ChapterPDF Available

What about race?


Abstract and Figures

In this contribution, we zoom in on a shape-shifting object: race. We seek to demonstrate how an actor-network-theoretical, non-dualistic sensitivity to concrete practices has diffracted the study of race in politically and ontologically fruitful ways by raising new questions, shedding light on ill-understood practices and opening up the possibility of finding a language with which to do justice to novel configurations of race. As such, ANT has been instrumental in attending to race as a relational and multiple object, and in doing so has challenged us to rethink its status as either a ‘fact’ or a ‘fiction,’ or as a matter of ‘nature’ or a matter of ‘culture.’ However, we not only pay attention to what ANT can do to ‘race,’ we also want to attend to the question what ‘race’ does to ANT. As a shape-shifting object, race challenges certain ANT habits of thought, that is, its emphasis on presence, and secondly, its emphasis on the present. With race, we are forced to think not only presence but also absence; and with race, we are required to attend not only to the here and now, but also to multiple histories, presents and possible futures.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Section 4
Translating ANT beyond
science and technology
Celia Roberts, Anders Blok and Ignacio Farías
‘Traditionally,’ if such a word can be used to speak about something so young, actor-network
theorists have focused on science and technology. After all, the core discipline in which
ANT was born – which Bruno Latour emphatically declared ‘the best discipline’ at the 2004
European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Conference in
Paris– is called ‘Science and Technology Studies.’ However, not only are the limits of what
gets to count as ‘science and technology’ eminently stretchable but also, ANT can arguably be
used to study and analyse almost any sociomaterial arrangements. For this section, then, we
invited authors whose work takes ANT into new and possibly unexpected encounters: With
concepts, materialities, practices and spaces that are not conventionally classied as ‘science
and technology.’ We asked them to describe how they translate ANT in such settings, and to
explore and explain what happens both to ANT and to other academic disciplines and ideas
when such encounters occur.
Some of the chapters articulate scenes and practices that are closer to science and tech-
nology than others. Amade M’Charek and Irene Van Oorschot’s chapter on race is probably
the closest: Although their direct empirical focus is on crim inology and public appeals for
assistance in solving crime, the chapter explores the close links between such discourses and
the science of genetics. Our question to them was simple: ‘What about race?’ Their answer,
although clear, is far from simple. Race, they arg ue, is material and relational; any particu-
lar claims about racial dierences – whether made in science or in criminological texts and
images– inevitably fold multiple historical textual and other practices. While ANT has proved
immensely useful for theorising racialising discourses, scientic and otherwise, considering
race also has profound – often under-considered – signicance for all STS scholarship.
Uli Beisel’s chapter on public health in the developing world has a sim ilarly close relation
to science and technology – to biomedicine in par ticular – but her focus here is on how
ANT helps us to understand the complexities and failures of antimalarial campaigns. Re-
ferring to her extensive ethnographic work in Ghana, Beisel shows how an ANT sensibility
illuminates the ways in which pharmaceutical companies, philanthropists and health activists
congure relations between mosquitoes, drugs and bodies that may not work in the best
interests of human health. Taking ANT into the multiple and highly dierentiated sites of
Celia Roberts et al.
‘globalhealth,’ she argues, facilitates new ways of seeing and acting against seemingly en-
trenched, life-threatening inequalities.
Both Liliana Doganova and David J. Denis, wr iting from the Parisian heartlands of ANT,
brilliantly demonstrate how ANT concepts and methods can illum inate practices that are
technical but do not relate directly to science: Namely, economic valuation, and maintenance
and repair, respectively. In both cases, the authors provide clear and concise summaries of
their elds, explaining precisely how ANT has contributed to new theorisations of endoge-
nous key concepts. Doganova argues that while ANT has already made strong contributions
to valuation studies, it has further to go in exploring economic devices beyond those typi-
cally associated with markets. Denis sim ilarly suggests that ANT has much to oer to those
interested in repair and maintenance of objects and systems. While ANT has a rich history of
studying resilience, solidication and strength, Denis proposes, ANT-inspired studies of re-
pair and maintenance highlight the necessity of exploring investigate fragility, breakage and
diversity. How do things and systems – on scales ranging from national economies, through
city transport systems to handheld devices – hold together in dicult circumstances?
Alexa Färber also takes us to the city in her exposition of the extensive and energetic
debates around the use of ANT to study urban contexts. Building on the work of Bender,
Blok and Fariás, she introduces the notion of ‘prom issory assemblage,’ engaging with a range
of disciplines, including anthropology and literary studies to argue that ANT can provide
rich insight into many key issues of urban studies, including modernisation and infrastruc-
turing. The concept of promissory assemblage, she shows, may help scholars to theorise the
promise-or iented elements of cities: Her case studies are not yet built, endlessly promised,
urban public transport systems. How do people live with the promise of better transpor t that
never seems to arrive? What kinds of subjectivities of endurance are produced? And how
might ANT help to theorise cities as places of both hope and failure?
Finally, Arthuro Arruda Leal Ferreira takes us to psychology and psychotherapy – perhaps
two of the least comfortable spaces for many advocates of A NT. In an intriguing account of
an ANT-inspired ethnographic and interview-based study of patients’ and therapists’ experi-
ences of a particular therapy programme in Brazil, Ferreira explores ANT’s complex, some-
what obscured but yet promising, relationship to subjectivity. This chapter tells a nuanced
and many-pleated story about how ANT might – despite its desire to eschew psychological
interiority – facilitate our capacit y to understand what is to be a human self. Exploring a set
of lesser-known ANT texts and arguments, Ferreira gives those who think that A NT has
nothing to do with minds delicious reason to pause.
Together, the chapters in this section showcase just how far ANT has come since its
early days. They demonstrate both the endurance and the exibility of its key ideas and the
ingenuity of its various proponents in taking these further than their originators may have
thought possible. Albeit a small and eclectic set of possible examples, the chapters will, we
hope, both leave readers wondering where ANT might go next and give them tools for tak-
ing it wherever they want to go.
Something ghostly
Let us start right where we always already are: in the middle of things.
Let us start, then, with the snapshot (see Figure 22.1) of an unknown suspect, released on
the 9th of Januar y, 2015, by the Columbia SC Police Department. It shows the face of an in-
dividual whose DNA was found at a crime scene. On the basis of this DNA, Parabon Nano-
Labs, a commercial company, produced a DNA-photot: An image of what the perpetrator
would look like. Striking is the suspect’s face, which is presented here in dierent shades
(dark and light) and from dierent angles in a mug-shot-like fashion. Below the three faces,
the image details information drawn from the DNA at the crime scene, such as geographical
ancestry, skin, hair and eye colour as well as the absence of freckles. Categories are explicated
by bars indicating colours or a map of the world marking places of origin.
There is something arresting about this image: Its portrait-like qualities ask us to consider
the suspect’s face as a singular, identifying characteristic. However, as a collage, it details
and disaggregates that face into measures of likelihood on several dimensions, showing how
the ‘face’ is assembled out of a variet y of measures. It also takes us from face to place, when
a link is made between the suspect’s looks and his likely ancestr y, and from individual to
population, when it details the suspects’ likely ancestry in the categories of West African and
North West European. It connects what is within the suspect – his DNA – with the surface
of his body, his face.
A lot is going on here: Both on the surface of the image and somewhere else. Something
seems to be haunting the image in the jump from individual to population, from probability
to typology (and back). What is made absent here? What places and times does this image
implicate– fold within itself – only to produce this immediately legible surface? What ghost
is here at work?
We propose to think of this ghost as the spectre of race, and this contribution is a way to un-
tangle the many ways race ickers between absence and presence, in and out of our historical
moment. With Callon and Law, we understand that which is present to be irrevocably entan-
gled with productive and generative absences (2004); we also understand that which is ‘of the
now’ to be produced by intricate foldings of multiple temporalities which are never entirely
What about race?
Amade M’charek and Irene van Oorschot
Amade M’charek and Irene van Oorschot
lost (Derrida 1993; Bhabha 1994; Latour and Serres 1995; M’charek 2014). Thinking with this
image, we contend, means thinking with the continuing and troubling realities of race.
This is not immediately obvious, perhaps. Since the 1951 UNESCO statement on race
declaring that there is no scientic basis for classifying people racially, many have taken race
to be a pseudoscientic concept. W hile the UNESCO statement has rendered some ways
of understanding race quite unpopular or obsolete, we seem, however, to be quite unable to
leave it behind (Lipphardt 2012). Indeed, as human biological dierence continued (and con-
tinues) to be an object of scientic concern in practices of genetics and forensics, biological
dierences have become subject to novel forms of articulation and conguration (Abu El-Haj
2007; Duster 2005; Fullwiley 2007; Koening et al. 2008; M’charek 2005, 2010; Nelson 2008;
Figure 22.1 Nanolab snapshot
What about race?
Whitmarsh, et al 2010; Schramm et al. 2011). In a way, race ‘haunts’ these practices and
makes unexpected appearances.
In this snapshot, for instance, race rears its head when we consider that the face demand-
ing our attention is much more precise about the suspect’s phenotype than the genetic data
seem to allow. For instance, there is no genetic test for the suspect’s hair texture, nor is there
a measure of the relative thickness of his nose or lips. His interpolated West African ancestry
does the rest of the work, it seems: It is that titbit of information that gives shape to his lips,
nose and hair.
Race is not on ly a continuing (if sometimes elusive!) reality, it is also a troubling reality in
the sense that it troubles ready-made, binary distinctions and conceptualisations with which
we apprehend, and act in, the world. On the one hand, the snapshot evokes a conception of
human dierence as rooted squarely in our bodies, in our DNA. It is also a conception of
race that has led researchers in a variety of elds to investigate to what extent distributions
in genetic material inuence intel ligence, aggression, risk-taking behaviour or the relative
risk of certain diseases (Duster 2005). On the other hand, these conceptions have histori-
cally been countered by emphasising the ctional, ‘constructed’ character of race. In such
accounts, race has predominantly been viewed not as a thing in and of our bodies but rather
as a social construction, taken more as a matter of ideology than of ‘real’ science. However,
neither of the two conceptualisations of ‘race’ is adequate to grasp race in the political sense
(M’charek 2013; Nelson 2008).
The empha sis on the ctional, social ly constr ucted charac ter of race leaves us empty-handed
to apprehend and intervene in the burgeoning study of human dierence, most crucially as
it takes place in the practices of population genetics, biomedical research or forensic science.
After all, while geneticists themselves may be quick to point out that the human genome
displays more similar ity than dierence, precisely these genetic dierences assume political
salience in research and discussions regarding medical practices and healthcare (see Braun
2002) or social order and crime (Raine 2008).
Against this background, we ask: What are we to make of this picture? It is too simple to
write race o as politics by scientic means – especially if that means we end up lacking a
lang uage to talk about novel congurations of race. Meanwhile, treating human dierence
rather as an unquestionable fact rooted in nature runs the grave risk of recuperating or rein-
venting racial hierarchies – a move that overlooks how the body itself is an eect of practices
of genetic ‘corporealization’ (Haraway 1997: 141). Contending with the political, ethical,
cultural and economic impacts of the eld of genetics requires a sustained engagement with
the question of human dierence: How such dierences are made, where they become salient
and consequential, and how they may be unmade.
In the following pages, we demonstrate how cer tain actor-network theoretically inspired
moves are able to generate important diractions in the study of ‘race.’ Central in this section
are the distinctions between fact and ction and nature and culture, distinctions that ‘race’
continually evokes as well as disavows. Here, ANT and especially feminist studies of techno-
science ser ve as ‘tools for thinking’ (Stengers 2005: 185), that is, as tools to think with, and
through, the spectre of race. At the same time, we discuss how ‘race’ requires us to question
and adapt our tools, as with the emphasis on the material-semiotic ‘network’ often comes a
largely unattended kind of presentism, prioritising both that which is present spatially (in the
network) and temporally (as a present). Race asks us, indeed, to attend not only to presence
but that which is (made) absent, not only to the here and now, but to the forgotten or erased.
As ghosts are not simply ‘of the past’ nor something ‘of the present’ (Buse and Scott 1999),
race asks us to consider temporalities of various sorts.
Amade M’charek and Irene van Oorschot
Diffracting race
If the preceding responses to race have concentrated on the question, what is race (fact or
ction? Nature or culture?), the primary contribution of ANT to the study of race has been
to let go of such denitional exercises and instead ask: W here and how is race done? It calls us to
attend to images like these not as a representation, but to ask instead: How does this image
do race (M’charek 2013)?
With this performative rather than representational approach comes the possibility that
we are not dealing with a singular, underlying reality, but instead with multiple realities.
Mol’s (2002) conception of the object multiple has helped to attend to the specicity and
situatedness of objects as they are made and remade in specic practices. In other words, at
stake in knowledge-making practices may not be dierent perspectives on essential ly the
same objects (e.g. disease or biolog ical dierence), but rather dierent ways of enacting an
object. These dierent enactments may ‘hang together’ – for instance, when coordination or
hierarchisation takes place – yet, we cannot assume, therefore, that these objects are essen-
tially the same thing, or related to a singular referent.
The snapshot is a case in point. It shows ‘race’ to be simultaneously something legible on
the surface of the body as well as a matter of genes. It shows race to be tied to place, yet at the
same time treats race as a probabilistic value. We are dealing, then, with a multiplicity. These
dierent enactments of race ‘hang together’ in this case because they are brought together in
one image, oering an individual up for inspection.
But how was this image made? It is one thing to talk about the realities it enacts, but
it is another to carefully scrutinise how it came about. This is another crucial contribu-
tion of ANT to the study of race: It cautions us against understanding scientic facts as
simple representational statements. It prevents us from forgetting that facts were made in
the rst place.
Claes and colleagues (2014) are a prime example of such fact-making – which, as we
will see, is also partially a practice of race-making. In their paper, which reports on the
scientic work for the Parabon Snapshot-tool, they are interested in facial composite con-
struction on the basis of 24 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Focusing on these
SNPs, they argue, can help to generate an individualised image of a potential suspect. Their
work is based on a study of the facial features and the genes of 592 individuals, 1840year s
old, clustered in three populations: US-Amer ican, Brazilian and Cape Verdean. They
report that the three populations were genetically clustered according to European and
African ancestry facial forms. In this research based on the study of genetic markers and
facial landmarks facilitated by 3D images, genetic ancestry is the pivotal operator in their
face-making technology:
We rst use genomic ancestr y and sex to create a base-face, which is simply an average
sex and ancestr y matched face. Subsequently, the eects of 24 individual SNPs1 that
have been shown to have signicant eects on facial variation are overlaid on the base-
face forming the predicted-face in a process akin to a photomontage.
(Claes et al. 2014: 208)
Analyses of the 3D images of 592 individuals, the authors argue, have suggested 44
principal components (landmarks) on the basis of which all facial variation can be ex-
plained. Recombining these data, the technology promises to uncover patterns that are
invisible to the bare eye.
What about race?
Moving from the surface to the molecular, population genetics is called upon to produce
a ‘base-face.’ In theory, this would be the average face compiled on the basis of 591 individu-
als. But the 24 SNPs aimed at individualising face are statistically accurate only when anal-
ysed within homogeneous populations. The individual can’t quite do without a population
(M’charek 2000)! Hence the African and European ancestry populations. This means that the
‘base-face’ is the base-face of the population to which the specic subject is said to belong
(African or European). In accordance with the genetic clustering of the 592 individuals based
on ancestry markers, their faces are allocated to one of these populations. The 44 landmarks
can then be used to cor relate and determine the base-face of one of these populations. Of
course, this is an operation not dissimilar to the making of racial types. The base-face thus
becomes a racial type.
Specic ways of relating DNA and face are here at work. These ways of relating DNA and
face can only occur in practices mobilising statistics, advanced genetic testing procedures,
digital visualising software – and, we note, practices mobilising a conception of internally
homogeneous yet distinct populations. Thus, race becomes a device that mediates between
DNA and face. In that capacity, it is also a relational object: Not only made through relations,
but active in mak ing relations anew, too. Indeed, the mobilisation of population genetics
in the production of an individualised face means that there might be other ways to make
individual faces; ways, perhaps, that instead of mobilising population types involve scalar
measures (a possibility the authors themselves mention).
Materiality, relationality and multiplicity are key concepts in ANT-inspired approaches
and mobilised in this context which teach us important lessons with regard to race.
Characterised by a ‘pragmatic respecication’ (van Oorschot 2018) of the denitional
question, ‘what is race?’ this approach is more interested in the question: ‘how and where
is race done?’ This gesture is indebted in many ways to feminist studies of technoscience,
and in particular the non-dualist thinking of Donna Haraway, whose thought, especially
her gure of the cyborg (1991), continually resists the logic of either/or that structures
our habits of thought (see Johnson, this volume). As we will see, with this pragmatic sen-
sibility comes a dierent way to attend to the reality of race, and the ways it is ‘natural
or ‘cultural.’
Instead of dening ANT, the previous discussion has instead aimed to demonstrate its
uses in the case of race. More than a theory in any substantive sense, it is rst and foremost
a pragmatic sensibilit y (see also Alcadipani and Hassard 2010; Law 1991). ANT is better
apprehended as a lever to set things in motion, a tool to be ‘passed from hand to hand,’
than as a theor y or xed collections of instruments (Mol 2010). However, as we will see,
race itself sets ANT in motion, too, and particularly the emphasis, in ANT, on present
doings and an attendant relative neglect of absent or past doings. Indeed, paying close at-
tention to race means running up against certain tendencies in the now canonical ANT
studies of laboratories, clinics and other sites of knowledge-making. These tendencies are
presentist in that the emphasis on material-semiotic network has often led analysts to con-
centrate on that which is present rather than absent, and secondly, presentist in the sense
that they concentrate on that which is going on ‘in the present’ at the cost of developing
an understanding of networks or objects as they make, mobilise or fold multiple histories
and temporalities. In a way, ANT has not itself been impervious to a metaphysics of pres-
ence (Heidegger 1962; Law 2006), prior itising the temporal present and what is present
over the forgotten, illusive, erased or suppressed (Law and Singleton 2004). Both forms
of presentism, we will demonstrate, handicap our thinking about and thinking with the
spectre of race.
Amade M’charek and Irene van Oorschot
Going underground and surfacing again: race as an absent presence
Scientic practices are a matter of making relations between people, things, ideas and the
recalcitrances of objects of study. The network, the oft-evoked metaphor to understand these
imbrications, has been a crucial concept to attend to precisely this relationality, and has been
crucial to uncover this sometimes eeting and messy relational realities from narratives that
would ‘black-box’ the network.
Reading our image in relation, as it were, to relationality, we would be able to attend to
the practices taking place in between a crime scene and the Snapshot. We would be able to
ask questions about the gathering of evidence and the way legal standards of evidence collec-
tion, the distribution of tasks over ocials in the chain of custody, the practices of forensic
geneticists, the design of the genetic testing and the design of the software used in generating
the snapshot. We could trace this image further, trying to follow it around as it mobilises
interests and is taken up in practices of identication, investigation and legal truth-telling.
Indeed, a second snapshot (see Figure 22.2) based on the same genetic mater ial, this time
produced in 2017, is more suggestive of its implication in forensics and, by extension, in the
legal system. The individual, we learn here, has now become part of a ‘case.’ The snapshot
displays a case-number and a phone number to call with the police. This image, more so
Figure 22.2 Nanolab snapshot result 2
What about race?
than the rst, folds the individual into a circuitry of both scientic and forensic forms of
truth-making; perhaps, it exists at their nexus, at the place the two circuits cross each other.
The image’s implication in forensics draws our attention to a specic way of asking ques-
tions about our research materials that can teach us not only about race, but also about the
presentist limitations of ANT. In forensics, the task is to use available materials as traces and
clues to that which for now tends to escape our observations (see also van Oorschot 2018); it
is particularly interested in following trajectories and uncovering paths. But forensics is also
a practice of making relations, of drawing lines and connections even where these seem to
be cut o. Following these traces and clues may take us to sur prising places and actors that
may not be immediately present, but do play a role in the production of this image. Actants
shimmer in and out of existence, are themselves ‘pattern[s] of presences and absences’ (Law
and Singleton 2004: 12) or go underground as soon as we try to grasp them, only to appear
just in the peripher y of our vision (see also M’charek et a l. 2014).
In our image, ‘race’ is shimmering just like this. In tying face to place, the image is on the
one hand suggestive of race as type. Locating this suspect’s face in ‘West Africa,’ evoked is a
world in which dierent populations occupy dierent, circumscribed spaces in this world.
On the other hand, this interpretation is belied by the probabilistic measures detailing the
suspects’ ancestry, which fal ls apart into ‘92% West African’ and ‘8% North West European,’
suggesting that at stake is not typological ‘race’ but a probabilistic categorisation based on
in ancestry populations. The tension is evident: ‘race’ ickers in and out of existence in the
oscillation between these dierent ways to ‘read’ the image: as type and as ancestr y. In this
sense, ‘race’ acquires characteristics of an absent-presence: It becomes present at the expense
of things that are made absent. Of course, the problem is not that things are rendered absent,
but rather that this proceeds without further reection (Law 2004) on what is being made
absent and to what eect. Think, as an example, of something that is rendered unimportant
and absent, for instance, of our own modes of seeing and witnessing. Would we have readily
‘seen’ race if the unknown suspect had been white? Or is our way of seeing ‘race’ part and
parcel of sedimented infrastructures of knowledge? The suspect’s blackness alerts us to race
in ways that suspend questions about the ways our ver y modes of seeing and glancing are
racialised. However, the suspect’s race does not exist in and of itself. It is relational and its
presence depends on many things that are made absent. Race, always in ight, forces us to
ask precisely the question: What about race?
Folds of time
Studies within ANT have developed var ious ways to attend to the question of time, sensitis-
ing us to how scientic practices both take time and make time. The notion of ‘projectness’
(Law and Singleton 2000), for instance, alerts us to the way the relations between humans and
nonhumans can be given a denite shape and a pre-established duration; how, in other words,
the question of chronolog y and phasing is crucial to the way scientic projects are narrated
and imagined (see also Law 2002). We also encounter temporalities as a salient ingredient
of what we could call scientic self-descriptions: Scientic practices that like to distance
themselves from traditions and are quite comfortable siding with ‘modernity’ in a narrative
of historical rupture; or else, we might encounter a progressive teleology in which scientic
advances are made standing on the ‘shoulders of giants.’ The fact that this is only one way
to conceive of the way scientic practices relate to time is asserted, of course, in La tou r’s We
Have Never Been Modern (1991), in which he makes the case that modernity, and the narrative
of scientic progress, is a poor way to attend to the actual practices of us, Moderns.
Amade M’charek and Irene van Oorschot
The study of human dierence is similarly a eld in which narratives of scientic prog-
ress can be encountered, while being haunted by histories of eugenics and colonialism. A
narrative of historical discontinuity is one way to make race absent: Insisting that at stake
in genetics is not ‘race’ but population, for instance, is a way to enact a break between the
scientic now and the pseudoscientic, racist past. These narratives resonate with appeals
to a post-racial present, in which we have moved beyond race… However, these pasts con-
tinue to haunt (Derr ida 1993) the present. Colonial and imperialist histories are evoked, for
instance, as we are dealing with a Snapshot from a suspect in the US, whose geographic,
genetic or igins likely lie in Western Africa – a fact that obliquely addresses the era of trans-
atlantic slavery and its consequences. More insidiously, yet another history is evoked in the
‘interpretative jump’ from measures of hair, eye and skin colour to the phenotype presented
in the image: A histor y of phenot ypical classications not wholly unrelated to 19th-century
scientic practices and imperialism. A topological (rather than solely linear and chronological)
understanding of time allows us to understand the absent-presentness of ‘race’ as an eect of
temporal cuts and folds (M’charek 2014).
A particularly striking demonstration of the relationship between scientic practices and
racial histories is the so-called Anderson sequence (M’charek, 2005, 2014). The Anderson
sequence was up until the late 1990s the sequence of mitochondrial DNA, used widely in
genetic research as a standard reference against which other strands of mitochondrial DNA
could be compared. These comparisons made it possible to measure dierences between pop-
ulations (in their divergence from the Anderson sequence), or to correct technical errors in
the sequencing process. Importantly, it was also used to measure genetic variations in mito-
chondrial DNA so as to trace genetic lineage (M’charek 2005). For quite a time, the Anderson
sequence was largely an unproblematised and unmarked, ready-to-hand tool in these genetic
research practices. However, a closer look at its histor y suggests that racial histories are folded
into this object in intricate yet revealing ways. First of all, the Anderson sequence was and
is not, if we may use the problematic phrase, ‘naturally occurring.’ Instead, it is a collage of
mtDNA drawn from three dierences sources: Bovine DNA, placental tissue and the HeLa
cell line. And this cell line, used especially in cancer research, was named after the woman
whose cancerous cells were taken, in 1952, to be used in medical research: Henrietta Lacks
(or, as she was known by a pseudonym in the medical community: Helen Lane).
Henrietta Lacks, Landecker (2000) shows, was a black woman in the early 20th-century
US. Her life as well as her encounters with a white medical establishment were signicantly
shaped by her blackness: This was a time in which doctors would routinely neglect to inform
patients, especially black patients, of the exact nature of their disease as well as their proposed
treatment. It was also a time in which medical tissues were taken for research without in-
formed consent. For decades after her death in 1952, it was that tissue that would signicantly
advance cancer research and acquire a life of its own: The HeLa cell line proved to agree with
laboratory conditions and would replicate itself quickly, and oered researchers the oppor-
tunity to experiment almost limitlessly with cancerous cel ls. Again, however, race reared its
head once when it turned out that the HeLa cell line had been contaminating a wide variety
of labs worldwide, a realisation that led to an uneasy discourse linking these cervical cells
with racially (and sexually) charged notions of promiscuit y and pollution (Landecker 2000;
M’charek 2005). The HeLa cell line and the Anderson sequence with it, then, is a folded
object: While its historicity may not be written on its surface, it is nevertheless folded into it.
History can be recalled in objects. History is never left behind’ (M’charek 2014: 31).
Objects, then, can be conceived of as folds. Take another example of the relation bet ween
race and temporalities. Contrast our rst snapshot with the second one presented earlier.
What about race?
While the rst snapshot was made in 2015, the second one was produced more recently, in
2017. Aside from the way the image has been now more visibly implicated into a forensic
circuitr y, we see a few additional changes. While the rst image spoke of a suspect with 92%
West African and 8% North West European ‘roots,’ the second image disaggregates the sus-
pect’s DNA in more detail. The second image tells us that the suspect still shares most DNA
with people from West Africa, but he has also ancestry in other parts of Africa. It now reads:
West Africa, 77.39; Europe, 6.85; South Africa, 6.30; East Africa 5.5; Indigenous Africa, 3.14.
To be sure, the DNA of the suspect did not change over time. What did change was the num-
ber of entries in the database to which the DNA of the suspect was compared a few years later.
The larger the collection of DNA samples, the larger the diversity in ancestry produced
which reminds us of the fact that genetic dierence is not in the DNA but of the DNA.
Curiously, we see that the suspect’s face, which is now based upon more precise and dis-
aggregated measures of ancestry, has not changed one bit. Indeed, by contrasting the more
individualising specicities with the col lectivising-type features, the face gains in reliabilit y.
Individuality moves front-stage, while race fades away, to become a matter of fact of diver-
sity. Contrasting the rst and the second images al lows us to appreciate the image as a folded
object, in which time is an operator rather than a parameter or a chronological line on which
to allocate events (Rheinberger 1997). The second image works precisely as a folded object
as it superimposes two moments in time, t wo knowledge practices that are as far apart as two
years. Indeed, denying the passage of a certain kind of time is also, of course, a way of doing
and evoking time.
The notion of the folded object oers us a glimpse of what it could mean to treat practices
as involving the partial silencing and partial mobilisation of histories, within which not only
human beings, but objects too are complex folds of time. Presents, it turns out, are always
made by intricate foldings of dierent pasts (Serres and Latour 1995). As such, the incorpo-
ration of such a sensitivity to temporality and history also provides a way into the question
of politics, itself the articulation of possible futures. In particular in the case of politically
sensitive topics – race, sex, belonging and the nation – an emphasis on the way histories are
implicated in their making oers us a way out of presentisms or teleologies that are charac-
teristic of scientic practices and the erasure of racial histories.
Ghostly ANTics
If race is productively refracted using the combined ANT sensibilities of relationality, multi-
plicity and relationality, race itself productively addresses a largely implicit kind of presentism
within actor-network theor y. Crucially, race demonstrates that objects or networks are not
simply spatial entities or accomplishments, but may icker back and for th bet ween presence
and absence, and may be themselves temporally folded. Thinking with the object of race asks
us to (re)consider other sites, networks and objects within these non-presentist terms. Can
we have an eye for dierent and multiple temporalities as these are folded within ostensibly
black-boxed, ‘ready-to-hand’ objects? Can we allow ourselves to trace not simply what is
made present in networks, but those objects that contribute to the making of networks in
more ambiguous ways?
And what would happen to our understanding of other concepts of the critical tradition
using the emphasis on absences and time? Is it possible to conceive not only of race, but also
of sexualit y, gender or even class in such terms? Thinking along with these suggestions, we
can not only consider, for instance, for the way sexuality is a matter of both cultural and sci-
entic modes of ordering and comparing bodies and objects (chromosomes, brain structures,
Amade M’charek and Irene van Oorschot
hormones, etc.), but also for the way these modes of enacting sexuality evoke and disavow
multiple temporalities, such as the progressive temporalit y of child-adolescent-adult as much
as a transhistorical temporality of sexual essentialism, i.e. the eternal feminine… Or think of
the way class is not only a matter of bodies plugged more or less securely in certain circuitries
of value (money, esteem, etc.), but also something that is selectively made invisible or sup-
pressed in networks ostensibly relying on performance. Thus, it may become possible, too,
to refract the matter of intersectionality, for can we not understand intersectional ‘identities’
as congealing out of highly situated patternings of absences and presences (M’charek 2010)?
Thinking with the spectre of race alerts us to the ways scientic practices are crucial to the
doing of both objects and subjects, and the ways these congeal and dissolve in complex pat-
ternings of times and spaces. The spectre of race thus alerts us to the ways folds matter to the
world as it is – and what it may become.
We thank the editors of and contributors to this ANT-companion for feedback and helpful
suggestions during one of the workshops dedicated to this volume held in Copenhagen. We
are also grateful to the European Research Council for suppor ting our research through an
ERC Consolidator Grant (FP7-617451-RaceFaceID-Race Matter: On the Absent Presence
of Race in Forensic Identication); see also
Abu El-Haj, N. 20 07. ‘The genetic reinscription of race.’ Annual Review of Anthropology 36: 283300.
Alcadipani, R. and Hassard, J. 2010. ‘Actor-net work theory, organizations and crit ique: towards a
politics of organizing.’ Organization 17(4): 419 436.
Bhabha, H. K. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.
Braun, L. 2002. ‘Race, ethnicity, and health: can genetics explain disparities?’ Perspectives in Biology and
Medicine 45(2): 15 9 –174.
Buse, P. and Scott, A. eds. 1999. Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History. London: Macmillan.
Callon, M. and Law, J. 2004. ‘Introduction: absence – presence, circulation, and encountering in com-
plex space.’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2 2(1): 3 –11.
Claes, P., Hill, H. and Shriver, M. D. 2014. ‘Toward DNA-based facial composites: preliminary results
and validation.’ Forensic Science International: Genetics 13: 208–216.
Derr ida, J. 1993. Spectres of Marx. New York: Routledge.
Duster, T. 2005 ‘Race and reication in science.’ Science 307(5712): 1050 –1051.
Fullwiley, D. 2007. ‘The molecularization of race: instit utionalizing human dierence in pharmacog-
enetics practice.’ Science as Culture 16(1): 1–30 .
Haraway, D. 1991. ‘A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socia list-fem inism in the late
twentieth century.’ In Haraway, D. (ed.), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: T he Reinvention of Nature.
London: Free Association Books, pp. 149–183.
Haraway, D. 1997. Modest Witness@SecondMillennium [etc.] New York: Routledge.
Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time. New York: University of New York Press.
James, W. 1995[1907]. Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer sity Press.
Koening, B.A., Lee, S.-J. and Richardson, S.S. (eds.) 2008. Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Landecker, H. 2000. ‘Im mortal ity, invitro: A histor y of the HeLa cell line.’ In Brodwin, P. (eds.) Bio-
technology and Culture: Bodies, Anxieties, Ethics.Bloomington:Indiana Universit y Press, pp.53 –72.
Latour, B. 1991. We’ve Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Universit y Press.
Latour, B. and Ser res, M. 1990. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. A nn Arbor: University of
Michigan Press.
Law, J. 1991. ‘Introduction: monsters, machines and sociotechn ical relations.’ In Law, J. (ed.) A Sociol-
ogy of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. London: Routledge, pp. 1–23.
What about race?
Law, J. 2004. After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. London: Routledge.
Law, J. and Singleton, V. 2000. ‘Perform ing technology’s stor ies.’ Technology and Culture 41: 765–775 .
Law, J. and Singleton, V. 2004. ‘Object lessons.’ Organization 12(3): 331–355.
Lipphardt, V. 2012. ‘Isolates and crosses in hu man population genetics; or, a contextua lization of
Ger man race science.’ Current Anthropology 53(5): 69–82.
M’charek, A. 2000. ‘Technologies of population: forensic DNA testing practices and the making of
dierences and sim ilarities.’ Congurations 8 (1): 121–158.
M’charek, A. 2005. T he Human Genome Diversity Project: An Ethnography of Scientic Practice. Cambr idge:
Cambr idge University Press.
M’charek, A. 2010. ‘Fragile dierences, relational eects: stories about the mater iality of race and sex.’
European Journal of Women’s Studies 17(4): 307–322.
M’charek, A. 2013. ‘Beyond fact or ction: on the materiality of race in pract ice’ Cultural Anthropology
28(3): 420–442.
M’charek, A. 2014 ‘Race, time, and folded objects: The HeLa error.’ Theory, Culture and Society 31(6):
M’charek, A., Schramm, K. and Skinner, D. 2014. ‘Technolog ies of belonging: the absent presence of
race in Europe.’ Science, Technology & Human Values 39(4): 459–467.
Mol, A. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, NC: Duke Universit y Press.
Mol, A. 2010. ‘Actor-net work theory: sensitive ter ms and endur ing tensions.’ Kölner Zeitschrift für
Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 50(1):253–269.
Nelson, A. 2008. ‘Bio science: genetic genealog y testing and the pursu it of Af rican ancestr y.’ Social
Studies of Science 38(5): 759–783.
Raine, A. 20 08. ‘From genes to brain to antisocial behaviour.’ Current Directions in Psychological Science
17: 323–328.
Rheinberger, H. J. 1997. Toward a History of Epistemic Things. Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube.
Redwood, CA: St anford University Press.
Schramm, K., Skinner, D. and Rottenburg, R. eds. 2011. Identity Politics after DNA: Re/Creating
Categories of Dierence and Belonging. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Serres M. and Latour B. 1995. Conversations on Science, Culture and Time. Ann Arbor: Un iversity of
Michigan Press.
Stengers, I. 2005. ‘Introductor y notes on an ecolog y of practices.’Cultural Studies Review1 1(1) :1 83 – 19 6.
Van Oorschot, I. 2018. Ways of Case-Making. Dissertation, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Whitmarsh, I. and Jones, D. S. 2010. What’s the Use of Race? Modern Governance and the Biology of
Dierence.Cambridge, M A:MIT Press.
The (re-)surfacing of race in forensic practices has received plenty of attention from STS scholars, especially in connection with modern forensic genetic technologies. In this article, I describe the making of facial depictions based on the skulls of unknown deceased individuals. Based on ethnographic research in the field of craniofacial identification and forensic art, I present a material-semiotic analysis of how race comes to matter in the face-making process. The analysis sheds light on how race as a translation device enables oscillation between the individual skull and population data, and allows for slippage between categories that otherwise do not neatly map on to one another. The subsuming logic of race is ingrained – in that it sits at the bases of standard choices and tools – in methods and technologies. However, the skull does not easily let itself be reduced to a racial type. Moreover, the careful efforts of practitioners to articulate the individual characteristics of each skull provide clues for how similarities and differences can be done without the effect of producing race. Such methods value the skull itself as an object of interest, rather than treat it as a vehicle for practicing race science. I argue that efforts to undo the persistence of race in forensic anthropology should focus critical attention on the socio-material configuration of methods and technologies, including data practices and reference standards.
Full-text available
In this contribution, we analyze the recently adjudicated Milica van Doorn rape and murder case. In this case, committed in 1992, no suspect could be identified until investigatory actors employed familial DNA searching in 2017. Crucially, familial DNA typing raised the possibility of ethnic and racial stereotyping and profiling, particularly against the background of the first case in which familial DNA typing was used in the Netherlands: the Marianne Vaatstra case, which from the start had been marred by controversy about the ethnicity of the unknown perpetrator. In our analysis, we show how criminal justice actors managed this potential for racialization through strategically mobilizing and carefully managing multiple collectives. Drawing on the notions of multiplicity and non-coherence, we show we do not only empirically trace the situated ethics and pragmatics of familial DNA research in this specific case, but we also develop a theoretical argument on the multiple and non-coherent character of race itself and its attendant ethical, political, and methodological possibilities and obligations.
Full-text available
In this contribution, I trace the ways practicing judges articulate, as well as challenge, race. Drawing on an ethnography of everyday practices of adjudication and sentencing in a Dutch, lower Criminal Court, and working with Stuart Hall’s conception of articulation, I show how judges draw on three articulations of race – that of culture, the social milieu, and the phenotype – to make sense of individual cases. Emphasizing how and where these articulations of race serve local, pragmatic goals – of individualized sentencing, or of identification of the suspect – I also pay attention to their local impracticalities, that is, where these registers are challenged or resisted. In so doing, I do not only understand race as multiple but also situate race as a pragmatic and local accomplishment with its own uses and instabilities.
Full-text available
Prepared for an ANU Humanities Research Centre Symposium in early August 2003, these notes may be considered as a comment on Brian Massumi’s proposition that ‘a political ecology would be a social technology of belonging, assuming coexistence and co-becoming as the habitat of practices’.
Full-text available
Given their commitment to practices, science studies have bestowed considerable attention upon objects. We have the boundary object, the standardized package, the network object, the immutable mobile, the fluid object, even a fire object has entered the scene. However, these objects do not provide us with a way of understanding their historicity. They are timeless, motionless pictures rather than things that change over time, and while enacting ‘historical moments’ they do not make visible the histories they contain within them. What kind of object could embody history and make that history visible? Inspired by Michel Serres, I suggest the folded object is a way to attend to the temporality and spatiality of objects. In this article I explore this new object by unravelling the history of a DNA reference sequence. I show how, ever since it was produced in the early 1980s, attempts have been made to filter race out of the sequence. That effort has failed due to what one could call ‘political noise’. Making and remaking the sequence have left traces that cannot be erased.
Full-text available
In many European countries, the explicit discussion of race as a biological phenomenon has long been avoided. This has not meant that race has become obsolete or irrelevant all together. Rather, it is a slippery object that keeps shifting and changing. To understand its slippery nature, we suggest that race in Europe is best viewed as an absent presence, something that oscillates between reality and nonreality, which appears on the surface and then hides underground. In this special issue, we explore how race has been configured in different practices and how race-based identities and technologies are entwined in various European settings.
Full-text available
Historians have drawn a line between scientific racism, exemplified in the typological approach of German race scientists, and population-based approaches toward races or human genetic diversity. The postwar time is often understood as a watershed in this respect. My argument is that typological and population-based race concepts cannot be so easily segregated either before or after World War II. In spite of noteworthy differences between the two, on closer inspection, one finds population-based concepts in German race science before World War II as well as typologies and typological aspects in human population genetics after World War II, and continuities between them. In this paper I aim at viewing German race science in its contemporary international context up to the 1960s. With regard to its theoretical groundings, research problems, research designs, methods, practices, results, and interpretations, German race science was far more embedded in contemporary research on human diversity around the world than is generally assumed. Most notably, researchers in the field have been preoccupied with identifying and examining “isolated” and “mixed” populations from the mid-nineteenth century until the present. Yet instead of rendering German race science harmless, this contextualization aims at drawing attention to the generally precarious aspects of research into “human variation” or “human diversity.”
Full-text available
This article is about population. My aim is to answer the question, what is population? Instead of defining it myself or asking geneticists what it is, I want to trace population in genetic practices and to observe how it is embodied in them. Toward this end, I analyze a forensic case. My analysis results in two arguments: first, that geneticists cannot know the individual without a population; second, that in genetic practices neither the individual nor the population is inherently "biological"--both are technologically assisted categories. Population is a category of debate specifically in the Human Genome Diversity Project, and in population genetics at large. Geneticists aim at achieving a consensus definition of what population is, in order to sample, study, and compare populations. In this article, however, I examine practices of population and attend to its variety in laboratories. In order to "know" a population, geneticists study the cell material of collections of individuals. In forensics, on the other hand, the vantage point is quite different. Forensic geneticists are interested in the individual: their aim is to identify individual A as similar to, or different from, individual B. Yet, I have chosen this very practice as a site for examining population. For, in order to know an individual, forensic geneticists apply a category of population as well. Hence, in order to produce differences (between individuals), geneticists need to presuppose similarities (within a population). I will examine practical decisions about individuality and population, and hence about similarities and differences. On the basis of one forensic case, various concepts of population will be interrogated. Taking population as the main focus of my analysis, I will pay little attention to legal aspects of forensic DNA, a highly important matter in its own right. Rather, the site studied is a laboratory, the Forensic Laboratory for DNA research in Leiden. Since my argument is organized around a forensic case, the narrative unfolds as a "trip" back and forth between laboratory and courtroom, observing the process of identification and examining concepts of population embodied in the case.
Full-text available
What is biological race and how is it made relevant by specific practices? How do we address the materiality of biological race without pigeonholing it? And how do we write about it without reifying race as a singular object? This article engages with biological race not by debunking or trivializing it, but by investigating how it is enacted in practice. Discarding two dominant and mutually exclusive notions, race as fact and race as fiction, I follow a praxiographic approach to present three ethnographic cases that show race is a relational object, one that it is simultaneously factual and fictional. I conclude that fiction needs to be taken more seriously as an inherent part of fact making.
Racial and ethnic categories have appeared in recent scientific work in novel ways and in relation to a variety of disciplines: medicine, forensics, population genetics and also developments in popular genealogy. Once again, biology is foregrounded in the discussion of human identity. Of particular importance is the preoccupation with origins and personal discovery and the increasing use of racial and ethnic categories in social policy. This new genetic knowledge, expressed in technology and practice, has the potential to disrupt how race and ethnicity are debated, managed and lived. As such, this volume investigates the ways in which existing social categories are both maintained and transformed at the intersection of the natural (sciences) and the cultural (politics). The contributors include medical researchers, anthropologists, historians of science and sociologists of race relations; together, they explore the new and challenging landscape where biology becomes the stuff of identity. © 2012 Katharina Schramm, David Skinner and Richard Rottenburg. All rights reserved.
Rethinking questions of identity, social agency and national affiliation, Bhabha provides a working, if controversial, theory of cultural hybridity - one that goes far beyond previous attempts by others. In The Location of Culture, he uses concepts such as mimicry, interstice, hybridity, and liminality to argue that cultural production is always most productive where it is most ambivalent. Speaking in a voice that combines intellectual ease with the belief that theory itself can contribute to practical political change, Bhabha has become one of the leading post-colonial theorists of this era.
Introduction: The Human Genome Diversity Project 1. Technologies of populations: making differences and similarities between Turkish and Dutch males 3. Ten chimps in a laboratory: or how a human genetic marker may become a good genetic marker for typing chimps 4. Naturalisation of a reference sequence: Anderson or the Mitochondrial Eve of modern genetics 5. The traffic in males and other stories on the enactment of the sexes in studies of genetic lineage 6. Technologies of similarity and difference or how to do politics with DNA.