Aihwa Ong


On her book Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life

Cover Interview of January 17, 2017

The wide angle

We tend to view cosmopolitan science as a universal form that is practiced in many places. But, does modern knowledge itself become transformed in the midst of its peregrinations? Relatedly, when we talk about “globalization” are we talking about interconnectivity, or about how through interconnectivity we become modern, albeit in distinctive ways?

This is the first book to study genomic science as it is practiced outside the North Atlantic universe. My approach is influenced by the writings of Max Weber, Michel Foucault, and Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. While others search for universal theories, I focus on concept-work and ethnographic observation to understand the modern polis and its variability in a globalized world.

I use the concept “global assemblage” to frame my inquiry into the particular conditions of possibility crystallized by the situated interaction of global rational forms and politics and ethics. Global forms such as biotechnologies encounter enigmatic variations in life forms, ecosystems, and life ways. Through assemblage concepts, we can investigate the ongoing (re)combination of cosmopolitan science, politics, and ethics in shaping a specific milieu. Such a space of inquiry allows us to account for global connectivity and also the heterogeneity of different contexts of emergence.

Second, anthropology is about how the micro-practices people engage in configure their worlds. Claude Levi Strauss invokes the bricoleur, the artisan/artist/scientist who uses things at hand to solve problems she encounters in her environment. Like biologists, we tend to investigate how the situated interplay of disparate things—from the interaction of microbes and genes to the inter-weaving of science and ethics—help us define problems. Fungible Life asks: how do researchers in their experiments combine existing techniques and beliefs, as well as elements of the past, present, and future? How do science ideas, objects, and practices leave the lab and come to shape the governing of life and living in Asia?

Any scientific endeavor operates at multiple scales and through many networks. Biopolis registers Singapore’s shift from being the recipient of overseas science to being a co-producer. There is a transition from British to American styles of medical training. Biopolis enrolls networks that link overseas research institutes such as the Duke University Medical School and the Swiss drug company Novartis. My book shows that anthropology can tell the larger story of how cosmopolitan science becomes universal.

As someone born in Malaysia, I always understood that contemporary milieus are not simply the outcome of history, but shaped by particular combinations of the global and the situated, the rational and the cultural. I have studied the impact of American high tech factories in Malaysia and the influence of neoliberal reasoning on graduated sovereignty and governing practices in Southeast and East Asia. In these different encounters with global forms, “Asia” is a shape-shifter, constantly invoked as malleable space, imaginary, referent, intervention, difference. The rise of bioscience in Singapore and China is only the latest way of being global yet distinctly “Asian.”