Steven Kurtz on Sun, 30 Aug 1998 14:20:19 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Critical Art Ensemble: Links and Synchronisms on the Flesh Frontier

Links and Synchronisms on the Flesh Frontier
Critical Art Ensemble

Two technological revolutions are currently taking place. The first, and
most hyped, is the revolution in information and communications
technologies (ICT). The second is the revolution in biotechnology.  While
the former seems to be rapidly enveloping the lives of more and more
people, the latter appears to be progressing at a lower velocity in a
specialized area outside of peoples' everyday lives. In one sense, this
general perception is true; ICT is more developed and more pervasive.
However, CAE would like to suggest that the developments in biotech are
gaining velocity at a higher rate than those in ICT, and that biotechnology
is having far greater impact on everyday life than it appears. The reason
that ICT seems to be of such greater significance is less because of its
material effect and more on account of its enveloping utopian spectacle.
Everyone has heard the promises about new virtual markets, electronic
communities, total convenience, maximum entertainment value, global
linkage, and electronic liberty, just to name a few. Indeed, this hype has
brought a lot of consumers to ICT; however, this explicit spectacularized
relationship with the technology has also brought about much skepticism
born of painful experience. Those who work with ICT on a daily basis are
becoming increasingly aware of office health problems, work
intensification, the production of invasive consumption and work spaces,
electronic isolation, the collapse of public space, and so on. The problems
being generated by ICT are as apparent as its alleged advantages, much as
one can enjoy the transport advantages of an auto while at the same time
suffering from the disadvantages of smogged-out urban sprawls. 

On the other hand, biotechnology has proceeded along a much different
route. If ICT is representative of spectacular product deployment,
biotechnology has been much more secretive about its progress and
deployment. Its spectacle is limited to sporadic news reports on
breakthroughs in some of the flagship projects, such as the unexpected
rapidity of progress in the Human Genome Project, with the birth of Dolly
the cloned sheep (and now her daughter, Polly, a recombinant lamb
containing human DNA), or the birth of a donor-program baby to a
63-year-old mother. Each of these events is contextualized within the
legitimizing mantles of science and medicine to keep the public calm;
however, the biotech developers and researchers must walk a very fine line,
because developments that go public can easily cause as much panic as they
do elation (just as the aforementioned examples did). Consequently,  the
biotech revolution is a silent revolution; even its most mundane activities
remain outside popular discourse and perception. For example, almost all
people have eaten some kind of transgenic food (most likely without knowing
it). Transgenic food production, while advantageous for producing
industrial quantities and qualities of food, is not a big selling point
that marketers want to promote, because there exists a deeply entrenched,
historically founded popular suspicion (emerging from both secular and
religious beliefs) of anything that could be construed as bio-engineering.
Unfortunately, this very sort of research and development is progressing
without contestation, and (to make matters more surprising) there are
strong links between developments in bio-tech and ICT.

Machine Code

>From the opening salvos of the Enlightenment to the envelopment of the
world in capital, the machinic model of systems has always held an
important place in illustrating Western values. Machinic systems exemplify
the manifest values that emerge from capitalist economy. When a
state-of-the-art machine runs well, it produces at maximum efficiency,
never strays from its task, and its engineering is completely intelligible.
Is it any wonder that some people in the socio-economic context of
pancapitalism desire to be machines, and cannot understand any phenomenon
(the cosmos, society, the body, etc.) as being other than a machine? 

Machinic task orientation and the coordination and synchronization of
machinic units into functioning systems require a means of "communication,"
and that system has come to be understood as coding. Among the legacies of
late capital, with its fetish for instrumentality, is its obsession with
the code. The common belief seems to be that if codes can be invented,
streamlined, or cracked, ipso facto, humanity will be all the better for
it. Consequently, an army of code builders and crackers have set to work to
understand and/or control the world through the use of this model. Software
programmers are perhaps the best known of these researchers, but the model
extends to all things, not just machines proper, and so the code analysts,
generators, and crackers have found their way into all areas of research.
In culture there are those who work tirelessly to understand, develop, or
break the codes of the social text in its many variations. Then there are
the those who examine organic code. It has not been broken yet, but
researchers have made progress. The DNA code has been isolated, and is now
being analyzed and mapped (the Human Genome Project). While such knowledge
is quite compelling in itself, one must wonder how that knowledge will be
contextualized and applied after it leaves the sanctuary of the lab. If the
reductive instrumental value system that accompanies the machinic model is
applied to genetic codes (and one must assume it will be), the conflation
of the organic and the machinic will be become more than just an
ideological model; it will be a material construction. Like the computer,
organic systems will be engineered to reflect the utilitarian values of

Using the model of the code as a link, one sees that the two ideologies key
to the development of late capital are imploding. One is the machinic
system just described, and the other is the ideology of social "evolution."
This radically authoritarian ideology has found expression in
mid-19th-century social Darwinism, in early 20th-century eugenics, in Kevin
Kelly's neo-Spencerian global free markets, and in Richard Dawkin's memetic
information culture. Now functioning in a magical moment of Orwellian
doublethink, these two ideological pressures are directing research along a
political trajectory toward a totalizing utilitarianism that will give rise
to a fully disenchanted cyborg society of the "fittest."

Organic Platforms

When imagining the cyborg society of the near future, considering the
rapidity of ICT development within the context of pancapitalism is only
half the task. The question, Who is going to use the technology? becomes
increasingly significant. ICT has pushed the velocity of market vectors to
such an extreme that humans immersed in technoculture can no longer sustain
organic equilibrium. Given the pathological conditions of the electronic
workspace, the body often fails to meet the demands of its technological
interface or the ideological imperatives of socio-economic space. Feelings
of stress, tension, and alienation can compel the organic platform to act
out nonrational behavior patterns that are perceived by power vectors to be
useless, counterproductive, and even dangerous to the technological
superstructure. In addition, the body can only interact with ICT for a
limited period of time before exhaustion, and work is constantly disrupted
by libidinal impulses. Many strategies have been used by pancapitalist
institutions in an attempt to keep the body producing and consuming at
maximum intensity, but most fail. One strategy of control is the use of
legitimized drugs. Sedatives, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers are
used to bring the body back to a normalized state of being and to prevent
disruption of collective activity. (For example, 600,000 new prescriptions
were written in the US for Prozac in 1993 and this number has continued to
advance throughout the decade, ending in a grand total  of 22.8 million in
1998). Unfortunately, social control drugs often rapidly lose their
effectiveness, and can damage the platform before it completes its expected
productive life span.

In order to bring the body up to code and prepare it for the rapidly
changing, pathological social conditions of technoculture, a pancapitalist
institutional subapparatus with knowledge specializations in genetics, cell
biology, neurology, biochemistry, pharmacology, embryology, and so on have
begun an aggressive body invasion. Their intention is to map and
rationalize the body in a manner that will allow the extention of
authoritarian policies of fiscal and social control into organic space. We
know this network as the Flesh Machine.* Its primary mandate is eventually
to design and engineer organic constellations with predispositions toward
certain task-oriented activities, and to create bodies better suited to
extreme technological interaction. The need to redesign the body to meet
dromological imperatives (whether in warfare, business, or communications)
has been prompted by the ICT revolution. ICT developers must now wait for
the engineering gap between ICT and its organic complement to close;
because of this, ICT development is slowing down (the WWW was the last high
velocity moment in the popular ICT revolution)  compared to the rate at
which investment and research in biotechnological processes and products
for humans is growing. CAE believes that while we will continue to see ICT
upgrades (such as in bandwidth) and further technological development in
domestic space, radically significant change in the communication and
information technology of everyday life will not take place until the gap
between the technology and its organic platform is closed.

Capital's Engine

Given the entrenched skepticism about bio-engineering, what would make an
individual embrace reproductive technologies (the most extreme form of
biotech)? For the same reasons people rushed to embrace new ICT. In the
predatory, antiwelfare market of pancapitalism, a belief has been
constructed and promoted that one must seek any advantage to survive its
pathological socio-economic environment. The extremes that function in the
best interest of pancapitalist power vectors instantly transform into the
common in a society that only profits from perpetual increases in economic

At the same time, the institutional foundation that produces the desire for
bio-engineering has blossomed in late capital. The eugenic visionary
Frederick Osborn recognized that more hospitable conditions for eugenic
policy were emerging  in capitalist nations as early as the 1930s. Osborn
argued that the people would never accept eugenics if it were forced on
them by militarized directives; rather, eugenic practices would have to
structurally emerge from capitalist economy. The primary social components
that would make eugenic behavior voluntary are the dominance of the nuclear
family within a rationalized economy of surplus.  Under these conditions,
Osborn predicted, familial reproduction would become a matter of quality
rather than a matter of quantity (as with the extended family). Quality of
offspring would be defined by the child's potential for economic success.
To assure success, breeders (particularly of the middle class) would be
willing to purchase any legitimized medical goods and services to increase
the probability of "high quality" offspring. The economy would recognize
this market, and provide goods and services for it. These conditions have
come to pass, and the development of these goods and services is well
underway. Of course, they only appear when one searches for them. 

Without question, there is a strong intersection between the technology of
the Sight Machine (ICT) and the technology of the Flesh Machine, much as
the organic and the synthetic are necessary complements. Development in one
machine system has a profound influence on development in the other. They
merge under the value system of instrumentality. So in spite of the
cyberhype claims that the body is obsolete, and about to give way to
posthuman virtualization, it seems the body is here to stay. Why should
capital refuse this opportunity--the greatest market bonanza since
colonization, and the best method of self-policing since Catholic guilt?
Unfortunately, the body of the future will not be the liquid, free-forming
body that yields to individual desire; rather, it will be a solid entity
whose behaviors are fortified by task-oriented technological armor
interfacing with ideologically engineered flesh.

* For further development of this argument and narrative, please see _Flesh
Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness_, New
York: Autonomedia/Semiotext(e), 1997; or for the short version, see "The
Coming of Age of the Flesh Machine," _Electronic Culture_. Tim Druckrey,
ed., New York: Aperture, 1997.

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