So last night I was lying in bed reading Michel Foucault. (What, doesn’t everyone!?) To be specific, I was trying once again to get into The Archaeology of Knowledge, this was at least the third time I’ve started it. (The guy could not write a short sentence, or one that doesn’t contain multiple phrases set off by commas. Maybe it’s better in the original French, but I doubt it.) Now, Michel Foucault and stem cells are probably not put together very frequently, but the following bit really struck me:
In “sciences” like economics or biology, which are so controversial in character, so open to philosophical or ethical options, so exposed in certain cases to political manipulation, it is legitimate in the first instance to suppose that a certain thematic is capable of linking, and animating a group of discourses, like an organism with its own needs, its own internal force, and its own capacity for survival.(35)
He goes on to point out the problems that he sees with this idea of linkage, but that is not what I am interested in talking about. It seems to me that he has really described embryonic stem cell research—and other biological research, especially biotechnical—and elucidated those issues which are not commonly foregrounded in the public eye. There’s a tendency to think of science as empirical and factual and to forget about the way in which it is a discourse itself. Facts and experiences are shaped by discourse. Foucault is writing in this book about the illusions of continuity in history; he sees history, especially history of thought or of ideas, as full of discontinuities, rifts, non-linearities. History is shaped in writing, and that writing is done by a person who exists within discourse as well. We as subjects cannot be free of language. The discourse of science is also shaped by speaking subjects who are shaped by language.
So what does all this mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that a protein is not a protein, or that a stem cell can’t be coaxed to differentiate predictably. The microcellular level is not so far fraught with the oddities and quirks (excuse me, quarks) of the subatomic realm (which have their own system and “rules”). Science with testable hypotheses can be done. But when the research is disseminated, when it becomes part of a body of knowledge, it is important to maintain awareness that the description of the event is not the event. In Foucaldian terms, our scientific knowledge is a discrete discursive body whose events are the formations of words, not the subject which the words attempt to describe. Because we are discursive beings, we are always at a linguistic remove—a discontinuity, if you will—from the biological happening. This seems to me to be a core element of the debate over the ethics of doing embryonic stem cell research; there is disagreement over the meaning of the discursive phrase “human life.”
Discourse also enters into stem cell research in a host of other ways—how grant applications are made, how information is presented to the public and to the government, how scientists speak with each other, and so on. Taking a view which allows us to think about the research results as being part of series with discontinuities rather than as an additional aggregation of cumulative, continuous knowledge, allows more openness for the unexpected and the innovative. It also is a reminder that ethics—which is essentially about how humans behave to each other—enters into all knowledge formation, and that learning can be a jerky process.
End of sermon. Thanks for reading.