Eugene Thacker – The Global Genome

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Eugene Thacker. The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture. The MIT Press, 2005.

Although the main object of Thacker’s The Global Genome is biology (and body itself), the context in which he deals with the object throughout the book is more complex than simple investigation on scientific discipline (genomics) or biological matter (genome). Rather his context is, like his object of research is mutable, flexible, and mobile, across Foucauldian biopolitics, Marx’s critique of political economy, diverse human genome related projects, biocolonialism, bioinfowar, global pharmaceutical industry, tissue engineering, bioart, and so on.

For Thacker, contemporary biotechnology and bioscience research are, different from modern biology, taking place in global level with new means of data analysis and exchange, worldwide pharmaceutical market, standardized intellectual property laws, and global epidemic control. Behind this globalized biotechnologies, what is obvious is the fact that “information technologies – and an informatics worldview – are increasingly becoming part and parcel of our understanding of biological ‘life itself’”(xvi). Put it another way, biological knowledge and practice today is coextensive with the process of (political, economic, and cultural) globalization and that is mainly caused by the close ties between information technology (cybernetics and information theory) and biology (molecular genetics and genomics) – that is to say, bioinformatics. Within the context of bioinformatics, genetic codes (sequence) can be databased, distributed, and exchanged like informational (computer) codes. Thus, in addition to three main types of exchanges in the process of globalization (economic, political, and cultural exchanges), Thacker suggests “biological exchanges” which is enabled by information technologies and information networks.

According to Thacker, “Within the context of globalization, biological exchange can be defined as the circulation and distribution of biological information, be it in a material or immaterial instantiation, that is mediated by one or more value systems”(7). In this biological exchange, the biological (essence of life itself) can be produced, distributed, and consumed, as biological information is encoded, recoded, and decoded. Based on this account, we can assume that “biology is information,” and we tend to think that information is immaterial and so that in the biological exchange, biology and the biological (thus, body itself) have been disappeared – immaterial. Is that really so?

Many political theorists, specifically Italian Autonomists including Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, argued that in this global informational economy labor becomes immaterial. In this sense, global biological exchange seems at first beyond the materiality of biology. However, Thacker’s argument of “biology is information” does not merely mean that biology is reduced to information. That is because biology cannot stand on itself without the concept of biological matter. Thus, for Thacker, “biological exchange is not simply the ‘digitization’ of biology, for biology has arguably always been enacted of the ‘stuff’ of biological life”(9). In this sense, we come to contradictorily understand biological exchange in “that biology is information, and that information is both immaterial and material”(21).

In this mode of biological exchange, instead of immaterial labor, Thacker discovers and develops a unique type of labor in regenerative medicine or tissue engineering: “biomaterial labor,” which is performed by the cells, enzymes, and genes (DNA). It is not obvious in the political economy of bio technology who produces and whose labor power is invested to the production process, although there are scientists and laboratory researchers collecting, analyzing, and manipulating those biological matters (300). Patented biological information can be the source of the profit, and at the same time, the biological commodity is the result of, in a sense, automatic (natural) process of cells, enzymes, and DNA. For Thacker, “the biotech industry appropriates the species being at the molecular, genetic, and informatics levels, and, in doing so, it refashions human biological life activity or labor power as a form of nonhuman production”(40). Thus, in the pharmacogenomics and bioinformatics there is a kind of resistance by life itself to Marx’s general process of capital, since the biological commodities to exchange are immaterial information as well as labor power to be invested is nonhuman.[1]

Thacker, on the other hand, seems to think that Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics can be fully manifested in this age of global genomics and bioinformatics. It is because, for Foucault, biopolitics accounts its object of governing “man-as-living being” or “mans- as-species, ” that is, not a body but the population: “The field of statistics and demography are … the key developments in the modern forms of biopolitics”(23). Biopolitics, the regulation of the population, means that through the collected and categorized biological information of the population can be effectively under the command and control of bureaucratic power and then statistically manipulated via the scientific apparatuses. Thus it is inevitable that informatics, specifically bioinformatics, functions as a key methodology of biopolitics by reconfiguring biological information as at once universalized and individualized database (resource) for the state governing. According to Thacker, “In biopolitics, the body is a database, and informatics is the search engine”(25).

The integration of biology and information theory – bioinformatics which databases life itself – brought about the critical change at the ontological and political-economic level: “The database makes possible a series of potential extensions that exceed the mere recording and preservation of information. With the database, information becomes productive, generative, morphological. With the database, information also becomes organized, classified, and taxonomized according to a range of flexible uses”(114). Thacker’s notion of “global genome” supposes first of all that “genomics is globalization and vice-versa”(48). To be the international scientists’ cooperation to improve human health condition or the global big pharmaceutical industries’ greed to appropriate human biological information to be turned into the profitable property, genome databases has to do deeply with the whole process of production, distribution, consumption on the global scale – through the global networks.

Confronting the global genome, in which the life itself is at once immaterialized and materialized, finally Thacker asks “what kinds of ethics and politics can develop”(306). After referring to Felix Guattari’s subversive possibility of a “post-media” (bottom-up media, instead of consensual media), he argues for the inquiry into “the kind of politically aware, critical, and ethically conscious interventions that are enabled by [the] nonspecialist engagement with the ‘medium’ of biotech”(307). He especially suggests “bioart,” in which biology is its artistic medium, and looks those “intersections between biotechnology, art, and new media” as the place where new strategies to and critical engagement with the global genome is possible. Bioart or tactical media can open up the possibility of challenges to the global biopolitics, by making the issues concerning bioartificial tissues controversial; revealing socio-political implications of gender, race, and class relationships embedded in biotechnologies; encouraging amateur practice of cloning culture; and hacking the power structures through video, activism, guerrilla performance, and research collaboration.


[1] Bruno Latour’s notion of “actants” (actors) in the process of scientific research might be the best explanation of this nonhuman biomaterial, in the sense that they can reduced neither to subjective nor objective poles. Cf. pp.269-272 and p. 308.

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