Monday, November 26, 2012

Charis Thompson: "Three Times a Woman: A Gendered Economy of Stem Cell Innovation"

Charis Thompson
In her recent Life (Un)Ltd presentation, “Three Times a Woman: A Gendered Economy of Stem Cell Innovation,” Charis Thompson discussed the state of stem cell research in a pro-curial economy—that is, an economy that emphasizes the cure potential of stem cell research rather than the debate around the embryos used. Thompson, Professor and Chair of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, as well as the Associate Director of Berkeley’s Science, Technology, and Society Center, said that the anatomy of the state-based science economy has three parts, all connected to the question of how to sell the idea of voting for science that is ethically questionable and federally underfunded. The first part is pro-cures rhetoric to communicate that people are voting for cures, adding a moral imperative to the discourse. The second is procurement, the focus on which bypasses embryo politics. The third is biocuration, referring to chains of custody for, bookkeeping of, and compliance with stem cell research. Thompson pointed out that women are central to these issues: they are linked to them by virtue of occupying related positions as voters, care-ers, funders, advocates, and body labor and body parts donators, among other things.

In the first segment of her presentation, Thompson asked what happens when public funding of science research moves from the federal level to the state level. She said that “basic science” is good for the economy, that its results trickle down beneficially. This kind of research, when federally funded, is “firewalled” by the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy, which are staffed by experts and use extensive peer review and analysis to review grant requests.  When science is state-funded, there is a change to the social contract, Thompson said, in that direct democracy allows the public to vote directly for funding research. In 2004, California’s Proposition 71 made stem cell research a constitutional right. Section 4 of Article XXXV was added to the California Constitution to support stem cell research, yet the terms “women,” “embryo,” and “egg” do not appear in the legislation. This is perhaps ironic since women in California voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election—essentially, they voted pro-cures. Thompson said that women voted for and paid for (via their taxes) the research, but it is unclear whether or how they will benefit from it.

Next, Thompson discussed egg donor protection. She said that embryo politics became operationalized around the concept of what an “acceptable donation” is. California has become an embryo “tourist destination” because of the low restrictions on embryos in the state. Donations are often sought from college students, who are eugenically desirable and need the money that comes from donating. Thompson said that egg donor protection has become the women’s issue since Prop 71 passed, though this fact is sometimes mocked as paternalistic or even maternalistic. Lastly, Thompson raised some common questions about donors, including whether they should be paid, whether they should receive financial or health incentives, and whether they are being paid for bodily labors. She said that some of the usual forms of payment to donors are medical care benefits, the satisfaction of being part of the scientific process, and, through their participation, being on the fast track to experiencing the fruits of the research they assisted.

In talking about biocuration, Thompson used a certain company, which went unnamed, as an example. To further its stem cell research, the company was getting women to donate their eggs, but ran into financial trouble. Its venture capitalist support wasn’t in favor of scientific research, which it saw as too long-term for its investment. The company needed grants approved to continue its research, so in the meantime it turned to producing biological tools and cosmetics—a heavily gendered product, as Thompson pointed out. The marketing rhetoric for the cosmetics focused on “regenerative” words, linking its aims back to the company’s stem cell research. Overall, the company’s example calls into question the issues of research funding and transparency.

Lastly, Thompson discussed what should be done about these issues. She mentioned “The Belmont Report,” an ethics-in-research document from the late 1970s whose three principles are respect for persons, beneficence, and justice in the selection of research subjects; Thompson added that there might be disproportionate use of some women enrolled in stem cell research. Thompson also said a rhetorical change is needed. Gendered, raced, and classed benefits and demands of the innovative economy should be sought out and named. The Prop 71 text should use “women,” “egg,” and “embryo” in its language. And the promissory genre of Prop 71 should be made clear, with the likely and possible uncertainties and unintended consequences spelled out. (For example, “We might make cosmetics while we raise another round of venture capital,” and, “Not every taxpayer will have full access to the fruits of this research.”) People should know, Thompson said, what they’re contributing to in an innovation economy.

Thompson ended with a few questions for thought: Would the public vote for science in conditions of great hope, uncertainty, inequality, and possible trivialization? If not, should Prop 71 not have been funded? Should the nation remain the primary spender of tax money on research? And how do we revisit the social contract where science is involved?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Jean-Marie Apostolidès and the Society of the Spectacle

“Spectacle and Spectator: Ways of Seeing and Being Seen” was a recent conference organized by the UCLA Graduate Students Association of the Department of French and Francophone Studies and the Department of French and Francophone Studies. The conference’s keynote speaker was Professor Jean-Marie Apostolidès, Stanford University, whose October 12, 2012, talk was titled “Are We a Society of the Spectacle?”

Apostolidès explained how he has a critical view—what he called a “love-hate relationship”—with Guy Debord, whose theories on consumerism and spectacle have been an important part of Apostolidès’s work. The society of the spectacle, Apostolidès said, started in the 1920s with the rise of advertising; mass media and consumerism have taken over genuine human interaction in the decades since. In his 1967 book on the topic, Debord posited that life has been replaced with its representation via the central position of images in modern life. He defined “spectacle” as a system of consumer culture, commodity fetishism, and mass media.

Apostolidès pointed out how patriarchy is a key part of the society of the spectacle’s global construction, and how 1968 saw the “symbolic destruction” of patriarchy (symbolic because the two World Wars killed off “the idea of the father”).  In his own country, Apostolidès said, accepting French collaboration during WWII helped end the influence of parents and patriarchy. As a result, younger people in France came into power, which the older generation gave up because they knew the accusations were true.

After 1968, new technology developed, digitizing the modern world. This new technological society permitted everything to be transformed into images. (Apostolidès added that money, despite being an image, wasn’t included in this change, as it became magnetic—and therefore invisible—through credit cards and other means.) Relevant to the new society was Marx’s idea of use value vs. exchange value: images allow the use value in the contemporary world, while money permits everything to be transformed into exchange value. Apostolidès mentioned the films La jetée and Vertigo as examples of worlds where it’s impossible to distinguish between image and reality; similarly, he said, one cannot separate “actors”—the bourgeois class—and spectacle, and they are both essential parts of the society of the spectacle. (Here Apostolidès joked that he is like Moses, trying to lead the way to a society without spectacle, which he will never see.)

A major element of today’s society of the spectacle is the image of ourselves created by what people say about us online. Apostolidès calls this image the “mediatic ego,” and said that it is important, for example, when finding a job: employers search online for job applicants’ online presence. He described the mediatic ego as being “someone who bears my name and is not me, yet it is me, and [it] affects me finding a job or sexual partner.” The mediatic ego is bigger than the real self, and the problem therein is how to balance the two. Apostolidès also pointed out that in the past only some people (actors, etc.) had public images, whereas in today’s world most people do, to some extent, due to technology advances.

Apostolidès also discussed how film has played a role in the society of the spectacle. He argued that actors have been portrayed differently, and had a different impact, over the last hundred years: the “idol” of the silent era—Garbo, Brooks—who created a goddess-like ideal of femininity; the “star” of the years between WWI and WWII—Bardot, Monroe, Crawford—who created a “circulation” between young people, giving them an image to copy in order to create a personal self; and the “negator” of today—Huppert, Kidman—who are no longer stars. Apostolidès claimed that modern actors are unable to play things that are unlike themselves, contributing to a society of representation. Additionally, theater has undergone huge transformations recently: theatricality is no longer as obvious as it used to be. Apostolidès said that actors today often dialogue with the audience, and that many plays transform into a monologue with the audience. He distinguished between traditional theater, with personages and auditions that use Shakespeare passages, and modern theater, with actors playing characters similar to themselves and auditions of original monologues.

As for whether the society of the spectacle will last, Apostolidès said it depends. If we are at the beginning of a new kind of civilization, it might last for centuries to come. This generation is, Apostolidès said, between the influence of parents and whatever will come next. The next several generations will certainly be transformative, and technology may ultimately decide future changes.