Accepted Paper:

Bioengineering as a site of bio-objectivation  


Benjamin Raimbault (Institut national de la recherche agronomique)

Paper short abstract:

We investigate bioengineering as a major site of bio-objectivation from the genealogy of bioengineering at MIT since the 70s. We show how bio-objects are central for chemical engineers to institutionalize bioengineering in the shadow of genetic engineering.

Paper long abstract:

This paper intends to contribute to contemporary analysis on the re-configuration of life by investigating the relations between bioengineering and bio-objectivation.

Our starting point is the statement made by bio-objectivation works namely that "the argument of molecularisation of life dangerously flirts with the essentialisation of life as molecules and DNA." (Vermeulen, Tamminen, & Webster; 2016: p2-3). Since the emergence of recombinant DNA and what is now called the biotech turn in the 70s, it is common to talk about bioengineering. Nevertheless, in many cases, the "bios" is restrained to DNA as an informational molecule whereas engineering is under problematized.

Our investigation is focus on the genealogy of the bioengineering department of one of the main sites of world engineering namely the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Our results are threefold.

First, bioengineering has been mainly invested by chemical engineers, in the shadow of modern biotech, with the help of industry and specific federal program lead by NSF like the Engineering Research Center (ERC). Second, the centrality of chemical engineers cannot be separated from a bio-objectivation of life where enzyme is the main epistemic things. Third, bio-objectivation is related to production issues. Therefore, industry is a crucial site for the establishment of scientific credibility and a main reference in identities or representations.

This communication is based on the Biotechnology Process Engineering Center (BPEC) archives and a 5 months ethnography in the Center for Integrative Synthetic Biology (CISB) of MIT which is part of the bioengineering department.

Panel C09
Bio-objectification: meetings and new thresholds across the bio-social