- On Delimiting Rhetorical Invention in Biopolitics: A Rejoinder to Lynch
John Lynch’s reply to my article in a recent issue of Rhetoric & Public Affairs introduces matters relevant to a continuing scholarly conversation on the topic of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetics. Although I disagree with some of his characterizations of my argument, I hope my rejoinder can be read not only as a response to his criticisms, but also as an exchange that can lead us to agree on some critical issues in need of discussion about this emerging biotechnological practice.
Lynch’s argument revolves around two central points: the purpose of my article (regarding the viability of seeing DTC genetics as part of a changing biopolitics where individuals engage in rhetorical practices to interpret, judge, and integrate complex medical matters into their lives); and what he perceives to be a mistaken conflating of validity and utility, or information and meaning. I will address these points in this order.
There is an implication in Lynch’s reply that I see the communicative, rhetorical practices of the DTC genetics industry as inherently beneficial to the deliberative functioning of a medical–public sphere. That is not the case. The purpose of my article is to explore and interpret a state of stasis in a growing domain of biopolitical practice between two traditional, institutional sites of decision making (market and legislation) at the intersection of technically complex science and public interest—and do so for precisely the reasons for which Lynch argues understanding of controversy is critical. The article uses a traditional concern of rhetoric, stasis theory, to explore and make intelligible a public practice where people who lack certified technical [End Page 379] expertise in genetics enact forms of agency and personal judgment new to the domain of applied genetics, and the rhetorical tensions, controversies, issues, questions, and practices that constitute these practices—here over issues of agency, and attendant questions about loci of judgment, choice, decision making, and responsibility in emerging fora of civic involvement with technical and medical matters.
The essay’s focus is on stasis in the rhetorical, institutional practices of DTC genetics because in such stasis, we find a testing and resituating of boundaries, limits, and standards of competence—both individual and institutional—in the biopolitical domain.1 DTC genetics is at the heart of a changing biopolitics: it crystallizes how institutions that traditionally have occupied central positions in the enactment of biopolitical practices must increasingly contend with individual, familial, and other domains of practice as central loci of decision making and judgment. The presence of DTC genetics products does not only create but also reflects and foregrounds a growing public demand for access to genetic technologies,2 a demand that makes it necessary for individuals to participate competently in biomedical and biopolitical practices that can have significant consequences for their medical, personal, and social well-being. The growing number of individuals buying, using, and making decisions based on DTC genetic tests—sometimes with beneficial, sometimes with distressing results3—shows that neither expert competence nor certainty of knowledge can be presupposed as a basis for deliberation when people interpret, judge, and integrate these new practices.
Under the simultaneous conditions of necessity and limited knowledge that we find in DTC genetics, where our “need to act often does not run in sync with the knowledge at hand,” rhetorical practices can serve as strategies for invention: “bio-rhetorics” that reconcile complex biological discourses with the kinds of identity, familial, social, or political discourses that intersect with the uses of genetic technology.4 But despite ongoing and rapid changes to the loci of biopolitical decision making, choice, expertise, competence, and responsibility, the institutions traditionally involved in these matters appear unable to resolve stasis between the legislative, medical, political, social, and personal discourses of applied genetics. This prolonged stasis about how to configure bio-rhetorical practices signals a need to resituate boundaries and reinvent our biopolitical discourses for dealing with the increase in affordable, but complex, genetic technologies. Thus, the purpose of analyzing stasis between traditional regulatory topoi (focused on oversight, assurance, and certification) and emerging market topoi (focused on contingency, partiality, [End Page 380] and...