Emergent Epistemologies Panel Rapporteur Report

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Genomics and Justice Session 4: EMERGENT EPISTEMOLOGIES

05/18/07: 3:15-4:15 pm

Rapporteur Report prepared by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (UCSC Center for Cultural Studies)


Jenny Reardon, Professor of Sociology, UCSC


Astrid Schrader, Graduate Student, History of Consciousness, UCSC

Karen Barad, Professor, Feminist Studies, History of Consciousness, and Philosophy, UCSC

Astrid Schrader:

Astrid Schrader articulated her thoughts on the possibilities of justice in genomics within the affirmation of the openness of the future. She started with some observations on the meanings of “emergence” as processes and events that make a material qualitative difference, but whose meanings have not yet settled: “the point of emergence is that we don’t know yet where it’s going.” In that sense, Schrader proposed to distinguish “uncertainty”—a perception that knowledge is still unachieved, but subjected to the calculation of achievement probabilities—and “indeterminacy”—a constant openness. In scientific practices, indeterminacy is a consequence of the contributions of the “objects of study” to the research process and the research results, a “participation” that cannot be reduced to “inclusion” in already preformed categories. “The identification of both subject and object are at stake in the research process and don’t preexist the action.” Research outcomes are indeterminate as soon as discrepant histories of objects-in-the-making are acknowledged. This is thus not an epistemological question of uncertain knowledges about preformed objects, but an ontological issue of bringing into existence “new” entities whose “original identities” remain indeterminate.

To think about what is “new” in genomics is complex, as it is difficult to hold on to the present stakes of genomics. Genomics is both a science of the future (e.g., because of the uncertainty of its success in producing therapeutic tools) and a science about the future (e.g., the future of probable diseases becoming an object of study). The novelty of genomics is often articulated around its promises and dangers: promises of “health for everyone” and of “diminishing health disparities”, dangers of “stigmatising minority groups”. Reference to the future at the individual level relates, for instance, to pre-symptomatic interventions—producing a profile that foretells “genetic susceptibility” (Brenner). At the level of genomic research and of collective questions, “the future becomes a contested object” (as when categories of “race” are to be shaped, taken into account, and/or discarded through the research). This is an important issue for the use of “group identities” in genetics. For instance, in the context of toxicogenomics and research on subpopulation variation in genetic susceptibilities of environmental exposure, will “race” be associated with a past of “stable genes” that reproduce racism or will it refer to a “history of racism” that allows the acknowledgement of historical racism? Different technologies and approaches will produce different questions, a different “real”: “microarray technology for so-called “body burden testing” might shift the focus from “inherent genes susceptible to particular toxins to genetic changes due to exposure. Some approaches may result “in regulating people and minority groups,” others “may result in regulating polluting industries.”

Which would be a just decision in these contexts? Relying on Derrida, Schrader affirms that the possibility and the very meaning of justice must remain open and indeterminate. Justice cannot be modelled only by “following the rules”—injunctions from the past that would guarantee what will be just. Justice “requires making judgments, to act here and now, in spite of and because there are no calculations and prescriptions for action available when justice is our motivation.” The promise of a future exceeds and surprises. The point is not to speculate “on the probability of one future against another” or whether to “generate normative prescriptions about particular futures,” but to inquire about possibilities for justice here and now.

Karen Barad:

Karen Barad incorporates her work on the ontologies and epistemologies of physics, as well as insights of feminist, postcolonial, and queer theories to propose a notion of “experimental ethics” as “an open ended practice of attending to how values and ethics are constituted in the laboratory along with facts, knowledge and stuff.” Laboratory practices produce processes that shape “how matter comes to matter,” and in that sense “objectivity is actually a matter of responsibility and accountability for what comes to matter.”

For Barad, to sustain responsibility and accountability in scientific practices requires challenging a pervasive “individual metaphysics” and proposing a “relational ontology”. That is, it requires challenging the tendency to conceive of epistemology (processes of knowledge), ontology (nature of being), and ethics (the nature of values) as separate categories. For instance, we assume that science gives us an accurate representation of objects as we assume that democracy gives us an accurate representation of subjects. Objects are supposed to have determinate properties that are revealed by scientific method and subjects have properties such as agency, rights, etc. Individual metaphysics also lead us to assume that bodies are individual. However, referring to Maile Taualii’s talk, Barad suggests that there are ways in which the body is distributed across community and generations.

For Barad, science is a set of productive, performative practices, not a fixed body of knowledge. Drawing upon the insights of Niels Bohr’s philosophy of physics—which focuses on concepts of science and on the measuring instruments of science—Barad shows how the production of phenomena results from “intra-actions” between objects and subjects. Barad uses “intra-act” instead of “inter-act” to indicate that the knower (subject) and the known (object) are not fixed, but emergent phenomena. Instead of focusing on fixed individual objects and subjects, Barad argues that we should focus on the “apparatuses” and material-discursive practices that give meaning and also matter, as they produce discourses (knowledge) and bodies (subjects) inseparably. Materiality is thus not about the thing, but is an “entangled extension that includes past, present and future.” There is no fixed inside and outside of scientific practice, as even the space and time of the phenomena is not pre-existent, but “intra-actively” produced. In this sense, as Jenny Reardon noted in her talk, focusing on “inclusion” can miss the point that “the production of subjects and objects” is made in the process itself.

In this relational ontology, “objectivity” is “accountability to marks on bodies, to what comes to matter, to the entire phenomenon—the intra-active entanglement of mutually constituting agencies. Ethical considerations cannot come then after “facts” are defined. Values are not placed upon already constructed facts about pre-existing things. Laboratory practices produce matters of epistemological, ontological, and ethical concern; what comes to matter through such practices is always already shot through with matters of axiology. When investigating the “other,” for example, I am “ethically obligated” as I am entangled in intra-action with the other—we are part of the same phenomenon that is produced. Thus, responsibility is not only a matter of accountability to the data, but to the phenomenon in a larger sense.

This does not mean that we produce the world or reality arbitrarily. Based on her relational ontology, Barad thinks in terms of “agential realism”: “we are responsible for what exists, not because it is an arbitrary construction of our choosing, but because reality is sedimented out of particular practices that we have a role in shaping, and that have a role in shaping us.”


Mildred [?]:

It is indeed crucial to understand that ethics come out of the nature of the relationship. This is something medical students understand better than students in biology. For instance, there are medical gestures which would be considered intrusive outside the patient-doctor relation but are ok within that context.

Kaushik Sunderrajan:

Relating to emergent forms of life, historicity and futurity are crucial: it is important to acknowledge that there is no historicity without struggles for survival. Another point is a discrepancy in the availability and quality of data resulting from environmental impact studies on one hand and genetic studies on the other hand. This is partially due to a particular funding structure. Genomics is much better funded. The political importance of these structural issues for different epistemologies has to be acknowledged.

James [?]:

Relating to indeterminacy and non-pre-existent but intra-actively produced phenomena, there is reference to William James’s predifferentiated plane of materialities, appealing to other ranges of experiences that are important in the production of objects and subjects.

Karen Barad:

Barad comments on the important affective dimensions (of the nature of practices) that have not been raised here.

Jenny Reardon:

Reardon celebrates the possibilities of rethinking the sciences that appear in these discussions: when we try to relate and connect things that we often don’t think are connected, we may be led to think differently about science, and therefore about science and justice. She wonders, “How do the scientists in the room feel about these things?”

Scientist from UCSC [?]:

Science is not outside; it belongs to us. Also, other justice issues are linked to genomics—old people’s cardiovascular diseases, children’s asthma, and people who are considered sick but who don’t see themselves as sick (e.g., deaf people).

Donna Haraway:

Haraway discusses how Barad and Schrader are working with inherited materials and rethinking them in order to provide attachment sites to the non-reductive. It is important to show the heterogeneity that a reductive adjective like “western” is masking.

Karen Barad:

Barad adds that she is indeed interested in the possibilities of bringing these issues together and therefore in the “‘we’ to come”.

Astrid Schrader:

Schrader affirms again the need to leave that “we” open as we also recognise the need to “close” sometimes and then to take responsibility for this closure.

Summary Discussion Related to the Conference as a Whole:

Kaushik Sunderrajan:

Sunderrajan is worried about the risk of locating the problem of justice within identity politics and forgetting the structural issues (for instance, related to capitalism). He also comments on the danger of reifying the science and producing a hegemonic construction of the scientists. He argues for accounts that consider the differences between epistemic sites like population genomics, toxicology, and micro biology; materialities of data; and concepts like “colonialism” (which locates action/agency on the state level) and “imperialism (which locates action/agency at the level of capital).

Donna Haraway:

Haraway calls attention to “the elephant in the room”: multispecies relationalities that are everything in this earth. For instance, referring to the structural level that Sunderrajan noted, Haraway asks about the genomics in the farming and meat complex? These issues are fundamental for questions of who lives, who dies, and how, in the context of the ecological assemblages that are human genomics.

Jenny Reardon:

These questions open to future encounters that could focus on more specific issues than justice.