Hacking Riffs on Rabinow

Ian Hacking has a very nice essay, that you can now download for free here, in the Fall 2006 issue of Daedalus. The essay sketches some recent trends in the new genetics, mostly taking its cue from Rabinow’s coinage of the term ‘biosociality.’

‘Biosocial’ is a new word, but its pedigree, although brief, is the best. Paul Rabinow, the anthropologist of the genome industry, wrote about ‘biosociality’ in 1992. He invented the word partly as a joke, to counter the sociobiology that had been fashionable for some time.

Hacking’s piece is an essay, and something of an exchange (Rabinow has put Hacking’s memorable phrase ‘representation and intervention’ to good use over the years) — so it doesn’t get bogged down in too many details. The main gist is that while sociobiology is out, the social fact of biology is in: reflexive genetic knowledge is more and more shaping the way that people imagine themselves and their relations. He touches on new developments in the science of ‘race,’ developments that my friend Duana Fullwiley calls ‘the molecularization of race.’ And he mentions Beck (‘risk’) and Fukuyama (‘transhumanism’) on the human future. The essay ends with a thought provoking vignette:

Last year, I agreed to give a talk for an adult-education series run by a good university department. Its main customers are alert retired people. The format was monthly discussions on the topic of ‘the person.’ My title was “People and Cyborgs.” When I arrived, the organizers were astonished to see a far larger audience than usual. Many of the newcomers were not in their seventies but in their thirties–well-dressed, courteous, but, well, different. The man whose job was to keep the event running smoothly happened to be a gay friend. I thought he might know who the newcomers were. “No idea,” he said quietly, “but perhaps they are from the liberal community.”
…After quoting Fukuyama, I then asked the people in the room, “What do you think is the most dangerous idea around today?” I received the expected answers from people my age: genetically modified food and so forth. Then a young woman said very quietly, “The idea that we should not evolve.” I would have said she was an impeccably groomed woman of about thirty, of Chinese ancestry, her accent standard Ontario well-educated. I ought to have been prepared, for I had given a more highbrow talk with a similar theme in Montreal a few weeks earlier. There, a young black man asked me very strong direct questions in standard educated French. I was later told he was an officer in the local transhumanist society.

As the discussion proceeded with various members of the audience, the penny dropped more slowly than it should have. Half the population in this audience already knew all about transhumanism. ‘Cyborg’ had been my unwitting bait. Moreover, a fair number of them had chosen their identities–in some cases, perhaps only for the day. I, the bland permissive liberal, became more and more uncomfortable. I realized how much I depend on knowing to whom I am speaking. I had no reason to think that the respondent was female, thirty, or Chinese. Yet, I wanted to know ‘who’ she was–and the same for a number of others.

But they were rejecting that question. Refusing to choose a society or a biology, they were denying in every gesture the very concept of a biosocial identity.