“Living Differently in Time”

I found Hannah Landecker’s article “Living Differently in Time” a pleasurable and interesting read. There are two very distinct sections in this article, and while I found both useful, the turn to the ethnographic section felt a little disjointed to me at first. It is, however, a pretty good model on how to rework research plans when you are unable to get the data you want or expect. Landecker describes her initial plan for the ethnographic section of the piece (and how/why this plan did not match up with the reality- Landecker wanted to interview tissue culturists about something they were completely uninterested in- how the adjective “human” was applied to different biological materials). Landecker then goes on to give an intriguing close reading of her interview with what seems to be an “old school” tissue culturist. Even though her research plans were initially thwarted, Landecker reworked her plan to utilize one of her interviews anyway.

To me, the most interesting part of the ethnographic section was the discussion of generationality among tissue culturists (and how it ends up relating to the commodification of biologicals such as cell lines). The interview subject, whom Landecker refers to as Rita Elliot, displayed strong feelings about the propriety of her techniques in culturing cells, and lamented the sloppy techniques and attitudes of the new kids on the (cellular culturing) block- biochemists and molecular biologists. One of Elliot’s main critiques of her colleagues in biochemistry and molecular biology is their view of cells as “reagents” rather than “complex living entities.” For Elliot, this view is exemplified by their lack of foresight and particularity of technique in storing, saving, and caring for their cell lines. Landecker draws this critique together with the specific commodification (by companies like the Cambrex Corporation) of chemicals and biologicals- blurring the line between the two. As Landecker puts it, “For my interlocutor, trained a generation ago in the specialized and demanding task of actually coaxing cells to live in the laboratory after excising them from the guts of laboratory animals such as rats or dogs, cell lines come first packaged as organs in organisms. For many others, these days, cell lines come as small ampoules in a Fedex package, smoking with dry ice.”

The article shares a concern in temporality and an ethnographic approach with some of our other readings this week.  Landecker tracks the “practical, material genealogies” of cellular manipulation, or engages in “technique-watching.” Landecker uses this focus on the development of techniques and technologies to illustrate the relationship between material, technological advances and the emergence of (bio)ethical and (biopolitical) theoretical debates. I think this is a valuable line of enquiry. By highlighting an object like the freezer–and showing how this technology (and the ability to freeze living cells) was a necessary development–for the complicated processes of cloning or stem cell research, Landecker  grounds discussions of biotechnologies in material developments. This allows her to unpack the generally passionate cries concerning biotech’s affect on humanity by inserting “an interim step”: “the usual formula, ‘biotechnology changes what it is to be human,’ should have an interim step in it in order to understand this process in any detail: ‘biotechnology changes what it is to be biological.’ This interim step… is key to understanding the specificity of ‘life’ after biotechnology rather than ‘life’ after nineteenth century physiology.”

It is clear that Landecker does not want to dismantle or dismiss discussions about how biotechnologies affect humans or the perception of human life, she does, however, want to ground these discussions in material developments and give a more nuanced account of how changes in conceptions of life come about. One unexpected way to do so is to track how researchers in differing generations and specialties conceptualize cell lines.

My favorite passage (on temporality):

“All this screwy generationality, the novel simultaneities, the gaps of time between the death of one generation and birth of another with a suspension of continuity between them, all of these deeply unsettling temporal disruptions depend to some degree on the rather banal presence of a working deep freeze…to be biological, alive, cellular, also means (at present) to be a potential ‘age chimaera,’ to be suspendable, interruptible, storable, freezable in parts.”

I wonder how the very material “screwy generationality” of cell lines and tissues could be related to the theoretical concepts of queer generationality or queer temporality. I am thinking specifically of Sedgwick’s discussion in “Paranoid vs. Reparative Reading” but I know there is more work in these areas I could mine. It might be a weird connection to make, but my mind went there- if anyone has any thoughts on that (or anything else from the article) let me know!



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