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Biomedicine in museums

Bioscience communication between Empire (biopower) and multitude

By February 11, 2008No Comments

(Here’s the second fragment of my paper on ‘Science Communication, Blogging, and the Multitude of Technoscience’ for the workshop  ‘Science Communication as the Co-Production of Sciences and Their Publics’ at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm last Friday — for the first fragment, see here).

As science (qua technoscience) is turning into a truly global phenomenon, science communication too is increasingly turning into a practice of national/transnational governance. (The 10th Public Communication of Science and Technology conference to be held in Malmö this summer – enthusiastically supported by the Swedish science council, Vetenskapsrådet – is a case in point.)

Consequently, science communication is gradually becoming integrated into the sum total of institutions and governance structures that regulate the global economy, politics and culture, i.e., what Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri, among others, call ‘Empire´in their post-marxist class theory of the age of globalization (Empire, 2000; downloadable here).

Drawing partly on Hardt and Negri, Sheila Jasanoff has expressed an interest in the rise of new forms of imperial rule and the role of technoscience in global governance. In a recent paper (‘Biotechnology and empire: The global power of seeds and science’, Osiris, 21:273–292, 2006) she suggests that “contemporary biotechnology may be enrolled into empire-making” by means of, for example, “ideological imposition, administrative standardization, and consensual constitutionalism”. In her phrasing: “At present, biotechnology seems more likely to increase the power of metropolitan centers of science and technology than that of people at the periphery” (from abstract).

The counterpart to ’Empire’ in Hardt and Negri’s analysis of the contemporary conditions is ’multitude’ (best exposed in Multitude: war and democracy in the age of Empire, 2004; see also Negri, ‘Approximations: towards an ontological definition of the multitude’). Probably the most innovative aspect of their analysis, ’multitude’ is the post-marxist substitute for the concept of ’working class’, but with a much more inclusive understanding of ’work’, in that it includes also affective labour, the production of life, and symbol production (this is one of the reasons why Marxist thinkers are critical of the ’multitude’ concept). Hardt and Negri understand ’multitude’ an ”an open network of singularities that links together in the basis of the common they share and the common they produce” (p. 129), ”a diffuse set of singularities that produce a common life; it is a kind of social flesh that organizes itself into a new social body” (p. 349). [I will avoid here going into a discussion of ther concept of ’singularity’ which H&N introduce instead on ’individual’].

’Work’ and ’production’ is understood by Hardt and Negri in its most basic sense as ’biopolitical production’, i.e., the creation and re-creation of social relations and life-functions. In their words: “The multitude … most importantly produces cooperation, communication, forms of life, and social relationships” (p. 339). that is, not commodity or service production (and probably not leisure experience production!) – but “the production and re-production of human biological and social life which creates social relationships and forms through collaborative forms of labor” (p. 95).

In contrast, ’biopower’ (a concept inspired by Foucault) in their analysis is the regime that both “threatens us with death but also rules over life, producing and reproducing all aspects of society” (p. 94); it is part and parcel of ”the dominant form of contemporary production, which exerts its hegemony over the others, creates ‘immaterial goods’ such as ideas, knowledge, forms of communication, and relationships” (p. 94).

To Jasanoff (2006), recent activist protests against transnational biotechnology corporations seem to ”epitomize Hardt and Negri’s thesis about an emerging, assertive, global multitude”. For example, in a number of anti-GM-food episodes in the last ten years “representatives of a loosely networked global citizenry asserted their right to debate technological futures in terms other than those conventionally used by nation-states and their expert advisers: the formal discourses of law, molecular biology, economics, risk assessment, and bioethics. At stake was who had power to determine how much global harmonization there should be and which scientific, technological, and economic innovations should be allowed to diffuse throughout the world” (Jasanoff 2006: 284).

My point is that science communication is squarely placed in the center of these and similar events: between ’biopower’ (which includes what Novas and Rose (2005) call the formation of ’biocitizenship’) and what Jasanoff calls ”the resisting multitude”. It is not difficult to give examples of media that partake in the formation of contemporary ’biocitizenship’ by transmitting ”the formal discourses of law, molecular biology, economics, risk assessment, and bioethics”; in fact, most of current ‘science communication’ seems to by subsumed under the logic of Empire.

(Tomorrow, I will continue with the third and last fragment of my Stockholm presentation — on science blogging)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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