Radical media, politics and culture.

"Deterrence as Bug Spray," Review of <i>Lab USA</i>

Deterrence as Bug Spray

A Review of Lab USA, by Kevin Pyle (Autonomedia, 2001)

Eugene Thacker


reposted from the ITWP project website

hosted by James Der Derian at Brown:

Information, Technology, War, & Peace

Paging through the "illuminated documents" of Lab USA, one cannot help but to look at current events in a different, if more sinister, light. Combining the genres of documentary research and the graphic novel/underground comix genre, Lab USA provides us with a hard looks at the genealogy of medical, psychological, and genetic experiment in America.

Exhaustively researched and patiently illustrated, Lab USA juxtaposes the graphic and illustrative dramatization of human guinea pigs with the sterile, harsh presentation of medical reports, patient testimony, legal proceedings, policy amendments, and the writings of the scientists, bureaucrats, and government officials behind the use of human beings in medical experiment. In this, it uses the strategies of the graphic novel and comix to both dramatize and reflect back upon the way that scientific-military knowledge is mediated in the public domain.

In the midst of the current threat of bioterrorism, Lab USA presents us with something even more disturbing: an account of an internal bioterrorism, usually conducted in the name of national security or sociobiology. Early examples include U.S. Public Health ServiceÕs 1932 study of syphilis in some 400 black males in Alabama (in which the disease was allowed to follow its course in the body), and the dark history of government-sanctioned eugenics, compulsory sterilization, and criminalization of the socially "unfit" in the U.S. (prior to its demonization in Nazi Germany). These narratives resonate with current reports of "population genome" endeavors underway, where the populations of Icelanders, Newfoundlanders, indigenous Australians, Estonians, and other genetically-isolated communities become the source of valuable biological data.

Lab USA also traces the parallel stories of Hepatitis B during the 60s, and its connections to HIV in the 80s, both of which combine poor medical practices, "Skid Row" clinics, the biological resourcing of the poor, and black markets of "hot blood." Along with medical research, Lab USA also draws connections to psychosocial and behaviorist experiments, often performed on patients with mental illnesses and prisoners (psychopharmaceuticals, "wash out" experiments, "electronic brain stimulation").

While mainstream news and pop science books present us with a mostly reductive, mostly "gee-whiz" portrait of the "genetic revolution," Lab USA looks at the aberrations which biotech and genetics have produced, including Gulf War Syndrome (where soldiers were innoculated with experimental, non-FDA approved, botulinum, nerve gas, and anthrax vaccines all at once), and the tragedies which have resulted from mal-informed practices in gene therapy experiments.

Perhaps the most resonant narrative which Lab USA presents is that of biological warfare studies conducted by the U.S. military in the U.S. Ð including a 1950 Serratia marcescens study in San Francisco, and many other like them during the 50s and 60s, in Florida, Georgia, Minneapolis, Virginia. A particularly harrowing case is the 1966 Anthrax test conducted in the New York subway system (the military claimed the strain was harmless, and was being studied for its dispersal properties).

It is important to point out two things from the narratives in Lab USA Ð first, that the issue of informed consent is a troubling category, often totally absent in the experiments described, and when given, often clothed in misinformation. Second, each of the experiments in Lab USA is sanctioned by either the U.S. government, military, or medical profession Ð it thus has an official side that is couched in institutions that are constitutive of national security and health care.

Reading Lab USA, and living in the U.S. during the threat of bioterrorism, one is placed in an uncomfortable position. The mainstream view echoed in the media characterizes Anthrax in immunological-political terms Ð a foreign invader from without, threatening internal security. A deeply cynical view would hold that the current Anthrax scare is simply a strategy employed by the U.S. (directly or indirectly) to authorize the increase of medical surveillance and the stockpiling of biological weapons (more than one reference has been made in various postings and articles to the Cold War). Lab USA forces us to think beyond the simple us-them dualisms which, given the current situation, can be so tempting. It asks us to consider how complicity, contingency, and vested interests play a role in the "targeting" of the political body. If we are indeed talking about networks Ð informational, transportational, financial, and biological Ð then it is difficult not to ask where the inside and the outside implode, or, rather, where their boundaries are re-configured given certain geopolitical events.