Volume 3, Number 2 (July 2006)
Author: Pramod Nayar
Review of: Eugene Thacker. The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.
… perhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test: to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the greatest ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called ‘human’: some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test…1
Biotechnology, nanotechnology and genetic engineering form the most innovative and prized research in the last decades of the 20th century. Troubled by controversy (frequently treated as being against nature and God), generating enormous hopes of miracle cures, and often involving huge investments, biotechnology constitutes one of the greatest paradigm shifts in medical biology and, as the present book demonstrates, the philosophy of biology and life.
Eugene Thacker’s massive chronicle of biotech begins with a simple assumption: that globalization is an integral component of biological research and practices. Biotech research, Thacker suggests, is haunted primarily by a tension between biology and political economy, and not just between biology (nature) and technology (artificial). Thacker divides his study into three main sections: encoding, recoding and decoding. Encoding is the process of production where biotech “invests” in biology to ensure profits. Recoding is the process of distribution where the data from the first stage is circulated to companies and databases. Decoding is the application of the data for medical and other purposes, where the researched data re-enters the body as medicine or implants.
Thacker proposes a model of “biological exchange” where biological information is mediated by one or more value systems.2 The best example of such an exchange is the Human Genome Project (HGP) and its databases. With such information about the species and individual bodies being made available, we have a new “biopolitics”. Indeed the entire biotech industry appropriates the human at molecular, genetic and informational levels and refashions the human in the process. Biology itself is treated as an instrument, even as labour “becomes” genetic (at the level of the D.N.A. or the enzyme). With the possibility of marketing genetic data, biology is now transformed into economic value – what Thacker terms “biomaterial labour” through the book. Bioinformatics has, in this process of “data basing” human biology redefined life itself. Drawing upon Canguilhem, Foucault, Marx and others, Thacker proposes that the linking of information to the biological body introduces a new challenge to the concept of life itself: the body becomes an “informatic body”. As genomics produces more and more information about the body and biology, it is the issue of the political economy of the distribution and consumption – with related matters of control and exploitation, of course – that needs to be foregrounded, proposes Thacker. Thus population genome databases, human genome databases and others must be “read” in conjunction with political, social and even legislative issues like healthcare and medicine and diagnostics. Warning against a genetic determinism, Thacker proposes that we look carefully at the economic imperatives that drive biotech, especially as they inform and “pre-dispose” certain kinds of assumptions about enzymes and genes.
Using as a case study the Human Genome Project and its offshoots, Thacker analyses the “recoding” of biotech. “Population” and political economy come together in projects that seek to “map” people. Population, once the primary concern of the state, is now the purview of biotech companies. The body gets commodified, numbered and “rendered” (I use the term in all its semantic possibilities) into databanks for appropriation. It infringes – as all new technological developments in medical biology have – the privacy of the individual even as the data about the individual is shifted into a space where it may be accessed. Thus, informatics is a medium for transforming bodies into usable data – which is surely a political matter rather than a purely technological one. Fears of genetic racism, Thacker points out, are not unfounded here. In the age of “recombinant capital” (Thacker’s play on recombinant RNA and capitalism), biology “is how production occurs, and it is what is produced”.3 That is, body parts which produce the technology may itself be produced (or more accurately, re-produced) elsewhere once the genetic “kit” of a person is made available in data banks. Extending this fear to what he terms “bioinfowar”, Thacker suggests that new threats to biological security (through fears of germ warfare) mean that biology is the weapon as well as the target. Gene warfare simply takes biological war into another dimension. Increasingly, the body politic is defined by its “vulnerable biologies”.4 Thacker proposes three theses: that war is biology and biology is war; national security is expressed as the implosion of emerging bioterrorism; and the integration of biotech and informatics in security concerns results in a discourse of “biological security”.
Turning his attention to “decoding” or consumption, Thacker focuses on tissue engineering. The driving motif behind the science, Thacker demonstrates, is that of the regenerative body. On the one hand biotech universalizes the species and the body, and on the other, immune systems define the “foreign body” in unambiguous ways. Tissue engineering demonstrates the “simultaneous individualizing and universalizing of the biomedical subject”.5 The body in tissue engineering is located at the interface of medical healing and biotech redesign: it seeks to create a more “natural” body that harnesses the body’s own resources through the application of technology. Increasingly, Thacker argues, regenerative medicine seeks to isolate the body from the environment – through its research on renewable organs. It hopes to turn the biological body’s processes to different ends from mortality and decay (what Thacker, in a parody of Philip K. Dick’s novel terms, “we can grow it for you wholesale”). Eventually it seeks a biology that surpasses its limits through the use and aid of technology. Thacker concludes his study with a short tour of “bioart” where many of the concepts and developments in biotech are used for sculpture, social awareness and other public cultural realms. The work of the Critical Art Ensemble, especially its “contestational biology” (a mix of art, activism, science that seeks to demystify science, and see how it can be used for political ends), comes in for special attention.
Thacker’s is an ambitious project, and extends his concerns from his earlier Biomedia6 the intersection of political economy, technology and rhetoric that increasingly marks contemporary bio-rhetoric, whether about terrorism or the battle against mortality, in The Global Genome makes it a useful, politically-edged account of the new engineering. Thacker’s retrieval of a variety of philosophies – from Aristotle to Virilio – also indicates a need to develop a whole philosophy of the new biology. Older paradigms do not always help understand the radical shifts in the notions of bodies or populations, and there is an urgent need to rethink them. Thacker’s work may well initiate (along with those of Evelyn Fox Keller, Cathy Waldby and others) this rethinking.
About the Author
Pramod Nayar is from the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:15-16.
2 – Eugene Thacker. The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005:7.
3 – Ibid.:202.
4 – Ibid.:229. This is new. Nations have always measured the “health” of their society in terms of the vulnerability of the body politic to contagion, infection and decay. Guarding the body politic’s orifices and the purging of threatening elements has always produced the rhetoric of biological deterioration. An excellent study of early modern England’s obsession with such a bio-rhetoric is Jonathan Gil Harris’ Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare’s England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and his earlier Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 1998). Other cultural studies of contagion also point to such “rhetorics” of invasion (see Alison Bashford and Claire Hooker (Editors), Contagion: Historical and Cultural Studies, London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
5 – Eugene Thacker. The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005:265.
6 – Eugene Thacker. Biomedia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.