Response for Somatosphere Book Forum on The Economization of Life

The field of feminist Science & Technology Studies (STS) is a generous community and I am grateful for it every day. These bundled reflections on The Economization of Life are an example of this generosity. The book was written in deep relation and debt to feminist STS and transnational feminist studies as it took shape in Toronto where I live, and influenced by colleagues like Banu Subramaniam, Kavita Philip, Cori Hayden, Melinda Cooper, Kalindi Vora and others, as well as the many students who thought with me over the years.

The Economization of Life is an attempt to understand the epistemic infrastructures of macroeconomics, population control, racism, and colonialism that feminist reproductive health activism of the second half of the twentieth century had responded to. The project started in the early 2000s when I was following feminist health technologies, like manual suction abortion, as they circulated transnationally and got taken up by feminist health projects in locations dispersed around the globe. Such feminist reproductive health projects were often resisting racist and coercive national population control programs. I wanted to have a better understanding of what they were fighting against. Why did population control seem like the right answer to all sorts of problems of recently decolonized nations for public health officials, foreign policy programs, and economists? Why was population control so pervasive a way to modernize national economies? What epistemic work was “population” doing in legitimating violence against women’s bodies? I wanted a better answer then the one Foucault, and other Foucault-influenced non-feminist scholars, were giving about the biopolitics of population and the assembly of the economy.

The arguments in The Economization of Life are first and foremost indebted to the work of Farida Akhter, the impressive Bangladeshi feminist and activist who wrote path-setting Marxist feminist critiques of population control and taught me how to see reproduction in a different, distributed, way (Akhter 1992; Farida Akhter 1995; FINRRAGE-UBINIG International Conference 1989 1991; UBINIG 1996). Beginning in the 1980s, Akhter’s work challenged population control policies, investigated transnational networks of coercive contraceptive experimentations, and launched incisive critiques of liberal feminist reproductive rights projects. Her work is an important starting point for understanding a version of feminist technoscience work that emerged in Bangladesh and other diverse sites, not just in North America and Europe. This starting point for The Economization of Life is one of myriad examples of why STS needs to explicitly multiply the genealogies of critical thought that make up the field.

Indebted to Akhter and many other feminists who were developing incisive analyses of national population control, The Economization of Life sought to explore the quantifying practices used to designate some lives as not worth being born for the sake of the economic prosperity of future others. It asks: what gets reproduced through the technical infrastructures that are built in the name of family planning and extractive research? What is reproduced (mostly the infrastructures) and what is devalued, abandoned, and destroyed? The book is concerned with the mega-concepts of “economy” and “population” as two great surrounds of the twentieth century that became cornerstones for devaluing life and building extractive conditions in the name of salvation and prosperity – “extractive” in terms of research, labor, and life. The history of the governance of economy and population together, promulgated by United States empire, shows how perniciously racism and devaluation are built into widespread and normalized bureaucracies that present their logics in terms of quantitative and statistical analyses, rather than as claims about biological difference. The book sought to show the entanglements of liberal quantification practices in these racist and coercive devaluations. I wanted to argue that we don’t have to accept either “population” or “economy” as the frames for our dreams, aspirations, value systems, or futures. We can shatter the container of “economy” and refuse “population.”

At the same time, I am also keenly aware of the book’s limits and all it doesn’t do.

Going to Bangladesh confronted me with my own extractive research position. How to do this research in good relation? How to not extract from lives and lands already the site of intensive research and capitalist extraction? I am not trained as a South Asianist, and don’t speak Bengali. The book is primarily a study of US empire and experts entangled with it. I stuck to talking to scientists and researchers who worked in English, or relied on translators. By the end of the project, I concluded that it would not be right for me to continue working in this vein. I am quite sure I didn’t get the ethics of non-extractive research right – there was perhaps no way for me to get it right for me, given my lack of life connection to Bangladesh. When I began my research, following logics and technologies in their transnational circulations seemed like the right ethical and political task. But by the time I was finishing the project, I knew that living in Toronto, being a white Métis scholar from Winnipeg and not a diasporic person from Bangladesh, I was not able to follow up with the relational responsibilities that such work required. What I can do is name and own this problem and limit. Thus, after this research I sought to figure out how I could do work that would allow me keep up with ethical relational responsibilities. Hence, I have shifted my research to the Great Lakes region in which I live.

The biggest regret I have about the book is that I didn’t attend to the economization of life in settler colonialism as simultaneous and conjunctive with the imperial and transnational epistemic infrastructure promulgated by the US in the second half of the twentieth century. I followed the technologies and logics as they concentrated in transnational projects, and I allowed the research to be deflected from attending to the fact that the very same infrastructures of racist quantitative practices of family planning were at work in the interior colonial logics of the US and Canada. I am trying to write an article to address this lack. In Canada and the US, “family planning” programs and coercive sterilization have abounded for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and other communities. Moreover, the creation of a fiscal colonialism, as Indigenous studies scholar Sheri Pasternak has outlined, is another crucial part of the economization of life in Canada (Pasternak 2015). While Bangladesh was an important site for the creation of these neoliberal innovations, no doubt, there were many such concatenated sites around the world, including here in my own home.

But since I cannot time travel, I accept responsibility for this limitation in the book. The Economization of Life, I think, could be written from many starting points, and the ones I chose are not necessarily the best or most important, even though they certainly matter. Depending where you are, other starting places are more urgent and needed. We are thick with possible starting places for understanding the economization of life. This is because the epistemic infrastructures that constitute this form of valuation and devaluation, world-making and breaking, are so vast. They are thickly installed in institutions and touch so much.

Despite these limitations and flaws, a hope of the book was to try to give a sense of the parochialism of the quantitative practices making up economy and population over the 20thcentury. I wanted to convey a sense of their constant failure to account for the world, even their fragility. I hoped to portray economy and population as things that present themselves as if we cannot live without them, but towards which we can also shift our apprehension and in fact come to observe how we are not surrounded by them, how we do not need them. We can reject them. We already live in worlds that are more abundant then these concepts allow.

Michelle Murphy is Canada Research Chair in Science & Technology Studies and Environmental Data Justice, Professor of History and Women & Gender Studies, as well as Director of the Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto. She is Métis from Winnipeg.

Akhter, Farida. 1992. Depopulating Bangladesh: Essays on the Politics of Fertility. Dhaka: Narigrantha Prabartana,.

Akhter, Farida 1995. Resisting Norplant: Women’s Struggle in Bangladesh Against Coercion and Violence. Dhaka: Narigrantha Prabartana.

FINRRAGE-UBINIG International Conference 1989. 1991. “Declaration of Comilla.” Journal of Issues in Reproductive and Genetic Engineering 4 (1): 73–74.

Pasternak, Shiri. 2015. “To ‘Make Life’ in Indian Country: Chief Theresa Spence and the Fiscal Body of Settler Colonialism.” presented at the Intersections Lecture Series, University of Toronto, March 5.

UBINIG. 1996. Women & Children of Bangladesh as Experimental Annimals. Dhaka: Narigrantha Prabartana.