Banner Seminars

Room 148 RC Mills Building
Sydney University

03 June, 2010: Barbara Katz Rothman

Stem Cell: Letting Go of the Fantasy

Stem cell research has been presented to us as the next great hope, the new path to a long and healthy life, with replaceable parts, grown to order as need be. Stem cell research is perhaps best understood as the tail end of the last great biomedical paradigm, genetics. (The new paradigm, the neurosciences, has yet to produce much of anything in the way of treatment.) Stem cell research has raised a host of 'bioethical questions.' To my mind, one of the most interesting of those is just precisely what constitutes a 'bioethical' problem. When is a problem one of ethics, and when is it one of justice? Coming from a country without (as of this writing) national health insurance, that is not an insignificant issue in biomedicine. But however these bioethical issues are presented, framed and discarded, stem cell research is ongoing and presented as a new hope for a host of conditions. Using a model first established in the era of the chemical paradigm, 'treatments' are created, tried out on animals and then humans, and then marketed. But is that what is actually happening? Is stem cell research following the path of a 'search for a cure,' or – I would argue – the search for a market.

These days, lab mice are as likely to suffer the harms of research to test a new version of an existing drug, developed to extend its patent life, or a new use for an existing drug, as they are to suffer such harms in the context of research to test a new drug for an existing unsolved disease. Drug companies with patents look for markets. Rather than starting with a problem, they start with a solution, an object in the world in search of its economic place. In this case, here’s this thing: stem cells. Is there money to be made? Could be, could well be. Let’s find out. Let the research begin.

06 May, 2010: Catherine Mills

Ultrasound, Embodiment and Abortion

Feminist theorists have long been interested in the ways that foetal images have been mobilised within debates on abortion as well as the way they operate more broadly to provoke an understanding of the foetus as an autonomous subject in conflict with the woman who carries it. In this essay, I will attempt to develop an outline of a ways that obstetric ultrasound impacts upon the embodied experience of pregnancy. In doing this, I will also point toward the ethical implications of foetal imaging, since I start from a position that emphasises the centrality of embodiment in ethics. I will suggest that the impact of ultrasound images on ethical intuitions derives in part from the way in which such images work upon and through the sympathetic imagination. In this, ultrasound images hail or call the foetus into being as a subject toward which we bear a social relationship and by virtue of that, such images also work to establish a particularly ethical relationship. The paper progresses in three parts; in the first of these I argue that an attempt to understand the ethical implications of foetal images must take account of the sympathetic imagination. From this, I will consider two implications. First, I examine the way that the sympathetic imagination is productively constrained by social norms; this allows for an analysis of the biopolitics of reproduction. Second, I consider the impact of ultrasound on the embodied experience of pregnancy, with particular focus on the ethical implications of this.

Catherine Mills is Sesqui Lecturer in Bioethics at University of Sydney, Australia. Her main research interests lie in the areas of biopolitics and bioethics, especially in relation to technologies of reproduction. She is particularly interested in ideas of subjectivity, normalcy and responsibility. She has previously published The Philosophy of Agamben (Acumen, 2008) and is currently completing a manuscript on reproductive ethics, entitled Futures of Reproduction. She is also working on a book called, Biopolitics: A Critical Introduction, and starting a project on 'Ultrasound, Embodiment and Abortion'.

22 April, 2010: Warwick Anderson

Disease and the Modern Self: Becoming Autoimmune

How does one write an integrated conceptual history of autoimmune disease? Perhaps more accurately, this would be the history of a novel etiology, manifesting as a collection of separate diseases. The history of ideas about autoimmunity necessarily draws together scientific research, clinical practice, institutional structure, and patient experience. But, additionally, more than most other medical categories, autoimmunity also intrudes into philosophical debates about identity, especially the boundaries between self and other. In the late twentieth century, autoimmunity could be just as often the subject of social theory as an explanation of human suffering.

25 March, 2010: Pat O'Malley

Simulated justice: Telemetry, Risk and Monetization

The science of telemetry has created bar-code readers, remote sensors, red-light cameras and a paraphernalia that measure the flows and circulations of modern security. With respect to the single largest domain of ‘justice’ – traffic control – this is linked with a digitised form of governance in which coded dividuals rather than liberal individuals are brought into being. The ‘on-the-spot’ fine is exemplary. While electronic technologies have facilitated the existence of this almost depersonalised form of justice, perhaps of greater importance have been the processes of monetization and risk-calibration that enable ‘justice’ to be contained in the simulated context where the virtual and the real coincide. The properties of money in creating justice unconcerned with who pays a penalty, that allows ‘punishment’ to be digitised, and that has facilitated the enormous (self-funded) expansion of regulation, are usually overlooked. The use of risk to create calibrations in terms of which morality may be measured and quantified has been only a little explored. Yet it is the convergence of these three – telemetry, risk and monetization - that is vital to the contingent form taken by simulated justice. Simulated governance potentially is the supernova of justice and indeed of governance. It is a form of governance that rarely touches the liberal shibboleth of ‘rights’. It governs within the less politicised domain of purchased privileges – the licences that may be suspended or cancelled – and that empower the risk-creating dividual. But, iconically in the form of credit cards, these licenses have become key conditions of life in consumer societies.

25 February, 2010: Anne Pollock

Pharmaceutical Failures: Torcetrapib, BiDil, and Resistances to the Saturation of American Publics with Drugs

Rich accounts inside and outside the academy have attended to post-war pharmaceuticals’ success in creating and exploiting markets. The relentless critiques of profiteering and research bias have not slowed the expansion and yet, as the pharmaceutical industry falters a bit, it is increasingly clear that the expansion is not infinite. How might progressive critics understand what resistances there are to the complete saturation of American publics with drugs? This talk interrogates two very different failed drugs: BiDil and torcetrapib. When BiDil was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2005 with the controversial indication for "heart failure in self-identified blacks," both its promoters and its critics touted it as ripe for tremendous profit and a trailblazer toward a future of either personalized or racialized medicine. Yet it reached only a few percent of its potential market. When torcetrapib was in final clinical trials in 2006, its novel approach of raising good cholesterol was heralded and derided as the savior of both the specific blockbuster Lipitor - with which it could be combined in a new patent – and of the blockbuster model generally. Yet its evocatively named ILLUMINATE trial revealed that while it raised good cholesterol it also increased mortality, and Pfizer abandoned it. Interrogating these distinct cases destabilizes notions of drugs’ capacity for infinite expansion, and provides an opportunity to theorize pharmaceuticals in new ways.