comments on the anthropocene

I’ve recently come across what seems to me to be two different routes of thinking with the anthropocene. I’ve been interested in trying to bring them together.

The latest of the Living Books About Life series is Extinction by Claire Colebrook and her suggestions about agency and responsibility, by way of curation, are provocative and thoughtful.  However, another framing of evolution, extinction, agency and the anthropocene could also connect to this by way of the Ecological Humanities. Particularly Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren whose negotiation of the humanism/non-human tension offers a slightly different perspective to that of Colebrook.

They are both really important and to read them together seems productive. Colebrook’s living book does this bringing together via citation in that if you read into the articles she curates you find Rose’s work in conversation with Colebrook’s sources. However, it seems to me that Colebrook’s emphasis takes an oppositional route and there is an evocative friction to be taken from this intersection.

Jar City and other biodigital fictions

On a train journey back from Lancaster – to visit CESAGen – partly for this event ‘The Post-genomic Condition‘ I also read the novel Jar City (2006).  This Icelandic crime thriller has a film version and uses the Icelandic Heath Sector Database (later known as DeCode), as part of the plot.  Genetics becomes an interesting plot device, motivating strong feelings and culminating in murder.  Questions of privacy, identity and access to highly secure information collected in the name of genetic research lie at the centre of the novel.

In terms of the use of genetics as a plot device it is not unlike another crime novel Fever of the Bone (2009). This manages to introduce the HFEA and UK databases with similar questions into a crime novel.

These books demonstrate the purchase that genetics has in everyday life and its role in bringing a new twist to stories about identity. In both Jar City and Fever of the Bone much of the action is propelled by insider access to highly technologised databases underwritten by computing architecture and state level storage of information about biological information. However, both plots also circulate around emotions attached to family, grief and continuity of identity.   In both novels a fine line between new technologies and everyday life is negotiated in an interesting, dramatically successful and informative way.  Jar City has the edge on dramatic success and draws a striking analogy between the storage of body parts in formalin and the storage of genetic information in databases.

The comparison between these different methods of biomedical storage and retrieval (body parts in jars and biomedical information in databases) sparked a series of questions about the concept of corporeal fetishism which I’ve been thinking about in relation to When Biometrics Fail and I’ll be posting some notes on this shortly.

more biometrics

I posted a few days ago about one biometrics book. Another is by Kelly Gates –  Our Biometric Future – and she is interviewed about her book -here at The Critical Lede.  These books signal a cultural moment in which the body is positioned as the source of truth and perhaps the only source of truth left. Crucially though the body is only accepted as an index of the truth when it is read through systems of information technologies, databases and images.

Shoshana Magnet comments on the corporeal fetishism (taken from Haraway’s use of the term) that is involved here. In other words the representation of the body becomes a thing in itself and this representation – rather than lived experience – is taken for the reality of human bodies and lives.  Biometric indicators take the body to be a fixable set of co-ordinates that can be read through data and/or imaging technologies.  This fixity is an error because bodies constantly change and experiences change the kind of data or images that can be collected.

It seems to me that this technologised body has become some kind of centre of reality for science and politics alike. Replacing a political reality or a system of objective truths, the body as read through high tech systems (DNA sequencing, iris scanning, or finger printing), or paired with data collections with which it can be corrolated, has become the source of a certain kind of contemporary reality.  Of course the messy and uneven distribution of this ordering of truths is the problem.  Gates talks in the interview, and writes in the book, about the way that this kind of regime has very personalised and racialised effects, as a direct result of being taken for some kind of neutral or machinic system.

circulating genomes update

Just got back from the Circulating Genomes meeting at the  ESRC Genomics Forum organised by  Alessandro Delfanti (International School for Advanced Studies). There was some really interesting discussion around the theme of sharing, nicely summed up by Steve Yearly in his closing comments as at once an innocent term, but one that can indicate excess, and one that (in practice and demand) constitutes kinds of community. There were contributions from open science, open publishing, genome sharers as well as social and cultural studies of science.  Misha Angrist shared some of his experiences from the PGP and on the same panel Stuart Hogarth reflected on experiences in UK policy engagement whilst Marina Levina asked us to think about network identity and pre-patient identity.

I’m posting my notes here. I asked people to think about the amount of talk generated by circulating genomes and suggested that too much of a particular kind of talk might be getting in the way of the communication of content. I also ended up advocating television audiences as a space of civic possibility.


when biometrics fail

I’ve just received a copy of When Biometrics Fail by Shoshana Magnet in the post from a friend and colleague in Canada – I’m looking forward to reading it as I’ve appreciated Shoshana’s work in the past – and because I think books about technologies and failure are really important reminders and correctives to put together with the assurances of success and progression that come attached to new technologies of all kinds. This looks to make an important intervention in thinking about biometrics and I’ll review it here when I’m done reading it.

The Optical Effects of Lightning

I’ve just finished this The Optical Effects of Lightning – by S.J. Kember. It is an epistolary horror story – and a meditation on identity and bodily transformation – including explorations of twin identity, cloning and plastic surgery.

Sarah Kember also came to Sussex in December and gave a great keynote at the Staging Illusion conference here and included extracts from the novel as well as more traditional academic analysis. Fiction and dramatic techniques (like puppets) are a well developed approach in science studies. E.g. Charis Thompson’s “Confessions of a Bioterrorist: subject position and the valuing of reproductions,” in eds. S. Squier and A. Kaplan, Reproductive Technologies and Representation (Rutgers University Press, 1999) or Laura Watt’s Orkney Futures

Circulating Genomes: sharing in the life sciences sector – an event

Circulating genomes: sharing in the life sciences sector, ESRC Genomics Forum, Edinburgh, 9-10 February 2012

A forum for discussing novel and emergent practices of sharing in genome research, personal genomics projects and direct-to-consumer testing.

9-10 February 2012
Genomics Policy & Research Forum, University of Edinburgh

Thursday, February 9, 15:30 – 17:30
Session 1: How to promote openness in genome research

Chair: Jenny Reardon (University of California Santa Cruz)

Theodora Bloom (PLoS Biology):
“Promoting and incentivising openness: incentives, nudges and mandates”

Alessandro Delfanti (International School for Advanced Studies):
“Open for business: private companies and shared genomes”

Javier Lezaun (University of Oxford)
“Public matter: on the property and properties of material references”

Cameron Neylon (Science and Technology Facilities Council)
“Openness in Genome Research: Still leading the research community or
falling behind?”

Friday, February 10, 10:00 – 12:00
Session 2: Sharing practices in personal genomics projects and
direct-to-consumer testing

Chair: Alessandro Delfanti (International School for Advanced Studies)

Misha Angrist (Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy)
“My ‘Ome’ is Not My Castle”

Stuart Hogart (King’s College London)
“Hip to the hype or hyping the hip? A critical perspective on personalised medicine”

Marina Levina (University of Memphis)
“A Pre-Patient’s Bill of Rights: Genomic Data-Sharing, Citizenship and the Moral Economy of the Network”

Kate O’Riordan (University of Sussex)
“Active and passive audiences revisited? Challenges in digital genome reading”

12:00 – 12:30
Concluding remarks: Steve Yearley (Genomics Forum, University of Edinburgh)


How do genomes circulate today? During the last two decades, the opposition between “closed” intellectual property rights models and “open” forms of data sharing has been depicted as a conflict between public-funded and corporate science. On one side is the explosion of patents on genetic sequences, IPRs offices in universities, industrial secrecy and bioprospecting. On the other, the emergence of new tools for sharing based upon the Internet and the return to the old ethos of modern science that have changed the rules of the game, giving birth to an updated form of open science. Yet this description is proving inadequate. Private companies foster open approaches to IPRs or use Web platforms to manage their costumers’ data. Behaviours linked to contemporary phenomena such as hacking and open source movements are contaminating the culture of the scientist.

This workshop will bring together social scientists and genomics
researchers, and ask them to discuss their experiences and critical viewpoints on the transformations brought by new forms of sharing in the realm of genomics. The aim of this interdisciplinary debate is to produce notions that can be useful for policy intervention in this field, and will deepen the understanding social sciences have on new forms of sharing. The workshop will be organised around two sessions:

1) Do we need new regulatory policies and incentives to promote
openness in genome research and innovation? Practices of sharing are creating a novel space and business model for genetic research, and this has deep implications for innovation policies and for the future of our knowledge economies. Yet these changes are linked to a transformation of scientists’ cultures and strategies of action. Also, the separation between public and private research is blurring when it comes to sharing
practices. In this session we will debate new systems of incentives for scientists designed to promote sharing both in public and corporate settings.

2) Which opportunities and challenges are posed by the growth of personal genomics projects based on data sharing? Personal genomics companies and research projects rely on sharing in order to build and analyse new types of data sets. Publication of personal data through social media websites or open source databases are becoming common practices in this field. In this session we want to explore the possibilities for new forms of biomedical research brought about by open personal genomics. At the same time we want to discuss the ethical and regulatory challenges these novelties pose.