Culture Machine, Reviews

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Richard Doyle (2003) Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living. (Theory Out of Bounds, Vol. 24)

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4009-2.

The Future of Seduction

Stephen Dougherty

Richard Doyle's new book Wetwares involves itself with two nagging and seemingly unanswerable questions: first, what does it mean when we say that something is alive? And second, when is it likely we will know the answer to the first question? Though it may appear as if the second question doesn't matter in any real way--that it's simply the kind of thing you might haggle over with your molecular biologist buddy after all the cool people have left the bar--Doyle's argument is that they necessarily go together. The answer to the first question can only ever occur in the future, which is to say that its deferral is part of its very nature. When will we know the mystery of life? Wait and see. What is life? We will know at some future date. Perhaps we can only ever know in the future. Which is also to say that life is made up of the future. Or at least partly.

What Doyle calls wetwares in his new book is more or less the same thing as what he called rhetorical softwares in his previous book, On Beyond Living. They are discursive strategies 'to foreground the relational and material interactions that make possible the emergence of scientific statements' (1997: 6-7). Those statements that concern Doyle mark the emergence of the postvital body--sensibly enough, the body that comes after the vital body, after 'life' in the sense of a mysterious life force has been evacuated from the organism. As Michel Foucault explains in The Order of Things, nineteenth-century biology understood this life force as a 'sovereign vanishing point within the organism' (quoted in Doyle, 1997: 10), and as such, life could 'reveal' itself only insofar as it remained a mystery. It retreated, disappeared, into the depths of the body, and from there it exerted a strong shaping force on modern thought.

From the nineteenth-century biological perspective, being was the epiphenomenon of life, a mysterious force beyond the powers of science (or other hermeneutical practices) to tease it out. But contemporary molecular biology does precisely that. It turns the organism into the output of the DNA code, eschewing in the process the binarisms that have helped to constitute modernity: surface and depth, being and living. Doyle explains the important consequences in On Beyond Living:

While the modern body of the organism announced, through its character and anatomy, the deep unity at work in its depths, the postvital body is a memorial. It is a site of the memory of the modern body, where the characteristics and the behavior of organisms can be found. If under the modern regime life, hidden in body, was 'perceptible beyond disease,' the postvital body is a transparent sequence that has nothing behind or beyond it. (1997: 13)

In Doyle's first book the vital body is an object to be mourned; and Doyle's rhetorical analyses of the foundational texts of molecular biology is, in a sense, a work of mourning. He mourns the loss of the secret, and the secret's place, the invisible and virtual ground upon which the discipline of biology established itself. For molecular biology explodes the vital secret by turning cells into computers that store genetic memory and run programs--by turning organisms, in other words, into informational processes, and bodies into transparent sites of coding.

From the molecular biological perspective, DNA is the secret ousted. If the search for the secret had constituted an ongoing narrative since at least the early nineteenth century, now scientists can say (and many do) that the story is over. Thus molecular biology represents 'an effort whose explicit goal is to make it possible to say "that is all there is"' (1997: 19). But out of this possibility to claim to have finished the story, Doyle insists, new stories proliferate. Indeed, now that the vital mystery is done with, all that is left are stories: there is 'nothing but information' (22).

The difference between Doyle's critical analyses in On Beyond Living and Wetwares hinges on the awareness of loss, which is pervasive in the earlier book: 'In the absence of any transcendental articulation like that of the sovereign organism and its interior vitality, life, in the age of postvitality, becomes anchored not to the organism and its will to live, but to the constant, worldwide compilation and exegesis of [genetic] sequences' (1997: 24). Now there is the immortal DNA molecule and its complex host of enabling machines. But once there was the site of mystery: the organism. While that absence haunts the pages of On Beyond Living, the mourning process is over in Wetwares. No longer is the disappearance of the body (in the old biological sense) cause for alarm, or undue suspicion. For the Doyle of Wetwares it is merely part of the new order of our 21st century digital society. Such assumptions say a great deal about just how far the ontology of information has come in the last decade. Whereas the coding up of the body was frequently rendered as if it were gothic horror in science studies from the '90s, in Wetwares it is turned into an occasion for theoretical roguishness and attempted comedy. As Steven Shaviro suggests in a plug on the back cover, Wetwares 'locates and dwells on the positive potential for change that adheres' to new bioinformatic technologies. Certainly, in between books Doyle has become enamored with the new possibilities of life's transformations, or more precisely, its becoming. By his own account he has grown addicted to becoming; which is also to say that he has been seduced, or possessed, by the future. '[S]eduction,' Doyle clarifies, 'is itself a kind of possession, an overtaking that signals less the manipulative power of a self that its capacity for affective transformation' (2003: 3-4).

But how should we comport ourselves towards the future? Insofar as this question is absolutely central to its critical project, the matter of ethics looms large in Wetwares--though whether or not it offers an especially practical or laudable ethics is a matter for dispute. Doyle's ethical mentors are (as one will have guessed) Deleuze and Guattari, and (look out) William Burroughs too. It is Burroughs' 'shootist in training' Kim Carsons in Place of the Dead Roads who best exemplifies for Doyle the kind of becoming Deleuze and Guattari envision in A Thousand Plateaus, wherein one must forget one's subjectivity in order to transform, in order to integrate something alien into one's zone of being. But of course the proper comportment involves more (and less) than mere forgetting; for it is a forgetting of one's self that is simultaneously 'a summoning of alterity, the cultivation of a familiar' (4). Thus in order to forge an alliance with his weapon, in becoming gun, Carsons 'must untie the knots between visuality, tactility, and temporality' (6). He must, as Doyle quotes Burroughs, '"[m]ove forward in time and see the bullet hitting the target as an accomplished fact"' (6). He must become entangled with what has not happened yet in order to escape both the sovereign limits of the ego and the stasis of the present.

Which still begs the question: How do we comport ourselves towards the future? What do we do to entangle ourselves? How do we discipline ourselves to become receptive to alterity? The trick, it turns out, is not in thinking about the future, but in a kind of slack-jawed observation of the world--an observation so intense that the univocal self dissolves into its objects of perception:

This accomplishment . . . involves a distributed agency--neither here nor there but an itinerant, diffuse sensitivity that enables objects to traverse the senses. The event of observation is less a passive reception than an incessant exposure to a swarm, a hospitality to the multiple 'parts' of an object. (15)

For the self to dissolve (a fortuitous dissolution), for the novelty of the future to present itself, we must let the knots of the sovereign ego loose themselves and open up to the strange invasion of objects that are themselves dissolved into parts, or swarms. As Bergson taught, and as Deleuze clarified, such a hospitality to objects in their constitutive multiplicity requires the method of intuition rather than intelligence (the trick is not in thinking). Intuitive perception puts us into matter, as Bergson famously put it, and it allows us to use our own duration, the rhythm of our own lived experience, in order 'to recognize the existence of other durations' (1991: 33). By intuitively entering into matter, we recognize that things have their own durations--that they are, in a sense, teeming with duration. Thus the intuitive method of Bergson, insofar as it opens us up to the multiplicity of durations, forces us beyond the human condition precisely because it invites a fundamentally ecological perspective on our existence in the world. A hospitality to the multiple parts of objects is likewise a recognition that something akin to subjectivity is dispersed throughout the universe.

I mention Bergson here because via Deleuze he makes up an important part of Doyle's philosophical heritage. But I question the rhetorical strategy whereby these philosophical strands of posthuman rumination are seamlessly woven together with the information theoretical strands of posthumanism, to which Doyle's thinking is still more deeply indebted. However, this is a criticism that goes well beyond Doyle's work, and whose object is the widespread uses and abuses of the complexity and network theories that have become (or are on their way to becoming) a virtual staple of contemporary scientific and theoretical discourses. It is either the disgrace or the saving grace of Wetwares that it imagines going beyond the human condition (or the modern, or the vital) strictly from within a capitalist and technoscientific horizon: either it is pragmatic and even necessary or it's a sellout. But again, this seems to be a defining limitation of many au courant network discourses--from theoretically sophisticated cultural criticism like Mark C. Taylor's The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture, to popular cosmology like Howard Bloom's Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, to popular science fiction like Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio.

Perhaps the problem is Deleuzian theory itself: the ease with which it can be used to legitimate technoscience in the service of digital capitalism, if such legitimation is desired. If there are in fact crucial differences between Deleuzian rhizomes and digital information networks they tend to get elided in recent analyses, such that the pursuit of becoming is in constant danger of itself becoming a pursuit of the high-tech consumer goods and technological practices that advertising promotes as the means to personal transformation. (In Bloom's Global Brain, for example, the teleology of ever-increasing connectionism in human evolution is firmly grounded in a consumer ethos, where getting better connected means buying the latest consumer electronic gadgets. The implication is that digital technologies will benefit mankind, or at least Western consumers with disposable incomes, in ways that can somehow be valued on an evolutionary scale.) But perhaps the problem has more to do with those users of Deleuze for whom cutting edge theory somehow helps to legitimate their own fetishization of the commodities and technologies of digital capital. In any case, one gets the sense that Bergson's trans-scientific philosophy of duration and virtuality gets hijacked frequently these days for purposes that are totally contrary to the original spirit of Bergsonism.

Still, Doyle's book is compelling where he works to expose the rhetorical constitution of those bioinformatic technologies that so fascinate him. He thus begins his chapter on artificial life by recalling an uncomfortable conversation with a taciturn colleague who just doesn't 'get' alife. In other words, he just doesn't buy the claim that computer generated life simulations are 'alive.' Doyle wants to entertain the possibility that they are, but he is also aware that believing so requires a perspectival adjustment. The molecular biological and systems theoretical understanding of life, he explains, 'relies less on classical conceptions of autonomy than on a rigorous capacity for connection, orderly ensembles representable only as transformations, flickering patterns unfolding in space and time' (23). And so if the suspicious colleague is ever to get it, then rhetorical problems in alife technology and molecular biology must first get worked out:

The rhetorical challenge posed by life that emerges out of networks goes beyond the ontological uncertainty that haunts artificial life--are they really alive?--and becomes a problem of articulation: How can something that dwells not in a place but in virtuality, a network, be rendered? Hence rhetorical problems haunt not simply the status of alife creatures, but their location. (23)

The solution to the problem will invariably require an infusion of the future. As Christopher Langton explains in his 1987 manifesto on artificial life, we can only ever really understand how carbon-based life functions by having something to compare it to, i.e. silicon-based life. (Doyle explains in On Beyond Living that the spatial metaphors of artificial life--'gliders,' 'emergence,' 'bottom-up'--'situate A-life as a transcendental plane from which to view traditional, carbon-based life' [1997: 120].) Doyle is intrigued by this argument because of the way it depends on a future state--a cultural acceptance that artificial life is in fact the real thing--in order to ground biological knowledge in the present. The logical coherence of the argument depends on a knowledge we do not yet possess: we can only know what life is by seeing ourselves in the future knowing what life is with enough assurance that we can positively say that alife is comparable to the flesh and bones stuff. What is required, then, is an act of seduction. In order to make the perspectival adjustment whereby alife suddenly comes alive, and in which case our understanding of life itself is transformed, we must allow ourselves to be seduced by the future. Following Frederic Jameson, Doyle compares the kind of agency he has in mind here to that of the 'absent cause' that drives global capital in the form of the exotic derivative: 'the exotic derivative seems to demand a mapping of a cause from the future, not absent, but to come. For while the reality of exotic derivatives is "unrepresentable" in the present . . . , they nonetheless yield an anticipation of a future perception . . . (85).

This conundrum whereby present technological practice (our tech-knowledge) is guided by an anticipation of future knowledge, or future perception, ties together Doyle's rhetorical analyses of artificial life with his other big subjects: cryonics and the digital uploading of human consciousness (think Dixie Flatliner in Gibson's Neuromancer, who 'exists' strictly as computer software). Like the exotic derivative, the cryonics contract depends on a future that can make good on a present wager: that a frozen body can one day be revitalized--in which case death just isn't what it used to be: 'For if the corpse has been, in our memory, a body of memory, cryonics transforms the corpse into an anticipated body' (77). Thus the coding up of the body that cryonics presupposes effectively dissolves the boundary between life and death. (Thanks to massive technological intervention, Walt Disney, who is allegedly on ice, might one day resume control of his entertainment empire.)

In related fashion, the whole range of bioinformatic technologies Doyle examines disrupts the border between organism and machine. Indeed, the 'smearing' and 'smudging' of this border is by far the most critical, or the most central to Doyle's project, because it marks the site where our technology redounds upon us and changes who and what we are, thereby opening up the future for difference and becoming. In both its theoretical development and its popular articulation, posthumanism is almost definitionally a becoming machine. For Richard Dawkins we are 'survival machines.' For Deleuze and Guattari we are 'desiring machines.' And in keeping with this simple observation, I think it is important to recognize that the primary seduction at work in Wetwares is technological seduction. In spite of its rhetorical centrality, and in spite of Doyle's strenuous efforts to establish that a cultural mutation in our relation to the future has occurred by virtue of the rise of molecular biology and related technologies, the seduction by the future in Wetwares is in fact a subordinate effect of the seduction by the machine. This undermines the validity of Doyle's argument because it calls to question the specificity of his claims about the novelty of our historical moment, at least insofar as our captivation by the future is concerned. If the following chorus of protestations is evidence, the author himself is anxious about whether or not we are future-oriented in a truly different way now:

And while 'anticipation' is, of course, an affect that has been available to hominids for some time, uploading seems to install discursive, material, and social mechanisms for the anticipation of an externalized self, a technological mutation that is perhaps best characterized as a new capacity to be affected by, addicted to, the future. (134)

While [uploading] may seem to be a late-twentieth-century retooling of Pascal's wager--what have we got to lose?--I would argue that a more profound affirmation of risk is at play here. Less enthralled to the immortality of the self than to the future itself, uploading becomes a technology of the self that renders the univocal self 'tommyrot.' Indeed, . . . the desire to be uploaded resides not so much in the self as in the other of the future. (139)

While this [uploaded subjectivity] may seem to be a literary effect provoked by an overdose on science fiction, new markets and forms of finance capital suggest that the frenzied encounter with a contingent future is constitutive of more than Gibson's characters or of Usenet discourse. (135)

And then there is this caution too:

It will be objected that this new topology of subjectivity is not real, that in its dependence upon technologies that are yet to come, it is at best a messianic ethos. This is correct, if one persists in understanding uploading as an entirely technical project whose success can be determined in terms of actual uploads. But as a virtual entity--a concept--uploading is hardly immaterial, as it attracts resources--for research on nanotechnology, for example--and constitutes subjects in the present. (141)

The last sample reads to me like a red herring. Of course we cannot count the number of times human consciousness has been uploaded to computers because in reality the number is zero, and therefore on Doyle's account there is no reason at all to read uploading desire as messianic. But it does happen in science fiction; and if the dream of uploading is not strictly allied to science fiction, it is nevertheless the product of the same faith in (and/or fear of) technology to come that is the motive force of science fiction. But far more broadly speaking, that faith in the fruits of technology is and always has been the driving force of modern capital itself. (Technology never gets beyond the research and development stage without someone reaping a profit.) Therefore science fiction is and always has been something like the perfectly crystallized expression of capital reeling toward the future. As an investigation into the contemporary workings of this unstable dynamic, Doyle's own discourse is much more closely connected to sci fi discourse than he admits.

But the connection to science fiction is not the main point. It is instead that our seduction by the future in modernity has always been mediated through our seduction by technology, and that the hailing of the future that Doyle sees as unique in the reception of new bioinformation technologies is not unique. Perhaps we are now more future-oriented than before, but if that is so, then our anticipation only makes us more modern than ever, not suddenly postmodern. We have been hailing the future for centuries, though in many different ways, marked by a range of attitudes about our responsibility toward the future. On this issue, Doyle's own attitude does not strike me as particularly commendable. Riffing on a jagged fragment of a cyborg's dialogue from Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner--'. . . more life, fucker'--which Doyle reads as 'a map of the odd rhetorical imbroglios of "life" that traverse both contemporary science and science fiction' (121), Doyle informs us: "As for my own anticipations, I'll adopt an affect not of anxious waiting but of cheerful and prankish hailings of the future. "More contingency, fucker". . . ' (142). Perhaps a rhetorician ought to recognize that the hailing doesn't sound exactly cheerful, and that a prankish hailing is likely to conjure a future full of pranks. But the expletive is telling. If the future is a fucker, then a 'fuck the future' attitude seems only appropriate, as if it doesn't matter what we become so long as we are on the road to becoming, so long as there is more contingency.

It may well be that our present is more replete with the future than ever before. But just because the informatic body possesses greater capacity for transformation, it doesn't necessarily follow that there is more contingency. There could be less. It will depend on how the transformational powers unleashed by molecular biology and related technologies are harnessed by our society. It will depend in no small part on the ethical choices we make regarding what kind of future us lucky posthumans wish for ourselves, as well as for the vast majority of mere humans whose lives are becoming more alien as artificial life becomes less so.

References

Bear, G. (1999) Darwin's Radio. New York: Ballantine Books.

Bloom, H. (2000) Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Deleuze, G. (1991) Bergsonism. New York: Zone Books.

Doyle, R. (1997) On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations of the Life Sciences. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Taylor, M. C. (2001) The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stephen Dougherty teaches at Elizabethtown Community College in Elizabethtown, KY, USA. His essays have appeared in diacritics, Cultural Critique, Arizona Quarterly, and elsewhere.