Eugene Thacker on Mon, 10 May 1999 20:18:00 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> LifeScience - Cells, Strategies, Problematics


LifeScience Net Symposium: Cells, Strategies, Problematics

Eugene Thacker

[originally posted on the Ars Electronica LifeScience net symposium]

"When we first started out in genomics we wanted to be a
biopharmaceuticals company - the next Amgen. But then we saw that the
power is in the information. And that's how we decided to become an
information-based company."

Randy Scott, President & Chief Scientific Officer, Incyte Pharmaceuticals

"Yes, the scientific facts are indeed constructed, but they cannot be
reduced to the social dimension because this dimension is populated by
objects mobilized to construct it. Yes, those objects are real but they
look so much like social actors that they cannot be reduced to the
reality 'out there' invented by the philosophers of science...Is it our
fault if the networks are simulatenously real, like nature, narrated,
like discourse, and collective, like society?"

Bruno Latour, _We Have Never Been Modern_

At the opening of this year's Net Symposium, I'd like to offer a series
of fragments, models, and differentiations which, I hope, will be
helpful in instigating further discussion and action in this complex,
dynamic, and urgent field of the technosciences - those contemporary
scientific practices which are and have been engaged in an intimate
relationship with a range of technologies, institutions, governments,
markets, cultures, and individual and collective subjectivities.

This year's theme of LifeScience seems very timely - the rapidity at
which a field such as biotech has developed over the last twenty years
or so is a sign of the urgency with which artists, activists, cultural
theorists, and scientists will hopefully continue to inquire into the
politics immeshed in these practices. 


One way of beginning is to differentiate the different disciplines
within the technosciences - that is, to begin to work against the notion
that there is a single, monolithic, agential entity called "science,"
which obsessively consumes something called "nature." I'd like to
suggest that there are many sciences, each with their own set of logics,
practices, and relationships to the social. We might begin, then, by
enumerating  a provisional set of "cells" from which to discuss with a
certain specificity and concreteness different issues within the sciences:

- Biotech [tech research such as DNA chips, Microarrays, modeling, and
research in tissue engineering, stem cell research, regenerative
organs/tissues, as well as intersections w/ ag-bio, big pharma,
genetics, and the government-corporate-university complex]

- Cloning & Genetic Engineering [Dolly & the proliferation of cloned
animals, human embryo cloning & experimentation, transgenic organisms]

- Genomics [Human Genome Project, but also corporate-framed genomic
mapping projects, animal genomes, genomic technologies & automation, and bioinformatics]

- Artificial Intelligence & Artificial Life [programming complex
behavior, developments in cognitive science, emergent systems,
human-machine neural networks, research in nonlinear dynamics,
machine-learning approaches, autopoiesis]

- Biopiracy [Human Genome Diversity Project, new sociobiology &
eugenics, bio-colonialism of biological materials from "other" cultures,
genetic disease & genetic ethnicity, patenting & IPRs/intellectual
property rights of biological materials]

- Ag-Bio & Pharming [transgenic foods and crops, genetic engineering of
livestock for production of food, medicine, and xenotransplantation, bioremediation]

- Medicine [medical genetics, immunology, gene therapy, endocrinology,
telesurgery, plastic/cosmetic/reconstructive surgery, NRTs/new
reproductive technologies]

This is, to be sure, not a complete list, and, of course, nearly all of
these cells overlap with each other in some way. But this
differentiating is important because, depending on what is under
discussion, particular issues and problems will arise from particular
scientific fields and their practices and implementation in a given culture.


Luckily, one does not have to begin from scratch when approaching these
different sciences. Each of these sciences has its own history, it own
modes whereby it is establshed as "official science," and a changing set
of epistemological assumptions from which research proceeds. In other
words, the points of inquiry are many.

For example, the field of "science studies" has displayed an exciting
range of perspectives which demonstrates the heterogeneity of critical
approaches to different instances within the sciences (Mario Biagioli,
ed., _The Science Studies Reader_). Can science studies be a way to
critically integrate cultural critique and scientific praxis? What are
the points of possible incommensurability between a given scientific
epistemology - such as the Human Genome Project - and the
problematization which cultural critique affords - such as the
foundations of genetics in "genetic essentialism"? Can science studies
perform a genealogy of the coming "biotech century"?

How might postcolonial perspectives gear themselves towards the explicit
biopiracy taking place in the sciences (cf. Vandana Shiva, _Biopiracy:
The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge_)? Is it possible to even discuss
the concept of "science" in the context of non-Western cultures? How
does "official science" such as the U.S. government-funded Human Genome
Diversity Project claim universality while in practice appropriating
biomaterials from other cultures? How do forms of sociobiological racism
- from genetic screening to ethnic cleansing - form dangerous hybrids of
science and culture?

The work of Donna Haraway, Evelyn Fox Keller, the cyberfeminism of
groups such as VNS Matrix and Old Boys' Network, and many others, have
each in their different ways asked how gender and sexuality are being
reconfigured, recuperated, appropriated, and represented within
technoscience. How is the relationship between materiality and
virtuality manifested in developments in medical genetics or new
reproductive technologies? How is contemporary technoscience refiguring
- for better or worse - the dichotomies of nature/artifice,
real/virtual, body/embodiment, as well as the categories of gender?


In addition, there seem to me to be two general problematics which arise
from these strategies, and which take a particular form depending upon
the context (e.g. whether one is discussing pre-implantation
reproductive technologies, debates over agricultural products in India,
or the widespread use of automated DNA sequencing robots in U.S. biotech corporations):

(1) LifeItself(TM) - Is contemporary technoscience simply another
chapter in the Baconian domination of the science-technology complex
over nature? Or are the new sciences contributing to a unique set of
hegemonies about what constitutes a "body," a "subject," and "life"?
What is it exactly that current science works upon?

(2) Science is politics by other means - How can different forms of
cultural critique intervene in the process of scientific research and
implementation? Given what is often seen as the radical discrepancy
between art and science, how can cultural critique become efficacious?
Can or should critique simply be opposed to science? Does an intimate
engagement with science mean an equally radical questioning of art?

These, and many other perspectives (e.g., globalization and market
economies of corporate biotech, government policy and genetic
screening/genetic fingerprinting, "human rights" and debates over patent
law, the politics of science fiction in relation to technoscience, etc.)
are, it seems, what face us now when we ask the "science question." 

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