Friday, 4 March 2011

18: Blencowe: Rethinking Contingency and Racism

I have published previously on the changing politics of race and science (see here) and on the unsatisfactory role that 'biology' plays in standard sociological accounts of racism (see here).  Unsurprising perhaps I enjoyed Claire Blencowe's paper given at HPS, Cambridge 'Biosociality to feminist-eugenics: rethinking contingency and racism in twentieth century sociological science'.

As I have done, Blencowe highlights the ways in which the assertion that there is no biological basis to race and the contrary assertion that race is socially constructed and contingent seem to offer both an anti-racist panacea and a foundational myth for the sociology of group difference. She rightly argues that these assertions depend on a narrative in which new social sciences knowledge about the variability, plasticity and agency of human life is counter-posed to the early twentieth century era where a biologically deterministic eugenics resting on notions of fixed, naturalised difference held sway. While in no way belittling the atrocities committed in its name, Blencowe argues that this narrative misses much about the appeal, discourse and practice of eugenics.

Blencowe's paper is first and foremost a reading of Foucault which seeks to rescue his concept of biopower. This concept is often mobilised in ways that suggest it belongs exclusively to recent developments - in particular the ascendancy of the new life sciences  (I am guilty as charged on this I think). Blencowe reminds us that for Foucault biopolitics was central to Western modernity as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Foucault's account of this biopolitics focuses on vitality, security, health, sexuality, reproduction etc. in ways that are positive, energetic, and creative. Following from this Blencowe argues that it is wrong to caricature eugenics either as biologically deterministic or as politically and socially conservative. Eugenics  was part of the assertion of authority by the bourgeoisie (often initially through class racism and later though nationalism). And although it is often remembered and derided for its associations with totalitarianism it was intimately connected to the emergence of liberal democratic government.

Blencowe further problematises an easy association between conservatism and eugenics by reminding us of the many ways in which eugenics celebrated the potential for social and biological development. It involved a moralising stewardship of society by experts whose authority in part lay in a quasi-spiritual aesthetics that gave purpose to life, portraying biology as a domain of flows, connections and transformations. Thus, for example,  first wave feminists who pioneered family planning such as Marie Stopes or Charlotte Perkins Gilman were inspired by (racist and class racist) eugenics that saw evolutionary life force as a new morality.

The misreading of the past of eugenics raises questions about the analysis of the present. Nikolas Rose and others (OK let's be honest including me) like to suggest that current life science is novel - and often by implication politically benign - because it emphasises the contingency and malleability of the biological. But Blencowe suggests that denouncing past eugenic thinking on race (or gender) and biology as deterministic, fixed or naturalising misses the point. The evils of eugenics fed off excitement with the potential to refashion and improve, just the kind of rhetoric that drives much contemporary bioscience. Blencowe also suggests that we need to question the innocence of sociological affirmations of the contingency of race: why is this an intrinsically anti-racist stance? is our constructionism that different from eugenic enthusiasm for biological transformations? This got me thinking about the ways in which 1990s British sociology of identity sought out and lauded 'the hybrid' and condemned/dismissed  'ethnic absolutism' only to see this rhetorical move appropriated by twenty first century racism. Most challenging of all I think is Blencowe's conclusion that sociology needs to reappraise its routine celebration of contingency and malleability; sometimes our role should be instead to show what is determined and what is necessary.

Blencowe does the usual Foucauldian thing of implying a historical periodisation of social changes but then denying that is what she is doing - she is anxious to avoid discussion of phases in biopolitics. From my perspective this is a shame since there is something distinctive in the workings and significance of contemporary bioscience. If this distinctiveness does not lie in its emphasis on contingency then we should look elsewhere in, for example, its accomodation with individualisation, the changing State, or in the place of science in globalised capitalism.

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