«Remediating Viking Origins: Genetic Code as Archival Memory of the Remote Past Marc Scully, Turi King and Steven D Brown Sociology 2013 47: 921 DOI: ...»
Remediating Viking Origins: Genetic Code as Archival Memory of the
Marc Scully, Turi King and Steven D Brown
Sociology 2013 47: 921
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Downloaded from soc.sagepub.com at University of Leicester on October 3, 2014 493538SOC47510.1177/0038038513493538SociologyScully et al.
Article Sociology 47(5) 921–938 Remediating Viking Origins: © The Author(s) 2013
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Genetic Code as Archival sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0038038513493538 Memory of the Remote Past soc.sagepub.com Marc Scully University of Leicester, UK Turi King University of Leicester, UK
Introduction A sense of national or regional identity is a complex achievement, which draws upon multiple sets of relations such as kinship, ethnicity, social role, place and ideas of civic citizenship. Many of these are located in the present or the recent past, such as ‘where I live’, ‘where I was born’, ‘who my parents are’. But some stand in a relationship to an imagined ‘remote past’, stretching back over several hundreds of years. For many people this relationship is limited in scope, consisting perhaps of a diffuse image of the past based on images from popular history books, school education, museum visits or broadcast media sources. However, there are occasions when the relationship to the remote past can become suddenly animated. The remote past can take on extraordinary relevance for an everyday sense of national and regional identity when it coalesces around a new and vivid material form.
In this article we explore how the remote past is made relevant in the present for participants in a study of population genetics in the UK. We argue that whilst contemporary genetic testing certainly offers a new kind of relationship to the past, it does so through highly mediated means, which serve as a kind of ‘attractor’ for imagined identifications.
This is a particular instantiation of the ‘genetic imaginary’ in Stacey’s (2010) sense, in regard to the creation of extra-scientific narratives around the ‘transferability of the informational components’ of the human body. Genetic code may be treated as a literal inscription of the past, but more importantly it is a resource around which identityrelevant versions of the past can be narrated and contested. These versions of the past are heavily remediated (cf. Bolter and Grusin, 1999). By this we mean that the narratives of the past are constructed out of images and information that are not only drawn from popular media sources, but are themselves shaped through an ongoing dialogue with previous media texts.
Identifying with the remote past necessarily passes by way of such mediatised processes. It is a work of imagination that retrospectively projects images historically in order to lay claim to them as cultural memory. Brownlie’s (2012) work on contemporary political and cultural usages of the Norman Conquest is a good example – she outlines how the position of the Norman Conquest, the Battle of Hastings, and the date 1066 in cultural memory serves to situate Englishness both in relation to Britishness, and also to Frenchness and European-ness. Thus, we construct a history that fits with our present needs, and then find comfort in the apparent reassurance given to us by this imagined past (a process the philosopher Henri Bergson once referred to as the ‘retrograde movement of the truth’).
It is a well-explored paradox within memory studies that self-conscious reconstruction and invention through mediatisation may nevertheless support powerful identifications and a deep-seated ‘feeling’ of belonging (see for instance Schwartz et al., 1986, on the reconstitution of the Masada legend in Israeli national identity). In the case of British identity, the history of successive phases of migration and settlement offers a great many potential images for identification – ranging across Normans, Saxons, Vikings and socalled Ancient Britons. These images can, of course, only really be known through a shifting array of popular texts, film and television representations, museum displays, school work, etc. But the status of these images as highly mediatised does not appear to Downloaded from soc.sagepub.com at University of Leicester on October 3, 2014 Scully et al.
detract from their holding power. In other words, our awareness that we do not know specific aspects of the past directly, that we know it only through a variety of media images, does not make us feel any less connected to them. As we will go on to show, there are people who feel a specific and personalised connection to their ‘Viking ancestry’ and that this is key to their sense of being British, despite the paucity of the available evidence.
Considered from this perspective, genetic code has a distinctive place in the remediation of the past. On the one hand, it might be argued that genetics offers the ‘hardest’ form of contemporary evidence available to accounts of ancestry and belonging. Through analysis of DNA, most commonly mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA, it is possible to map patterns of historical migration on a large general scale and to identify common ancestry by pointing to specific genetic markers. But on the other hand, the conclusions of such analysis are rarely definitive – population geneticists compare the analysis of DNA to that of hermeneutics of interpreting a palimpsest. And whilst it may be possible to plot common ancestry between contemporary DNA samples, it is necessary to turn to other historical, statistical and archaeological sources to provide the narrative that makes sense of that ancestry.
We might then say that genetic code is one component in the series of resources that constitute an ‘archival memory’, through which it is possible to reconstruct and identify with the past. We use the term ‘memory’ here – not uncontroversially – to indicate that what is at stake is not a general historical account, but rather a personalised narrative of one’s relationship to the past with respect to belonging and national or cultural identity.
Jan and Aleida Assman locate ‘archival memory’ within a more general framework of ‘cultural memory’ (A Assman, 2011). This latter consists of formalised knowledge that exists in a highly mediated form carried along specialised routes, and which makes reference to a wide time frame, including a remote and sometimes mythic past. This is usually contrasted with communicative memory, which is ‘living’ or ‘embodied’ memory, embedded in informal traditions, and shared across interacting generations (typically 3–4, or around 80–100 years) (J Assman, 2011). Genetic code is a relatively new kind of cultural memory, having only recently become legible for memorial purposes through the development of better and cheaper forms of genetic typing. As a consequence of these new technologies, basic DNA testing is commercially available and relatively affordable to anyone seeking to create a family history, particularly since the first appearance of commercial genetic testing companies in the early 2000s. As we will discuss, the growth in the popularity of such companies has led to concerns being raised about the manner in which genetic information is returned to participants, and the uses to which this information is put, both from a scientific and an ethical standpoint (Bolnick et al., 2007; Lee et al., 2009; Tutton, 2004).
The commercial availability of DNA testing raises a further issue. Andrew Hoskins points to the role of the internet and related social media in transforming memorial practices into ‘digital memory’. By this he means a form of memory which is ‘fluid, de-territorialised, diffused and highly revocable, but also immediate, accessible and contingent on the more dynamic schemata forged through emergent sociotechnical practices’ (2009a: 41). Digital memory scrambles the distinction between cultural and communicative memory by opening up access to formalised knowledge and making Downloaded from soc.sagepub.com at University of Leicester on October 3, 2014 924 Sociology 47(5) it sufficiently mobile that it can be reformulated and embedded ‘on the fly’ across a wide range of memorial activities. For example, opening an account with a website such as Ancestry.com enables access to a range of official historical records. Distant family members can work together on building and editing a family history, adding in other personal documents and photographs, and sharing the results through social media. The results of DNA testing can now be included in this mosaic as another resource which can be combined and reworked in an evolving memorial reconstruction of the past.1 In what follows we explore this remediation of the past through the memorial use of genetic code. We first describe how DNA testing has given rise to what Sommer (2012) calls ‘applied genetic history’. We then discuss the ways in which population geneticists seek to make claims about identity in both the popular and expert spheres. The purpose is to show the complexities of the sorts of claims that are made within population genetics and the necessary constraints and assumptions that ought to be placed on such claims.
These provisos and internal tensions are not typically discussed within sociological analysis. We then provide some brief ethnographic reflections on a study exploring the relationship between surnames and the Y chromosome and discuss some initial material drawn from participants. Our analysis of their responses to a ‘participant motivation’ questionnaire focuses on their own aspirations and investment in genetic testing, which are contrasted with what the testing is likely to deliver. Finally, we conclude with some thoughts on the challenge that ‘applied genetic history’ presents to the intersection of cultural and communicative memory.
Applied Genetic History The remediation of DNA data is arguably most notable through the manner in which population genetics research is reported and commercialised, both in ‘popular science’ and ‘popular history’. Marianne Sommer characterises the ways in which population genetics have been incorporated within the ‘history boom’ as ‘applied genetic history’, and argues that it is marked by ‘novel kinds of mediatisation, commercialisation and personalisation of historical knowledge as products’ (2012: 226). A concern raised by many sociological critiques of this form of ‘applied genetic history’ argues that it often tends to reinforce essentialist notions of identity, even while being framed in the language of anti-racism (for example Nash, 2011b).
The paradox of ‘popular’ population genetics is that while it can be claimed to scientifically undermine notions of racial purity (although some of the contradictions in employing genetic evidence to ‘prove’ that race is a social construct have been usefully explored by Smart et al., 2012), it is mediated in such a way as to promote the existence of identifiably discrete ‘peoples’, not just in antiquity, but also in the present day. More particularly, the methodological need to identify those with a deep historical link to a specific place has the potential to demarcate between ‘indigenous’ and ‘recent arrivals’, which inevitably assumes potentially problematic socio-political resonance (cf. Fortier, 2012). The key question for us here is how individuals incorporate the findings of their own genetic make-up within their personal and familial narratives, and how this in turn becomes situated within the memory of the nation.
Downloaded from soc.sagepub.com at University of Leicester on October 3, 2014 Scully et al.
Much of the communicative memorial work carried out by individuals can be seen as somewhat of an imaginative extrapolation from the genetic reading, which involves positioning themselves within an ‘imagined genetic community’ (Simpson, 2000). This extrapolation does not, however, occur in a vacuum, but is rather an intrinsic part of ‘applied genetic history’ discourses. In the British context, this process involves an elision by which the genetic evidence that the Y-chromosome signature of an individual fits in with wider patterns which may reflect historical migrations to Britain is interpreted as that individual being identifiably Celt, or Anglo-Saxon, or Viking, etc. In other words, while the field of population genetics deals with (as the name may suggest) populations, the findings of population genetics are often remediated, particularly in the popular sphere, as though they could be made to apply to specific individuals.