Lennard Davis is the Director of Project Biocultures at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Biocultures represents a deliberate attempt to provide a location for a set of activities that have been proceeding in a somewhat uncoordinated manner over the past 25 years. These activities have operated around the body in its social, political, cultural, and scientific aspects. While various disciplines have arisen–notably discourses including public health, medical education, medical humanities, bioethics, criminal justice, epidemiology, identity and body studies, medical anthropology, medical sociology, history of medicine, philosophy of medicine, and so on, no single one of these disciplines fully articulates the range of possibilities of bioculture. In fact, scholars working in these disparate areas often find themselves alone within their departments and specializations.

A brief glance at any newspaper will reveal that on any given day the biocultural issue has garnered major space in the news. Pandemics like SARS and AIDS, the burdens of health care, the emergence of globalized drug regimens, the rights of patients, the attention to the physical aspect of the body–appearance, personal health, the health consequences of war, famine, the development of the human genome and its impact on identity, issues around the female body, the queer body, the racialized body, and so on are daily written as the long story of human corporeal and mental existence are inserted into the social political realm. More and more we do see formerly social-political issues, such as race, gender, sexual identity and identity in general, subsumed under the scientific/medical discourses of genetics, biochemistry, prescription drugs, social and public policy.

The split in Western culture between science and the humanities developed in the 19th century when science and the humanities sought to distinguish each from the other for various professional and methodological reasons. Consequently, the university is still maintaining, on a formal basis through the organization of departments, professional organizations, and journals, this split while individual scholars and others have moved in the direction of a new kind of interdisciplinarity. This interdisciplinarity has come about not out of an administrative imperative but out of a necessity—one needs a complex knowledge of both areas to understand the major issues facing humanity with the advent of various global bio-technologies combined with multinational corporate imperatives.

An informed knowledge of the scientific discourse and the bases for knowledge is crucial for non-scientists, patients, and interested scholars.  Biocultures assumes that there are diverse ways of knowing and understanding the workings of the body and mind, the these are primarily culturally derived, and that expert ways of knowing can produce certain strong results but do not have exclusive purview over the body and the mind.  Biocultures will inevitably realign the contemporary division between right and left. On issues like the sanctity of life, a topic previously controlled by the conservative right and religious groups, a biocultural perspective that questions certain interventions done in the name of molecular biology, inserting genes into plant and animal life, using prenatal technologies to abort female fetuses, removing feeding tubes from people with severe disabilities, are all areas in which the standard right/left paradigm seems not to operate. As with any major paradigm shift, the consequences for future generations must be examined.

Thinking in the human and social sciences–including the economic, psychological, philosophical, political, and cultural—has dominated the intellectual and social marketplace of ideas, now these notions are not sufficient on their own to command a full discourse. These will now have to include the bio in their assessments. Thus, one cannot discuss the economics of oppression without pointing out the involvement of the body, the health system, the defining terms of normality and abnormality, in such a discussion. From the other side of the spectrum, humanities will be incomplete without an active understanding of the way that science, technology, psychology, for example, impinge on the formation of cultural productions.  The study of biocultures uses the physical sciences and the humanities and social sciences to inform and be informed by the other.

Biocultures Manifesto

Lennard Davis is the editor of the Disability Studies Reader. Read more