Category Archives: biopolitics

Eugenics and Biosurveillance in the Golden State

In 1979, the California Eugenics Law was repealed, but it would take 24 years for the state to acknowledge this atrocious injustice aimed at poor, disabled, and predominantly women of color throughout the state. According to an interview with Professor Alex Stern for NPR, the “state law from 1909 authorized the surgery for people judged to have ‘mental disease,’ which may have been inherited.” To clarify, surgery meant sterilization. The reasoning for such legislation is deeply rooted in the work and research by eugenicist Francis Galton who believed certain genetic dispositions were superior or inferior. Although eugenics was debunked as a pseudoscience, it bred white supremacism, institutionalized racism, and misogyny with ripple effects throughout western history.

From 1909 to 1979 the California eugenics law was in effect and during that time, approximately 800 tubal ligation procedures, according to statistical research, were performed on women and men without their consent. According to Stern, despite the law being dissolved in the late 1970s, 146 female inmates were subjected to forced sterilization between 2006 and 2010. The law targeted black and brown women, predominantly Latina. While there have been stories and articles covering the practice of eugenics and disproving it as a science, it continues to contribute to contemporary practices of genetic surveillance and the constant battle to legislate women’s’ bodies. According to Stern, many of the women sterilized in the 1960s and 1970s were mostly women with Latin American last names, poor, and immigrants with very little to no support to help navigate the American healthcare system. bell hooks aptly described America as a country built on a structure of ‘white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.’ I argue this structure, which continues to plague the United States today, extends to and encompasses our medico-legal system as well.

DNA collection and banking have been a deeply contested area of biosurveillance for years. Stern’s research on the California Eugenics Law begs the question: how many more states have buried histories of forced sterilization deep in their records? The prevalence of biometric data collection as a way of policing poor, disabled, and marginalized bodies has a direct correlation to eugenics practices. Aside from historical data, artists working in the realms of genetic determinism offer a unique methodology and approaches to exploring and critiquing science as a vehicle for systemic racism and sexism.

This particular research speaks to the way heteronormativity and white supremacy have gone hand in hand. The history of forced sterilization on women of color in California made it extremely difficult for communities of color to obtain immediate health care reform and reparations. While a registry has been created to capture what Stern, as estimated to be around 800 potential survivors of these procedures, the question that comes to mind, are potential cases around the US that may have similar suppressed or obscured records.

While science is often believed to be objective, much like data and statistics, it can be grossly manipulated to serve specific ideologies. Stepping away from historical frameworks, I have been deeply influenced by the cyberfeminist collective, subRosa. In the SubRosa anthology, Domain Errors!: Cyberfeminist Practices, Emily de Araujo and Lucia Somner created “A Summary History of Eugenic Theories and Practices in the United States,” which outlines the major events in the advancement of eugenics and racial profiling.

How can we ensure updated information is then communicated to the masses in such a way that enables the reader to see exactly how they fit into this larger rubric of theorization? How do we revise and graft onto these methods of resistance that the SubRosa collective have created for the community? Methods may include intervention at the clinical research level or occupying particular scientific and institutionalized spaces to promote inclusion of underrepresented and underserved bodies. What are the ways we can seize (medical and data) systems of oppression and turn genetic surveillance into genetic sousveillance? In Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s performance piece, DNA Spoofing, we see various fictitious methods preventing surveillance of the body. What might it mean for subjects to be given the opportunity to survey the surveyor and reflect back practices to a physician?  In which ways can we set up new ethical practices with lasting effects?

Bibliography:

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Domain Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices by the SubRosa Collective

Research and Digital Resources, Alexdra Minna Stern, PhD

On a Eugenics Registry: A Record of California’s Thousands of Sterilization, NPR

A Summary History of Eugenics Theories and Practices in the United States compiled by Emily de Araujo and Lucia Sommer of the SubRosa Collective

Informatic Opacity

This essay was originally published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.

Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – May 31, 2013, San Diego, CA

On June 7, 2013, the National Security Agency’s surveillance program was made public in news media with the aid of whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and filmmaker Laura Portrais. Their reports revealed a suite of software designed for global, invasive data searches and analysis, including PRISM, a data-mining application used to collect billions of metadata records from various telecommunications and social media companies, and Boundless Informant, a visualization tool developed to track and analyze collected data; a third was announced on July 31, 2013, as XKeyscore, a search system that mines extensive online databases containing browsing histories and emails. Just as philosopher Michel Foucault once described the panopticon as the exemplary diagram of surveillance in the modern age, this assemblage of software, whose reach is yet to be fully known, will arguably become our contemporary replacement.

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Unfit Bits

Free your fitness data from yourself

Unfit Bits outlines everyday techniques for generating the fitness datasets of your choice, enabling you to qualify for insurance discounts without the lifestyle to match.

Why Unfit Bits?

It is increasingly assumed that fitness trackers provide an objective view of the activities of their wearer. The assumption is that a person’s acceleration data as interpreted by some fancy algorithms, gives a robust insight into the fitness, health and behavior of their body, and cuts through the blurry ambiguities of memory and perception. During the last year, data from a Fitbit tracker has been used as evidence in court both in a case about the impact of a workplace injury on a worker’s health and more recently as evidence of a rape. How these early examples play out, will reveal how tight the relationship between activity data and behavior of the wearer is assumed to be.

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Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead

Published 7/6/15 by The New Inquiry

The practice of rendering appearance from forensic samples is called “Forensic DNA Phenotyping” (FDP) or “molecular photofitting,” and there are a handful of scientists and companies around the world trying to make this not only scientifically possible, but also a useful law enforcement tool. FDP has already been used to create a new kind of police sketch.

While there are a few traits like eye and hair color that can be predicted from DNA with a high degree of certainty, the bulk of FDP relies on algorithmically derived statistical composites. We tend to look at technical systems as neutral black boxes, but if you open them up and look at the component parts, you find that they reflect the assumptions and motivations of their designers.

FDP begins with a dataset of 3D facial scans and DNA samples taken from research participants. These scans are processed to create what’s called “face space,” a probabilistic representation of all possible faces drawn from, and limited by, this set of 3D scans. Finally, the data is mined for correlations between DNA and facial shape by examining characteristics that are assumed to be opposite ends of a spectrum, like masculine and feminine or “European” and “African.”

The act of creating computational averages and looking for correlated features in large datasets has an air of authenticity and scientific validity, but what this actually does is create a system of types — you might call them stereotypes.

Continue Reading: Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead at The New Inquiry.

Response to the “Face of Litter”

Yes, this looks very familiar…

No I had nothing to do with it, I was not consulted or cited, and I’m not surprised.

It isn’t surprising that an ad agency copied an artist’s work with no remuneration or citation.

And it isn’t surprising that an ad agency press release was recycled from one media outlet to the next as “news” without research or problematization of the obvious issues here around surveillance, genetic privacy, and public shaming as a technique of social control.

Finally, it isn’t surprising that DNA might be used to monitor, survey, and publicly shame individuals deemed deviant.

But what is the “face of litter” campaign really? DNA phenotyping isn’t cheap, and it’s telling to contemplate why a Parabon Nanolabs, a small biotech startup, would donate this expensive technology to an ad agency for a pro bono ecological project. It’s called PR.

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Newborn DNA Storage Raises Serious Privacy Concerns

Before they are even a week old, ninety-eight percent of the 4.3 million babies born annually in the United States have a small sample of blood taken from their heels. These newborn bloodspots (NBS) are then screened for a variety of inherited conditions and are often later stored in state-operated databases. Newborn screening itself is an important public health program and some have described these residual sample “biobanks” in equally positive terms. Although there are concrete benefits of newborn testing, there are also troubling consent and privacy issues raised by the screening, storage and use of the samples.

 

Newborn screening began in the United States as a series of state level pilot programs in the 1960s to test for PKU, a rare genetic condition that is easily treatable if caught early. The success of these early programs led to rapid adoption of newborn screening among all states in the US and the number of conditions screened for has grown progressively since with additional funding at the Federal level. Because of the singular history of newborn screening, it remains the only widespread health testing in the US conducted not by an individual’s doctor, hospital, or health care provider but by individual state departments of public health. This singular history can also account for a wide disparity in state law and policy with regards to parental consent, sample storage and use.

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Biopolitics – An interview with Timothy Campbell

Biopolitics: A Reader Edited by Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze

Timothy Campbell is a Professor of Italian in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University and together with Adam Sitze, a professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social thought at the Amherst College he recently edited a new collection of essays on the topic of biopolitics. Campbell translated Roberto Esposito’s Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minnesota, 2008) and Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (Stanford, 2009). He is the author of Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi (Minnesota, 2006), winner of the Media Ecology Association’s 2007 Lewis Mumford Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Technics and and Improper Life: Biopolitics and Technology from Heidegger to Agamben (Minnesota, 2011). He also edits the series “Commonalities” for Fordham University Press and is currently completing his study of cinema and biopower titled Grace Notes:  Cinema and the Generous Form of Life.

Biopolitics: A Reader published in 2013 collects pivotal texts defining the concept of biopolitics. Opening with Michel Foucault’s coining of the term in his 1976 essay “Right of Death and Power over Life” we follow biopolitics through the edited collection as it is anticipated by Hannah Arendt and later altered, critiqued, deconstructed, and refined by major political and social theorists who explicitly engaged with Foucault’s ideas.

This blog post is abridged. A PDF of the entire interview is available here.

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