Politics of Difference and Grammars of Influence in the Postgenomic Era: Fire, Soil, Spirit

Article Summary by Lara Choksey

The great and humbling lesson of the Human Genome Project was that histories of embodiment are complex social matters. The era in the life sciences imperfectly described as the postgenomic, the period ‘after’ the sequencing of the human genome, has involved a turn to the effects of influences external to the genome on mechanisms of genetic expression, and the inheritance of genetic states of activated or silenced genes. This has been accompanied by a swell of interest from the social sciences and the humanities in how environmental, social and historical determinants of genomic health are measured. Among these interests are the ways that epigenetics promises evidence for reparation movements seeking justice for historical crimes and their lingering effects on epigenomes of the present. In its interest in sites of confluence between human and nonhuman biomatter, epigenetics also attends to what has emerged over the last few years as a planetary and trans-species politics of care. It offers new vocabularies for describing correspondences between embodiment and extraction, and the world-systemic production of debility (Puar 2017). Alongside these sociological concerns, the postgenomic era has also introduced new manoeuvres for tracking the data of surplus, and for closing the gap between machine and organism. These new manoeuvres involve isolating and de-historicising the various and protracted forms of shock that might produce epigenetic effects. Should the aim of the postgenomic era be to reduce history to biomedical universals? And – as Sylvia Wynter has long been asking – which humans constitute the normative barometer of Homo sapiens?

The bulk of this article was written over the summer of 2020, a time when the death-toll of COVID19 rehearsed the terror of uncounted deaths of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, while the murder of George Floyd extended a set of political demands to transform the care taken with and in the interests of Black life. In the twinned aftermaths of Grenfell and Colston falling, moral economies of national preservation have been articulated along the lines of racialisation: forgetting imperial taxonomies of devaluation and segregation that made the largely Black and Brown death-toll of Grenfell possible. Jay Bernard’s Surge pairs Grenfell with the New Cross fire of 1981, the house fire that motivated the Black People’s Day of Action and the summer of uprisings that followed. A recursive aesthetic unfolds between these moments, a call and response through communities and their diverging trajectories that encounters embodiment as a site of collective organisation. The poem knits a counter-praxis of memory where the compulsion to provide evidence is unfixed by forms of spirit surveillance tending to “a darker past”.


Jay Bernard

And all of their ghosts are burning
above the city. Some fires burn
pink as damaged blossom.
Those broken vessels, bruised, lit
and upward streaking, rose-hot capillaries
ignite the dead’s ragged cloth and unshrooms
them to gas. Screaming cackle. Frayed spirit,
unbecoming black we think makes up the unseen,
but that black is the last twisted shape
their bodies will take. The floor, the rooms,
liquid windows part absence, part gas.
And then the wind breathes sideways:
their soot is scattered, ghosts of the now-gone
dragged out of hereafter back to tonight,
back to the cold air making its way towards
a darker past, the true past, there at spirit level.


Reproduced with the kind permission of Penguin (Chatto and Windus).

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