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Tactical Biopolitics

Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience

by Beatriz da Costa and Kavita Philip, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, UK, 2008
504 pp. Trade, $40.00, £29.95
ISBN: 978-0—262-04249-9.

Reviewed by Craig Hilton
Unitec, New Zealand
Mt Albert, Auckland, New Zealand

“Scientists and engineers, if they care for a better world, must more fully understand the consequences of their actions. Artists must learn more about science…” Charles Taylor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCLA (back cover, Tactical Biopolitics).

Biologist Richard Lewontin (Harvard University), on biosecurity; “What is biosecurity?” (p. 15).

Political scientist Jacqueline Stevens (University of California), on genetic research; It has resulted in “… relentless propaganda reducing human beings to inert matter as stupid and unable to control themselves as molecules of rice protein” (p. 43).

The publication, Tactical Biopolitics, Art activism and Technoscience followed the 2005 BioArt and Public Sphere meeting of artists, biologists, and scholars of both, at the University of California Humanities Research Institute. The stated aims of the meeting were to discuss appropriate models of interdisciplinary engagement that may facilitate informed public debate in scientific discourse, a debate usually reserved for expert communities and to investigate the types of epistemological questions that might emerge at the intersection of art, biology, and the public sphere and what mutual benefits might be gained from such interaction. Discussion was focused on trade and corporate license agreements, biosecurity, biodefense, disease, the pharmaceutical, agricultural, and reproductive health industries.

Tactical Biopolitics has a similar topical breadth and includes essays from biologists, Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, and Jonathon King, Treatment Action Group founder, Mark Harrington, scholar, Donna Haraway, science fiction writer, Gwyneth Jones, anthropologist Paul Rabinow, bioartists, Claire Pentecost, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, and bioart collectives Critical Art Ensemble and SymbioticA. Tactical Biopolitics is not simply a well-edited collection of essays with interesting viewpoints centring on activism. With varying intentions and styles, and only occasional discipline protectionism, the contributors to Tactical Biopolitics strategically intervene across disciplinary boundaries creating new and thought-provoking points of discussion on the politics of scientific expertise. The credit mostly belongs to the editors, Beatrice da Costa and Kavita Philip. Tactical Biopolitics as a whole has no overt agenda other than Tactical Biopolitics. This perhaps allows it to succeed where others have failed.

Addressing the possibilities and associated anxieties that arise from advances in biotechnology and scientific discovery requires the kind of intelligent activism exemplified by Tactical Biopolitics. We are reassured that rigourous scholarship and informed art practice can help address these ongoing issues. When bioartists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr critique genohype and other marketing of technology making a convincing argument that “Life is not a coded program and we are not our DNA” (p. 126), they do so rigourously and from an informed standpoint. This is consistent in both their essays and art practice. The complexities of biology do not neatly fit into any simplistic formula (e.g. a spit jar and associated online genetic testing website, complete with a genetics 101 information tab). This fact may help temporarily satisfy our undying need to be special. However, more importantly, it helps keep us grounded in a climate of DNA technology marketing that both promises and frightens at the same time. These technologies are unlikely to deliver as promised anytime soon —at least not before pigs evolve wings. Recent advances in our understanding of how RNA splice variation and epigenetics can introduce new complexities and subtleties to phenotype continue to seriously challenge any simplistic biological determinist formula. On the other side, many artists and commentators of science remain obsessed with the human genome project and gene therapy, while there is not enough attention given to the very real progress in, for instance, medical genetics.

Speaking of specialness – a thought occurs, can we effectively (tactically) fight for justice while under the delusion that we, as humans and/or individuals, are somehow special? Is it not important that we have a grounded comprehension of diversity and of the strengths and weakness that are embedded in all phenotypes? Open-minded study of the effects of genotype and environment on phenotype can help us understand our place in things. Tactical Biopolitics shows maturity in its even-handedness and objectivity. It is a step in the right direction.

Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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