Viruses and genomes have become the subjects of sovereign claims in contemporary biomedical research. At the peak of bird flu scares, Indonesia’s health minister declared ownership over H5N1 strains found in national territory and ceased forwarding virus samples to the World Health Organization (WHO). Numerous countries followed suit, ultimately reorganizing international agreements founded on the global sharing of pathogens. In biomedical genomics, countries such as Mexico and South Africa have asserted genomic sovereignty as a way to control samples and data extracted from national or regional populations. Such declarations have been interpreted as bold moves to reorganize relations of power in biomedical research, wherein countries claim “a room of their own” in the house that twenty-first-century life science has built. Taken together, these sovereign claims invest biological materials with geopolitical attachments to both nation-states and continents, which in turn alter the transactions that structure global biological economies.
Among the critical issues that have emerged in the context of the “new materialisms” in science, media, and cultural studies, one is the question of ethics, accountability, normativity, and political critique. The context for this concern is that a variety of thinkers, among whom we might count Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Jane Bennett, Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, and W. J. T. Mitchell, all with significant debts (more or less acknowledged) to Gilles Deleuze and through him to Henri Bergson and Baruch Spinoza, have agreed that human beings are not the sole repository of agency, intentionality, vitality, and purposiveness. These new materialists or vitalists argue that these qualities also are to be found in many other forms of animals and machines that surround us, and many of which we have ourselves created. In one way or another, these thinkers all subscribe to the importance of what Deleuze called “assemblages,” which are temporary arrangements of many kinds of monads, actants, molecules, and other dynamic “dividuals” in an endless, nonhierarchical array of shifting associations of varying degrees of durability. In other words, there are more forms of social life on earth than we have grown used to imagining.
In the 1920s, gossip columnist Walter Winchell catered to a formidable public appetite for celebrity news, reaching about 50 million Americans via his weekly radio show and daily newspaper column. Winchell relished the power his column gave him: “Democracy is where everybody can kick everybody else’s ass…. But you can’t kick Winchell’s.” Precisely because public opinion had become such a formidable political force, the autocratic few who shaped it were cushioned from its blows. Today Winchell would be posting online and getting kicked by commenters within seconds. In the Internet era, no single tastemaker has the monopoly Winchell once enjoyed, and the lines between producers and consumers of public opinion have blurred.