The Semiotics of Security: Infectious Disease Research and the Biopolitics of Informational Bodies in the United States


In this article, I investigate the biopolitical economy of security as it is operating today in the United States in the context of infectious disease research. Drawing on my work with influenza researchers, I specifically show how experts have been concerned not only with the circulation of biological matter but also with the exchange of scientific information. I argue that it is a specific logic—the logic of iterability—that is at the heart of the growing concern with “sensitive information” published in scientific journals. How has the concern with sensitive information affected infectious disease research in the United States in the past few years? How has the logic of iterability reconfigured microbiological notions of the normal and the pathological? And what might an anthropological analysis of the biopolitical economy of security be able to tell us about the ways in which “life” is made a new political concern today?

 "Influenza virus." May 2012, via Carlo Caduff.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on security, including Celia Lowe’s “Viral Clouds: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia” (2010), Andrew Lakoff’s “The Generic Biothreat, or, How We Became Unprepared” (2008), and Joseph Masco’s “'Survival Is Your Business': Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America” (2008).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on biopolitical economy. See for example, Jean M. Langford’s “Gifts Intercepted: Biopolitics and Spirit Debt” (2009), Anand Pandian’s “Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India” (2008), and Peter Redfield’s “Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis” (2005).

Also see Caduff's commentary on CA's Curated Collection, "Ethnographies of Science."

 "Laboratory scientist working with Influenza." May 2012, via Carlo Caduff.

About the Author

Carlo Caduff is a University Lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Zurich. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 2009. His current research project focuses on emerging infectious diseases. His main interests include the anthropology of science and technology, medical anthropology, political anthropology, biotechnology and biomedicine, biosafety and biosecurity, and social theory.

Carlo Caduff's University of Zurich profile

University of Zurich website

Additional Projects by Carlo Caduff

I am currently completing a book manuscript about pandemic influenza, which is based on my fieldwork conducted in the United States. The book explores how pandemic influenza has been transformed into a prominent object of public concern, political debate, and scientific interest. What is especially interesting are the kinds of social, cultural, and political lives that are unmade and remade in the context of the pandemic threat. I am also planning to begin a new ethnographic research project in India.

Interview with Carlo Caduff

Your paper explores issues that are historical but also uniquely relevant to recent debates of biopolitics, globalization, authoritative knowledge and security. What do you perceive is the anthropologist’s role in the debate? What was your purpose in exploring the issue?

I think it was Clifford Geertz who once suggested that anthropological research is not predictive but anticipatory. One might perhaps say along these lines that my research has not predicted the current debate about the manipulated H5N1 avian flu virus but that it has anticipated a certain problem space.

As an anthropologist, I am especially interested in how biological research is changing today and what these changes might mean for both the scientists as well as the broader public. Among the consequences of a rapidly changing scientific practice is the fact that biologists are increasingly drawn into debates about the security implications of their work. Today, the laboratory has become a place increasingly affected by security problems and security problematizations. How will these problems and problematizations change what it means to perform experimental research and be a responsible scientist?

 "Virus harvesting." May 2012, via Carlo Caduff.

Towards the end of my fieldwork there was a growing sense, both within the natural sciences and the social sciences, that the post-9/11 obsession with national security was gradually receding in the United States. I think this prediction was premature. The government may have changed, to be sure, but the governmentality has not. My purpose, in this article, was to explore how security concerns continue to impact scientific practices and discourses in the United States. We should not forget that what Foucault has termed “excesses of biopower” – the ability to create viruses in the test tube – are still very much with us. What are the effects of these excesses?

The current economy of security is struggling with these new developments. Biologists are constructing novel microbial organisms in the laboratory almost on a daily basis. These novel creatures are destabilizing an economy that is based on the taxonomic classification of microbial organisms. The creatures that are created in the laboratory are not yet existing – so how are we to regulate biological things that are emerging? As I realized in the course of my research, this question points to a crucial limit for today’s economy of security.

Finally, my research has allowed me to engage and extend work conducted by a number of scholars, among them Stefan Helmreich on marine microbiology, Andrew Lakoff on pandemic preparedness, Hannah Landecker on relational biologies, Celia Lowe on viral clouds, Joseph Masco on secrecy and security, Paul Rabinow on synthetic biology, and Nikolas Rose on the politics of life itself, to name just a few.

Scientists studying influenza are spread across the globe. Has this issue generated similar reactions (in public, professional and policy conversations) around the globe?

 "Early lab scene." May 2012, via PHS website. 

I am most familiar with the debate in the United States and Europe. I would say that European experts tend to perceive the debate around the security implications of infectious disease research as a very American debate. I would say that European experts would highlight not so much the security problems but the safety issues. The obsession with terrorism is certainly much more dominant in the American context. But in addition to potential malicious actors deliberately misappropriating scientific information there is always the possibility of an accidental release of a pathogenic agent. So in addition to questions of security, there are safety issues – issues that have to do with how to conduct experimental research in a safe manner. In the context of such safety considerations, the circulation of scientific information is simply not the most important concern.

I would say that European experts are somewhat less obsessed with the terrorist threat. And today, these experts are also less worried about U.S. government interventions and regulations. There is a fundamental trust in the Obama administration and a sense that this administration, in contrast to the prior administration, will surely take the necessary steps in a reasonable way – a naïve trust that is perhaps not warranted. European experts are looking towards the Americans for guidance. They are not really shaping the debate. But again, these are very crude and very general distinctions and we certainly need a much more fine-grained understanding of security discourses and practices in different parts of the world, and not just in Europe and the United States, of course. As a journal, Cultural Anthropology has been at the forefront of critical explorations of security and its changing nature. Given the stakes, I think it is important that scholars remain attentive to the unequal ways in which securities and insecurities are (re)distributed.

What do you think would be the best resolution to the relationship between knowledge sharing and biosecurity?

I am always somewhat reluctant when it comes to solutions. In the case of security, I think we actually have an abundance of solutions that are suggested by experts. Rather than to propose or promote a particular solution, my aim is to analyze experts and the kinds of solutions that they are offering. My key point of reference here is Michel Foucault’s concept of “problematization,” by which he means the transformation of difficulties into problems to which solutions are proposed. I am thus interested in how the circulation of scientific information is transformed into a problem. What, in other words, are the – social, political, economical, technological, and institutional – conditions of possibility that have enabled experts to turn a certain set of difficulties into a problem? And what kind of solutions are put forward? These, I would say, are the concerns that are at the heart of my article.

It is important to keep in mind that solutions are always part of the problematization itself. This is particularly relevant for my topic of research. Experts are often formulating the problem of science and security in a particular way. They are formulating the problem in a particular way because they already know how to resolve it: regulation. An expert with no solution at hand – what kind of expert would that be? I think we should be very careful in terms of how we, as anthropologists, talk about “problems,” especially because some formulations are already containing the solution – a solution that we might not necessarily support. We should thus generally avoid taking problems for granted as they are currently posed. I would also add that this is a form of critique, which goes beyond fault-finding. It is a critique that is concerned with the conditions of possibility.

 "Flu emergency." May 2012, via Carlo Caduff. 

This form of critique has the advantage that it might open up new possibilities because it highlights the fact that problematizations are always historically contingent. If we would begin to problematize our situation in a different way, other possibilities might become possible. But before we can do so, we need to make the contingency of our dominant and dominating problematizations explicit.

Did you encounter any difficulties in your fieldwork?

My visits at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta always turned out to be a hassle. Foreign citizens require two weeks pre-approval as well as a passport. And even with pre-approval, it remained very difficult for me to get access beyond CDC’s visitor’s center, which was a problem both for me as well as for the scientists I know at CDC. I am sure other scholars have experienced similar troubles.

Conducting fieldwork in laboratories in which security is increasingly becoming a key concern presents anthropologists with a number of difficulties. In addition to problems of access, these difficulties have primarily to do with the logic of security, which is a logic of removal, as I argue in my article. The aim of security is to remove information from the public domain. Not surprisingly, it becomes difficult for scientists to be an anthropologist’s “informant” in such a context.

However, what often remains visible is the act of making invisible. And even if the removing of information from the public domain is not visible, it frequently creates gaps, which then become visible after a while. Investigating security thus requires anthropologists to explore how information is removed. Anthropologists can focus on the gaps that are produced by security experts when they are beginning to remove information.

To give you an example: the public is not allowed to know where some biosafety level 3 and biosafety level 4 labs are located. My informants were thus not able to talk to me about the lab where they were conducting some of their experiments with the 1918 virus. As you can imagine, it didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. The gaps that appeared in our conversations – the questions that remained unanswered – became obvious at some point. I soon realized the problem, even though it was not explicitly addressed.

 "Chart of 1918 Influenza epidemic." May 2012, via Carlo Caduff.

Pierre Bourdieu’s distinction between the “official” and the “unofficial” is quite helpful here, I think. Security’s secrets are secret in the sense of Bourdieu’s “unofficial” knowledge. And that is to say, the secret knowledge is not made public, but it is nevertheless generally known. The secret knowledge, in other words, is common knowledge even though it is not openly discussed.

Secrets often appear to be exciting, but in reality they’re not. The secrets of security are frequently banal and, frankly, boring. The fascination rapidly disappears once the secret is disclosed. What matters for the anthropologist is not the content of the secret, but the social, cultural, and political work that the secret is performing. Joseph Masco’s fascinating work on secrecy in the nuclear nation is crucial here.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. At the center of Caduff's essay is security. What is security? How is it constituted? How is it operating? What are the limits of security in the context of infectious disease research? How are the biologists negotiating and contesting security concerns?

2. Caduff's essay offers a semiotic approach to the problem of security. Why is the author interested in semiotics? What is the relationship between semiotics and biology? And what is the relationship between semiotics and security? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a semiotic approach?

Relevant Media

Virology blog: About viruses and viral disease

Dual use research: H5N1 influenza virus and beyond

PBS - Influenza 1918: The American Experience 

Related Readings

"The flight over flu." Nature 481(2012):257-259.

Meeting of the NSABB to review revised manuscripts on transmissibility of A/H5N1 influenza virus. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. March 2012.

"Don't censor life-saving science." Nature 481(2012):115.

Additional Papers by Carlo Caduff

"Anthropology's ethics: Moral positionalism, cultural relativism, and critical analysis." Anthropological Theory 11(2011):465-480.

Epidemic eventsBehemoth 3(3).

"Public prophylaxis: Pandemic influenza, pharmaceutical prevention and participatory governance.Biosocieties 5(2010):199-218.

"Zensur in der Grippevirenforschung" (Censorship in influenza virus research). Wissenschaft im Gespräch vom Mittwoch, March 7, 2012.

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