“The more we consume and the better our health, the better we are controlled.” Preciado 2020
The past few years have seen stronger upholding of boundaries of different forms: borders, nationalism, racism are more prominent and noticeable than ever. From COVID, to US politics, to immigration policies in Australia, we sense a tightening of boundaries, independence and separation, and what I see as a manufactured sense of fear at any breach of these boundaries, bubbles or borders. From a biopolitical perspective, I’m interested in how one scale affects the other—in this project I’m interested in speculating how nanobiotechnologies might influence politics and wield power over life and the body—and one of the important relational connections that has been made apparent during the current pandemic occurs via emotion, public demand and resultant policy. I think also that our misunderstanding of the concept of the boundaries, of the relationships between individuals and communities, and of ethics in general is clouding our judgment and stopping us from critiquing the long game.
In thinking about the potential biopolitical implications of nanobiotechnologies, it is important to understand the relationship between community and immunity, which has analogues in the body, geopolitics and law among other scenarios. The Italian philosopher and key theorist in biopolitics Roberto Esposito says that while community connects subsets of individuals to one another through a shared sense of identity, “to belong entirely to the originary communitas means to give up one’s most precious substance, namely, one’s individual identity, in a process of gradual opening from self to the other” (Esposito 2013, p. 84). Community is then something that is open while immunity is something closed. This is seen in the biological sense of immunity, which implies that a body is able to resist infection from external pathogens.But while this may appear at its surface level to be a simple binary, community on one side and immunity on the other, it is interesting to take the biological scenario and overlay it onto its political analogue.
“The negative mode [of immunity] that has characterized the biopolitical paradigm is not a result of the violent subjugation that power exerts on life from the outside, but rather the contradictory way that life itself tries to defend itself from the dangers that threaten it, contradicting its other equally prominent needs. Immunity, necessary to the preservation of individual and collective life – none of us would stay alive without the immune system in our bodies – if assumed in a form that is exclusive and exclusionary toward all other human and environmental alterities, ends up counteracting its own development” (Esposito 2013, p. 86). Rather than continuum or a spectrum then, immunity and community operate in an ethical circle. If one is too embedded in the community for example, one could loose their individual identity as Esposito suggests, or become sick. If one is too immune, one might suffer aloneness and become vulnerable to other disastrous fates such as poor mental health. Of this, I’m sure we are all negotiating our own balance during COVID lockdowns across the globe. Equally true is the use of treatments that respond in a manner of molecular reductionism (a term I’ve borrowed from cultural theorist Ashley Dawson). Assume we segregate the body via technologies employed in the treatment of disease, over time, we may be surprised by how the biopolitical system responds as a whole, enveloping communities, molecules, bodies, societies, and cultures. Like smartphones and their incredible usefulness coupled with a serious diminishment of the abilities of empathy and intuition that we are only now starting to recognise, nanobiotechnology too is a sort of Pandora’s box.
When we demand the best treatment for us as individuals, or we demand treatment availability that privileges the value of individual life, we skew the concept of ethics toward the concept of the immune. Ethics, to most nanobioscientists I have spoken with, means the ethical treatment of the individuals involved in their testing regimes, perhaps with a side of doing general good for the health of the world’s population. But where is the space for a broader ethics that considers new technologies from the perspective of the community, which can, and often does, have conflicting needs/ethics to those of the individual? Tied up with this, and entwined with the notion of biopolitics is thanatopolitics or necropolitics, simply, the politics of death: the ways that we govern aspects of death, such as euthanasia, illegal suicide, burial practices, the right to die, the expectation that we are treated for diseases (or immunised against them). There is a kind of hypocrisy at play: policies that allow for medical use may simultaneously allow toxic substances/therapies into the environment, our food or medications.
Esposito shows that biopolitical issues occur as a result of governance that overemphasises the importance of biological immunity over community. “Derrida brought to the fore in another fashion – between immunization and self-immunization. We all know what autoimmune diseases are. They are pathological conditions that occur when our body’s immune system becomes so strong that it turns against itself, causing the death of the body. This does not happen all the time, of course. Normally the immune system is limited to a role of preservation, without turning against the body that houses it. But when this does happen, it is not provoked by an external cause but rather by the immune mechanism itself, which is intensified to an intolerable degree. A similar dynamic is also recognizable in the body politic, when the protective barriers against the outside begin to represent a greater risk than what they are intended to prevent. As we know, one of our society’s greatest risks today lies in an excessive demand for protection, which in some cases tends to produce an impression of danger, whether real or imagined, for the sole purpose of setting up increasingly powerful preventive defense weapons against it [emphasis mine]” (Esposito 2013, p. 86).
“For Foucault, the techniques of biopolitical government spread as a network of power that goes beyond the juridical spheres to become
a horizontal, tentacular force, traversing the entire territory of lived experience and penetrating each individual body.” (Preciado 2020, para 2). For the anthropologist Emily Martin, as for Critical Art Ensemble who I will write more about in an upcoming blog, the controlling force over the body is not just the technology itself, but the shared political-cultural concept of the body. Martin studied immunity and politics in relation to the polio and AIDS crises in the United States. “The body’s immunity… is not a biological fact independent of cultural and political variables. On the contrary, what we understand to be immunity is constructed through social and political criteria that produce sovereignty or exclusion, protection or stigmatization, life or death” (Martin cited in Preciado 2020, para. 6). Pandemics, Preciado continues: “allow us to appreciate how the virus actually reproduces, materializes, widens, and intensifies (from the individual body to the population as a whole) the dominant forms of biopolitical and necropolitical management that were already operating oversexual, racial, or migrant minorities before the state of exception” (2020, para. 8). The current pandemic is setting the scene within which the regulation and dissemination of nanobiotechnologies will operate in coming years. Now, as increasing numbers of nanobiotechnologies enter first-time-in-human experimental trials, is the moment to be questioning: what biopolitical repressions are made visible by the current crisis that are in normal times hidden, and how might they be renegotiated before the widespread introduction of nanobiotechnologies?
As Preciado sketches out the relationship between biotechnologies and control, he may as well be speaking about nanobiotechnologies:
“We are no longer regulated solely by [the passage of power and knowledge] through disciplinary institutions (school, factory, barracks, hospital, etc.) but by a set of biomolecular technologies that enter into the body by way of microprostheses and technologies of digital surveillance subtler and more insidious than anything Gilles Deleuze envisioned in his famous prognostications about the society of control.In the domain of sexuality, the pharmacological modification of consciousness and behavior, the mass consumption of antidepressants and anxiolytics, and the globalization of the contraceptive pill, as well as antiretroviral therapies, preventative AIDS therapies, and Viagra, are some of the indicators of biotechnological management, which in turn synergizes with new modes of semiotechnical management that have arisen with the surveillance state and the global expansion of the network into every facet of life” (Preciado 2020, para. 12). “What is now being tested on a global scale through the management of Covid-19 is a new way of understanding sovereignty. The body, your individual body, as a life space and as a network of power, as a center of production and of energy consumption, has become the new territory where the violent border politics that we have been designing and testing for years on “others” are now expressed, now taking the form of containment measures and of a war against the virus. The new necropolitical frontier has shifted from the coast of Greece toward the door of your home. Lesbos now starts at your doorstep. And the border is forever tightening around you, pushing you ever closer to your body. Calais blows up in your face. The new frontier is the mask. The air that you breathe has to be yours alone. The new frontier is your epidermis. The new Lampedusa is your skin. For years, we considered migrants and refugees infectious to the community and placed them in detention centers—political limbos where they remained without rights and without citizenship; perpetual waiting rooms. Now we are living in detention centers in our own homes.” (Preciado 2020 para. 16).
“Covid-19 has legitimized and extended such governmental practices of biosurveillance and digital control by standardizing them and making them “necessary” to maintain a feeling of immunity and national health. Nevertheless, the governments that have implemented extreme digital surveillance measures have not yet envisioned prohibiting the traffic and consumption of wild animals or the industrial production of birds and mammals—which is at the origin of viral zoonosis production, including SARS-COV-2—nor the reduction of CO2 emissions. What has grown is not the immunity of the social body but the tolerance of citizens under the cybernetic control of the state and corporations[emphasis mine]” (Preciado 2020, para. 19). One of my concerns is that the current pandemic is leading to fear and an excessive and rapid demand from the public for immunological protection and surveillance that may radically inform the landscape into which nanobiotecnologies will emerge over coming decades. The pandemic perhaps paves the way for an unquestioning acceptance of nanobiosensing technologies in particular and the danger is that existing laws regarding biological and medical surveillance will just be transferred onto new nanobiosensing technologies being ushered into this space (as we have already seen with substances such as nanosilver). This tolerance that Preciado identifies, is something we need to be aware of, and perhaps to shed, as we consider nanobiotechnologies.
The task at hand, argued Esposito in 2013, is “to overturn in some way – indeed in every way – the balance of power between “common” and “immune”; to separate the immunitary protection of life from its destruction by means of the common; to conceptualize the function of immune systems in a different way, making them into relational filters between inside and outside instead of exclusionary barriers.” (Esposito 2013 p. 86-87). In this excerpt he touches on an important point for my work, that of exclusionary barriers. These conceptual boundaries, whether they be the barrier of the skin, or between organs, or national borders, are conceptually responsible for the fear of their breach, whether by nanobots or “illegal” migrants. If the concept of the boundary is to be believed then the thing exists as an individual (body or nation), and the “other” is also created. Note too how important language is here, “nanobots” holds a vision of more control of better controlled mechanical articulation, and “illegal migrants” is a dehumanising term. These words, these names, hold power in part through their creation of emotions. One of my collaborators, a chemist who makes nanoscale therapeutics and so can be re-labelled a nanoscientist, told me that they never refer to their therapeutics as nanotechnologies, but by their chemical names, because of the fear response associated with the term “nanotechnology”. That this language is thus recognised and manipulated within scientific-regulatory spaces is both interesting and concerning.
Even though Foucault died of AIDS, says Preciado (2020), he provided us with some of the best “cognitive protective equipment” against “rampant and contagious disinformation” (2020, para 1). I love this idea of cognitive protective equipment, and I hope the works I create following this research and development phase can contribute to both cognitive and emotional protective equipment. Grey Goo (working title) will be an experimental documentary/video artwork that addresses nanobiotechnologies and their influence on the human body as well suggesting the role of media in spreading “contagious disinformation”. The fictional grey goo scenario refers to a process where out-of-human-control nanobots reduce all material matter to individual atoms effectively dissolving everything on earth. Although this is physically impossible and nanotechnologies are far from robotic (see the Drexler-Smalley debate), within the body, nanotechnologies may cross boundaries between organs and create all sorts of havoc as yet unknown to the nascent discipline of nano-toxicology. Utilising a real-time audiovisual instrument I am currently designing, this work will be digitally recorded from a slow disintegration of the video and audio. It will distort human forms and question the role of nanobiotechnologies in how we conceive of the biological body—physiologically, culturally and politically.
One of the aims of this research and development phase of the project is to characterise nanobiotech in order to work toward an understanding of their biopolitical potentialities. In addition to my existing relationships with nanoscientstist at the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility at RMIT, I have recently been talking with Professor Killugudi Swaminathan Iyer at the University of Western Australia. He has published some extensive characterisation work that I draw upon here along with the research done by my collaborator Professor Vipul Bansal and his team at the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility at RMIT.
To bring in thinking around biopolitics it’s important to understand the different types of nanobiotechnologies. One think that struck me about the whole Genetically Modified Organism backlash was that the public largely took GMOs to be a single technology that they were then for or against. In fact “genetic modification” is an umbrella term over multiple different technologies, and therefore their benefits and risks are different, some more benign and well-known, others potentially more severe. I’m still learning about the policy side of how nanotechnologies are regulated (or not) but it strikes me that perhaps this is an issue for policy-making of molecular and sub-molecular technologies too — that they must make some sort of broader categorisations to reduce the sheer amount of work developing policy. It is also clearly a problem to take a general stance of for or against nanotechnologies that, as we will see below, have many different actions, and that that nanotechnologies and nanobiotechnologies both refer to a broad range of different technologies.
Their only overarching similarity is that they are designed and operate at a scale of 0.1-100nm. Some may be developed by materials scientists interested in materials to make tiny electronics, and others made by chemists looking to enhance the activity of drugs in the human body. Given this, in thinking about speculative conceptual, cultural and biopolitical influences, I am working toward knowledge of how nanobiotechnologies act in the body, and which generalisations we can and can’t make about the different classes of technology.
So nanobiotechnologies have the following general uses (and all of these categories cover multiple technologies):
Drug & gene delivery applications
Nanoscale frameworks can de designed to carry drugs or genes to specific sites within the body. These can protect drugs from clearance and disintegration prior to reaching the desired site of action. These might take the form of nanocapsules, nanospheres, dendrimers, micelles, liposomes or Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs). These are engineered, through the choice between the above structures, and their coatings to pass through biological barriers and travel to specific sites in the body. See Killugudi Swaminathan Iyer. In the case of genes, these can be delivered to cells, absorbed and replicated by the cell to produce the protein that they code for. See Ravi Shukla and my work with ZIF-8. Some researchers are exploring this area to provide needle-less vaccinations.
Sensing and diagnostic applications This class of nanotechnology is largely based around nanoparticles of different sizes and shapes that are used in systems that create a colour change or other visually perceptible measure in the presence of a pathogenic biological marker, for example excess glucose in the urine. See Vipul Bansal.
Nanoparticles can be designed to enhance current medical imaging. They might be designed to have magnetic and radioactive properties for example to allow the crossover of two different imaging techniques, allowing specificity and higher resolution than with the techniques used individually.
Medical implants and micro-prostheses
I mention this class here as it connects to well-debated ethical issue of human enhancement. At this stage nanotechnology is seen by the medical field as having potential to enhance larger prosthetics such as pacemakers, or to help bone attach to metal prostheses.
Most common in this category are silver nanoparticles that can kill bacteria by punching holes in their walls. It is currently being used in cleaning products and socks. There is concern that its unregulated use may lead to microbial resistance in the same way we are seeing with antibiotics.
Genetic detection tools
Gold nanoparticles are used as nucleic acid probes (for both DNA and RNA). This allows for highly specific identification and locating of genes for downstream techniques such as gene editing.
The holy grail of nano medicine would be to engineer the rebuilding of damaged cells and tissues at an atomic and molecular level, for example, for bone and neural reengineering, or the growth of organs for implantation.
As I will consider in my next post, there seems to be a lot of fear around nanotechnology in the body (rightly so), and part of this comes down to their size and ability to cross barriers in the body. Although there is still a long way to go to understand and regulate nanomaterials there is scientific research on which biological barriers in the body might be traversed by nanoparticles.
Blood brain barrier
While the blood brain barrier is a highly effective barrier against most substances, in theory nanotechnologies can be engineered to traverse this layer. In order to enter they must be covered with a lipophilic (fat-loving) coating. Research is being done on this route for the drug delivery of doxorubicin for the treatment of brain tumors and other drugs for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders.
While nanoparticles have not yet shown to be able to penetrate in tact skin, they can enter hair follicles and this route is being used by researchers looking at nanoparticle-bound drug delivery to the surrounding skin.
Olfactory Mucous Membrane
Compared with the blood brain barrier, this membrane gives much more direct access to the brain and concerns have been raised around how easily nanoparticles might enter the brain via this route. For this reason nanoparticles are used within fume hoods to protect cineasts from inhalation. It has been shown that carbon black (at a size of under 100nm) can travel across the olfactory muscous membrane and into the forebrain.
Our gastro-intestinal tract is highly specialised for the uptake of different molecules (food), their digestion, and the delivery of the nutrients via the blood to the organs. There is also the possibility for nanomaterials to cross the gastro-intestinal tract barrier. According to present law in the EU, the producers are obligated to list all synthetic components in food. Since 2014, in the EU, all food additives in the nanometre size range have to be specifically labelled with the addition of “(nano)” in the list of ingredients. The large area of the intestines allows the uptake of many low molecular weight substances such as nutrients, vitamins, and certain drugs but also of poisons and other unwanted materials. It is assumed that about 1012 to 1014 inorganic nanoparticles per day reach the gastro-intestinal tract via food intake.
The air-blood barrier in the lungs is designed for gaseous exchange, and the chance of nanoparticles entering our bodies via this route is relatively high. Nanomaterials are used in a variety of different products such as sunscreen, surface coatings, paint, or textiles. Inhalation of these nanomaterials is possible during production but also during the products’ usage and disposal. Several medical diagnostic or therapeutic products are made of or contain nanoparticles to either directly treat the lung or other diseases via the lung as a point of entry.
Studies on nanotechnology and placental permeability are rare but again, due to permeability by design, it is assumed that this barrier could be easily crossed by nanomaterials and so we should exercise concern about potential nanotoxicity to developing embryos.
In most of these cases the potential benefits of therapeutic delivery is clear. But the challenge with discussing the ethics, and broader social implications of these technologies is the simultaneity of positive and negative effects of the technology (the same technology might have positive effects for an individual and negative effects for a community, alternatively, the effects of one technology may be positive for one person and negative for another). No-one can ethically argue against the benefits of better cancer therapies, however, the attitude that everything built for better health outcomes is beyond debate or critique, is dangerous. It makes us loathe to voice the potential risks to our autonomy, our health and our broader culture and society, and more likely to blindly accept new technologies. We can see the detrimental effects of this, and the admissions of this lack of broader consideration in social media use (documented through interviews in The Social Dilemma (2020)). With every new suite of technologies we have a chance to discuss and consider the technology from all perspectives. The outcome is unlikely to be a black and white approval or ban, but such discussion may lead to more nuanced modes of management, regulation and use.
Heading into the creative production phase of this work, I will work with as many people as possible, scientists and the public, to collectively perform these kinds of considerations and discussions. If they’re not happening enough in spaces of governance, then they can happen in spaces of art. I earlier asked if art can be an ethical or moral centre for science. Maybe the question is better posed: will art be an ethical or moral centre for science? If we act on and respond to these issues, then the answer to both questions, is yes.
It’s no coincidence that art that deals with the body politic is skewed toward works made by female artists: non-male bodies are most at risk from systematic oppression by biological technologies. Take the example of cancers of the sex organs: cervical and prostate. If we look at the systemic management of these two issues, one that largely affects women and the other that affects men, we see that prostate cancer involves little “guidance” around the requirements of men to be tested. A man feels pain, or may have a lover notice an unusual swelling, and he is then free to seek medical advice if he so chooses.
Women in Australia, on the other hand, have been required to present for invasive cervical testing every two years after the age of 18, even when asymptomatic, and even more frequently after having abnormal cells detected. These tests are traumatic for many young women, as are diagnoses of “abnormal cells”, only 5-20% of which ever go on to be determined malignant. 85% of women infected with HPV will go on to rid themselves of the infection without having parts of their cervix removed in procedures that can lead to an inability to have carry a baby to full term due to weakness of the lower cervix. The problem here is the psychological, and in some cases physiological, damage for women without much choice.
These tests have become so commonplace that we women feel obligated to undergo these tests, which are seen as part of “properly taking care of your health”. One problem is that younger women, more likely to be in a phase of sexual exploration in their lives, and perhaps to have different partners, will be exposed to a greater number microflora, even with the use of condoms. This exposure creates temporary changes that are normal—and not necessarily pathological—but affected cells are assigned the status of abnormal, and this wording has led to several women I have spoken to misinterpreting the result as pre-cancerous. In addition to this, in Australia, we have recently rolled out immunizations against the common Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which the Australian Department of Health blandly states “can cause genital warts and cancer.” . HPV is a virus that is sexually transmitted, but that is so common that most sexually active people have it at some point, although many are asymptomatic. The HPV vaccine is available to everyone, being most effective when given prior to becoming sexually active, however, it is marketed largely toward young women, being affectionately dubbed The Cervical Cancer Vaccine.
Thankfully, advances in testing have meant the Australian Cervical Screening Program has replaced the 2 yearly pap smear test with a once every 5 years HPV test, which although the sampling procedure is still invasive, is more accurate and therefore needs to be done less often. However, the language used on their website reinforced the sense that this is not an option: “For most women aged 25 to 74, your first Cervical Screening Test is due two years after your last Pap test. After that, you will only need to have the test every five years if your result is normal.” This sense of it being a requirement rather than choice is reinforced by the repeated communications from general practitioners when tests are due.
Now this is not to say I am against our health system for providing opportunities for early detection and treatment, for many this has been a life-saving measure, but the example serves to point out that the system provides different approaches for different genders, and that one perspective of this scenario is that of an oppression against biologically female bodies. Men are able to manage their own bodies, while women’s bodies must be managed.
With that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that we find predominantly find female artists working with body politics in art. In Australia we have artists such as Patricia Piccinini, Helen Pynor and Julie Rrap, whose work imparts the themes of power over the body—by individuals, institutions, technology — and with the possibilities and perils of this influence, beyond the scientific and into the feminist, cultural and social realms.