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

(Accepted by Social Text)

by Deanna Cachoian-Schanz and Dr. Katia Schwerzmann

1. Introduction

1.2 DNA-Testing: Staging the Apparatus

“Hi, we’re 23andMe. We’re all about real science, real data and genetic insights that positively impact people’s lives.” So reads the promotional material on the homepage of 23andMe, the personal genomics and biotechnology company launched in Silicon Valley in 2006. As of December 2020, the company has been valued at $2.5 billion, and is supported by a host of endogenous investors ranging from Google parent-company Alphabet Inc., the British multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, the primarily technology-investment American venture capital company Sequoia Capital, and a host of others.[1] 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.”[2] 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 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.[3] For the round-figure of $100, coupled with the access to scientific technology and the most personalized molecular data of their customers, companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com rhetorically situate consumers as subjects yet-to-be-decoded, who would benefit from genomics to know themselves more intimately. Ultimately, the promise of genomics companies teeters upon a foundational tension that is central to this critique. On the one hand, these companies render 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. At the same time, the companies also implicitly promise that the consumer will gain a sense of collective belonging to one or more “ethnicities,” tied to their respective geographies of origin. Though seemingly competing promises, their unwavering logic is based on the understanding that DNA-testing renders an individual’s identity as quantifiable, discrete and reified through ethnoracial categories. Based on the interpretation of DNA as an algorithm producing life as its output,[4] human beings are construed as a book, written through the combination of four letters to be decoded by multi-billion dollar biotech companies.[5] What’s more, decoding this book promises to illuminate what human beings “are” in terms of ethnoracial identities.

But why “ethnoracial,” and not just “ethnicity” or “race”? By “ethnoracial,” we signal the specific way in which private genomics companies discursively substitute the term “ethnicity” for “race,” while simultaneously relying on technologies of racialization that construe and (re)produce human differences as biological. Thus, what we are interested in presently is how these genomics companies perform—i.e. interpret, produce and thus iteratively affirm[6]—a new version of racial science that relies on a neoliberal take on identity politics.[7] While the language of “race” risks signaling the eugenics projects or Jim Crowe of old, “ethnicity” does not carry the same historical baggage. Indeed, the literature in social sciences and cultural anthropology generally describes the use of ethnicity as a result of moving away from categorizing people through biological markers towards characterizing them through cultural differences—be it shared tradition, history, language, or religion.[8] However, more often than not, the term “ethnicity” is used without a consistent definition, and instead functions as a floating signifier that bridges the gap between the supposedly biological dimension of race and the cultural aspects that allow for the subdivision of a population into groups.[9] In tracing the usage of the term, we notice an evolution in the way “ethnicity” is employed and deployed by private genomics companies towards biologization. While it is our goal to understand this evolution further, for now, let us retain that the language of “ethnicity”––tied to a sense of ancestry, cultural heritage or geographic origins—comes to substitute “race”in the imaginary promulgated by private genomics companies. However, while this “ethnic” imaginary is read and marketed in terms of culture, genomics companies purport to inscribe biology into culture (or the other way around) by tracing and reporting a customer’s cultural heritage through their biogenetic information. “Ethnicity,” then, is just another—and admittedly more innocuous—marker of “race.” This is what we designate here by “ethnoracial.”

Race, this time without scare quotes—i.e., taken outside of the false opposition between biology and culture—functions for us here as a technology.[10] As such, race is not the signifier for either biological or cultural differences, as “[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.”[11] For our purposes, race refers to “material-discursive”[12] 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 these bodies’ geographic and social mobilities.

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 apparatus of DNA-testing is both novel and specific in that it produces the subject of 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 ethnoracialization through genetics.

The technology that produces this new kind of racialization is complex. The results of the decoded DNA communicated to consumers are first of all constructed based on a dataset whose categories are the product of self-narration. In order to be able to categorize a large consumer base’s random saliva samples, companies rely on a group of initial testing subjects who are asked to self-identify based on what they know about their ancestors and geographic origins.[13] What become the control groups for eventual ethnoracial categories are based on self-narration. Subjects who form control groups provide first-person accounts of their ancestry based upon a variety of factors: their ancestors’ reported geographic location, their kinships, or the sociocultural structures that are assumed to be common to certain geographic areas. Genomics companies then draw the lines around what they consider as forming a distinctive population, which presupposes excluding factors like population movements that may compromise the “purity” of the data.[14] As if this need be reminded, geographies are discursively produced, as 23andMe admits in its documentation: “Most country-level populations overlap to some degree, though. In those cases, we experimented with different groupings of country-level populations to find combinations that we could distinguish with high confidence.”[15]

Once the control groups that constitute a dataset are formed and named, genetic commonalities are identified in them through pattern recognition. Yet, as is obvious by even a cursory look at the following graph by 23andMe, what constitutes a population is murky, to say the least; and drawing boundaries and naming them remains at the discretion of genomics companies.

https://www.23andme.com/ancestry-composition-guide-pre-v5/ Last accessed October 06, 2021.

In effect, genetic commonalities construct the foundational roadmaps for algorithmic processing, as algorithms are programmed to sift individual test-samples through the database in order to trace and pinpoint the percentages of a consumer’s genetic similarities to one or more of the company’s listed ethnic categories. Accompanied by the visual of a world map, the results of the DNA-test have the potential to redraw the cartographies of a consumer’s belongings. Thus, the apparatus of DNA-testing is threefold: the material-discursive technology that processes and shapes the gathered data—and, by extension, the bodies tied to and shaped by this data; the narratives that inhabit the structure of the dataset; and finally, the visual and rhetorical staging of the results.

1.2 Two Sides of the Same Coin: Capitalizing on Affective Attachments and Datafying Ethnoracial Identity for Value Extraction

Starting with the apparatus of DNA-testing that produces ethnoracial differences and identities, this study articulates two layers of analysis: first, the capitalization on affective attachments to “cultural” structures of belonging and kinship that genomics companies biologize as they offer ethnoracial identities;[16] and second, the datafication of this ethnoracial identity for extractive purposes. The implications of this analysis must be understood in the interdependence of these two layers.

The first layer reconstructs the production of an ethno-subject anchored in the racialization of DNA. This racialization takes place in 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 rhetorical substitution with “ethnic” categories. This step is crucial, as it enables the neutralization of the politically anti-liberal connotations of the rebiologization or “molecularization” of race—to take on Nadia Abu El-Haj’s formulation.[17]

In the description above, our aim is not to question the existence of differences in human DNA per se. In themselves, these differences do not say anything beyond stating the obvious fact of genetic heterogeneity and human migration.[18] Historically, however, human biological differences have never been left uninterpreted by science. Thus, what we seek to draw attention to is the way these differences are coded by genomics companies, in other words, how these companies draw maps, delineate boundaries, select categories, construct ethnoracial identities, and then sell them to consumers. 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 often as the result of historical dispossession. In effect, genomics companies “bank” on subjects’ affective attachments to their familial and national narratives—connected to their identity and history—to substitute them with another kind of attachment: the attachment to their ethnoracial identity, qua DNA, as that which they “own” as their most proper property. Here, property must be understood in its two senses: as that which supposedly characterizes the subject proper, and as that which is owned by the subject at the exclusion of others.[19] And, as might be imaginable, affective attachment to identity is messy: while on the one hand this attachment consists of the desire to be an irreplaceable, irreducible, non-fungible individual with an essence that cannot be dispossessed, simultaneously, it is also characterized by a longing to possess the “scientific” and thus supposedly inalienable assurance of belonging to a collective.

Layer two connects the biologization of “ethnicity” to processes of value extraction and biopolitical techniques of surveillance. The implications of these developments can be understood through the directions taken by DNA datafication both in terms of surveying and surveilling. DNA information is more often than not sold to pharmaceutical companies as anonymized data or used for medical research[20]—what we call “surveying.” It is also made accessible to state authorities in order “to comply with a valid court order, subpoena, or search warrant for genetic or Personal Information”[21]—what we designate as “surveilling.”

Important to note in this second layer is the question of the modulation of an individual’s access—to countries and services—enabled by their biological datafication. Access, here, relates to the question of how boundaries are drawn, who draws them, and how porous they are depending on the characteristics of an individual’s biological data. As a result, this kind of analysis allows us to theorize on the redrawing of the borders of bodies and lands for all individuals, but especially for those deemed undesirable, that is, the conceptual “Others,”[22] whose differences are reified through DNA tests. What follows, then, is an attempt to define the contours of this new ethnoracial subject in the context of the confluence of globalized Capital and biopolitics.

Spartanly outlined for now, the layers described above constitute two sides of the same coin: the promise of genomics companies to offer an individual the ability to be in full possession and knowledge of “who they are” goes hand-in-hand with the extraction of their DNA for surveying and surveilling purposes. Without one’s affective attachment to structures of belonging and the need to tend to one’s wounded, dispossessed self, what is the reason to willfully give up one’s most personal information in the effort of “recovery” and, what is more, to pay $100 for it? The capitalist ethnotechnological apparatus of value extraction is at the same time the one offering self-possession against monetary compensation. Let us now look at the apparatus in action.

 2. Ellaha’s Journey: The Rhetoric of Genomics Companies[23]

“Ellaha’s Journey”: A young woman with long, curly brown hair and olive skin wearing a jean jacket joins two people her senior—an ostensibly “white” woman and man; the educated, corporate types—across a table. This is the beginning of a video campaign by the travel fare metasearch platform Momondo in partnership with the genomics company Ancestry.com, launched in 2016.[24] The camera zooms in slowly from behind the two older interlocutors onto the young woman’s face. “Hello,” she smiles a bit anxiously, sitting across from them. “It’s Ellaha, is it?” asks the female interviewer in an unemotive voice with a British accent. Though the interviewers’ faces are not yet visible, the viewer can hear that the older woman is cautious to pronounce her interviewee’s unfamiliar (“ethnic”) name. A subtle brown noise fills the audioscape in lieu of the interviewers introducing themselves as the credits roll and the camera begins to pan in with a dramatic calm, ever-closer towards Ellaha’s face. Ellaha goes on to describe herself to her interviewers: she is originally from Kurdistan, but arrived in Denmark from Iran as a political refugee, along with her parents and siblings, when she was six years old. The political circumstances of her arrival are not explained; they are merely an appendage to Ellaha’s constitution as a Kurd. Another camera cut: a close-up of Ellaha, who’s now sharing a family album and the wedding photos of her parents, contextualizing for her interviewers the traditional dress they donned in what she describes as a traditional Kurdish wedding. As proof of her Kurdishness is rendered through the display of the heteropatriarchal family that produced her, the camera pans for the first time to the face of the female interviewer: a woman with straight, strawberry blonde hair, white skin beginning to wrinkle, and black, rectangular glasses that perch low on the bridge of her nose. With the unaffected gaze of the objective sociologist, the woman peers over her frames and asks Ellaha with visible skepticism, “So how much of your family background do you think is Kurdish?” Ellaha responds immediately, “Um, I hate that question!” As her interviewers look on silently with heads posed to either side, Ellaha, visibly uncomfortable, attempts to navigate the highly politicized terrain of her response: “The Kurdish people are people who’ve been…” Ellaha starts in the passive voice, yet nervously backtracks: “Oh, I have to be…” Notwithstanding the fact that her own position in the European geospace has been constituted by her status as a political refugee, Ellaha is quick to self-censure and not provide the narrative of the centuries-long political and cultural oppression of the Kurdish people which has led to many, including her own family’s, dispossession and forced relocation to the “safe-havens” of the Americas and northern Europe. Instead, exercising the values of multicultural tolerance and keeping within the bounds of political neutrality, Ellaha begins again: “We [the Kurds] don’t have a country anymore, and we haven’t had it for a long time,” she explains to her interviewers. Ellaha’s speech becomes more imperative as she looks into her interviewers’ eyes and dismisses “blood” as a measure of belonging. Instead, the grammar of collective experience and shared political history structures Ellaha’s understanding of kinship: “we are confident enough to say that we are a people of our own, even after what we have been through.”

Screenshot stills from Momondo/Ancestry.com’s video advertisement for the 
“DNA Journey feat. Ellaha.”

Maintaining the position of the “objective researcher,” the female interviewer does not directly acknowledge the political landscape that has led to the oppression of the Kurdish people. Yet, with the questions that follow, she begins to indirectly give relief to the political minefield by asking Ellaha baiting questions to further instill in the viewer Ellaha’s simultaneous certainty and lack of confidence about her Kurdishness: “So your family has been through a lot, as Kurds?… And you know about that?” the researcher asks. Ellaha begins to tear. It is clear that this is a triggering question. And as Ellaha has till this point been carefully diplomatic not to implicate political oppressors on camera, the interviewer takes it upon herself, under the guise of staged ignorance, to bait Ellaha into naming, in no uncertain terms, who they might be: “Think about other countries and other nationalities in the world. Are there any that you don’t feel that you get on with well or that you wouldn’t like particularly?” Beginning to qualify her conflicting reactions as she fumbles to answer such a leading and deeply complex question without any political context provided to the viewers, Ellaha admits to her own internal conflict: though she believes in a common humanity, there is a side of her that “hates Turkish people.” Her hands rush to her face as she quickly re-qualifies, in visible shame, “Not people, but the government!”

The video cuts, and an advertisement for “Momondo, the DNA Journey,” appears in rainbow text against a black screen. After the female interviewer has staged the contours and stakes of Ellaha’s ethnoracial identification as defined by 1. heterosexual reproduction (her parents’ marriage photos), 2. “unscientific measures” of kinship like “feelings” instead of DNA, and 3. her community’s relationship to and disidentifications with its ethnic “others” (Turks), the video continues as the researchers invite Ellaha to embark on what they call a “DNA Journey.” In a neo-colonialist gesture that begins to recode Ellaha’s history in western terms, the male interviewer interjects for the first time. He proceeds to explain how the DNA test works, and asks Ellaha to spit into a tube. As if having only solicited her self-narrative in order to exhibit Ellaha’s sense of communal belonging which he will later dismantle when the test results arrive, the interviewer blankly states: “The story of you is in that tube.”[25]

Two weeks later: Ellaha is called back into the same room. This time, there are other participants on the “DNA Journey” who are also waiting for their test results to be revealed on camera. Ellaha looks anxious. She admits that the confidence with which she originally had described her ethnic and political subjectivity and belonging—that had pivoted so much on the collective experience of her family and community—has been unsettled in the face of taking the DNA test. “I’m maybe in a bit of a conflict, somehow,” she explains. “What the heck is Kurdish? And how do I tell people that I am Kurdish?”[26] It is painful to watch her shaken sense of self: having reflected over the course of two weeks, she has been coerced by the new terms of identification that the researchers had earlier proposed: the importance of genetics over other structures of kinship and belonging.[27] Ellaha begins to tear, and at this moment, the male interviewer rides in on his white horse. As if dismantling his tacit reinforcement of DNA-based identity, he emptily reassures, “It doesn’t matter what that bit of paper says, you’re still Ellaha, right? You’re still you.” His rhetorical question further seeds doubt in her sense of self. “Maybe,” he adds, the test will “tell you just a little bit more about you.”

Ellaha opens her results from a sealed envelope. Her body trembles as if already intuiting that, as a stateless Kurd, “science,” like geopolitics, is also about to disavow her.[28] Ellaha reads her results aloud: “79% from Iran and Caucasus…” She looks at the researchers: “Which was Turkish?,” she sheepishly asks as an aside, relinquishing all knowledge production to the scientists. They answer yes, despite their ignorance and gross historical inaccuracy.[29] She reads on: “…Jewish, European Jewish,” and laughs heartily.

2.1 The Compression of Racial Taxonomies: Beyond “Race” towards Ethnicity

The connections among the ideological logics of “race” from past to present take on salient urgency in an analysis of the pluralities of the structurally covert racialized grammar distilled on DNA-testing company interfaces. Uncannily renewing the medieval idioms of what Geraldine Heng terms “religious race,”[30] DNA-testing companies conflate, substitute and then recode a centuries-long multitude of equivocal taxonomies that come to signify “race.” Indeed, DNA-testing companies, read through Balibar, “are not mystical heredity theorists, but ‘realist’ technicians”[31] of the social body. For instance, as of March 2021, 23andMe groups people’s DNA by taxonomies whose logics are as diverse as 1. Religion: the “Coptic Egyptian;” 2. Geographic regions: “Anatolian” or “Eastern European;” 3. Whole swaths of continents: “South America”; 4. the nation—“Italian,” “French,” “German;” or 5. Anthropology: “African hunter-gatherer.”[32] While it is easy to lose oneself in an endless discussion of the variegated ideological parameters of each of these identity markers, what is important to note for our analysis is that while the symbolic order of the nation is used to further instantiate the unquestioned, fixed and secure cartographies of Europe—French, Italian and German—for places in which the borders of identification and ethnonational or religious belonging are actively disputed territorially and/or corporally, more broad geographic affiliations instead of national identities are reported. For example, for a region like “Eastern Turkey” (geographically identified as Anatolia), located, as 23andMe specifies, in the nation-state of Turkey, “Turkish” is nowhere given as an ethnonational qualifier. Instead, cities in the Anatolian region are named—Van, Adana, Gaziantep—without mentioning indigenous ethnic groups—primarily Armenian and Kurdish—that have (in different times) laid claims to these politically contested border-zones. Similarly, under the anachronistic and broad category of “Iranian, Caucasian & Mesopotamian,” only officially recognized national borders are listed as legitimate geographies that might constitute national identities of belonging: “Turkey (eastern provinces),” “Armenia,” “Azerbaijan,” “Georgia,” “Iran,” “Iraq,” etc., at the not-so-curious exclusion of who are today among the largest stateless nations, the Kurds.

As we begin to grasp in “Ellaha’s Journey,” this new form of racialization through DNA-testing occurs through the two steps mentioned in the introduction. First, “races” are naturalized anew by substituting self-narration with a scientific “cosmogony”[33] or origin narrative—to borrow Sylvia Wynter’s term—based on technical procedures of DNA comparison and pattern recognition. Second, “races” are reculturalized in order to neutralize the politically unpalatable effect of a biologization that reminds us of the most problematic “advances” of racial science in the 19th and 20th-centuries. This neutralization, marked by the linguistic turn from “race” to “ethnicity,” is the fundamental strategy of the neoliberal version of racialization. Moving away from the fixed categories of “race” and their colonial and fascist legacies to the equally abstract, yet seemingly more flexible category of “ethnicity” (tied to ancestral and geographic—not state—origins but also to cultural belonging) genomics companies surreptitiously adopt the colonial technology of race to gain and colonize new markets.[34] For instance, in a surprising and almost perverse turn of discourse and marketing, the 23andMe website declares that “Unlike your Ancestry Composition, identity isn’t based on science. Of course, there are many ways you may choose to identify with your Chinese ancestry, and this sampling of aesthetics, flavors, and traditions may inspire you.”[35] 23andMe readily offers to “explore your ancestry through Airbnb,” enticing clients in possession of the right passports to travel to those far off places to which they are connected through genetic markers or ethnic identification.

In each instance that the rhetoric of Momondo’s video seeks to dismantle the apparent racial biases of the test-takers as they show them that their DNA results tell a story of mixed lineage and ethnicity as opposed to racial purity—implying that the test-takers would hold such a “primitive” and “uninformed” stance without the enlightening ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA tests—the results themselves instantiate racial biases through their presentation. In Ellaha’s case, the educated, white European elders of the DNA company question and then patronize the young woman regarding highly-politicized identity politics, bringing into question the validity of the very identity that has materially positioned Ellaha as a political refugee and subject of political persecution. Her “biases” against Turks—the reproduction of which Ellaha initially resists by carefully choosing her words—is a narrative explicitly solicited and then incited to narration by the interviewers themselves. In the absence of any historical context that might be provided to the promo video’s viewers to explain the reasons for tensions between Turks and Kurds against the backdrop of a decades if not centuries-long Turkish aggression against the Kurdish people for sovereignty and the constitution of a Kurdish state, Ellaha’s comments about “hating Turks” instead become situated as trivial racial bias that can just be “overcome” through the concept of tolerance and our common humanity—a commonality situated in our DNA.

Momondo’s operation as staged in this video relies on the idea of multiethnic origins, grounded in a genetic, thus renaturalized concept of “race” by means of an implicit shift from “race” towards (multi)ethnicity. What this rhetorical substitution masks, however, is that this highly political operation covertly reorients political and social loyalties towards a global mass-market of privatized tech companies that offer the individual a fixed hegemonic reading of their own identities while erasing political and historical subjectivities as they delegitimize shared narratives and collective experiences. At issue here is how these tests are rhetorically staged. Read as Western and bolstered by the authority of genetic “science,” the results are presented by the whitewashed universal subject who reveals to Ellaha the superficiality of her political “biases” that stem from her life and death conflicts, while these conflicts have no stakes for the interviewers. In so doing, the interviewers proceed to dismantle and depoliticize indigenous or non-western structures of kinship, patronizing Ellaha’s anger as they simplify it into banal racist prejudices from (by implication) “backwards” “ethnics” or “nationalists.” Momondo erases one technology of racialization—the category of the “national family”—and colonizes it through another: genetics and “hard science.”[36]

2.2 Beyond Ellaha’s Case

Yet, can we generalize the very specific case of ethnoracialization in Ellaha’s “reveal” video to other contexts in which DNA tests are used? What about, for instance, the case of African Americans who attempt to recover their lost ancestry? Let us be clear: what is at stake for us here is not primarily the upsetting exhibition of gendered, neocolonial power dynamics that are exposed in Momondo’s promotional video. Nor is it about the complex history of the Kurdish-Turkish relationship, which in and of itself weaponizes “race” to commit political injustices, acts of dispossession and social inequities in the region. At stake in Ellaha’s video is the way the ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing creates, proliferates, and capitalizes on an affective attachment to a biologized understanding of ethnicity. The main purpose of this capitalization on affective attachment is value extraction, which occurs either by selling DNA tests to consumers, surveying data by the scientific community, and in some cases, surveilling by the state. A genomics company like africanancestry.com that specifically caters to African Americans may now destroy the data it collects from testers after their CEO Rick Kittles began having second thoughts regarding their use in racial profiling and surveillance.[37] However, the company still relies on the same ethnotechnological apparatus, which promotes and capitalizes on an affective attachment to structures of (lost) belonging to extract value, going as far as providing “certificates” of ethnoracial ancestry upon the further payment of $15.00: 

[Screenshot from https://shop.africanancestry.com/products/cert001, retrieved on September 24, 2021

Certainly, iterations of testing companies exist that are driven by the social justice aim of “self-exploration” and “reparation.” Their goal is to trace lost origins and familial roots after their rupture through dispossession, slavery, or genocide (to name a few). In some instances, close or distanced biological relatives—parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, etc.—have been located and reunited. In The Social Life of DNA, Alondra Nelson describes the experience of African Americans using DNA-tests as a way of reconnecting with different regions in Africa or the tribe their ancestors supposedly came from prior to the Middle-Passage.[38] Certainly, the types of affective attachments at work in these cases differ slightly from “Ellaha’s Journey.” While Ellaha already possesses a strong sense of cultural identity and belonging to the Kurdish people, which subsequently is brought into question yet to which she remains affectively attached, here, African Americans’ affective attachments are directed towards the recovery of a “tribe” long lost. To be sure, this poignant longing and search for one’s originary place of belonging is the effect of the violent dispossession induced by the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the subsequent history of racial marginalization and capitalist dispossession of Black people in the U.S.; in other words, as an attempt to repair a dispossessed self. Yet, whether the affective attachment hinges upon the desire to possess the knowledge of one’s unique genetic makeup more intimately, or to re-construct the knowledge of ruptured genealogies, what remains constant and profitable for genomics companies is the pliable and strategic use of a diverse range of affective attachments to identity, however construed. Thus, even though mobilized by noble aims, social justice-oriented projects equally instantiate and legitimize a biologized imaginary of ethnoracial identity and belonging. In her research on the use of racialized DNA in medical sciences, Duana Fullwiley makes a similar claim, pointing toward what one could call the pharmakon character of genomics: while its declared purpose is often to reduce or eliminate disparities and, in our case, prejudices between “races,” its effect is in fact an essentialization of race and the reiteration of racialized thinking that lead to these disparities.[39] As a result, it becomes necessary to pose what we will leave here as an open question: in what ways, exactly, or to what extent, specifically, might social justice or “reparation” be achieved through a process that re-essentializes and re-produces racial categories that were the foundational source of dispossession? What other possibilities of repair or justice might the fixation with racialized, pseudoscientific ancestry testing foreclose?

However noble their purposes claim to be, genomics companies capitalize on and legitimize the biologization of “race” under the guise of science, while advantageously silencing the (self-)narration or discursive construction necessary to the constitution of categories structuring the dataset. What’s more, this legitimation works so well that members of populations historically victimized by the biological understanding of “races” are now positioned to buy certificates of DNA supposedly attesting to their belonging to an ethnicity, thus recursively reinforcing the essentialization of “races.”

2.3 Affective Attachments and Global Fungibility

So far, we have described two paradigms of identification in our analysis of Ellaha’s journey. The first paradigm consists of the affective attachment to kinship understood in terms of a shared culture, history, and common political destiny. It characterizes Ellaha before she starts her DNA “journey.” The second paradigm is the one offered by Momondo/Ancestry.com. It consists of the uncovering of a pluralist ethnic origin via genetic markers in the DNA. What we witness in Momondo’s video is the way in which genomics companies substitute the attachment to kinship narratives with the attachment to singularized, biologized identity. The ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing operates in this case by unraveling structures of kinship and political alliances and replacing them with the ideological embrace of liberal uniqueness and, at the same time, (multi)ethnic belonging grounded in biology. This phenomenon begs the question: how can it be explained that people willingly allow genomics companies to rewrite their stories as they relinquish their most personal genetic information and family stories to them, effectively consenting to be dispossessed of both? In our estimation, this process works because of the efficacy of the longing for the singularized and “scientifically” legitimized identity and origin genomics companies promise to offer. Further, this longing exists as human beings become increasingly fungible through global Capital and the systematic dispossession of structures of belonging resulting from (neo)colonialism and diasporization. But how and why does Capital work to make individuals fungible, or replaceable?

Firstly, Capital requires en masse superfluous humans who—deprived of labor or of their ability to bargain through labor refusal because of job precarity—are matter without value, substanceless beings, waiting to be purposed.[40] Yet, what Marx called the “surplus population”—commonly associated with the lower classes or the rejected “races” or “ethnic” minorities of society—is no longer the case. Today, fungibility is no longer solely limited to this demographic. Its boundaries continue to expand, and with the automation of labor, will continue to do so. In the global order, everyone can potentially become part of the surplus population. As Achille Mbembe explains, “Today, those who are black to their core are black without necessarily having black skin. They correspond to a kind of subaltern humanity that Capital doesn’t need and that seems to be doomed to zoning or expulsion.”[41] Gesturing away from neoliberal identity politics and the reification of “race” as a category, Mbembe here is interested in analyzing blackness not as only skin deep, but as an objectification similar to commodity: “Movable objects, extended matter, [these human beings] have the status of that which circulates, can be invested in and expanded upon.”[42] This objectification, while characteristic of the Black experience of slavery and colonialism, is not limited anymore to people with black skins. Blackness is the structural opposite of humanness and tends toward a universal condition.[43] In attempting to escape the state of dispossession or in the hope to survive global fungibility and being replaced in an economy of scarcity, the individual needs to claim an irreducible identity that may set themselves apart and make them invaluable, allowing them to symbolically escape the equation of value.[44] This is precisely what genomics companies seem to offer: an escape from global fungibility and, at the same time, a sense of ethnic belonging. They propose something that seems to be inalienable: one’s biologically based (multi)ethnic identity grounded in one’s DNA as one’s most proper property. This is of course an illusion as DNA does not belong, and has never belonged, to the sole individual: it contains the traces of all other humans and other-than-humans that came before, all now in the hands of genomics companies.

Secondly, DNA-tests instill a sense of self-ownership by offering self-knowledge and the production of hyper-individualized identities, while identification to structures of kinship—the first paradigm discussed above—has, over time, been imperiled due to generations of human migration, colonialism, deterritorialization or dispossession. As such, the desire for self-ownership through self-knowledge is highly operative, especially for people who, throughout history, have been systematically dispossessed. The dispossession of bodily sovereignty (like in the case of African Americans through enslavement and severed ties to place and families),[45] of land sovereignty (in the case of Native Americans),[46] or of forced emigration (like in the case of the Armenian diaspora)[47] leads to a wounded attachment to lost origin stories. Genomics companies then promise to repair this wounded attachment with a product that in their claim can allow people to reconstruct these broken links. However, while promising a reclamation and reattachment to the self, one’s genetic history and place of belonging, this product dispossesses people of their bodies yet again when their data is now legally owned by the DNA-testing companies, is then sold to big pharma companies, or when access to them is granted to law enforcement agencies.[48] In short, the wounded attachment caused by colonial and capitalist dispossession consequently fumbles into both a desire for an irreducible, singular self as well as a desire for structures of belonging.

Here, the “neocolonial gesture” of this apparatus is the precise moment in which global capitalism extracts value thanks to the affective attachments precipitated by a succession of colonial dispossessions. While the use of affective attachments to the production of new biologized identities and belonging is integral to consumers’ willingly offering up their genetic material to testing companies, these affects themselves do not produce value. Rather, they are a highly effective means through which value is extracted.

Through the ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing, a neocolonial narrative emerges—one that combines the biopolitical governance strategies of colonial empires targeting entire populations with the capitalist logic of value extraction through datafication of the singular individual.[49] An increasing part of humanity has become fungible, replaceable, superfluous. At the same time, one witnesses the infinite differentiation and specification of human beings who follow the line of their “molecularized” and datafied identity—an act that makes them susceptible to new groupings qua “race” and “ethnicity.” And, as would be apt of biopolitical governance strategies, it should come as no surprise that the molecularization of human life opens the possibility of targeted surveillance by the state and the private sector. This double dimension of surveying and surveilling constitutes the flipside of the capitalization on the longing of dispossessed subjects to self-possession and structures of belonging—in the present case through DNA tests. While an extensive discussion of surveying and surveilling is beyond the scope of this paper, it is essential to point towards them to avoid the impression that what is at stake in the ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing is solely the way people deal with issues around personal and group identities via self-discovery, self-knowledge, and self-possession. Surveying and surveillance, indeed, are key to value extraction.

3. Surveying Bodies, Surveilling Borders

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.[50] As Rabinow and Rose show, re-entering the domain of biological truth, “race, together with health, and in variable relations with it, has been one of the central poles in the genealogy of biopower.”[51] However, they go on to argue that it would be “unhelpful and misleading to regard this configuration as a replay of the past, or to submerge it within some imagined global logic of biopower,” suggesting that instead it would be more generative “to identify the points where critical judgement, diagnosing new possibilities and dangers, might play a part in the direction it takes.”[52] We wholeheartedly disagree; or, at the very least, find the reification of racial typologies in and of themselves as grounds already for disqualifying any consideration of their potential “positive” uses. In addition, the biopolitical constellation of genomics companies has perhaps changed since the time Rabinow and Rose wrote these lines in 2006. Today, the global logic of biopower and its functioning is far from an illusion. In taking a more decisively political and less descriptive stance, it is our hypothesis that the convergence of biopolitical governance and global Capital on the level of the molecularized body is characterized precisely by the confluence of private surveying in the medical, scientific and technological spheres (allowing the extraction of value out of this vast amount of gathered data) and surveilling by the state.

Surveillance, however, is not reactive anymore; it has become preemptive. It consists in excluding in advance the condition of possibility for something deemed undesirable to happen.[53] The preemptive temporality of surveillance is insured through two strategies: first, by preventing access based on the localized 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 categorizations, different borders and levels of porosity are determined for each individual. For instance, the specific health services to which an individual is granted access is today already determined by their identification to a race.[54] Thus, it is not a stretch of the imagination to speculate that in the near future, the ethnoracial genetic make-up of an individual may 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,[55] can we not speculate that the same may 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 surveille each and every singular migrant body, including the bodies of children who cannot legally be held responsible for illegally crossing a border, thus stressing again the inherently preemptive character of such a measure.

It is also significant that one’s genetic information is never just uniquely one’s own, as illustrated by the genomics project initiated by the Chinese state. While DNA testing companies market identifying the uniqueness of every individual genome, at the same time, an individual is also closely related to their genetic kin. While the Chinese Genomics Project has extracted the DNA of only a fraction of the male population (70 million), the information retrieved gives the state access to the DNA make-up of the entire male population (700 million).[56] A person whose DNA has been datafied and archived also makes the genetic information of their close kin accessible and identifiable. Thus, even without their consent, the genetic information of consumers’ close relatives is shared with testing companies, as well as potentially subjected to state surveillance. A single set of DNA, then, never has just one singular implication, but instead extends to a larger set of individuals whose genetic data also contributes to the ever-growing archive of data owned by the private sector, which is accessible by the state. This is already the case in the U.S. where the police have been able to solve cold cases by comparing DNA with the databases of genomics companies. However, as opposed to China which uses DNA-testing on a state level, private tech companies spearhead genetics testing in the United States. As a result, it is the private sector that, functioning as a privatized state, begins to define the new terms of categorization for the borders of bodies and lands which are then utilized by the state. In this instance, global Capital defines the terms of states’ biopolitics in Western democracies, and has begun to infringe upon state politics in the rest of the globe. This marks a significant shift in governance from the state to the governance of global Capital, which creates the ethnotechnological tools that the state then appropriates. In the words of Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology interviewed by the comedian and television host Trevor Noah, big tech is the new “for profit government.”[57]

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. Consider, for example, the differing representations of the contested border between Armenia and Azerbaijan presented by Google Maps, Yandex Maps and OpenStreetMap in the aftermath of the Fall 2020 44-day Turkish-backed war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian-controlled self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh. In a territory already riddled since the Soviet era by cartographic productions and imprecisions that imperfectly and incompletely delineated the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, in the digital realm governed by large tech companies like Google, the disputed borders are represented differently based on a user’s IP address and the consumer mapping application they use. That is, the representation of the contested Armenian-Azerbaijani border changes based on the location of the app user, such that a user in Armenia and a user in Azerbaijan are not guaranteed to be “seeing the same map.”[58] Put simply, these digital incommensurabilities risk life and death consequences for those who live along this hotly contentious border.

We bring these contemporary examples together to demonstrate the particularity of this new kind of surveillance, which works on the level of the hyperspecified individual who is surveyed (through their ethnoracial identity and their geographic position) 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, then, ultimately depends not solely on the state, but increasingly on the private sector which has overtaken the role of governance in western countries.

4. Conclusion

“How would you feel about going on a journey based on your own DNA?,” asks the female interviewer to Ellaha; as if this DNA sample could be anything other than Ellaha’s own. Here, the curious repetition indicates a double entendre that links identity to ownership––one’s own DNA, to own. “Yeah that would be exciting,” Ellaha responds with a smile that quickly waivers to uncertainty, “Aaaand, scary in a good way.” The male interviewer intervenes, seemingly to give Ellaha some agency in this process right before she gives the Momondo interviewers her DNA sample: “What are you hoping to find?” “This sounds so, like a big cliché,” Ellaha says, self-consciously, “but maybe like, that we are all equal? That there’s not a big difference between you and me—” As Ellaha herself narrates, what motivates her to trace her DNA is not a desire directed towards her self-knowing, or the need or expectation to re-instantiate her Kurdishness; instead, it is a desire for equality, a justification for the breakdown of borders. She seeks relationality. Yet, we already know how the story ends. Two weeks later, Ellaha’s results are in. She is summoned back down to sit at the researchers’ table. Her sense of “Kurdishness” is shuttered. She is “79% from Iran and Caucuses” and “Jewish, European Jewish.” She laughs. She “knew that it wouldn’t say that, you’re Kurdish… and it makes me sad, too,” she wells up, “because I can’t tell people that I’m Kurdish.”

Through affective attachments, genomics companies like Momondo substitute an identification based on kinship for a singularized identity based on (multi)ethnicity. In so doing, genomics companies naturalize structures of belonging and kinship making it a question of biology while concealing that they are the ones choosing the parameters of ethnicity and of the geographical borders of belonging, and construe ethnicity in a neocolonial fashion as (self-)ownership; an ownership over one’s own specific biologized identity. After Ellaha again reminds the researchers that it’s the Turkish government she doesn’t like, no one states the depoliticizing objective of the DNA-testing companies better than the male researcher: “The politics is not the people.” Indeed, big tech and genomics companies have begun to shift the parameters of politics away from democratic decision processes and justice regarding the commons and instead towards a global understanding of property, where DNA becomes a resource for knowledge, multicultural tolerance in liberal societies, value extraction (surveying), and biopolitical control (surveilling).

And, whether in authoritarian or liberal societies, surveillance, as we have indicated, becomes the modulation of in/accessibility at the most specific level of the molecularized body. This kind of surveillance moves away from population biopolitics operated by the state, towards a kind of biopolitics in the hands of global Capital. Increasingly, (bio)tech companies come to codetermine the parameters of (bio)politics in terms that fully serve global Capital.

While western democracies use the language of identity politics to celebrate multiculturalism and diversity among their populaces, inequalities continue to grow with the ever-increasing influence of big tech and the billionaires who own them. As a technology that associates biopolitical means of surveying and surveilling with global Capital, the ethnotechnological apparatus of DNA-testing profits from and reenacts colonial dispossession. Through datafication, the promise to repair wounded attachments is not the end-goal: it is a powerful means of value extraction.


Abu El-Haj, Nadia. “The Genetic Reinscription of Race.” Annual Review of Anthropology 36, no. 1 (2007): 283–300.

Antweiler, Christoph. “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective.” In Ethnicity as a Political Resource: Conceptualizations Across Disciplines, Regions, and Periods, Transcript: Bielefeld, 2011.

Arıkan, Muzaffer, interview by authors via Zoom, Philadelphia/Istanbul, February 1, 2020.

Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Wallerstein. Race, Nation, Class. London/New York: Verso, 1991.

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2007.

Bayoumi, Moustafa. “Racing Religion.” CR: The New Centennial Review 6, no. 2 (2006): 267–93.

Brown, Wendy. “Wounded Attachments.” In States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, 52–76. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Chaitin, Gregory. Meta Math! The Quest for Omega. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Introduction: Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24, no. 1 (2009): 7–35.

Coleman, Beth. “Race as Technology.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24, no. 1 (2009): 177–207.

Couldry, Nick, and Ulises A. Mejias. “Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject.” Television & New Media 20, no. 4 (2019): 336–49.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139–167.

Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Ferreira da Silva, Denise. “1 (Life)÷ 0 (Blackness)=∞−∞ or∞/∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value.” e-flux journal 79 (2017): 1–11.

Foucault, Michel. “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975–1976. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.

Fullwiley, Duana. “Race, genes, power.” The British Journal of Sociology 66, no. 1 (2015): 36–45.

Fullwiley, Duana. “The “Contemporary Synthesis”: When Politically Inclusive Genomic Science Relies on Biological Notions of Race.” Isis 105, no. 4 (2014): 803–14.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013.

Harris, Cheryl I. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993): 1709–91.

Heng, Geraldine. “Reinventing Race, Colonization, and Globalisms Across Deep Time: Lessons From the “Longue Durée”.” PMLA 130, no. 2 (2015): 358–66.

Kazanjian, David. The Colonizing Trick: National Culture and Imperial Citizenship in Early America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Martin, Randy. “From the Race War to the War on Terror.” In Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, edited by Patricia Clough Ticineto, and Craig Willse, 258–74. Duke University Press, 2011.

Mbembe, Achille. “Afrofuturisme et devenir-nègre du monde.” Politique africaine 4 (2014): 121–33.

Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

McGlynn, Evangeline. “Perspectives: On the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, the map is not the territory,” March 15, 2021. Url: https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-on-the-armenia-azerbaijan-border-the-map-is-not-the-territory.

McPherson, Crawford B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Hobbes to Locke. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Nelson, Alondra. The Social Life of DNA. Beacon Press, 2016.

Rabinow, Paul, and Nikolas Rose. “Biopower Today.” BioSocieties 1, no. 2 (2006): 195–217.

TallBear, Kim. Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

The Combahee River Collective. “The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977).” In How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, 15–27. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017.

Vyas, Darshali A., Leo G. Eisenstein, and Davis S. Jones. “Hidden in Plain Sight—Reconsidering the Use of Race Correction in Clinical Algorithms.” The New England Journal of Medicine 383, no. 9 (2020): 874–82.

Wynter, Sylvia. ““No Humans Involved:” an Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I., Knowledge for the 21st Century 1, no. 1 (1994): 42–71.

Wynter, Sylvia. On Being Human as Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.


[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/23/23andme-lays-off-100-people-ceo-anne-wojcicki-explains-why.html. January 23, 2020. Last accessed October 6, 2021. See also: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/14/23andme-2019-disruptor-50.html, June 9, 2020. Last accessed October 6, 2021. Anna Wojcicki, one of the co-founders of 23andMe, is the sister of Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw7FhU-G1_Q.

[3] Interview with Dr. Muzaffer Arıkan (Regenerative and Restorative Medicine Research Center, Istanbul Medipol University), February 1, 2020. Re: Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), which are associative studies based on variants to make “light” predictions about health-risks, etc. These associative studies are considered the “lighter” part of the “hard” science behind studies in genetics.

[4] Gregory Chaitin, Meta Math! The Quest for Omega (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).

[5] Thanks to Dr. Muzaffer Arıkan for his metaphor of human beings as books to be decoded and read through the mapping of the human genome.

[6] Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

[7] The neoliberal take on identity politics has smothered its origins in black feminist radical thought and disregards the radical stance of black feminists at its origins. Their goal was the “destruction of all the systems of oppression” through a socialist agenda that encouraged people who share similar life experiences and identities to rally around a common political agenda to achieve equality. See: The Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977),” in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, ed. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). Later, black feminist lawyer and scholar Kimberle Crenshaw made an important case arguing for an “intersectional” approach to identity politics, which took into account the overlapping racial, sexual/gendered, political, historical and socioeconomic positionalities that constitute one’s identity, making the important point that, while “life chances and life situations of people” differ greatly and lead to their particular oppressions, they should nonetheless “be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties” (Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989), 166). Crenshaw takes the black woman as constituted by the overlapping positions of race and sex as her example of intersectionality. Instead, in its neoliberal iteration, the radical impulse of black feminist identity politics has been neutralized through its reduction to questions of recognition and representation of identities—interpreting identity as a property in need to be claimed and recognized; the exact direction about which Crenshaw warned.

[8] For an overview of the approach to the concept of ethnicity in the social sciences and cultural anthropology, see Antweiler, Christoph. “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective.” In Ethnicity as a Political Resource: Conceptualizations Across Disciplines, Regions, and Periods, Transcript: Bielefeld, 2011.

[9] See for instance Alondra Nelson’s book where ethnicity sometimes functions as a biologized subdivision of a race, while sometimes it refers to cultural phenomenon (Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA (Beacon Press, 2016)).

[10] For a genealogy of the concept of “race” in relation to genetics, see in particular Nadia Abu El-Haj, “The Genetic Reinscription of Race,” Annual Review of Anthropology 36, no. 1 (2007). Abu El-Haj’s work is particularly generative for discussing how “race emerges within [a] world of biovalue as a potentially profitable commodity” (293) in terms of medical science and practice, and pharmacogenomics. Here, she uses the phrase the “molecularization of race,” similar to Rabinow and Rose when they discuss the “new molecular deployment of race” as emerging out of “genomic thinking” (Paul Rabinow, and Nikolas Rose, “Biopower Today,” BioSocieties 1, no. 2 (2006), 206.). While we share many of the same analyses, Abu El-Haj’s ultimate investment is different from ours, as here we attempt to explain how the commercial product speaks to people’s affective attachments to identity and communal belonging in order to commodify and extract value from them. While Abu El-Haj discusses how “race” is a commercial product, being used now in the biomedical field regarding race-based drugs, our investment is to explain what the dynamics of power are that both bring us back to reinstantiate “race” in all these instances, keep us desiring the dynamics of identification and belonging, and finally, how we end up exchanging our affective desires of belonging for our own financial ($100 a test) and biopolitical exploitation as we are biometrically controlled and further individuated in society.

[11] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Introduction: Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24, no. 1 (2009), 8. See also: Beth Coleman, “Race as Technology,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24, no. 1 (2009).

[12] Here, we want to insist on the de facto entanglement of technology and discourse to emphasize the idea that science and the phenomena it deals with cannot be reduced to a discursive construction. Rather, in line with recent new materialist theories, materiality is co-constitutive of any construction, co-shaping the order of possibilities of any constitution. The concepts of media and technology are used here to describe the co-shaping of materiality and discourse. They imply the inextricability of the human and the non-human. See: Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2007).

[13] https://www.23andme.com/ancestry-composition-guide-pre-v5/ Last accessed October 06, 2021.

[14] Ibid.: “Most of the reference individuals are 23andMe customers who have consented to participate in research. When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country — and the population of that country didn’t experience massive migration in the last few hundred years, as happened throughout the Americas and in Australia, for example — that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data. We filter out all but one of any set of closely related people, since including closely related relatives can distort the results. And we remove outliers, people whose genetic ancestry doesn’t seem to match up with their survey answers. To ensure a 1§ dataset, we filter aggressively — nearly ten percent of reference dataset candidates don’t make the cut.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] The term “attachment” echoes Wendy Brown’s 1995 essay “Wounded Attachments.” Wendy Brown, “Wounded Attachments,” in States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). Exploring the ways in which certain aspects of the specific genealogy of politicized identity are carried in the structure of its political articulation and demands, Wendy Brown would call these affective attachments “wounded.” Brown makes the astute critique that the “potency and poignancy of the[…] political claims” mobilized by identity politics is only made possible against the backdrop of the white (masculine) middle-class subject—a depoliticized, universal, normative category into which each marginalized “identity” strives for incorporation (and for legal rights and recognition) in the capitalist order. However, while for Brown the liberal dream of incorporation in 1995 implied a desire to assimilate or belong to the middle class—an action that foregrounds passing and recognition through the rights that status grants thereof/in—in 2021 assimilation does not ensure protection against fungibility. Quite the contrary.

[17] Abu El-Haj, “The Genetic Reinscription of Race,” 287.

[18] See Duana Fullwiley, “The “Contemporary Synthesis”: When Politically Inclusive Genomic Science Relies on Biological Notions of Race,” Isis 105, no. 4 (2014). for a discussion of bio-geographical ancestry and the concept of admixture.

[19] The association of subjectivity with self-ownership is inherited from the 17th century. McPherson explores it in his book Crawford B. McPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Hobbes to Locke (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). For one of the most formative discussions on identity as property in the context of United States legal and cultural discourse, see legal scholar Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993). In this seminal essay, Harris describes how the concept of property in the United States has always been deeply interrelated with and co-constitutive of the construction of racial identity (Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 1709). Harris demonstrates how being white or “to have the property of being white” was crucial in order to possess the unalienable “characteristic, the attribute, the property of free human beings” (Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 1721).

[20] https://www.businessinsider.com/dna-testing-ancestry-23andme-share-data-companies-2018-8?r=DE&IR=T

[21] https://www.23andme.com/about/privacy/. Last accessed, March 26, 2021.

[22] Sylvia Wynter, ““No Humans Involved:” an Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Forum N.H.I., Knowledge for the 21st Century 1, no. 1 (1994).

[23] Momondo—The DNA Journey feat. Ellaha: https://youtu.be/7mqWYuKvbXY. Published August 16, 2016. Last accessed March 23, 2021.

[24] See: https://www.momondo.com/discover/momondo-the-dna-journey-how-it-was-made. Published June 10, 2016. Last accessed March 25, 2021.

[25] Note the configuration of the phrase “The story of you is in that tube” instead of “your story.” Clearly, this rhetorical market strategy marks an ideological position of knowing and possessing oneself, making the genitive—as related to your genes—much clearer.

[26] “Ellaha’s Journey” was published on YouTube on August 16, 2016. As of October 8, 2021, the video has received 3,378 comments, all as recent as in the past 24 hours. The level of affective engagement with this video is astounding, and oftentimes aggressive. Viewers accuse Ellaha of being easily shaken in her own history, of being influenced by the western world, that she is “overreacting” (a35), that she “needs to see a therapist” (see 157), people ask to “Look how hard she’s playing the victim 😂” or she is accused of being stupid in not knowing that Kurds are in fact Iranians, or Turks, or that Kurds don’t exist at all: “Why she crying is she Stupid biggest lie Kaukasus is not Turkish Central Asia is Turkish.” Instead of launching critiques at the DNA company, the entity that has structured the terms of the debate, a gendered, psychological assault is carried out on the level of the individual. Ellaha is held personally responsible for her answers, which are in fact highly dependent on the types of questions her interviewers ask.

[27] Kim TallBear, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[28] 23andMe, for instance, does not account for territories or people without political sovereignty. For example, in addition to the Kurds, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans.

[29] There are gross inaccuracies in the interviewers’ response. They make tacit slippages between terms like “Turks” and “Ottomans,” and disavow major and minor ethnic groups that have either occupied, still occupy, or have held sovereignty in the regions of the Caucasus, Iran and Turkey for centuries despite Seljuk, Ottoman, Persian, Russian and Turkish rule.

[30] Heng refers to religious race as the predominant racialized logics of the premodern era in Europe, which named Jews or “Moors,” or even, “blackamoors”—the religious racial category based on somatic qualities to refer to black Muslims—as religiously-based ethnoracial categories to be excluded/othered from the forming bodies and borders of Christian Europe (an identity). See Geraldine Heng, “Reinventing Race, Colonization, and Globalisms Across Deep Time: Lessons From the “Longue Durée”,” PMLA 130, no. 2 (2015). For further reading on religious constructions of race in the U.S., see Moustafa Bayoumi, “Racing Religion,” CR: The New Centennial Review 6, no. 2 (2006).

[31] Balibar, and Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, 23.

[32] See 23andMe website for this taxonomy as of March 25, 2021.

[33] Sylvia Wynter, On Being Human as Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 35.

[34] Immanuel Wallerstein takes up the categories of “race,” “nation” and “ethnicity” in “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism and Ethnicity” (Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991 [1988]): 71-85), in order to functionally distinguish among their often amorphous uses, which is always in relation to the basic structural features of the capitalist world-economy. Like Wallerstein, we are invested not in the positivist construction of “race” as a category, but in understanding the structural and historical processes that have produced it. That is, why do we need such categories, and how do they function? That they are social products and not biological phenomena is an a priori assumption. For Wallerstein, “race” is produced through the division of labor in the world-economy, “nation” is the political superstructure of that historical system, and the concept of “ethnic groups” describes the amorphous cultural realm that is outside the official parameters of the state. These three categories are mutually dependent. However, while Wallerstein connects the category of “ethnicity” to the nation as a description of the national minority in terms of culture and the ethnicization of the workforce, we notice a different function and orientation of “ethnicity” employed and deployed by genomics companies. Our use of “ethnoracial” is informed by Wallerstein’s usage, which implicitly connects the categories of Capital and class to “race.” However, in using “ethnoracial,” that is, keeping the “racial” in the “ethnic,” we aim to visualize the tacit trace of the biological construction of “race” and racism within and as the basis for ethnicity. What we mean to mark here is that the distinction between “race” and “ethnicity” is a false one, and that the racial is always imbricated in the ethnic. In the context of DNA-tests, then, “ethnoracial” marks the discursive rebiologization of the cultural. Second, biometrics companies deploy the word “ethnic” to produce a new kind of ethnicity different from the one Wallerstein describes as naming the hierarchy of the national minority and “ethnic” class that guaranteed a workforce. Here, what is new and unique is that companies based out of Silicon Valley go beyond the national or state framework presented by Wallerstein in the 1990s. Today, the language of “ethnic” origins markets to a global subject in order to imbricate and subject them under a system of privatized surveillance. While for Wallerstein the “ethnic” subject guaranteed a low-wage workforce within the confines of a nation-state, today, DNA-testing companies trace and plot the “biological” geographies of a subject’s overlapping ethnicities, which leads to a new kind of border-making.

[35]  23andMe’s “Chinese Population Report” consulted March 16, 2021.

[36] Indeed, in a multiculturalist, whitewashing gesture, the opening quote of Momondo’s promotional video announces, “To celebrate diversity in the world, we set out to find it in our DNA.” The video follows the rules of what David Kazanjian calls the “colonizing trick,” where racial and national formations rearticulate, not contradict, universalist egalitarianism. See David Kazanjian, The Colonizing Trick: National Culture and Imperial Citizenship in Early America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[37] Even a scientist like Rick Kittles expressed second thoughts about the way the data of African American clients qua test-subjects were used: “The African-American geneticist Rick Kittles stopped sharing DNA with scientists who were developing ancestry informative marker technology for the forensic tool of molecular photofitting. As he told me, ‘I don’t want to help them put more black people in jail’.” Quoted in Duana Fullwiley, “Race, genes, power,” The British Journal of Sociology 66, no. 1 (2015), 43.

[38] Nelson, The Social Life of DNA.

[39] Fullwiley, “Race, genes, power,” 37.

[40] Wynter, ““No Humans Involved:” an Open Letter to My Colleagues,” 65.

[41] Achille Mbembe, “Afrofuturisme et devenir-nègre du monde,” Politique africaine 4 (2014), 121. Our translation. See also Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013)

[42] Ibid., 128. Our translation.

[43] Ibid., 130.

[44] See: Denise Ferreira da Silva. “1 (Life)÷ 0 (Blackness)=∞−∞ or∞/∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value.” e-flux journal 79 (2017).

[45] See https://shop.africanancestry.com with their slogan: “Remember Who You Are” and further “Knowledge

Is Power. Discover the missing part of YOUR story.” The company Afroroots DNA launched in 2020. https://afrorootsdna.com/whychooseus “Discover your Tribe”. Last accessed March 15, 2021. One of their reviewers writes on the About Us page, “I am so happy a company like AfroRoots DNA exists. Finally, Black people of the Diaspora have a chance to know which African ethnic groups make up their DNA! A company for the people, by the people. I will be recommending you!” Last accessed March 15, 2021.

[46] See TallBear, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, 32.

[47] See Armenian Genome Project http://armeniangenome.am/; Armenian DNA Project https://armenianweekly.com/2013/01/31/a-link-to-the-past-the-armenian-dna-project/; “Branching Out” in Silk Road 2020: History Stands to Repeat Itself as Armenia Renews Ties to Asia AGBU News Magazine, August 2020,http://online.fliphtml5.com/fqpe/fssq/#p=1. Last accessed October 6, 2021.

[48] See Fullwiley, “Race, genes, power.”

[49] Couldry, Nick, and Ulises A. Mejias. “Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject.” Television & New Media 20, no. 4 (2019).

[50] Michel Foucault. “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975–1976. (New York: Picador, 2003).

[51] Rabinow, and Rose, “Biopower Today,” 205.

[52] Ibid., 208.

[53] Randy Martin, “From the Race War to the War on Terror,” in Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, ed. Patricia Clough Ticineto, and Craig Willse Duke University Press, 2011).

[54] Darshali A. Vyas, Leo G. Eisenstein, and Davis S. Jones, “Hidden in Plain Sight—Reconsidering the Use of Race Correction in Clinical Algorithms,” The New England Journal of Medicine 383, no. 9 (2020), 875: “The calculators include race and ethnicity because of observed differences in surgical outcomes among racial and ethnic groups; the authors acknowledge that the mechanism underlying these differences is not known. […] When used preoperatively to assess risk, these calculations could steer minority patients, deemed to be at higher risk, away from surgery.”

[55] https://www.texastribune.org/2020/01/31/trump-plans-collect-dna-nearly-million-immigrants/, last accessed October 6, 2021: “Trump administration officials said the proposed rule would better comply with the spirit of the 2005 law and aid in crime fighting. The department argues that the DNA collection is justified because even if immigrant detainees haven’t been charged or prosecuted, most committed a crime by crossing the border illegally.”

[56] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01984-4, last accessed October 6, 2021.

[57] The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: Tristan Harris—Facebook and Rethinking Big Tech:  https://youtu.be/YruYAnzirxw, last accessed October 6, 2021.  

[58] See McGlynn, Evangeline. “Perspectives: On the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, the map is not the territory,” https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-on-the-armenia-azerbaijan-border-the-map-is-not-the-territory, last accessed October 6, 2021. Here, McGlynn describes the cartographic complications of the Fall 2020 post-war Armenian-Azerbaijani border by digital mapping apps, including their real-life implications.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: