International workshop on Biocapital

Ricardo Roque, 12 April 2013

What is “biopolitics” in a self-proclaimed post-colonial age of science, medicine, and global capitalism? What are the forms of value that come into emergence through collecting, accumulating, and exchanging old and new, colonial and post-colonial, biological materials for medical, scientific, or reproductive purposes – blood, eggs, sperm, fat, brains, for example? What is the labour involved in the production of such materials as global forms of biocapital? These questions animated the international workshop Biocapital – Colonial and Post-Colonial Cultures of Science, Labour, and Value held at the Darlington Centre, University of Sydney, on 22 March 2013. The workshop brought together anthropologists, sociologists, and historians of science and medicine from Australia and the US, and it was sponsored by REGS, in partnership with the Gender and Modernity Research Group, the Biopolitics of Science Network, and the Journal of Cultural Economy.
The first set of papers focused on gender and reproductive forms of biocapital. Cathy Waldby (Sydney) opened the floor with a paper on the economy of a scarce reproductive tissue, oocytes, in the context of women’s concerns with the management of biological time and fertility. Nadine Ehlers (Woolongong) followed with a presentation on the new medical and economic value accorded to human fat in breast reconstruction technologies. The discussion of the papers brought to light the problem of state regulation of these biocapital markets and pointed out connections and tensions between scarcity, value, and desire. Kaushik Sunder Rajan (Chicago) then presented his ethnographic work on scandals surrounding clinical trials in India, as a part of a critical project that reconsiders the possibility of recovering the voices and agencies of experimental subjects. Clinical trials were also the theme of Melinda Cooper’s (Sydney) contribution, which analysed the problem of informed consent in HIV drug trials in Thailand and Cambodja, involving sex workers. The two papers motivated a lively discussion about the task of anthropological analysis, the nature of ethnographic authority, the differences and similarities between animal and human experimentation, the concept of imperialism, and on the vulnerability, finally, of experimental subjects in a global arena that may resonate Taussig’s visions of the “space of death”. Sydney sociology students David Factor and Simon Factor then presented their BA Honours thesis researches, on golden rice, agricultural technology, and humanitarianism; and on biotechnology, environment, and the economy of microalgae, respectively. Their presentations stimulated discussion on the links between maritime imperialism and the biotechnological control of the oceans, and between religion and agriculture technology.
The final group of papers focused on collecting and the archiving of frozen biomaterials. Joanna Radin (Yale) explored the blood archives of twentieth-century human biology as a way to discuss the significance of accumulating and studying the blood of so-called “primitive populations” in the context of contemporary cryopolitics. Warwick Anderson (Sydney) took the theme further, proposing to “defrost Derrida” with a reflection about spectrality in biological collections, and the processes through which haunting creates value. Thus haunted by Derrida went the discussion of the papers in which issues of archival techniques, naming, consciousness, and co-production in frozen biological collections were debated. Tony Bennett (Western Sydney) wrapped up the meeting with a commentary highlighting three topics worth pursuing: the circumstances and temporalities from which animal husbandry is transferred to human husbandry; the relations between biocapital and other forms of capital; and finally the problem of waste, how considerations about biocapital also raise the question of the management of biowaste, the biopolitics of what remains.
This intensive workshop thus opened up new venues of reflection on science, capitalism, and biomaterials, and we hope it will pave the way for further work and publications.