In early 2015, a Fedex package arrived at the studio of artist/scientist Heather Dewey-Hagborg. It contained only a sample of hair and cheek swabs. She extracted DNA material from the samples and ran it through a sophisticated set of technologies called forensic DNA phenotyping, a technique increasingly used by private laboratories to assist in criminal investigations, genomics companies in determining one's predilection for disease, and law enforcement in establishing DNA profiles of suspects. This would enable her to, after analyzing protein assays and sequencing genes associated with distinctive features such as hair color and ethnicity, create a close likeness to the owner of DNA: Chelsea Manning.
The resulting portraits evoke an eerie sense of dread: Manning—who is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence for giving Wikileaks an enormous pile of diplomatic cables and government documents related to the Iraq War—has not been seen by the public since her arrest in 2010. (After a vigorous campaign on her behalf, President Obama commuted her sentence just before he left office, moving up her release to May.) As Manning told Cory Doctorow in an interview for Boing Boing:
"Our society's dependence on imagery says a lot about our values. Unfortunately, prisons try very hard to make us inhuman and unreal by denying our image, and thus our existence, to the rest of the world. Imagery has become a kind of proof of existence. Just consider the online refrain 'pics or it didn't happen.'"
This wasn't just a statement about the physicality of bodies, but the way they are identified. Manning has transitioned from male to female since her detention began in 2010. For Dewey-Hagborg's project, called "Radical Love," the artist created an algorithmically generated gender neutral portrait and a portrait that had been "gendered" female, in order to highlight the problem of using birth-assigned sex to also assign gender.
"The exhibition of both these possible faces side by side draws attention to the problem of utilizing chromosomes or birth assigned sex to assign gender as well as a larger issue of what it means to rely on stereotyped ideas of what a gendered face is 'supposed' to look like," Dewey-Hagborg wrote in a text accompanying the work.
Typically, we think of sex and gender as representing stable, fundamental differences, and assume that biological sex is part of an independently existing "nature" with invariant properties. Dewey-Hagborg's DNA portraits of Manning attempt to demonstrate that the "objective" concept of gender is fundamentally social, ambiguous and context-dependent. The viewer struggles to resolve the sex of person in the portraits, an experience similar to binocular rivalry.
"Bodies," writes Cyborg Manifesto author Donna Haraway, "are not born; they are made…The various contending biological bodies emerge at the intersection of biological research, writing, and publishing; medical and other business practices; cultural productions of all kinds, including available metaphors and narratives; and technology."
The Art of Biology
Dewey-Hagborg is among a group of artists who are using DIY-created hormones, DNA, and advanced computing technology to directly confront the turbulent forces that claim a monopoly on the future of our biology—the political, corporate and academic. They not only critique existing scientific and political structures, but also produce a deeper scientific knowledge in the process, revealing how interpretive, mutable, and context-dependent our genetics are.
"What I am interested in," Heather Dewey-Hagborg tells me, "is an art which explicitly engages the biopolitical context with an aim to undermining, resisting, or subverting the aspects of it that are, to use Foucault's phrasing, most dangerous at any particular moment."
It was the French philosopher Michel Foucault who introduced the word "biopower" during his famous lectures at the College de France in 1976 that were later published as the book Society Must Be Defended . Biopower in Foucault's theory refers to the ability of the state to regulate and control us—as a population—by optimizing our economic productivity or controlling the conditions of life. "The role of political power," he wrote, "is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals."
Foucault contrasted biopower with the sovereign power of the state to kill its own citizens: scientific knowledge of sex and biology can increase control over individuals, not necessarily destroy them. Biopower can, for instance, include forcing people to live in cases where death may be considered more humane, and the control of sexual relationships. Foucault emphasized that wherever power arises, so too does resistance to it.
Biopower in Foucault's theory refers to the ability of the state to regulate and control us—as a population—by optimizing our economic productivity or controlling the conditions of life.
In the US in particular, affordable access to high-quality birth control is in the year 2017 still controversial, and efforts by the new president and Congress could make that access harder. At the same time, evidence of psychological harm from the disruption of hormonal regulation that estrogen-based contraceptives cause is growing. The pill has been linked to depression and is said to worsen existing depression in young women. Generally, the various ways that different women respond to hormones remain little understood.
For artists Mary Tsang and Byron Rich, these issues prompted a project they call "open source estrogen," which aims to develop DIY methods for synthesizing estrogen for oral contraception. The "creation of open source estrogen is more like throwing a wrench, destabilizing the current system of estrogen production, giving us imaginative space to critique the powers at play," Tsang says.
Ingesting estrogen in pill form for birth-control or hormone therapy is not the only way to disrupt your endocrine system. Industrial pollution causes widespread and sometimes hazardous exposure to myriad hormonally active compounds. Tsang and Rich have developed DIY biosensors for detecting estrogen in urine, waterways, and the environment in general.
Chemical waste from industrial pollution is increasing the amount of environmental estrogen, known as xenoestrogens, a byproduct of plastics and many common mass-produced objects. Mounting evidence indicates that hormonally active compounds from industrial pollution in our water and food supply are disrupting human hormonal regulation, with possibly dangerous consequences like a potential decrease in human fertility and an increase in cancer risk. Non-human bodies like fish and amphibians have it even worse.
The artists also explore the idea of do-it-yourself hormone therapy, intended to provoke a discussion about limited access to such treatment. For trans people in the US, as in much of the world, finding a clinic that offers hormonal treatment or even a doctor willing or able to help can be expensive and difficult. After the Army refused to provide hormone therapy for Chelsea Manning's gender transition, she was forced to sue the US Army to obtain it, claiming she had been denied access to "medically necessary treatment" for her gender transformation. If she can't be given the therapy she needs, could someone like Manning at least be given the tools to make her own hormones?
"For me," says Rich, "the absurdly restrictive regulation of hormone therapy points to a culture that is still firmly patriarchal, adhering to norms that don't reconcile with the biological science of gender."
The "open source estrogen" project imagines such a possibility. The associated film by Rich and Tsang shows a man who is in gender transition in the kitchen illustrating the steps for making estrogen at home—just like Martha Stewart might explain how to bake the perfect muffins. It's a subversive commentary on the intersection of ecological destruction, body politics and governance, but it's also a kind of prototype: In practice, making hormones at home could soon be feasible, a matter of education and access to the right instruments.
The medical use of sex hormones for people with trans identities raises important and perhaps paradoxical questions about whether transgender and transex individuals have a disorder that needs hormone treatment. These communities have been struggling to gain acceptance, equal rights and to lose the stigma of being somehow pathological. In this context, hormone treatment becomes a complicated issue as the question becomes; treatment for what?
Bob Ostertag's book Sex, Science, Self tackles the complex social history of sex hormones, LGBTQ rights, estrogen and testosterone. Pharmaceutical companies who own the patents on pharmaceutical hormones have spent millions marketing the claims that these substances are the basis of masculinity and femininity. But the effectiveness of estrogen and testosterone is based on scientific evidence that can only be called shaky at best.
"The hardest part would be extraction and purification of the hormones," Josiah Zayner, a bioengineering scientist and research fellow at NASA Ames Research Center, told Motherboard in 2015.
As the the practice of biohacking becomes more widespread, there could be legal backlashes however. Germany recently announced that it was cracking down on DIY genetic engineering outside of "licensed laboratories." The practice has always been illegal, but the German government felt compelled to reiterate the fact that DIY genetic engineering without a licence is punishable by jail time and a hefty fine.
This again raises the question of who has the right to this knowledge, who is allowed to engage in genetic engineering? Who owns and controls our own genes?
We might consider an historical parallel in alchemy, which was also illegal until the time of Isaac Newton. While alchemy is today considered unscientific, several alchemy techniques were precursors to modern chemical engineering—and Medieval DIY alchemists were often successful forgers and counterfeiters. Medieval rulers apparently used alchemists to debase their own coinage and didn't want anyone else to be able to do the same - which is why it was illegal.
The Promise and Perils of Biotechnology
Foucault's book Discipline and Punish is widely regarded as the foundational text for the critique of the surveillance state, he could have scarcely imagined the speed and pervasiveness with which the technology of bio-force has spread throughout society in the 21st century. In his work, Foucault seized upon the metaphor of the Panopticon, a design for a prison by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham that allowed a single guard in the center to be able to see all prisoners at all times, without the prisoners knowing if they were being watched.
As David Wood writes in Surveillance and Society, "Panopticism, the social trajectory represented by the figure of the Panopticon, the drive to self-monitoring through the belief that one is under constant scrutiny, thus becomes both a driving force and a key symbol of the modernist project." In the era of mobile devices and untold numbers of sensors measuring our behavior, self-monitoring has been driven to new extremes under the banner of the "quantified self."
As Foucault predicted, the Panopticon isn't something that's done to us; we are willingly walking ourselves into it. While prisoners like Manning may suffer the explicit restrictions of the state, biopower operates in much subtler ways in our own lives. The impulse to use digital devices to track your diet, your mood, your spending habits, your blood sugar, your urine, and your movements is a form of self-auditing—you can now provide the authorities a complete history of your own body in numbers.
The Panopticon isn't something that's done to us; we are willingly walking ourselves into it.
On the other hand, the historical management of and obsession with bodies—particularly pertaining to reproduction (female bodies) and sexual identities (intersex, hermaphrodites, and transsexual bodies) and racial ones (from slavery to biased policing)—are still pervasive in modern society.
Consider this scenario outlined by the Council for Responsible Genetics:
"You are between the ages of 18 and 35 and live in a city, town or neighborhood where a homicide has occurred. A police officer comes to your home and requests a cheek swab of your saliva so that a DNA profile can be obtained. You are told that the purpose of obtaining your DNA is to exclude you as a suspect. This is what is known as a DNA dragnet to find the perpetrator of a crime. You are told that you have the right to refuse but if you do, the police will treat you as a potential suspect. You are not told anything about what will happen to your DNA profile and the biological sample from which it is drawn after the case is closed."
According to Foucault, not only is control exercised through "objective" knowledge of individuals—for example, medical records—but it also manifests itself as individuals' knowledge of themselves. We are controlled not only as objects of disciplines, he argues, but also as self-scrutinizing and self-forming subjects. We internalize notions of what is "normal" and attempt to conform to these norms. We have adopted the relationship of external control and force within and with our own bodies. And yet all our knowledge still depends on our own senses, as Nobel laureate and quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger said, "the most careful record, if not inspected, tells us nothing."
The question is who will be inspecting the records and for what purpose? How will corporations and political institutions exploit our willingness to record and quantify our every movement? How will other individuals do the same?
We are extending our influence over the molecular level, too. Scientists are now able to edit the source code of life, directly programming DNA through a technology called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, better known as CRISPR Cas9 or "gene editing." The benefits of our increasing understanding of the molecular level of life are myriad: personalised treatments for cancers that were once a certain death sentence, gene therapy that appears to slow neuron death in Alzheimer's disease, and even gene-based regenerative healing of wounds. Our ability to understand how medicines actually impact patients in real life is enhanced by data provided by mobile technology.
However, scientific and medical progress does not occur in a social, political and economic vacuum. The context in which these amazing technologies are developed shapes their nature and uses. As inspiring as the benefits of molecular technology are, the dark side of biocontrol is equally terrifying.
"The idea of letting some men meddle with mankind just because they have a smattering of genetics is too silly for words."
Governments could, for example, acquire the ability to genetically engineer soldiers—something straight out of bad action movies. DARPA is of course obsessed with human enhancement for military purposes. This is also the goal of the transhumanists who seek to transcend the limits of being human—their übermenschlich desire is to use biotechnology to create a new species of being with vastly superior intelligence, strength and morality.
Anticipating today's transhumanists during the dawn of the genetic age in 1969, philosopher of science Karl Popper remarked in a lecture:
"I regard the dreams of the eugenicists to improve the human population by genetic engineering as preposterous. Of course, I do not object to gentle measures designed to reduce hereditary diseases. But who is to judge what is good for mankind in the positive sense? Who is to be the judge of what will be better and better hereditary types? Who can foresee the conditions in which these types would be better types than others? The idea of letting some men meddle with mankind just because they have a smattering of genetics is too silly for words."
The ideology of management and control is already expressed in DNA databases, surveillance cameras, drones, and the mobile devices that surround and watch us via web tracking and targeted ads. There are fewer and fewer physical and virtual spaces in which we can hide our bodies from the endless need of corporate and state institutions to monitor us and influence our behavior. Simply by using the internet, we inadvertently give enormous amounts of data to corporations that collude with state actors who desire to attain a kind of omniscience about our individual lives and intentions. Algorithms now secretly monitor the sentiments in our emails at work and then send that data to our bosses.
Meanwhile, biotechnology has become increasingly invasive. The day is not far off when tiny implantable sensors, ostensibly implanted to protect our health by collecting data, will become commonplace.
Biotechnology driven by power enhances the ability of institutions to conduct politics as a continuation of war. But it is more insidious because it is often presented to us as "caring surveillance" or "protective surveillance." Clinical trials will soon involve continuous monitoring of patients through the use of thousands of sensors in the home and on the body. The fundamental need for us to form a critical perspective on biopower is brought into sharp relief by this tension: biotechnology offers the promise to cure disease, improve healthcare and help the weak. But this technology will also give the state, the corporation and the military ever more sophisticated tools with which to track, monitor and control us.
Biopower to the People
But can this biopower be inverted? Can we hack and own our biodata? Can we wrest control of our biology and political destiny? The concept of creating a "coveillant" society through the systematic use of surveillance technology to observe the very institutions who watch over us, promises to turn the tables on biopower. Our ability to co-opt surveillance technology for our own purposes is becoming cheaper and easier. The inexorable march of open-source movements has attained critical mass. Advanced biotechnology is becoming cheaper and easier to use. But is this the only form of resistance? Tsang, Rich and Dewey-Hagborg think we need an ideological shift away from the worship and glorification of biotechnology, and this can be achieved only through cultural subversion.
Chelsea Manning's story is a reminder of why that subversion is important, a cautionary tale about how mercilessly power reacts when an individual challenges sacred structures too head on and in isolation.
In September of 2016, Manning was punished with solitary confinement for attempting suicide at Fort Leavenworth. In an unintentionally Foucauldian statement, the prison administration ruled that by attempting to take her own life she had interfered with the "orderly running, safety, good order and discipline, or security" of the facility. This is despite the fact that research has shown that solitary confinement dramatically increases the risk of suicide in prisoners. In 2012, the UN called the prison's treatment of Manning "cruel and inhuman"; during the campaign for her clemency, Manning's lawyers contended that the Army continued to force Manning to live in worsening conditions.
Suicide, in this context, becomes the ultimate protest and liberation, providing at least an escape from the absolute authority and control the government has claimed over her rights, her gender, and her body.
Foucault was himself no stranger to activism and was arrested several times. But Chelsea Manning's actions embody the struggles and forces about which Foucault spent his entire career thinking and writing: micro-violence, the arbitrariness of categories, the ideology of scientific neutrality, and the management of historical narratives by those in power. By directly challenging the US-dominated narrative about its wars with empirical facts and with her very own transition, Manning put herself on the frontline of this struggle largely alone. The hysterical way in which intuitions of power reacted reveals, among other things, the philosophical fragility and deep insecurity of that power.
As a whistleblower seeking to expose the duplicity and cruelty of the United States government, and as a transgender woman, Manning is at a nexus of currents within Foucault's biopower. Manning's quest to live true to herself has become a direct challenge to the absolute authority of US military, which demands total obedience among its service members, especially regarding war-related information. Manning does not take the proclaimed morality of the United States for granted. And by undergoing gender transformation while imprisoned, and engaging in a hunger strike in order to obtain gender transition surgery, Manning also challenged the techno-scientific narrative of the US Army, to whom concepts of gender are binary and given by nature. The military only lifted the ban on transgender people in the armed services in July.
Manning is a sign of the extremes of biopower. Here she shares a lot in common with the artists, whose work is aimed at making that power more apparent to people, and undermining falsely binary categories, like "male or female," "traitor or patriot," "artist or scientist." By using scientific techniques to question the very social contexts in which these scientific techniques were developed, the scientists do something akin to Manning's initial act of protest: exposing the social and political forces that shape people's bodies as much as data, theories, and policies do.
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