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  • Promising Genomics: Iceland and deCODE Genetics in a World of Speculation
  • Stefan Helmreich
Promising Genomics: Iceland and deCODE Genetics in a World of Speculation. By Michael Fortun. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2008. Pp. 343. $24.95 (paper).

Promising Genomics is an anthropological exploration of the political fissures, fusions, and confusions that shaped debates at the turn of the millennium about the making of a bioinformatics database representing the population of Iceland. That database—which was to incorporate Icelandic genealogical data (reaching back hundreds of years), medical records (going back to 1915), and genotypic information (under construction)—was, after the passage of a bill in the Icelandic Parliament in March 1998, to be managed and data-mined, for science and profit, by a biotech company named deCODE Genetics, a company headquartered in Iceland and incorporated in the United States (and primarily controlled by non-Icelandic shareholders). DeCODE, the legislation went, would pay a fee to the Icelandic government in return for exclusive rights for 12 years to what came to be known as the Health Sector Database. Often framed as the unprecedented sale of the rights to a nation’s gene pool to a private company (given a further twist by deCODE’s deal with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche), the controversial 1998 data-sharing arrangement between deCODE and the Icelandic state invited rafts of scientific, financial, and social speculation, along with cycles of celebration, denunciation, and equivocation from investors, biologists, politicians, and social scientists. Michael Fortun’s book, founded on ethnographic research that took him to Iceland, where, as a historian turned anthropologist, he was often asked to comment publicly on biopolitics-in-the-making, comes neither to fortify nor to condemn contemporary conjunctures of industry, science, and statecraft. Rather, Fortun seeks to demonstrate the molten character of “responsibility” in genomics, when the making of genomes and their properties unfolds through such heterogeneous but conjoined practices as scrutinizing nucleotides, keeping an eye on the investment regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and debating questions of privacy/privatization in national legislative bodies. Speculating on genomics—scientifically, financially, politically—requires an analytical and ethical openness rather than a too-sure-of-itself a priori bioethics. It requires, argues Fortun, a special attention to promises: how they are made, what they require, and why they almost always generate futures that, in their stipulation, have an uncanny way of folding back into and (re)orienting the present.

Rather than offering a series of “perspectives” on genomic enterprise—a collection of points of view that might map a territory through triangulation—Fortun argues that any analysis of the speculative enterprise of genomics is always in motion. We are not in the territory of settled standpoints, but rather of shifting grounds, surfing on something like the lava landscapes of which Iceland is made, [End Page 477] which terrain Fortun uses as a guiding image throughout the book. Lava and land—fluid and fixed, each transmutable into the other—mark out, says Fortun, two sides of a chiasmus, “a couplet of terms that are conventionally taken as distinct or even opposed, but which in fact depend on each other, provoke each other, or contribute to each other” (pp. 13–14). Each chapter in Promising Genomics explores a chiasmus—a conjuncture, a contradiction, a coupling—that characterizes genomic endeavor. Fortun marks such chiasma with an X (the Greek chi). So, after the first chapter, “LavaXLand,” we find such chapters/chiasma as “CounterfeitXMoney,” which asks “how do you tell a counterfeit genomic company from a real genomic company?” (p. 51), and answers that it is difficult, since speculation is bound up so densely in the financial markets that found genomic business in the first place. “PublicXPrivate” revisits the rivalry in the United States between the private Celera Genomics and the public Human Genome Project to sequence the human genome, showing that each side used tactics, rhetoric, and often data from the other. It can be hard to tell—sometimes even impossible—whether a genomic project is public or private. Fortun’s accounts of the volatile debate in Iceland over who owned or spoke for the national genome make that quite clear. Somewhat closer...


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pp. 477-479
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