Author: Eugene Thacker
Publisher: Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Review Published: May 2006
Biomedia is sort of a "geeky" book; writing it was an immersive experience, and I liked the idea of doing "close readings" of DNA chips and bioperl rather than literary texts. It is also geeky because, in many ways, it presumes a reader is already interested in either these technoscientific fields, or in the more general question of biology and codes. The main challenge I had set myself was how to make claims about "ontology" while remaining rooted in the material specificity of a given artifact. An ambitious endeavor, I know! So I thank Pramod Nayer for his astute review of the book. Maybe what I can add is some context for the writing of the book, and then a few replies to Pramod's review itself. So...
Biomedia grew out of some of the discussions surrounding cyberculture in the 1990s, where an oft-repeated critique was that digital technologies betrayed a desire to transcend the body in favor of pure, disembodied information. By now, we've seen many, many books and articles that have elaborated this critique, from media studies (Hayles, Braidotti, Ihde) to different theoretical engagements with "the body" and bodies in the plural (Butler, Grosz, Lingis).
But the more I learned about emerging biotechnologies, the more this critique didn't really fit. For one, the relation of the life sciences to information technologies was different than that of computer science (this history has been charted by Lily Kay). This also meant that what "information" meant and could do was different. Rather than being obsessed with disembodied information, it seemed to me that biotechnologies were instead redefining biological materiality (and what it could do). That's why I say, not without some irony, that there's no "body anxiety" in biotech -- that there's an enamored relation to the biological body and what it is capable of (I had imagined Spinoza grinding not lenses but silicon wafers for DNA...).
Biology is a strange science because, if you look at the philosophy of biology, you see two contradictory trends: on the one hand, a commitment to the "stuff" of life, to a thoroughly materialist view of the organism, and, on the other hand, a will to posit some non-material essence or core of life (be it form/eidos, a vital force, or in-form-ation). Georges Canguilhem has commented on this in his writings on biology, and even mentions the possibility of "micromonstrosities" in the era of genetics.
My definitions of "biomedia" always place an emphasis on the notion that the biological is informational because it is biological. In fact, if there's one point I would stress, it is about the way in which these biomedia challenge the way we think about "information." Biomedia is about a redefinition of the biological as informational and yet not immaterial. Yes, one does see the "computerization" of biology (e.g. gene-finding software etc.), but my point was that the broad trajectory of these technologies is to conceive of biology as information so that the biological can be, in effect, more-than-biological. It is easy to dissociate information from biology as the immaterial from the material, but this is not the case. I was fascinated by the ability to move this information-that-is-not-material across substrates: from a test tube sample to a computer database to a gene synthesizer to a bacterial plasmid.
I should reply to several of Pramod's closing comments, especially what is, I gather, the most obvious "absence" in the book for those in the humanities: an understanding of bodies as marked by race-class-gender. This is indeed an "absence" in Biomedia simply because it was not my intention to discuss this, nor did I feel the weight of the cultural studies obligation to discuss these issues: instead, my intention was simply to try to develop a formal language for talking about these emerging technologies in a critical way. I don't think we have an adequate language for talking about these technologies, nor will it do to simply map our existing notions of body, race, class, gender etc. onto these artifacts. If the book inspires someone to do this, then it will have done its job...
The problem was (and is) this: how does one talk about race-class-gender with a DNA chip, a genome database, a synthetic protein drug candidate, a nanomedical respirocyte? I do not think that it's impossible (obviously!), but rather that these uncanny artifacts pose interesting challenges to our conventional ways of locating race-class-gender in human bodies. That fascinates me. Paul Gilroy puts it well when he talks about the problem of "scale" in nanotech (his question is how do we talk about race-class-gender with engineered atoms).
So, those are some of the questions I've tried to at least approach in the follow-up book, The Global Genome (aka Biomedia, the Sequel, or Prequel?), where I talk about biotechnologies in terms of political economy (and Marx's and Foucault's reading of political economy), and where I discuss population genome projects, computer drug design, biowarfare, and the engineering of tissues and organs.
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