Monday, January 30, 2012

Bar notes

So last night--went to a bar to sing Karaoke. Brought along my "thesis" questions. First I will list the questions, then I will transfer my inebriated handwriting to this digital form. I must admit--this is probably not going to make any sense (not that my blogs make sense generally)--but I think of it as a way of archiving an intense brainstorming session.


1.) Is BioArt a posthuman(ist) art?

2.) What is the relationship between BioARt and net.Art/Digital art

3.) What makes BioArt, "art"

4.) What happens to the impact/effects of BioArt when it is mediated through images, criticism, websites, etc. Is it never not mediated?

5.) Does manipulating living tissue/genetics make something automatically "BioArt"? (here i have written "no!"

6.) Does BioArt actually have to be 'made' in order to have an impact/effect? (I have written here "yes, but only as a way to make it visible")

7.) How does the Tissue Culture and Art Project's work differ from the deployment of these techniques in a "technoscience" context? '

8.) What is the relationship of BioArt to "Animal Studies"?

9.) How does BioArt relate to science fiction?

10.) How is BioArt a form of writing? (this is something I explored extensively last night)

11.) What does BioArt have to offer theoretical humanities/Discourse? (this relates to the Animal Studies question)

12.) Does BioArt have to be visual/visible?

13.) Is BioArt a "practice" or an "art object" or both or neither?

14.) Does BioArt have to manipulate 'living' matter in order to be considered BioArt?

15.) What ethical and political responsibilities do we have to BioArt creations? (this moves beyond my scope)

16.) How can we think of BioArt so that it supports the idea that human beings are "always already technological"? (see David Wills, Dorsality)

17.) What is the relationship between telepresence of Kac and transgenic/BioArt?

18). Is BioArt the artform of the biopolitical, as elucidated by Foucault or Hardt and Negri?


Art is a practice--a mode of understanding rather than art as an "object" --> This helps us break down the distinctions between so called 'visual' art and 'other' art (textual, material, whatever)

See Claire Pentecost on breaking down and changing artistic practices as the key to opening the public to science.

BioArt's connection with digital or NetArt is its distribution--the very fact that I can access BioArt through digital media shows that its impact does not depend on physical proximity (this may relate somehow to Kac and telepresence)

BioArt is fruitful for Posthumanism because it questions the ontological distinction between human and animal as well as human and machine.

Descartes compares animals with machines--perhaps the mistake is not this conflation, but rather the idea that somehow we are somehow different--we are not machinic (we are not technological). See Derrida "Animal"

It is here ^ perhaps that we need to think agency.


Regarding whether BioArt is the Art of the Biopolitical --> if the biopolitical is defined as regarding the circulation of ideas, images, etc. without being subject to the law of scarcity. Look back at the H&N's Commonwealth. 

I"m still thinking about this idea that it (BioArt) is writing in two senses of the word

1.) Makes a mark, trace, not only that but it challenges the easy assumptoins about "who does the writing" ? (I think here I am thinking of the 'artwork' created by animals)

ex: The "killing ritual" (in Tissue culture and art project) is the audience's 'writing' the organism -- "the letter killeth"

2.) Kac's "Genesis" the light 'writes' on the organism/gene, altering the phrase from the bible--it is a "re-writing" (see Kac on Genesis) --See Barthes on photography as light directly contacting the surface.

Furthermore, an artwork like Kac's has been appropriated/parodied by Sonya Rapaport (its here when I really start to think about BioArt and writing)

art may be about the 'singular' (see Kac), but just like a signature, it creates the possibility of its iteration in a different context. Indeed, in one sense, because the artwork is 'displayed' by different museums (easy to show by citing websites)

BUT what about the killing ritual? This at once makes the artwork iterable through different media  and at the same time (?) irrepeatable with the same "object", but if art is not about the OBJECT per se this hardly matters-- (aside: See Derrida on Heidegger's "grasping"-- Geschlecht II?)


Perhaps the difference between technoscience's bio manipulations is the difference between creating na object for 'use' and creating a 'context' (see Kac) or a making visible what remain invisible (see Wolfe on GFP bunny and the architecture chapter--8). Or that an artwork disrupts such an easy 'use' appropriation OR that the technoscientists may not realize that they are creating something (I think maybe here I should look back at Eugene Thacker about 'net.Art' and science fiction)

Again let me re-iterate-- the artwork is iterable but not based on its "objectness" this STILL does nto mean that its materiality doesn't matter. See Derrida "Limited Ink II" on his notion of "materiality" (comes from reading de Man)

BioArt is also writing because it functions as a creation of form (that is kind of 'unform') --I think here I was thinking of Wolfe's discussion of the "formlessness" of the architecture is What is Posthumanism -->

Writing communicates not humans--by marks and traces. The "perception" may be incommunicable, but the communication is iterable. Communication = Writing (translating Luhmann's terms to Derrida's). That is "writing" is something separate from language (or can be. . .)

Look back at Fatal Strategies for Baudrillard's biological tropes.

Cyborg Manifesto-- Writing and "chimeras"

Is it the idea that art allows for an openness to interpretation of its 'function' whereas 'technoscience' is not critical? It only seeks to produce a usable object.

This gets us back into the discussion of Heidegger on "Origin of Work of Art" and Derrida's critique of it--need to look into that. present-at-hand vs. ready-to-hand. See Verbeek on how art is something different.


Writing is communication--language is a media (see Wolfe on Luhmann)

Maybe its that perception always implies some kind of "representation" or that communication is always a representation and perception is something different.

Does it matter that the artworks are actually created?

Yes, because only through actually doing it can we show the limits of the techniques/creations/contestable futures even if the 'possibilities' could be shown through image or discourse--some other form of writing.

Perhaps rather than thinking transgenic art (Kac's Genesis, etc). is an "invisible aesthetics" (see Bardini) we need to think how form the perspective of writing and rhetoric art as defined by Luhmann "makes visible" the invisible (see Derrida in Gift of Death on visible/invisible/absolutely invisible)

Does Kac's work make visible the 'invisible victims" (Catts and Zurr's terms)

Yes beacause from the perspective of a consumer of food, for instance, the process of growing is hidding and the visibility of the transgenic food becomes naturalized.

Because it is 'dialogic" (see Kac for definition) it allows the audience to participate to the same degree as the Catts and Zurr installation with its killing/feeding rituals--at least for most of the participants. We need to look at the degree of participation present in Stelarc's work as well.

Kac's work depends on an "observer" (second order?) Some of Tissue Culture and Art Project depends on the observer (I'm not quite sure what I was thinking here. . .I think I was trying to think about how the "worry dolls" of Catts and Zurr effectively function in a dialogic manner similar to Kac's work).


Friday, January 27, 2012


In his book, Natural Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark argues that 'human-centered technologies' have the capacity to enhance and add to our various social and embodied relations rather than replace them. Rather than technologies trying to re-create, imitate, or simulate (poorly) other relations, Clark sees them as supplemental to them. This can be illustrated by his distinction between VR and AR (augmented reality):
But instead of trying, as with standard Virtual Reality approaches, to re-create a simulacrum of the real physical world entirely inside some computer generated realm, the goal of Augmented Reality is to add digital information to the everyday scene. (52)
Clark's book was written in 2003, before the Iphone was released (2007) and the "app" revolution had taken place. This book accurately predicts the shift from an isolated individual tapping away at her life vicariously through the keyboard to the mobile technologies that enhance our surrounding world and social relations, such as the Iphone and its companion technologies.

Another way in which I personally see the shift from technologies that try to "replace" social relations to enhancing them is various social network services--facebook and twitter. As an academic, I use FB and twitter, mostly, to share links to my blogs, other blogs, sites that relate to my and others' work rather than using it as a primary interface for personal 1-to-1 interaction. That is, I post and I post and I post and then I cannot wait to discuss "what was on facebook" face-to-face at a bar with my friends. FB has actually enhanced my ability to share media with others, which in turn, helps enrich our conversations at the bar or at the office. "hey, did you read my blogpost about such and such?" "Oh hey, Kyle, did you see my response to your blogpost?" Furthermore, such technologies force us to incorporate writing into our lives as it never has before! I guarantee that my students "write" their interactions more than I ever did when I was in college. Thus, we talk about writing and write about talking--the line blurs and the fiction of an authentic "presence" drifts slowly away--at least ideally.

In other words, I think Clark's emphasis on the hybrid, embodied, and supplemental/addition approach to these technologies is spot on. This relates to our discussion Wednesday about the video in which technology uses the "hand" but does not use it to its fullest potential. Perhaps rather than focusing on what the technology allows us to do we should focus on how it does it. This leads us to the question of interface. I think that we should really think about "Tangible User Interfaces in which familiar physical objects, instruments, surfaces, and spaces are used to mediate our exchanges with digital information systems" (51). Clark gives 2 great examples.

The first is Yo Yo Ma's electronic cello:
It is an interface that has been tuned and adapted over centuries of use, and to which the human cellist has devoted a lifetime of study. Why throw all that way in favor of a few buttons and a mouse? If synthesized music can sometimes sound cold and lifeless, might that have more to do with the use of such stale interfaces rather than the potential of the digital medium itself? (51)

Let's stay with the musical instrument example for a minute here, particularly given my own attachment to the interface of my guitar. In What Things Do, Verbeek speaks of the piano as a powerful interface:
A piano, however, is never entirely ready-to-hand, but neither is it exclusively present-at-hand--its machinery is not completely in the background, but not entirely in the foreground either. (194)

In Clark's language, then, the piano is not entirely transparent: "Transparent technologies are tools that become so well fitted to, and integrated with, our own lives and projects that they are primarily invisible-in-use" (28). Musical instruments, I think, will never become 'transparent' because not everyone plays a musical instrument. Even when playing, musical instruments never go away or move out of sight. I feel the strings pressing on my fingers, creating the calluses earned by too much playing, ripping my skin off, penetrating my outer layer. I work with my guitar in the same way that people might work "with" Augmented reality.

Now I want to think about the video game Rock Band. My problem with Rock Band is not that somehow it loses the "authenticity" of playing a "real" instrument. I will make two points: the way it changes the 'goal' of music or playing an instrument and the poor interface of the guitar and bass compared to the powerful interface of the drums and vocals.

In Rock band, the goal is to "get through the song" without failing and to hit the notes perfectly in order to get the highest score. The instruments are a means for interacting with the directions on the screen. The notes you 'play' on the instruments are pre-recorded--whether you hit the instrument harder or softer, does not matter--you will sound like Kansas when you play "Carry on my Wayward Son." Each performance (with the exception of the vocals-more on this later) is an iteration of a pre-recording. That said, it is true that each performance will have various "mistakes" that sound like clicks or chinks in the system when you mess up, but if you play it 'perfectly' it is like re-enacting a recording--'triggering' a recording rather than creating a recording. Furthermore, the point is not the performance itself, but the 'points' you earn. In order to bring it into writing theory--you are a machine reading a text--a script that has one way of playing--this is not a "writerly" text as Roland Barthes might say. Indeed, part of the joy of "covers" for a musician is the ability to make the song "their own" through their particular quirks. In other words, Rock Band is not an enhancement of music, but an attempt at simulation.

Interface wise, I prefer playing the drums or the vocals. Why? Because the drums involve the whole body in the same way that analog drums involve the body. With the exception of the vibration that occurs from hitting a brass cymbal too hard or on the right spot, you get similar bodily responses from the electronic drum kit. True, the drums are all just different colored circles, but they correspond to a certain extent where the analog drums might be. And still, it must be pointed out, the sounds possible on the drum set are fixed--no subtlety of touch is taken into account (compare an actually "electronic" drum set that you might find in a music store). Still, a drummer who has played on analog drums is better than a drummer who has never played drums.

Because I am not much of a drummer, but a vocalist, I prefer vocals. Why? Because the interface is pretty much the same as any microphone--and though you could simply try and hit the little lines that indicate you have the "pitch" right and still sound like utter shit--I prefer to sing my heart out, as if I were engaging in Karaoke. The interface here does not change much and the goal, at least for me, is performance.

Finally, we get to the "guitar" and "bass," which, by the way, can be played on the same 'instrument' because they have the same set up. The guitar, rather than strings, is replaced with 5 buttons at the end of the neck and the strings that you would strum is replaced by a little flap of plastic. I personally cannot stand these things. No respect for the flow of notes creating by muscle memory, dexterity, and delicate or heavy plucking or strumming. To me, this interface is a poor substitute for the guitar. Playing becomes a matter of pushing buttons--the opposite of Yo Yo Ma's electronic cello.

What I am trying to point out is that the musical equivalent of Augmented Reality has been here for a long time--I am speaking, of course, about FX pedals. Rock Band makes you feel like you are working "Through" the interface rather than with it--and thus, if your controller broke you probably wouldn't give a shit.

In contrast, if my guitar broke--and some of my guitars have--it is devastating. It is not completely "non-usable"--and indeed I still to this day haven't thrown out my 'broken' guitars, but it saddens you to know that you cannot work "with" it anymore--you have to give it up or at least put it away for awhile. You care about these instruments that bear the traces of your skin and, in the case of my old Fender Strat, my blood that streamed from my finger when I used to not use a pick.

Thus, I would like to make the argument that we should find a way to care for our interfaces in ways that do not make us think of technologies/instruments as mere instruments. This, I think, is the project of Eternally Yours, as Verbeek explains it. I don't think that it is the "'memories" of my guitar that make it such a powerful interface and tool for making music--rather, it is the material traces of skin--the indentations on the wood, the pick scratches, the feel of the familiar.

The same thing might be said for my tobacco pipe. Cigarettes disappear and end up on the ground, but the tobacco pipe bears the traces of former smokes. Furthermore, it does not "disappear" into a means for getting nicotine--it puts a constant weight on my teeth, lips, and hand. If I don't treat it right by consistently drawing the smoking and blowing out, the tobacco goes out, and I have to relight and retamp. I have to empty the ashes. The tobacco pipe creates a ritual, a form of being and a connection to an object that, again, is about material interf(t)races of a certain kind.

This is how we get past this idea that these new technologies will makes us "treat human beings like software agents" (179). If we can cultivate care for non-living entities and also make sure that they demand something back. This is the key. We cannot simply allow all technologies to adapt directly to our needs and desires--they need to also demand care and maintenance and, hopefully, we can make such demands visible and tangible.

All of this said, it is worthwhile to note the positive aspect of Rock Band--that it is a great way to spend a drunken evening with some friends.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What is Posthumanism? Art, Self-Reference, and Systems Theory

I know we aren't reading this text for a few more weeks, but I started in on a couple of the chapters before the end of the semester, became hooked on the ideas, and was convinced that this text would stand as the most important book for my own work in this course. Wolfe's work harkens all the way back to the course that probably most changed the way I thought as an academic and as a scholar, Visual Rhetoric; particularly, Wolfe's work reminded me of my favorite text we read, Picture Theory by WJT Mitchell.

 I wrote an extensive analysis of the first half of the book here, so I will try not to repeat too much of the same material. That being the case, permit me to cite a few words from that post to contextualize my comments here. The question Cary Wolfe's  theoretical apparatus--Niklas Luhmann--raises is whether or not what Mitchell calls a "metapicture" is possible as well as complicates (or perhaps echoes) Mitchell's position on ekphrasis. 


Both Mitchell's work and Wolfe/Luhmann is concerned with self-referential representations (or. . .non representations?). For Mitchell, a metapicture is a "picture about itself." The examples Mitchell gives, the duck-rabbit and Magritte's Pipe are useful because of their relatively obvious staging of meta-pictures. The question is whether or not every picture has the potential to be--and this is the condition of representation--a metapicture. Mitchell seems to answer, yes:

"The metapicture is not a subgenre within the fine arts but a fundamental potentiality inherent in pictorial representation as such" (Mitchell 82).

Does this inherent self-reference extend to text? I think Mitchell would say yes to this, as he tries to make clear that there is not a clear ontological (and maybe even epistemological) distinction between text and image--or that there may be "differences" but not a fundamental difference. As we will see in a moment, Luhmann's systems theory may be able to make this distinction in different terminology.

Another key aspect of the metapicture is to recognize that the picture does not "explain itself" but simply resists interpretation. That is, the picture does not have a "message" that it can communicate. This will become important again once we get into Luhmann's thoughts about art.

Suture and Ekphrasis

We need to think about the relationship between suture and ekphrasis. Ekphrasis refers to the verbal description of a visual work of art. Mitchell outlines three attitudes toward ekphrasis and here I will simply cut and paste from my previous post:

1. Ekphrastic hope: "the impossiblity of ekphrastic is overcome in imagination or metaphor, when we discover a 'sense' in which language can do what so many writers have wanted it to do: 'make us see' (152). It is also when "the estrangement of the image/text division is overcome and a sutured, synthetic form, a verbal icon or imagetext arises in its place" (154). 
2. Ekphrastic fear: "the moment of resistance or counterdesire that occurs when we sense that the difference between the verbal and visual representation might collapse and the figurative, imaginary desire of ekphrasis might be realized literally and actually (154).
3. Ekphrastic indifference: ekphrasis is strictly impossible, it is a curiosity--an obscure literary genre and of a more general topic (the verbal representation of visual art (152).

Mitchell works from the last position, "ekphrastic indifference," which essentially makes the claim that no one can perfectly describe a work of art. 

Luhmann via Wolfe on Art

I want to relate Mitchell's thoughts on ekphrasis, metapictures and 'suture' to Wolfe's What is Posthumanism

Instead of thinking in terms of text and image, Luhmann moves even more abstract into a distinction of system/environment, which Wolfe consistently points out is a functional distinction. In other words, the "environment" can only be defined as everything 'outside' a particular system. Systems are closed, autopoetic, and self-referential, but, as Wolfe will argue (and cite repeatedly) the system's closure is what allows for its "openness to the environment." 

At the most 'general' level (although I am loathe to use that word), Luhmann claims that communcation (not humans) is the only thing that communicates. Thus, and this is perhaps the most important disarticulation (to use Wolfe's language) in the whole book:
Perception (and beyond that, consciousness) and communication operate in mutually exclusive, operationally closed, auto-poietic systems [. . .] the relationship between them is asymmetrical. (Wolfe 271)

That is, what we perceive (like, for example, in an artwork--although artwork "communicates" but communicates a specific thing) and what communicates are distinct. Thus, although "communication is also possible without language," language is a "a specific, second-order phenomenon--that those systems use in the service of the first order processes of meaning for maintaining their own autopoeisis while at the same time enabling them to interpenetrate and use each other's complexity to mutual benefit" (22).

Would it be too strong to say that only through language can we recognize art as art? Or does art "communicate" something without the interference of language? Another way to ask this is "is there 'art' in nature?" The answer is in the deconstruction of the term "nature," because according to Wolfe there is no pre-given environment we could call "nature." Instead, something could be considered 'nature' only from the perspective (is that the right word?) of a particular system.

The work of art poses the question of what 'is' a work of art--or whether it is a work of art, but, and this is crucial, the work of art cannot at the same time answer this question (229). Here we have a similarity to Mitchell's idea about the metapicture communicating something, but without 'content' if you will--or--perhaps more accurately, without saying what it means. Its as if the metapicture or any work of art can communicate the question of difference, and this is all. . .

A couple of passages that I think are useful to explain this more clearly:

Luhmann's point is not to deny the phenomenological aspect of the artwork but to point out--which seems rather obvious upon reflection--that the meaning of the artwork cannot be referenced to, much less reduced to, this material and perceptual aspect. Rather, the work of art copresents perception and communication (Wolfe 231)
Thus, the artwork copresents the difference between perception and communication, and this difference is what allows art to have something like a privileged relationship to what is commonly invoked as the 'ineffable' or the 'incommunicable' and it uses perception to 'irritate' and stimulate communication to respond to the question 'what does this perceptual event mean? (233)

Do we buy this? Does art have this privileged status? Is the privileged status conferred on it by human beings and in this sense do animals "have" art, or can they "produce" artwork? Of course, perhaps the question is not one of production but of observation and meaning--it seems this would be the case for Luhmann and Wolfe. Perhaps some of these answers can be found in Wolfe's text if I look hard enough. It may also be worthwhile to look back at Mitchell's thoughts on animals and illusion in Picture Theory. 

And perhaps the most important question for our class (rather than my own interest in art and representation): Is Wolfe/Luhmann's theory of art 'posthumanist'? What makes it so? Or alternately, is there something about Mitchell's Picture Theory that makes his analysis a "humanist' posthumanism rather than a posthumanist posthumanism to use Wolfe's distinction? (see pg 125).

If we assume that Mitchell and Luhmann are arguing about art in a similar vein, perhaps the real question is what does the terminology of Wolfe/Luhmann get us that we don't get from Mitchell? I'm sure there are many things, so I do not offer this question as antagonistic. This  may be one way to approach Wolfe's dense, well-researched, well-argued, analytically precise and yet continentally aware text on Posthumanism.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thesis Speculations--On a Posthuman Critical Dystopia/Utopia

I have been wracking my brains to figure out what framework I want to use for my exploration of BioArt (and BioArt as a problematic term). I have read several texts from both artists themselves and crtics/theorists who have explored BioArt from the perspective of posthumanism and other angles including Donna Haraway, Eugene Thacker, Eduardo Kac, Patricia Piccinini, Steve Baker, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Stelarc, and others. Haraway thinks she finds something powerful in thinking ethics as an 'sf-worlding', which she defines as an "invitation to speculate, imagine, feel, and build something better" in order to nurture a "more just and peaceful other globalization" (92, 3). Eugene Thacker has explored how Net.Art can fulfill a 'critical function' of science fiction in an age where our technoscience has become science fiction. Thacker explicitly mentions groups such as the Critical Art Ensemble. These artistic movements do much to de-mystify science through parody and theoretical texts.

Eugene Thacker extends Frederic Jameson and other critics' thoughts on SF literature to net.Art and "new media" art. My question is whether we can apply this--or at least use Thacker's ideas--to look at Bioart. Thacker argues that the point of and new media art is to take the critical function of SF and "re-insert it back into the discourse of contemporary technoscience."But since we live in an age where the fictions of SF literature have been incorporated into technoscience, the classical literary SF is insufficient to critique technoscience. Technoscience creates imaginative futures, but creates them in the mode of what Thacker calls "actualization." That is, the point of technoscience's narratives are to actualize them uncritically--leaving the criticism to culture, popular opinion, and, most likely, the courts. New Media/net.Art, in contrast, is in the mode of potentialization: "Regarded as potentiality, as the work of imagining critical futures, science fiction is not locked into the narrow path of simply realizing the future or actualizing it" (Thacker 158). Thacker concludes with the main contrast between SF literary art and the New Media art of which he speaks:
Whereas literary science fiction was limited to describing technologies in exrapolative, near future scenarios, new media and contain the capacity to actually embody and utilize these future technologies in radically new ways [and ask] important questions concerning the future of the human-machine relationship. (158)
 A couple things about this. For people like Jameson and Suvin, the actual technologies that are "extrapolated" are not really considered in their concrete possibility. Rather, reading Jameson, we see him trying to see the big picture of an other world that would be alternative to the current system of global capitalism. He looks at the larger structure of the SF work using interpretive frameworks such as the Greimasian square. Thus, what differs is not only the embodiment of these technologies (more on that later), but also that for Thacker, the specific imaginings and extrapolations ask posthuman questions that tie the political to the biological--the biopolitical. As Donna Haraway puts it, the ethics (and perhaps this is another difference between Jameson and Haraway et. al.--complicated material ethics comes up in addition to macro-political orders and alternative worlds and utopias) "is in the whole ontological apparatus, its thick complexity, int he naturecultures of being in technoculture that join cells and people in a dance of becoming" (138, When Species Meet). Perhaps (and I only mention this as something to be explored later) we can explore Jameson's sense of the power of totalization and closure in order to open up new possibilities and that introduced by Nikalas Luhmann, as explored by Cary Wolfe in What is Posthumanism--are they similar? For Jameson, there is a logic of total revolution; for Haraway, the micropolitical contributes to the macro--the metaphor shifts from revolution to terms from biology--ecology, environment, etc.

Aside from these differences (which I believe give more credence to the actual figures in the text rather than as dismissing them as extrapolations or allegories for larger political structures), because bioartists (even more so, I might argue, than net.Artists) participate in the techniques of technoscience and also uses new media in radical ways, they are able to, in the words of Clair Pentecost, change "the nature of art itself and the apparatus of its distribution" which will help to redefine the public's relationship to science (Pentecost 116), helping to erode boundaries "between research conducted within scientific laboratories and experiments taking place outside" (de Costa 376).

In other words,  we might say that whereas literary fiction, according to Jameson, estranges the present by masking it's particular content, new media art (and by extension BioArt) changes it by transforming its form--although this may be too radical of a claim, and a claim I would have to back up with a lot more evidence, particularly due to the importance Jameson ascribes to form in all his work (and the fiction and cultural objects he works with).

Maybe I should stick here with Pentecost's language--these artists attempt to change art's apparatus of distribution. Rather than estranging us from science, or using science as a  trope for a deeper political structure, BioArt at its core seeks to de-mystify science by encouraging participation in the artwork (even though, I suppose, SF invites the same type of criticism). By looking at science fiction as a genre in which the particular technologies "extrapolated" do not really matter--we do an injustice to SF's engagement

I am arguing myself out of my initial claims, but I"ll try and press on, knowing that I may be making unfair distinctions to serve my own ends. Perhaps we can look at another theorist/artist's conceptual distinction, Eduardo Kac. Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of the dialogical, Kac reconfigures and radicalizes it. Whereas for Bakhtin, literature is inherently dialogical, Kac literalizes this concept and argues that most literature and even most net.Art (referring back to Thacker) is still monologic--even if it remains interactive:
Naturally, dialogic art is interactive, but dialogism in electronic art must not be confused with interactivity. many interactive electronic artworks are monologic, for example, a CD-ROM, or a self-contained website. (104)
 So perhaps we can say, agreeing with Thacker that there is a distinction to be made, that rhetorical artistic projects that use new media, but are merely websites rather than incorporating performance, "wet" elements, or some sort of 'live' interaction with the audience, are not "dialogic."

Kac's work strives to be "dialogic," which he relates to another key concept, telepresence:
Crucial in the context of dialogic experimentation in the arts is the understanding that radical works of art cannot be limited by visuality; instead they are lived experiences based on contextual reciprocity (the context of the experience as reciprocal; i.e. it enables one to take the intiative to interfere and alter the experience. (Kac 111)
 Thus, artists are the "creators of contexts," rather than a creator of "works." Dialogic art allows the audience to participate and to change the artwork, whereas "interactive" would mean that they follow a set of patterns that cannot be changed. In this sense, then, Sonya Rappaport's quest to "redeem" Kac's artwork Genesis remains, perhaps, "interactive," but not truly dialogic. Her website for the Golem gene shows her plans for the work and allows the reader a kind of freedom to navigate the website and interpret what she is trying to do, but the view of the site is not welcome to change the code of it--that is, "change" the artwork (her work can be found here: In contrast, Kac's initial exhibit, allowed users online to click a button in order to change the artwork. He writes in his essay "Genesis,"
Employing the smallest gesture of the on-line world--the click--participants can modify the genetic makeup of an organism located in a remote gallery. This unique circumstance makes evident, on the one hand, the impending ease with which genetic engineering trickles down into the most ordinary level of experience. On the other, it highlights the paradoxical conditions of the nonexpert in the age of biotechnology. To click or not to click is not only an ethical decision, but a symbolic one [. . .] In either case, the participant faces an ethical dilemma and is implicated in the process. (252)
--But it needs to be said: I can no longer "participate" in this artwork--I am an outside viewer, trying to understand and interpret the artwork purely from its documentation. A question: once the artwork is "over" --once the performance is done--does the artwork remain "dialogic"? Or does the artwork become just as "monologic" as the website or piece of literature---maybe even more so (the website is still 'interactive'). In other words, do the distinctions Thacker made between literary creation and net.Art/new media art still hold and do Kac's work maintain a "dialogic" dimension in his sense? What is the significance of Kac's engagement of the "nonexpert" in terms of the demystification and democratization of science?

To begin to address these questions I plan to look at some of the arguments in Jens Hauser's brilliant essay in Tactical Biopolitics, "Observations on Art of on an Growing Interest: Toward a Phenomenological Approach to Art Involving Biotechnology."  More on that in another blog post.

I'd like to explore these very issues in terms of Kac's work, but also that of the Critical Art Ensemble, and especially the Tissue Culture and Art Project, led by Oron Catts and Ionatt Zurr.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Art as a Creation of Contexts--An "Environmental Writing"

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr argue that the term BioArt is a large, vague, and ultimately reductive term to describe the range of art i purports to cover. Catts and Zurr claim that any kind of BioArt is affected the the "genohype" that connects BioArt with information theory and code. Art historians have lumped the Tissue Culture and Art Project under the inexact term "transgenic art," even though Catts and Zurr do not manipulate the genetic code. For literary critics and theorists, thinking of genetic code as the new "writing," perhaps causes us to focus on the specific transgenic works where the artist "writes" life into being. The question of for me is can tissue culture artists or "representational artists" (as Edwina Bartlem refers to them) be used to think "writing" in a broad sense? I want to tentatively suggest (to be elaborated on further) that perhaps these artists create a 'scene' of writing--maybe we could call them "transgeneric" artists, referring to how they construct or play with particular expectations of various genres of art. Eduardo Kac, for instance, argues that artists "create contexts," a kind of space for writing to take place. Indeed, the artworks "themselves" (although again, because it is a context or a particular communication) are not "objects" to simply be observed; rather, the artwork requires writing to take place, in the form of photographs, video, recording, or written essays (by the artists and others). The artwork is a "performance," but a performance where, as Simone Ostoff suggests where he employs the "media as medium" (122). The artwork is not necessarily in the visible aspects of the work or the spectacle, the 'visual', but the entire 'environmental' 'contextual' context.

In a similar way, Catts and Zurr argue that tissue culture engineers, who work with cells, can understand the cells behavior as receiving "(almost) the same type of agency as the individual cell of a social organism" (138). In other words, the engineers cannot just write/inscribe a program into a semi-living system (what TC&AP call the entities they create), they have to pay attention to the environment necessary for the entity to survive and flourish as well as the social and ethical aspects that TCAP raise into our environment of academic discourse. At current time, the Semi-Living has to live in a kind of artificial womb/environment in order to survive. Indeed, a human caress/touch, what we generally think of as a paradigmatic gesture of care and love, ironically kills the other beings, these beings that do not have a "skin" that is at once what makes possible interiority and exteriority (as some recent theorists have explored).

To quickly offer a reductive summary, when we look at writing from the perspective of a genetic code, its as if we do not think about how the environment around it will interact with it--we do not think the genetic code in context. The power of TCAP's project, I think, is to show that our control and mastery of code/genes/DNA have limits once whatever is coded has to live (or semi-live) in an environment. A posthumanist writing will have to take into account the nonhuman elements of writing, including the "environment," surrounding a living or semi-living entity, just as Verbeek (see previous post) argues that objects in themselves do not have a "script," but only exist in contexts, which may undergo significant change and thus take on a new meaning.

I'm not sure any of this really made sense, but I need to start writing out some of my own thoughts about this stuff. . .I apologize for lack of clarity, poor writing, and half-baked (and expressed) ideas.

What Things Do? A Postphenomenological Material Hermeneutic/Aesthetic

This is truly a remarkable book for its very close and careful argumentation and clear distinctions when dealing with really opaque texts. Verbeek navigates Heidegger, Jaspers, and Latour with an analytic skill that almost makes them seem systematic. As opposed to many philosophers who locate themselves within the phenomenological tradition, even as critics, Verbeek does not rely on language play and poetic insight to extend and critique this tradition. Rather, Verbeek tries to work both inside and outside these thinkers’ work by what I can only call a “translation” into his postphenomenological vocabulary, which he derives from Don Ihde’s work. Although he will make clear oppositions (classical phenomenology and postphenomenology, hermeneutic and existential) he supports these claims with careful attention to several texts of Heidegger, Jaspers, and Latour. 

Before getting into Verbeek’s critiques and extensions of these thinkers, I have to address the elephant in the room: yes, this book is a bit ontologically anthropocentric. The category “human” does not undergo a radical change and Verbeek even claims a distinction between subject and object. To illustrate this point, we can look at a passage from the Latour chapter: 

“[Postphenomenology] is interesting not so much in the networks of relations on the basis of which the mediating artifacts and experiencing humans are present, but in the nature of the relations that human beings—thanks to these artifacts—can have to other humans and things [. . .] Phenomenology and postphenomenology bridge the gap rather than denying it, by bringing to light the mutual engagements that constitute subject and object. (166)

This allows Verbeek to argue that Heidegger has something to offer Latour in terms of his categories of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand because they relate the material objects to the person that uses them. Indeed, Verbeek is explicitly interested in human and object—not animal and object, not animal and human, not human to human. He is primarily interested in things we use. Now, rather than fault him from this, we should recognize that the whole book leads up to a chapter on industrial design, which is usually considered a human institution. Within its own limits, Verbeek’s analysis and especially the vocabulary he creates in part two, is useful, powerful, and an achievement in its own right. 

Thus, we can read Verbeek’s analysis as an attempt to isolate particular relation and relegating other relations to, perhaps, Latour. Verbeek clearly states that the black boxes of an object’s “creation” can remain black boxes for postphenomenology—he does not care about the production aspect of the thing. In this sense, he brackets the issues explored in “I, Pencil” and moves closer to the issue explored in “The telephone.”

So why does Verbeek bracket production? Because this “backward” thinking (take that as you will) is what Heidegger and Jaspers will do and he wants to think the object “forward.” Verbeek makes the argument that at least the late Heidegger (and Jaspers) only considers the “conditions for the possibility” of technology, which does not take into account the way concrete technologies coshape human beings and the world.
Let’s deal with Jaspers first, who will eventually argue that technology is “neutral,” that it follows “no particular direction” and that “[only] human beings can give it direction” (39). This is clearly not true, as the example of any technology shows. Technology, claims Verbeek (following Ihde) “invites” certain ways of revealing the world—it amplifies and reduces, invites and discourages particular modes of being. The telephone in the story changes the organization of the community. Jaspers thus does not take into account the way technology can affect human organization, believing naively that technology is basically under human control and we must decide. Furthermore, Jaspers still maintains the idea that technology creates mass existence, which leads to alienation and inauthentic existence rather than an authentic existence. In other words, we cannot let our technology “get too close”—thus, NO CYBORGS! This is the “releasement,” a “letting be” of beings that Heidegger will advocate. 

Heidegger’s late work also reflects the “no cyborgs” approach, when he argues that we have to keep technology at a distance from us (see previous post). But Heidegger’s work is harder to dismiss and Verbeek does not simply dismiss Heidegger (or Jaspers for that matter, but I’m not sure how important he is to Verbeek’s point/contribution). 

For Heidegger, we are not in control of technology; instead, technology/Gestell (Enframing) is a destining. Technology for Heidegger constitutes one way of revealing being which he contrasts with “poesis.” Rather than trying to “save” the late Heidegger’s point with reinterpretation, Verbeek points out Heidegger’s inconsistencies and double-standards. 

For the late Heidegger, “technology thus does not itself create [. . .] a specifying form of world-disclosure, but is instead a manifestation of one” (Verbeek 62). This is problematic because Heidegger applies two different interpretations of technology, one “historical” and the other “ahistorical” rhetorically/ontologically privileging earlier technologies even though “the traditional technologies he champions turn out to exhibit a dimension of domination and control as well as the modern ones, while the modern technologies he derides also exhibit a degree of ‘letting things be’” (68). 

Heidegger’s mills (older, more ‘authentic’ technologies) reveal “being itself” whereas something modern, like the hydroelectric plant, is only a “consequence of a historical epoch in the history of being” (75). As Verbeek (following Ihde) asks, “Why can’t modern technologies reveal the fourfold too?” 

Verbeek shows that even though Heidegger seems to pay more attention to the “thing” in his later work, he actually withdraws from things through a close reading of several of the moments of Heidegger’s text. Rather than rehearse this history of Heidegger here, I’ll move to the conclusion, which also suggests an answer to the question above about why Verbeek is less concerned with how a technology is made: Heidegger approaches technology (in “Question,” for instance) in terms of making/producting rather than “in terms of objects” (93). Verbeek, then, wants to distance himself from Heidegger’s focus on production in favor of action. He finds this in the early Heidegger of Being and Time

But I would argue in order to think through the issues of technology, this cannot just remain a black box, even if it is not the domain of postphenomenology (which is a contestable claim), because it addresses the question of who is “responsible for” an object. Rather than an individual human being that “gathers” together the other “causes” (see “Question”) many actants are associated to produce an object that no one has individual know-how to make. 

But in Verbeek’s discussion of industrial design, he argues that products that we can feel “attached to” (rather than emotionally invested in) have to be “transparent” so we understand “how they work.” Does this not require an investigation into how a product is produced? Is this not also another way to say that the person who acquires a product/object should be “responsible for” (in Heidegger’s sense) that object or “care for that object” more than for what it does? Do we not continually (re)produce that object as we fix it and repair it? 

Technology and Writing

Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, many of the examples of “technology” in What Things Do involve writing or communication technologies: telephone, word processors (115), ballpoint pens (115), PDAs. Indeed, Verbeek (and Latour’s) language even suggests writing—“inscription,” “program,” “translation.” I like how Verbeek via Latour articulates the way technologies mediate through delegation (both human à nonhuman and non-human à human). The example of the speed bump is great: 

“Drivers now go slowly not because they have read a traffic sign or because they fear a policeman, but because of a lump of matter. Engineers have “inscribed” the program of action they desire (to make drivers slow down on campus) in concrete as it were. Latour deliberately uses the word ‘inscribe’ rather than ‘objectify’” (159-160). 

This is the language of “code” and “program” –computer language, if you will. Human beings can be “programmed” by their objects as well, since a “script” is “the program of action or behavior than an artifact invites, expressed in words similar to the series of instructions of a program language” (160). Perhaps this is an entry into the “posthumanist writing” aspects of Verbeek’s book. Posthumanist writing as a material hermeneutic? Verbeek’s language gets somewhat close to Derrida’s concept of ‘trace’ and notions of presence/absence: “Delegation makes possible a curious combination of presence and absence: an absent agent can have an effect no human behavior in the here and now” (160). 

Is this not the structure of all writing?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Question Concerning Technology and Writing

There are so many things to talk about in these few short texts we are supposed to explore for next week, but today's class has given me a more specific focus: what is technology and is this even a legitimate question; that is, taking a cue from Derrida and others, should we ask after the ontology of technology--its "is," its "whatness."

In "Question," Heidegger maintains that technology cannot be thought of as a tool in the sense that it is something we can control or master. He writes, "So long as we represent technology as an instrument we remain transfixed in the will to master it" (Heidegger 337). In other words, we see ourselves as the agents and subjects that determine being or truth. We see ourselves, to put it in Descartes terms, as the "masters and possessors of nature," who will be able to use technology to further our own ends. Let us take the example of writing (which, initially, we will treat as "a" technology rather than the basis for technological being), particularly in relation to the teaching of writing. As teachers/instructors/institutions, we maintain that we can "teach" writing. To be more specific, we maintain that we can teach our students to "use" writing instrumentally as a means to an end. But writing in its very structure resists this plan, which is, I would argue, why it is so difficult to write. Writing is not merely a tool just as technology is not merely a tool, but rather, according to Heidegger, a mode of revealing. Heidegger will call this "enframing" and he contrasts this with a "poetic" way of revealing. However, as with his analysis in Being and Time concerning "idle talk" or "inauthentic existence" enframing is still a mode of revealing just as "idle talk" is still a mode of being in the world. Heidegger writes that "As the one who is challenged forth in this way, man stands within the essential realm of enframing" (329). The danger here, Heidegger claims, is that enframing as a mode of revealing will hide a more "original" mode of revealing which he will call poiesis. 

For Heidegger, human beings do not have the power to fully control or direct technology, just as any writer is limited by the language he or she speaks and even further by the materiality and, to draw on Derrida, trace-structure of language: "Does such revealing happen somewhere beyond all human doing? No. But neither does it happen exclusively in man, or definitively through man" (329). We should neither blindly follow through with technology unthinkingly nor should we (nor can we) "rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil" (330). Thus, despite Heidegger's rhetoric of a loss of "rootedness," soil, homeland, grounding, in "Memorial Address" Heidegger is not suggesting some Luddite position.

Rather, it seems that Heidegger wants us, perhaps, to think of other modes of revealing. That is, to realize that enframing, the realm of the "calculable" and ordering, is not the only way of revealing being. But again, it seems as though we cannot simply rid ourselves of enframing. Nor should we see enframing as categorically, to be simple, "bad," but simply that it is a "danger." But as the poet (for Heidegger, Holderilin) says, "where the danger is, grows the saving power also" (340). It is important to emphasize once again, and Heidegger is clear about this in "Question," that "What is dangerous is not technology. Technology is not demonic; but its essence is mysterious" (333).

Another way Heidegger puts this "mysterious" aspect of technology is that it is ambiguous: "the essence of technology is in a lofty sense ambiguous. Such ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing" (338). Heidegger wants to maintain a kind of distance from technology; in other words, he does not want us to become merely fascinated with it because that leads us to think that the essence of technology is somehow a "genus" into which we can fit specific technologies. We need to understand the profound impact technology can have as a mode of revealing--something hinted at in "The Telephone."

So if we as human beings cannot master technology and nor can we simply reject it in favor of some sort of anachronistic return to Nature (although Heidegger's tropes suggest otherwise: soil, homeland, ground, foundation, growth), what can we do?

In "Question," his answer is that we need to "safekeep truth," a "piety of thought" ("questioning is the piety of thought" 341) that retains a kind of "mysteriousness" and "distance" from our technology. To not let our technology integrate into ourselves such that we do not reflect on it. In a way, is not this class taking up this project? We will (and Sid has before) raised questions like: What about people with glasses? Are not glasses a technology that makes us a kind of cyborg or posthuman? Or, as he said in class today, what about pills for indigestion? At his best, this is what Heidegger suggests we need to continue doing--asking after the boundaries of our terms.

In "Memorial Address," Heidegger suggests something similar: "I call the comportment which enables us to keep open to the meaning hidden in technology, openness to the mystery" (Heidegger 55). In this way, says Heidegger, we can find a new grounding/foundation/autochthony.

Openness to the mystery of technology and its ambiguity, to me, sounds like a good idea, but then we get statements from Heidegger like this:
Still we can act otherwise. We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we may let go of them any time. we can use technical devices as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core. We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature. (54)
A couple things regarding this passage. First, this passage seems to be discussing the "concrete" technologies rather than in "Question" the "essence" of technology. Second, we see Heidegger here advocating a separation of us as "human being" and technology. We want our prosthetic phalluses to be detachable--to be "let free." Let us consider this a moment. Heidegger's rhetoric in his later work suggests a "letting be" or a "freeing" but this also suggests that we not incorporate too much technology into ourselves so that our nature transforms, even though this seems to contradict his claim in "Question" that technologies are not tools or things, but a mode of revealing. For instance, in "Question," although Heidegger asserts that man could never become a mere standing reserve, this very possibility is his nightmare:
As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing reserve and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of standing reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; tha tis, he comes to the point where he himself will have to taken as standing reserve (332)
 This is an interesting passage for me, because it seems that here Heidegger is saying that we need things to face us as "objects" in their mysteriousness--not yet having been "enframed." I'm not sure what to make of this, but its something I'd like to explore further.

Interestingly enough, the above lengthy quotation from the "Memorial Address" resonates with a logic of "purity" or the "unscathed," something that Derrida brilliantly puts into question in "Faith and Knowledge" (Acts of Religion). But I digress (although this may be a useful avenue to pursue at another time)

I'd like to move on to the essay "I, Pencil," in which the pencil calls itself a "miracle" and a "mystery," citing G.K. Chesterton's assertion that "We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders." Here, it is not the "essence" of technology that is mysterious, but a particular technology that is mysterious precisely because no one person knows how to make it. To return briefly to "Faith and Knowledge," Derrida claims
Because this evil is to be domesticated and because one increasingly uses artifacts and prostheses of which one is totally ignorant, in a growing disproportion between knowledge and know how, the space of such technical experience tends to become more animistic, magical, mystical. (Derrida 91)
Admittedly, this quotation from Derrida applies to the divorce between the technologies we use and the technologies we understand "how they work." In some sense, we all know how a pencil "works" but we do not know how to make the pencil, so that the pencil in a way becomes something we use but we do not know how it came into being. Perhaps a microwave or a DVD is harder to explain how it "works," but if we are to take Heidegger (at least as I have read him these past few days) and the author of "I, Pencil" seriously, we should acknowledge, with a kind of attitude of 'wonder' the miracle of such simple things.

"I, Pencil" traces the genealogy of a pencil's development, showing that a lot of different "intellectual technologies" (I think is how Sid put it) were required to make this "tool." I am astounded at the similarities (which I first thought were radical differences) between Heidegger's "Question" and "I, Pencil." In "Question," Heidegger maintains that "there is no such thing as a man who exists singly and solely on his own" and that "the essential unfolding of technology gives man entry into something which, of himself, he can neither invent nor in any way make" (Heidegger 337). Similarly, the pencil writes that, "Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree."

That is, in both Heidegger and "I, Pencil" there is a limitation to the mastery of the human being. Even though Heidegger sets up the "chalice" example in a re-reading of Aristotle, he uses the language of "giving thanks to" and "being responsible for" rather than "making" or "inventing" or "efficient causes" for the silversmith. Rather the silversmith "gathers together the aforementioned ways of being responsible and indebted" (315). These three ways "owe thanks to the pondering of the silversmith for the 'that' of the 'how' of their coming into appearance" (316).

But is this the case in "I, Pencil"? That is, is there a "gatherer" of the pencil, a "pondering" mind that brings together the other causes? No, rather there are "millions of tiny know-hows configuring naturally and spontaneously in respnse to human necessity and desire and in the absense of any human master-mind."

To end these rambling reflections, I want to think about the status of "freedom" in both Heidegger and "I, Pencil." For Heidegger, freedom is a kind of "letting be," but this letting be lets be what is. "I, Pencil," in contrast, seems to be about possibility--free creative energies roaming free such that something is made or created through a gathering (although not necessarily by a particular human subject). "I, Pencil" ends with,
The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited [. . .] Let society's legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand 
The Invisible Hand? Are we really in the realm of Adam Smith economic theories here? Does this reveal something about Heidegger's particular mode of "letting be" so that destining is set on its way? Questions worth pondering. . .and writing about.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood

In Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, the narrative voice, assumed to be that of the unnamed protagonist, thinks:

The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality (89)
McCarthy's novel is perhaps one of the most popular dystopian novels to come out in the last couple decadesThe novel shows a bleak post-apocalyptic world where vegetation, animals, and most human beings have become extinct. The cause of the apocalypse is left in the dark, although we are told that there was a flash of light. Extinction has led to the emptying of language and its power. The only ethical actions left are between the few nomadic human beings left scrounging for scraps of food and a semblance of saftey.

But why am I speaking about The Road? Perhaps because Atwood offers a different kind of dystopia. Indeed, now that I re-think it, it is hard to think of Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood as post-apocalyptic, even though the main characters sometimes speak from a position after the "apocalyptic" event. But this is an apocalypse in reverse: it is not the wiping out of all of the earthly and the animal, leaving the solitary humans to carry the "fire," but rather the extinction of a majority of the human race through a carefully planned (but surreptitious) bioterrorist act, resulting in a plague. The human race has (apparently) been replaced by human made, transgenic organism referred to as the "Crakers." They are engineered to behave simiarily to animals in some ways (such as their mating rituals) but are also model human specimens with perfect bodies. Furthermore, the Crakers also possess language, although at the time of the books they have a limited vocabulary.

I want to look at the function of language, particularly related to art and rhetoric, in both Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood.  Snowman/Jimmy, who is the main protagonist in Oryx and Crake is a rhetorician and a "word person." He is a "word person" in the sense that this is what he is good at and in the sense that he uses language in order to manipulate others. In the "present" of the novel (although this is a problematic designation itself--most of the novel takes place as a flashback), Snowman currently plays the position of a priest to the Crakers. He has improvised a whole mythology about where the Crakers come from and pretends to "talk" to Crake through his watch. Crake, who we will later find out plays a Mad Scientist kind of role in the text, did help "create" the Crakers, but not as the God Snowman/Jimmy makes him out to be.

Jimmy (before he becomes "snowman") majores in Problematics at the Martha Graham Academy. Martha Graham Academy seems like the equivalent of a Liberal Arts and Humanities college. The college was set up by "liberal bleeding hearts from Old New York" and Jimmy compares the college to "studying latin, or book-binding: pleasent to contemplate in its way, but no longer central to anything" (187). However, the college tries for utilty: "Our Students Graduate With Employable Skills, ran the motto underneath the original Latin motto, which was Ars Longa Vita Brevis [Art is long, life is brief]" (188).

Indeed, Jimmy does have "employable skills" because Crake eventually hires him to help sell the BlyssPluss pill, the pill that secretely contains the plague that will wipe humans off the face of the earth. Later in the novel, when Crake tells Jimmy what his Paradice project is aiming for "immortality," Crake explains:

Immortality, said Crake, is a concept. If you take 'mortality' as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it an the fear of it, then immortality is the absence of such fear. Babies are immortal. Edit out he fear and you'll be. . . (303).
Jimmy says that that sounds like "Applied Rhetoric 101." Rhetoric, as the art of persuasion, persuades people that they can achieve "immortality," but only if we understand and define immortality in this way. Crake says the Crakers are "floor models" that represent the "art of the possible" rather than the kind of being everyone would want. Of course the irony to this, as we soon find out, is that Crake means for the Crakers to replace the human race rather than serve human interests. Immortality in Crake's sense is really only given to the Crakers.

Jimmy functions as an Adman (rather and Adam), who first works at spinning products, then spins a tale for the Crakers that will satisfy their curiosity. But Jimmy seems to be much more interested in words beyond their utilitarian use (at least the rhetorical use put to advertising). That is to say, Jimmy/Snowman still finds words "useful" but mostly for himself. Examples:
"You scoundrel," says Snowman out loud. It's a fine word, scoundrel; one of the golden oldies. (191)
He compiled lists of old words too--words of a precision and suggestiveness that no longer had a meaningful application in today's world, or toady's world, as Jimmy sometimes deliberately misspelled it on his term papers [. . .] He memorized these hoary locutions, tossed them left-handed into conversation: wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant. He'd developed a strangely tender feeling towards such words, as if they were children abandoned int he woods and it was his duty to rescue them. (195)
Supposing, that is, he could manage to sleep. At night he'd lie awake, berating himself, bemoaning his fate. Berating, bemoaning, useful words. Doldrums. Lovelorn. Leman. Forsaken. Queynt. (312)
Sometimes he'd turn off the sound, whisper words to himself. Succulent. Morphology. Purblind. Quarto. Frass. It had a calming effect. (344)
A list of words without apparent connection one to the other. Rather, a seemingly random list that comforts Snowman. He enjoys listing these words for their "precision and suggestiveness." In contrast (?) to Jimmy's logophilia, Amanda, a girlfriend of Jimmy's, was an "image person, not a word person" (244). Amanda is a bioartist who "vulturizes" words:
The idea was to take a truckload of large dead-animal parts to vacant fields or the parking lots of abandoned factories and arrange them in the shapes of words, wait until the vultures had descended and were tearing them aparnt, then photograph the whole scene from a helicoptor [. . .] The words she vulturized--her term--had to have four letters. She gave a great deal of thought to them: each letter of the alphabet has a vibe, a plus or minus charge, so the words had to be selected with care. Vulturizing brough them to life, was her concept, and then it killed them. (245).
The words she "vulturizes" are not the precise, old words that Jimmy loved so much, but words like "PAIN," "WHOM," and "GUTS," and, finally, "LOVE." Is this an erasing of language or its materialization (or both?). Perhaps we could contrast this vulturization with what Jimmy is hired to do based on his dissertation about Self-Help books. These words are all concepts or nouns, whereas Jimmy claims "the adjectives change [. . .] Nothing's worse than last year's adjectives" (246). How to describe the noun--how do we sell the noun rather than materialize it/make it 'live'. The self-help process is explicitly connected to Crake's work at the Paradice dome, as it is also described as the "art of the possible [. . .] But with no guarantees, of course" (246).

No guarantees. Para-dice.

I'm not sure what to do with the phrase the "art of the possible." In a way, Crake's project is more similar to certain "bioart" (transgenics, genomic art, tissue culture, etc.) than Amanda's Vulturizing. Bioart, however, while creating the possible. also show sthe limits of the possible. Perhaps the "vulturizing" speaks to the limits of language?

Furthermore, what does "vulturizing" have to do with writing? In Year of the Flood we find out that 'writing' was discouraged by the group the God's Gardeners, a group that Amanda had once been a part in. Ren, one of the protagonists, tells us that the Gardeners thought writing was "dangerous" because "your enemies could trace you through it, and hunt you down, and use your words to condemn you" (6). They also have a theological reason goes back to Plato:
They told us to depend on memory, because nothing written down could be relied on. The Spirit travels from mouth to mouth, not from thing to thing: books could be burnt, paper crumble away, computers could be destroyed. Only the Spirit lives forever and the Spirit isn't a thing. (6)
 The series Amanda does she names The Living Word--"she said for a joke it was inspired by the Gardeners because they'd repressed us so much about writing things down" (56).

I have really fascinated with so-called "Bioart" in the past couple months.The question for me is--what constitutes "bioart" in the novels? Is Crake's project a kind of 'bioart'? Is the bioterrorist group, MaddAdam also doing a kind of "bioart" or, to use the language of a recent collection of essays by Beatriz de Costa, "tactical biopolitics"? Amanda's art is relatively harmless--symbolically powerful, but tactically almost useless. She creates images and not new forms of life.

In an essay in Tactical Biopolitics (my computer is out of service at the moment, so I cannot find the exact quote, essay, or author), the author claims that bioart tends to be transmitted through 'documentation' of the art event (including photographs) rather than seeing the art itself. Amanda's project then would fit this kind of art. Only a very few people have seen this artwork first-hand and rely on accounts--witnesses, if you will.

On this topic, allow me close these scattered reflections on these two powerful books with an acknowledgment of their extensions. For both Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, Atwood has created websites:  and  I was half hoping these would experimental websites, a la the Critical Art Ensembles Cult of the New Eve, but the site was relatively easy and standard to navigate--except for a couple things.

God's Gardeners are a fiction created by the author, but it seems that they have burst out of the book into the world. Someone actually set the Gardener's hymns to music. This is pretty cool in itself (and a little wierd), but Atwood has taken it even farther and, luckily, there is someone to document it:

In the Wake of the Flood (Teaser) from filmswelike on Vimeo.

Atwood says in this video teaser that she thinks that more people "would attempt to save the planet if they believed it was their duty," which seemingly endorses the God's Gardener's message. Furthermore, for the book release, people were given scripts (including hymns) and put on their own show of the book, an interesting and artistic way for people to experience the book and completely revoultionizing the idea of a 'book tour'. This may relate to other fan communities' projects springing up for various books/series.

I'm a bit put off by Atwood's serious suggestion of making a kind of religion out of protecting the environment and the earth. The Year of the Flood pokes fun at the God's Gardener's and its hard not to read the text as satirical. However, we would have to admit that the God's Gardener's are really some of the only people to survive the "waterless flood" and they are flexible in their creeds and beliefs. God's Gardener's actually come across as incredibly practical as well as 'human' in the sense of fallen, imperfect, beings.

But, and this is another question I'd like to explore, are the texts "posthuman" in a sense? What would Haraway's take on the text be? Derrida's? I am not suggesting that we merely dismiss the text if it does not hold up to such posthuman (unhuman, whatever) critiques, but rather that the books deal with the same territory in a very accessible and emotional way. Atwood's characters, especially the God's Gardener's are not mere caricatures--they read like plausible human beings. The swear, they lie, they cheat, they break rules, they manipulate, they're hierarchal, secretive, full of love, hate, jealousy, indifference, coldness, warmth, etc. The God's Gardener's life is not a utopia nor an Eden before the Fall. As Adam One says, the Fall is ongoing.  And then, of course, where do the Crakers fit in? Are they the posthumans? What is the role of 'art' in the text and in the new society that seems to form toward the end of Year of the Flood.

I realize I haven't ended yet. When I went to, I clicked on a link called "neat stuff" and looked at the entires. One of them, to my surprise, was Victimless Leather, a project of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, artists I have been recently researching. Little comment was made on Atwood' site about the project. But I will venture to call their art--the art of the possible, in the best possible sense.