Temporality and Belonging as Transdisciplinary Phenomena:
Strategic Encounters between Queer Theory and Population Genetic Technologies
University of Helsinki
As feminist science and technology studies (STS) scholars, we typically
explore phenomena that are located between conventional academic
disciplines. The phenomena we study are transdisciplinary in the sense
that we need to interrogate their material, technological, cultural,
and social dimensions in order to understand how they operate in
technoscientific societies and shape our lives (e.g., Haraway, 1991;
Lykke, 2004). For example, pregnancy, infertility treatments, chronic
illness, and implantable medical devices are embodied phenomena that
bring together molecular, hormonal, technological, emotional,
discursive, and epistemic processes, as feminist scholars have shown
(e.g., Hird, 2007; Meskus, 2015; Thompson, 2005; Oudshoorn, 2015).
This article provides a new perspective to the question of how to study
transdisciplinary phenomena. My starting point is the observation that
feminist STS scholars often engage with transdisciplinary phenomena
that have a materially grounded empirical referent: for example, how a
particular technology is developed, used, experienced, or represented.
Such phenomena may be ambiguous or multiple, as Annemarie Mol’s (2002)
exploration of the vascular disease atherosclerosis and Charis
Thompson’s (2005) analysis of ontological choreography at infertility
clinics show. I am interested, however, in what happens when the object
of study is an affective formation—for example, nostalgia or
belonging—that lacks a material referent. While such a phenomenon often
emerges through, or is articulated in relation to, material practices,
the phenomenon itself is largely immaterial and evasive. I want to
emphasize that such phenomena differ from more clearly material
phenomena in degree rather than in kind.
That is, I am not suggesting a distinction between two kinds of
transdisciplinary phenomena. Rather, I want to explore what happens
when the idea of transdisciplinary phenomena is applied to an affective
formation that underlies and organizes technoscientific society and
culture. The motivation for the article arises from my engagement with
cultural studies, especially questions of belonging, temporality,
nostalgia, and the circulation of emotions around biotechnologies.
The primary focus of my article is methodological. The article is centered on the question: How
can we investigate an evasive and largely immaterial phenomenon such as
an affective formation in a way that accounts for its cultural as well
as bioscientific entanglements? I argue that an analysis of
affective formations benefits from strategic encounters between fields
of study usually considered distinct or even incompatible. I develop
this argument through a specific case study: the affective formations
of temporality and belonging as they take shape around the discourses
and technologies of human population genetics. I approach temporality
and belonging through queer theorization of time and population genetic
practices, two fields of knowledge production seldom explored together.
Such a strategic engagement refuses to render population genetics a
mere object of queer analysis, seeing it instead as an active mode of
knowledge production, while also acknowledging the potentiality of
queer theoretical approaches as methods of studying practices
conventionally understood as bioscientific. This kind of strategic
engagement resonates with Karen Barad’s (2007) “diffractive
methodology,” in which approaches or fields of study engage in an open
and nonhierarchical co-production of phenomena. Yet my analysis is not
an application of Barad’s methodology, but rather addresses the
specific concerns involved in the study of affective formations. My
article contributes to the goal of this special issue to think feminist
theory as science by exploring the co-production of knowledge
by queer theory and population genetic practices. This kind of
co-production engenders both resonances and friction. The article
suggests that it is precisely through such moments of recognition and
departure that new insights may arise.
In what follows, I trace how population genetic configurations of
temporality and belonging articulate and reshape cultural conceptions
of time and, at the same time, how temporality and belonging emerge
through population genetic practices. Temporality and its social
configuration, belonging, underlie both population genetics and queer
theory in crucial ways. Population genetics explores how DNA records
the passage of evolutionary time and the movement of populations across
the globe. It metaphorizes genetic material as a “molecular clock” that
measures the temporal distance between populations through the gradual
accumulation of mutations. In such a framework, genetic differences are
seen as organized by temporality. Temporality also plays a key role in
queer theory, though seldom in the context of biotechnologies.
Queer-studies scholars have challenged the persistence of cultural
conceptions of time as linear and future-oriented and envisioned
alternative ways of approaching temporality. These studies have often
focused on the disjuncture between embodied experiences and normative
conceptions of historical time and the proper organization of life
events related to marriage, reproduction, and ideas of maturity. In
both population genetics and queer theory, temporality is closely
connected to belonging,
understood here as a temporal dynamic through which people and
communities emerge as connected to culturally meaningful historical
trajectories. For example, population genetic practices such as genetic
diversity projects or commercial genetic ancestry tests refashion ideas
of kinship and identity in foundational ways (e.g., Hamilton, 2012;
Hinterberger, 2012; Nash, 2005, 2012; Skinner, 2006; TallBear, 2013a,
2013b; Wald, 2006). Similarly, queer explorations of time have
highlighted the connections between past, present, and future
marginalized communities and subjectivities, as well as theorized the
affective structures of the present (e.g., Boellstorff, 2007; Dinshaw,
2007; Freeman, 2010; Halberstam, 2005; Muñoz, 2009; Povinelli, 2011).
The first two sections of the article provide a brief overview of
temporality in population genetics and queer theory. The following
sections turn to the website of the Genographic Project, the National
Geographic Society’s ambitious initiative of studying human genetic
variation, through which I develop my analysis of temporality as
materially and technologically enacted. Through the critical lenses of
queer theory, I examine how gender and sexuality underlie the ways in
which the Genographic Project invokes and refashions temporality and
belonging. At the same time, I complicate queer insights on temporality
through the material and technological situatedness of population
genetic practices, especially the differences between mitochondrial,
Y-chromosome, and admixture analyses. Through this two-way approach, I
demonstrate how temporality and belonging are always connected to
specific uses of technology. I propose that bringing queer theory and
population genetic technologies into a strategic encounter may help us
understand not only how temporality is gendered and sexualized, but
also how those processes of gendering and sexualizing are inseparable
from the materiality of technologies and their underlying epistemic
premises.1 Based on my
analysis, I suggest that temporality and belonging benefit from an
approach that engages in and brings together diverse and even
incongruous fields of inquiry.
Temporality in Population Genetics
Human population genetics seeks to identify genetic differences between
past and present human populations and to construct evolutionary trees
that document the prehistoric divergence of human populations on the
basis of these differences. For a significant part of its history,
population genetics has been interested in genetic variation in
noncoding DNA: that is, in markers that do not directly control the
physiology of the organism and are therefore not subject to natural
selection in the same way as coding DNA. As changes in noncoding DNA
generally result from random mutations, which often accumulate at a
predictable rate, differences in noncoding DNA can be used to evaluate
the evolutionary distance between populations. This understanding of
differences builds on the concept of the “molecular clock” developed in
the 1960s.2 The molecular clock is based on the
premise that the more mutations there are between two populations, the
earlier in human evolution those populations diverged. At the same
time, genetic diversity within a population suggests old age; for
example, the great genetic diversity within African populations is
commonly seen as evidence that anatomically modern humans first
appeared in Africa and that other populations are descended from
smaller groups that migrated from Africa. Crucially, this model of
genetic variation understands genetic differences as organized by
temporality: differences are both the result of and evidence for the
passage of evolutionary time.
Human population geneticists have focused on various types of genetic
material. One of the early breakthroughs was the use of mitochondrial
DNA (mtDNA) to evaluate the genetic relatedness of populations in the
late 1980s (Cann, Stoneking, & Wilson, 1987; Vigilant, Stoneking,
Harpending, Hawkes, & Wilson, 1991). Located outside the cell
nucleus, mitochondria carry their own specific DNA unrelated to the DNA
stored in the chromosomes in the cell nucleus. There were several
practical reasons why mtDNA analysis was feasible before other types of
genetic analysis: mtDNA mutates fast, it is concise compared to nuclear
DNA, and it exists in multiple copies in the cell. It is also inherited
from only one parent, the mother, which means that it is not subject to
recombination, the mixing of genetic material in sexual reproduction.
This uniparental inheritance renders the evolutionary trajectories
constructed through mtDNA strictly maternal, and thus less complicated
than the biparental dynamics of recombination underlying most nuclear
DNA. In the 1990s, advances in sequencing techniques led scientists to
analyze another type of genetic material: a noncoding and
nonrecombining section of the Y-chromosome (Hammer, 1995; Whitfield,
Sulston, & Goodfellow, 1995). Passed from father to son,
Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) rendered evolutionary history strictly
paternal. Y-DNA analysis was seen by many as a parallel (and, in some
accounts, a corrective) to the maternal focus of mtDNA analysis
(Oikkonen, 2015a). This resulted in human evolution increasingly being
conceived through two gendered reproductive trajectories.
In the past ten years, fast developments in sequencing technologies
have reshaped the temporal investments of population genetics. First,
the feasibility of genome-wide analysis of genetic inheritance has
complicated the patterns of evolution previously constructed through
the uniparental inheritance of mtDNA and Y-DNA. Genome-wide techniques
have enabled scientists to better understand the evolutionary processes
that produced modern human genomes. As a result, evolution increasingly
appears as a complicated process in which genetic material is
constantly mixed and reshuffled through sexual reproduction and the
intertwining patterns of prehistoric migration. Yet the direction of
evolutionary movement is forward, from an evolutionary past to an
unfolding future. Second, population genetic analysis has focused on
smaller population units, on the one hand, and interspecies
connections, on the other. While the explorations of mtDNA ancestry in
the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on large world populations, such
as “African” or “East Asian,” scientists have increasingly turned to
specific haplogroups characterized by specific mutations. This has
shifted the focus to the divergence of population groups in the past
20,000 years. At the same time, technological development has enabled
the analysis of DNA retrieved from ancient hominin remains such as
Neanderthals or Denisovans. This has expanded the temporal scope
backward, situating the evolution of modern humans in the context of
the diverging trajectories of hominin species. These developments have
rewritten evolutionary temporality as both more specific and more
encompassing than previously envisioned. In the process, the affective
appeal of evolutionary history as a means of enacting roots and
belonging in contemporary culture has strengthened.
The idea of temporality as a future-oriented procession has been
critiqued by queer-studies scholars, especially in the past fifteen
years. Queer explorations of time have typically focused on the
intertwining of temporality and sexuality. In so doing, they have
touched on three issues also central to the working of population
genetics: linearity, futurity, and the affective structures of the
The first issue concerns the hegemonic understanding of time as linear
and progressive. This “straight time”organizes personal lives through
symbolically charged events such as birth, marriage, and reproduction
or perceived periods such as childhood, the teenage years, responsible
middle age, and harmonious old age. This personal timescale is
connected to the societal level, as institutional forces “link properly
temporalized bodies to narratives of movement and change” (Freeman,
2010, p. 4) so that “people are bound to one another, engrouped, made
to feel coherently collective, through particular orchestrations of
time” (Freeman, 2010, p. 3). This suggests that “straight time is an
emically salient, socially efficacious, and experientially real
cultural construction of temporality across a wide range of political
and social positions” that is “shaped by linked discourses of
heteronormativity, capitalism, modernity, and apocalypse” (Boellstorff,
2007, p. 228). However, nonnormative experiences may be organized by
alternative, queer configurations of time. According to Jack
Halberstam, queer time may be embodied in “the dark nightclub, the
perverse turn away from the narrative coherence” of expected life
events (Dinshaw et al., 2007, p. 182). It may also show, as Elizabeth
Freeman notes, in “nonsequential forms of time” that “fold subjects
into structures of belonging and duration that may be invisible to the
historicist eye” (Freeman, 2010, p. xi).
The second issue centers on the relationship between queerness and
forward movement toward a future. According to Lee Edelman (2004), the
very idea of futurity is incompatible with queer politics. If society
is organized by “reproductive futurity” that posits reproduction as a
promise of continuity, then “the queer comes to figure the bar to every
realization of futurity, the resistance, internal to the social, to
every social structure of form” (Edelman, 2004, p. 4). Edelman
critiques attempts to save queerness from the margins of reproductive
futurity and argues that queers should embrace negativity and refuse
futurity. Scholars like José Esteban Muñoz and Elizabeth Povinelli, by
contrast, have theorized the possibility of alternative futures.
According to Muñoz, queerness is “essentially about the rejection of a
here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility
for another world” (2009, p. 1). Povinelli, too, theorizes “the
conditions in which new forms of social life emerge” (2011, p. 5),
focusing on “the virtual space that opens up between the potentiality
and actuality of an alternative social project” (p. 8).
The third question concerns the nature of the present moment as part of
history. Carolyn Dinshaw (2007) has explored the intricate temporal
connections between communities and individuals across historical time.
She focuses on experiences of anachronism, “of time falling
outside” the temporal organization of historical processes (2007, p.
111). Dinshaw identifies “an expanded present, a temporally multiple
now” (p. 112), which enables “a sense of simultaneous belonging to
one’s own time as well as to other times” (p. 119). Lauren Berlant, in
turn, has analyzed the affective structures of the present. For her,
“the present is perceived, first, affectively” before it becomes a
series of events that can be narrated as part of historical processes
(2011, p. 4). How we understand the present as an affective and
temporal state structures how we orient ourselves toward the past and
the future and how experiences become part of the passage of historical
time. As I hope to show in the following sections, these critical
engagements with temporality can shed new light on the temporal
dynamics underlying population genetics while also gaining new depth
through encounters with population genetic practices.
The Genographic Project as a Temporal Endeavor
The Genographic Project is a large genetic diversity initiative
launched by the National Geographic Society in 2005. The project seeks
to study the evolution of human genetic diversity by focusing on the
genetic makeup of indigenous populations. The project also runs an
online genetic ancestry testing service through which any of us
(willing to pay 150 US dollars) can test our place in human evolution,
or what the website calls “The Human Story” (Genographic Project,
2016a). In many ways, the Genographic Project is a continuation of the
ill-fated Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), which was proposed
with fanfare in the early 1990s but quickly came under heavy criticism
by bioethicists and indigenous organizations.3
While the HGDP was accused of appropriating indigenous DNA for the
benefit of non-indigenous communities, the Genographic Project has
declared itself to be “anonymous, nonmedical, and nonprofit”
(Genographic Project, 2016b). Nevertheless, the unresolved issues about
racial differences that underlay the HGDP—how to study genetic
differences between populations without reinforcing the idea of
race?—continue to inform the Genographic Project (TallBear, 2007; Wald,
A number of scholars have critically explored the role of race and
conceptions of indigeneity in the Genographic Project. For example,
Catherine Nash (2012) explores how racialized differences are produced
through assumptions about geography and human mobility in the project,
Jenny Reardon and Kim TallBear (2012) analyze its reliance on
assumptions of ownership over indigenous genetic material, and
Priscilla Wald (2006) shows how it employs colonial rhetoric that
posits indigenous people as locked in the past. While inspired by these
inquiries into the racialized politics of the Genographic Project, my
article focuses on how population genetics mobilizes heteronormative
assumptions of being and belonging. The article uses an encounter
between queer theory and population genetic practices as a case study
to explore how to study affective formations as transdisciplinary
phenomena. A more detailed exploration of the affective formations
underlying population genetics would benefit from integrating
postcolonial and other critical theorizations of temporality into the
analysis as well.
In what follows, I use the Genographic Project’s official website as an
entry point to the analytical practices, material circumstances, and
cultural discourses that underlie population genetic configurations of
temporality and belonging. Although the website is first and foremost a
discursive space, it relies on a set of biotechnological practices. It
also operates as an apparatus through which genetic tests are sold and
justified and test results interpreted and given meaning. The
discursive aspects of the website are thus entangled with the
materiality of DNA samples, genetic technologies, DNA databases, and
the exchange of money and services on the website.
The Genographic Project’s website opens with an introduction that clearly states the temporal stakes of the project:
Since its launch in 2005, National Geographic’s Genographic
Project has used advanced DNA analysis and worked with indigenous
communities to help answer fundamental questions about where humans
originated and how we came to populate the Earth. Now, cutting-edge
technology is enabling us to shine a powerful new light on our
collective past. By participating in the latest phase of this real-time
scientific project, you can learn more about yourself than you ever
thought possible. (Genographic Project, 2016a; emphasis in original)
The passage portrays the population genetic enterprise as progressive and future-oriented through phrases such as advanced DNA analysis, cutting-edge technology, and latest phase.
This future orientation of biotechnology is contrasted with the
past-oriented gaze it provides as the project peers into what is
portrayed as a “collective past.” Between these two temporal
orientations emerges a temporal trajectory characterized by a chain of
evolutionary transitions through which “we came to populate the Earth”
(and, eventually, to ask questions about our ancestry). On the one
hand, this framing casts evolution as a progressive and foundational
trajectory that reflects the linear and future-oriented logic of
“straight time” theorized by queer scholars like Boellstorff, Freeman,
Edelman, and Halberstam: that is, the framing is marked by a sense of
time as momentous, unswerving, incontestable, and totalizing. On the
other hand, the temporal trajectory is characterized by ambivalence, as
when the website states, “You will discover the migration paths your
ancient ancestors followed thousands of years ago,” thereby casting the
future-oriented promise of “will discover” against the past-oriented
insistence on the primacy of the ancestral “migration paths”
(Genographic Project, 2016b). These two tendencies suggest a
multidirectional temporality in which the past, present, and future are
defined through one another. Interestingly, this underlying
multidirectionality resonates with the complicated relations between
what has been and what will be addressed by scholars like Freeman,
Povinelli, or Muñoz in the context of sexuality, experience, and
societal change. This does not mean that the two temporal arrangements
concur; rather, their resonances suggest that the mutual embeddedness
of the past, present, and future in population genetics and in
processes of societal change are part of larger temporal tendencies
that underlie culture.
The multidirectional temporality constructed on the website renders the
present moment an affective space in which the possibility of futurity
is imagined. First, the present is given a sense of urgency by
encouraging the readers to “take part in a real-time
research project” by contributing their DNA-test results to “the larger
community” of Genographic Project participants (Genographic Project,
2016b; emphasis mine). This description posits the Genographic Project
as attuned to the unceasing forward movement that is assumed to
characterize the present. It also places the implied reader as the
temporally organized subject through whom the presumably collective
striving for futurity takes shape. This resonates with Berlant’s (2011)
observation that the present holds a precarious position as part of the
procession of historical time and yet as the moment at which the future
still appears as open. Second, this multidirectional temporality
coincides with the life course of the prospective reader through the
description of the Genographic Project’s genetic testing service.
“Welcome to the expedition of a lifetime,” the website declares
(Genographic Project, 2016b). This parallelism between evolutionary
time and individual life reflects the mutual embeddedness of
historical, national, and personal temporalities analyzed by
Boellstorff, Halberstam, and Freeman. Like evolutionary temporality,
the temporality of the individual life invoked on the website is
distinctly future-oriented, as suggested by the promise that the
readers will continue to learn about genetic history after receiving
the test results. “Your results are just the beginning,” the website
explains. “It’s like having a subscription to your very own genetic
history—and to the history of all of us” (2016b).
These resonances and parallelisms between the rhetoric of the
Genographic Project and queer analyses of temporality suggest that
queer theory may engender important insights on how biotechnologies are
entangled with cultural assumptions about futurity and the
potentialities of the present. Queer theory may operate as a useful
analytical lens to the larger affective structures within which
scientific projects appear as appealing or urgent. At the same time, as
I shall argue next, these affinities indicate that paying attention to
the material specificities of biotechnological configurations of time
is crucial to understanding the complexities of temporality and
Specific Technologies, Specific Temporalities
To show further possibilities inherent in encounters between queer
theory and population genetics, I turn to the specific testing
practices employed by the Genographic Project. The Genographic Project
website markets a genetic ancestry testing kit called Geno 2.0 Next
Generation. The test uses a DNA chip that analyzes three types of
genetic inheritance—mtDNA, Y-DNA, and admixture—covering altogether
close to 750,000 genetic markers.5 While mtDNA and
Y-DNA components trace maternal and paternal lineages, the admixture
test seeks to determine the percentage of (tested) genetic markers the
test-taker shares with populations from different continents or with
the prehistoric Neanderthals.6 Geno 2.0 thus
provides three visions of belonging. The admixture test grounds
belonging in the similarities between what are imagined to be clearly
defined populations.7 The appeal of such tests
often resides in their ability to surprise: for example, to tell an
ethnically white North American that 5 percent of her genetic material
is African or Native American. Underlying the test is the assumption
that all humans are connected through the steady procession of
evolution. At the same time, mtDNA and Y-DNA tests encourage
test-takers to interpret belonging as an exclusive maternal or paternal
continuum. As the mtDNA and Y-DNA tests highlight the (imagined) purity
of the traced maternal and paternal lineages, temporality acquires a
sense of geographic specificity: it appears as a unique trajectory
leading from a localized point in the past to a localized present.
Furthermore, while all three tests build on the mutual embeddedness of
the past, present, and future explored above, they orient differently
within this temporal dynamic. The admixture test addresses the
complexities of the present by comparing populations, whereas the mtDNA
and Y-DNA tests reach toward a strictly gendered past in order to
explain the present.
These differences between mtDNA, Y-DNA, and admixture components of the
kit challenge the popular assumption that genetics engenders a uniform
idea of belonging as biologically grounded. Instead, belonging emerges
as ontologically multiple,
thus reflecting Annemarie Mol’s (2002) insightful observation that
technoscientific phenomena are often ontologically more complicated and
heterogeneous than they may first appear. My analysis approaches
ontological multiplicity primarily as an outcome
of material conditions and the use of technologies. That is, the
affective dynamics of temporality and belonging emerge as multiple
because of the diverse techniques and practices mobilized in the
Geographic Project. Each of the three tests manipulates specific
biological material—particular genetic markers—in order to produce
differences and similarities between people. This material, in turn, is
derived from tissue, blood, or saliva samples or cultured cell lines
used in population genetic research. It is also often circulated
between research labs. Indeed, Amade M’charek notes (2005, 2014) that
the choice of material in scientific study depends on the availability
of samples, which is often limited by geographic distance,
institutional policies, or personal networks. Furthermore, the
development of computer programs to process ever larger sets of data
affects the shapes that temporality and belonging take in population
genetics. The size and type of the genetic database also plays a
crucial role, as genetic ancestries are produced through comparisons to
Yet the Genographic website erases the materiality of the genetic
technologies it markets and deploys: the differences between the three
technologies, and their reconfigurations of temporality and belonging,
disappear under the language of kinship. This takes place through the
metaphor of “the human family tree,” the genealogical tree of
relatedness on whose “branches” we are each located (Genographic
Project, 2016b). This familial and organic rhetoric masks how different
modes of genetic analysis enact different configurations of temporality
and belonging. Instead, the website invokes an image of “our shared
migratory history” (Genographic Project, 2016e), as if there was one
monolithic, uniform, and indisputable movement in time that engulfed
the myriad complicated molecular realities that characterize our
personal genetic histories. The human family tree also foregrounds
heterosexual reproduction. This reproductive emphasis is both literal
and symbolic, as it emphasizes the material transmission of genetic
markers across generations as well as the culturally sanctioned
position of the heterosexual couple as a unit of reproduction. However,
the multiple technologies that underlie the Genographic Project suggest
that reproduction, too, is multiple. This is where engagement with
queer studies again provides important insights.
Reproduction and Population Genetic Belonging
Although queer and feminist scholars have explored assumptions of
innate gender and sexual characteristics in behavioral genetics and
evolutionary psychology (e.g., Lancaster, 2003; Oikkonen, 2013;
O’Riordan, 2012; Roof, 2007), there has been much less interest in
population genetics, which has been seen as primarily engaged with
racialized differences.8 Yet population genetic
knowledge is organized by sexuality, as reproduction is the mechanism
through which genetic markers are passed on through generations. That
is, temporality and belonging are structured through specific
arrangements of reproduction over evolutionary history. This is the
case with the three modes of testing included in Geno 2.0, as they each
mobilize a slightly different reproductive dynamic. While the admixture
test highlights reproduction, it does not depend on a specific
reproductive tie, because individual genomes are seen as connected to
populations through myriad intersecting reproductive ties or molecular
likenesses. MtDNA and Y-DNA tests, by contrast, seek to detect a
specific gendered chain of reproduction: purely maternal and purely
paternal inheritance. While all three tests foreground reproduction and
exclude nonreproductive ties (for example, communal and political
affiliations), there is no single dynamic of “genetic reproduction” but
multiple configurations of reproductive continuity. What counts as
reproduction in one test does not count as reproduction in the others:
for example, sex resulting in female offspring is not reproduction in
Y-DNA tests, while sex resulting in male offspring is not reproduction
in mtDNA tests.
As was the case with the multiple configurations of temporality and
belonging, the different dynamics of reproduction that underlie Geno
2.0 are also largely erased or trivialized. The Genographic website
highlights the apparent inclusiveness of the Genographic Project: “How
did each of us end up where we are?” it asks (Genographic Project,
2016d; emphasis added), while emphasizing that the project involves as
many as “75,000 indigenous and traditional participants” and “more than
640,000 public participants” (Genographic Project, 2016e). Yet the
mtDNA and Y-DNA techniques leave out a large number of genetic lineages
that cross the gender line, such as a lineage that runs, say, through
mother, grandfather, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandfather.
These erasures undermine the website’s promise to help test-takers
“connect with others around the world who share your deep ancestry,” as
“shared ancestry” refers only to those connections the analytical
techniques are designed to track (Genographic Project, 2016b).
Furthermore, the project cannot tell us anything about sexual unions or
affiliations that do not result in reproduction. Thus it leaves out an
array of sexual arrangements that organize communities.
These exclusions underlie the temporalities that emerge on the website.
Most importantly, the temporal multiplicity inherent in the testing
technologies is made to appear as longing for reproductive continuity.
This is where queer theorization of temporality provides an important
analytical perspective. Viewed from a queer-studies angle, population
genetics appears as an epitome of the “reproductive futurity” Edelman
critiques, as it is only through reproduction that the chaotic
temporalities of the past, present, and future constitute a culturally
meaningful trajectory that promises futurity. Furthermore, the
configurations of reproduction in mtDNA, Y-DNA, and admixture tests
reinforce the assumption, critiqued by Freeman and Halberstam, that
life events centering on heterosexual courtship and the birth of
offspring signify proper passage of time. While the website promises
that prospective customers will be “helping us fill in the gaps in the
human story,” the website’s narrative of evolution is premised on
another set of gaps—the omission of nonreproductive ties—that, if
included, could challenge the very idea of a linear, future-oriented
temporality (Genographic Project, 2016c). At the same time, attention
to the specific effects of techniques and technologies is also
required: reproductive futurity relies on success in passing on
specific molecular material (i.e., having a girl, in the case of mtDNA,
or having a boy, in the case of Y-DNA). The material available for
analysis also plays a role, as different samples, sets of comparative
data, and computer programs lead to different forms of reproductive
futurity, engendering slightly different connections between past,
present, and future individuals and communities.
The appearance of reproductive futurity through testing technologies
also touches on another concern central to queer studies: the shape and
potentialities of the present. Alondra Nelson (2008) and David Skinner
(2006) have argued that cultural fascination surrounding genetic
ancestry tests arises largely from the affective possibilities of
negotiating identities in the present. The Genographic Project website
(2016c) appeals to the reader’s affective present by declaring that
Geno 2.0 will help the reader to “learn more about yourself than you
ever thought possible.” The “you” invoked here, however, is a strictly
curtailed subjectivity that falls neatly within the reproductive
continuum of evolutionary history. The desire to “learn more” is also
defined through this reproductive temporality, with the result that the
limits of “possible” knowledge remain narrow. While the present emerges
as a site of longing, it opens only into directions defined through
reproduction. This suggests that the reproductive underpinnings of
population genetic temporalities posit people differently as
affectively engaged subjects. In light of the specificities of the
three testing technologies, the idea declared on the website that we
all belong to the procession of evolution in similar and equal ways is
I have shown that both a queer reading of the reproductive assumptions
organizing temporality, and the specific materialities of testing
technologies, play a crucial role in producing this analysis of
temporality and belonging. In other words, it could not have been
achieved without strategic encounters between queer theorization of
time and an exploration of the material practices of genetic testing.
This article set out to examine affective dynamics that underlie
transdisciplinary technoscientific phenomena. I have argued that
bringing together fields of knowledge production usually considered
distinct or even incompatible may generate unexpected moments of
resonance. While such moments are characterized by friction, it is
precisely through these uneasy parallels and connections that
unexpected insights emerge. In this case study, the encounter between
the material specificity of technological practices and queer
approaches to temporality enables me to view population genetic
temporality and belonging as materially and technologically grounded,
yet entangled with cultural narratives and affective frameworks in
complex ways. It allows me to see how, despite the apparent simplicity
of belonging on the website, population genetics is characterized by
various configurations of temporality, belonging, and reproduction. I
have demonstrated that the issues of linearity, futurity, and the
affective present, central to queer studies, are at the heart of
population genetics as well. In the Genographic Project, genetic
belonging is organized by assumptions of unceasing and all-encompassing
temporal procession. This logic of movement embeds the present moment
of discovery within an affectively charged historical trajectory that
is premised on reproduction. I have also shown that the various
population genetic technologies the Genographic Project deploys enact
different temporal dynamics and thus different configurations of
belonging. This insight could not have been reached only through an
account of the technological and material practices of population
genetics, nor through a one-way application of queer theorization of
temporality to the Genographic website. Instead, a strategic encounter
between queer theory and population genetic technologies can provide
fresh insights into these underlying complexities—but only when queer
theorization is brought into dialogue with, rather than positioned
against, the material practices of genetic analysis.
the strategic encounter between queer theory and population genetic
technologies outlined in this article, the two fields of knowledge
production become entangled. Understanding how technologies operate
enriches queer analysis of temporality by making visible the connection
between different configurations of temporality and belonging and
material practices. This in turn encourages a close analysis of the
sexual and reproductive underpinnings of each of the temporally
organized configurations of belonging. At the same time, queer
theorization of temporality and belonging draws attention to the
affective investments and narratives of inclusion and exclusion that
make those technologies appear appealing and timely. One result of this
focus on the connection between temporality and technologies is that
the politics underlying population genetic knowledge emerge as both
more specific and more complicated than is often understood in popular
discourses criticizing genetics.
In present analysis, queer theory provides the lens onto the cultural
underpinnings of temporality. It is important to note that different
theoretical approaches would make visible other aspects of population
genetic temporalities. For example, a postcolonial approach might
highlight how evolutionary temporality takes shape through geographic
space, such as the idea of Africa as the evolutionary origin of
humanity and thus implicitly past-oriented, or of relatively recently
populated areas—Greenland, for example—as “too young” to be properly
rooted in evolutionary history. It could also highlight how prehistoric
migrations operate as a mechanism that produces difference and thereby
enables the view of evolution as future-oriented—that is, how the idea
of genetic differences between populations is invested in futurity.9
At the same time, a critical disability studies approach might render
visible ableist undertones in evolutionary discourse, such as
assumptions of “fitness” and able-bodiedness in the idea of
reproductive success at the heart of accounts of evolutionary
continuity. A critical reading of class relations, in turn, might
foreground how the individual life course the tests invoke and promise
to cherish relies on middle-class ideas of proper ways of arranging
personal lives and social relations. Each of these approaches could be
brought—alone or together—into a strategic encounter with the
specificity of population genetic technologies, and each encounter
would turn the studied object—population genetic temporality and
belonging—toward a slightly different angle, rendering visible
different constellations of temporality, belonging, technology, and
Finally, the purpose of the transdisciplinary encounter outlined in
this article is not to produce a methodological synthesis—indeed, a
systematic synthesis would, I believe, reduce the potential insights
produced through the encounter. Instead, the methodological crux is
precisely in engaging two realms of knowledge production in an
un-predefined encounter that seeks to reveal moments of resonance as
well as departure. While my focus has been on genetic ancestry testing,
the strategic encounters between bioscientific technologies and queer
theory (or another critical approach) could be applied to other evasive
and seemingly intangible phenomena emerging with technoscience. This
would involve approaching the chosen phenomenon as materially and
technologically enacted, and as potentially multiple. At the same time,
it would involve recognizing differences between the gendered and
sexualized (or racialized, ableist, and classed) underpinnings of these
1I use the word gender (instead of sex) consciously here, since the
evolutionary trajectories and kinship relations that emerge through
population genetic practices invoke a range of assumptions about the
cultural organization of gender even when they appear to be merely
about molecular-level sex.
The molecular clock was developed by, among others, Emile
Zuckerkandl and Linus Pauling (1962), Emanuel Margoliash (1963),
Vincent Sarich and Allan Wilson (1967), and Mary-Claire King and Allan
3The first director of the Genographic Project, Spencer Wells, was a
former postdoctoral student of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, one of the
key figures behind the HGDP.
In the wake of the Holocaust and early-twentieth-century eugenics
programs, population geneticists have emphasized that race is not a
meaningful genetic category and that population genetics provides a way
of challenging racism. Nevertheless, population genetic terms like
“population” and “haplogroup” refer to genetically related groups that
can often be linked to specific geographical areas. See Reardon (2005),
who argues that a key reason why the HGDP ran into trouble was its
failure to conceptualize human differences in terms clearly distinct
The Y-DNA test is available only to those who are chromosomally male, i.e. have a Y chromosome.
These three modes of genetic ancestry testing are used by many
online genetic testing businesses, although the specific practices
vary. For example, Ancestry by DNA, Family Tree DNA, Roots for Real,
and 23andMe market similar tests.
7This assumption of clearly defined populations has been challenged by
many STS scholars. See, for example, Hinterberger (2012).
For an exception, see Nash (2015).
See Oikkonen 2015b for some examples.
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Venla Oikkonen is currently
Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies,
University of Helsinki. She works at the intersection of feminist
science studies and feminist cultural studies. Her research interests
include evolutionary theory, population genetics, and vaccine
controversies, as well as theoretical questions related to affect and
intersectionality. She has published two monographs, Gender, Sexuality
and Reproduction in Evolutionary Narratives (Routledge 2013) and
Population Genetics and Belonging (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) as well as
a number of research articles in journals such as Social Studies of
Science, Signs, Feminist Theory, European Journal of Women’s Studies
and Science as Culture.