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<nettime> Fwd: Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art (Rifkin, bioart, scienc
Eugene Thacker on Fri, 24 Jan 2003 22:05:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Fwd: Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art (Rifkin, bioart, science)

Aesthetic Biology, Biological Art
(In response to Jeremy Rifkin's article in The Guardian, 1/14/03)

Eugene Thacker


Reading over Jeremy Rifkin's article "Dazzled by the Science," one is struck 
by a paradox. On the one hand there is the litany of controversial examples 
pertaining to biotechnology and art. You would expect a cohesive argument to 
emerge from this. But it doesn't. There's a position, however, and it's very 
clear: biotech is bad. Or, if we were to be more generous, we would say that 
Rifkin's position is that biotech is an infringement upon nature, and as 
such is morally reprehensible, not least because it is driven by economic 
imperatives. But this, to my mind, verges on being reactionary. Why does it 
matter? It matters because Rifkin's article is exemplary of the level of the 
current public discourse surrounding biotech. This so-called public 
discourse mostly consists of poll-like perspectives on hot topics such as 
cloning, GM foods, and stem cells. Are you for or against human cloning? You 
can vote now on a corporate-owned news media website near you.

The fault is of course not Rifkin's. Indeed, as a long-time author and 
activist, Rifkin's work with the Foundation on Economic Trends has done much 
to influence public policy and to increase public awareness of very real and 
pertinent issues such as genetic patenting, cloning, and environmentalism. 
So, in a sense, it is disappointing to see someone who has authored several 
books critical of biotech take such as reductive position. But then again, 
The Biotech Century followed a similar pattern: a litany of controversial 
examples from the biotech industry, accompanied by condemnations of 
biotech's market-driven infringement upon nature. The end of Rifkin's 
article in The Guardian states: "Now that we can begin re-engineering 
ourselves, we mistakenly think of the new technological manipulation as a 
creative act, when in reality it is merely a set of choices created in a 
laboratory and purchased in the marketplace. The biotech revolution is the 
ultimate consumer playground…the new genetic technologies grant us a godlike 
power to select the biological futures of the many beings who come after 

Rifkin's "biotech-is-bad" position is actually twofold. First, it is bad 
because it transgresses the sacred boundaries between the natural and 
artificial worlds, between biology and technology, between "godlike" 
creation and instrumental artifact. Second, biotech is bad because it is 
motivated by predominantly economic concerns (find a gene, make a pill, sell 
it to you). Now the question: does one position necessarily imply the other? 
In other words, can we develop a political-economic critique of 
biotechnology, without having to adopt the moralizing of the first position? 
Again: why does this matter? It matters because too often, in the public 
discourse on biotech, political critique slides into moral conservatism. 
Rifkin does not -- or cannot -- distinguish these two positions. For him, 
saying that biotech is bad is also saying that something mysterious called 
"nature" is good, and that the latter should by all means be protected from 
the invasion by the former.

But we might ask -- what is the "opposite" of biotechnology? Indeed, what is 
biotechnology? Sure, there are definitions in molecular genetics textbooks, 
as well as pop science books on the genome, but definitions vary. Is the 
selective breeding of animals or selection of seeds biotech? If so, biotech 
is a very old practice indeed, extending back to antiquity. Or is it only 
techniques developed after genetic engineering in the 1970s? If so, then 
"technology" is equivalent to lab gadgets. Historians like Robert Bud have 
adopted one approach often taken: biotechnology is a set of practices, in 
which biological "life" is appropriated for human use in a range of 
industries (chemical, biomedical, agricultural). Recent work in science 
studies and sociology has been more specific: biotechnology is a discourse 
in which what is legitimately recognized as "life" is reformulated alongside 
emerging scientific, cultural, and political paradigms (molecular biology's 
genetic "code" -- see the work of Lily Kay, Richard Doyle, Hans-Jorg 
Rheinberger, Donna Haraway, Vandana Shiva, Catherine Waldby). Critical Art 
Ensemble -- one of the groups condemned by Rifkin -- have been more specific 
on biotech. Biotechnology is first and foremost an industry, and as such it 
functions as a "flesh machine," generating new products and services, and 
thereby creating new niche markets, in the process transforming public 
understandings of what counts as nature, the body, and health.

None of this should be new or surprising to anyone who has followed the news 
headlines concerning the genome project, stem cell debates, or the latest 
genetic chimeras. The point here is that, when positing a critique of 
biotech, we would do well to assess our own position as well. What are we 
protecting when we condemn biotechnology? Is it a mythical, 
pre-technological state of nature? Is it the last remnants of our faith in 
the uniqueness of "the human"? Is it theology (if not religion)? Is it the 
dream of a post-capitalist society? In a sense, critiquing biotech is easy. 
Finding "bad guys" to point at is easy. The hard part is figuring out what 
the critique is defending.

Actually, finding the bad guy in biotech is not so easy. Corporations are 
always easy targets, and, in a sense, convenient straw men. (Literally.) Is 
the problem only economic? We are mistaken if we think that an extraction of 
the economic aspects of biotech will solve any problems. Supposing that we 
could somehow separate economics from bioscience research, we would still be 
left with a series of epistemological and ontological issues. But we should 
also be clear. Yes, there have been and are now injustices which have 
occurred in relation to the biotech industry, and which raise issues 
concerning human rights, environmentalism, bioterrorism, and cross-cultural 
negotiations concerning sustainability. And yes, in such cases 
accountability should be an issue, no matter how monolithic a government 
agency or pharmaceutical corporation may seem.

All of this is to suggest something quite simple: that Rifkin's article, 
exemplary of the public discourse on biotechnology, is as reductive as the 
science and art he denounces.


Now part two. Rifkin may be reductive, but saying so is not a round-about 
way of defending the scientists and artists he critiques. Rifkin is 
mis-informed -- or un-informed -- about biotech research and bioart. But his 
basic points are well worth considering, if in a more articulated manner.

In short, Rifkin is mostly right about bioart. Much bioart is just bad art, 
"bio-" or no "bio-". But to lump together scientist-entrepreneurs like 
Venter (of Celera), and artists like Eduardo Kac into one group is 
ridiculous. Clearly Rifkin has not done his homework (and no, visiting 
websites does not count). And there are not only numerous exceptions to the 
rule, but differences between artists. Critical Art Ensemble's work is very, 
very different form the work of Kac. Different approaches, different 
methods, different media, different positions (indeed, one may guess that 
CAE would eschew the very notion of "bioart"). Anyone who has taken even a 
surface interest in the current intersections of art and biology knows that 
there is a great deal of diverse work out there, being produced in a range 
of contexts. Which, again, doesn't mean it's all good art. But it is both an 
emerging and a diverse field.

That being said, we can refine some of Rifkin's comments concerning bioart:

- Bioart usually benefits the artists more than the scientist collaborators 
While there are a great many examples of scientists collaborating with 
artists on projects, there are a few asymmetries worth noting. First, the 
work itself is usually shown in an art context. Second, if publication 
occurs, it is more likely to be in an art journal than a scientific one. 
Third, when instances of professional recognition arise (e.g., tenure & 
promotion), the artist gets recognition, while the scientist often does not. 
Fourth, artists and scientists work with very different funding budgets. 
Very different.

- The context for bioart is often the site of the gallery. This may not be 
problematic in itself, but when bioart claims to be speaking about biotech 
in terms of education and public awareness, then we have to wonder about the 
site of this engagement. The art gallery is itself a specialized site, quite 
alienating for many people. How can art claim to reach a public about 
science, when it still has not resolved its inability to reach a public 
about art?

- In bioart, "gee-whiz" science often overwhelms critical engagement. That 
is, bioart often eschews ethical considerations in favor of technical ones. 
Anyone will admit that learning how to work the automatic sequencing machine 
is cool, but it is worthwhile to reflect on it a little. The old question 
"can I do this" versus "should I do this" is worth reconsidering in the 
context of bioart practices -- as art practices.

- Bioart can sometimes become PR for the biotech industry. In some cases the 
aestheticization in bioart can feed into the "rhetoric of wonder" abundant 
in popular discussions of the genetic understanding of life. It is 
fascinating that your DNA stretched out is five feet long (or whatever it 
is) And…?

- But not all bioart is formalist. In fact, a number of artists enjoy and 
cultivate the "outsider-artist" persona, which indicates that bioart may be 
attempting to fashion itself as the new avant-garde (oh no, not again…). By 
pitching itself as transgressive, bioart risks replaying the tired narrative 
of mainstream recuperation. Except that recuperation will this time be 
activated by government research institutions and biotech companies with 
programs titled "a celebration of art and science." (Might we someday see 
artists as spokespeople for pharmaceutical companies?)

It should be clear that an overall attempt to carefully differentiate the 
topics under discussion is needed. Again, Rifkin's article and position is 
symptomatic. While it may be tempting to demonize "biotech industry" as a 
whole, we need to pay attention to the way in which biotechnology is 
becoming more and more diversified. Take genomics. It's not just "the" human 
genome project, it's human genome projects, plural. It's also tied to 
structural genomics, proteomics, pharmacogenomics, population genomics, 
studies of polymorphisms, haplotypes, SNPs, and of course all that junk DNA. 
Each of these are sub-industries and sub-disciplines in themselves. The more 
one learns about the rabid specialization in biotech, the more it becomes 
difficult to say that the biotech industry does this or that. Again, the 
question is not whether this is good or bad (though diversification is 
always good for revitalizing the flows of capital). The question is that we 
have not yet learned how to ask adequate questions.

The same can be said for the loose grouping of art-science collaborations 
called "bioart." The work of bioartists such as Critical Art Ensemble, Joe 
Davis, Natalie Jeremijenko, Kac, SymbioticA, and Adam Zaretsky is anything 
but a homogenous group of tech-geeks doing it "just because." I won't say 
that every bioart project is unproblematic, but I will say that the issues 
and methods employed are incredibly diverse, from performance, to sculpture, 
to robotics, to tissue engineering, to activism. The more one learns about 
the manifold intersections between art and science (and their problematics), 
the more ridiculous it seems to imply an equivalence between bioart and 
entrepreneurial biotech.


This has already been too long just to make a few points. What to do. Why 
not be prescriptive?

First, we need to, once and for all, dispense with the easy opposition 
between pro- and anti-biotech positions. Again, while there are very serious 
issues regarding biotech that need to be directly addressed -- biopiracy, 
patenting, globalized health care, informatization -- simply condemning a 
monolithic "thing" called the biotech industry helps no one. To simply 
demonize biotech is to miss the point. The problem is not just economics in 
business, not just reductionism in science, not just moralizing in the 
humanities. It is all of these together. What is needed is not a 
persecutional search for the bad guy; what is needed is the ability to 
develop a critical engagement with biotech. The theorists and artists 
mentioned so far all support this basic position.

Second, there is a need to reconsider our views of technology in light of 
the ongoing advances in biotechnology. Over 30 years ago, Marshall McLuhan 
famously declared that the "medium is the message" -- and thirty years before 
that Walter Benjamin warned against the "aestheticization of politics" he 
saw in avant-garde art such as Futurism. Unlike computer technologies, 
bio-technologies take life itself as the means and the medium. Life becomes 
indissociable from technological instrumentalization. A medium is no longer 
a "machine" (in the literal sense of the term), be it a TV, VCR, or 
computer. A medium is above all a process, a transformation, and an 
objective. What do we see with biotech? A process of steadily reiterating a 
new central dogma: genetics is code and code is both immaterial (in the 
computer, in silico) and material (affecting a patient, in vivo). We also 
see that process (encoding, recoding, decoding) affecting transformations: 
gene discovery, genetically-designed drugs, stem cell therapies, GM foods, 
etc. Finally, that process and its resultant transformation occur within a 
set of objectives (and this is where it gets sticky): for the pharmaceutical 
industry, that objective is making pills; for the biotech industry, that 
objective is raising capital and demonstrating effective clinical trials; 
for the IT industry, that objective is feeding high-tech into biotech; for 
the health care sector, that objective is assessing whether or not genetic 
medicine will become a part of routine health care; and so on. What do we 
have when biology is a technology? What do we have when our notions of 
technology are no longer decisively separate from our biologies? We have 
something that can only be called "biomedia."

Third, as public discussions over biotech continue, those of us involved 
need to be aware of the moment when political activism turns into moral 
conservatism. Positioning oneself against the patenting of living beings is 
one thing; but offering a view of an untainted, pure nature against invasive 
bio-technologies is quite another. We do not need religious or moral 
fundamentalism in order to counteract and intervene in the biotech industry.

Rifkin's overall anxiety is strangely expressed - as if the real threat is 
that publicly available biotechnologies will spawn a new fashion movement 
(bioPrada?). While Rifkin cites a number of controversial examples, it 
appears that the primary reason for their being condemned is that they 
infringe upon nature (human biology included). Rifkin's comments are 
noteworthy when they raise the question of ethics. But it is not clear to me 
how, in this day and age, we can still make an argument for a pure nature 
beyond the reach of technology or artifice. According to Rifkin's 
exceedingly broad terms, we've had human "bio-technologies" for sometime. 
It's called the institution of marriage. Again and again, the position being 
expressed by Rifkin appears to simply be that biotech transgresses the 
sacred domain of nature. Crossing genes, goat + sheep, fish + plant, human 
genes in mice, spider genes in goats, genetically-engineered 
super-spiders?... The arithmetic of this position is straightforward. And 
incredibly reductive. And what is the true definition of art for Rifkin, in 
this context? Art is an "expression of love." No comment. If art has a 
definition, it certainly isn't as formulaic as that (or so one would hope). 
Rifkin's understanding of art is no more sophisticated than the scientists 
he criticizes.

All the same, Rifkin's point concerning non-scientists doing science poses a 
thought experiment: will the PC happen to biotech? Is the human genome 
project the equivalent of the ENIAC? In other words, if the tools, 
techniques, and knowledge of molecular genetics and biotechnology are opened 
to the public, will this be a moment of liberation or of enslavement? Likely 
neither. But it does beg the question: if we condemn renegade scientists and 
avant-garde artists, different as they are, then who holds the privilege to 
make decisions about who can have access, about how knowledge is 
disseminated? Not so long ago the same question was posed in relation to 
computers. But, you say, computers are just machines, just a bunch of bits, 
totally different from the "real stuff" of biology. Perhaps. But have 
computers not been as materially effective in transforming our lives as any 
biotechnology? Recall the U.S. government's ongoing paranoia surrounding 
hacking and computer terrorism. Computers have also affected modes of 
production, and not only in Third World microchip factories. Work is no 
longer an activity that takes place at an office; labor is immanent, 

The anxieties surrounding biotechnology are no different, and certainly not 
new. (Brave New World, yes. But also Dr. Moreau, Frankenstein, The Golem, 
even Ovid's Metaphorphoses.) The double-bind expressed by Rifkin is the 
following: on the one hand, there is a deep anxiety about and mistrust of 
biotechnologies. But on the other hand, there is an even deeper anxiety 
about such technologies becoming accessible to the general public ("let into 
the wild," as it were). So the question pertains to the policing of 
disciplines as much as policy decisions or economics. And we police our own 
disciplines, meaning that we police our own set of knowledges as well, and 
the ways in which those knowledges are instrumentalized. The solution is 
clearly not to just open the gates and give every citizen their own PCR 
machine. We need to complexify our understanding of the issues beyond the 
ballot-mentality (are you for human cloning or against? Are you for or 
against bioartists? How about that on the next ballot?…). Recognizing that 
this stalemate must be overcome is an important step.

Eugene Thacker, PhD
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology
eugene.thacker {AT} lcc.gatech.edu


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