Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

Biosocial Relations of Production

Gísli Pálssona1

a1 Department of Anthropology, University of Iceland

Nowadays, life itself is one of the most active zones of capitalist production. Not only has biology been upgraded to Big Science, biological material and information are increasingly the subject of engineering, banking, reproduction, and exchange. The description and broad implications of the refiguring of life itself and its intrusion into economics and politics represent some of the most important issues on the academic agenda at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Pálsson 2007). Foucault's works on biopolitics (see, for instance, Foucault 1994) have obviously contributed critical insights with respect to the current refashioning of the human body, illuminating the political and governmental dimensions of these developments (Inda 2005; Rose 2006; Gottweis and Peterson 2008; Nowotny and Testa 2009; Lock and Nguyen 2009). Recently, a series of scholars have revisited the early writings of Marx, sometimes in combination with Foucauldian perspectives, in their attempt to make sense of the political economy of modern biotechnology, including the fragmenting of body parts and the labor process involved. One of the emerging themes in current discussions relates to the conception and role of labor in the reproduction of bodies and body parts. While Marx may not be an obvious source of innovative perspectives on the modern production of human biovalue, a somewhat unique industry that had not arrived in his time, his early works offer useful insights into contemporary developments.


Acknowledgments: The original draft for this article was written for a lecture series on the theme “Who Owns Our Species?: Past, Present, Future,” at Pennsylvania State University (2007–2008), organized by the Rock Ethics Institute, the Africana Research Center, the Huck Life Sciences Institute, and the Department of Anthropology. Drafts of the article were also presented on several other occasions: at the Danish Institute for Health Services Research, University of Copenhagen; the Department of Economic History, London School of Economics; the International Center for Cultural Research (IFK), and the Institute of Anthropology, the University of Vienna; the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Jyväskylä; and the Institute of Social Science, the University of Lisbon. I appreciate critical discussions at all of these events. I am also grateful for comments on earlier drafts offered by the editor and three anonymous CSSH reviewers. Finally, I have benefited from discussions with several colleagues, in particular Herbert Gottweis, Sigurður Örn Guðbjörnsson, Kristín Erla Harðardóttir, Ulrike Landfester, Lynn Morgan, Mette Nordal Svendsen, Helga Nowotny, Ingrid Schneider, and Soile Veijola. The article is partly based on my work on a multinational project on human tissue collections based at the University of Vienna, in association with the Genome Austria Tissue Bank (GATiB). The Icelandic Center for Research, the University of Iceland Research Fund, and the GATiB project have generously supplied funding.