Biotech for the Academy

My research mainly involves trying to think us out of the conundrum of state-based violence using re-figurations of the body politic.  Actual, structural (since all violence stems from actual violence on actual bodies—the threat of hurt and harm), gendered, normalized, terroristic.

If not out of violence per se, as I suspect it is constitutive of the human experience, into a form of knowledge/power that strives to care for the most vulnerable and nurture the multiple forms of being and becoming that emerge and will emerge…a form of political subjectivity that “judges not as the judge judges,” but, as Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass “as the sun falling around a helpless thing.”

A tall order, perhaps but one that is crucial to any political project. How do we, as humans, citizens, neighbors, mammals, etc, tend to our world? How is dialogical space made to open creative re-thinking, -figuring, -imagining about how local, state, and global politics function?

More broadly, what I am wrestling with is life.  How is life included in politics? In our institutions, discourses, or urban planning projects? How do state politics understand life, or to ask the more traditional philosophical question: What is a life worth living? How do we create the conditions needed for realizing the good life? Turns out that life is really complex and messy.  It eludes definition and control.

In earlier posts, I have shown how I chose microbiotic communities and co-evolved parasites in the human gut. Walt Whitman was a sometime poetic counsel for these Uexküllian forays in the worlds of animals and humans.  Technology can also be a part of making choices that privilege certain social configurations over others. In this post, I want to talk about art, biotechnology, and critique. Art is another way to imagine different political configurations and futures.  (Detournement can work, too.)

On Monday night at Hobart William Smith, I attended a lecture by Dr. Steve Kurtz, a professor at SUNY-Buffalo and founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble. Since the late 1990’s CAE’s founding concern shifted from the digital revolution to the biotech revolution. As Kurtz explained, the digital revolution was a difference in degree rather than kind–it increased the level of intensity of communication, but was more a revolution of scale that intensified the bombardment of the sign rather than internalizing that sign.  The biotech revolution, Kurtz argued, was more than a revolution.  Previous to this, the body was sacred and humans could always find some relative freedom inside their body, if no where else.  Biotechnology, on the other hand, is coding the body from the inside out. Life and potentiality is understood through the genetic code.

The posthuman, the cyborg, became a reality in a different way than it had been previous to this biotech revolution.  This could be a utopian future or a nightmare.  What, argued Kurtz, was needed to nudge it toward the utopian?

biotech for the people

People must participate and know the political stakes of biotechnology or it will not be democratic, but controlled by policy makers or corporate interests.  The role of the CAE, and of artists more broadly, is to deliver messages, show the stakes, and the possibilities of these revolutions.


This, as I see it, is the same project as critical social and cultural theory in academia.  Academics also show the stakes of the policies and norms that are, more than likely, controlled by the elite, the corporate, and the tyranny of the minority in the US Congress.

To return to Kurtz’s talk and its resonances with the research I have presented on this blog, what does it mean that the body can be understood, manipulated, enhanced, improved, with technology as an extension of the actual body?

Aimee Mullins, Photo Credit: Howard Schatz

Aimee Mullins

These shifted understandings of the body must deliver emancipatory messages, show the political stakes involved, and bare the possibilities the biotech body for reinvigorating democracy and other forms of participatory governance. Importantly for academic disciplines, as Nicholas and Jan highlight in the “When in doubt, de-Center humans” post, how does this shift affect our disciplines?

7 thoughts on “Biotech for the Academy

  1. if one isn’t doing theology than I think that talk of the “sacred” is part of a grammar better left behind, “contamination” may also be more confusing than helpful in that it seems to suggest (to me anyway) that there is some other state to be achieved/conserved as opposed to our always-already being multiple/leaky/etc, reminds of of the folks in environmental fields who are coming to realize that “restoration” is a bit of a back to the garden pipe-dream.
    As for what will motivate people that’s the million dollar (well really much more than that in areas like patient-compliance in healthcare and global-warming) but given how variable (idiosyncratic even) people are I don’t think we can know in advance, it won’t be so much a matter of our intentions as of the reception, and so we can only run tests, no?
    thanks for raising these issues!


  2. Good point about sacred and contaminated … in fact, if I recall, when we were all at the London School of Economics a couple years ago, didn’t contaminated bodies come-up as a key idea in your work already?


  3. The talk was meant to be a provocative account of past projects of CAE–so, no, backup as such. Some context for the sacred comment: This was said in context of evaluating how the digital v. biotech revolution could be understood in terms of social activism and motivating a public to engage with the issues surrounding biotech. It was not meant to convey as sense of loss of sacredness/enchantment, I do not believe. Of course this is all through my lens–a lens that finds the busy multiplicity of the body has always already been a technology of pluralistic otherness. The important question asked in the talk, for me, was whether we could even use the terms sacred/contaminated. Are they too fraught with theology to be useful? Thanks for the link. Brilliant.


  4. was there some actual historical/anthropological examples/data given for this claim/generalization that
    “Previous to this, the body was sacred and humans could always find some relative freedom inside their body, if no where else”
    and do we really need yet another telling of the Fall into disenchantment/bondage?
    How much engineering/medical know-how do you think that people might need to make informed choices and how will they gain such skills/access?
    Some interesting related work on Stiegler over @:


  5. Stef, in the past, I always read works like Haraway and anything else that discussed cyborgs and utopian visions with a sense of irreversible skepticism. I thought the emphasis, being a more classically trained sociologist, on bodies was hogwash, especially early-on in my training, and any “vision” that offered-up utopian visions (or dystopian ones) seemed oddly un-sociological.

    But as you write it up above, this internal infrastructure (or “infrastructure from within”) of the body being tinkered with and handed-down by military elites and government officials strikes a more realistic angle: the machines won’t emancipate us from our “worldly bonds” (i.e., bodies) but perhaps we will … (do you know Miccoli on this topic?)

    I am worried though that this all amounts to a reverse-Foucauldianism. The question becomes how do we find ways for people to self-regulate their own bodies in ways that self-emancipate us? (rather than buying into “faux emancipation” offered up by capitalism for low, low price … genuine imitation emancipation!)


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