an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, August 2006, ISSN 1552-5112




An Era of Zoē and Bios?

A conversation with Eugene Thacker


Eugene Thacker

Nicholas Ruiz III



Nicholas Ruiz III:  Given the extraordinary development of the biotechnical sciences, have the humanities, theory and philosophy, etc. adequately considered our burgeoning transformations as forms of life, renewing or adequately reconsidering ideas such as ‘vitalism’ and so on?


Eugene Thacker: Well yes and no – sorry, typical answer, right? Yes, I think there is a lot of work in the humanities and social sciences addressing biotechnical advances at all levels, from cultural representation to policy analysis. But no, I don’t always feel that the issues are considered in terms of their full implications. One problem is that the humanities (and perhaps too the social sciences?) are too often polarized vis-ŕ-vis the biosciences: either you re-establish the impermeable boundaries of the humanities and do not engage at all, or you engage and then follow the advances, always one step behind. One of the greatest challenges for the humanities is thinking outside of a reactionary model of theorizing, a problem that faces ethical thinking in particular. If at all possible, we should avoid simply ‘responding’ or ‘replying’ to a techno-science that supposedly pre-exists theory. Really, this means rethinking what a techno-scientific ‘event’ is, and what it means that ‘theory’ (whatever that is!) then arrives on the scene to respond and interpret the event. I say it’s a challenge because, from one vantage point, it can look as if there are entire sub-sections of academia in science studies and media studies that are in effect produced by biotechnical advances (genetics, biotech, nanotech), and I myself have felt this numerous times. Cultural theory should not put itself in the position of always playing ‘catch-up’ with the latest techno-scientific advances, else all becomes a sort of game about what’s trendy and pitching memes based on that. Now, there have been several strategies for resisting this notion of the anteriority of theory – Baudrillard’s ‘fatal strategies,’ postmodern ‘pataphysics, and of course Warholian hyper-irony (which becomes, well, sincerity). But I also am reminded of Deleuze’s notion of ‘transcendental empiricism,’ which generally presupposes that there is something not-thought that always overflows thought, something ‘abstract’ that always exceeds its concrete manifestations in events, gadgets, institutions, etc. For this reason, I think that setting up an intersection between ‘theory’ and ‘technics’ (or if you like, life-theory and bio-technics) can be worthwhile. For me, biotechnical artifacts like the genome database, the bio-chip, or the DNA computer are not only interesting because they are particular configurations of knowledge-production and the generation of an immaterial bio-economy – that’s definitely important – but these bizarre, teratological artifacts are interesting to me because of the way they constellate certain ways of thinking about ‘life itself.’ I don’t think we can separate this ontological question from the questions of value/economisation and technics/normalization. So the question is not just how a scientific tool or artifact is symptomatic of the commodification of life or the normalization of health, but also what were the affordances in thinking about ‘life itself’ that enabled such an artifact to be designed and built, and, once built, how do such artifacts revise Spinoza’s question concerning ethics – what can you do to a body? ‘Vitalism’ is indeed an important concept here, not only in its historical guise, but as a way of thinking that posits an essence to life irreducible to its material instantiation. It seems to me that biological information often plays that role (which makes the patenting of the DNA of life-forms take on a new meaning…).


NRIII:  Perhaps we reach a point in living where our destiny catches up with us: a point where our escape velocity doubles up on us.  It is at this precise point that we become creators or destroyers.  The paradox here is that we cannot do one without the other.  As biomedia, what are we creating and destroying?[1]


ET: Hmm, I see what you mean, especially in certain research fields that deal with biomedia, how the process of taking a biological sample (hair, skin, blood), then converting it into DNA sequence data (that is, light pulses), then collating that data into a file, then uploading that file to a genome database, then downloading that file and synthesizing the DNA sequence, and then storing the ‘wet’ sequence in a bacterial plasmid ‘library’ – processes like this involve a certain implosion of creation and destruction. But, on the other hand – I apologize, it’s because I’m writing on political theology at the moment – it also seems to me that what we have with biomedia is a kind of resurrection or a transubstantiation of life, an essence to life that is indissociable from its ‘form’ as information. And there is also a morphology to biomedia processes in fields like genomics, bioinformatics, systems biology, nanomedicine, and so on. On the simplest level that morphology moves between ontologically distinct types of information – from ‘wet’ data (the genetic code understood to be in a living cell in a blood sample) to ‘dry’ data (that code as a computer file in a database) and back again, and in between there are also ‘damp’ or ‘moist’ data (shards of single-stranded DNA attached to a silicon chip, nano-scale DNA microprocessors). We can call this a ‘morphological transubstantiation’ – how’s that for a keyword? Or, if you want a more tangible example, research into regenerative medicine and stem cells is basically all about the morphology of genetic code. Researchers aim to find out what makes a single undifferentiated cell become a specialized neuron, or muscle cell, or epithelial cell (post-structuralists would’ve had a field day with this cellular ‘differentiation’). Blood into brain into bone. This is the problem Aristotle faced in his biological treatises – how to account for the relation between ‘life’ and change, the fact that some thing changes, and that that some thing is living; Aristotle stopped short of equating ‘life’ with ‘change’ (motion and alteration), but perhaps complexity theory has picked this up. Some thing, some essence or source, some ‘cause’ must remain continuous such that change (including most of all the instrumental change of technę) can take place. From a certain perspective, all of this takes on a very fantastical tone, involving shape-shifting and non-anthropomorphic chimeras. Perhaps the genre of supernatural horror is the place to look for a cultural understanding of such phenomena.


NRIII: To see the world anew; that is the most difficult.  The orgy of rationality is never over in our day.  Is biotechnology the ‘after-party’ of Enlightenment rationality, the technical usurpation of the body as a method?


ET: Whoa - well, if biotech is the after-party of the Enlightenment, then I’d hate to imagine what the hang-over the next morning will be…But what if biotech is not really about hyper-rationality, but really about something else – like aesthetics, for instance? I mean, yes, on a certain level biotech is very obviously the instrumentalization of life, and one can easily show this, from archaic practices of animal domestication and breeding to the most high-tech nano-sciences, what would change would simply be the episteme and its corresponding mode of valuation (thus there would be a biotech era corresponding to each stage in capitalist development – an agrarian biotech, an industrial biotech, a post-industrial or post-Fordist biotech, maybe even a post-caplitalist biotech). And today, the techophilic emphasis on the convergence between biotech and infotech, along with the globalized pharmaceutical industry’s bottom-line mentality, certainly points to this ‘after-party’ feeling. Yes, but I wonder. I think about cloned mammals (the failures as well as successes), human ears grown on the back of a mouse, lab-grown organs on specially-designed polymer scaffolds, 3-D data-viz for genomics, custom-tailored bio-pharmaceuticals, ‘genetic design’, plasmid libraries, hybridomas – it seems we haven’t really considered the aesthetics of the biotech industry. It is at once abject and sublime. So you want to see bio art?, I’ll show you bio art (and it sells, too)!


NRIII: Biofuels, Biomaterials, Biohazards, Biomedia—BioEra—what is truly at stake in this era of Bios? In the Era of a global genome, does “globalism’s ‘planetary computerization’” now include bare and political life?[2]  Has the case for Deific immortality and salvation, and hence socio-ethical futures, given our religio-ethical pasts, all been transferred to the realm of the biotechnical?  Are we simply speaking in Darwinian terms, of perhaps, what was already a natural Biopolity all along, and now simply hyperrealized?  BioCapital clones, tradable within global biopolity?


ET: You’re right in pointing to the prevalence of ‘bio’ words out there, so much so that it seems that ‘bio’ is the new ‘post-’ or ‘cyber-‘ prefix (take a term, add a ‘bio’ prefix to it, and say that it fundamentally challenges something fundamental – sorry, that ‘s my cynicism talking). In addition, what people usually mean by adding ‘bio’ is really what Aristotle means by zoę (bare, animal life). So we should really be talking not about biopolitics but zoopolitics…But there is a certain tonality to the ‘bio,’ and I think you hit on it in terms of the potentially transformative or ‘redemptive’ promises of new technologies. The greatest achievement of biotechnics would not be the transformation of all life into machines, but the resurrection of life that is perfected biology, more biological than the biological itself, the redemption of biology. We have to ask, what is brought to the foreground when we think about something being ‘bio,’ as when we hear talk of biohazards, biofuels, biomaterials, biopharmaceuticals, and biodefense? One thing is that a given, relatively unquestioned notion of ‘life itself’ is regarded as being incorporated into the technological domain, either for economic profit, for the demands of security, or the renormalization of health and illness – the last bastion of nature now laid bare by ever new technologies. I would question this assumption. Let’s create a genetic clone of Agamben and Stiegler: part of the task of the ‘bio’ is to manage the back-and-forth passages between a ‘life itself’ and the capacity to co-extensively produce that ‘life itself’ as such. Once something is referred to as being ‘bio’-whatever – we can call this a ‘whatever life’ – a dual and contradictory demand is made of it: that it be at once an essence of ‘life itself’ exterior to all pre-existing categories of thought (‘life’ as the horizon of thought), and, at the same time, that this life exterior to thought exists in a direct relation to our ability to know it as such and to potentially act upon and through it. If we want to speak about the politics of vitalism, this would perhaps be the place – an essence is posited (a genetic code) at the very same time that such an essence is de-essentialized through an array of techniques, acts, and practices (sequencing, encoding, decoding, synthesizing, engineering, etc.).



NRIII:  Under the metaphysics of Capital, where even the market exchanges are themselves exchangeable for Capital—think of the New York Stock Exchange’s recent public offering (ticker symbol-NYX); NYX is now tradable on itself—what beautiful oversight within the self-regulating genius of living Capital!—what protection from commoditization can a bare or political life be afforded?


ET: I wonder if ‘bare life’ is ever really outside of systems of value-production and exchange? This is a tough one. Obviously there are many things that need to be done to raise criticisms and spur interventions into the pervasive transformation of life forms into tradable commodities. And a lot of things are being done, from activist campaigns against bioprospecting in the Third World to NGOs that lobby against unfair trade regulations in agricultural and animal biotech. So I think it’s important to see this part of the resistance to bioexchange as part of a larger anti-globalization tendency (certainly not without its problems, but there you are…). But perhaps the sort of meta-capital we see with NYX is itself a symptom of a world-view in which everything is exchangeable in part because everything is connected. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to study the different, concurrent layers of global bioexchange – flows of finance capital linked to patents or biotech start-ups alongside the global-local circulations of ‘emerging infectious diseases’ (many of which mutate through horizontal gene transfer), and those alongside the 24/7 public health surveillance systems managed by the WHO and the CDC. I don’t know, but maybe alongside the already-existing activities we also need to seriously inquire into the uncanny, anonymous, and nonhuman aspects of what bioexchange really is. It’s like saying the economy without economics, or exchange without value…At some level this gets us into Bataille’s territory, in which ‘the human’ itself is expended…


NRIII:  With regard to genetic materialism and essentialism, and human fate, Anne Scott refers to the operationalization of ‘bare life’ as a “capitalized genomics”[3] wherein bare life is indeed, I would say, becoming a currency of the genetic Code, where the Code itself becomes patently tradable as a social signifier, a form of Capital.  The relationship between Capital and the Code soon becomes undecideable, no?  How might this affect our metaphysical lives?


ET: Yes, I would agree, and this relation between capital and code points to your own work – so maybe you should reply to this as well! Is all capital code, or is all code capital? On the one hand we can – I’m being historically sloppy here – look at the emergence of political economy in the 18th century and its attendant fields (demographics, statistics, population studies) and say that the development of modern forms of capitalization emerges out of an early ‘informatics’ of the population (this would be a loose riff on Foucault). On the other hand we can look at the tendencies towards post-Fordist, immaterial labor and suggest that only with such forms of capital can something like the patenting of genetic codes take place. So I’m all with this. But, speaking more to the ‘metaphysics’ that you mention, I feel that we can place too much causal emphasis on ‘capital’ and’ code’ doing this or doing that. So, if there is indeed an undecidability between them, to me this raises another issue: the relation between ‘life’ and ‘number.’ Again, we are back to vitalism and the philosophy of biology. Can ‘life’ be reducible to ‘number’? Aristotle would probably say no, Descartes-Harvey-Hobbes yes, Hegel-Rousseau no, Darwin-Galton yes, Bergson no, Whitehead maybe, Heidegger ‘whatever’, and so on. Perhaps a more interesting, and more contemporary approach would be to look at early geneticists like Jacob, Monod, Crick, and so on, each of whom is doing key research in molecular genetics, but also writing ‘popular’ articles for a non-specialist audience talking about the ‘what is life?’ question. It’s interesting – Monod is resolutely a cybernetician, and the whole thing boils down to a set of algorithms (though algorithms are certainly not without their own ambiguities), while Jacob is much more a philosopher, and it’s important to him to go back to Aristotle and his question concerning psyche or ‘life-forming spirit.’ Our science fiction films dramatize this life-number question – mutations are reducible to DNA and yet what is ‘human’ (or even, the human ‘spirit’) cannot be found anywhere in DNA. So this relation between ‘life’ and ‘number’ is like the relation I mentioned before between ‘life’ and ‘thought.’ If, as Canguilhem suggests, ‘life’ is simply the horizon of our ability to think about life, then perhaps in biotechnics ‘life’ is that which calculates and which, because of this, remains external to calculation…


NRIII:  In the end, perhaps we learn that at the core of humanity, to borrow from Žižek, there is something rather “inhuman”; in fact, such a “gap is thus asserted as inherent to humanity itself, as the gap between humanity and its own inhuman excess.”[4]  We might say that we ‘walk the line.’ 



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, August 2006, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] See Eugene Thacker, Biomedia, Minneapolis; University of Minnesota Press (2004)

[2] Eugene Thacker, The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics and Culture, Cambridge, MIT Press (2005), p306

[3] Anne Scott, “Like editing bits of ourselves: geneticisation and human fate” New Genetics and Society, V.25, No. 1, April 2006

[4] Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, Cambridge, MIT Press (2006), p5