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<nettime> Molecular Invasion by Critical Art Ensemble
McKenzie Wark on Mon, 9 Dec 2002 03:26:59 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Molecular Invasion by Critical Art Ensemble

Critical Art Ensemble, The Molecular Invasion,
Autonomedia, New York, 2002

Reviewed by McKenzie Wark <mw35 {AT} nyu.edu>

Percy Schmeiser is a Canadian canola (or rapeseed)
farmer who was sued by Monsanto, the St Louis
based agribusiness giant, for infringing on its
patents. Monsanto owns a kind of canola seed that
is resistant to its own famous brand of herbicide,
Round Up. Many farmers use Round Up, including
Schmeiser. Usually, you have to spray it on your
fields before planting, as it kills everything. But
with Monsanto's patented seeds, you can spray it
on the crops without killing them.

Schmeiser says he always used his own seed
varieties. He saved seeds for replanting from the
harvest. If he used Monsanto's, he would have to
sign a contract promising to buy new seeds from
them, and pay a $37 per hectare fee. Monsanto
claim they found their seeds in his crops, and filed
suit for $400,000 in damages. Schmeiser claimed that
Monsanto's seeds blew in from neighboring farms
or from a nearby roadway, and counter sued.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of this particular
case, it's a fine instance of the kind of molecular
invasion at the heart of what Critical Art Ensemble
(CAE) call the "struggle in the biopolitical realm of
representation." (60) As they say, we live in an era
when "all usefully profitable genes and biochemicals
from various genomes are being privatized and
patented." (54)

Agribusiness has for some time had two
components. The land itself is often owned and
farmed by large conglomerates. These may also be
integrated with food processing and manufacturing
interests. Two phases in the commodification of
need - agriculture and manufacturing, are now
increasingly joined to a third, the commodification
of information. Or as CAE say, "molecular invasion
and control is rapidly being transformed into new
types of colonial and endo-colonial control. The
focus seems to be on consolidating the food chain
from molecular structure to product packaging." (8)

Molecular Invasion is CAE's fifth and in many ways
best book to date. It is the most developed version
of their "contestational biology." (10) It begins with
an exercise in tactical semiotics. There is no end to
the ways in which one could interpret the cultural
history of the relationship of nature to second
nature. CAE cut straight to the most useful
rhetorical constructs.

They identify the tension between purity and
pollution as a persistent figure. In Ovid's
Metamorphosis, only the Gods have the power to
produce recombinant beings. When mortals attempt
to breach the bounds of natural order, they merely
pollute it. Daedalus and Icarus, imprisoned on
Crete, make wings to fly to the heavens, where
there are no tyrants. Icarus, flying too close to the
sun, melts the wax affixing his wings to his body
and plummets to earth.

>From the art work of Hieronymus Bosch, with his
catalogue of unnatural acts, to Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein, the attempt to muddy the
boundaries of the natural order end in disaster.
Likewise, in David Cronenberg's film The Fly, the
transgression of the order of the species produces
the monstrous. When scientist Seth Brundle
accidentally mixes his being with that of a fly, he
'pollutes' himself, and ends up crashing like Icarus,
another monster in Bosch's gallery of unnatural

CAE link this rhetoric to the colonial ideologies
which stress the separation of the races. While they
don't pursue this point, they touch on a lingering
ambiguity in postcolonial discourse. Talk of
'hybridity' partakes of a racist discourse that
presupposes 'pure' racial terms, no matter how
much it may value cultural heterogeneity,
borrowings or mimesis.

While progressive rhetorics arising out of the
politics of race may stress the artifice of race and
the heterogeneity it conceals, progressive rhetorics
about nature stress its purity and want to resist its
'pollution' by human intervention. What is
interesting about CAE's position is that they are
not necessarily against genetic engineering. They
want to return the focus to the commodification of
nature as information. Theirs is not a holy quest for
a pure nature.

In a typically hair raising phrase, CAE state that
"while the body can be made to reflect the signs of
civilization, the flesh itself is not fully rationalized to
best approximate the ideal demands of capital in
terms of market adaptability and efficiency." (29)
And perhaps can never be - but that doesn't stop
the formation of a discourse in which the interests
of the commodifiers of nature are made to be
congruent with a social interest, and the interest of
nature itself.

While CAE are not opposed to genetic science or its
products, they are suspicious of the ideological veil
drawn over the confusion of a particular interest
with the general good. They want to put decisions
about the ends of science back in the hands of the

This involves a critique of 'green' discourse, which
borrows from a long tradition of panic about
threats to the purity of nature. Says CAE: "The
traditional social pressures regarding what
constitutes deviant mixing hold back experimental
transgenic research and applications." (30)

Yet the discursive field is a complex one, perhaps
more complex than CAE at times allow. Sometimes
they write as if they held to a theory of ideology,
in which the dominant discourse of the day reflects
the interests of the ruling class. Sometimes they
write as if they held to a theory of discourse as an
(uneven) field of antagonisms, where different
social forces struggled to articulate bits of common
cultural property in rhetorically advantageous

Thus the greens exploit rhetorics of purity that
would be anathema to anti-racists; anti-racists
exploit rhetorics of hybridity that would be
anathema to greens. Things are equally confusing
on the other side, where commodification seizes on
both a romantic faith in the purity of nature (to sell
'organic' produce at a premium) while also
promoting development strategies that overcome
the Hobbesian terrors of nature "red in tooth and

Nevertheless CAE are surely right to argue that
since the cracking of the genome, "a profound
sense of ideological dissonance now haunts the
western world" (17) Their own tactic for making
headway amid the noise is to propose adding a
fourth domain to orders of nature. Modern biology
mostly agrees on three domains of organism:
archaebacteria, bacteria and eukaryotes. To this
'historical' distinction, they add a technological one:
the transgeneae organism.

The first to third domains arose out of a
combination of mutation and sexual selection. They
arose 'historically', in that organisms had limited
resources with which to respond to their
environments. Only what was available in a given
genome could be the working material for
adaption. The fourth domain is different. Nothing
stops a researcher inserting a gene from one
species into a completely unrelated one, even one
from a completely different domain.

It is as if the historical development of life merely
traced a line of actualization through a vast notional
space of virtual beings, which might be composed
of every possible combination of every element in
the genetic language. Many points in that virtual
space would code for organisms that were not
viable - like the Brundlefly in Cronenberg's films.
But many others - who knows? - may thrive.

It is at once exhilarating and terrifying to
contemplate the possibility of a post-evolutionary
future. Exhilarating, in that the tyranny of nature
could finally become a part of history itself.
Terrifying, in part because of the many centuries of
indoctrination we have had in the idea that only
God or the Gods have the power to mess with the
order of things. It is terrifying also in part for more
calculating political reasons. Would you trust a
company that would sue a farmer in Saskatchewan
over a few seeds with the future of our species?

CAE caution against too much fascination with
science fiction scenarios, and in part they are right
to focus on making clear tactical choices in the here
and now. Yet one needs to know what the stakes
may potentially be in the struggle over the powers
of nature. They are also struggles over the nature
of power.

Even though genetically modified plants are in
practically all American packaged foods, corporate
interests have to tippy-toe through the discursive
maze of nature and second nature. The doctrine of
eugenics - race purity and hierarchy -- seemed to
provide a rational and scientific Darwinian basis for
power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -
and it ended in forced sterilization and genocide.
Thesedays ideologues try to step lightly on the

Since science has been partially devalued as an
ideology, it has been reinforced with a few
Christian themes. DNA is now 'God's Blueprint'.
The Human Genome Project can be construed as
the gift of an anonymous 'New Eve' - the
anonymous donor of the blood from which it was

How many times have you heard the statement
that human DNA is 99% the same as that of the
apes? Or 7% the same as that for yeast? DNA is
now figured as a universal text. There's a certain
anxiety prompted by modern biology, which sees
only the nebulous clouds of populations where
once we thought we saw a pure hierarchy of
species, each with its ideal form. The compensation
for a loss of a clear hierarchy is that multiplicity is
underwritten by a universal code.

As CAE write: "Much as religion once defined the
human role in the cosmos, science does the same in
such a way that the political economy of the day
seems to be a part of nature and attuned to its laws
and imperatives." (40) The church validated its own
necessity as mediator between Man, God and
Nature. Science, as an ideology, does the same.

Infused with a bit of mystical universalism, science
can once again function as an ideology of progress.
But here's the rub: It is "a working definition of
progress that means nothing more than the
expansion of capital." (43) Science, not religion,
holds out the promise of redemption, not through
renouncing worldly things, but by embracing the
commodification of nature.

The almost infinite diversity of the genome will be
pressed into service for agribusiness monoculture.
It's a particularly depressing prospect in the
'underdeveloped' world, where a new kind of
info-colonialism arises. "If biotech companies in
general are able to make the agricultural classes of
developing nations dependent on corporate
research, products and knowledge, any possibility
of food security for these nations will be out of the
question." (88)

The task CAE set for contestational biology is to
intervene in this scenario "to direct public
resentment, mistrust, suspicion and even hostility in
a productive way." (62) They call for precision in
identifying issues. The consolidation of the food
chain in corporate hands, the privatization of
biological material as information, the narrowing of
research to corporate agendas, the lack of
democratic oversight of licensing decisions for
transgeneae organisms might head the list.

For 6 years, CAE have developed sophisticated
tactics for working in this field. As they see it, "the
goal for cultural resistance is to create temporary
public space where education and inter-subcultural
labor exchange can occur." (65) Rather than ape the
technical specialization of biological science with hi-
tech digital art, their work deals in appropriate
technologies and cultural solutions.

Ironically, there is a sophisticated critique of the
division of labor at work in their championing of
amateur knowledge. They return culture to the
integrative function in a fragmented world that
Schiller proposed for it.

As usual, there are thrilling riffs on what kinds of
direct engagement with the politics and culture of
technology might be suitable - and despite CAE's
worries about science fiction, there's a sci-fi feel to
some of their proposals. I particularly like the idea
of releasing mutant flies - not too hard to procure,
it seems - as a way of infiltrating biotech facilities
without trespassing. The very problem that landed
Percy Schmeiser in trouble can be turned to one's
advantage. That would make Seth Brundle smile.



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