Archive for July, 2011

On the Politics of Earthworms: Reading Jane Bennett

July 27, 2011

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

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

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









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

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

 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?

An Ethnography of Disaster

July 7, 2011

Review #4: Adriana Petryna’s Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (2002)

On April 26, 1986, Unit Four of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in Ukraine, damaging immunities and the genetic structure of cells, contaminating soils and waterways. (1)

Chernobyl Zone workers or "bio-robots"

From the first sentence of the book the reader is presented with the text’s central theme: the disaster at Chernobyl scarred the people and the land so that citizenship and sickness fused together. The scope of the disaster was greatly augmented by Soviet attempts to downplay the dangers of contamination. Their delay in acknowledging the scale of danger exposed thousands of people living near the plant to high levels of radiation. This number grew substantially with subsequent cleanup operations and as radioactive clouds drifted about saturating the countryside. These operations included the crews of technicians and Soviet soldiers who managed to shut down the reactor and eventually build the giant lead-enforced sarcophagus to enclose that section of the plant. The crews referred to themselves as “bio-robots” because of the extremely high amounts of radiation that they were exposed to despite wearing extensive protective clothing and working short, rotating shifts. As Petryna argues, the figure of the bio-robot, with its connotations of machine-like heroics and sacrificing the few for the safety of the whole, quickly became emblematic of Ukraine’s nascent citizenry.

Petryna explains that the collapse of the Soviet Union and formation of the Ukrainian nation added to the specter of the Chernobyl disaster. To distinguish itself from the brutality of the Soviet Union, the newly formed Ukraine recognized much lower levels of radiation contamination. This action automatically transformed the health status of a large percentage of the population, as thousands of individuals went from being exposed to acceptable levels of radiation to being exposed to very dangerous levels:

The Soviets had established a high 35 rem spread over an individual’s lifetime (understood as a standard seventy-year span) as the threshold of allowable radiation dose intakes… Ukrainian law lowered the threshold dose to 7 rem, comparable to what an average American would be exposed to in his or her lifetime… With the lower dose standard, more and more people became active participants in the system of compensation and social protections. (23-24)

This shift in acceptable dosages also exposed the instability of scientific truth, or at the very least, the instability of the truth surrounding radiation poisoning. How could the Soviets and the Ukrainians have radically conflicting truths concerning something so lethal as radiation?

For the Ukrainian state, radiation exposure continues to function as an effective tool or apparatus that it uses to help govern its population. Faced with the uncertainty of the health and Ukraine’s struggling economy, individuals actively pursue the persona of a radiation victim or sufferer. This process involves citizens attempting to solidify their economic future by finding a doctor with the authority to declare them terminally ill and, as such, subject to state welfare. “The goal of this sick role,” explains Petryna, “is nonrecovery. Only through nonrecovery can the sick guarantee a stable influx of privileges” (106). Corrupt doctors and officials complicate the process, as individuals without sufficient funds to bribe the appropriate people find themselves in an extremely precarious situation, as they are often deemed too unhealthy to work but not unhealthy enough to claim compensation. “In this integration of unstable law and individual economic weakness,” Petryna continues, “clinical structures have become prime sites of social production and power” (106). For thousands of Ukrainians, proving that they are terminally ill and eligible for compensation has become an ongoing battle. The fact that their financial security depends on an incurable diagnosis marks life in Ukraine as inherently bleak. The additional fact that radiation contamination last thousands of years, suggests that this form of biological citizenship, this toxic self-fashioning, will continue into the unforeseeable future.

Petryna uses testimony gathered from various interlocutors to draw her readers into the mangle of negotiating the ins and outs of biological citizenship. Doing her fieldwork in hospitals and by staying in the homes of sufferers, Petryna wades through the bureaucracy, the corruption, and the drama surrounding individual lives. These personal details reinforce Foucault’s famous argument that state power is not a concentrated force exercised from the top down. Instead, it is a fragmented process that individuals participate in to fashion and make sense of their lives. Like any other country, Ukraine is an ongoing construction rather than static channel or vessel containing a passive citizenry. As Foucault asserts, modern statecraft, or what he calls governmentality, depends on the active role of individuals to discipline and shape themselves as citizens-subjects. This form of civic self-fashioning is much different from patriotism. Whereas patriotism is an outward expression of pride and belonging, governmentality is characteristically innocuous or incidental. While it may seem contradictory to speak of Chernobyl and radiation as innocuous forms of citizenship, this is exactly how people got on with their lives in Ukraine. In effect, they normalized the disaster and their illness by integrating it into the decisions and routines of everyday living.

This normalization of Chernobyl is being repeated in Fukushima, Japan. Despite nightly news reports assuring us that the meltdown at Fukushima would be squashed and the fallout would be nowhere near that of Chernobyl, the breached reactor continues to leak dangerous levels of radiation. But as a global issue, Fukushima has receded into the background. The images of the destroyed power plant and the thousands of evacuees have failed to generate serious international debate about the safety of nuclear power. Nor are there riots in Japan. What is the reasoning behind this general complacency? Is it the result of widespread apathy or cynicism; state bread corruption; or a blind faith in technology? Petryna’s text suggests that individuals become complacent and complicit with such disasters, even after suffering horrible consequences, because economic viability or will supersedes all other concerns. The text also suggests that life swallows or engulfs individuals whole, so there is not much room for reflection or radical change. For the sufferers that Petryna encounters, this general sensibility of getting on with the business of living one’s life regardless of the circumstances appears to be a reasonable reaction.

I applaud Petryna for taking on such a formidable subject: How does one make sense of Chernobyl? How does one account for a hole ripped into the biosphere and a sarcophagus that can be seen from space? How do you make sense of radiation exposure, an invisible and deadly force that is visited on you as a result of technological advancement and national pride? Rather than getting bogged down in trying to sort out a clear picture of how Chernobyl has affected Ukrainian life, Petryna deploys the ethnographic practice of including testimony from opposing positions. These conflicting voices and stories illustrate how there is no definitive truth or answers to the questions raised by Chernobyl. Instead, Chernobyl continues to serve as an active site (both literally and metaphorically) in which truths are forged, challenged, discarded, and renewed.

The Story of the Objective Eye

July 5, 2011
Review #3: Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (2007)

imperfect snowflake

To be objective is to aspire to knowledge that bears no trace of the knower – knowledge unmarked by prejudice or skill, fantasy or judgment, wishing or striving.

In their bulky study, Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison chart the history of objectivity by focusing on the thematic changes made to scientific atlases over the course of the last three centuries. Foremost the authors argue that objectivity has a history that is very much distinct from other philosophical and scientific expressions of truth and attempts to represent of the natural world. This claim contradicts the commonsense notion that sees objectivity as mode of thinking that has long dogged humanity, being closely related to rationality, logic and being fair-minded. In stark contrast, Daston and Galison present objectivity as a recent phenomenon, the bulk of its influence taking place during the latter half of the nineteenth century and coinciding with the emergence of photography. They also argue that objectivity shares a constitutive relationship with subjectivity. Both these modes of thinking and being in the world emerge as a consequence of each other. Thus, any history of objectivity is also a history of subjectivity.

Daston and Galison provide detailed accounts of how scientists and atlas makers diligently took up particular practices to assure their objectivity. In the process, these scientists and atlas makers also embodied what Daston and Galison refer to (echoing Foucault) as “a technology of the self.” This idea of scientific self-fashioning underscores an ironic twist to the history of objectivity: In their strident efforts to assure their objective judgment, scientists and atlas makers helped give shape to the modern scientific self. In other words, objectivity, the so-called “will to willessness” (39), was directly responsible for the formation of a version of modern subjectivity. It is this idea of self-fashioning that I want to respond to in my review of Daston and Galison’s book, as it raises questions about gender and normative forms of behaviour that are pertinent to the way ethical values are inscribed and retained: What is the historical relationship between objectivity and masculinity? Did the practices associated with objectivity coincide or conflict with nineteenth-century masculine norms? What place did objectivity accord to women? Were such questions of gender challenged by objective science’s quest for impartiality?

Although Daston and Galison do not substantially deal with gender, a direct relationship between objectivity and male subjectivity is explicit in their argument. While the argument could be made that science in general has been traditionally associated with manliness, the history of objectivity provides concrete examples of how certain aspects of male subjectivity and scientific practice merged as one. “Starting in the mid-nineteenth century,” Daston and Galison explain, “men of science began to fret openly about a new kind of obstacle to knowledge: themselves. Their fear was that the subjective self was prone to prettify, idealize, and, in the worst case, regularize observations to fit theoretical expectations: to see what they hoped to see” (34). To combat these fears, scientists took up a series of practices to cultivate a disciplined persona. These practices included “training the senses in scientific observation, keeping lab note books, drawing specimens, habitually monitoring one’s own belief and hypotheses, quieting the will, and channeling the attention” (199). This period also saw mass publications of inspiration texts and moral guides that similarly portrayed masculinity as an ongoing exercise in restraint and reflection. In this way, the “epistemic virtues” and practices of the aspiring scientist were very much consistent with the general behavior and aspirations of the modern male subject.

According to Daston and Galison, these mid-nineteenth-century scientists were reacting to the overarching goal that predominated much of eighteenth-century Western science: to uncover the truth of nature. As the authors explain, it was during this period that natural history was established as a dominant mode of scientific practice:

Among scientific atlas makers, truth-to-nature emerges as a prominent epistemic virtue in the early eighteenth century – Linnaeus is one of its earliest and most influential proponents… To see like a naturalist required more than just sharp senses: a capacious memory, the ability to analyze and synthesize impressions, as well as the patience and talent to extract the typical from the storehouse of natural particulars, were all key qualifications… Only the keenest and most experienced observer – who had, like Linnaeus, inspected thousands of different specimens – was qualified to distinguish genuine species from mere varieties, to identify the true specific characters imprinted in the plant, and to separate accidental from essential features. (58-59)

This impetus to seek the truth of nature beyond its “particulars” was often expressed as a gender allegory in which the ardent male naturalist would expose the naked truth of female nature or nature would unveil herself before science.

In hindsight we can see how being attentive to the laws of nature would have laid much of the groundwork for objectivity, but for many scientists of mid-nineteenth century the natural history of the Enlightenment was seen as being too general, too artistic, too human. Accordingly, the machine and the factory processes of the industrial revolution took on special significance for this generation of scientists and atlas makers:

For the scientific atlas makers of the late nineteenth century, the machine was both a literal and a guiding ideal. Machines assisted where the will failed, where the will threatened to take over, or where the will pulled in contradictory directions. Machine-regulated image making was a powerful and polyvalent symbol, fundamental to the new scientific goal of objectivity… The machine was patient, indefatigable, ever alert, probing beyond the limits of the human senses… Just as manufacturers admonished their workers with the example of the more productive, more careful, more skilled machine, scientists admonished themselves with the more attentive, more hard-working, more honest instrument. (138-139)

It is during this period that many women assumed a place in urban public life as factory workers. Daston and Galison do make the point that women were also hired in large numbers to work as laboratory and research assistants. Women were generally considered to be less likely to jump to conclusions than their male counterparts because they were seen as serving as “a tacit guarantee that data [they] gathered [would not be] the figment of a scientist’s imagination or preexisting philosophical commitment” (341). Being firmly excluded from the realms of science and philosophy, women were valued for their inherent “machine-like simplicity.”

With time the aspirations of modern scientists shifted once again and the epistemic virtues of mechanical objectivity were also met with criticism. The turn of the twentieth century saw the formation of a new set of scientific practices and concerns that Daston and Galison refer to as “trained judgment”:

Slowly at first and then more frequently, twentieth-century scientists stressed the necessity of seeing scientifically through an interpretive eye; they were after an interpreted image that became at the very least, a necessary addition to the perceived inadequacies of the mechanical one… (311)

The urgency to supplement photographs and other forms of mechanical reproduction brought about a return of the artistic-interpretive function. But unlike the truth-to-nature ethos of natural history, trained judgment was not interested in determining a general type or smoothing out flaws and inconsistencies. Instead, its initial focus was to highlight information that was missed or obscured by mechanical reproduction. Eventually this impetus gave rise to an assortment of manipulated and non-mimetic images that had nothing to do with representing the natural world objectively. Computer simulations and the images generated by such instruments as the atomic force microscope operate in this context. Rather than hidden truths that the scientist manages to reveal, these sorts of images are seen as possible explanations or scenarios that the scientist creates. As Daston and Galison assert, much of the driving force behind science has moved from a mode of representation to that of presentation in which images serve a sensorial or haptic function rather than a truth function. Referencing nanotechnology, they state:

Frequently, the nanographers want images to engineer things… these are images-as-tools, entirely enmeshed in the making, much more than images-as-evidence to be marshaled for a later demonstration. (385).

Here the scientist is clearly more akin to an artist, animator, and engineer rather than an impartial observer of the natural world.

Despite the fact that gender does not play a central role in Daston and Galison’s history of objectivity (issues of race and class are also left incomplete), I still see their text as an effective model for teasing out performances of masculinity and femininity. I am mostly impressed with their methodology, their use of images to delineate the changes inherent to the scientific self. They speak about their method as keeping “two questions front and center: What kinds of practices are needed to produce this kind of image? And what kinds of practices are needed to cultivate the scientific self such that this sight is possible? This history of scientific sight always demands this double motion, toward the unfolding of an epistemology of images, on the one side, and toward the cultivated ethics of the scientific self, on the other” (382). Here is the project of epistemology in a nutshell: accounting for the historical connections between artifacts, practices, and modes of living. By way of a conclusion, I want to propose using Daston and Galison’s method to pursue queer performances of the scientific self. This would also involve placing two questions front and center: What kinds of practices are needed to produce queer performances of science? And what kinds of practices are needed to cultivate a queer scientific self such that these performances are possible? I am sure science has a rich history of queer performance, if one can determine where and how to look.