Biopower, Dignity, Synthetic Anthropos

Whatever the terms “biopower” and “biopolitics” might mean, and they are being used in a growing number of simplistic ways, most of which bear scant relation to how Michel Foucault deployed them. Foucault’s genealogical elaboration of these terms had been conceptual, historical and non-totalizing. Above all, Foucault deployed concepts like “biopower” or “governmentality” in a mode that was expressively capable of recursive rectification. These concepts were to be used and refashioned as necessary. They were part of a History of the Present that was a preliminary effort to open up possibilities of more precise and pertinent thinking and inquiry. Foucault’s concepts were neither naming a unique deep meaning of Western or world history nor uncovering the nefarious workings of “governmentality” understood as social control. Foucault’s concepts were tools to think with — not verities that encouraged people to stop thinking, inquiring, examining their own thought and action.

There are striking similarities between Foucault’s use of genealogy in the History of the Present and Max Weber’s understanding of objectivity in the human sciences. Weber’s directive to those practicing the interpretive human sciences was to shift from attempts to characterize the “actual interconnections of things,” to those directed at distinguishing “the conceptual interconnections of problems.” By so doing, he counseled, there would be a better opportunity for “opening up significant new points of view.” Once such significant new points of view were forged, then sustained inquiry, both historical and anthropological, was the challenge to be met. For both Weber and Foucault, conceptual work on problems was the beginning of experimentation and research rather than a way to avert it.

This spirit and this orientation animated the work of the Human Practices Thrust at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC). We oriented our efforts toward diagnosing what we took to be an emergent assemblage, approached from the vantage point of two stable apparatuses. The two apparatuses were “biopower” and “human dignity.” Initially we designated the assemblage as “the vital.” Our aim was to characterize zones, such as bio-security and bio-ethics, in which elements of the two apparatuses were being recombined as well as interfacing with and contributing to the formation of a third. We understood them as consisting of quite specific, if heterogeneous elements, such as objects and practices, elements in flux, in the course of re-assemblage.

Once we began sustained conceptual work, after multiple delays and blockages, however, we concluded that it was currently premature to diagnose a new “problematization” or “diagram” or “rationality.” First, it became clear that what each of these terms means is far from clear. Second, we came to think that while major changes in diverse empirical domains were unquestionably underway, it was not at all obvious that they had taken anything like a general or definitive form. Furthermore, we concluded that it was conceptually hazardous to assume that they ever would. Having reached an impasse, we decided to change strategies by shifting registers. Here Weber’s counsel was invaluable: pay attention to the conceptual interconnection of problems as a means of opening up significant new points of view that would orient us to inquiry.

Unlike the question of what comes “after” biopower, however, the challenge of specifying the vectors and contours of an uncertain problem-space is a pressing preliminary. Consequently, we decided to return to our site of inquiry. We shifted our efforts back to the challenge of figuring out how best to comprehend, invent, and practice the work we were mandated to take up as part of SynBERC. Given that choice, we decided that the next critical step was to construct a diagnostic. This diagnostic work should assist us in experimenting with and adjusting practices in our particular project, but should leave open the broader issue of whether or not a distinctive figure is emerging within and along side of existing figures, as responses to and factors in shifts in a larger problematization.

The diagnostic is composed of three figures and their equipmental correlates. The three figures in our diagnostic include two well recognized, if often misinterpreted figures, Biopower and Human Dignity, and an emerging constellation of elements that are being brought into relation to one another and may well be coalescing into a third figure. Provisionally, we name this emergent configuration Synthetic Anthropos. The term Synthetic Anthropos is a placeholder. It draws attention to the ways in which real-world problems are being taken up through redesign and reconfiguration so as to produce significant new forms. Examples of this work include synthetic biology, bio-complexity, and bio-security, to name three sites where re-assemblage of elements is underway.

As of 2009, in light of our initial experimentation, we are taking up synthetic anthropos less as an actual figure coalescing in the world, and more as a virtual figure in need of form. As a virtual figure, synthetic anthropos functions as a series of scientific and ethical design parameters and modes of composition. The design parameters facilitate critique and construction by throwing into relief externalities and critical limitations, and by showing where and how those externalities and critical limitations are contributing to scientific indeterminacy and ethical discordancy, to use John Dewey’s terms. They facilitate clarification, more precise adjacency, and a sharper orientation to secession in relation to existing configurations of indeterminacy and discordancy. Most importantly, they facilitate the work of re-imagining and re-constructing pathways toward better equipment and better venues.

For the time being, synthetic anthropos consists of a design challenge set within a compositional mode. In a compositional mode, the design parameters of synthetic anthropos should facilitate the work of transforming our lessons learned into modules suitable for new equipment. Subsequently, it should enable us to synthesize those modules into a more productive practice. To this end, our immediate priority consists less of discovering synthetic anthropos as an object of study, and more about rendering synthetic anthropos as an object of composition, with all that entails — above all — the challenge of constructing a venue capable of facilitating such work. In short, today we are in search of the elements, relations, objects and modes required compositionally for synthetic anthropos. We are in search of Ars Synthetica.

7 comments to Biopower, Dignity, Synthetic Anthropos

  • Gary Comstock

    [This reply by George Marcus is posted by the editor on his behalf.]

    I am totally sympathetic with Paul’s methodological or metamethodological innovations. He is working from inside a sometimes very formal remaking of modes of inquiry that he has forged over the last decade through his researches in science studies. In his current work within the space provided for ethics/social effects discussion by ‘big’ science projects in synthetic biology, Paul is trying to define the terms for a more critical and open kind of social inquiry against the perceived or expected limits of this function within these projects. Leaving the terms of classic ethnography behind, but continuing on fully in its spirit, Paul has forged an analytic apparatus to encourage critical thinking within domains where the terms of discourse about the social are constrained. His derivations from Foucualt, Dewey, and others can read like code in the effort to define his own analytics. An access to how his efforts at concept work engages with the more recognizable anthropological tradition of critical ethnography can be had in conversations between Paul, myself, James Faubion, and Tobias Rees, published as Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke University Press.

    – George Marcus, University of California, Irvine

  • anon

    While the author purports to open up a dialogue with the general public, through Ars Synthetica as well as this post, the writing here strikes me less as an invitation to conversation and more as an attempt to limit access to the conversation by employing an impenetrable fortress of technical language at the boundaries.

    Bio-ethics concern issues for everyone (anyone) to engage with, and the further we develop the capacity to intervene in the human body — altering our own lives and the lives of others — or create new, “designed” living things, the more complicated these issues will seem.

    Developing a capacity through clear thinking and unadorned language to engage a broader spectrum of the public truly will be a public service.

  • Hey, great post, very well written. You should blog more about this.

  • I can sympathize with the second commentator’s frustration at what could understandably be seen as an element of posturing in Paul’s post, but I think Paul is actually raising some very interesting points. Two in particular strike me as worthy of further reflection.

    The first concerns temporality. I’m reminded of Robyn Wiegman’s work on a feminism “in the meantime” – Paul’s comments very much resist closure in term of a temporal endpoint. That’s one way I can read the emphasis on “composition,” and it is one way he makes use of the notion of the virtual.

    The second point I find fascinating is that I think what Paul is pushing toward here is the question of a methodology for theorization, not data-gathering (the typical object towards which the concept of methodology is oriented).

    I look forward to learning more about this interesting work!

  • Paul Rabinow

    Thanks for the comment.
    We have two other web sites of interest:,, the former has multiple articles and talks on it, the latter is still in progress but is worth a look. The web designer is Adrian van Allen.

    The habitual trope of my so-called lack of the empirical is amusing. Please consult either my last few books (often accused of being too empirical and technical e.g. “A Machine to make a future”) or any of the websites for scores of contributions based in inquiry and current problems.
    Gaymon Bennett and I have a book online at Rice University Press on Ars Synthetica.
    In any case, happy you are reading or at least scavenging as Jim Clifford used to say.

  • Paul Rabinow

    There is a real dilemma that we have encountered time and time again. Molecular biology is totally impenetrable to those who do not understand what a “ribosome binding site” might be but no one complains about that. But expecting readers to have some background knowledge in the human sciences is always policed, often by people who write jargon filled articles themselves. In a short piece what is one to do? We have been told many times by the molecular biologists that they don’t understand (and basically don’t care). Others want simple answers to complicated questions. There must be a space in which we are not only allowed but expected to use analytic terms with some precision. This entails being able to take for granted some literacy. Otherwise….

    In Sloterdijk’s controversial lecture on “Rules of the Human Park” all the attention went to an imagined controversy about cloning and the like. The more interesting part of the lecture was about the future of the humanities. Without an exchange of letters among friends (past, present, future) there are no humanities. Letters of course is not taken literally. As the pressure to blog becomes the pressure to tweet becomes the pressures to emote is enabled by more and more devices and opinion makers, the space for more sustained thought and discussion is not eliminated but marginalized. Combine this with the expected virulent American anti-intellectualism and we all know what you get. In fact we don’t all know as historical memory is short and thin.