Human Capital and its Maximization

Film “Ermo”, 1995, with Spanish subtitles

The selections reviewed here variously consider market economy-human biology interactions and co-articulations. Each piece offers a perspective that is distinct from the others in regards to biotechnology and the capitalist formations of medical science, and particularly to how life is understood through these mechanisms today in various parts of the world. Read together, they cumulatively contribute to existing discussions in the anthropology of biopolitics about the ordering of life through biotechnologies and bioeconomies that are today historically unprecedented, and also raise new discussions of new uncertainties about life and its forms of valuation looking toward the future.

In Anganost‘s “Strange Circulations”, the commodification of blood in rural Chinese provinces and the consequent spread of HIV/AIDS is analyzed alongside 1995 film (above) about a Chinese village blood donor/seller, “Ermo”. Taking a Marxian-inspired anthropological political economy approach to the lives within the space of the Chinese countryside, Anganost shows how since the 1990s, “economic reforms have, in effect, produced the Chinese countryside as the constitutive outside of capitalist economic relations by making it bear the hidden costs in the reproduction of labour for a global labour regime” (p.510). In other words, this piece analyzes from the global periphery how the valuation of life is being materially reorganized (as biovalue) by the “vampiric” forces of global capital.

Professors of economics, Douglas Almond and Janet Currie, require a very different frame for a reading of their works by students of anthropology than that permitted by Anganost’s  anthropological views. Almond and Currie’s piece, “Killing Me Softly” can be read as a sort of primary source analysis of the construction of biovalue through the economization of biomedical research on fetal health and the future economic vitality of life that may be determined by conditions while in the womb. Ultimately, their piece raises for the biopolitical analyst questions about where the line can, should, and will be drawn between eugenic practices and more benign practices that represent the economies of hope for improved vital prosperity in the future. Additionally, for critical educational scholars and biopolitical anthropologists alike, the piece would likely raise new concerns about the scientization of lives shaped via tracking through schooling institutions, and the worsening of social and bio-inequalities thereby produced in the subjectification of individual life trajectories prior to one’s actual birth.

In the final piece, “The Biopolitics of Reproduction”, sociologists Catherine Waldby and Melinda Cooper analyze the rearticulation and marketization of women’s reproductive biology. Looking at oocyte markets in the highly-developed world and transnationally, they demonstrate the bifurcation of women’s reproductive potential as a (qualified) ‘new’ mode of alienated labor  by means of its particular form of participation in the global tissue economy at-large. Ultimately suggesting the possibility for subjects’ contestation of this field when it is viewed as labor, this piece adds to biopolitical analyses drawn from the prior two readings, in that it takes on a wider field of vision regarding the bioeconomies of human body parts and of hope under biopolitics today than does Anganost’s examination of the Chinese countryside’s participation in the blood economy; and it adds a more complex and critical look and understanding about women’s reproductive labor today, thus opening pieces like Almond and Currie’s up to further primary analysis regarding the particular moral economies that allow one to conceive and make sense of such economic research perspectives as “Killing Me Softly” might be seen as advancing.

In sum, this grouping of readings calls forth the question, how do we fit labor and the formation of new biologically-based global/transnational economic markets into a biopolitical analysis of exchange, valuation, and the alienation and exploitation of one’s physical being as a reserve for capital? What contrasts arise from this global perspective of the vital order when placed against the economies of hope emphasized by Rose? Finally, how is the gendering of bodies presented here for new and unprecedented frameworks of analysis, and does the biopolitical toolkit we’ve developed equip us to fully explain the significance of reproductive exploitation in the way that it is seen here interacting with what may or may not be new forms of flows of power?



Anagnost, Ann
2011     Strange Circulations. In Beyond Biopolitics, Clouse & Wilse, Eds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Almond, D., and J. Currie
2011     Killing Me Softly: The Fetal Origins Hypothesis. Journal of Economic Perspectives 25(3):153-172.

Waldby, Catherine, and Melinda Cooper
2008     The Biopolitics of Reproduction: Post-Fordist Biotechnology and Women’s Clinical Labor.

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1 Response to Human Capital and its Maximization

  1. Pingback: Human Capital and its Maximizations | anthropologyofbiopolitics

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