By Ellen van Holstein
Having presented my own work at the AAG early in proceedings, I spent the rest of the conference walking around the rooms like a little girl in a candy shop. So much to see, so little time. Oh! Tim Cresswell tweets about a lecture on epigenetics that is about to start. That does not sound like my field of interest, but Tim Cresswell has probably been to the AAG a couple of times; he knows what he is talking about. Right? So I decide to go.
Cultural geographies annual lecture. The amazing Becky Mansfield due to start at 12.40 room 21 Tampa Convention Center. Be there!
— Tim Cresswell (@CresswellTim) April 9, 2014
The next hour and a half the speaker, Becky Mansfield, plunges into a critical discussion of the fascinating science of epigenetics, leaving me in a deep state of excitement and confusion. A state I don’t get myself out of until the end of the conference.
Becky Mansfield’s lecture sent shockwaves through the conference. The new field of epigenetic research refers to changes in genes that do not come forward out of DNA, but out of environmental exposures that go through a filter of DNA, which together stimulate the development of abnormalities in bodily traits, types of behaviour and the development of diseases. Biology is understood, not as a static given, but as emergent: a plasticity? It is controversial because it offers a biological yet non-environmental determinist understanding of things such as race, but at the same time it tends towards intolerance of difference. Race (understood by Mansfield as comprising body traits but also categories such as social class) can then be understood not merely as a biologically or a socially-constructed category, but as a socionatural construct that reproduces itself. The spatial segregation of class and ethnicity leads to distinct environmental exposures (levels of stress, nutrients, toxins, violence) between social groups, which impact the epigenetic process. Difference leads to further difference; racisms produce race.
This thought offers various opportunities for opening up black boxes social scientists everywhere are grappling with. It does away with the divide between body and environment and opens up new ways of thinking about space and time. The choices an individual makes today, what a body is exposed to today, are the environmental aspects that will steer the epigenetic processes of future generations. The environments our ancestors lived in, the stress they endured, their diets, are engrained in the genes that will shape future generations. The temporality of epigenetics connects the past with the future through the body.
On top of its conceptual potential, epigenetics offers an anti-racist approach to difference because it takes the focus away from the individual. It offers the opportunity to understand difference as an inevitable and productive mechanism. Scholars in epigenetics suggest that environmental adaptations (such as changes in stress levels and diets) could tweak the epigenetic processes and diminish the occurrence of bodily and behavioural differences (which these scientists understand very broadly, comprising ADHD, autism, delinquency, obesity, different types of cancer, diabetes, but also intense or lack of sexual desire). Epigenetics offers opportunities for more just environmental policy. Instead of difference being seen as ‘abnormal’ in relation to a socially agreed upon ‘normal’, difference becomes an opportunity for reaching the optimal.
Mansfield’s talk was provoking, and for me also disturbing, because she shows how liberatory thought overlaps with reductionist and intolerant thought. Scholars publishing in this field do not seem to engage in any ethical reflection on their constitution of the‘normal’ and the ‘deviant’; and on who, in the pursuit of the optimal human being (or one could say Übermensch), would get to decide on such things. Instead of truly opening up liberatory ways of approaching difference in society and of strengthening the lens of environmental justice on contemporary society, my immediate reaction was that it invites science to head towards an intolerance of difference. Leaving the lecture room I was shocked because I realised how fine that line can be.
Still shocked by Mansfield’s critical lecture on epigenetics. Are we heading back to the darkest places of the 1940s? #aag2014
— Ellen van Holstein (@ellenvan_h) April 9, 2014
It was challenging to get back into the conference rhythm of sessions and lectures after that. The next day I was still walking from one presentation to the next feeling confused. What I learnt was that AAG presentations do not always deliver what was promised in the program. As I am craving for a well formulated, optimist, uplifting argument, I decide to go see Doreen Massey speak. It was reassuring to hear opinions I agree with expressed so clearly and eloquently: yes, neoliberal society offers so many choices but does not allow choices to be made about what actually matters; yes, paying tax should be re-inscribed into common sense as a positive; yes, what is really needed is a gender revolution. Massey directs our attention towards alternatives to neoliberal society and the possibilities for change, and does so in an incredibly inspiring way. Still, after Mansfield, I am left thinking, if the line between progress and regression is so thin, then how can this agenda be so straight forward?
The AAG left me both invigorated and discouraged. It is both motivating and disheartening to hear such an extensive collection of accounts of what is wrong with the world. It is disturbing to notice how the same line of thought towards change offers at the same time the potential to progressively construct as well as to violently destruct. And the accumulation of all those things intensifies it all. Reflecting on the conference I think that aside from the people I have met and the great presentations I heard, the biggest impact of the conference on me was the accumulation of all those experiences. Thoughts and emotions blurred as I rushed from one talk to the other without much time to recuperate from disturbance or excitement. What I found impressive or appalling in a talk I would still be pondering over at the next. I would be disappointed by a presentation when it did not capture my attention quite as well as a previous one and then there I would go, flicking through the program again to see what I was missing out on and where to go next. Yet I don’t think that I would rethink my approach for the next AAG. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the whirlwind debates I got a glimpse of and the great merit of the AAG might be just this capacity to overwhelm, confuse and impress.
Ellen van Holstein’s first blog post about the 2014 AAG was AAG Tampa Conference, Day One. She also recently published a photo gallery on this blog about Community Gardens in Bangalore. You can follow Ellen on Twitter @ellenvan_h.