This issue of Public Culture focuses on the problem of translation, albeit not the conventional variety. The essays we feature here address the translation of numbers into meaning, of theories and concepts developed in particular sites (from nations to disciplines) into ways of thinking and doing research in others, of scientific facts into clinical applications, of intellectual innovations into commercial properties. The interviews, with James Siegel and Nikolas Rose, explore the career trajectories of scholars who have brokered translations and conversations across a wide range of fields. The photo-essay, by Greg Stimac, blends mundane details and exalted elements of the American landscape, conveying the idiosyncratic perspective of a hitchhiker and train traveler who roams the country to find strangely beautiful images and scenes.
We begin with an essay by Howard S. Becker, who asks the simple but tantalizingly difficult question, How much is enough? Becker begins with questions about preparing for future weather-related hazards. Today, in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy and with the emergence of a new, more dangerous climate, it’s tempting to make massive investments in climate risk reduction — just as, after September 11, it was tempting to pour resources into a heavily militarized version of homeland security. But Becker issues a warning: “Spend the money to prepare for this disaster and you don’t have it to spend on preparations for some other kind of disaster or for the city’s educational or health care needs.” Threats are everywhere and resources are limited. Trade-offs are inevitable, which means that whatever we do, we will always not do enough. The problem of deciding what we value and what we are willing to give up goes far beyond climate security, and Becker extends it into surprising domains, from the bookshelf to the shoe rack. As always with Becker, it’s the kind of essay that leaves you intellectually satisfied but somehow also wanting more.
Arvind Rajagopal delivers a different kind of critical analysis in his Forum essay on the parochialism of media studies, “Putting America in Its Place.” Rajagopal argues that contemporary media studies is deeply American in object and method, that scholars generally ignore how media work around the world, and that US scholars invoke colonial metaphors too easily when they look beyond their own regional borders. The United States, he claims, is “the medium of the media.” But that does not mean it is the center. As the media itself becomes more global, scholars are beginning to discern the future of communications outside of the West. “We might say the difference is that between being and becoming,” Rajagopal writes. “The West seeks to preserve the broad character of its present structures, while the rest of the world’s population is aware that their future lies in transcending their present, not in preserving it.”
Heather Love’s essay, “Close Reading and Thin Description,” is a fascinating translation and reimagining of foundational work in behavioral research, most notably the microsociology of Erving Goffman. The tools of this tradition, she suggests, open intriguing possibilities for the future of literary criticism. Love offers a creative spin on Clifford Geertz’s hermeneutic turn, making the case not for a textual reading of closely observed human behavior but conversely for a “behavioral” analysis of literary texts. This proposal, which takes its cue from Bruno Latour’s suggestion that the hermeneutics of suspicion has “run out of steam,” is situated within a broad “realist” turn in the human sciences. Love insists that searching for the ineffable and the invisible in literature is no longer satisfying. Instead, close readers should focus their attention on “what the real world is really like,” and that involves accounting for the basic narrative and behavioral facts in the objects of their research.
Our orientation to another realm of knowledge is the focus of this issue’s Dossier, which was organized by Kaushik Sunder Rajan and Sabina Leonelli. The essays assembled by Sunder Rajan and Leonelli are situated at a moment that combines prodigious investment in biomedical research with rapid transformation in the sciences of life, and they offer a series of provocative reflections on the values — both ethical and economic — of knowledge in contemporary biomedicine. The infusion of both public funds and private capital into basic research, exemplified by the Human Genome Project and its for-profit spin-offs, has led to intensifying calls for the “translation” of findings into practical clinical applications. Meanwhile, some of the basic conceptual assumptions of the modern life sciences have begun to crumble in the field’s postgenomic age. The essays in this special section ask, What kinds of knowledge are being produced at this conjuncture of institutional and epistemic shifts, and to what ends? Collectively, the contributions invite us to consider how the context in which different actors and institutions produce knowledge about life shapes the form it takes, whether as a scientific, cultural, or technical object.
In the Dossier’s first essay, historian of science Hans-Jörg Rheinberger tracks the changing uses and meanings of the gene over the past century, from early twentieth-century genetics to midcentury molecular biology to contemporary genomic mapping. As he notes, while the epistemic privilege of the gene as a carrier and transmitter of information has been decentered, the gene nonetheless remains significant, though now as a technology more than as a concept. Science studies scholar Hannah Landecker in her piece also diagnoses a significant conceptual and practical transformation in the life sciences, focusing on how the notion of “metabolism” has shifted from industrial to postindustrial biomedicine. Her interest is not in uncovering the causes of our current epidemic of metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes but rather in understanding how our responses to these crises are reshaping knowledge in the life sciences. Finally, anthropologist Jennifer Karlin explores the strategies that a prestigious academic medical center located in a poor urban neighborhood developed to deal with the financial constraints of contemporary American biomedicine. Such strategies include finding “the right patients,” which implies reconceptualizing patient groups in terms of their capacity to generate insurance reimbursements; and using “health disparities” found among its patients as a potential source of federal research dollars. In these essays, as Judith Farquhar and John Kelly note in their commentary, we see that, like all translation, translation in contemporary biomedicine implies a constant work of transformation.