2. Truth-Speaking
Anthony Stavrianakis
Gaymon Bennett
Paul Rabinow
Truth-speaking: The Instance of The President’s Commission on Bioethics for Synthetic Biology
The Obama Administration's President's Commission on Bioethics held three hearings on synthetic biology from July  to November 2010 culminating in a published report of recommendations. These hearings are the US government's second formal engagement with the ethics of synthetic biology. The first was the Human Practices work of the NSF Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC).
We are  the architects of the Human Practices experiment. Consequently,  the hearings are of particular concern  and interest to us. We communicated directly with the Commission encouraging them to include human scientists who have worked directly on the practices of synthetic biology as part of the hearings. These efforts were unsuccessful.  We identified this  situation as ethically discordant.
In that light, this Studio provides the initial elements of an analysis.  It forms part of our on-going effort to examine how truth-speaking functions in different venues. In this Studio we analyze an instance of this functionality rather than a case as we did in Studio 1.
Object: Truth-speaking & the President’s Commission on Bioethics

What is the mode of veridiction in this venue and how is it given form?

We identify two forms. First, we inquire into a pattern of speech acts normative for the event. Second, we analyze the way in which these speech acts are stylized and included in the Commission's report.

Objective: Diagnosis of Discordancy

We observe that the hearings were conducted in such a fashion that a specific mode of truth-telling  was made to be normative. This  effect was achieved and stabilized through a perfomative ethos that was established in the hearings  (employing an obligatory tone of high civility). This  mood neutralized explicit ethical and epistemological directives and claims.

In this Studio our initial diagnostic claim is that the Commission's dominant mode of truth-telling can be characterized as  performative.

Our objective is to initiate an inquiry into the question of how this perfomative mode was made to be the norm?

Problem: An instance of frank-speech vs.performative speech

The problem has two dimensions: the analytic and the anthropological.

The analytic dimension proceeds from Foucault's argument that exercise of frank-speech and performative speech are distinct and antagonistic, one to the other.

The anthropological dimension proceeds from the analytic to the instance under consideration.

We introduce three topics  as ways to draw a distinction between frank and perfomative speech: effects, status, virtue. We treat these distinctions as parameters proleptic to reconstructive inquiry into the discordancy at the hearings on synthetic biology and ethics.

Parameter 1: Effects

"However, there is a major and crucial difference. In a performative utterance the given elements of a situation are such that when an utterance is made the effect which follows is known and ordered in advance, it is codified and this is precisely what constitutes the performative character of the utterance.

In parresia on the other hand whatever the usual familiar and quasi-institutional character of the situation in which it is effectuated, what makes it parresia is that the introduction, the irruption of the true discourse determines an open situation or rather opens the situation and makes possible effects which are precisely not known."

Michel Foucault
12th January, 1983


Parameter 2: Status

"Second—still comparing parresia with the performative—you know that the subject’s status is  important in a performative utterance [i.e. the subject’s status authorizes the legitimacy of the speech act]

In parresia on the other hand, and what makes it parresia, is that not only is this indifference not possible, but that parresia is always a sort of formation of the truth at two levels. A first level is that of the statement of the truth itself (at this point, as in the performative, one saysthe thing, and that’s that). The second level of the parresiastic act, the parresiastic enunciation is the affirmation that in fact one genuinely thinks, judges, and considers the truth one is saying to be genuinely true"

Michel Foucault
12th January, 1983


Parameter 3: Virtue

"Is parresia, then, a way of discussing? It does not fall within the provinces of demonstration, rhetoric, or pedagogy. Could we say it falls within the province of eristic? Is it not, in fact, a particular way of confronting an adversary?"

Michel Foucault  12th January, 1983

Parresia is not a question of the subject’s intentions—apart from intentions the enunciation can be parameterized in its relation to parresia.


Determination: Remediation

This Studio is a remediative determination toward parresia. It diagnoses the deficiency of the President's Commission as a form and venue as well as shifting medium as an initial step in the remediatory process.

Testing the constraints of venue and form we orient toward the possibility of  a different venue and form, not just procedurally, but also substantively.

Determination: Politesse and Deliberation

This includes mechanisms where if someone accidentally speaks the truth it can be recomposed in the mode of a deliberation.

Even the representative from  ETC, Jim Thomas,  who was the most critical of synthetic biology, was predisposed to the deliberative mode.  The ETC endorses a politics of deliberation. Moreover, their position was known and scripted beforehand.

Secondly, from the outset the only people formally invited to establish facts  about the object  are the technicians (that's their performative space).

The only truth question relative to this are the technical questions. Anyone who gives an ethical testimony is excluded from the question of what is synthetic biology.

A parameter of the deliberative mode is to structure truth-claims in such a way that they can be formulated as opinions.

Determination: Modulated Intransigence

When the powers that be make it impossible to advance understanding, the ethical response from those committed to science as a vocation is the obligation to be intransigent. Such a stance may take many forms, determining how to modulate them in a particular situation is the task at hand.