Eugene Thacker ::: Biography

DARWIN'S WAITING ROOM

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Over the past few years, it has become increasingly commonplace to come across a new vocabulary in mainstream media reportage: headlines about "genomes," "proteomes," "stem cells," "SNPs," "microarrays," and other mysterious biological entities have populated many reports on biotechnology. The completion of human genome projects, policy decisions concerning the use of embryonic stem cells, a promising yet unstable economy, controversies over genetic patenting, and the ongoing debates over human therapeutic cloning, are just some of the issues which biotech research brings to public discussion. For many advocates as well as detractors, the so-called "biotech century" appears to be well underway.
Each of these issues is framed by the concept of "genetic difference," or, to put it another way, such issues are contextualized by the question of what genetic difference is; of how to define difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity in relation to biotech research. This question of how to account for difference on a scientific and medical level - which of course is never exclusively scientific or medical - is one of the continuous threads informing the public discourse on biotech.
Genetic difference weaves together a concern with language (the biomolecular semiology of DNA sequences) with an interest in social and cultural diversity (how difference in DNA constitutes different bodies; how difference in DNA interacts with different environments and contexts). On a scientific level, genetic difference is the way in which differences between genomes (mouse and human, for instance), and differences within genomes (between you and I), affects the ways in which the organism functions in its environment. On a social and cultural level, genetic difference raises issues of determinism: is it genetic difference that makes humans different from mice? Is it genetic difference that makes you different from me?




“Technology” becomes more synonymous with an array of techniques for creating certain conditions - in vivo, in vitro, or in silico - where biological processes may occur according to a desired goal.

In some instances genetic difference has become a positive, even critical term, for example in the debates over the patenting of DNA from indigenous populations. Here genetic difference is used as a stand-in for ethnic identity, cultural heritage, or even a type of nationalism. In other instances genetic difference simply becomes a marketing tool for the biotech industry, especially in projects attempting to map the genomes of targeted populations, for medical, pharmacological, and scientific application. Here genetic difference is incorporated as a way of creating new health care markets for "individualized medicine" and "disease profiling."

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: bulatov@ncca.koenig.ru (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): http://www.yantskaz.ru. Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

Principally, the notion that a single, universal genetic map could account for all the world's biological diversity began to give way to a more nuanced, more flexible strategy. Instead of building life-science tool sets to support research in the lab, the past few years has seen a great number of companies combining skills in computer science with bioscience, spawning the nascent field of "bioinformatics." Instead of relying on standardization and universality, the recent wave of genomics companies have focused on specialization: the genomes of particular organisms (from the fruit fly to the mouse), the genomes of selected human populations (Icelanders, Estonians, indigenous Australians, and so forth), the genomes of pathogens (viruses, bacteria), and the genomes of individuals (personalized health care). Nowhere is this change more evident than in the field of "pharmacogenomics," or the use of genomic data to develop personalized, genetically-designed drugs.


Bioartificial skin produced by Organogenesis, using tissue engineering techniques.

Genetic difference means something different to biotech now than it did a decade or so ago. Initially, genetic difference was something to be avoided by biotech and genetics research; it was much simpler to consider one, single set of DNA in every human being, than a different set of DNA for each individual. Now, however, genetic difference has become the new model for business and technology development in biotech research. The more genomic data can be used in different ways (from genetic drug design to genetic testing), the more biomedical subjects can be "targeted" on the genetic level.
Politically, genetic difference has at least two faces. When genetic difference furthers asymmetrical power relationships, in the empowerment of some and the disempowerment of others, it becomes genetic discrimination. This has already been demonstrated in the U.S., in issues pertaining to criminal profiling by the police, disease profiling by health insurance companies, and genetic screening in IVF clinics. Conversely, when genetic difference is taken as a means of furthering a multi-faceted heterogeneity, it becomes genetic diversity. This has been demonstrated by bio-activist groups lobbying against germ-line modification or GM foods, but it has also been demonstrated by the biotech business of diversification and niche marketing.
It is clear that genetic difference is not an innocent concept; depending on the context, it can forge asymmetrical power relationships, or it can extend the networks of public awareness and even policy change. Perhaps more than anything, what the concept of genetic difference does socially is to raise two types of questions. These questions are the persistent points of tension in the way in which genetic difference informs biotech. The first is a medical question: How can biotech benefit the greatest number of people? Indissociable from this is an ethical question: How can it be insured that genetic data is not used against individuals or groups? There are many things at stake in these simple, almost naive questions, such as how "health" and "normal" are themselves being redefined by biotech.


For the body-is-a-technology perspective, the question is how biotech research transforms the way we think about the human body as "organic" or "natural."

Yet, while popular issues such as genetic screening, cloning, and patenting do raise significant questions with regard to how biotech will be implemented in medicine and health care, we might do better, and critically inquire into the foundations which inform these practices. This means looking not at the terminal points of the discourse - the endpoints of DNA profiles, cloned embryos, or commodified genes - but rather considering the assumptions which create the conditions that make it possible to conceive of practices such as screening, cloning, and so forth. Instead of asking, "Is human cloning good or bad?" we can ask, "What are the conditions - material and conceptual - which make practices in biotech possible?"
In doing this we want to keep paying attention to the materiality of biotech, its techniques, technologies, and modes of rhetorical address. Without ever assuming that biotech operates in isolation as "pure science," we want to interrogate the foundational claims made by biotech as it relates to the concept of "nature," the concept of science and scientific practice, the relationship between biology and "difference," and the boundary between human and machine.






Biotech, more than any other scientific field, is demonstrating that the body is a technology.

Situating Nature
Perhaps the most common criticism aimed at biotech research is that it is "tampering with nature." The public controversy over genetic engineering and recombinant DNA in the 1970s was generated by this central tenant, evoking the dark futures of Frankenstein or Brave New World. The activist programs organized at the time were instrumental in insuring that ethical issues were seriously considered by governments sanctioning recombinant DNA research, and, in part, contributed to the Asilomar conferences in the mid-1970s, where model ethical protocols were drawn up for responsible genetic engineering research.

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: bulatov@ncca.koenig.ru (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): http://www.yantskaz.ru. Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

The same applies to the arena of biomedicine. While most would agree that mechanical prosthetics or artificial organs are not "natural," biotech fields such as regenerative medicine present us with a more difficult case. Regenerative medicine harnesses the body's "natural" healing capacities towards novel medical ends. The use of stem cells in research on animals has shown that the re-introduction of the body's own stem cells can prompt cellular regeneration at other sites. Similarly, the field of tissue engineering has demonstrated that tissues and even simple organs can be grown in the lab from a patient's cell sample, to be used for transplantation back into the patient. Both fields are increasingly dependent on information gleaned from genomic databases, as well as gene expression profiles, proteomes, and other types of genetic maps. In these examples of "wet" technology based on "dry" code, the body, as a biological entity, moves away from older, more mechanistic models (the Renaissance figure of the "mechanical man"), and becomes an increasingly dynamic, flexible, and re-programmable biological system. At the furthest reaches of research we find permanent alterations to the body's functioning, including "intelligent" immune systems (but is the immune system not already intelligent?), genetically-designed vaccines, and the use of regenerative medicine research for increasing biological longevity.
Though there is a long tradition of moral associations with nature and artifice (the latter usually seen as impinging on the sacredness of the former), any discussion or debate over biotech today needs to move beyond these well-worn dichotomies. Both those in favor of biotech, as well as those against it, run the risk of assuming that an isolated "thing" called nature exists out there that is best left alone. From such a perspective, technology can only be configured as a threat or an ambivalent manipulation of nature. The controversies over recombinant DNA, as well as current discussions on GM foods and biomedicine will simply replay these assumptions if the concept of nature itself is not rendered more complex.


Thirty years of research transformed DNA sequencing from a small-scale laboratory procedure into an industrial process, and modern sequencing centers resemble factories equipped with hundreds of automatic machines.

Biology & Difference
In the same way that thinking about biotech calls for a reconsideration of our concepts of nature, it also calls for a reconsideration of how we define "science" and scientific practice. There is a significant body of historical work in science studies which shows the ways in which science and scientific practice is networked into an array of extra-scientific domains. Bruno Latour has shown this through an analysis of Louis Pasteur, and Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have shown this through a look at the scientific and political transactions between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle. In the back-and-forth exchanges between what counts as science and what doesn't, there are myriad hybrids formed, processes enacted, and people and artifacts enlisted in the production of scientific knowledge.
Any critical understanding of biotech needs to take into account both the human and "nonhuman" (Latour's term) actors which participate in the way biotech contextualizes and reconfigures the body, health, and life science. This means adopting a "bottom up" approach that takes the techniques and technologies of biotech as meaning-making actions, discursive technologies which instantiate certain constraints and mobilities on how the body is understood. An automated gene sequencing computer is much more than a laboratory tool. It brings together two technical modes of understanding the world - an informatic one and a biological one, data and materiality, software and wetware.
Nowhere is this more evident than in genomics. If the 21st century has a "big science" project, it is the endeavor to sequence, map, and annotate the entire genomes of organisms, from the roundworm to human beings. As eagerly reported through the mass media, the race to map the human genome was largely a technical feat, accomplished by a new generation of genome computers plugged into the Internet. While the technophilic accounts of the genome project by the U.S. and British governments and by the computer industry were widespread, little mention was given to the actual status of the "objects" produced by such projects. What exactly is a genome database? What is the relation of a genome database to selected populations, ethnic groups, and individual patients? Is a genome database of, for example, the Icelandic population, or of a New Guinea tribe, equal to the bodies of those communities? Does the database represent, refer to, or is it in some way equal to those communities?

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: bulatov@ncca.koenig.ru (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): http://www.yantskaz.ru. Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

The primary challenge for critical thinking about biotech will be to demand that difference be articulated in a way that is commensurate with information technologies. This not only means rethinking our conceptions of "race" and "ethnicity" in light of recent developments in biotech, but it also means developing an informatics that is non-reductive, highly adaptive, and sensitive to questions of medicine and cultural specificity.




Screenshots of Protein Explorer, a commonly-used online application for protein analysis.

Bio In Silico
Developing a concept of difference in conjunction with a more complex approach to informatics means that the boundary between human and machine, genetic and computer "codes" must also be rethought. As one of the most long-standing boundaries - implied in our very notions of "technology" and the "human" - the tension-filled relationship between human and machine has become much more complicated with biotech research. On the one hand, biotech is novel because, unlike other biological and medical fields, it relies not on the aid of external technologies (prosthetics, medical imaging, surgery), but is based on the idea that the body's own biological processes can be re-designed and re-engineered towards new ends. The term "biotechnology" itself suggests this technical view to working with biological materials and processes; the ideology implicit here is "there is no better teacher than nature." By harnessing cellular and biomolecular elements and processes, biotech has built up an array of techniques for intervening in, for analyzing, and for monitoring the body at the level of the very small: the use of DNA editing in cellular replication in recombinant DNA research; the use of immunological and cellular regeneration in stem cell research; the use of certain proteins in the body for structural purposes in tissue engineering; the establishment of cellular environments for genome mapping and analysis. In a sense, there is no "technology" in biotech, if by that we mean an external, non-organic system, artificially constructed to carry out certain tasks. There is, however, a "technics" involved in biotech, for its primary goal and challenge is to design the right conditions so that certain biological processes may be activated (for instance, the right cellular conditions for differentiation of embryonic stem cells).
If there is no clear-cut boundary between the body and technology in biotech, there is, nevertheless, an array of techniques rooted in biological systems. This is being carried further by leading-edge research in fields such as: bioinformatics (the use of machine-learning approaches from AI in gene discovery and protein prediction), microarrays (the use of DNA chips, or literal carbon-silicon hybrids, used for analyzing gene expression patterns from a DNA sample), nanomedicine (the development of atomic-scale sensors in the body), and systems biology (systems theory approaches to understanding interactions between genes, proteins, and pathways). Such research forces us to question some of our foundational assumptions concerning what counts as "life" by bioscience, or the usefulness of Western medicine's interior/exterior model of the body.
That the body-technology or human-machine boundary is being problematised is neither good nor bad in itself. It is the particular contexts within which that relationship is found, and the specific ways it is rendered problematical, that will be more important. For instance, research in regenerative medicine (most notably in stem cell research) is prompting us to consider the line dividing medical healing from biotechnical "upgrades." If stem cells do indeed provide an unlimited source of regenerative potential at specific sites, how do we - or should we - distinguish between a medical therapy (for example in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's) and a technical transformation (for example in upgraded immune systems)?

This on-line version of the book "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture" is not full. The unabridged edition can be purchased in printed form as anthology. Requests should be sent to: bulatov@ncca.koenig.ru (full information) or in written form: 236000, Russia, Kaliningrad, 18, Marx str., The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”. Phone requests: Kaliningrad +7(0112)216251, Saint-Petersburg +7(812)3885881, Moscow +7(095)2867666. On-line bookshop (in Russian): http://www.yantskaz.ru. Full reference to this book: "Biomediale. Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture". Edited and curated by Dmitry Bulatov. The National Centre for Contemporary art (Kaliningrad branch, Russia), The National Publishing House “Yantarny Skaz”: Kaliningrad, 2004. ISBN 5-7406-0853-7

Clearly both positions on technology warrant further critical inquiry. For the technology-as-tool perspective, the question is how the site of medicine and medical practice itself enframes the body in ways that are amenable to certain scientific traditions (regarding the body as a "machine" or as parts that make up a whole). Underlying this perspective is a desire to preserve a space for the body as independent from, and as active over, different technologies. For the body-is-a-technology perspective, the question is how biotech research transforms the way we think about the human body as "organic" or "natural." Furthermore, by beginning to break down the body-technology boundary, biotech research opens up alternative approaches within the sciences which may prove more sustainable in the long run: systems theory, autopoiesis, and bioscientific approaches to the sciences of complexity.


Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT). Virtual Timeline, 2003.

Open Source DNA
We've begun with a consideration of some of the more popular issues which biotech research has raised in public discussion and media representation. As it relates to the concepts of the self, society, the species, and a scientific philosophy of life, the issues of privacy, patenting, cloning, and genetic ideology will no doubt continue to be significant topics in any discussion of biotech.
But, along with this, we need to also consider the assumptions at work in the discourse of biotech - in both the supporters and the critics of biotech, and seek out the common foundations which are going unquestioned in public protests, publications, conventions, media reportage, and education. By situating the concepts of "nature," the dynamic between biology and the concept of "difference," and the future of the carbon-silicon barrier, we can see that biotech is not just about whether or not human cloning should be sanctioned by the U.S. government, or about whether or not genomic databases should allow free access. Instead, each of those difficult issues can be seen to emerge from a more fundamental perspective on how the body and technology are defined. By focusing not just on the issues that take form in the public or the media's imagination, but on the materialities of biotech - its practices, techniques, technologies, protocols - we can avoid the pitfalls of either technophilia or technophobia, body-essentialism or body-anxiety.
The primary challenge now, for cultural theorists, artists, and activists - that is, those deeply interested in biotech, but outside of the scientific community - is to come to an understanding of biotech as a set of practices and statements that account for those practices, which harbor within itself a great deal of ambiguity and ambivalence as to what the future of biomedicine and the body will be. Groups such as Critical Art Ensemble have been exploring collaborations between science, cultural theory, and political action, and other like-minded groups such as Biotech Hobbyist, SymbioticA, and others are exploring other collaborations. Providing critical analyses, understanding the discourse, and pointing out alternative modes of thinking and acting within the body-technology tension will be among the most important tasks for an extra-scientific biotechnical practice.

References:
Critical Art Ensemble. Flesh Machine (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998).
Gilroy, P. "Scale and Eyes: 'Race' Making Difference." In: Golding, S. (ed.) The Eight Technologies of Otherness (New York: Routledge, 1997), p.190-96.
Keller, E.F. Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology (New York: Columbia UP, 1995).
Latour, B. Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999).
Latour, B. The Pasteurization of France (Cambridge: Harvard, 1988).
Lewontin, R. Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (New York: Harper-Collins, 1992).
Nelkin, D., and Lindee, S. The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1995).
Schaffer, S., and Shapin, S. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985).
Shiva, V. "Biodiversity, Biotechnology and Profits." In: Shiva, V. (ed.) Biodiversity: Social & Ecological Perspectives (New Jersey: Zed Books, 1991).




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COLOPHON

CONTENTS:

I. LABORATORY: science and technology

Svetlana Borinskaya. Genomics and Biotechnology: Science at the Beginning of the Third Millennium.

Mikhail Gelfand. Computational Genomics: from the Wet Lab to Computer and Back.

Irina Grigorjan, Vsevolod Makeev. Biochips and Industrial Biology.

Valery Shumakov, Alexander Tonevitsky. Xenotransplantation as a Scientific and Ethic Problem.

Abraham Iojrish. Legal Aspects of Gene Engineering.

Pavel Tishchenko. Genomics: New Science in the New Cultural Situation.
II. FORUM: society and genomic culture

Eugene Thacker. Darwin's Waiting Room.

Critical Art Ensemble. The Promissory Rhetoric of Biotechnology in the Public Sphere.

SubRosa. Sex and Gender in the Biotech Century.

Ricardo Dominguez. Nano-Fest Destiny 3.0: Fragments from the Post-Biotech Era.

Birgit Richard. Clones and Doppelgangers. Multiplications and Reproductions of the Self in Film.

Sven Druehl. Chimaera Phylogeny: From Antiquity to the Present.
III. TOPOLOGY: from biopolitics to bioaesthetics

Boris Groys. Art in the Age of Biopolitics.

Stephen Wilson. Art and Science as Cultural Acts.

Melentie Pandilovski. On the Phenomenology of Consciousness, Technology, and Genetic Culture.

Roy Ascott. Interactive Art: Doorway to the Post-Biological Culture.
IV. INTERACTION CODE: artificial life

Mark Bedau. Artificial Life Illuminates Human Hyper-creativity.

Louis Bec. Artificial Life under Tension.

Alan Dorin. Virtual Animals in Virtual Environments.

Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau. The Application of Artificial Life to Interactive Computer Installations.
V. MODERN THEATRE: ars genetica

George Gessert. A History of Art Involving DNA.

Kathleen Rogers. The Imagination of Matter.

Brandon Ballengee. The Origins of Artificial Selection.

Marta de Menezes. The Laboratory as an Art Studio.

Adam Zaretsky. Workhorse Zoo Art and Bioethics Quiz.
VI. IMAGE TECHNOLOGY: ars chimaera

Joe Davis. Monsters, Maps, Signals and Codes.

David Kremers. The Delbruck Paradox. Version 3.0.

Eduardo Kac. GFP Bunny.

Dmitry Bulatov. Ars Chimaera.

Valery Podoroga. Rene Descartes and Ars Chimaera.
VII. METABOLA: tissue culture and art

Ionat Zurr. Complicating Notions of Life - Semi-Living Entities.

Oron Catts. Fragments of Designed Life - the Wet Palette of Tissue Engineering.
VIII. P.S.

Dmitry Prigov. Speaking of Unutterable.

Wet art gallery

Biographies

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