Eugene Thacker on Mon, 14 Apr 2003 05:37:00 +0200 (CEST)

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RE: <nettime> Biotech + Architecture + Politics

Hi all,

I found Benjamin's essay really interesting when it began to talk about bio
tech in relation to architecture as a political phenomenon. I'm working on 
a talk for EMAF on "global genomes" & it seems that the work from science s
tudies on the political economy of genetics/biotech (Haraway, Shiva, CAE) i
s very relevant.

But I have to say that it was hard for me to steer through all the uses of 
the term "recombinant" and some of the jargon along with it - Now, I know c
omments about jargon may be improper for nettime (haha), but the writing st
yle reminded me of that kind of 90s hyper-theory which discussed recombinan
t culture this and that, to the point where it was the same as DJing or cul
ture jamming or whatever.

When I think of "recombinant" I think of genetic engineering. In particular
, the series of experiments carried out by Stanley Cohen, Herbert Boyer, Pa
ul Berg et al. in the 1970s. These experiments involved the use of bacteria
l plasmids to insert genes into host DNA, and the use of cutting/pasting en
zymes DNA polymerase, ligase, and restriction endonucleases (PNAS 70: 3240-
44; PNAS 71: 1030-34). Cohen & Boyer filed for patents for the *techniques*
 for doing this (US PTO #4237224), and Boyer went on to help launch Genente
ch, the first biotech start-up, in 1980. Citizens screaming "Frankenstein" 
& the Asiomar conferences on ethical protocols for research took place in 1

But the very use of the term in genetic engineering came from discrete math
ematics - combinatorics. So in a sense when we use the term "recombinant" t
o reference the genetic body, we're already talking about a metaphorization
 of a metaphorization. To me this means that the use of genetic engineering
 here is more informatic than architectonic - there is no concept of form o
r structure in genetic engineering - it's very Burroughsian - cut, splice, 
etc. So I'm not sure if this is "just a metaphor" or if there is some claim
 about biotech & arch that I'm missing. If it is a metaphor, then it seems 
so broad in its use that I wonder why use it at all.

I would even argue that the recombinant architecture proposed doesn't go fa
r enough, irony or no irony. There's a brief mention of tissue engineering,
 & I think there's something interesting there. One of the central areas of
 tissue engineering research is into "biodegradable scaffolds" or "biopolym
er matrices" upon which new cells can grow. So if you're growing a structur
e such as an ear or nose, the cells aren't just going to take shape automat
ically, they need a guiding skeleton to help them. But once you implant thi
s onto the patient, you also want the scaffold to dissolve, so you have jus
t the cartilage cells.=20

Another area is stem cells. One of the big questions in stem cell research 
is differentiation. We know that a ball of 100 cells or so (embryonic stem 
cells within the blastocyst) begins to differentiate quite early, but the e
xact mechanisms which dictate that a stem cell will turn into a muscle cell
, or bone cell, or neuron, is not known (though we hear of news of breakthr
oughs weekly - infolding, outfolding...). This is a question of biomorpholo
gy, form in biology - in a way not to different from the concept of morphin
g itself. Not space but time plays a key role here in coordinating gene exp
ression networks.

It seems like attention to these biological processes as instances of archi
tecture-as-morphology would be more what Bratton is getting at.

But here's the problem: the biology research is still based on a notion of 
biological materiality as its ground, despite all the talk about bioinforma
tics. They still consider the cells in the wet lab the real thing, as oppos
ed to the online database. If you look in any tissue engineering textbook i
t's not hard to find this assumption. The material exists before the form -
 it's a kind of hylomorphism. You need cells first to make a form or struct
ure, then you can morph all you want.

Yet Bratton's reference to Delanda, Novak, & others suggests a quite differ
ent view - where forms (or rather form-in-motion, or becoming) cut across m
aterial orders. In this view "cellular differentiation" can just as easily 
occur in the eukaryotic cell as it can in liquid architecture. So I read Br
atton's appropriation of biotech as kind of self-contradictory. On the one 
hand the referent seems to be the biological stuff of the body - this is, a
t least rhetorically, what gives the whole concept of recombinant architect
ure its weight. On the other hand the recombinant is a form, a process, a t
ransversal, irrespective of particular context (bodies, buildings). Perhaps
 this is a tension within biotech itself, which we see mirrored in Bratton'
s appropriation - both immaterial code and material stuff.

And there's one last factor, which is the way in which biotech as an indust
ry participates in the formation of these lab-grown organs and programmed s
tem cells. All the research has its application as either medical surgery (
US FDA-approved bioartificial skin products) or as genetic/cell therapy (st
em cell injections for neurodegenerative disorders). So the perceived medic
al demand and the service-based market for such biotech shapes these bodies
 in very material ways.=20

Example: Organogenesis' Apligraf skin product was developed because it was 
easier scientifically than complex organs (less risky, speedier clinical tr
ials), because there was already a well-perceived medical need (burn victim
s), and because it saw a budding market in which new products could be deve
loped (a business model). These constraints literally formed the product Ap
ligraf. I don't know anything about the political economy of architecture, 
but I imagine there's an interesting, more specific correlation to make wit
h biotech.

PS - I was also reminded of several SF examples of bio-architecture: in Bru
ce Sterling's Schismatrix there's a chapter where one of the protagonists g
oes to visit a woman who's had her human body "reshaped" into a big, warm, 
fleshy room, her voice coming from nowhere and fleshy protrusions extending
 from the "walls" and sweating perfume (talk about cyberpunk's desire for t
he matrix/womb...) - also reminded of SF which envisions organic architectu
re, such as Octavia Butler's Dawn, where the alien race constructs building
s out of engineered plants, controlling doors through touch/biochemical exc


Eugene Thacker, Assistant Professor
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology

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