Anthropological Quarterly 77.1 (2004) 197-202
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As a whole, Remaking Life and Death is an important contribution to the anthropology of the production of knowledge and of its application as technology. The regional focus is upon Euro-America, if we use this phrase as referring to a cultural region in constant and dynamic emergence. In fact, most of the chapters investigate the production and application of knowledge (which often occur in swift succession) in the United States, at the capitalist heart of the global rush into "development" or else at laboratories and academic departments that rely upon dollars or are directly under the control of organizations based there. Thus the volume is also a contribution to the study of the activities of powerful and marginal social groups working in the United States of America, as they integrate the global and political economy revolving around the generation of scientific knowledge and technology.
This book is a collection of case studies and critical analyses of new—and not-so-new—developments in diverse life sciences, such as cell pathology, molecular biology, genetics, embryology, marine biology, geobiology, phytochemistry and neurobiology. In particular, the manipulation of life (and death), for example in biomedical research, or in tissue engineering and other biotechnological fields, occupies center stage. The focus is upon transformations of [End Page 197] knowledge about life and death, or, as is more common in life science circles nowadays, animation and cessation—and a third category, suspension—and the differing implications of such transformation for the fields in which each set of new technologies and biotechnologies operate or for the wider social, political and economic contexts that encompass them. The studies in the book contribute to understanding these implications for reproduction, health, illness and death, but also to many other issues, such as the place of the biosciences in world capitalism
An anthropological perspective anchors the volume and gives shape to this heady mixture, in the sense that the authors draw attention to the social embeddedness of technological and scientific innovation. Thus, the central thread running through the diverse array of chapters concerns the social and cultural constitution of technological innovation and scientific practice, and the authors explicitly contest the stance so ubiquitous among scientists that the social follows on after the fact of the material, or in this case, of new technologies and scientific understanding. More than this, and also in the best critical tradition of anthropology, the authors are swift to highlight the national and international political and economic contexts of life science developments and to show up their frequently obfuscated inter-connections.
For the uninitiated like myself, at first reading the book is a dizzying mixture of densely packed, often exquisitely written information about past and present developments in diverse disciplines of the biosciences and in related practices (especially biomedicine). This information is closely intertwined in the text with critical analysis and with deconstruction of the underlying meanings and values informing the discursive production accompanying the biosciences. The information overwhelms one, so densely packed it is, and so rich in impressive scientific terminology and concepts. But of course the descriptive discussion of such subjects as lab experiments investigating plant compounds with brine shrimp, controversies over the meaning and implications for medical practice of brain death, the role of coral reefs in ocean ecosystems, or the cloning of dogs is hard to beat as fascinating ethnographic detail. Luckily, anthropologists develop a rarely acknowledged skill in quickly absorbing new ethnographic knowledge and new languages, so for those who are not daunted by the dazzling power of modernity and science, a more lasting comprehension (at least at a slower, second reading) comes eventually. This is not a book to read in one sitting, then (except perhaps by those who regularly subscribe to New Scientist or Scientific American and like journals), but to be savored over a few weeks. [End Page 198]
To be sure, the theme of...