BIOS: Life, Death, Politics; "Priscilla Wald on Cells, Genes, and Stories"

Saturday, May 8, 2010

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
Left: Henrietta Lacks and her descendants

[As part of our continuing coverage of last week's conference, BIOS: Life, Death, Politics, Kim O'Neill writes on Priscilla Wald's keynote address]

Priscilla Wald on Cells, Genes, and Stories

Written by Kim O’Neill (English)

Priscilla Wald’s work inspires us to look for the common narratives that connect seemingly disparate texts. In her April 30 keynote lecture she connected Hannah Arendt and Franz Fanon to the life story of Henrietta Lacks and the fiction of Octavia Butler. She argued that, “The creation of new and unfamiliar organic entities, such as cell lines, commingled with the haunting images of human beings stripped of their humanity [challenge], in their uncanniness, conventional definitions of human being and humanity.”

In the post-World War II, mid-Cold War United States, the cervical cancer cells of an African-American woman fueled biomedical innovation alongside scientific racism. In the same moment, ambivalent advances in medicine and technology inspired apocalyptic speculations among science fiction writers. Wald suggested that the atomic bomb and the immortal cell both forced Americans of this era and today to rethink who counted as human and whether humanity can survive.

For scholars, including participants in this semester’s Unit for Criticism faculty-grad seminar on Bios, Wald helps to situate Foucault’s biopolitics in an eerily familiar context. The threat of nuclear and biological terrorism in the Far and Middle East still stirs fear for the security of Americans and others inside U.S. borders. Wald described the racist language that commentators used to label Lacks’ “HeLa” cells promiscuous, even dangerous. In awe of the cells’ longevity, their ability to thrive and to travel (as far as the U.S.S.R.), journalists registered shock about the blackness of the Hela cells’ progenitor but ignored the living family members who received neither monetary nor medical benefit from the research the cells enabled.

Neither Lacks nor Lacks’ descendents could own her cells, but ownership of those same cells proved troublesome to the researchers who could. Lacks’ death evinces the racial inequality at the center of U.S. medical history and troubles assumptions about cells, genes, and DNA as the building blocks of humanness. Lacks’ story also reminds us that human rights serve as an imperfect antidote to social death, since her human life was less important to researchers than her cellular viability: the cancer cells that ”immortalized” Henrietta Lacks also killed her.

Wald’s presentation encouraged tough questions rather than definitive answers. Listeners asked her about the role of the state in destabilizing our sense of human being, about the pre-WWII stories that inform that anxious cultural narratives, and about how newer innovations like epigenetics/epigenomics have changed or reinforced the story. I asked about the discrete contexts that shape particular national or local anxieties.

To my mind, Wald’s arguments help us see how desperately Americans want to understand themselves as members of a global community. If people around the world hoped that science could explain human being, they worried also that humanness, and with it human acts like genocide, were fundamentally inexplicable. For me, this Cold War story reveals all that its contemporaries couldn’t know. So I wonder what they did with the narratives that reminded them just how unknowable humanity had become.

These questions bring me back to where Wald began, to the story of Henrietta Lacks. As Wald explained how the medical community appropriated Lacks’ cells and distorted her story, I was temporarily distracted by déjà vu. I had just heard this story...but where? And why didn’t I know that Lacks was black?

The answer to both questions is Stephen Colbert. On March 16 of this year Colbert interviewed Rebecca Skloot, web journalist and author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Her 5-minute segment on The Colbert Report explains how Lacks died of cervical cancer and how her impoverished family still cannot afford health insurance, ironies that trouble the medical advances that Lacks’ cells made possible and the prodigious profit that those same cells afforded biomedical companies, researchers, and stockholders. If Skloot failed to mention that Lacks was African American, it is probably the fault of Colbert, who, in a humorous mode, diverted the story to that of his own immortal cells, which researchers collected and then threw away.

Cell celebrity and celebrity cells have become a television sensation, with Henry Louis Gates chronicling black celebrity genealogies and genetics for PBS, NBC doing the same for the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, and George Lopez revealing (un)shocking ethnic heritages on his own show. But for Priscilla Wald, Henrietta Lacks is not a deracinated exemplar who paved the way for celebrity genetics, but a subject whose story of injustice haunts U.S. culture.

I conclude, therefore, by asking how we can interpret this new chapter in the long story of Henrietta Lacks. Do we read the reemergence of Lacks and her cells in stories by Skloot and Wald as a kind of narrative revolt against the Cold War stories that tried to contain her? What cultural work do these new tellings do? Does Lacks unearth fissures in biopolitical discipline, or does the ongoing conflation of genetic material with human origin, which we see in celebrity cell TV shows, illustrate a cultural regression back to Cold War assumptions about being human?


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