“One Unique You”: DNA Testing

29 April 2021

“One Unique You”: Passing and DNA-Testing as Ethnotechnological Apparatus

Deanna Cachoian-Schanz & Katia Schwerzmann. Talk at ACLA 2021, “Mistaken Identities: Passing and the (In)Human,” organized by Takeo Rivera and Joshua Williams, Virtual Meeting.


We understand passing in the double meaning of passing for someone or something else, but also passing through a border. The presupposition of this presentation is that the condition of possibility for passing and being mistaken or misrecognized relies on a conception of “identity” that functions as a property in the double meaning of what properly defines a subject and what belongs to this subject at the exclusion of someone else. We read this in the philosophical discourse of enlightenment where subjectivity is understood as sovereignty over the self, as self-possession; but also in the analysis of the slave codes by Cheryl Harris. Passing cannot exist without presupposing firm identities against the background of which someone or something does or does not pass. While identity categories tend to be essentializing, since they are grounded on the idea of property as a possession, we witness a trend to overcome this concept of identity for instance in intersectional discourse but also in the posthumanist discourse. What a human is in comparison to an animal or a machine has become increasingly contested. However, we will show that with genomic technology, among other kinds of identifying technologies—indeed, what technology does not serve the purposes of identification and targeting nowadays?—with genomic technologies, it becomes increasingly difficult to pass, to stay hidden, or to mask one’s identity. Especially for human beings targeted as undesirable—minorities, refugees, the unemployed—it becomes almost impossible to move beyond the borders of what comes to define an individual. All the newly-created technologies go in the direction of forbidding any kind of passing for or passing through. While new technologies are based on the principle of the identification of individuals, machines may slowly become the only beings able to pass for something else then what they are. Indeed, machines are allowed to pass for human like in the case of widely used chatbots replacing the workforce, but humans have to constantly prove that they are not machines like in the case of captcha identification procedures.

Digital and Free-hand Illustrations by Cinzia D’Emidio

DNA-Test as Ethnotechnological Apparatus

Now, we will explain the workings and rhetorics of DNA-testing companies to give a clearer idea of how the logics of identity are appropriated for the purposes of surveillance and biopolitical control. While the technology of DNA-testing is intimately tied to a long history of procedures of racialization—and in fact repeats, in new ways, the same racializing tropes—the specific apparatus of DNA-testing is both novel and specific in that it produces the subject of neoliberal global capitalism as ethnoracial. Following this, we name the apparatus of DNA-testing as “ethnotechnological.” By “ethnotechnology,” we mean the specific case of the entanglement of rhetorical and technological procedures of racialization—in this case through genetics.

The promotional material on the homepage of 23andMe, the personal genomics and biotechnology company launched in Silicon Valley in 2006, advertises the following: “We’re all about real science, real data and genetic insights that positively impact people’s lives.” As of December 2020, the company has been valued at $2.5 billion, and is supported by a host of endogenous investors like the Google parent-company Alphabet Inc., amongst a host of others. 23andMe is just one of several human genomics companies like Ancestry.com and Myheritage.com, which promise similar direct-to-consumer genetic information. To get it, the companies instruct the consumer to follow the simple directions of an at-home kit: spit into a tube and send your saliva back for analysis. “Your DNA reveals your unique heritage—the ethnic groups and geographic regions you originate from,” explains Myheritage.com, which then tempts to “reveal your ethnicity & ancestry.” Ancestry.com takes a sensationalist approach: “Would you dare to question who you really are?” provokes a June 2016 YouTube advertisement, followed by the solution, “Uncover your origins.” 23andMe opts for a more imperative stance, promising to provide information that will lead to a greater sense of the consumer’s self-possession: “Know your genes. Own your health. Know what makes you, you.” 

Each genomics company assumes a different marketing slant: some focus on matching customers with potential relatives while others, like 23andMe, emphasize the prediction of health-risks and personality traits based on association studies. For the round-figure of $100 dollars, coupled with the access to scientific technology and the most personalized molecular data of their customers, these companies rhetorically situate consumers as subjects yet-to-be-decoded, who would benefit from the knowledge of genetics to know themselves more intimately. Ultimately, the project renders increasingly differentiated, hyper-individualized subjects: due to your genome, you are “one unique you,” promised to be in full knowledge and possession of that identity. 

Based on the interpretation of DNA as an algorithm producing life as its output, a human being can be construed as a book, written through the combination of four letters to be decoded by multi-billion dollar biotech companies. This book promises to illuminate what human beings “are” in terms of ethnoracial identities. By ethnoracial, we mean the way in which genomics companies substitute race for (multi)ethnicity, performing a new kind of racialization we are seeking to unravel. Genomics companies produce a new version of racial science using a neoliberal take on identity politics that has smothered its origins in black feminist radical thought. While the language of “race” in relation to science risks signaling the eugenics projects or Jim Crowe of old, “ethnicity” does not carry the same linguistic baggage. With the false distinction that cultural categories are more innocuous than the dangerous biological distinctions among humans, the language of “ethnicity”—tied more to a sense of ancestry, cultural heritage or geographic origins—comes to substitute “race.” 

Understood as a technology of racialization, “race,” here, is not the signifier for either biological or cultural differences; as Wendy Chun explains, “[r]ace […] has never been simply biological or cultural; rather, it has been crucial to negotiating and establishing historically variable definitions of biology and culture.”  For our purposes, race refers to “material-discursive” practices of difference-making that entangles institutions, laws, and science by way of technology. Taken as a technology, race is a material-discursive process that performatively produces and constantly re-institutes and patrols the borders of bodies and geographies, in addition to people’s geographic and social mobility. By taking race as a material-discursive process instead of a naturalized identity category, we question the defining logics of race-making, gender-making or hierarchy-production itself for that matter, because it is this making that necessitates the framework of recognition. That is, from the moment one produces differences that are placed in a normative hierarchy—white over brown over black, male over female, rich over poor—questions of recognition begin to form—as the one who is considered or treated as less-human, or less recognized, begins to desire equity through recognition within the normative hierarchical structure. 

In discussing the apparatus of DNA-testing that produces and reifies ethnoracial differences and identities, we are articulating two layers of analysis: 1) the instrumentalization of the affective attachment to structures of belonging and kinship with which genomics companies substitute ethnoracial biologized identities on the one hand; and 2) the biopolitical use of this new kind of racialization on the other. The larger implications of this analysis are to be understood in the articulation between these two layers. 

1. The first layer of analysis we mentioned above regards the neoliberal and neocolonial construction of an ethno-subject anchored in the racialization of DNA. This racialization consists of two steps: First, race is naturalized and biologized anew through the technological procedure of DNA decoding and data comparison. Second, race is reculturalized through its substitution with “ethnicity.”This step enables the neutralization of the politically anti-liberal connotations of the rebiologization of race. For instance, as of March 2021, 23andMe groups people’s DNA following taxonomies whose logics are as diverse as 1. Religion: the “Coptic Egyptian;” 2. Geographic regions: “Anatolian” or “Eastern European;” 3. Whole continents: “South America”; 4. the nation—“Italian,” “French,” “German;” or 5. Anthropology: “African hunter-gatherer.” In associating data extraction, pattern recognition, self-narration, and diagrammatic presentation, genomics companies seek to profit from a globalized subject who is affectively attached to their geographic, cultural, and national origins, read as “ethnic.” Thus, genomics companies bank on subjects’ affective attachments to their familial and national narratives—connected to their identity and history—to substitute it with another kind of attachment: the attachment to their biologized ethnoracial identity, or DNA, as that which they “own” as their most proper property. 

2. The second layer of our analysis connects this rebiologization of race to neocolonial processes of value extraction and biopolitical techniques of surveillance. We can see the implications of these developments in the directions taken by DNA datafication both in terms of surveying and surveilling. At center stage is the question of the modulation of the individual’s access—to countries and services—enabled by their datafication. Thus, the question of access is the question of how boundaries are drawn, who draws them, and how porous they are depending on the characteristics of the individual’s biological data. This is closely connected to who gets to pass through where, when, and to what.

These two layers constitute two sides of the same coin: the promise of genomics companies to offer to the individual the ability to be in full possession and knowledge of “who they are” goes hand-in-hand with the extraction and dispossession of the individual’s DNA which is then sold to pharmaceutical companies as anonymized data, used for medical research, and made accessible to state authorities in order “to comply with a valid court order, subpoena, or search warrant for genetic or Personal Information.” 

While the first layer of analysis attends to the promise of knowing one’s (multi)ethnic origins, the second layer indicates that datafication is less a question of knowledge production as it is a question of access modulation. Signs of this tendency are already visible everywhere, and their analysis allows us to speculate on the redrawing of the borders of bodies and lands for all individuals, but especially for those deemed undesirable, that is, the conceptual “Others,” whose difference is reified through DNA tests. So, what we try to parse out here is the method of how this new ethnoracial subject functions in the context of the confluence of globalized Capital and biopolitics. 

Surveying and Surveillance, or the Impossibility to Pass

Through genetic datafication, the individual body is once again center stage in procedures of power, which marks a shift from Foucault’s analysis of biopower from the 19th century on, whose target was the management of entire populations. The convergence of biopower and global Capital on the level of the individual body is characterized by the confluence of surveying and surveilling. Surveillance is not about what an individual could make happen. It is now about what will never be able to happen, because the condition of possibility for the potentiality of something to happen is preemptively excluded. The preemptive temporality of surveillance is insured through two strategies: first, by preventing access based on the localized and/or hyper-specific ethnoracial and economic position under which an individual is categorized; and second, by making this individually-specified in/accessibility invisible to the individual surveilled. Our analysis of these two strategies, while in part speculative, is informed by events unfolding at this very moment.

The first strategy of this new kind of surveillance is characterized by the individualized management and modulation of access to services (like insurance, bank credit, medical treatment) or to countries (like the management of travel and migration). This strategy relies on technologies of border-drawing. Thanks to hyper-specific ethnoracial categorization, different borders and levels of porosity are determined for each individual. For instance, in the US the specific health services to which an individual is granted access is today already determined by their identification to a race. Thus, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to speculate that in the near future, the ethnoracial genetic make-up of an individual will determine their access to medical procedures. And, in light of former US President Trump’s collecting and archiving of the DNA of South American migrants to the United States, we can speculate that the same will be the case for access to countries and border surveillance. States are not only managing the general migrant population trying to cross borders. Their goal—reflected by Trump’s DNA extraction project—is to surveil each and every singular migrant body including the body of children. 

Making individually-specified in/accessibility invisible to the individual surveilled constitutes the second strategy of this preemptive form of surveillance. Each individual, in their hyperspecificity, is uniquely made in/accessible to certain types of information or services, based on their geographic location, ethnoracial status, or economic class. Because this in/accessibility is unique to each individual, without the possibility of comparison, it is impossible to know to what one is being foreclosed. For example, following the recent territorial war in the South Caucasues, Google Maps and other online mapping platforms draw the Armenian-Azerbiajiani border differently depending on a user’s IP address.

We mention these examples to demonstrate the particularity of this new kind of surveillance, which works on the level of the hyperspecified individual who is surveyed in order to preemptively surveille what it is they ultimately come to know and have access to. What these strategies of surveying and surveilling index is that drawing the borders of and between human bodies qua datafication goes hand-in-hand with drawing the boundaries of lands and who is allowed to pass through them. To what extent one has access to either services or lands, ultimately depends, then, not solely on the state, but increasingly on the private sector which has overtaken the role of governance. 


Returning, then, to the question of passing, we must reflect upon how this paradigm presupposes identity as property—where “knowledge” of and over oneself is equated to the possibility of possessing oneself more fully. This is, at least, the promise of genomics companies: as 23andMe states on their test-kit box, “Welcome to you.” Yet, identity as property is at the same time the fundamental framework upon which identifying technologies—genetic, biometric, but also algorithmic evaluation of the financial health of a person etc—are founded, defining who an individual is in terms of what they have access to. These technologies are organizing individuals into specific, normative and legible ethnoracial and/or class categories. “Passing” is often an act of survival and sometimes an act of subversion. But can this category undo the identity-as-property and thus the surveillance paradigm we’ve discussed here? In taking the material consequences of identification technologies seriously, it becomes clear that these technologies tend to make passing—the passing of borders, or the passing as someone and something else—an impossibility. While DNA-tests promise that, with further knowledge of your ethnoracial belonging you will be in greater possession of yourself, it is in fact you, through the harvesting of your most intimate molecular data, who become possessed by big tech.

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