Eugene Thacker: Whole Earth DNA

May 14th, 2006 | Category: Interviews

Eugene ThackerIf, as Martin Heidegger wrote and Michael Heim clarified, philosophy is to stay one step ahead of science, then art is to stay one step ahead of philosophy. Art has the most freedom as a form of exploration, as a method by which to find the limits of a domain of research. That said, Eugene Thacker doesn’t necessarily consider himself an artist, but, as he told Josephine Bosma in an interview for Net-time, “I have always been interested in approaching things from a theoretical viewpoint, as well as exploring the same issues in, for want of a better term, an artistic domain. Sometimes getting different results, sometimes seeing what you can learn from doing those kind of activities.”

Thacker’s unique blend of artistic methods, theoretical viewpoints, and science fiction-minded research has yielded two books about the overlap of technology and biology, more specifically, the human genome and the digital computer. As DNA becomes code and code is entered in networked databases, well, things are getting hairy — on a global scale. Thacker’s books, Biomedia (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) and The Global Genome (MIT Press, 2005), explore just how hairy.

Roy Christopher: Why is biotechnology now an inherently global phenomenon?

Eugene Thacker: Well, biotech is “global” in a few senses of the term. If you take the example of the field of genomics — the mapping of the genomes of various organisms, etc. — it is global in the literal sense that the institutions — universities, biotech labs, research centers — are not only spread out across First-World countries, but many of them are directly linked to each other, either as consortiums or public-private partnerships. Also, the actual technologies used involve not only “wet-lab” tools but, increasingly, information- and computer-based tools. In fact, the internet has become one of the cornerstone research tools for genomics-based research. My colleagues in bioinformatics tell me that there is a lot of genetic research that is almost totally done in the computer; networks, databases, and “gene-finding algorithms” are the new tools of biology today.

So, the mapping of the human genome is a “global” effort in these senses, because it is a network of labs in many different countries, and it involves the actual utilization of information networks. But, genomics is also “global” in the more political sense, because what they call the “international” human genome-sequencing consortium really means mostly U.S.-based labs (many with partnerships in the private sector), with a few other labs in Europe and Japan. Again, if we stick to the case of genomics, the knowledge being produced from all this research tends to flow into either medical therapies (the most risky venture), novel drugs (thus involving multiple patents and partnerships between biotech start-ups and “big pharma”), or diagnostic technologies (e.g. DNA chips for genetic screening — the safest investment). And, as you might guess, the access to any of these potential medical benefits will certainly come at great cost — and their health benefits have largely yet to be proven; anyone who’s had to take prescription drugs knows that there are as many side-effects (“adverse drug reactions” or ADRs) as there are benefits!

So the book is really about trying to understand these trends: on the one hand, an integration of traditional biotechnologies with computer and information technologies, and, on the other hand, the increasingly “global” organization of the biotech industry.

But really, if you want the truth, the book began from a rather science fictional image I had — that of a giant cell stretched across the planet, forming a dense, fibrous network. Sort of like The Blob meets Tron. To me, that was what bioinformatics was like — all this information concerning genes, proteins, biochemical pathways and interactions, itself stored on servers spread out across the globe, like one network mapped onto another network.

RC: I wonder if you could expound on your closing thoughts in The Global Genome regarding pop culture being the site in which to understand biotechnology (Appendix D, The Global Genome).

ET: Well, part of that is due to my background in cultural theory and, I’ll admit, my affinity for SF and horror. But in all my writing on biotech and the life sciences I’ve always tried to refuse any hard-and-fast distinction between science and science fiction as a way of understanding the different ways in which futures are extrapolated from a given present situation.

It’s pretty obvious, if one looks around, that the life sciences and biotechnology have pervaded popular culture. A great way of demonstrating this is to look at all of the re-makes of Cold War-era science fiction and comics: Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc. It seems to now be a requirement to somehow put genetics in the stories, even if it really doesn’t make any sense (which is often). I’m less interested in what the director “intended” to mean by this than what it means culturally that genetics, biotech, and even nanotech are always found in SF. One thing it means is that these sciences and technologies are normalized in a way that the general public going to a film will “accept” their inclusion as a matter of course. Certainly there are always SF geeks who dispute the technical accuracy of how the genetic mutation actually creates the superhero or villain, but on a general level these technosciences have become a part of a certain cultural imaginary. So the question is “What conditions had to be in place such that these particular technosciences could become normalized as a part of a certain world-view?” Perhaps this process is somewhat parallel to the normalization of medicine and public health practices themselves.

So I think that popular culture is relevant, not because I believe that films should educate and moralize, but because there is actually a great deal of ambivalence in pop culture’s treatment of technoscience. We can’t live without it, and yet it seems to be our downfall. The movies that moralize about the ineradicable human spirit do so using the most advanced computer graphics and special effects. There’s also a sense in many of these films, books, and comics that we as a culture are not quite sure what to do with all of this information and all these gadgets. It’s almost as if the greatest challenge posed to SF now is finding something interesting to do with all the technology that exists.

RC: The literal “pathogenic qualities of information” (e.g., the anthrax virus being sent through the postal service) are a new development, but all of these overlaps between biology and information tend to beg the question about where we draw the line. As biology becomes information in the form of DNA, and information becomes pathogen, where does the text actually begin and end?

ET: This is a complicated issue. With the genetic “code,” there certainly is a sense in which, yet again, “there is nothing outside the text.” And I think that one can use this position tactically to critique the fetishizing of “code” over the materiality of information. But I also think there’s a lot to take from media studies and science studies on this issue as well. For instance, a code is not necessarily a text, and the genetic code is not even really a code, if we stick to the classical technical definitions from Claude Shannon or Norbert Wiener.

From a biological perspective, DNA doesn’t have a grammar, and it only “means” something not in itself (e.g., genes for “X”) but rather in the network of relations in which it partakes, and even then, one cannot talk about “meaning” without talking about materiality, relationality, and “expression” (to use Deleuze’s term). Any college-level biology textbook states this: one has to look not just at discrete “genes” (a term over which there is really no consensus), but instead at gene expression network, metabolic pathways, membrane signalizing cascades, etc.

And then there are also historical questions to consider. Even though the notion of a genetic “code” is now commonplace (so much so that computer-generated DNA models appear in every show on the Sci Fi Channel), we have to remember that there was a long, discontinuous process through which this metaphor was established as such. During and after World War II, the same period in which mainframe computing was developing, there were a whole host of metaphors besides the genetic code; there were indeed textual metaphors, scriptural ones, metaphors borrowing from the telegraph or typewriter, metaphors dealing with cryptography and secret writing, metaphors relating to cartography, architecture, and music. So the question that historians ask here is how did this one particular metaphor take hold? What is its relation, for example, to the parallel development of computer and information technologies? What interests does it serve? What kinds of instrumental configurations does it enable? What can one do to the body through this metaphor?

If metaphors are concepts that we forget are metaphors, then it seems important to remind ourselves of the tropic nature of such central concepts as the genetic “code.” Not only does this invite us to think otherwise (to think about alternative metaphors), but it is also an invitation to rethink the entire relation between metaphor and materiality itself.

RC: Advances in biotechnology have allowed for a quite literal reading of Foucault’s ideas of “biopower” and “biopolitics.”

ET: Yes, and you’re absolutely right to point out that this is a literal reading of biopolitics and biopower. This also is a complicated issue. The “literal” can be limiting here because we remain at the level of content (e.g., that anything pertaining to biology or genetics is “biopolitical”). The problem here is that we limit the domain of the biopolitical to these disciplinary fields, and it makes it hard to understand, for example, the role of policy, patents, or security as also being biopolitical. This is the approach taken by much of the recent discussion over Empire and multitude, specifically in its relation to labor, production, and the idea of the “common.” There is a sense in which, for thinkers such as Negri, Virno, or Lazzarato, to link biopolitics with medicine or biology would be reducing it and excluding any consideration of political economy.

I agree with this. But I think there’s also a way of understanding the “literal” differently. In a way, the question is not getting beyond the literal to some more fundamental truth, but perhaps the issue is not being literal enough. Foucault poses this problem in his lectures at the Collège de France. The specifics of medicine, public health, and the emergence of “biology” are all important to him — precisely because they are never just medical, health-related, or biological issues. There, in the weekly lecture format, you see him experimenting, trying different things, spinning out these topologies that are always heuristic. In other words, the format of the lectures allows him to avoid the search-for-truth demand that scholarly books are often branded with. There are some great passages where, for instance, Foucault talks about sovereignty as itself becoming more decentralized and even rendered as biological (e.g., his concept of “race war”), or the notion of “human capital” that is central to liberalism and biopolitics, or his comments on the role that urbanism and plague played in the “apparatus of security” and the management of flows and circulations.

RC: With DVD players currently available in many vehicles, are we seeing the convergence of Virilio’s “automotive speed” and “audiovisual speed”?

ET: Virilio does mention “metabolic speed” as well, and I think about the way that global air travel has changed our experiential topos of the globe — for those of us who are able to be “flexible” and travel, of course. But Virilio’s notion of “polar inertia” — that feeling of backaches on a twelve-hour flight going through the upper atmosphere at hundreds of miles an hour — still, but moving — perhaps this is an apt allegory for the biological changes that are happening via biotech? Virilio, though he talks about the body a great deal, did not talk about “biotechnical speed” — the capacity to regenerate cells, tissues, and even organs in the lab; the ability to make thousands of copies of DNA in a few hours; the ability to use “mammalian bioreactors” to produce medical compounds in goats or cows for human consumption; and so on. But then, of course, there’s drugs. And coffee.

RC: Where has your attention turned since writing The Global Genome?

ET: Two threads, basically. One is a book titled Necrologies that deals with the idea of the “body politic,” a concept that was formulated in Plato and then in late-Medieval political theology before being formalized in Hobbes and natural-right theorists. We don’t use this term today, but I think the issues it raises are absolutely pertinent to contemporary debates over sovereignty and “bare life.” My interest is really in the body politic as a corpse, and thus my term “necrology,” which is simply the study of the “diseases” and decay of the body politic. I’m interested in looking at plague and pestilence because they are moments in which the metaphorical “diseases” of the body politic (civil war, dissent, factionalism) fold onto the actual states of emergency caused by epidemics and public health issues. These are obviously current concerns, and it’s frustrating because there’s no real consensus about how much control our governments have to really prevent something like a pandemic outbreak. But it’s also a very gothic book, about resurrection, plague, and the demonic.

The other thread deals with what I’ve referred to as “networks, swarms, and multitudes,” or, to get even more verbose, “the political ontology of aggregate forms.” I’m interested in networks (the technical model), swarms (the biological model), and multitudes (the political model) as massing, “complex” forms that raise very “ancient” philosophical problems — that of the One and the Many, that of Wholes and Parts, that which is living and that which is ordered. With my co-conspirator Alex Galloway, we’ve just finished a book called The Exploit that puts forth a critique of networks, and we’re working on another volume dealing with mythological swarms.

And then I’m writing fiction. No, really. I’ve been doing this sort of writing for a long time, when I was involved with ’zines and alternative presses like Black Ice Press, and later on with hypertext fiction. But I’m finishing a novel called An Ideal for Living that is sort of experimental science fiction. It features a technical description of “Biomolecular Transport Protocol (BmTP).” Of course, from a publisher’s standpoint “experimental” means “will not sell any copies” so I’m debating self-publishing and doing a gift economy model for it.

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