Week 8: Blood, Body, Genes

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The problems before us in our reading for today fit tightly with our themes in this class.  Is the genome being re-interpreted as an “archive”?  Do we thereby carry something of our history in our bodies?  What does in “feel like” to “see” where one “comes from” — by looking at a little bit of spit. 

Here is Nadia Abu El-Haj, writing compellingly on this new bio-political and existential condition:

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But the 9th of November 2016 was a difficult day. We confronted from the outset of our class today the question of whether our obligation lay in the immediate work at hand (a discussion of Abu El-Haj’s The Genealogical Science) or with the political circumstances we collectively confront the morning after a surprising and, for many of us, deeply disturbing presidential election. Better to bracket the fear, sorrow, confusion, and/or anger? Better to fill ourselves with some history? Or better to push ordinary business to the side and attempt some kind of conversation about what has just happened in this country.

I hedged a bit.

I figured most of us had probably been talking about little else all day (and probably much of last night), so maybe better to just focus on “What is / What was.”

But in the end it felt impossible not to take a little time with what so clearly hung so heavy on all our minds. So we did.

It was affecting. Several of people in the room struggled to hold back tears. At least one person made explicit that it felt nearly impossible to engage in the (exquisite, slightly otherworldly) ratiocination of professional historical inquiry in the wake of what felt (to her) like a barbaric belch of white supremacy and naked misogyny. We tried a bit of conversation about the problems themselves as we understood them: what about class? What about racism? What about changing social and familial structures? What about the resentment of lower-middle class white American men over fifty without college educations living in rural and suburban regions of the heartland?

It cannot be said that we made any progress, but we aired a clutch of relevant subjects. We moved to talking about what could be done. We could we do? What should we each be doing? Quit grad school? Become a political activist? Enter the sphere of politics as an actual politician? Do some sort of academic work that more directly engages the future of the republic?

I tried a couple of contributions along the lines of consolation and/or self-salvage: if the demographics suggesting that American voters with four year college educations were much less inclined to vote for Donald Trump than Americans without benefit of such an education, could we hope that by giving our lives to teaching in colleges and universities (and writing the material to be taught there) we are contributing to a program of meaningful and ameliorative service to the republic? Need we despair? Perhaps shifting demographics alone will gradually rectify the problem: older white males (who seem to have had contributed very significantly to Trump’s victory) cannot be considered a growth demographic. Time will take care of us.

None of this felt satisfying. None of it felt adequate to the condition of the room, to the mood. We circled back. Were there links to be drawn between our reading this week and this morning’s newspaper? There were. Tara underlined that Abu El-Haj’s book can be understood as an exploration of the bio-political elaborations and paradoxes of identity politics. And, of course, identity politics categories may be exactly what have so significantly wrong-footed many analysts of this election cycle. (Did Democrats take the African-American vote for granted? Did Hillary Clinton take poor white votes for granted? Has the obsession with identity politics obscured or distorted class dynamics?) And of course as Jenne reminded us it is a book about the politics of epistemology, and about the place of certain forms of knowledge in the constitution of political communities. Questions of epistemology and policy should be very much on our minds the morning after our statistical instruments for knowing ourselves have proven so imprecise and misleading.

We resolved to roll up our sleeves and work with our text. But even as we did so I sensed again the question (a tacit question?) hanging in the air. As if baited by a piñata perhaps only I was jerking up and down over our heads, I could not resist taking a swing.

The question?

Is it okay to be doing the kind of thing we are doing when there are so many urgent things that call for our attention in this country and beyond.

So I tried to answer that. Or I tried to articulate my own answer to that for you and before you – I meant it as an encouragement and a gesture of fortification in our commitment to a particular kind of enterprise. Thinking back now, however, I feel it was perhaps both extravagant and unnecessary. The basic reality may simply be that we were just all still too close to something that feels a little too upsetting to do much of anything besides sit around together and look a little shell shocked. So in retrospect I think my enthusiasm/passion/desperation was all basically not-really-what-the-situation-called-for.

But anyway, in the interest of laying stuff down that happens, I will say here some version of what I said there.

What I said is that ours is, primarily, thought-work. Ours is the work of thought. We do not really solve problems. We do not heal the sick. We do not protect people from getting their doors kicked down. We do not ensure that they have enough to eat. We think about things, and we produce works that contain and reflect that thinking. We attend on the thinking of others. And we encourage participation in thought-work by creating and sustaining spaces for thinking and for the sharing and transformation of thought.

I do not mean to suggest that some of this thought-work cannot have “effects” in the world. It can, and it does. But our work – my work, I am now speaking for myself, speaking to and of my own orientation to the work I do – is thought-work. And thought-work is important. In many different times and in many different places people (even hungry people, even oppressed and threatened people) have found sustenance, succor, consolation, even a reason for living itself in the private and the shared activity of thinking. Escapism? I am not in a position to say. Maybe. But sometimes escape may be necessary?

What I can say is that the work of good and beautiful thinking creates an entire climate of feeling. It amounts to a form of life available to all and inextricable from what makes us the creatures we are.

We (and here again, I mean me and anybody else who wants to come along with me in the way I think about these questions) are custodians and servants of this form of life.

I cannot really tell what you all made of this peroration. I reached down relatively deep to find an accounting that I believe merits close consideration – an accounting that cannot easily be dismissed even when the shouting in the street is very loud indeed.

But it certainly can be dismissed. And under certain circumstances, perhaps, must be. When exactly? I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure no covering law or analytic can be devised that will resolve this matter for us.

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We pivoted to the book – and to the article. And we did so via our two pre-class posts. Jamie’s? A slightly unsettling (flippant?) inhabitation of the idiom of an internet chat-room self-seeker feeling his/her way through the woozy worlds of dilapidate gene theory and new-age astrology. His pastiche of somatic citizenship in the demotic patois felt broadly satirical to me. But why the ironizing? I wasn’t sure. Are we to feel a condescending pity for those whose flights of fancy flit so lightly? Is popular genetic anthropology in connection with genealogy and ancestry-studies merely a kind of cash cow horoscope casting perpetrated upon middlebrow family historians? I myself was not persuaded that this was the take-away from this week’s reading. But I am also not persuaded that it was the take-away from Jamie’s pre-class post.

I am not persuaded that it was my take-away from my piece either. It is at this point that I think it may be helpful to think outside of the academy and remind ourselves that much of what we talk about rarely escapes the esteemed, circular, marble walls of the ivory tower. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of Science and Technology Studies. In my reading, this is something that Abu El-Haj wishes to underline. While she and I and we may be trained to look cynically at genes, to treat them as an ‘archive’ in need of narration, her ethnography illustrates that they constitute ‘fact’ to a great many people. Scientific fact. Proper fact. This ‘fact’ has enormous influence in identity formation. It implies a power relationship by which ‘science’ is able to tell you WHAT YOU ARE. As Serres elucidates in the early parts of his conversations with Latour, he has become increasingly troubled by the ethical problems of science. For him, this was a result of growing up in the shadow of Hiroshima, but he moves on to discuss the environmental impacts of science hinting at Anthropocene debates when he suggests that there are ethical implications to the ever-increasing population of the planet, facilitated by science.

To this, I wish to add the ethical concerns raised by science straying into the realms of identity. This is, of course, not new. Psychological practice was, for many years based on a big book telling you what went on in your head. We know of Foucault’s intervention here. Yet, genetic research and, more importantly, its inherent consumability is a novel phenomenon. Thomas’s article makes clear that she believes there is a role for the historian in shaping this consumption and, certainly, its narrativisation. I am less sure. If we start writing Mongol history to help interpret genome results, if we start examining the history of the Ashkenazi Jews using genetic data gathered from paying customers, if we restructure our discipline in tandem with a project so invested in mechanisms of identity formation and codification, we must also consider our involvement in a system that, as Abu El-Haj shows, is commodifying the very genetic material INSIDE our bodies. There are, as Abu El-Haj puts it, ‘no firewalls here’. Horoscopes are altogether more frivolous and easily dismissed. My blood-type I can disregard as irrelevant. Does being born on a Tuesday make me more graceful, I like to think so but on balance that might be my unrelated natural poise. If I took one of these genetic tests and it repudiated my current sense of rootedness in a damp North-Atlantic past could I throw it off so easily? I remain unconvinced. JP

Ohad, by contrast, wielded the scalpel on his own breast. Rather than staying in “key” as a critically rigorous practitioner of philosophically informed Science and Technology Studies (which would have meant drafting a think piece about what a good book Abu El-Haj has written), Ohad brought to the surface—and then bravely invited contemplation of—his own very complicated (and personal) feelings as he confronted a book that cut close to his (Israeli, Jewish) bones. I admired the courage. What does it yield?

Well, it helpfully opened for us a small, bright window on to the explosive political (and military) conflicts at stake in Abu El-Haj’s study. We took some time to review the thorny dynamics by which genetic studies (like those at issue in this book) become part of elaborate and well-funded initiatives to build and extend Jewish settlements in the West Bank and elsewhere in Palestine/Israel.

In this context, Ivan alluded to “social construction” of notions like a Jewish “gene.” And this led to an excursus into the history of the idea of “social construction,” together with a review of what is sometimes called the second turn in the field of sociology of science: the symmetry turn association with the later work of Bruno Latour (whereby we have been asked to consider whether it makes sense to treat scientific facts as more “social” than the social science that ostensibly reveals their social bases).

What about the social construction of nature implied by the Anthropocene? Nature, by these lights, is very definitely being recast as a social phenomenon, but not quite in the sense intended by Berger and Luckman in their 1966 classic The Social Construction of Reality. So what happened when we turned our eyes and heads to Julia Adeney Thomas’s article (History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value)? The scale of millennia and microorganisms seemed, I think, sharply discordant with the immediacy of national politics as they lay still heavy upon us. Incommensurable. There was mostly silence.

We shall have to see what happens Donald Trump makes his appointments to the EPA. Problems of scale and value indeed…

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From Ancestry.com, my own “ethnicity” estimate (based on genetic comparison from spitting into a tube) to show what these results actually look like. My results are rather specific because more regional data is available for Europeans. How is this report more or less legible than one that might simply read “100% East Asian”? -Anonymous

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This anonymous (and generous) posting puts me in mind of that moment in our conversation when we mused for a moment on the remarkable coincidence (?) that the genetic ancestry “results” take the form of geographical “probability clouds” — a format perfectly suited to the “neoliberal” choice-craft of selfhood that seems to be emergent at the nexus of identity politics and consumer-freedom-oriented discourses of the individual.  Contemplating the consilience, one need not be a card-carrying paranoiac to have a moment of chin-scratching suspicion.   -DGB

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PRE-CLASS POSTS

As I strode into a classroom at the University of Chicago two years ago, two fellow students looked me critically up and down and pronounced that I must be Type B. Type B at what I asked, feeling initially elated that I had managed to cast off the influence of my domineering Type A mother. Alas it was not to be for they were referring to my blood type. Type B blood type. They couldn’t decide if I was negative or positive. Having done some research since I am now fairly sure that it’s negative (one of the rarest blood types there is!).

B-. For some reason I had made it through to the tender age of 35 without knowing until there it was, pronounced upon me. It makes sense of course. As they told me, Type B blood has a propensity to be slightly colder than other types because it has a lower density in the veins. This meant that I was predisposed to be rather cold in my human interactions and while they couldn’t remember what the lower density meant, I am fairly sure that it’s why I am so graceful and light on my feet. That, and being born on a Tuesday. Tuesday’s child is full of grace etc. Why B-? Well negative blood signs (and I worked this bit out on my own) have a tendency to accentuate the characteristics while the positive blood types minimize them. Positive tends towards homogeneity, negative towards difference. I, clearly, tended toward difference because only a strong B- bent could have minimized the influence of the Aries moon in my star chart. I am quite clearly not an Aries.

Gemini, Libra Rising, Tuesday’s Child, B-, JP

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Okay, I couldn’t decide whether or not I should publish this thing. It is rather personal, and not exactly the book-report that you would have expected to read in an history seminar. This is very not professional, actually it is the opposite of a professional report.

While reading the book I had experienced two very harsh sentiments towards it: I was very curious and very angry, and maybe also a little bit frightened. The normal thing to do here was to purse my curiousness and to try to explain to you why I think this book is an excellent book, and a good exemplar for a good STS study. I can do that, and will probably do it in class. On the other hand, each and every one of you can, I suppose, do the same (and in a better English). Therefore, I had decided that I will dedicate this blog-post to the perspective that only I, as far as I know, can contribute to our discussion – the perspective of an Israeli-Jew who reads a book about Israel and about being Jewish written by a Palestinian (half-Palestinian, actually). I have to say that at this point I hope that my take on identity-politics here, would take the shape of reduction-ad-absurdum, and redeem us from the burden of the Gender/Race thing altogether. But I am not very optimistic about it.

Nadia Abu El-Haj, is certainly not the first Palestinian author I have read. I had read some of Edward Said’s books, which I found very tedious but usually also persuasive, and very not intimidating (I found his auto-biography excellent, by the way). My favorite book written by a Palestinian is actually a novel, translated into English as The Secret Life of Saeed the Passoptimist by Emile Habibi – a sharp and very funny satire on the Israeli military-regime in the 1950s and 1960s. A really terrific book.  I never felt the way I felt reading Abu El-Haj’s book when I read  a book written by a Palestinian. I did feel similar – in a sense – when I read books written by Nazi authors, though.

I DO NOT MEAN TO SAY THAT THIS BOOK IS A NAZI BOOK, OR THAT ABU EL-HAJ IS A NAZI AUTHOR!

The only thing that I am saying is that while reading this book I felt a similar feeling to the one I usually have when I read Nazi, or famous anti-Semite, books. And the question I had to ask myself is – WHY?

I found several themes in the book very persuasive. First and foremost, the double inversion of the category of race: from a category that was usually imposed by others to a category which is mainly self-imposed (even though she did give us some precedents for this practice), and from a category that is being used in order to learn from biology about the right social and cultural roles of certain groups, into a research tool that only to reaffirms certain cultural beliefs. The focus on the role of the biological as the reality that can support historical argument, which are being mobilized for political purposes, was not new for me, but was certainly an important contribution.

So, why do I find myself so intimidated from this book? Was it because it exposed some embarrassing things about Jewish racism? I don’t think so, having spent years and years in the far left of Israeli politics, nothing of this sort can surprise me. Is it because the author is Palestinian? As I said before I find it hard to believe. Is it because of the juxtaposition of these two facts: discussion about “race” in the Jewish context written by a Palestinian? This sounds more plausible to me. But why? First, I think that the book had lost me with the quote of Shlomo Sand at the first page – a historian that charlatan will be a compliment for him, and he is nothing but a populist. But more than that, I think that something of the objective tone of the book made it more intimidating for me. A person – the author – who I don’t know, but forced, for some reason, to think that she sees me as her enemy, dissect my culture and heritage (even if some perverse parts of it, that I will be glad to criticize myself) into little pieces with the same lancet that I use to dissect others, for political purposes that are pretty clear from the book (at least to my eyes) but they are by no means the logical conclusion from its findings.

When identity politics enters the game it will not always be a cosmopolitan play-ground where everybody, who are both equal and different, are smiling at each other and playing together. Identity politics sometimes entails wars, that can obstruct us from doing other things which, in my view, are no less important and more pertinent to the intellectual sphere. I am not proud with what I wrote here, on the contrary I am so embarrassed that I could not upload it on time, but maybe it is an example of what happens when you mobilize your identity into the intellectual game. Maybe be this is what Graham thought about when he came up with this Dionysian history?  — ORS

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Readings for the eighth week:

Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology

Julia Adeney Thomas, History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value, American Historical Review, 119, 2014

 

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