Notes on Priscilla Wald’s “Blood and Stories”

[This was written as an introduction to Revolutionizing American Studies’ Priscialla Wald seminar. For the seminar, participants arrived having read her essay “Blood and Stories: How Genomics is Rewriting Race, Medicine, and Human History.]

It is my honor and pleasure to introduce Professor Wald to this seminar. I’d like to thank Duncan and Kandice for the opportunity to make these brief remarks, and also thank President Kelly for giving myself and so many here the chance to hear Professor Wald’s provocative tone-setting presidential address at the ASA conference two weeks ago. In that speech Professor Wald addressed many of the themes she raises in the article we read for this seminar, including the relationship between biopiracy, racism, and narrative, through a reading of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It appears we are at a moment ripe for re-opening inquiries into the intersections between social, cultural, and scientific categorizations of human bodies, and what kinds of labor bodies can do. It should suffice to say that future scholarship will develop these themes because of the leading example of Professor Wald’s courageous, thoughtful, and piercing insights.

From her most recent scholarship to her previous texts, such as Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form and Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and The Outbreak Narrative, Professor Wald has produced work that acts as a progressive model of American Studies. In Constituting Americans, Professor Wald examines the ways literary authors from Fredrick Douglass to Gertrude Stein contributed to the production of American identity, and did so in the context of evolving cultural and legal debates about citizenship, personhood, immigration, and national identity. In Contagious, Professor Wald gives us a cultural history of “contagion” as a concept, and parsed the way that anxious Americans imagined and circulated narratives of contamination and outbreak, whether that outbreak was microbial, viral, or even moral. In a move that gets us another step closer to our discussion today, Contagious also examines the ways that journalists, scientists, and literary authors tell stories about outbreaks – and in a larger sense, about America itself. In a society drenched in the proliferation of digital communication and surrounded by ever-louder discourses of public health, genetic innovation, and fears of global viral transmission, Professor Wald has constantly reminded us that we articulate these anxious concerns through narrative mediums that work on us in different ways. She reminds us that we foreground the ways that seemingly new anxieties about mutations, discoveries, and identity cannot be separated from the entangled political history of American bodies.

The essay we read together, “Blood and Stories: How Genomics is Rewriting Race, Medicine, and Human History” asks us to understand anew the aforementioned intersections between race, science, and narrative.  Her essay begins with Howard University’s decision to collect the DNA of African-Americans in 2003 for a genomic databank. They were motivated to ensure that black populations had access to the most up to date health care and biotechnology, but critics pointed uncomfortably to some  haunted historical and ethical issues: in Professor Wald’s articulation of this position, would racial classification of DNA risk “reanimating an inaccurate understanding of the biological basis for difference?” The tension in this question points to a divide between disciplinary models of understanding just what race is, how different disciplines imagine certain bodies, and how this imagination of bodies returns to us conversations about social justice.

As we consider this debate for ourselves, we should remember some of the tools that Professor Wald has given us. With Stuart Hall’s notion of articulation in mind, she is quick to remind us that we can discover racism not in the genomes but in the information produced by scientists about those genomes through conventions of representation. The rehearsal and distribution of these conventions through media become stories, and these stories become technologies that articulate ways of seeing and believing. Later, Wald notes the way that disagreements in the scientific literature about race and ethnicity highlight the ways that social and cultural inquiry are not valued equally in a hierarchy of knowledge. Moreover, science generally and genomic science in particular does not have a consistent articulation about what race is and where it comes from. It in part depends on what instruments and measurements are used to make it “visible” – with an implication being whether or not those instruments and measurements are in fact in part producing what they expect to find.  Perhaps we should also consider here how this might be a variation of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis.

(1) I was fascinated and properly disturbed to read about Professor Wald’s critique of the PBS program The Journey of Man, and how it acclaimed DNA as a ‘true’ narrative character. Professor Wald’s critique raises the specific issue of “unacknowledged power” and how scientists can biologize outcomes that could be changed if they started from different positions. This appears again with the program’s use of the word “globalization” as a force of nature while certain populations go “extinct.” I wonder how we could use that same idea to speak to our own work and previous discussions in this seminar, but also how we could use it to frame current budget debates here in New York. (Furthermore, it appears that Professor Wald’s critique of The Journey of Man could be leveled against Jared Diamond’s entire body of work.)

(2) On that note, Professor Wald’s work also turns us to the different cultural and political values that shape how stories are told about bodies, and what people can be actors in what scientific narratives about the stories of human identity. I’m thinking here of the organization of the Indigenous People’s Council on Biocolonialism, and how we might begin to think through the conflicts over the different ways of thinking about the self, about the body, and about how the interiors of bodies become property.

3. We could also think about what narratives scientists use to justify programs like genomic databanks. In what seems quite relevant to Professor Wald’s previous books, it often seems science programs justify their narratives through stories meant to induce anxiety and shock: it’s about making black bodies healthy, we have to move quickly because populations are disappearing. It’s an urgency produced to further along that “unacknowledged power,” and never forces that power to stand still, or stop.

4. Finally, what would it look like to extend post-humanist conversations about biopiracy and the biopolitical management of populations to include non-human populations? It seems to me that the same issues of corporate investment and unacknowledged power extend to non-human bodies all the time – I’m thinking here of the industrial food system’s genetic manipulation of bovine, swine, and chicken genes, not to mention all the patented seeds (like soybeans) that Monsanto has invented and successfully placed into the food supply (without labeling). I think this matters, too, from a traditional humanist perspective, when we remember that labor in the industrial food system is overwhelming done by vulnerable immigrants and people of color. What could taking up this discussion about bioethics and biopolitics do for American studies? Could this be an entry point whereby we could expand the subjects at the center of our discussions, and reflect in new ways on the politics of how animal bodies labor in the absolute worst conditions of capitalist space?


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