II. Auto-Critique 2
Anthony Stavrianakis
Paul Rabinow
Auto-Critique 2: Affirmation of the diagnostic mode
Rabinow and Bennett developed a diagnostic mode of engagement with SynBERC. This form of upstream engagement was not technical criticism. Tacitly, this is what SynBERC and the NSF wanted, even though a refusal of technical criticism had been the agreed premise of engagement.   Following Max Weber and not Niklas Luhmann technical criticism was not our pursuit, although it was part of the field of objects of our inquiry.

We are anthropologists and again following Max Weber the form of engagement was to engage questions of cultural significance encountered during the course of detailed observation, adjacency and inquiry, which our diagnostic equipment was designed to identify and sharpen.

This diagnostic sharpening helped us to observe SynBERC’s blind spots relative to its environments. It also aided us in observing how the organization itself was proceeding to be organized: how information circulated or didn’t etc., in short how what is good and true got to count as so and how criticism was either accepted, silenced or more often ignored.

The diagnostic objective was the observation and reconstruction of ethical problems. This is what we were funded by the US government to do. Our auto-critique of our mode is that once we were forced to acknowledge to ourselves that the mode we refused was actually what our funders and potential collaborators wanted, we continued nevertheless to play the game, which on exiting we can recognize as double. As such we must ask ourselves that knowing we were playing a sanctioned (by SynBERC and NSF) double game, were we acting in bad faith?


To use Niklas Luhmann's technical language, once the system and its environment were operating, the response to our call for innovation and self-examination on the part of the scientific system, was irritation. This irritation could be explained away by a dismissal, ‘we don’t understand’, or claim of ‘arrogance’ on our part (since they did not understand). To be ‘arrogant’ is to “make or imply unwarrantable claims to authority, or knowledge.” Actually however, we had the possibility of retreat to a 'room of our own' which we availed ourselves of, perhaps too frequently, i.e. that  we withdrew, complained and doubled our ego defenses.

One of our starting points was that any claim to expertise on what the ‘social consequences’ of synthetic biology might be was premature, since it was and still is unclear what exactly the capabilities of the field are, relative to which problems, with which effects. Our reaction in the face of this indetermination was to retreat to our observational post to continue our diagnosis. Since this retreat was combined with an insistence of the stakes and indetermination of the problems around synthetic biology, it reinforced the label of arrogance in the second sense of the term, “to be aggressively conceited or haughty, presumptuous or overbearing.” This perceived arrogance was a consequence of our positionality, adjacent and dominated, and one might suggest is the outcome of a desire for false assurances and trivial policy talk. Speaking up on these themes led to more charges of ethical, political and intellectual arrogance. Who do they think they are? Well, Thrust 4 of the National Science Foundation Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center.

Once again, the only way out of a double-bind is to change the power relations and we were unsuccessful in that.

Diagnosing Diagnostics

This form of diagnostics leads to inquiry into the present and future with the aim of diagnosing and engaging problems. The problems are of the present and future rather than the past.

The auto-critique of our diagnostic mode as a practice is that whilst we talk about engaging problems, how we intended to practice this engagement was not very clear. This was  in part because we were still working out a conceptual apparatus. We were in part willing to remain on the conceptual and existential level, as it was gratifying in and of itself and given the reception of our multiple forays in the first two years (2007-2008) which varied from indifference to hostility we  retreated from the abstract demand to turn our concepts and observations into collaborative practices. In so doing we conformed to the norms of the organisation: do whatever you are doing anyway, do it well and stop complaining.


Some people in SynBERC interpreted us on a register of the hermeneutics of suspicion: What are they really doing? The answer to some was that the claims to ethical collaboration was simply a smokescreen for what anthropologists normally do: observe, describe, analyze, publish. Extrapolating from their own game, they only took half of our game seriously.  This was certainly part of it and is also one reason why we continued in the organization: PhD theses were being written, websites designed, constructed and put to work, sustained discussion and inquiry were made possible.

We were accused of playing a double game but it was a double practice which we hoped would be synthesized but if it wasn't we wouldn't end up with nothing.

Since we had constituted ourselves as second-order participant-observers, a comfortable mode for anthropology in its traditional practice, there was always a fall back position that the breakdowns, indeterminacies, ethical brutality and general American barbarism could always be turned into part of the anthropological object.

Bad faith?

One of the claims that worried us and that we posed to ourselves amounted to the question whether or not we were acting in bad faith. This question turned on judging whether, despite what we said, that we were only maximizing our material and symbolic capital.  Although this is partially true for the material it was not sufficiently nuanced for the symbolic. There were real risks in the realm of symbolic capital.

Since one of our early diagnoses was  that on the bioscientific side career structures and rewards disposed individuals not to take seriously the collaborative problems of ethics and cultural significance (what is this worth? how do you know that this is good?)  that we thought needed to be worked on, this questioning that we posed back to ourselves is serious. Since we had recognized the dominant career structures as part of the problem of working on ethics and cultural significance, we were not naive about this problem and furthermore we were actively and collaboratively between us attempting to invent venues, forms and practices.

Despite the fact that many of our colleagues talked a language of ethics and cultural signifiance we saw little in the way of attempts to problematize and then invent venues, forms and practices. Finally, some of the dismissive and derogatory comments we received from the biologists we also continued to receive from social scientists.

Double game to a degree, bad faith no. It's not bad faith because we were posing it to ourselves and we were conscious of risk of self-deception or Luhmannian blind-spots. To answer this question in the affirmative, i.e. for us to have been engaged in a bad faith effort, we would have had to know from the start that the premise of collaboration was impossible.


One criticism that has been leveled at us is that we were too much on the participation/intervention side and not enough on the observation side of the dyad. One counter-response may have been to say, quite the contrary, we were blocked precsiely because we were unable to intensify the participation and intervention side of our engagement.

However, our critique is that we continued to profess confidence in the possibility of participatory engagement, even when we began to have significant doubts about its plausibility. In that light, we redesigned a final set of experiments to test our doubts.

Had we exited out of simple frustration, we would have acted prematurely and perhaps in bad faith. But we didn't. We designed a last set of experiments, from the fourth to the fifth site visit, to test the jurisdictional and veridictional limits of the experiment.