, it is reasonable to assume that under the rule of Latour’s Parliament of Things integrations involving scientists and the general public would be encouraged, as would scientific literacy. These democratic goals make Latour’s argument very appealing.

Despite his thoroughness, Latour does not provide concrete examples of how the Parliament of Things could be implemented. What shape would this parliament take? How would things be represented? Who would speak for the atom, the computer chip, or the genome? Inherent to Latour’s argument is the notion that if we trace the networks surrounding individual things far enough, they will begin speaking for themselves (not to reveal intrinsic truths but to open the floor to the copious twists and turns of matter). In light of the Fukushima disaster, a discussion of the imbroglios and networks of nuclear power and radiation poisoning would seem essential. Perhaps Latour’s parliament could take the shape of town hall meetings in which scientists, politicians and laypersons gather to determine public policy and the future of nuclear power. Power plant technicians could walk the public through the intricacies of nuclear fission. Farmers could voice their concerns of dangerous levels of radiation entering the food change. Citizen could be told about precautions they can take in case of radiation leaks. And politicians could review the costs and benefits of maintaining and building new plants. It could be argued that these sorts of discussions have taken place ever since the introduction of power plants. However, my concern is that in their present form these discussions do not appear to sustain interest and nuclear power plants quickly recede into the background so they become incidental parts of urban and rural landscapes. When this happens Latour’s Parliament of Things is recessed or prorogued and we go back to being modern and to our long, delusional slumber.

non-human personality

July 15, 2011 by









Mark Briffa of the University of Plymouth, UK, wondered if personalities might be found even in some of the simplest multicellular animals. Sea anemones are cnidarians, like jellyfish and corals, and unlike most species that evolved later they don’t have discrete brains. Instead they have diffuse nets of nerves running through their bodies.


On the Ethics of Oncomice

July 13, 2011 by

Review #5: Donna Haraway’s Modest­_Witness@Second­_Millenium.Female-Man_Meets_OncoMouse (1997)

The Passion of OncoMouse

Nostalgia for “pure research” in mythical ivory towers is worse than ahistorical and ideological. A better use of our time, critical skills, and imaginations might come from considering hope-giving, on-the-ground practices toward building a democratic technoscience taking place under our noses and in distant lands. We might try to figure out how to be interpellated into a different sort of molecular politics. (95)

Subtitled “Feminism and Technoscience,” this text is, like all of Haraway’s books, foremost about science in action. One of Haraway’s primary goals is to illustrate how science is a powerful form of socialization. She does this by tracing some of the discourse surrounding figures that have assumed a prominent place in both contemporary science and in popular cultural. These include the computer chip, the gene, the fetus, the cyborg, and the genetically modified Harvard oncomouse. Haraway also analyzes advertisements placed in science journals, material that is supposed to be read as clearly separate and incidental to the main content of the journal and to the important work of science. As her analysis shows, this supposedly “incidental” material does a fair bit of work in disseminating the conventional narratives and values of science. In ad after ad, we are shown how commerce, politics and science are thoroughly entwined.

Being critical of the clichéd and commonplace stories of science is part of Haraway’s call for a radical shift in scientific practice, one in which scientists are encouraged to “situate” and foreground the political and economic goals that influence their work. “Challenging the material-semiotic practices of technoscience,” states Haraway, “is in the interests of a deeper, broader, and more open scientific literacy, which this book will call situated knowledges” (11). For Haraway, this push to situate the production of scientific knowledge is a matter of fleshing out the various direct and indirect connections or nodal points that structure and fuel a given scientific project, field, or phenomenon. To this end, Haraway asserts:

Cells, organisms, and genes are not “discovered” in a vulgar realist sense, but they are not made up… The world takes shape in specific ways and cannot take shape just any way… For humans, a word like gene specifies a multifaceted set of interactions among people and nonhumans in historically contingent, practical, knowledge-making work. A gene is not a thing, much less a “master molecule” or a self-contained code. Instead, the term gene signifies a node of durable action where many actors, human and nonhuman, meet. (142)

What Haraway is insisting on is the active complexity of life, in which things acquire meaning as a result of difference. Instead of functioning as empty signifiers waiting for meaning to be inscribed to them, cells, genes and the other living properties that make our bodies are more akin to actors or agents that help to activate meaning making. While they do not possess fixed or intrinsic meaning that lies dormant waiting to be uncovered, they do have qualities that can be compared to other phenomena. How science arrives at and assess difference, will in turn, be different for different people and will depend on the different things they are looking for and the tools and methods that are deployed. Situated knowledge is to account for all these differences and to determine the ethics that our scientific findings contribute to.

For Haraway, science unfolds as a contest of meaning. To make this point, she rehearses some of the controversy surrounding the creation of the Harvard oncomouse, which is the name given to mice that have been modified with human genetic material to make them susceptible to cancer. The oncomouse not only generated debate about genetic modification but also about copyrighting life. While scientists at Harvard tried to represent the oncomouse as a breakthrough in the war against cancer, they were actively seeking a patent on the mouse to protect their investment. The situation was further muddied on April 12, 1988 when the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued Patent Number 4,736,866 to the assignee, the President and Fellows of Harvard. The patent recognizes the mouse as an invention, a human product, and as such the transgenic animal, or rather the procedure, became the intellectual property of the university. In the language of the patent, the mouse carries “a gene which has been introduced into the germline of the animal, or an ancestor of the animal, at an early (usually one-cell) developmental stage” (US Patent number 4,736,866).[1] The university eventually passed the patent on to Du Pont, the multinational giant that had financed the oncomouse project. Thus Du Pont, which has a long history of manufacturing such things as gunpowder, house and automobile paints, Freon, insecticides, pharmaceuticals, weapon-grade plutonium, and Kevlar vests, became the owner of the first trademarked animal.

While the question of what exactly the US patent covers has generated passionate ethical debates, it has generated surprisingly limited litigation. The only legal challenge to the Harvard patent occurred in Canada in 2002. After a lengthy court case, the Federal Supreme Court ruled against Harvard, overturning a decision made in a lower court in 2000 to recognize and honour Harvard’s American patent. In 2003 a modified Canadian patent was granted to Harvard, omitting the “composition of matter” claims on transgenic mice that the Supreme Court ruled against. By delineating these various tangents in the story of oncomouse, Haraway shows how the material-semiotic life embodied in this transgenic figure is far from being resolved.

It is also important to reference how Haraway presents the figure of oncomouse, along with the figure of the cyborg (the FemaleManÓ in her longwinded title), as queer. She does not shy away from the assertion that the anxieties and criticisms raised in opposition to genetic engineering echo the moral panic of sexism, racism, nationalism, and homophobia:

In opposing the production of transgenic organisms, and especially opposing their patenting and other forms of private commercial exploitation, committed activists appeal to notions such as the integrity of natural-kinds and the natural telos or self-defining purpose of all life forms. From this perspective, to mix and match genes as if organisms were legitimate raw material for redesign is to violate natural integrity at its vital core… I cannot help but hear in the biotechnology debates the unintended tones of fear of the alien and suspicion of the mixed. I hear a mystification of kind and purity akin to the doctrines of white racial hegemony and U.S. national integrity and purpose that so permeate North American culture and history. (60-61)

Haraway goes on to clarify that, while she opposes the “patenting of animals, human genes, and much plant genetic material” (62), she values genetic science and the sacrifice embodied in the figure of oncomouse and other lab animals. To this end, Haraway presents the oncomouse as a martyr:

OncoMouse is my sibling, and more properly, male or female, s/he is my sister… S/he is our scapegoat; s/he bears our suffering; s/he signifiers and enacts our mortality in a powerful, historically specific way that promises a culturally privileged kind of salvation – a “cure for cancer.” Whether I agree to her existence and use or not, s/he suffers, physically, repeatedly, and profoundly, that I and my sisters my life. (79)

This queer martyrdom is typical of the figures Haraway champions in her survey of technoscience. She is adamant in showing how the foundations of much of science, its establishment of norms and protocols, has been underwritten by an assortment of characters that have been configured as aberrant, queer, unsound, and dangerous.

By stressing the political making or construction of science, Haraway is not arguing that it is simply made-up or make-believe, a series of relational truths or ideological myths that can be substituted for one another. Matter is not that easily manipulated. For example, the gene has managed to stave off efforts to portray it as essentially selfish or as a clear indication of racial purity. Matter as a whole resists being reduced, fixed, and fetishized. Instead, as Haraway argues, matter and meaning enjoy a relational existence in which truths and livelihoods – ways of living – are made and unmade. Again, I want to stress that Haraway is not invoking a relativist position. There is a big difference in pointing out that life is relational and saying that truth is relative, that truth or reality is what we humans make of the world. Such hubris or arrogance, embodied in the claims of relativists and social constructionists, is very thing that Haraway is opposing. Humans do not go about structuring the world according to relative biases and beliefs (despite their best efforts). Instead, life resists our all-too-human inscriptions and what emerges is a much more engaging and unpredictable contest of meaning.

End notes:

[1] For US patent see

Petryna: Agency After Chernobyl

July 7, 2011 by

 Petryna’s account allowed me to grab hold of some of the thoughts/concerns that had been unintelligible points of confusion. Mainly, it is through Life Exposed that I feel that I am learning to ‘see’ anthropologically or least what ‘seeing’ what I might need to do to be able to see the world in such a way that allows the ethnographer to situate her work in the space of “changing dynamic between the known and the unknown” (Petryna, 26). Petryna’s work shows us how subjects become visible in the different interim interstitial spaces between the invisible and the visible, the unknown and the known. And, she also positions her subjects in terms of potentialities, many of them being “prospective disabled” people (29). None of the subjects that populate her rich narrative are ever frozen in one particular subject position and, moreover, Petryna is aware of the importance that multiplicity plays in understanding subjectivity as she charts the tensions caused by multiple indenties/subjecitivities. For example, consider Anton in the penultimate chapter: he struggles between father, worker, sufferer, husband, alcoholic, abuser, victim… Petryna is able to present Anton to us in a way that does not simply portary him as a complicated subject but as constantly slipping into roles that are forced onto him through external social constraints and through internal struggling; this not simply understanding the subject as a complicated assemblage but a multi-scalar complicated assemblage. What I mean by this is that Anton (and every other ‘character’ in this story) exists and is made legible in terms of multiple different scales: the state, the hospital, the home, etc. And, moreover, there are other ‘actors’ in this text beyond the people who populate it, one of the major stakeholders is science itself, which has a huge stake in what happens in the “living laboratory” of Chernobyl (52). This is certainly a thick text.

I used the word ‘actor’ in the previous paragraph because I wanted to allude to the question of agency; primarily, who has it and how is it exerted? Finally, how does the anthropologist write agency.  In Petryna’s text I saw another form of agency emerge, an agency of slippage. Many of the subjects/characters/etc. in the book slip between multiple agencies; between, for example, active seekers of sufferer status and docile bodies being written on by the state. Moreover, Petryna charts how these kinds of slips are in themselves different kinds of agencies, many of the subjects of her story actively slip between ‘roles’ and forms of agency. The state, for example, slips from benefactor to oppressor, from passive victimhood to active subjection. And, Petryna herself struggles with these slippages as she moves from participant, witness and advocate. Such agential slippage is also a kind ethical slippage, like the dosages, the threshold of what is acceptable is constantly moving. The ethnographer must never fix/crystallize that threshold space.

I guess a final and perhaps obvious point is, nonetheless, one that I have consistently struggled with: how to understand one’s object theoretically (and historically) without losing sight (and site) of that object. And, this is what I appreciated most with Petryna’s work. Her work makes theoretical concepts visible only in how they exist in the world. The concepts themselves have no agency outside of her field. For example, the concept of ‘biological citizenship’ while easily transported out of her field and, in fact, has been taken up fairly widely. For Petryna, it only is legible in relation to Chernobyl and, conversely, the kinds of concepts she takes from other thinkers are ‘activated’ in her field and only in her field. I feel like this is what Emily Martin meant when she criticized Latour of not including culture in his examination of science and society and also how such a slip leads us to dead metaphors. While I understood her argument (theoretically), it is Petryna’s work that I able am to see this process of metaphorical (re)animation in action. What I have always struggled with is how to approach an object theoretically, and of course, the concomitant other problem: how to attend to an object that is not theoretical but in and of the world?