Market logics, commodification, extraction, and exploitation condition our possibilities for life and expose many to ever-expanding forms of precarity.
“We call for a politics of critical mourning—an active accounting of loss and the connections between neocapitalism and bioinequality.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured authors are Nadine Ehlers and Shiloh Krupar. Ehlers teaches sociology at the University of Sydney. Krupar is Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where she chairs the Culture and Politics Program. Their book is Deadly Biocultures: The Ethics of Life-Making. An open-access version of their book is available here.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Nadine Ehlers and Shiloh Krupar: Our book, Deadly Biocultures, looks at various ways that biomedicine and biomedical rationales have infiltrated everyday life. First, we examine how biomedical logics and practices aimed at affirming life (making people live more) extend beyond the formal institutions of the clinic, hospital, and lab into broader society, creating what we call “biocultures”—cultural spheres occupied (in theory) with fostering human biological life. Second, we explore how these affirmations of life within contemporary biocultures are actually forms of governing, in that they guide individuals, communities, and populations in a regulatory sense—to be economically viable, self-sustaining, productive, and oriented towards the future and optimism. Third, we show that in our neoliberal climate those very forms of governing/affirmations that are meant to make (some) people live more actually require that certain others are let die, whether through abandonment, neglect, or through the creation of conditions that kill. The life-making pursuit in our current times is deadly: thus, we name these operations deadly life-making. These deadly operations have particularly deleterious consequences, further imperiling black and other minoritized lives. We explore these ideas through what we call five “bio-cultural zones”: cancer culture, race-based health, fatness, aging, and the afterlife/disposal of the dead.
We hope that our analysis helps readers to understand the current political and social climate in a number of ways. We want readers to see the degree to which we now understand ourselves and our futures through the lens of biomedicine, where almost everything is cast as a medical problem. Within the biocultures that we analyze, we also map out how market logics, commodification, extraction, and exploitation condition our possibilities for life and expose many to ever-expanding forms of precarity. More importantly, though, we present to readers the complex ways that death is central—and the necessary underside—to the contemporary politics of life.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
In this book we claim that each bioculture we analyze is governed through a specific affirmation. We argue that the affirmation to hope is used to orient individuals and the population toward vigilant survival in biocultures of cancer. The affirmation to target is deployed to foster the health of race-specific groups (mainly African Americans) in biocultures of race-based health. The affirmation to thrive operates in biocultures of fat/ness: first, in relation to anti-obesity, encouraging individuals to eradicate surplus fat to live more and; second, in relation to regenerative medicine, to put excess fat to work through fat stem cell harvesting in order to generate more life. The affirmation to secure against aging and decline dominates biocultures of aging. And, lastly, the affirmation to green the dead human body (through environmental greening efforts) extends the biomedical affirming of life into the afterlife (enabling bodies to be repurposed and enabling certain people to create an enduring legacy). Each of these affirmations, we argue, actually govern our possibilities for life and imperil the lives of many—leading to the exacerbation or re-entrenchment of inequalities along lines of race, class, gender, dis/ability and their intersections.
“The affirmation to target is deployed to foster the health of race-specific groups in biocultures of race-based health.”
So, in the first instance, we want activists and community organizers to read about these operations, to be aware of what we need to rally against. At the same time, though, we examine everyday political efforts that already exist—or have existed in the past—that act as examples of resistance to these regulatory affirmations. To this end, each chapter considers a politics or ethics that is/would be more attentive to the way life is disproportionately arranged in these biocultures, and proposes how we might activate the recognition of death-in-life (the deadly conditions of life-making) as a vehicle for political change. We call for alternative biocultures and biofutures and hope our examples of such possibilities will inspire further activist imagining and intervention.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
We often think of biomedicine and biomedical practices/technologies as unequivocally positive or emancipatory. We want readers to un-learn this idea and walk away with a range of examples of how affirming life through the extension of biomedicine/biomedical logics into everyday life is not neutral or benign. Instead it reproduces highly stratified possibilities for life and forms of death. For example, biomedical targeting in biocultures of race-based health is often cited as a way to ameliorate health disparities and foster the lives of minority populations. We show, however, that this targeting further subjects minorities—and particularly black Americans—to further precarity. Race-specific drugs, such as BiDil, locate pathology in the black body and market a designer drug at high cost to self-identified African Americans as a mode of financial extraction. Race-based medical hot spotting—a practice that uses police surveillance technologies/GIS to locate high-users of the healthcare system to facilitate preemptive care—actually disciplines black subjects and limits their care in order to secure the cost-efficiencies of the US healthcare system. What we see, then, is the curtailing, forestalling, or inhibiting of life through the very biomedical practices that supposedly affirm and foster life.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
As with much of our co-authored work, our main intellectual hero is the French thinker, Michel Foucault. Foucault gives us the conceptual tools to think about forms of governance in our times, modes of resistance, and ethical possibilities for making life better. We’re really interested in the way that Foucault refuses to think about ethics as morals (that is, what we should do), but instead sees ethics as concerning actions and choices about how we want to live in this world, as individuals and collectives: he helps us situate ethical activity as alternative world-making. His ideas guide our scholarship and politics in this book.
We’re also critically informed by a range of radical and creative black thinkers, such as Sylvia Wynter, Orlando Patterson, Ruthie Gilmore, and Katherine McKittrick (among many others), who provide us with the language and tools to think about persistent inequality, enduring systemic violence, and forms of social and literal death. While their work helps us to examine the racial dimensions of deadly life-making, they also inform our analyses more expansively throughout the book: to not simply name injustice but use this critique to imagine and craft new possibilities for our present and future.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
We are centrally committed to reimagining both our immediate political landscape and the path we might forge ahead. Beyond naming the deadly dimensions of life-making within contemporary biocultures, we propose that we must cultivate a politics that is actually attentive to death. By this we mean that we must recognize the nuanced ways that death or death-in-life are products of life-making, and we suggest that such recognition can become a platform for a different ethics or way of living. We explore this idea in each of our chapters. We also examine various overarching ways this politics might proceed: we call for a politics of critical mourning—an active accounting of loss and the connections between neocapitalism and bioinequality; we argue that this mourning must be matched with critique, through relentless contesting of our current regimes of health; and we propose that we must craft new and expansive forms of care, for ourselves and others in order to create new ways to affirm life. We reimagine the affirmation of life as communal, interdependent, and based on shared vulnerability. Ultimately, the deadly effects of the life-making endeavor must inform our counter-politics and our strategies of endurance.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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