Archive for August, 2011

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

August 31, 2011

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

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

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

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