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What is Biocultures?

Designer babies, Rowena Dugdale, Wellcome Library, London

Commentary by Bradley Lewis, M.D., Ph.D., Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University

In my first contribution to this new blog (which I am very happy to see developing), I would like to tell the medical humanities community about an emerging approach to interdisciplinary work at the interface of biology, medicine, humanities, and culture that many of us are calling “biocultures.” (www.biocultures.org)

One of the most challenging problems of contemporary scholarship involves the deep segregation of the academy: between the humanities and social sciences on the one hand and biology and the natural sciences on the other hand. This “two culture” divide has long been lamented for the biases and distortions it creates in knowledge and for the increasing risks associated with disconnecting bioscience capacities from the wisdom of history, culture, and philosophy. But, despite the seriousness of these issues, no one seems to have found a solution to the problem. The two sides of campus are so irretrievably divided that the reorganization of inquiry has seemed impossible.

Yet even as many of us have lamented this situation, a grassroots movement of academic research has gradually emerged that effectively integrates the two cultures. Certainly traditional medical humanities and bioethics are part of this grassroots movement, but more recently they have been joined by scholars in areas like disability studies, cultural studies of the body, gay and lesbian studies, gender studies, Africana studies, Asian-American studies, Latino-Latina studies, science studies, literature and science, public health, medical anthropology, medical sociology, and medical education (particularly professors of medicine and society). These scholars not only intermingle facts and values from the two cultures in their work, many of them break down the “fact/value” distinction all together—asking pressing questions about what are the values associated with various research agendas (the making of facts) in the first place.

The main thing missing from this grassroots movement is a common identity. This is why Lennard Davis and David Morris are proposing the term “biocultures” as an umbrella term for this group of scholarship. Davis and Morris define biocultures as a new and “counter-intuitive (but perhaps destined to be commonplace) proposal: that culture and history must be rethought with an understanding of their inextricable, if highly variable, relation to biology” (Davis and Morris, forthcoming). By providing an over arching name to these many scholarships, biocultures consolidates and strengthens this terrain. “For example, before disability studies became a common term, those working in a variety of allied fields and with a variety of impairments did not necessarily see any commonality in their various approaches. But with the advent of an umbrella term, a new and exciting synergy has come to pass. Likewise with nanotechnology, feminist studies, or critical race theory. We are not necessarily nominalists, but we do believe in the power of a name” (Davis and Morris, forthcoming).

To learn more about the emerging biocultures movement you can check out the upcoming special issue of New Literary History that is edited by Davis and Morris devoted to biocultures. Davis and Morris kick off the issue with their “Biocultures Manifesto” which will send chills down the spine of any of you in the medical humanities world who have felt that you are all alone (or almost all alone) in your university. If the biocultures movement appeals to you, please play your own part in its growth. Start using “biocultures” in your writings and courses, make lunch dates with your colleagues down the hall or across campus in similar areas, and set up biocultures reading groups and symposiums. The next thing you know, the two cultures divide will be a thing of the past and the world will be a better place!

Davis, L, and Morris, D. Forthcoming. Biocultures Manifesto. New Literary History.

See web site of biocultures project: www.biocultures.org.

  1. Felice Aull

    An upcoming international conference workshop seems to be concerned with bridging the “two cultures”: “This workshop invites papers that discuss the language of autonomy and interdependence in concept formation across the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities. ” (International Society for the Study of European Ideas Language and the Scientific Imagination ).
    Conference Website: http://issei2008.haifa.ac.il
    Co-Chairs: Nancy A. Barta-Smith, Ph.D. and Katherine L. Cooklin, Ph.D.
    Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock PA

  2. sw henderson

    Fantastic stuff. Given the subject of ‘naming’, I just happened to be reading this:

    Benjamin says that even when the one who names is equal to the gods, happy and well-blessed, being named (bennant zu sein) or seeing oneself given one’s proper name is something like being invaded by sadness, it is sadness itself (a sadness whose origin would therefore always be this passivity of being named, this impossibility of reappropriating one’s own name), or at least a sort of obscure foreshadowing of sadness. One should rather say a foreshadowing of mourning (eine Ahnung von Trauer). A foreshadowing of mourning because it seems to me that every case of naming involves announcing a death to come in the surviving of a ghost, the longevity of a name that survives whoever carries that name.

    – Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)

    I thought you might like that, Brad. Nice posting.

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