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Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information

Editor: Robert Mitchell, Phillip Thurtle
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: April 2005

 REVIEW 1: Dan Wright
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Robert Mitchell and Phillip Thurtle

Data Made Flesh, edited by Robert Mitchell of Duke University and Phillip Thurtle of Carleton University, is an exploration of the issues and problems facing humanity as modern technology blurs the lines between human and machine and leads to a loss of distinction between information and embodiment. According to the editors, this book is "intended to demarcate an emerging field that we might call 'materialistic information studies'" (2). As such, the collection of chapters presented here gives the reader a sense of the concepts and issues present in this emerging field, without providing any definite answers to the questions therein. While I found this to be somewhat frustrating at times, overall I found this approach to be a refreshing and thought-provoking introduction to a field that is, as yet, composed largely of questions.

This collection was developed in response to the growth of questions related to embodiment in the information age. It is broken into three sections: "Bodies before the information age"; "Control and the new bodies: Modes of informational experience"; and "Flesh remembered: Art, information, and bodies." Each section contains chapters dealing with different aspects of the embodiment of information.

I. Bodies before the information age

Chapters 1-3 deal with the embodiment of information before the advent of digital information technology. In many ways, I found this to be the most interesting section because it makes clear how issues of embodiment are relevant to older literature and culture, and that these issues are not a passing fad -- they have been present for a long time and are simply increasing in importance with the advent of popular and cheap digital information technologies.

The purpose of the first section is to establish a historical background -- both of embodied information and for the rest of the book. The first chapter, "Reading the 'Sensible' Body: Medicine, Philosophy, and Semiotics in Eighteenth-Century France," by Anne C. Vila, does this by looking at "sensibility," a counterpoint to modern mechanistic views of the body. The next chapter, "Man and Horse in Harmony," by Elisabeth LeGuin, is concerned with the practice of horsemanship and how it relates to matters of social control. Particularly, LeGuin is concerned with how horsemanship in European society contributed to the language and conceptualization of embodiment and control, and how these ideas have carried over into modern society. The section's final chapter, "Breeding and Training Bastards," by co-editor Thurtle, is also related to horsemanship, but through the practices of trotting horse breeders in the industrial age. The author draws parallels between the breeding of trotting horses by the industrialists with their new managerial and business practices that tried to control for and "breed" the character of their workers in the same way that they could breed faster horses. The rationalization of and the industrial techniques applied to horse breeding mark a transition to an industrial economy where information about bodies (workers' performance history or horses' racing history) becomes a critical commodity for success.

II. Control of the new bodies: Modes of informational experience

Chapters 4-9 are concerned with the effect of modern informatic discussions on notions of embodiment and the human body, especially those in medical/biological and computational fields. This section was of great interest because it connects such discussions to contemporary issues, especially those relevant to pervasive computer technologies and biotechnology. The chapters in this section serve to call into question modern practices like the commodification of bodily information (such as DNA sequences), while also exploring the new possibilities for embodiment that are created by new technologies.

The section begins with Mark Poster's "Desiring Information and Machines." In this chapter, Poster connects Freudian psychoanalysis and modern media-infused society. This is interesting because Freud's psychoanalysis is related directly to analyzing coercive control of the body in the late 19th century, and he is able to trace some criticism of modern children's television (specifically, the Teletubbies) to the influence of psychoanalytic notions. The next chapter is "LSDNA: Consciousness Expansion and the Emergence of Biotechnology," by Richard Doyle, who links LSD and the development of PCR (polymerase chain reaction, a method used for mass duplication of DNA sequences). The experience of LSD on the mind through the body is seen by Kary Mullis (the developer of PCR) as a critical component in his inspiration for developing the technique, and the technique of PCR itself is embedded in embodiment as it operates on the building blocks of life. The interaction between LSD, DNA, and the invention of PCR is an effective and fascinating contribution to this book, because it really shows the influence between and interchangeability of information and bodies in modern biochemical technology.

The next chapter is co-editor's Mitchell's "$ell: Body Wastes, Information, and Commodification." This chapter focuses on the legal difficulties in the ownership of bodily wastes and the lucrative medical developments that result from the research done with wastes from hospital systems. I found this exploration of bodily ownership to be particularly thought-provoking, especially in light of recent controversies regarding ownership of genetic information (i.e., the Human Genome project). Next is Timothy Lenoir's "The Virtual Surgeon: New Practices for an Age of Medialization," which focuses on the development and usage of machine-mediated surgical technique, starting from the first arthroscopic surgery devices in the mid-1970s through contemporary remotely-operated telepresence surgical systems and virtual environments used to plan and rehearse surgeries. These new systems offer surgeons a new operating area where the digital and the real blend together into a single environment, creating a new, unified reality where medicine takes place.

Mary Flanagan's "The Bride Stripped Bare to Her Data: Information Flow + Digibodies" is concerned with the emergence of the "digibody," or a computer-generated virtual body, in the media. According to Flanagan, this is a significant development because it signifies the creation of a new type of bodily form, distinct from older, physical embodiments. The section's final chapter is "A Feeling for the Cyborg" by Kathleen Woodward. Unlike the previous chapters, which focused on new types of informatic bodies, this chapter is focused on the emergence of informatic emotions. These informatic emotions are important, it is argued, because empathy necessarily arises from embodiment, so new forms of embodiment imply the significance of new forms of emotional experience. Specifically, Woodward is writing about emotional intersubjectivity between humans and machines, and approaches this topic through analysis of popular media -- for example, Blade Runner and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series. She advocates for the importance of empathy, and for the notion that empathy is learned through embodiment rather then being an innate character (implying that non-human technological embodiment would be capable of developing these traits as well). I found this to be a fascinating idea, and one that merits a great deal of further exploration.

III. Flesh remembered: Art, information, and bodies

In the final section, chapters 10 through 14 shift the focus from practical outcomes and problems related to the embodiment of information, to what happens when issues of informational embodiment and the manipulation of bodies are applied to aesthetic and artistic concerns. I found this section the most thought-provoking, and the most frustrating. Thought-provoking because the artistic manipulations of the body described force the reader to question their assumptions of what constitutes life and humanity. And frustrating because answers to these questions are not forthcoming. This is not a criticism, naturally -- these answers are hard to come by. Rather, the reader should take this frustration as a motive to do more work on these very difficult issues in the future.

The section begins with Bernadette Wegenstein's "If You Won't SHOOT Me, At Least DELETE Me!: Performance Art from 1960s Wounds to 1990s Extensions." This chapter deals with the increasing usage of informational technologies to involve audiences in performance art, and how that usage has paradoxically grown out of a desire by artists to erase signs of mediation in their work. This is significant as performance art has moved from being enacted directly on the body, to being enacted on non-organic media bodies that are accessible to a larger audience. The next is "Flesh and Metal: Reconfiguring the Mindbody in Virtual Environments," by N. Katherine Hayles. This chapter picks up after the previous one with a discussion of several VR performance art installations, including "Traces" by Simon Penny,
"Einstein's Brain" by Allan Dunning and Paul Woodrow, and "NěTime" by Victoria Verna, that investigate the notion of the singular "mindbody," as opposed to the more traditional mind/body duality.

The last three chapters in this section focus on Eduardo Kac's art installation, Genesis. This installation consists of a room containing a projected image of bacteria in a petri dish on one wall, a passage from the Book of Genesis on another, and that same passage encoded into a DNA sequence on the third. In the center of the room sits the petri dish with the bacteria and a microscopic camera that is being used to obtain the projected image. Visitors to the installation (either in person or on the installation's web site) can direct a small ultraviolet light on the petri dish; the high-energy ultraviolet light causes an added gene in the bacteria to glow briefly, and has the side effect of (potentially) inducing mutations in the bacterial DNA.

The first of these three chapters is "Gene(sis)," by Steve Tomasula, which explores audience participation in Kac's installation. Tomasula argues that by having the audience participate, as instigators of genetic mutation, in the installation, Kac is making museum goers "co-authors" of creation and is raising questions regarding the Biblical notion of man's dominion "over every living thing." The next chapter is "Transgenic Art Online," by Kac, who responds to Tomasula. Rather than stressing the participatory aspects of the installation, Kac instead focuses on the ethical dilemma raised by the exhibit -- specifically, what entitles the audience to take an action that will result in the mutation of the organisms in the exhibit? The final chapter is "Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics," by Robin Held. This chapter situates Genesis with respect to other bioart projects, and attempts to give readers a sense of the domain covered by artists interested in the intersection of art and biology. In doing so, she suggests that the purpose for these artistic uses of molecular biology is to make sure that "the ultimate meaning of the human genome would be decided not by scientists alone but would be fought out in the arenas of art and culture" (263).


I found this volume to be very thought-provoking. This is its main strength: It forces the reader to question assumptions about power relationships between information and embodied beings, and to examine the problematic commodification of literally embodied information like the human genome. In addition, and most interestingly, it does this from a variety of approaches encompassing a number of different disciplines -- from horse breeding to molecular biology to critical theory.

Mitchell and Thurtle's Data Made Flesh leaves the reader with a number of unanswered questions, as any good book ought to. For me, several questions stood out in particular: How to establish the fascinating emotional intersubjectivity proposed by Woodward? How to reconcile the god-like control problematized through Kac's Genesis with the exigencies of modern molecular biology? And, most significantly, how can we deal with the nearly intractable implications that modern information technologies (whether biological or computational) have on what it means to be human? If this volume can serve as a starting point for investigation into some of these questions, it will prove an invaluable contribution to the scholarly discourse.

Dan Wright:
Dan Wright is, among other things, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences. He is interested in questions related to bioinformatics tool development -- specifically, the problems in keeping computer science tools grounded in realities of the life sciences so that they remain relevant and useful.  <dtwright@uiuc.edu>

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