The Year of 2009, the Year of 2012
Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s Biocaptial came out on 2009, the same year as Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Both are from Duke University Press. Both have the agenda of deconstructing capitalist essentialism (or in anthropological terms, mythologies) but with subtle differences in philosophy which in turn allocate the two ethnographies in two different epochs, despite the fact that they were published on the same year by the same publisher.
Rajan reveals her anti-essentialism stand in the opening section: “[the mistake is that] … capitalism … having ‘defeated’ alternative economic formations such as socialism or communism … is therefore considered to be the ‘natural’ political formation.” (Rajan 2009:4). Her deconstruction of the myth is carried out in two countries: the United States and India. In America, the essentialism is expressed in many ways: corporate’s moral rhetoric as opposed to reflections on systematic failures (Rajan 2009:206), their ritual performativity which provides material force (Rajan 2009:206), scientific technicality becoming the object of faith (Rajan 2009:207), literally evangelical background of venture capitalists (Rajan 2009:195), and the fact that anti-Corporate sentiment is considered not as just partisan but as un-Christian and un-American (Rajan 2009:183). In India, neoliberal capitalism and globalization produced similar ritual performativity and zealous hype as seen in the Knowledge Park and Wellspring Hospital (Rajan 2009:95); at the same time, they themselves are part of cultural nationalism (Rajan 2009:185). All those passages in Rajan’s ethnography corresponds to Karen Ho’s analysis of Wall Street’s shareholder value (Ho 2009:169) and a “culture of smartness” shared by Wall Street and Ivy League colleges (Ho 2009:39).
However, Rajan’s view of capitalism is more nuanced than Ho’s in that she doesn’t see capitalism as all evil no good. This philosophical difference partially reflects the differences in two ethnographies’ subject matters and sites. Investment banking with its shareholder value is Ho’s central theme. In deconstructing its myth, Ho almost inevitably sees nothing tangible behind those values. Readers of her book might reach same conclusions of hers in view of the financial disaster coming right after the book’s publishing. By contrast, Rajan’s subject, besides capitalism, there is science (in particular biosciences) with its epistemology. The dynamic interaction between scientific knowledge and capitalism, though no less mystic, is often more tangible. That’s why the author declare on the outset that there is no capitalism but capitalisms (Rajan 2009:1). The difference can also be observed in two authors’ different views of globalization with regard to ethnographical writing. Ho claims her book to be global in that Wall Street values and practices are both influential and imitated across the globe. Rajan, on the hand, emphasize different ideologies and practices between India and the US: although they are tired by globalization in which the US has an undeniably asymmetric influences on India, without on-site study of either local, her understanding of biosciences, capitalism, and biocapitalism which is the late and most-symptomic stage of capitalism will be incomplete (Rajan 2009:278).
Admittedly Karen Ho’s ethnography of financial industry is somewhat farther from anthropological tradition than Rajan’s project. In terms of genealogy, Rajan’s is deeply rooted in recent tradition: Michel Foucault started with deconstruction of psychiatry, a medical branch often viewed as dubious; Emily Martin extended to immunology and more; Rajan brought it further to bioscience in general. Marxism is another source of her inspiration. In terms of ethnographical practice, Rajan is actively responding to George Marcus’ multisited ethnography (Marcus 2006; 2007) and Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson’s global anthropology (Gupta 2006).
Both ethnographies are relevant to or can be viewed as part of “present” / contingency (in Derridian terms). Karen Ho’s book is a (faint) swan song of wild venture capitalism which has been under severe scrutiny since the financial crisis. Her books somehow belongs to a not-so-long-ago past. Rajan’s book belongs to a new age in which the power of globalization and the formation of capitalism are more diverse, especially in the ideologies and practises of the BRIC countries. In this age, even capitalists sometimes can be viewed, wittingly or unwittingly, as popular leaders or even activists. In America, we see this in the outpouring of sympathy in the mourning of Steve Jobs. In India, we have Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw whose capitalism is describe as idealistic and benign in her profile in the New Yorker (Levy 2012). Biosciences are advancing at a higher speed. Capitalism is morphing into something else. Again we are living in hypes and hopes.
(Questions: 1.Do you think social constructivism of knowledge can be dangerous? Can you offer your critique? 2.Do you believe in the possibility of capitalist activism?)
Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson
2006 . Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. In Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Henrietta L. Moore, and Todd Sanders, eds. Pp. 608-617. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham: Duke University Press.
2012. Drug Test: Can One Self-Made Woman Reform Health Care for India, and the World?. In The New Yorker, January 02, 2012, pp. 30-36.
Marcus, George E.
2006 . What is at Stake – and is not – in the Idea and Practice of Multi-sited Ethnography. In Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Henrietta L. Moore, and Todd Sanders, eds. Pp. 619-621. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Marcus, George E.
2007. Ethnography Two Decades after Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque. Anthropological Quarterly 80(4): pp.1125-1145.
Rajan, Kaushik Sunder
2009. Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life. Durham: Duke University Press.