Work continues on the biotech article, and as is usually the case with research, the more I learn, the more I realize the people and their stories descend into a twisted myriad of connections I can’t possibly hope to capture in systematically-ordered prose. So instead of writing my article I am thinking about theories of historical change. Is change dialectical in nature, meaning when an initial state (whether it be abstract, as Hegel suggested, or a particular mode of production, as did Marx) is met with an alternative, their inconsistencies force a new synthesis, a new state of being? Perhaps, but right now it seems too simplistic and, especially in the case of biotechnology, ignores the role of non-human nature.
Recently, when confronting this dilemma, I’ve been turning to Murray Bookchin, an American anarchist whose approach to the problems of modern-day society he termed ‘social ecology.’ His views certainly have a dialectical element: “If we regard nature as the history of nature, as an evolutionary process that is going on to one degree or another under our very eyes, we dishonor this process by thinking of it in anything but a processual way. That is to say, we require a way of thinking that recognizes that “what-is” as it seems to lie before our eyes is always developing into “what-it-is-not,” that it is engaged in a continual self-organizing process in which past and present, seen as a richly differentiated but shared continuum, give rise to a new potentiality for a future, ever-richer degree of wholeness.” And yet, he’s careful not to fall into the trap of seeing history as a solely human endeavour: “These untenable disjunctions between humanity and the evolutionary process are as superficial as they are potentially misanthropic. Humans are highly intelligent, indeed, very self-conscious primates, which is to say that….they are a product of a significant evolutionary trend toward intellectuality, self-awareness, will, intentionality and expressiveness, be it in oral or body language.”
I digress. I meant to write about Chuck. A couple of mornings ago I met with Chuck in an attempt to gain a better understanding of recent biotechnology developments in Vietnam. He’s an American man who served in the Vietnam War in Saigon but left horrified by what was happening. For many years now he’s been living in Hanoi and works with various veteran’s groups trying to repair some of the damage caused by Agent Orange and imperialist aggression writ large: lofty goals indeed. I was given his contact info from Quang last weekend when I returned to Green Vietnam, and told that if there’s anyone (English-speaking) in Vietnam to chat with about GMOs, it’s him. For those who don’t know, we have Monsanto to thank for Agent Orange, so Chuck’s wariness of GMOs stems from his post-war experiences. He’s a man with his finger on the pulse of who’s who in Hanoi, if you will. He’s been part of the effort to organize people throughout the country to question its dogmatic pursuit of spliced genes. Still, he tells me he’s no expert and has no credentials to inform his activism on biotechnology, and he sounds almost apologetic for it.
I tell him I think expertise is overrated and gulp down iced coffee as he mulls over his response, something I’ve never learnt to deal with comfortably. Yes, Vietnam may have forced many changes upon me in these past six months, but I’m still woefully awkward. Chuck agrees (about the glorification of expertise. I don’t know what he thinks of my demeanour). We often apologize for lacking expertise, which is understandable in a way since capitalism is an economy/society/culture dependent on the entrenchment of an ongoing division of labour. With efficiency as our proverbial messiah we are taught to excel and embrace a niche with a determined sense of tunnel vision. (It makes me think of those moments as children when we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up, as if we’re free to sell our labour (or buy someone else’s, or not to sell it) in whichever way we choose, limited only by our imaginations. Needless to say, most children don’t gleefully exclaim, “I want to be a labourer on a factory assembly line, mum!” Although wouldn’t it be nice if more children gleefully exclaimed, “I want to reclaim creativity and control over the production process, mum!”?)
It might seem that this post is riddled with contradictions, since I began by celebrating Bookchin’s idea of human and non-human differentiation and interrelation and then launched into a tirade against expertise. Of course there needs to be a certain division of labour, for one cannot produce everything they need on their own. However, differentiation and expert specialization aren’t the same. A division of labour need not preclude an ability to comprehend and take part in a multitude of creative and imaginative pursuits that contribute to the overall diversity of human and non-human existence. That’s what Bookchin was saying, I think: differentiation has actually equipped us to embrace (not control) the endless diversity that exists within our genes and ecosystems and intellectual potentialities so that we help produce a more just and mutually-beneficial whole.
I’m officially going on a rant here, so let me say I know I’m starting a PhD and all, but I’m a generalist at heart. Here is a list of things I have done and aspire to be and do: a sister/daughter/friend/lover; a farmer; a cook, an historian, an equestrian, a writer, a reader of books, a labourer, a unionist, an activist, a bicycle mechanic, a carpenter, an ecologist, a teacher, an orator (ha!), a cheesemaker…
What do you want to do?