Red Root and Running Cold — two sculptures from Nancy Bowen. Each is made of glass and metal, and loosely mimics a human body (or maybe the nervous system). See more of her work at http://nancybowenstudio.com/.

One of my ongoing projects is to develop a language of anti-reductivism. It’s a project that I share with a number of social scientists and humanities scholars, and has been motivated by the turn to molecular and neurologic explanations in the hard and clinical sciences. Biological reductionism circulates in popular media too — from narratives about the hereditary nature of certain kinds of behavior to science reporting on the discovery of “the gene” or part of the brain that causes a particular disease or set of behaviors. Biological reductionism is alluring — it promises an easy explanation for a complex problem. But anyone paying attention to the influences of society on individual behavior — including the development of research questions and the interpretation of the data produced through scientific practice — would be able to see that context is a powerful factor to consider. Reducing a complex set of behaviors to a gene or part of the brain obscures more than it reveals and serves to pathologize individuals rather than motivate changing social norms and institutions.

Wherever biological reductivism is used, individuals are pitted against dominant institutions and widespread expectations of “normal” behavior and development. One of the points I make in The Slumbering Masses (and I reiterate it all the time) is that certain arrangements of sleep are a problem, not because of their physiological effects or origins, but due to the organizations of work, school, family life, and recreation that make certain schedules (i.e. the 9-to-5 workday) the normative basis to understand human biology. In effect, an individual is made to be at fault, when it is actually the organization of society that preferentially treats some ways of sleeping as “normal” and others as pathological. The same can be said for much more than sleeping behaviors and the temporal organization of society; and re-conceptualizing bioethics might be one avenue for developing new ways to organize institutions and — just maybe — society more generally.

You can following my development of a language of anti-reductivism through a set of pieces in which I develop a couple of interrelated terms, “multibiologism” and the “biology of everyday life.” Multibiologism is my attempt to conceptualize a way to work against normative assumptions about biology, based in no small part upon a history of medicine that takes able-bodied white men as its foundation against which other kinds of bodies are compared (and pathologized). Such an approach brings together thinkers like Georges Canguilhem, Keith Wailoo, Dorothy Roberts, and Lennard Davis, drawing together the philosophy and history of medicine, critical race studies, feminist theory, and disability studies. Multibiologism accepts human physiological plasticity as based in the material reality of the world that we live in, but argues that “biology” is a discursive field that is produced through everyday action (including science & medicine). It’s this everyday action that helps to comprise the “biology of everyday life,” where toxins, diet, exercise, work, and other exposures and practices shape the body and expectations of normalcy. Which is all to say that human biology isn’t a stable or predictable thing, and that it changes over the course of a lifetime, is different between societies, and is not the same as what it was for our ancestors. Making that argument has built upon insights from a century of anthropological research (drawing on Margaret Lock and Patricia Kaufert’s work on “local biologies” and Mary Douglas’ work on disgust, especially, and extends a way of thinking that Marcel Mauss started working on in his “Notion of Body Techniques” lectures) and pairs it with the history of changing attitudes to the body (following Norbert Elias, specifically).

It was my ethnographic experiences in the sleep clinic I spent the most time in during the fieldwork for The Slumbering Masses that led me to thinking about multibiologism. I often described the clinicians I worked with there are “sociological,” in no small part due to their willingness to seek social remedies for sleep disorders (rather than resort to pharmaceuticals or surgeries). It was only when I started spending time in other sleep clinics that I began to realize how sociological they were. That they were more likely to talk to parents and educators about rearranging school expectations than they were to prescribe a sleep drug was motivated by their interests in finding long term solutions to the problems that their patients faced. It also recognized that many of their patients were “normal” in their variation from norms of consolidated nightly sleep, and that reorganizing expectations was a better — and more sustainable — solution than prescribing a drug. But it seemed to me that there needed to be language to do the kind of work they sought to do — and language that provided an ethical framework that was based on the lived realities of scientists, physicians, and patients.

(If you’re keen on following the breadcrumbs, the argument starts in the final chapter of The Slumbering Masses, moves on in ‘“Human Nature”and the Biology of Everyday Life,’ reaches its bioethical point in ‘Neurological Disorders, Affective Bioethics, and the Nervous System,’ and lays the basis for Unraveling.)

When I was finishing The Slumbering Masses — and was articulating these ideas for myself before incorporating them into the book — I began to think about what the next project would be. What I wanted to do was develop a research agenda that focused on an expression of human physiology that explicitly challenged how humans are thought about as humans. That led me to consider communication, and linguistic capacity more specifically, which neuroscientists, social scientists, and philosophers (and probably others too) still identify as the defining feature of humans (i.e. only humans have language). What about humans that didn’t speak (or at least didn’t speak in ways that were recognized as normative communication)? That led me first to thinking about the then-newish discourse of “neurodiversity,” which developed, in time, into a project that focused on families wherein a family member communicates in a non-normative way. That project eventually became Unraveling, which develops a set of terms — connectivity, facilitation, animation, and modularity — that seek to provide ways for thinking about individuals, families, communities, and institutions that strike against biologically reductive ways of conceptualizing brains and behavior.

So much of bioethical thinking reinforces reductive ways of conceptualizing the individual. But what the families at the heart of Unraveling show is that disorders of communication — and neurological disorders more generally — are disorders not strictly because of some physiological difference on the part of the individual, but because of the ordering of American society and the expectations that shape what it means to be a “normal” speaker and “neurotypical.” That might be a fairly easy point to convince most social scientists of — and maybe even many physicians — but beyond this diagnostic contribution, I wanted to provide tools for reconfiguring how we talk about what the aims of bioethical intervention are, and how we might achieve them.

It has long been apparent to me that any systemic change in the way that we conceptualize medical disorders requires alliances between social scientists and clinical practitioners. Social scientists — and anthropologists especially — often make recourse to the language of complication (“it’s complicated!” or “it’s complex!”) without having the precise analytic language to describe what those complexities are comprised of and how they make lives livable. What Unraveling seeks to do is provide that language, drawing from the histories of psychiatry and neuroscience as well as the lived experiences of individuals with “neurological disorders.” In the lead up to Unraveling being released, I’ll profile some of the ideas integral to the text — connectivity, facilitation, animation, and modularity — and how they undergird a cybernetic theory of subjectivity and affective bioethics.

Biological reductivism ultimately lets those in power off the hook. Being able to target individuals through pathologization (which supports the logic of medical intervention and undergirds expectations of “compliance”) enables institutional actors — physicians, educators, parents, administrators, managers, law enforcement agents, judges, etc. — to ignore the social contexts in which particular behaviors or ways of being in the world are accepted as disorderly. As disability studies scholars and anthropologists have been arguing for decades, changing social orders can many more lives livable. A robust language of anti-reductivism is one step in the direction of reordering society and social expectations, but there is work to be done in building supple institutions and relations to support the diverse ways that human inhabit the world.

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