Culture Machine, Vol 3 (2001)

CM2001 Article: Rackham

carrier becoming symborg

Melinda Rackham

[this paper should be read in conjunction with the internet site www.subtle.net/carrier]

a virus burrows deep inside me,

penetrating my cellular core...

breaching my last boundary,

shattering my last illusion of autonomy.

cross-dressed in a seductively innocent protoplasmic envelope,

sHe slips past the antibodies and nestles safely within the folds of my DNA;

whispering in the secret language of my body 'replicate me, replicate me'

her strands of RNA twisting and twining with mine -

conjugating, slicing, merging, integrating.

hostess to another being

my blood is contagion,

I am a carrier.

Viral merging can be both exciting and dangerous. When human biological code has a symbiotic relationship with another species’ biological code, we cross a sacred boundary, that of the disciplined, normalised, healthy body; the body of the controlled social subject who maintains a defence against disease as a moral imperative. As Deleuze and Guattari told us, 'you will be organised, you will be an organism, you will articulate your body, otherwise you are just depraved.' (Deleuze, 1987: 159)

Morality in the maintenance of good health has been well explored by Foucault amongst others, however with the explosion of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the 1980s, political and bio-medical discourse around viral illness shifted from one of moral imperative into a militarised zone. Viral infection became an 'information transgression 'within the 'strategic system of our immune system’ (Haraway, 1991: xx) and the body a territory of hierarchical attack and defence mechanisms against alien invaders. By engaging in this Star Wars strategy of disassociation from the body, the patriotic duty of anyone who was a viral carrier was to fight the enemy within, and not transmit the virus by contact with others. Non transmission of body fluids, especially blood, and denial of the flesh, enforced the self contained, closed off, and now disembodied citizen.

This was also the era of Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene, where our own genetic code mutated in the popular imagination into a detached, immoral, survival machine - ‘leaping from body to body, down the generations, manipulating body after body, in its own way, for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink into senility and death.' (Dawkins, 1976: 36) We stopped living in our own bodies as they no longer represented the self. The ties of kinship and blood degenerated, and in a desperate attempt to redefine who and what we were, we tried to comprehend and control our own genetic code by categorisation and classification in the Human Genome Project.1

But what of the viral invaders - those others that wished to subvert our now sanitised, classified code for their own purposes? During the 1990s the virus mutated into a convenient political commodity, replacing the aliens of 1950s science fiction as the evil, threatening, uncontrollable, deadly, ugly, enemy in mainstream culture. We watched movies like Outbreak, dramatising the horror of uncontrolled viral invasion, and consumed books like Richard Preston's The Hotzone, a sensational account of the wicked witch of viruses, Ebola.

sHe (ebola):

transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles... the skin bubbles up into a sea of white blisters... like tapioca pudding. Spontaneous rips appear in the skin and haemorrhagic blood pours from them,.. every opening of the body bleeds . . . the tongue's skin may be torn off during rushes of the black vomit . . . your heart bleeds into itself, the brain becomes clogged with dead blood cells, the liver bugles, turns yellow and begins to liquefy . . . the testicles bloat up and turn black and blue, the semen goes hot with Ebola and the nipples may bleed.. the labia turns blue, livid and protrusive, and there may be massive vaginal bleeding . . . the whole body twitches and shakes, the arms and legs thrash around, the eyes roll up into the head. (Preston, 1994: 81-3)

This eroticised description of a viral bleed out exemplifies our fascination with the appalling or appealing abject, with embodied disease, and with death. But Ebola, although sensational, is not terribly effective as a species, and is no threat to huManity, as sHe kills too quickly. To be effective viruses need to be more compliant with the host system.

On the other hand, smart viruses like HIV and the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) evade recognition by the human immune system, allowing replication in a complex species-specific relationship. They can be seen as lying to the host system, mimicking the feel of the body's own antigens, cross-dressing so that they will be allowed to complete their reproduction cycle. Smart viruses create a false sense of balance, so that the host body will not immediately die. HCV is far more successful in this respect, and will kill more humans than HIV, as it sometimes takes up to 20 years before the host's bodily organs start to seriously malfunction, throughout which time the person is infectious and capable of transmission. These viruses already know how to speak the language of the body while bio-medical science still struggles with its limited genetic alphabet of C A G T. 2

Our disassociation from the bio-self, otherwise known as the body, coupled with our yearning for connection, has deceived us into thinking that we can embrace another domain; that of interrelating, clean pure code. The romanticised telematic embrace – contact totally mediated by technology – is in reality, an ill-conceived cyborg fantasy. Ironically contagion and disease are also rampant in the electronic arena, where packets of data are in constant transmission from one machine to another in the network of our global information systems, the nervous system of our planet, the ubiquitous Internet. Just as small pieces of viral code can whisper 'replicate me, replicate me' and jump promiscuously from body to body via warm sticky blood, small pieces of code – appropriately cross-dressed in binary code to evade recognition – jump promiscuously from machine host to machine host, via dynamically streaming data networks.

Melissa, 1999's celebrity virus, could insert herself into your data because sHe spoke the secret language of machine code that most users do not understand. However Melissa, who was named after a stripper, wasn't a femme fatale. sHe didn't actually do great damage to any individual machine, instead sHe just replicated herself 50 times via email and clogged up networks, just as HCV doesn't damage the host body itself, just clogs the networks in the liver, until network collapse affects the larger organism.

When the host / body / machine is sited as a battleground, and viral invaders as the enemy within to be exterminated at all costs, we lose the opportunity of viewing them as interesting and successfully evolved examples of another intelligence. Responding to viral life, whether it be biological or binary code with anti-viral drugs and anti-viral software like Interferon (a treatment option for both humans and machines) indicates that the exterminators see themselves at the central pinnacle of a hierarchical universe, in the exhausting position of constantly defending territories.

It is understandable that as a species we fear her, the virus, and her ugly sisters in the archestista (the domain of viral life). sHe is an alien who speaks a language we don't understand and sHe may want to use our bodies for her reproduction. Why shouldn't we shoot first and ask questions later? Paradoxically, as fear of the intelligence of the organic virus grows, software engineers are focused on generating artificial intelligence, trying to create 'interactive organisation based upon the distributed problem solving capacity of myriads of cell swarms working in parallel' in the computer environment.3 Strangely, with the intent of completely removing life from bio-hosts, artificial life (a.life) research still classically imitates the human model of bi-parental sex, producing offspring code within the microcosm of the machine host.

This artificial parenting, this sexuality of binary code, of zero uniting with one, is 'limited finity', where a finite number of components are capable of producing an unlimited diversity of combinations. (Ansell-Pearson, 1999: 221) Difference here, or call it evolution, is not the result of random mutation or chaos, but of the continual application of fixed rules, with limited components. Un-thought-of symbiosis of seemingly different functional beings, produces surprising multiplicities and swarming functional colonies of zeros and little ones.

Apparently, even in the machine world, opposites do attract. Uniting one and zero is wildly explosive – one (with whom we are more familiar) is a rather egotistical self centred static and defined singular Westerner, indivisible and individuated. Meanwhile the exotic Eastern zero, who brings her own intension, is dynamically relational, is multiply functional; she subtly controls meaning via her position. Together they do not balance one and other out. Instead, they conform to the definition of a.life or artificial intelligence, by their sum being greater than their parts.

Zero, or nothingness, was at the core of the peaceful agricultural goddess worshipping tribes living in the Indus valley 5000 years ago. sHe, the void, is the container of all possibilities, a swarming energetic consciousness encompassing everything within the cosmos, from viruses and bacteria at the microscopic level to the macroscopic universe itself. Her number, zero, was imported to the west by Arabic traders around 700 AD but was thought of as immoral and heretic, alien and destabilising, and its use forbidden by the Catholic church. (Plant, 1998: 51-5) Eventually the Zero virus was transmitted into popular usage at the start of the information revolution by the Guttenberg press, and Zero has successfully now infected and affected every system of western culture.

But we have wandered away from sex itself. Tantric sexual ritual, like zero, is all about position. Ritual sex begins with the man positioned at the right hand side and the woman at the left, which is the origin of what is known as the left hand path – the way of the flesh, the way of the feminine. 4 Traditionally this left handed pathway encompasses spirituality, magic, messiness, darkness, the sexual, the textured, the sensual; while the right has attracted the oppositional values of masculine Cartesian rationality – the light seeping into the Platonic cave. Nowhere is this duality more obvious than in cultures where the clean right handed masculine puts food in one’s mouth, while the dirty left hand feminine completes the circuit of biological survival by wiping one’s anus.

In Tantra sex is transmutation of energy, and in biology sex is the combination of genetic material from more than one source to produce a new individual. By these definitions, viral cross-species merging is sexuality in its rawest form. A virus inserts its genetic material inside our cells, using our proteins to make an offspring, an almost perfect copy of itself. So perhaps the fear of illness, of being sick, of being a carrier, is only the fear of the sexual body itself, is the fear of zero, is the fear of the feminine, is the fear of the sex which is not one, is the fear of merging and joining, of transmuting beyond the singularity of the discreet individual, is the fear of not being in control.

Evolutionary biologists Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan tell us:

Symbiosis has a filthy lesson to teach us. The human is an integrated colony of amoeboid beings… (which are) integrated colonies of bacteria. Like it or not our origins are in slime. The nucleated cell of eukaryotic life evolved by acquisition… amid cell gorgings and aborted invasions, merged beings that infected one another were reinvigorated by the incorporation of their permanent 'disease'. (Margulis & Sagan, 1995: 194)

We become, we evolve with our symbionts, our most intimate partners, and we cannot survive without them. Shockingly our evolutionary partners proliferate as species more successful than our own. There are more than fifty thousand human endogenous retro viruses that can easily slip into our genetic material, like the Human Mammary Tumour Virus, which is passed down the generational pathway; and hundreds of thousands more virri that jump from person to person as swiftly as opportunistic fleas at a dog show. Our body of matter, our left-handed pathway, the dark fleshy arena, our own swarming cellular republic, is a hive of activity - the activity of viral otherness. We have never been, and never will be, clean and sanitary self-contained units. Alternate theories of the integrated immune system that see our bodies as just another part of the web of living organisms, like Niels Jerne's 5 Nobel Prize winning Network Theory of Immunity, were largely ignored for years by sanitarily obsessed mainstream bio-medical researchers. Jerne's theory proposes that:

The (Immune) system has no way and no need to distinguish self from foreign. It knows nothing alien to its composition. It only knows of itself and itself is the network of endogenous activity... By means of somatic mutation it has already anticipated, inside 'self,' every variety of the 'nonself' that it could ever meet. (Martin, 1994: 110)

There is no self and other, no need for attack and defence as we are already intimately connected with every virus on the planet. From this perspective we are not a divided species, we are just different manifestations of identical machine language, all of us parasites on the body of the planet earth.

I now speak of the virus as my lover, my cross-dressing identical twin lover, who has slipped into my immune system, smiling at me, seducing me – whispering in my body’s secret language ‘come with me now, we are together forever, child of my blood, we cannot be parted, we are one.6 This is viral bonding, this is true love, this is real romance. sHe makes a commitment like no other, and in the days of serial relating, it really is till death us do part.

Of course, this is not to be ignorant of the implications of being sick in both biological viral merging and machine viral integration. For the 200 million humans currently with HCV it may mean altered lifestyle, extreme fatigue, depression, development of chorisis, liver cancer, and death. For infected machines it may mean altered functioning, loss of data, hard drive death, network collapse. However, as species, both will modify and survive, and the future of each is dependent on these mutations, these code splicings, this diversity and difference, which enables survival under a variety of environmental conditions.

When our point of view expands from our species singularity, to a more encompassing macro perspective, surprisingly similar complex systems emerge in parallel domains. Biological carriers of HCV have formed global connections, both through their similarly emerging biology, and on the web through mailing lists and support groups, sharing their experience in differing contexts. These carriers are an emerging swarm, a global republic whose biological source code is open and being modified by the virus. Simultaneously computer code is hacked, virii are written and software is modified under Open Source agreements. Programmers improve and evolve machine language cooperatively, for no money, and for no overt political agenda. Co-operative coders, or hackers as they used to be called, are also an emerging swarm, operating singularly with a higher purpose. This is an evolution of artificial intelligence on our planet as code is replicated, refined and embedded by willing workers, in self organising systems, swarming within the electronic nervous system of the net.

Open source software (OSS) is released under 'copyleft', a licensing agreement where it can be endlessly copied and modified – anyone can become a carrier in this millennial remergence of the left handed path. Software evolution, like species evolution, is not linear, it is rhizomic, transversal, a process not of travel from one form to another, but a process of decoding and recoding. (Ansell-Pearson,1999: 159) This process is parallel to that of decoding and recoding employed by reverse transc(t)riptease enzymes that insert viral genetic material into human cells, when HCV reproduces in the hostess body.

The fantasy of sanitised safety with pure, clean and rational code is consumed by the reality of the slimey and promiscuous, as code has sex with other codes – they decode, insert, recode, replicate, and integrate in both the immune system and the operating system. We can no longer ignore viral life as the age of information is increasingly the age of infection. The viruses are encouraging us, their human and machine carriers, to become re-acquainted with the left handed path, with the messy, ugly, multi textured swarming cellular self.

HuManity is slow to acknowledge its mutual dependence, its transpersonal ecology, and its symbiogenesis. We still battle with wanting to be one, individualised and contained, rather than seeing the delicate webs which maintain selfhood through intensions and relations. We are just starting to shift our perspective to encompass Helen Chadwick’s sublime vision of more than a decade ago:

The living integrates with other in an infinite continuity of matter, and welcomes difference not as damage but potential. ... Spliced together by data processing, these are not ruined catastrophic surfaces but territories of prolific encounter, the exchange of living informational systems at the shoreline of culture. (Chadwick, 1989: 97)

sHe, the poisonous slimey deadly virus,

now provides us with an updated cyborg model,

a way to culturally reposition ourselves

in the dissolving natural / artificial / species divide.

a place to ground the self

when being one,

a self contained singularity

is no longer a stable position.

sHe, our viral lover,

transmits intimate knowledge

in the embodied language of disease,

encouraging us to embrace and enjoy

becoming symborg.

Endnotes

1. The Human Genome Project, was initiated by US Congress in 1987, seeking to map the approximately 100,000 genetic stands that make up the entire DNA sequence of humans, within 20 years. The project has many opponents, including those who believe it will be used to support theories of genetic determinism. One of the first worrying outcomes of genome mapping was in 1995 when the US Government patented the cell line of a Papua New Guinea Highlander.

2. A, G, C, and T are the nucleotide bases Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Thymine. By determining the sequence or position of these bases along a DNA strand, genes can be identified.

3. Hoffmeyer J, The Swarming Body. Online. Available HTTP: http://www.molbio.ku.dk/MolBioPages/abk/PersonalPages/Jesper/Swarm.html

4. For a full description of various Tantric sexual rituals and beliefs see Van Lysebeth, A. (1995) Tantra -the Cult of the Feminine, Maine, Samuel Weiser Inc.

5. For background and excerpts on Jerne's paper see Bibel (1990: 188-93).

6. Text exerts from Rackham M., carrier, Online. Available HTTP: http://www.subtle.net/carrier.

References

Ansell Pearson, K. (1999) Germinal Life -the Difference and Repetition of Deleuze. London and New York: Routledge.

Bibel, D. J. (1990) Milestones in Immunology. Berlin: Springer–Verlag.

Chadwick, H. (1989) Enfleshings, London: Secker and Warburg.

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Haraway, D. J. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. London: Free Association Books.

Margulis. L, and Sagan. D, (1995) What is Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Martin, E. (1994) Flexible Bodies. Boston: Beacon Press.

Preston, R. (1994) The Hot Zone. Sydney: Doubleday.

Plant, S. (1998) Zeros + Ones. London: Fourth Estate.