Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mass Mediated Hand Holding: Depressive Bioconservative Cinema and Its Manic Technophiliac Twin

"Over the past 100 years, films have simultaneously mistrusted and marveled in the possibility of genomic improvement," comments David Kirby in an intriguing recent article in The Scientist.

Kirby begins his piece with the conjuration of a scene from one of my personal guilty pleasures, the truly (inspired?) kookoo bananas 1996 re-make of The Island of Dr. Moreau, starring Marlon Brando.

"The very essence of the devil is no more than a tiresome collection of genes." Now imagine Marlon Brando's voice saying this. Now imagine, as Kirby sketches the scene, in aptly purple prose: "With his white muumuu, rosemary-like beaded necklace and domed 'Pope-mobile'... Brando's Moreau suggests the image of a secular priest worshipping at a genetic alter [sic]."

But consider the bitter ambivalence of Brando's actual line here: a devil (and, one suspects, too, a God) that is "no more" than a scattering of genes. It is surely only because this is the declaration of a loss of faith in a divinity that promised to be incomparably more than any such crude scattering, that Brando's Moreau finds the actual revelation of mundane reality so "tiresome" in its details. Given this, isn't it a bit hasty to propose that this Moreau "suggests" a priestly tableau of "worship" at the "genetic altar"? Is worship the right word at all to denote this attitude?

Kirby goes on: "Despite recent scientific advances, science fiction films from most decades... have surprisingly utilized the same themes and visual motifs in their representations of human heredity and genomic modification[.]" The article surveys this scene with nice pithy vividness, taking us from "[t]he animalistic 'human ape'... from early comedies such as Reversing Darwin's Theory (1908) to post-Scopes trial mad evolutionist films like Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), all the way to the zombies infected with 'rage' genes in 28 Days Later (2003)."

But Kirby's genial summary of the attitude presumably shared in common along this long trail of popular genomic meditations on film is that "[o]ur genes encode both the dark and delightful sides of human nature, and any steps towards genomic improvement should inspire both wonder and wariness." As with his curiously bland undercomplication of Brando's Moreau, nothing could be clearer from even his short survey that these films foreground the dark over the delightful and wariness over wonder in a way that is the furthest imaginable thing from the overscrupulous balancing act of his own summarizing assessment.

Even when he tries to qualify the impression of unrelenting anxiety and gloom that so overabundantly characterizes the genre he's sampling, Kirby's examples seem always only to re-iterate the same nervous negativity as before, but just from different directions. And so, when he proposes that "[n]ot every film depicts our genome as defective; many science fiction films instead find the human genome to be serviceable but harboring untapped 'evolutionary potential,'" his example, Spider-Man (2002), which "feature[s]" the transformation of "ordinary Homo sapiens into the highly evolved Homo superior" is hard to distinguish from what he has already described as the "change from man to monster" we confront in the Hulk (2003).

In another effort to complicate this cinematic doomsaying, he proposes a subgenre which "depict[s] a different kind of monster: physically and intellectually perfect individuals[.]" But inasmuch as this "perfection robs them of their connection to the rest of humanity" (his example? 1997's dystopic GATTACA, natch) it isn't exactly clear how this is anything more than a restaging of the very same bioconservative themes he's discerned elsewhere.

Clearly Kirby is really on to something in this piece, but it seems to me he undercuts the force of his observations a bit in soft-pedaling them in false, presumably consoling, formulations of even-handedness. Kirby asks the question: "Why do science fiction films simultaneously acknowledge the possibility of genomic improvement but consider it morally problematic?" His survey suggests the stronger question, why do science fiction films endlessly restage an appalled fascination with the moral problem of the status of humanity in an era of irresistible biological discovery and biomedical intervention?

Kirby takes up a suggestion from, Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee, "that geneticists often endow DNA with a nearly spiritual importance." He claims that "[t]his spiritual language about the human genome helps fuel the anti-technology aspects of human gene manipulation in science fiction cinema," because it confronts us with a metaphysical quandary: "How can scientists consider our genome humanity's 'soul,' and then commit sacrilege by manipulating a 'holy object?'"

But isn't it quite easy to turn the tables on such a suggestion, even on its own terms, and insist that science and medicine are expressing their ritual devotions to the "sacred book of life," facilitating its ongoing revelation through their ministrations? This isn't a line of hype that exerts much pull on a crusty atheist like me particularly, but its ready availability certainly suggests that there is more afoot here than straightforward spiritualization to nudge films so relentlessly into bioconservatism.

Of course, successful films will often need to generate suspense to hold an audience's attention, and so there is a tendency to focus on disaster over normalcy, threat over hope, extraordinary individual courage over ordinary collective conscientiousness, and all of this will skew "Hollywood" representations in hyperbolic directions. But it isn't enough to show that things can go wrong, that we should be careful when we play with fire, to nudge us into a conservative hostility to new knowledge.

And hence the key passage in Kirby's piece for me is when he proposes such an explanation, but freights it with deeper significance in order to render more plausible his suggestion that a precautionary impulse might bear the weight of the monologic bioconservatism of the genre he has been surveying. "Ultimately," he writes, "society, as reflected in science fiction cinema, retains the conviction that our fate is in our DNA -- and, as movies often show us, messing with fate can have disastrous consequences." What matters here is not the quotidian observation that we should take care around dangerous things, but that Kirby wants to frame this observation unnecessarily with the paraphernalia of fate.

Although it may have become a commonplace conviction to assert, as Kirby does, that "our fate is in our DNA," it seems to me much more apt to say that the very idea of "fate" cannot long retain its allure once we understand the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors articulating actually-existing human lifeways in all their diversity. Nor can the idea of a "destiny" written in advance in the "natural order" long retain its relevance once we understand the extent to which human capacities are susceptible of biomedical intervention. While I do not deny that scientists truly seem to invest the genome with the aura of the sacred -- Kirby reminds us just how often the human genome is glibly described as the "Book of Man," the "essence of life" or the "Holy Grail" -- it seems to me this rhetoric is less a seamless translation of the holy into the language of science as it is a mark of the hole where the holy once was, and at the site of the science that brought the authority of the holy into crisis.

Although the films Kirby discusses are preoccupied with the fantastic and the futuristic, it seems to me that this is always a kind of conjuring trick, and that while these films seem to provide a space for a troubled meditation on possible threats and losses of individual agency and readily-intelligible meaning, this scene of "trouble" is better understood as providing in fact a reassuring and even anesthetizing distraction from the deep realization on the part of the audience that something like this loss has already occurred.

Let me be clear about this: To be able to understand in the first place how genetic science could threaten to undermine one's moral vocabulary is always already to have undermined that moral vocabulary, and fatally so. If knowledge could threaten to lose one their soul then that "soul," in the very moment of grasping the nature of the threat it could face, is already lost, then and there. If genetic intervention could rob a future baby of its sense of autonomy, then that autonomy is lost already in education; if doping could rob athleticism of its beauty, then that beauty is lost already in training; if therapy could rob the individual of liberty, then that liberty was lost already in the life that brought one to therapy.

It's not that I am insensitive to the shades of difference that obtain in these differing scenarios, it's that I think the priestly formalisms, whether religious or naturalist, which are threatened by the powers of technique cannot assimilate these shades without evaporating themselves. To understand how genetic intervention might rob a future baby of its sense of autonomy is to fatally threaten that conception of autonomy as it confronts a changed understanding of the work of education. To understand how doping could rob athleticism of its sense of beauty and integrity is to fatally threaten those conceptions of beauty and integrity as they confront a changed understanding of the work of training. To understand how medical therapy could rob an individual of their sense of liberty is to fatally threaten that conception of the underpinning and constituents of liberty as it confronts a changed understanding of the impact on an individual life of its vicissitudes.

Neither is it true that I personally tremble much at the tender wound that is the loss of the sacred, since it seems to me this loss is the site on which humanity erects an alternate and, for me, incomparably more appealing architecture of meaning and significance and hope: in exchange for the authoritarian palace of the priests and the humiliating quest for connection with the voice of the cosmos we can plan and work together to build the road to a deeper democracy and engage in the error-prone but serendipitous conversation with our peers. It is certainly a fraught and weighty moment when one realizes that one is in fact vulnerable to error, to misunderstanding, to betrayal, to psychic and bodily pain, to both catastrophic and emancipatory accidents that acquire their meaning only retroactively in the stories we come to tell of them, and so on.

The confrontation of the pleasure principle with the reality principle, as Freud put the point a century ago, names the moment when a person grows up, the moment of enlightenment, in Kantian parlance. It is the moment when we realize that we only have each other to build a life worth living with.

Now, biomedical therapies are among the tools we have on hand in our own era to engage in such life-building projects of personal self-creation. And because they are new and because they are risky and because they promise to proliferate a humanity already confounded by the demands of its plurality, they have become a ready synecdoche for the quandaries of a self-creative materially experimentalist humanity without a godly hand to hold as we grope along, sometimes together and sometimes in one another's way. These are the conditions which seem to me to better account for the curious bioconservatism of the genre of speculative genomic cinema that preoccupies Kirby's attention.

I'll note in conclusion, that there is in fact a mass-mediated genre that offers up an actual counterpoint to Kirby's technophobic sf, but it isn't to be found in the cinema where Kirby scouts for it:

Bathed in pastels and reflective surfaces, lithe models wearing predatory expressions ooze into and out of seamless vehicles and pop empowering pills, caressing smooth eerily organic metal enameled hand-held devices like adolescents lovingly handling their genitals into song. In an era when technological discourse is overbearingly defined by the twin urgencies of multinational corporate competitiveness and international military competitiveness, it takes less than a minute to provide the ecstatic satisfactions of technophilia, where it often takes nearly three hours to craft the subtler satisfactions of technophobia. Hence, while film remains for now the primary arena for the latter, there is little question that for the former we turn instead primarily to the 30-second commercial spot.

It seems to me that the crass cheers of technophiles interminably hawking their unwelcome wares at indecent hours of the night and day, or declaiming an impending end to all limits altogether, despite the logical impossibility of any such total overcoming for actually finite beings, represents exactly as unhelpful and hysterical a fixation on the loss of the sacred as is the technophobic one with which I have been preoccupied through most of this discussion. Granting that technophiles are often just cynically or at any rate uncritically peddling a line of hype -- that is to say, the steroidal declaration, "There Are No Limits!" more often than not simply expresses the ugly assumption, I fear, that there will always be other people around to clean up after one's messes -- it seems to me that even in its earnest variations the substitution of scientific progress for religious faith as a bolster to the need of the queasy and quiescent for reassuring post-parental handholding in the face of life's deep dangers and contingencies constitute little more than manic and depressive varations on the same hyperbolic responsiveness to the same difficult reality, and neither have much to recommend them as far as I can see. They remain, however, quite fun to watch.

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