Book Review: Bioinsecurity and Vulnerability

Bioinsecurity and Vulnerability. Nancy Chen and Lesley Sharp, eds., Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press Advanced Seminar Series, 2014, 320 pp.

Bioinsecurity and Vulnerability is nothing if not timely. In the aftermath of the West African Ebola crisis, the call by editors Nancy Chen and Lesley Sharp for greater ethnographic attention to the “connections between infrastructural intent and the life-and-death consequences of biosecurity initiatives” (p. xxii) seems hauntingly prescient.

Medical anthropologists and others have done much to critique biosecurity’s familiar manifestations, from virus hunting to vaccine stockpiling to chicken culls. This volume acknowledges this literature but moves beyond it. The goal of the School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar on which the volume was based was to discuss struggles that are rendered invisible in accounts that emphasize governmental, capitalist, and nongovernmental infrastructures of risk, preparedness, and response. Biosecurity, the editors insist, “does not simply foreground themes of danger and vulnerability”; rather, it “involves a bulking up of new forms of vulnerability within invisible spheres” (p. xxviii). These invisible spheres span from land tenure to basic access to food and water to food and water quality. For the authors, to discuss these vulnerabilities, or “bioinsecurities” (the two terms are used rather interchangeably) is to “write against biosecurity as the status quo by focusing instead on its underbelly” (p. xiii). In other words, the relationship between insecurity and security is not simply one of problem and response.

Rather, as Joseph Masco shows in Chapter 1’s excellent historical overview, today’s biosecurity is perhaps better seen as a set of imaginative, affective exercises oriented to the future than as a set of material solutions to present crises. The array of insecurities evoked by tabletop scenarios that game pandemics or bioterrorist attacks does not include the decay of urban infrastructures, the effects of global warming, or the embodied impact of economic inequality (p. 22).

The volume’s nine remaining chapters call attention to what might be called other insecurities: those that are obscured by biosecurity’s focus on a future where risk is limited to disaster or terror. The editors have organized these chapters into three themes: “Global Dangers,” “Securing Survival,” and “The ‘Bio’ of Biosecurity.”

A photo essay featuring visual illustrations from each author’s work bookends each section. These nine chapters might also be read or assigned—especially for undergraduates—according to the three domains of in-security they discuss. These include the body (Susser, Moniruzzaman, Sharp), food (Stone, Watts, Chen), and land (Vine, Rouse, Caton). The key lesson for students and scholars is that biosecurity is an ever-expanding discursive and material domain. The book’s most thought-provoking chapters are those that use ethnography to link some element of that expansion to an emergent form of insecurity that might otherwise remain invisible.

Medical anthropologists will be in familiar territory when reading Ida Susser’s Chapter 9, on women’s experiences as caregivers in South Africa’s AIDS epidemic. There, Susser highlights the embodied paradoxes of biosecurity. In South Africa, even as ostensibly life-giving ARV treatment becomes available through global health infrastructures rooted in the premises of biosecurity, the ability of women who cared for family members with AIDS to reach patients via public transportation, or even to provide those nearer to them with clean water, is still constrained by a lack of more basic infrastructure.

Similarly, in Chapter 3, Lesley Sharp explores the odd mix of optimism and disquiet that marks the experimental science of “xenotransplantation,” the transplantation of nonhuman organs—especially from pigs—to human bodies. Bodily insecurity here is both an affective and material condition. As storehouses for human organs, pigs promise to be potential life savers, alleviating the problem of organ shortage, yet making xenotransplantation into an ethical, life-giving project requires that scientists ignore abiding concerns about potential species-jumping viruses, not to mention the ongoing suffering of individual pigs and humans.

The rich ethnography continues in Monir Moniruzzaman’s Chapter 10 on the Bangladeshi organ trade—a context in which an elusive dream of security reinforces, rather than relieves, the precarity of donors’ lives. The fit of this last chapter within the volume is slightly less clear, in that biosecurity references not a global discourse but an aspiration produced by a perverse market.

While these chapters illustrate the embodied bioinsecurity that life technologies create, those on food examine bioinsecurity in another register: that of knowledge. Glenn Davis Stone (Chapter 4) suggests that even as the capitalist production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) answers questions about how gene transfers work at the molecular level, it forecloses the possibility of even asking what the broader ecological effects of GMOs might be. Stone describes GMO production as a form of “agnotology,” a process that manufactures ignorance through a combination of technological experimentation and the strictures of intellectual property law and research funding. GMOs may pose an ecological threat, and they may not. No one is asking. We are “effectively ignorant” about GM ecology.

As Michael Watts argues in Chapter 8, we are similarly ignorant about the array of political and social relations that make narrow economic ideas of resiliency to drought or famine woefully inadequate as security devices. Watts argues convincingly that resiliency is a technology of self-reliance, and the African Sahel is a laboratory for fomenting creative strategies for dealing with the unpredictable effects of climate change (as well as the AIDS pandemic–see, again, Susser, Chapter 9).

In China, as Nancy Chen illustrates in Chapter 5, ignorance about the safety or provenance of edible goods available to aspirant middle-class consumers is a product of the country’s expanding market-orientation to food production. As the market and biosecurity become more interdependent (in what Chen terms a “double helix”), it becomes impossible to ask food-safety questions about GMOs, which China’s leaders envision as playing a key a role in a growing nation (p. 88).

In the chapters on land, the location of bioinsecurity shifts once again, from knowledge and ignorance to culture. Steven Caton’s Chapter 6, which examines the impact of global water security policy on Yemeni farmers, would be welcome on most any graduate or undergraduate political ecology or development studies reading list. Caton shows how a drive to secure scarce water resources through the cultivation of food crops demonized the dedication of Yemeni farmers to qāt, a plant whose value to Yemenis as a chemical and social stimulant seems irrational to international development experts. A push to eradicate qāt was a misguided “magic bullet” solution to a water scarcity problem likely rooted in neoliberal privatization schemes rather than cultural traditions.

In the Ghanaian case described by Carolyn Rouse in Chapter 7, traditional land tenure systems run headlong into land privatization schemes. The intersection of chiefly land tenure with neoliberal private property discourse produced an “ontological insecurity”: a breakdown in the cultural logics that permit people to understand the actions of others (pp. 130–131). Assuming a clear distinction between private and public or traditional and modern tenure creates the risk of disenfranchising those with already-precarious ties to land. As it turns out, assuming a clear boundary between nation-states is also dangerous.

David Vine’s Chapter 2 uses the expansion of the U.S. military presence in Honduras to discuss the Pentagon’s “new way of war”: a flexible fighting force that can be launched from dozens of largely secret bases around the world. The blowback from this strategy is a proliferation of military technology and hardware and the expansion of police states like that of Honduras. While the interplay between security and insecurity here is plain, Vine’s use of biosecurity at times seems to stretch that term far beyond the parameters set out in Masco’s historical overview.

Yet that seems to be the point of this volume. It forces us to ask why security should ever be about something other than life. Along the way, readers might also wonder if the familiar category of vulnerability differs in any substantive way from that of the new category of bioinsecurity. Contemporary security (with or without the prefix) is both a set of technologies for preparing against calamity and a political process of deciding whose vulnerability will become visible. This volume is a helpful primer for medical anthropologists and others who want to participate in this process.

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