Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life

Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

This book represents the first large-scale attempt to analyze the increasingly intense entanglement of global markets with biological life. Though Waldby and Mitchell’s Tissue Economies: Blood, Organs, and Cell Lines in Late Capitalism (2006) addresses the commodification of human biomatter, and a literature documenting the globalized traffic in transplanted organs has grown steadily over the last decade, a critical, in-depth study of the history and economic logic of the biotechnology industry had not appeared prior to this volume. The imperative to commodify what Nikolas Rose has termed “life itself” has, in many popular venues, been represented as a natural development, or “business as usual.” For example, as Sunder Rajan shows, the race to decode the human genome, which was celebrated in the media for its apparently disinterested mission to push scientific frontiers, was animated by competition between public and privately funded research teams.

Sunder Rajan’s work prompts us to think critically about the consequences of the entry of the “life sciences” into the domain of publicly traded corporations. As genetic research increasingly resembles a capital-intensive form of information science, Sunder Rajan argues, the implications are revolutionary for markets as well as medicine. The conflation of economic interests with genomic research represents, in his view, both a case study of capitalist logic and an emerging iteration of capitalism. “Biocapital” is a “new” capitalism, at once familiar and strange, and it is marked, Sunder Rajan insists, by the “implosion of the epistemic and the political economic” (115).

Biocapital turns on the author’s effort to demonstrate that the “epistemic” face of biocapital (e.g., drug company hype, nationalist enthusiasms, new forms of scientific rationality) can only be understood in the context of market forces, where costly – and potentially very lucrative – biocapitalist projects come to life. Sunder Rajan works to show that the biocapitalist “implosion” of these symbolic and material worlds is signaled by the arrival of hybrid forms: the “scientific fact” as it hybridizes with the corporate “future-oriented statement,” for example; or the concept of “market value” as it blurs with the problem of “moral value.” Superficially, these crossover forms may suggest that we are confronting a brave new world whose politics is populated by cyborgs and genetically engineered mutants. However, Sunder Rajan’s claim for the novelty of biocapital seems not completely convincing: without a more rigorous unpacking of the “implosion” he speaks of, it is hard not to read his hypothesis as a rephrased articulation of the Marxist formulation of base and superstructure, which in capitalist society are inseparable. Despite this, Sunder Rajan’s theoretical aim is worthwhile: he is interested in a project that draws on both Marxist analysis and Foucault’s theory of “biopower” – a form of political governance that makes life its object. While these two strains of thought are frequently treated as incompatible, Sunder Rajan unpacks their mutual relevance in the context of interesting “terrains.” (As he notes, Marx was deeply interested in the increasingly intimate relations between technology and the human body under the pressures of industrialization – visible in Capital’s discussion of the extraction of surplus value from the living, breathing worker.)

To document the symbolic and material power of new biocapitalist agendas, Sunder Rajan develops an ethnographically grounded argument that draws on examples found “in the field,” and gives the recent history of the scientific and economic developments that underlie biocapital. Silicon Valley venture capital, for example, not only powered the “dot-com bubble” of the late 1990s, but also provided fuel to genomics projects, some of which garnered scientific credibility and market valorization, while others were undone by scientific or fiscal failure. However, the excitement generated by endeavors like the Human Genome Project has increased the enthusiasm of state funders and private investors, even as the pragmatic applications of genetics research seem distant if not unachievable. This reflects a growing assumption that the domain of “life” – including illness and death – may be brought under technical control, insofar as genetic therapies mitigate and preempt the effects of heritable disease. Indeed, as Sunder Rajan describes in Chapter 4, “Promise and Fetish: Genomic Facts and Personalized Medicine,” life under biocapitalism may, for wealthy patient-consumers, resemble a “business plan” that promises a future of health and hope. Inevitably, this logic also produces populations of “experimental subjects” – human guinea pigs – who absorb biocapital’s risks but not its life-extending benefits.

Sunder Rajan conducted field research in Hyderabad, India, where government funding has established biotech “research parks”; though billed as “venture capital” outfits, these aim to attract outsourced Western research projects. In a too-brief discussion of biocapital’s implications for poor Indian citizens, Sunder Rajan describes a research hospital in Mumbai that often recruits as experimental subjects former millworkers who have lost their jobs as a result of neoliberal reforms. He also spent time at GeneEd, an “e-learning” software company in the San Francisco Bay Area that develops biological content to support teaching and learning inside life science corporations. This field site seems like a strange choice, a step removed from the author’s interest in the relation between biotech companies and pharmaceutical corporations, but the lack of field data may reflect the difficulty of accessing information in this industry, which is known for its paranoid efforts to guard intellectual property against the curiosity of outsiders. Nevertheless, Sunder Rajan is able to flesh out a sense of the transformations of “life, labor, and language” under biocapital by documenting the fallout of GeneEd’s successful marketing to pharmacogenomics interests: the increasing alienation of workers and the corporate leaders’ reification of a quasi-cultish corporate “vision.”

Like many anthropologists, Sunder Rajan is best when attending to the particular: reporting on people, field sites, and events. Biocapital’s broad, heterogeneous theoretical argument does not always receive ethnographic support, and its ambitious sweep will not engage all readers. Nevertheless, the author’s effort to direct critical attention to these phenomena is crucial. As comfortable sounding out the nuances of theoretical keywords as he is in discussing disciplinary developments in pharmacogenomics, Sunder Rajan provides readers in science and technology studies, medical anthropology, and bioethics with an opportunity to place questions about the meaning of genetic research in the context of global economic relations. In so doing, he has not only helpfully framed a set of extremely topical concerns, but has also staked out territory for continued theorization of the complex and ambiguous interface between biology and capital.

Reviewed by Martha Lincoln
Graduate student in Cultural Anthropology
City University of New York
martha.lincoln@gmail.com

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