Testing out the Flesh Machine

Current reading: Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics by Jenny Reardon.

Pardon my absence from posting in the past couple weeks – classes have been crazy and I’m currently working on a conference paper for the “Visualizing Disability” Panel at the Southeastern College Art Conference at SCAD in November (more posts to follow soon about the conference) that has been taking up major time. So, this post may be a bit all over the place.

Reardon’s book discusses the history of one particular project, the Human Genome Diversity Project, as a way to illuminate the debates that occurred, and still are occurring, about the use of genetics research in studying humans, human populations, and races. She lays out the issues of how race has been studied scientifically and how it relates, or doesn’t, to social discourses and constructions of race. She asks us to consider how race is defined in society and in genetics, and which differences become the ones with meaning in each discourse.

We also watched a video featuring James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s double helix, called “Pandora’s Box” in the series on DNA by PBS. In the video Watson describes his interests in studying genetics and a “new eugenics.” He claims that “If we don’t play God, who will?” The stakes for Watson are high. Statements of his about the intelligence of African Americans caused major controversy; not to mention the oft-forgotten fact that his son has a mental illness. An article in The Independent from 2007, “Fury at DNA Pioneer’s Theory: Africans Are Less Intelligent Than Westerners” describes Watson’s theory and the ensuing response to it. It quotes from Watson’s new book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science:

There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.

This is where Reardon’s book becomes necessary in order to contextualize Watson’s work in the history of genetic research. It is easy to dismiss Watson here; his comments are brash, but we need to know where they come from. However, are we supposed to entirely dismiss genetics as well? How can we position Watson in the landscape of genetics and scientific research; in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of an “ecology of practices”? Reardon also claims that we can’t necessarily sanctify or condemn science; so what are we to think of this research? (Reardon 7) Many geneticists, on the other hand, who proposed and worked on the Human Genome Diversity Project were considered anti-racist, though they too were criticized for propagating further racism. The use of race in science and genetics has been fraught and tricky for us to get “past.” Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a leading scientist in the Project, was an anti-racist, and so therefore argued that studying human “populations” instead of human “races” would work to undermine racism in society. He, however, believed that race still did exist on the genetic level and there were certain differences between groups – this he was criticized for. How is our genetic make-up, our material, responsible for our social position, our race, and all other factors that make us who we are? Does our internal code really determine all aspects of how we will be?

Genetic testing is a contentious issue for disability proponents. Questions about who has the right to live become apparent here: if a fetus is found to have genetic disorders, should it be terminated? What are the qualifications for human-ness? What do we consider a “good” human? Though Reardon’s book mainly addresses the issue of race in genetics research, these other questions are there all the same. Questions about expertise and who has the authority/right to constitute the human emerge. Reardon brings Michel Foucault’s writing on “power-knowledge” to the issue, which can be important for thinking about new eugenics and reproductive technologies. Reardon asks: What kind of human diversities matter? And to this I ask, who decides what matters and how? What is the particular criteria to arrive at a judgment?

Critical Art Ensemble, Cult of the New Eve, image found at http://www.artnet.com

Art collective Critical Art Ensemble explores many of these questions in projects of theirs including Flesh Machine (1997-8), Intelligent Sperm Online (1999), The Society for Reproductive Anachronisms (1999-2000), and Cult of the New Eve (1999-2000). These projects all point to the utopian attitude conferred on new biotechnologies, and ask how to respond to this attitude and technologies at our disposal. The language of these projects mimics the language used by geneticists, eugenics and new eugenics practitioners, and arguably public health scholars as well. In the statement for Cult of the New Eve, CAE writes:

We are entering an age in which the secrets of creation are not in the hands of God, nor are they at the blind mercy of Nature. We control our own destinies… Once and for all, we shall know that humankind is not spiritual – it is material.

What separates this language from Watson’s claims that we need to take responsibility into our own hands for human progress, is that CAE is using the configuration of a cult to expose the underlying utopian project of eugenics and new eugenics. CAE is calling for us to be critically aware of these projects. In their position paper for the project, they talk about science’s position as new religion and that “its power lies only in the particulars of knowledge production.” However, as we have learned through Foucault, this knowledge production can’t be divorced from the production of power. How is the relationship between science and religion similar to the way the relationship between genetics and anthropology played out in the Human Genome Diversity Project – with genetics as hierarchically higher than anthropology? Who is really working for the “public good” and what does that really mean? What are the differences between us that actually matter?

Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine – image found at http://greenmuseum.org

When Bunnies Meet

It has been a while since my last post – I recently moved to Atlanta and started a graduate degree at Emory University in the ILA (Institute of Liberal Arts), so it has been a busy time. Getting back into writing posts has been a bit daunting for me (am I running out of things to say??), so I decided to repurpose a class I’m taking for blog posts. The class: Feminist Science and Technology Studies.

This week we are reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet, Part I: “We Have Never Been Human.”

Haraway starts the book with 2 questions: 1. “Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?” and 2. “How is ‘becoming with’ a practice of becoming worldly?” (3). From here, a good portion of the book consists of an examination of her dog, her dog’s history, and Haraway’s relationship to this history. How does the history and cultural context of her dog’s breeding implicate her? What does it mean to be a companion to another species? And, what are our obligations/responsibilities to them? What are theirs to us? How/what does the dog respond?

I am interested in her examination of breeding practices versus genetic diversity practices, which seem to be opposed to each other. I am confused, however, by many of her statements that seem to be contradictory to each other (and, for me most importantly, those statements that seem to implicate the existence and continued  birth of humans with disabilities – hopefully I will address this another time). Her chapter “Examined Lives” presents a complicated history of purebred dog breeding and genetic diseases. Like with humans, genetic diseases in dogs are also stigmatized and kept hidden. Many of the players in the chapter argue for a thorough screening of genetic diseases before breeding to eliminate/prevent the possibility of passing down certain genetic diseases including epilepsy and CEA (collie eye anomaly). This seems a bit too reminiscent of eugenics practices, and surprisingly enough Haraway discusses briefly the screening for Tay Sachs amongst the New York Jewish population (see 127 and footnote 52, pp.354-5). I am not trying to say that we should be thrilled to have genetic diseases. I am, however, saying that the discourse surrounding the prevention of genetic diseases amongst dogs seems a bit problematic in its rhetoric and aims.

I am still grappling with Haraway’s writing on genetic testing and genetic manipulation. She claims that bioethics is “boring” (136) and I’m not exactly sure why though she claims that bioethics “is firmly on the side of society” and that this “categorical dualism between society and science, culture and nature, is a setup to block a grasp of what is going on in technoculture” (136). This is something that I am interested to find out: is bioethics always on the side of society and does it work to maintain this division. As Harway then claims; bioethics “will have to get real” (136). Still to come…

An artist working with biology as a material in “bioart,” and project in particular, GFP Bunny, came to mind while reading. Eduardo Kac has an entire section of his website dedicated to his bioart practice. Many of the projects feature transgenic work, like GFP Bunny. Alba, the bunny, is a transgenic bunny that glows in the dark.

Kac writes on his website:

Transgenic art, I proposed elsewhere, is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.

What does it mean for us, the viewers, to look upon this work? How should we react? Should we be appalled or delighted? What would Haraway think? She claims in chapter 3, “Sharing Suffering” that she “does not mean people cannot ever engage in experimental animal lab practices, including pain and killing.” Though she does mean that “these practices should never leave their practitioners in moral comfort, sure of their righteousness” (75). How much of this statement is a testament to art? A practice that is supposed to affect us and at times make us uncomfortable; to open up questions? What does it mean that, in the 2nd to last page of Part 1, we are left with a new metaphor of dogs – “great companion animals are like works of art”? (156)

How am I to think of Alba as an artwork, an animal, a science experiment, but also as a pet, a companion animal? At first it appears that each of these categories needs its own set of questions and methods of judgment, however, I am not sure if that would be the best/most appropriate way to view this image of the being named Alba. Like the question Haraway started with in her book, I guess I may end my post: Whom and what do I see when I look at/regard/gaze at Alba?