[-empyre-] Cellular Risk

Bishnupriya Ghosh bg366 at cornell.edu
Tue Nov 6 09:54:55 EST 2012

Cellular Risk: two directions

Risk cultures that seek to capture the future obtain across multiple domains of action (legal, biological, financial, etc.). Consider one instantiation of a media practice squarely oriented toward the future: cell culture. Cell culture, Hannah Landecker (2010) argues, turns cells into biotechnologies for research (the study of cellular processes), regeneration (the repair of tissues and organs), and reproduction (in vitro fertilization, cloning). Not only can scientists stain and dye cells, freezing them to study a particular stage of cellular growth, but they also can grow cells and reprogram them; life appears as “itself,” but also develops, becoming immortal through culturing. Thinking cellular biofutures is no longer esoteric pursuit contained within the lab, but has become quotidian in the biomedia that greet us in digital and televisual edutainments, in artistic practice, or in medical promos at the doctor’s office. These media constellations offer promissory notes: of cell potency as the basis of cellular immortality.

At the edges of science, researchers try to anticipate the multiple possibilities that can emerge from a single cell line. But as the story of the famous but controversial Hela cell line goes, they always confront the limits of knowledge: how could we have imagined that the biopotential of Henrietta Lacks, a woman barely five feet tall, can now wrap around the earth three times? Those who mobilize the most potent of cells, stem cells, are highly lauded. After all, the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine went to John Gurdon (who had cloned a tadpole in 1958) and Shinya Yamanaka (who introduced four gene control agents that turned a mature cell back to its primitive pluripotency in 2006) for their method of producing pluripotent cells so critical to biomedical and biotechnological advances. Cell potency, then, is the premiere figure of a creative encounter with the future in our times. Those who culture cells embrace the unknown, remaining open to and uncertain about future contexts of actualization: How long will the cell line survive? Will it survive uncontaminated? Who will use it and how? Will it be for research or for tissue self-repair? Who will have access to these cellular potencies?

Cellular potency is one kind of latent force routinely mobilized to ward off coming harm. The horizon is the ultimate risk, the risk of death, understood as either slow cellular decay (as in aging) or accelerating mass cellular atrophy (as in viral attacks). As such, cellular potency is the fulcrum for biological risk cultures imagined at the cellular scale. For instance, when cell lines allow gene mapping, they open the door to the calculation and prediction of individual cellular futures; biotechnological industries rush in to capitalize on our need to continue, to repair and regenerate. Spectacular futures are sold to us in attractive packages customized for the individual consumer—think of the age defying creams, the offers of gene therapy, of the best wombs for hire… These constellations of future-oriented media practices constitute “risk cultures” that habituate us to a fantasy of cellular immortality. At their most predatory they enclose and privatize the immense potentialities of cell lines, harnessing them to a few commercialized purposes. Hence the scholarly alarm over tissue economies that ensure possible immortality for the privileged few at the cost of the invisible clinical labor (drug-test subjects, organ donors); over cloning, biobanking, and surrogacy that turns human reproduction into assembly-line productions, transforming once-inalienable biomatter into commodity; or over legal decisions and new patents that ratify institutional or corporate ownership of one’s vital tissues (genes or organs). In this scenario, Hela is not celebrated for the risks that her cell line allows “us,” the public beneficiaries, to avert—as anyone who benefitted from the polio vaccine should know—but criticized for the risks the cell extraction posed to the legal personhood of Henreitta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer whose cervical cells were harvested without her knowledge or consent.

In Hela, then, we glimpse the two faces of risk culture. The one, a controversial and illicit scientific risk that potentiates the common good; and the other, a predatory encroachment on human biopotentials for individual glory and institutional profit.
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