It is at times hard to distill that which unites the people and projects that travel under the name ‘synthetic biology,’” Sophia Roosth notes in this new ethnography, but that doesn’t stop her from following the field in flux, tracking “brave new organisms” (and those who make them) through classrooms and industrial laboratories from Boston to the Bay Area and from neighborhood bars to far-flung conferences. A chimera of anthropology bred with a dash of history, Synthetic reads synthetic biology’s constructs both as “materialized theories” and as “postcards from a particular cultural moment.”
Navigating the shimmering categories of the natural, unnatural, supernatural, and postnatural, Roosth plays with traditional ethnographic conventions of the anthropologists’ toolkit—religion, kinship, economy and property, labor, household, and origin tales—to show how “the form and function of life-forms have … oftentimes paralleled social, historical, and political forms of life.”
. . . “There is no there there,” Roosth ultimately concludes, channeling Gertrude Stein’s method of wreaking worlds with words. “What counts as ‘real’ or ‘original’ no longer makes any genetic, genealogical, ontological, or historical sense.” But at this point it becomes clear that such conflation and endless recursion is at the very center of her inquiry. The book fittingly reaches a crescendo with a queer self-portrait, a surreal “reading of a reading of a painting about painting” by René Magritte.
Synthetic offers a writerly assemblage of our synthetic moment, where densely evocative analytical contributions and cognitive fireworks are juxtaposed with intimate confessions, all in the poetry of contemporary ethnography.
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