chapter  26
13 Pages

Questions of Life and Death: A Genealogy

ByTiago Moreira, Paolo Palladino

During the last two decades, scholarly interest in the body as an object of sociological enquiry has developed around two interrelated concerns (Greco and Fraser, 2005; Turner, 1996). On the one hand, drawing variously on the work of Max Weber, Michel Foucault and Nobert Elias, the body has been construed as the primary target and vehicle of distinctively ‘modern’ forms of power. On the other hand, the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and other exponents of the phenomenological tradition have served to emphasise embodiment as a source of self-knowledge and resistance to power. In many ways, such interest in the relationship between the body and ‘modernity’ has been sustained by the ways in which it has been linked to important dichotomies within sociology such as the opposition between structure and agency, or the opposition between system and life-world. Interest in the body has also been motivated by what scholars have regarded as the necessity to renew the conceptual vocabulary of the social sciences to better understand the processes that are supposed to characterise ‘late modernity’. If defining institutions of modernity such the fordist mode of production or the welfare state are in the throes of radical transformation, it has seemed only reasonable to expect that the experience of embodiment and the powers exercised upon bodies might also be in a state of flux. It has been nearly 20 years since Emily Martin (1992) announced the ‘end of the body’ and, however, it is still unclear what the bodily formation that will replace the modern body might be and how this formation is to be understood. In this chapter, we take these unanswered questions about ‘the end of the body’ as our point of

departure. Our aim is to examine the conceptual instruments required to understand the change. One possible strategy might be to argue that such change should be understood as an epochal transformation of the relationships that make up social institutions and practices. This is indeed a dominant and effective analytical strategy within the social sciences in the generation of notions such as ‘modernity’ or ‘industrial capitalism’. A significant disadvantage of this strategy is however that it emphasises the similarities between the events and processes that constitute the phenomenon under scrutiny and in so doing conceals their diversity. We wish to explore how it might be possible to both embrace the multiple ways in which bodies are constructed and experienced within contemporary societies (Berg and Akrich, 2004; Mol, 2002) and allow at the same time that these multiplicities might be bundled into broader modes of organisation (Boltanski and Thevénot, 1991; Law, 1994). Furthermore, whether the present moment constitutes a historical rupture or not is a matter not just for social theorists, but also, and more importantly, for the groups

and institutions that are involved in advancing a particular project (Moreira, 2000). Visions of innovation, particularly in the field of biomedicine, are resources integral to the social and political mobilisation desired by such groups and institutions, and to the contestation which they might incite (Brown and Michael, 2003). This also means that these same groups and institutions are often compelled to engage with existing articulations of the domains which they wish to transform, dividing the ‘old’ from the ‘new’. We suggest that nowhere are these processes more vital than in the construction and institutional consolidation of a ‘new’ biology of ageing. In the first section of this chapter, we explore how the proponents of the new biology of ageing are seeking to introduce sweeping changes in the organisation of biomedical research and health care based on a molecular understanding of life and death. In the second and main section of the chapter we explore how the establishment of this ‘new’ field of research has relied on the mobilisation of ‘old’ knowledge, specifically the work of the August Weismann on the evolution of life and death (Weismann, 1891). Such mobilisation is not straightforward, however, and contemporary scholarship has drawn attention to the ambiguities of Weismann’s contributions to the constitution of modern biology (Laubichler and Rheinberger, 2006). Of particular interest is the role which these ambiguities play in the linkage between the phenomenon of ageing and the conceptualisations of the relationship between organisms, molecules and populations in different institutional contexts. To think of ageing in the present is to think about the complex relationships between the power/knowledge formations which have established these different levels of biological analysis. Thinking across what are, effectively, different ways of thinking is fraught with difficulties and bound to generate contradictions. In the concluding section of the chapter, we draw on a short story aimed at popularising the ‘new’ biology of ageing as an allegory for the challenges confronting not just biologists, but also those social theorists who are trying to articulate the contours of an emerging formation wherein social relations are mediated increasingly by knowledge and practices operating at the intersection of the molecular and demographic levels of life. This is a critical problem because the conceptual resources used to understand the logic of molecules and populations draw recursively on the increasingly problematic understanding of the organism as a foundational unit.