[OPE-L] new biomedical capitalism

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Mon Jun 18 2007 - 00:47:32 EDT

some new products of qualified labour ...

Our Bodies, Our Selves
Susan M. Squier
The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in
the Twenty-First Century. Nikolas Rose. xvi + 350 pp. Princeton
University Press, 2007. Cloth, $65; paper, $24.95.
Those wishing to orient themselves in today's vast landscape of
biomedical advances may want to consultThe Politics of Life Itself, a
study of 21st-century biomedicine by sociologist Nikolas Rose. The
book provides a comprehensive description of the latest biological
and medical interventions in human life. Rose proposes to steer a
course between the negativity of social critics and the naive
enthusiasm of scientific puffery. Instead, he promises a dry-eyed
assessment of our new biomedical capacities to wield power and to
shape the way we relate to ourselves as "somatic individuals."
Because Rose's study helps to map this largely uncharted terrain, he
calls it a "cartography of the present," emphasizing continuities
more than changes and sources of innovation more than causes for
critique. He situates his work within "ethopolitics"-a revival of
attention to human responsibilities and potentials in this era of
pervasive attention to all aspects of "life itself."
The 21st century is characterized not by the "politics of health"
typical of the 18th and 19th centuries or by the "thanapolitics," or
politics of death, that dominated the modern era, he argues, but by
"our growing capacities to control, manage, engineer, reshape, and
modulate the very vital capacities of human beings as living
creatures." Taken together, these capacities require "a politics of
'life itself.'"
Rose acknowledges that he developed the notion of "life itself" in
conversation with the anthropologist Sarah Franklin, who explored the
concept in an essay he read in draft form. The volume in which the
essay ultimately appeared, Global Nature, Global Culture (2000),
might usefully be read as a companion to Rose's study, because it
provides an alternative route through the vital territory covered by
these two major scholars, who are now colleagues at the Bios Centre
of the London School of Economics. Although both Franklin and Rose
draw from the works of Michel Foucault in their formulations of "life
itself," Franklin and her coauthors, Celia Lury and Jackie Stacey,
explore the reconfiguration of nature and culture under the rubric of
globalization at scales ranging from the cell to the blue planet. At
stake is an alternative world of relationships, collective actions
and shared strategies for protecting a vital commons.
In contrast, Rose's volume is oriented toward policy. He focuses on
what he calls "advanced liberal democracies," where citizens are
subjected to "marketization, autonomization, and responsibilization"
and are thus required to choose from the diverse market of
interventions in human health and reproduction. Within that
neoliberal social realm, he argues, this politics of life itself has
given rise to distinctly new practices and identities.
Rose selects for special attention five areas in which, as he puts
it, "significant mutations are occurring." He gathers them under the
rather forbidding labels molecularization, optimization,
subjectification, somatic expertise and economics of vitality. All
those who have participated in a "run for the cure" or logged on to a
patient advocacy Web site will be aware of the new ways of thinking
about human selfhood, character, rights and responsibilities that are
emerging from the new definitions of risk, susceptibility and illness
Rose examines. They will have heard about, if not explored, the
diverse markets where therapies are available. And finally, they are
likely to have personally experienced the new emphasis on diagnosis
and treatment of illness (or susceptibility to illness) at the
molecular or submolecular level, as well as the new possibilities for
optimizing health and well-being.
These new modes of managing human life on levels from the gene to the
population are mapped in the eight chapters of Rose's study. They
include the rise of a "molecular-genetic identity"; the emergence of
a flexible ethical calculus for gauging questions of risk,
susceptibility, enhancement and optimization; the creation of
"pastoral experts" who help individuals navigate the thicket of
knowledge sources and choices relating to their specific "somatic
identities"; the consolidation of a new market for biovalue,
comprising individual tissues and organs as well as national genetic
features; the increasing use of racial and ethnic categorizations in
medical research, health care management and pharmaceutical
marketing; the increasing reliance on brain-based psychiatric
diagnosis and on intervention before a diagnosis has been made; and
the growth of a new biological criminology based on technologies of
genetic and neurological screening.
Along the way Rose provides provocative new perspectives on some
familiar issues-for example, the observation that genetic research in
Iceland has led to the identification of genes linked to alcoholism,
schizophrenia and manic depression: "In the age of genomics such
conditions, once seen as burdens on the national population and its
health service, have become potentially valuable resources," Rose
says. "The national population has become a resource not only for
understanding particular pathologies, but also for profitable
biomedical exploitation."
Rose encourages us to see the linking together of genomics, race and
medicine not as a deterministic state-based strategy for legitimating
inequality, but rather as testament to "the economy of hope that
characterizes contemporary biomedicine." And with similar, if
unsettling, optimism, he differentiates contemporary biological
criminology from both eugenics and genetic determinism, situating it
instead "in the same thought style as the rest of contemporary
molecular biology and molecular neuroscience, involving the logic of
susceptibility, prediction, and prevention." Yet he also offers the
cautionary insight that bioethics has "become an essential part of
the machinery for . . . facilitating the circuits of biological
material required for the generation of biocapital."
No map is neutral, and Rose's is no exception. Scholars looking for
"the familiar tropes of social critique" will be surprised by the
relative lack of depth of the analysis and criticism in this book.
Rose presents himself as refraining from any authoritative summation:
"Where so many judge, however, I have tried to avoid judgment, merely
to sketch out a preliminary cartography of an emergent form of life
and the possible futures it embodies." While promising to avoid
"breathless epochalization," the book makes a central claim-that "the
new style of thought that has taken shape in the life sciences has so
modified each of its objects that they appear in a new way, with new
properties, and new relations and distinctions with other objects."
Despite his argument that "we are seeing the emergence of a novel
somatic ethics," Rose's prose suggests continuities of which he seems
unaware. Consider, for example, his metaphor for the new ways of
negotiating vitality the book discusses: He describes them as
"significant mutations" in an "emergent form of life." The rhetorical
effect is telling-Rose positions those new political and social
practices in the same category as bodies subject to the medical,
biological, neurological and criminological interventions that he
addresses. Although Rose may intend to show us the full range of
politics at play in our current socioeconomic, biomedical and
cultural negotiations with life, his chosen metaphor risks
restricting the scope of his analysis to the realm of biology.
Framing social practices as biological entities, his description
smuggles in judgment, establishing the discursive boundaries of his
map without debate.
Indeed, Rose's recourse to the metaphor of cartography in a book on
human embodiment recalls those early modern anatomists who, as
Jonathan Sawday notes in his 1995 book The Body Emblazoned, compared
their scientific studies of the human body to "the triumphant
discoveries of the explorers, cartographers, navigators, and early
colonists." Sawday observes that "in the production of a new map of
the body, a new figure was also to be glimpsed-the scientist as
heroic voyager and intrepid discoverer." The gendered and raced
effects of that particular mapping, with which we are all too
familiar, suggest some troubling limits to Rose's analysis of the
politics of life itself.
Reviewer Information
Susan M. Squier is Julia Brill Professor of Women's Studies, English,
and Science, Technology and Society at the Pennsylvania State
University. She is the author of Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human
at the Frontiers of Biomedicine (Duke University Press, 2004).

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