Issa Clubb (by way of rachel greene) on Mon, 8 Dec 1997 16:24:18 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> RHIZOME_RAW: The Execution of Code in Many-Bodied, Black BoxStates

A Review of Donna J.

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The Execution of Code in Many-Bodied, Black Box States

Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your
brain and nervous system--and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at
birth--what makes you think you have free will? Tom Wolfe,

The notion of code popularly fetishized in the concept of the gene could
not be more destructive. In the essay cited above, Tom Wolfe, along the way
excoriating the 'deterministic' theories of Freud and Marx, comes to
celebrate a determinism stronger than either could have stomached.
"Freudianism and Marxism--and with them, the entire belief in social
conditioning--were demolished so swiftly, so suddenly, that neuroscience
has surged in, as if into an intellectual vacuum." And later: "The genetic
fix is in."  Within the sociobiological argument the "genome" stands as an
incontrovertible black box, a kernel of ROM at the heart of every human --
in a word, code, and our lives simply its execution. "I have heard
neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and
sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human
being's life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was
about to shake his head over the very idea." In Wolfe's airtight enclosing
of what are in truth raging scientific and cultural debates (speaking of
"intellectual vacuums"), one can almost see the double helix being used to
sew up dissent.

But, in one of the double helix's curious inside-out manoeuvers, we find it
elsewhere working to unravel this play for the illusion of consensus. Donna
J. Haraway's most recent book,
"Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleManŠ_Meets_OncoMouse" (Routledge,
1997), performs Wolfe the service of returning his repressed, using the
various concepts of "fetish" as elaborated by Marx, Freud, and A.N.
Whitehead to unpack the reification going on in discussions of the gene.
"Gene fetishists 'forget' that the gene and gene maps are ways of enclosing
the commons of the body ... in specific ways, which, among other things,
often put commodity fetishism into the program of biology..." But Haraway,
due to her ethic of only analyzing "that which I love and only that in
which I am deeply implicated", does not simply attempt to wipe out the
concept of the gene as reactionary, as a priori fetishisized. Instead, she
refigures it: "The processes 'inside' bodies -- such as the cascades of
action that constitute an organism or that constitute the play of genes and
other entities that go to make up a cell -- are interactions, not frozen
things. For humans, a word like /gene/ specifies a multifaceted set of
interactions among people and nonhumans in historically contingent,
practical, knowledge-making work. A gene is not a thing, much less a
'master molecule' or a self-contained code."

The implications of such logic are far-reaching, forcing us to revisit
(rather than reinforce) prepackaged notions about gender, race,
reproduction and even the boundaries between species. Under the pressure of
a well-informed feminism, the genome no longer resembles a rationalized
bird feeder, dispensing hard and fast answers to the grateful scientists
who have fought for the exclusive right to peck at it. Instead genetics
becomes part of living tissues of codes which interpenetrate
technoscientific subjects. Here is Haraway's overarching interest -- "a
project to excavate something like a technoscientific unconscious, the
processes of formation of the technoscientific subject, and the
reproduction of this subject's structures of pleasure and anxiety" -- and I
would argue that in the current climate of new media and the Net, such an
excavation is urgently needed.

Urgently? Wolfe begins his breathless hype of genetic determinism by
proclaiming it the Next Big Thing over the head of Louis Rossetto and the
Digital Revolution. However one may feel about _Wired_, the danger of its
politics pales in comparison to the potentially eugenecist fascism lurking
behind images of hardwired criminals and in the theses of _The Bell Curve_
(a book Wolfe seems at best ambivalent about). And the Net surfer at large

seems more interested in a sort of terrible-twos libertarianism, with a
surfeit of free will and (ideally) venture capital. But of course being
subject to determinism is always for the other guy, or more properly for
the 'herds' -- we write the code which the others must simply follow. They
become 'users', a word which never loses its connotations of dope addicts
and strung-out passivity. And one wonders if there isn't an unconscious
belief among geneticists that discovery of the 'life code' will somehow
exempt them from having to execute it in their own bodies -- both meanings
of the word 'execute' being intended in this instance.

The ultimate point is that the oft-heard distinction between information
'haves' and 'have nots' already accepts the idea that information is a
thing to be had, rather than a process to be created and controlled. Pretty
much everyone in so-called developed societies, and many to most in
so-called developing ones, lives within this process. The nature of
'technoscientific subjectivity' comes down to the ability, if not to write
the code administering one's life, then at least to force oneself into the
feedback loop governing its development. (See here Haraway's discussion of
Aboriginal responses to the Human Genome Diversity Project; also feminist
gynecological self-examination collectives.) Thus it's rather a continuum
where on one end people produce information, and on the other they 'are
had' by it.

Those of you who have already followed the link to Wolfe's article will
have noticed a certain slippage. I've written almost entirely of "genetic
determinism", the "genome", etc., while Wolfe seems to think his article is
about neuroscience. The distinction is important, because while his essay
begins with functional Magnetic Resource Imaging, a brain scanning
technique, it is the genes which determine intelligence and personality:
"The vast majority of neuroscientists believe the genetic component of an
individual's intelligence is remarkably high.... your genes are what really
make the difference. The recent ruckus over Charles Murray and Richard
Hernstein's _The Bell Curve_ is probably just the beginning of the
bitterness the subject is going to create." (Notice that here the
bitterness seems to be on the side of people who can't accept the truth of
genetic determinism, and therefore, it seems to follow, the 'truth' of _The
Bell Curve_. Notice also the supple statistical intelligence on display in
the first sentence.) Interestingly, having chosen 'neuroscience' as his
subject, Wolfe ignores the major development of contemporary neuroscience:
the neural network. It's not hard to see why -- the notion that our brains
are self-organized in webs of weighted connections, which massively change
during development and whose number dwarfs the mathematical possibilities
of gene combinations, certainly doesn't fit in with Wolfe's "genetic fix".
While admitting to a certain degree of oversimplification, I would argue
that it is precisely in neuroscience, with its models of elastic,
contingent networks of meaning, that genetic determinism receives its
strongest qualification.

But it's also here that Haraway isn't quite able to get us out of our jam.
At a central point in _Modest_Witness_, she uses hypertext as a metaphor
for her 'pragmatics' or method, which involves the ability to laterally
skip across disciplines. At the same time she is uncomfortable with her own
metaphor because it doesn't specify which connections are valuable; it
lacks a political ethics for creating one connection instead of another. So
she's forced to "splice" it to the biological concept of the "totipotent
stem cell", which are "those cells in an organism which retain the capacity
to differentiate into any kind of cell." Thus at a crucial moment in the
development of her methodology she abandons the metaphors of tissues and
networks in favor of, in Deleuzian terms, an arborescent stem. (That neural
networks, with their connections weighted by experience and repetition,
might have provided a model of connectionism which could potentially
incorporate an ethics directly into the workings of its structure, will
have to remain a suggestion here.)

The problem with this development in _Modest_Witness_ can best be seen in
the paintings by Lynn Randolph, which are interspersed throughout the text,
and which were apparently realized with a great deal of input from Haraway.
Clearly they represent one part of an overall project to break apart the
linearity of the text. Setting aside the question of whether or not the
paintings are, um, ugly, we can see that they operate by gathering
Haraway's patchworks of meaning into almost allegorical tableaux. The end
result is that the paintings seem to hardwire Haraway's ideas -- such that
the images 'execute' Haraway's 'code', their meaning fully
(pre-)determined. The figures seem to float, weightless, outside of
contingency, ambiguity, connection -- even if Haraway's expositions suggest
otherwise. One experiences this effect even more strongly in contrast to
Haraway's readings of biotech ads from science trade magazines, where the
image becomes a point of intersection for multiple, competing discourses.

Perhaps these discourses are not 'competing' so much as exerting
(historical) pressure on each other, which is exactly what the figures in
Randolph's images do *not* seem to be doing. If we can agree that Wolfe
uses concepts of code and execution to freeze in place a reactionary
determinism, and to preempt arguments which would exert pressure on this
position, then surely the alternative project, a sort of thawing out of the
technoscientific subject, needs to insist upon a different model of
information production. For the most part Haraway's book does a remarkable
job of constructing a working version of this model. In the current climate
of the so-called Information Age, where information is breezily termed a
'commodity', she reminds us of the processes, pressures, and constraints
experienced and created by technoscientific subjects which in fact produce
this medium.

Issa Clubb
Voyager Art Dept.

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