Tactical Biopolitics: a review.

“How can we know for sure these days that the truck driver repairing his exhaust at the crossroads in your neighborhood is not a silent conceptual artist engaging you in a thought-through performative experience? ” asks Jens Houser in “Observations on an Art of Growing Interest,” part of the collection of essays in Tactical Biopolitics. An engaging overview of scientists as artists, artists as ethnographers, activists as sociologists, and women who do agility trials with their dogs as philosophers, Tactical Biopolitics presents the words and works of people who profoundly engage their ethics with their craft.

Largely centered around issues of biology and bioethics, the book often wades deep into the waters of scientific jargon and academic word-whirlpools. When it emerges into common reality, however, it does so resonantly. While artist Kathy High gives a factual breakdown of her reasons for working with a group of former lab rats (they were predisposed to have her same health issues), we get caught up in the story of the rodents, their namings and personalities. Donna J. Haraway manages to make us forget agility trials as a means to make dogs literally jump through hoops and see them instead as an exercise in human-animal communication.

The book emerged from a conference on BioArt and the Public Sphere at UC Irvine in 2005. It is, write editors Beatriz de Costa and Kavita Philip, “a hybrid, made possible by two recent histories: the enormously creative practices at the intersection of technoscience, activism, and art; and the explosion of cross-disciplinary conversations following Michel Foucault’s articulation of biopolitics.”

We see artists confronted with the ethics of working with living tissue, witness the affect racism has on modern scientific research, and learn of the evolution of activist’s tactics for getting AIDS medicine to patients who need it. We hear artists talking about life in labs, and scientist talking about the craft of ethical living. It’s a smorgasboard of modern ethical thought, of challenges to the definitions of professional fields. It’s fantastic reading for anyone interested in cross-disciplinary work. But largely, it is the story of people using the tools they have at their disposal to positively engage with an increasingly complicated and manipulated world. So while the authors featured in Tactical Biopolitics might not be the truck driver in your neighborhood, they are, like him, attempting to fix what’s broken.

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