Immediately swept up by the press, the image of the lamb (itself no small iconographic marker) has become another icon in the public's reception of the achievements of bio-techno-science (like the mouse with a tissue based prosthetic ear, or the "(Im)Material Girl," a "successful" virtual pop star from Japan rendered in the March 1997 issue of Wired). Not to miss the opportunity to exaggerate, the scene, on public television, cut from the innocent lamb to the marauding Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park (with the sequel coming this summer).
American media was filled with bioethicists, genetic theologicians, and science reporters assuring us all that the cloning of a human would not take place in the near future and that the 200 plus tries to successfully implant the fertilized egg was a significant obstacle and that the spectre of mothers carrying their own genes, spawning simultaneous sisters, replicants, and children was unlikely, no less perversely narcissistic.
Hardly cause for much comfort considering the meteoric pace, really the potential meteoric profitability, of bio-tech innovation. But the underlying issues of eugenics and itıs consequences, of selective gene pools, the reductive interest in genetic codes as signifiers of identity, of privatized, and hence mostly unregulated, biogenetic experimentation, of neuron-silicon communications channels, already existing farmsı for organogenesis, of DNA registry (practiced by the military and no doubt expanding into the health-care system), never found mention in many of the reports I heard, despite the profound problems they raise.
But the signifiers of genetic essentialism increasingly present in the news pose important questions about the claims of technoscience and neo-biology. Considering the spate of films (Fassbinder's World on a Wire, Frankenstein, the Terminator series, Multiplicity, Aliens...), science fiction books (Pat Cadigan, Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Greg Bear...), reports of alien abductions (in pseudo-news shows, The X Files...), and now materialized clones, the border between engineered and fictionalized notions of replication is both blurred and mystified. As evident in the arena of criticism as in the social reception of science, the cultural discourse of reproducibility (so woven into studies of modernity and postmodernity) is joined by rival studies of simulation, rendering, artificiality, and scientific reproduction whose effects accumulate not in the fields of reception but in the subtle territories of formation. These differing agendas are not so easily detached. Yet there are significant contributions to the field. Donna Harawayıs recently published Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleManİ_Meets_OncoMouse outlines a critical approach to the experience of late capitalist technoscience. Covering a range of areas in the sphere of bio and social engineering, she identifies some pertinent issues for genetics and its codes:
So, gene fetishism is compounded of a political economic denial that holds commodities to be sources of their own value while obscuring the sociotechnical relations among humans and between humans and nonhumans that generate both objects and value; a disavowal, suggested by psychoanalytic theory, that substitutes the master molecule for more adequate representation of units or nexuses of biological structure, function, development, evolution, and reproduction; and a philosophical-cognitive error that mistakes potent abstractions for concrete entities, which themselves are on-going events. Fetishists are multiply invested in all of those substitutions. The irony is that gene fetishism involves such elaborate surrogacy, swerving, and substitution, when the gene as the guarantor of life itself is supposed to signify an autotelic thing in itself.and
For humans, a word like gene specifies a multifaceted set of interactions among people and nonhumans in historically contingent, practical, knowledge-making work. A gene is not a thing, much less a "master molecule" of a self-contained code. Instead, the term gene signifies a node of durable action where many actors, human and nonhuman, meet.Juxtapose this immediate issue of technoscience's compulsion to rationalize systematic replication with the historical reading of reproducibility and the issues parallel one another in significant ways. Hillel Schwartzıs new book The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles thoroughly roots the reproductive in a cross-disciplinary romp through replication and its discontents. "How has it come to be," he asks in the opening Refrain, "that the most perplexing moral dilemmas of this era are dilemmas posed by our skill at the creations of likenesses of ourselves, our world, our times?" More to the issue of biogenetics he writes:
In the context of the culture of the copy, the entailments of the couvade are indeed profound, from the naming of the children to the labors of artificial insemination; from plastic surgery and prostheses to cross-dressing and transsexualism; from genetic engineering to cloning. These are efforts at regenerating our selves in our own image through acts of surrogacy, dodging, substitution, and preemption.
Hanging over our culture of the copy are a blade and a claw, both sharp. The blade of eugenics would reduce our diversity in the name of a practically perfect body rearranged in embryo to eliminate to eliminate such "imperfections" as albino skin, a sixth finger, left-handedness, shortness, femaleness. The claw of the chimera, classically a loin in front, serpent behind, goat between, and now, biomedically, any transgenic animal, is no less dreadful in its implication that through our search for the practically perfect, we ourselves may lose all definition, may become a collage of assorted animals or a cross between a mammal and a machine.
The cloned lamb, mechanically reproduced, 'immaculately conceived,' a Taylored entity in a genetic industry, highlights the conflict between the mutation/adaptation model of traditional evolutionary biology and the accelerated interests of the techno-industries to find shortcuts to what still seems so perversely rooted in scientific epistemology, progress. Hence we find the metaphor of emergence rationalizing progress in discussions of cognitive processing, synthetic biology, evolutionary theory, etc. Indeed, the fascination with developing form has come to suggest that issues of experience are outdistanced by assessments of the "states" in which experiences are formed, a kind of systemic order in which analytical and subjective thinking seem antithetical. Slavoj Zizek suggests that "the 'ontological wager' of simulation is that there is no ultimate difference between nature and its artificial reproduction....simulation retroactively 'denaturalizes' reality itself by way of disclosing the mechanism responsible for its generation." Applied to the distinctions between human subjectivity and algorithmic notions of identity, the technologies and ideologies of genetics, synthetic biology, psychology, psychoanalysis, and representation increasingly meet in the ambiguous terrain of technoscience.
A recent colloquium in New York, Being Human: The Technological Extension of the Boundaries of the Body, highlighted the issue in a problematic way. The colloquium, co-sponsored by Apres-Coup and the MFA Photography and Related Media Department of the School of VIsual Arts, focused on the "interface of contemporary technology, human subjectivity and the representation of the body." A compelling premise whose breadth touches on the problematic relationship between increasingly reductive conceptions of genetic identity and the distinctly symbolic orders in which human subjectivity is formed. Apres-Coup president Paola Miele rightly prefaced the forum with comments on the often disregarded distinction between rationality and its Other ("rationality is not the only drive") and a reminder of the "denial of the erotic" in deterministic thinking about technology.
Oscillating between speakers from the realms of psychoanalysis, biogenetics, computation, and art, the presentations immediately fell into a kind of interdisciplinary rivalry as the notion of subjectivity dissolved into often euphorically naive pronouncements (some from the presentation and others from the reader prepared for the speakers):
Telephone pathologies are well known; those of the Minitel and the computer are appearing; soon we will discover those of virtual space. (Danny-Robert Defour - Philosopher)
The basic shape of cultural relationships changes from a hierarchy to a network. And now we can email each other instead of posting letters or making phone calls. (Timothy Binkley - Chair MFA Computer Art School of Visual Arts)
Cybernetics is the biosphere of elastic minds. (Charles Traub - Chair Photography and Related Media, School of Visual Arts)
If intelligent life exists in our neighborhood, then it is likely to be on an unseen planet orbiting one of the billion stars in our galaxy. (Seth Shostak -The SETI Project)
...the clinician makes the formulation, 'you are but the effect of a cause.'
Driven by a competing notions of selfhood, language, metaphor, narration, or extended critical assessment, the boundaries of identity are alternately delineated as by a kind of genetic uncertainty principle in which the "code" replaces the "state" and performance replaces experience. Grounding this problem is the troubling assumption that there is a correspondence between computation (in a broad sense) and biology. Hence the loose metaphors of the brain as the CPU, DNA as the program, the body as a machine, etc., that fuels so much current thinking and writing. What was so troubling about the Being Human conference was the clear gap between the psychology of selfhood, creativity and genetics in terms of the issues of epistemology, representation and science, despite the application of an expanded idea of pathology that "joined" them.
It is certainly the case, as Miele remarked at the opening that "rationality is not the only drive." Yet the "triumphs" of rationality that extend the "boundaries" of the senses, the body, the imagination, stand as stark reminders that much work needs to be done to insure that technoscience's grip on the performativity and recursion are not mistaken as "rational" or as the groundwork for an iterative social epistemology.