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Politics and the Biosciences

experimental sciences, insular Politics and the Biosciences Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life by Kaushik Sunder Rajan; Duke University Press, Durham, 2006; pp xi+342, price not stated.

sciences are no longer just hypothesisbased experimental sciences, insular

Politics and the Biosciences

silent work following some version of

Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life

by Kaushik Sunder Rajan; Duke University Press, Durham, 2006; pp xi+342, price not stated.


he impulse to archive is a pronounced phenomenon among hominids, the “human” ancestors. The archival impulse is in essence the enigmatic desire of a certain life form to exemplify, to demonstrate or to externalise its bodily impulses beyond their somatic function. It is the impulse to go beyond or escape the finitude of the material body. The archive can be said to lure the body persistently toward this terminus of eternity. Yet, can the archive exhaust or determine the generative radicality or the “an-archival” force of the body or “life” itself?

Today the body is caught between these archival-predictive and the un-archival or an-archival – yet-to-come forces. Today the life sciences, reformed by an array of techno-scientific discourses and adventures, are feverishly involved in the ultimate game of archiving and remediating what is called “life itself”.

Epistemic Cultures

Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s Biopolitical: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life1 forcefully unravels the secret nodes of contemporary life sciences and critically evaluates their extensions and consequences for life and science in the shadow of globalisation. Biocapital has emerged from a productive doctoral work committed to responding to contemporary technoscientific developments from the methodological-political-theoretical terrains of the human sciences. Written against the backdrop of the wind and fury of the “science wars” that rocked the American academy in the recent times, KSR’s work calmly underwrites the necessity of engaging with rigour the claims and consequences of the life sciences and their epistemic reach today (pp 278-80).

Drawing on diverse sources (web-sites, interviews, on-site studies, interaction with stakeholders, etc), KSR develops his work through a collaborative focus (between anthropologist and informant) to recount his multiple narratives. The larger aim, however, of Biocapital is to “make social theoretical interventions in science studies and political economy by using empirical ethnographic material” (p 31).

In this exploration, Marx and Foucault stand out as the most significant critical forces available for interrogating the designs and claims of the life sciences. Marx’s critique, argues KSR, of political economy forged a “foundational epistemology…that had consequences for structuring social formations” (p 11). It is precisely from this Marx that “one can learn to analyse [the] rapidly emergent political economic and epistemic structures” (p 7). If industrial capital preoccupied most of Marx’s theorisation, his insights into merchant or speculative capital on the one hand, and his labour theory of value on the other are still the significant productive critical sources to unravel the new formations of life sciences and capitalism, proposes KSR. In order to understand the life sciences today, one needs a more nuanced and patient engagement with the ramifications of “lively capital”, argues KSR.

Similarly, KSR finds Foucault’s substantive structural historical analysis of the formation of the modern subject in the west as equally valuable for his exploration into the life sciences. In the transition from the sovereign’s power to take any life in his dominion, to a regime where “saving life” becomes crucial for consolidation of power, Foucault locates the epistemic significance of “biopolitics.” Moving beyond the control of individual bodies (“anatomo politics”), Foucault shows, biopolitics is a governance of aggregates such as populations or species. Biocapital is an explicit attempt to bring together “Foucault’s theorisations of the biopolitical with Marxian attention to political economy” (14).

The Flesh Machine and the Lively Capital

“ ‘Biocapital’ is a study”, contends KSR, “of the systems of exchange and circulation involved in the contemporary workings of the life sciences …as they become increasingly foundational epistemologies for our time” (p 12). Contemporary life Mertonian ethos (of universalism, competitiveness, communism and organised scepticism). On the contrary, KSR shows in detail here, they are deeply constituted by technological and economic forces basking under proactive state patronage and persistently indulgent in public relations and publicity. This is not to deny that the life sciences are any longer committed to production of scientific fact as such. On the contrary, the rigours of production of scientific fact have, if anything, become more precise and demanding. Yet the very ontological question, such as “what is life?”, gets increasingly oriented toward a predictive teleology which in turn informs the production of scientific “fact”. The efficacy of this scientific fact circulates through the rhetorics of euphoria (“discovery”, “invention”), pathos (melancholy – potential disease) and through the circuits of calculation, argues KSR.

Unlike the archival impulse of the hominids, the archontic drive – the drive to capture the essential originary fact – of the life sciences called genomics cathects or invests in the body itself (every body – bacteria to the hominid called the human) at once as a colossal archive. Genomics is a science of data mining that targets the body as a resource to configure and “commodify” life itself. The genomic body is composed of “wet” but material entities of cells, molecules, tissues, proteins and the DNA. The genomic adventure in the last two decades has been to externalise, store and recode this molecularly implicit and embodied material activity of the body as data and labour. Genomics is the “political economy of molecular biology”.2

Genomics emerges from a triangular relationship among the life sciences (labs, test tubes, “wet” material), ICTs (computer hardware, database structures, algorithms, fibre networks, the “dry” information) and capital flows (market forces, speculative capital, venture investors). Unlike the industrial economy, genomics creates value by circulating two specific entities – material and immaterial. Further, genomics consolidates proprietorial claims over the abstracted or extracted im/material entities beyond the bodies that contained them. The mainstream or governing model of genomic research addresses the question “what is life?” – (is life a chaotic corpus of – blood, meat and bone – matter, or is there some inherent pattern, a governing

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007 code to this matter?) – and chooses to affirm that “life” essentially is a patterngoverned biome. (No wonder Canguilhem thought that the entire history of biological thought is a footnote to Aristotle.)3

Genomics comes forth as an epistemic science from mutually constitutive technoscientific, politico-economic, legislative biopolitical, legal-speculative assemblages that cannot just be reduced to some simple extension of a seamless capitalism, argues KSR (chapter 1). If the conjunctures of globalisation articulate these variedly developed assemblages in the new science called genomics from the locational vantage of the US, this “venture science” has reshaped the social-professional imaginaries of the political and science establishments and individuals in contemporary India, argues KSR.

The “front end” of the biotech episteme, KSR suggests, operates with the most sentiment-and-affect coded terms such as “gift”, “debt”, “risk”, and “promise” and circulates them as if they are entirely transparent. Whatever their avatars might be, these are the most calculated figures of value making in biotech regimes. But how does genomics generates value in the first place? Since biopolitics is about saving lives and succouring health of population or species being – the real end-user beneficiary of genomics research is that “eight hundred pounded gorilla” called the Big Pharma. The real value of the new science of genomics, with its nano-level grasp of “life itself”, is contingent upon its effective contribution to the medical establishment. Given the tortuous, protracted and enormously risky and capital-intensive nature of drug development pharma companies depend on its “upstream” researches. Similarly pharma companies do not diversify their resources to undertake upstream genomic research as such research is already made available through the publicly funded research institutions and academic labs that have relatively easy access to biomaterial from hospitals and individuals. Further, genomics research is critical in providing database knowledge for clinical tests of drug targets. As pharma companies mediate between genomics and market, between the product and the consumer, they enjoy (or wish to) absolute privilege in drawing drug-pricing policies and drug designs.

Incorporations of the Body

It appears, however, that a considerable spatio-temporal gap exists between upstream diagnostic identification of drug target (pathogenic source to be treated) and the high throughput pharmaco-genomic drug development, downstream. If the discovery of the target of genetic component lends itself to triumphal proclamations about “promissory horizons” of personalised medicines, the drug development enterprise weaves out salvationary messianic parables about “living life to the full, again” (p 187). If the euphoric conjuration of regenerated life in the future is calculated to enhance genomics research in the present, the biopolitical pathos of a potential pathogene incubating in every body would transmute every citizen as a pharmaco-genomic “patient-in-waiting” in perpetuity. Rhetorics of hope and hype are so carefully conceived that they turn us



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Essays from The Economic Weekly and Economic and Political Weekly


The essays in the book reflect Professor K N Raj’s abiding interest in economic growth as a fundamental mechanism for lifting the poor and disadvantaged out of poverty. He has also been concerned that the political bargaining process may end up undermining growth and not provide support to those who were excluded from access to economic opportunities. These essays, many of them classics and all published in Economic Weekly and Economic and Political Weekly, are drawn together in this volume both for their commentary on the last half century of economic development and for their contemporary relevance for understanding the political economy of development in India and elsewhere.

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Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007

away from the “therapeutic lag” between diagnostics and drug development, argues KSR.

However intense, if ambivalent, might be the relation between genomic and pharma sectors, the gap or (actually) the abyss between the calculated genomic promise and the elusive pharmaco-genomic miracle drug remains unbridgeable, argues KSR (chapters 3 and 4). Biopolitical regimes, drawn on the sciences of life and health nurture governmentality; technocapitalist venture science (of life and health) cathects or invests and circulates “innovation” as the new, new epistemic rationality for humankind. Biocapital demonstrates that this “new, new thing” – the “free market frontier ideology” – called “innovation”, induces the biopolitical regimens in globalisation to reconfigure life itself as a calculable business plan to be managed forever by the new archontic life sciences. “Life” is commodified into a “calculable market unit”, argues KSR (34).


A significant part of Biocapital offers the much needed, informed, unravelling of the “black box” of the Indian scientific establishment in general and the euphoric biotech adventure in particular. The value of KSR’s “fieldwork” among Indian labs (in Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi) is to demonstrate how capitalism operates through structurally regulated asymmetries. Capitalism is no coherent, homogeneous ozone umbrella that covers the entire world alike. It is calculatedly perforated to expose the bodies elsewhere to the ultraviolet effects of capital.

Despite the breezy proclamations about new global ventures in the country, and despite the strong pharma industry, KSR declares categorically: “India is a long way off from having what might be called a start-up culture, certainly in biotech” (p 91). India lacks traditional scientific strength in the life sciences (p 27). In other words, India lacks a robust corporate dynamic that can embrace high-risk, cutting edge innovative researches in genomics, he infers. In the absence of such a culture, the most entrepreneurial agent in India is the Indian state itself. The Indian elite, policy circles, science bureaucrats and the political actors believe that the only way India can be refashioned into India Inc is by internalising an American scientific and social imaginary. This corporatisation of governance is also recounted as a moral obligation of the state; its mode of repaying its debt to the country is by opening it to the market: India Inc should be a role player in the global market.

If the market is the portal that can provide the gateway for India’s global play, these “concerned” groups tend to believe that the India Inc can be a market player only by turning itself into a service industry (“World’s Workshop”) for the technocapitalist world. The state-sponsored public labs are refashioned now to play the aggressive market players. New incentive structures and the “state of the art” lab facilities, and the new vision of “contract work” as the ultimate mode of realising the American imaginary are the epistemic assemblages on the Indian side, argues KSR. Contract research confines itself to mere application of R&D work designed in the North, which provides no intellectual property for contracting experimental sites. In contrast to contractual research, “entrepreneurial science” – risk-taking, endowed with long-term speculative capital – draws on indigenously driven technoscientific advances, aims at local social development (pp 218-19).

The policy-makers and institutions are unequivocal about this new faith for the nation. R A Mashelkar, now retired director of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the architect of the new vision, champions commercialisable knowledge as the “cutting edge” scientific research.

If natural resources are the property of the nation-state, the state turns into a corporate entity when it claims intellectual property rights over biological materials it supplies from public hospitals for corporate pharma companies. As a contractual corporate agent for western pharma/ biotech companies, the Indian state proactively facilitates researches and experiments at a fraction of the cost that it would take to carry them in the west. The crippling side effects of asymmetric biotech capitalism can be noticed in the blatant way the Indian Inc has embraced the new episteme. On the one hand, the emergent biocapital state systematically operates a de-proletarianisation process; and on the other, it provisions ever-new forms of subsidies for essentially servicecontract-research start-ups. Since there is a feeble entrepreneurial culture, the winwin promissory rhapsodies are sung directly by political bosses on photo occasions. Unlike in the US biopolitical scenario where life and health are the salvationary objects, aimed at finding ultimate salvation for life (longevity, if not immortality), the de-proletariatising Indian state goes statistical about potential employment and future revenues – always to be realised in future.4

In order to unravel the messianic narratives that the west circulates to cover the “therapeutic lag”, between diagnostics and drug development, KSR contends, one must turn to the biocolonially managed “experimental sites”, elsewhere. Given the “advantage” of population diversity that India has, the contract research of India can offer the Indian “biologicals” (wet material, patients and “volunteers”) as the target or sources for western pharmacogenomic (extremely expensive) clinical trials (if conducted in the west).

As the entrepreneurial agent for biotech in India, KSR contends, the Indian state (through its public-labs and its own startups and alliances) has begun to conform to the new epistemic configuration of the biosocial subject as “the experimental subject”.

India’s corporate role playing hangs precariously between the euphoric contract research and the required entrepreneurial science – but being pushed or inclined more and more toward the former. The fairly healthy pharma manufacturing industry – based on reverse engineering drug production – is bound to suffer a setback for WTO guidelines disallow the patenting of reverse-engineering processes, argues KSR. Compelled to discover its own drugs, the pharma sector has no indigenously developed biotech, genomic research base nor a well-established entrepreneurial culture to draw on. Such an epistemic regime, KSR argues, is detrimental to Indian pharma industry – for the biopolitcal regimes (of the north) determine the drug policies, design drug models and impose drug prices and patenting procedures.

Postgenomic Pharmakon

If the archontic drive of retrieving, externalising and managing life itself technologically is at work in the new epistemic science in the north, the south is managed to service this drive and consolidate the epistemic model. At the ground level of the asymmetric biotech world this would translate into retrieving information on the basis of an ontologically dubious bio-reductionist computational model called population genomics. This is often

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007 touted as the “cutting edge” research in Indian scenario.

Yet, Biocapital is not a book of pathos. Its ambition is to intervene and resist the totalising, seamless seductive narratives and practices: “It is between these upstream [genomic] and downstream [pharma] assemblages of objects and practices that historical and ethnographic windows open up to strategic praxis on the parts of the involved players, and analytic interventions on the parts of social theorists” (p 158). In his exploration, KSR finds voices, practices that resonate with his own resistances without closures. He musters from the corporate India’s publiclabs voices that are mutinously sensitive to the incongruities of the biopolitical order. They resent the spurious hi-tech equipment that is imposed on their labs; they also question the peer-review policy mechanisms of research journals (emerging essentially from the north), which suspect authors and their work if they do not conform to the prevalent paradigm. Above all, these individual voices know the contract research game too well to be seduced by the euphoric new biotech visions of their bosses.

Praxial Responsibility

A certain unease concerning the locational difference, the epistemological status of cultural difference of “India” ineluctably persists in the work – but largely remains un-addressed in Biocapital. This thematic – of the epistemologically irreducible other – does crop up in Gayatri Spivak’s critique of Foucault (KSR’s Foucault is surely marked by this critique), in the form of “subjugated knowledge” or subordinated, disqualified inferior knowledges. KSR remains silent even about this patently Foucauldian theme when he engages with “cultural particularity”. This ethnographic other – though structurally plotted – is completely circumscribed by the “epistemic” weight. Episteme, this patently Foucauldian thematic, is the circumscribing and determining structural concept. KSR works entirely with this concept in his narrativisation of the biopolitical.

Episteme is a category that unfolds the modes of production of knowledge in specific historical periods. Episteme is indeed the most recent recoding of the immemorial archival impulse. Yet the ontological question such as “what is man?” or “what is life?” – cannot be resolved through accelerated production of knowledges as the contemporary archontic drive implies. There is yet another way, points out Derrida, of responding to the ontological question – not reducible to normative-epistemophilic model. For, the “human is no more in danger today”, observes Derrida, “at least in so far as the lack of knowledge is concerned, than it was yesterday or the day before…today this progress [of knowledge] promises us extraordinary but predictable feats of predictive or therapeutic medicine.”5

The “other” way of responding to the question of life or man is through an embodied mode, through a “performative engagement”, suspending the normativeepistemic, inventively bringing forth the rule and moving beyond it. This inventive enactment will have a “calming effect”, states Derrida. The “human adventure” itself is, wrote Derrida several decades ago, a similar manifestation of a much longer discontinuous series of enacted transformations of what is called life.6 The force of life as a non-epistemophilic, dearchontic or an archival inventive enactments of living could resonate with certain impulses of a “whole set of [‘subjugated’] knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naïve knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity”.7 Perhaps. But all such livings on are today exposed to the bio(colonial)politics of population genomics and archontic drives.8

It is in such a reflective and praxial vacuum that Biocapital analyses both the structures of knowledge and governance at a molecular level of differentially orchestrated elements. One of the most significant achievements of this lucidly written work of great theoretical sophistication is that – while moving beyond the unproductive divide between the life sciences and humanities/social sciences (“science wars”)

– it reinforces the necessity of a rigorous exploration into the claims and presuppositions of the sciences and their complicity with structures of power in historically specific instantiations and locations.

In the Indian life sciences scenario and pharma sector, where journalism is mostly the source of public knowledge and where the actual role players either function with pedagogic formalism (science itself) or pragmatism (market) have little to offer – Biocapital offers, invaluable reflective indexes concerning what we do, what we are made to do, and what can possibly be done. Biocapital turns us to the interminable question that every body has to respond to: What do you do with what you have?




1 Hereafter all references to this book are cited in the main text. The author’s name will appear in the text as KSR.

2 Eugene Thacker, The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, p xx.

3 Ibid, p 68.

4 ‘Biotech SEZ at Genome Valley’, The Hindu, November 10, 2006, p 1. This news item also reports typical new alliances between Indian pharma sector and MNCs and the subsidies endowed: “150 acres for Novartis”, p 3.

5 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Aforementioned So-Called Human Genome’ in Derrida’s Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews 1971-2001, translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2002, p 210.

6 Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1976, pp 84-85.

7 Foucault cited in Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretations of Culture, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1988, p 281.

8 Yet, it is in such an archival or un-archival ways that the non-epistemophilic forms of articulation of the archival impulse – that critical humanities can begin to think along with the sciences of life and nature in a “common[s] pursuit” to move beyond arhonotic drives and expropriations and learn to perform or embody the praxial responsibility of inventing without a given rule and living on inventively. Such non-objectifying forms of reflection, saying and performance, can still be figured as immemorial literary (poetic/ song), artistic and cultural acts. Without such a risk, responsibility and freedom, of inventing without rule, suspending the normative, there can neither be science nor art nor indeed life itself. Otherwise, in the absence of such praxial responsibility and freedom, the Aristotlean metaphysics of the agentive form/norm as organising the passive matter, recoded as the genecentric master code of life itself will circulate the globe as the new, new episteme evolved for the sake of life itself.

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