Lock, “The Alienation of Body Tissue and the Biopolitics of Immortalized Cell Lines”

Based on Lock’s citations of her own work among her References, it seems as though she does work on race and gender in health and biomedical processes (for example, “organ transplants and the reinvention of death,” which is the subtitle of one of her books).  She is a cultural anthropologist at McGill University in Montreal.

Though Lock surprisingly doesn’t cite Foucault in any of her discussion of the “biopolitics” of cell lines, her discussion nevertheless seems to offer many connections to other authors we’ve read this semester.

Like many of the other authors this week, Lock is also concerned with the patenting of human “biologicals” through intellectual property laws.  In this article, she focuses on the colonialist relations activated in “bioprospecting” genes from indigenous populations (note: whereas Hayden is concerned with “bioprospecting” local knowledge of medicinal plants, Lock is concerned with the capture of “exotic” tissue samples and genetic information; 64).

My primary question about this piece is: Does this seeking out and patenting biological material from indigenous populations require that we rethink Agamben’s discussion of encampment and homo sacer, or Mbembe’s necropolitics?

  • Lock makes clear that the desire to obtain biological materials from particular populations is deeply intertwined with colonialism: first, these populations and their genetic material are seen as “exotic” or “endangered,” evincing a sort of recognition on the part of scientists that these communities have been condemned to the “slow death” Povinelli discusses (79: Lock says, “although their blood was going to be immortalized, they themselves were to be allowed to continue on the road to extinction”).  Furthermore, Lock notes that these “unique communities” were created through colonialism (80).
  • these communities are additionally being condemned to slow death through their inability to access potential treatments based on their genes; they won’t be able to afford such treatments (74-75).
  • prospecting practices conceptualize indigenous people as vessels of DNA, as human specimens, “as items from our uncivilized past” reducing them to a sort of homo sacer, as beings stripped of a full “right to life,” valuable only as vessels of biological material (78).

It’s clear from Lock’s discussion that in the case of this sort of bioprospecting, race continues to operate as a “caesura,” as Foucault says, encouraging scientists to think of “exotic” populations as readily available for harvesting genetic information without their consent.  Their biological material is being used in experiments that will benefit wealthy, white people while they—as repositories of “exotic” genetic material—are regarded as less than worthy of these technologies for optimizing life.

Nevertheless, it feels like there may be something more complicated about the “necropolitics” of this situation given scientists’ idea that the genes of indigenous people may contain a secret to optimize life.  Furthermore, Lock notes a few examples of the anxieties of “animation” of organs donated from donors whose race, gender, and social status differs from that of recipients (72)…  ( I apologize, I’m having a really difficult time articulating my question here.)

Maybe another important question to ask is: How do scientists use such genetic material to develop pharmaceutical therapies? In Hayden’s article, I assumed scientists were trying to identify the healing properties of plants so they could replicate those properties in pill form.  From Lock’s comments on 88, it sounds like scientists are looking for genetic resistance to certain viruses and diseases among these genetically “unique populations” in the interest of reproducing those genetic adaptations for other (white) populations who haven’t developed that adaptation.  Yet when Lock discusses “designer drugs” (77), I assumed she was indicating that scientists are trying to map the genetic susceptibility to certain diseases showing up in indigenous populations (diseases whose genetic manifestations may be obscured in populations assumed to be more genetically diverse?) in the interest of developing targeted solutions to the identified genetic “malformations.”


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