Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Venter and the Epiphany of Abstraction


Craig Venter might be considered one of the exemplary contemporary models of the marriage of capital and scientistic endeavour (which might in turn be traced through euro-capital beginnings and the specific kind of institutional climate (in its inception, the catholic church) against which it worked to define itself - in other words, capitalism in a kind of infancy and science as a practice defined either in conjunction with or in contradistinction with the christian church).

In Joseph Jackson's recent interview at H+ mag he drew a distinction between what he labelled as authentic past citizen scientists consistent with an advocated contemporary view of open science practice - here he names Franklin, Jefferson and Jenner - and what didn't quite fit that bill, or was only partially representative of the citizen scientist, for which he named Thomas Edison. Edison "partially fits the descriptor of Citizen-Scientist" but, on the whole, for Jackson, "his example is not one we want to encourage under the new Open Science paradigm". The key distinction here between the authentic citizen scientist and Edison, is Edison's "feud with Tesla and other abusive monopolistic industrial practices". Now, I'm not sure if Jackson's claim says that increased commercialization makes it less qualified to be open science, but I don't think he believes this (and certainly many advocates of breeds of open science are not anti-capitalist, but rather in favour of new and different forms of capitalism (more "open, plural and collective" you might say)). Nonetheless, I would like to use the suggested distinction myself, to draw a difference between what might be a particular definition of citizen science, or empirical exploration, and a certain kind of pragmatic technoscience, or capitalistic science, or business science. In this latter case, we might look at someone like Edison (and even further explore Jackson's examples, such as the pragmatic elements of Franklin's science) or Venter as representative of a science not solely focussed on empirical description and exploration (as say in the case of Linnean classification, or Darwin in the Galapagos), but that further explores the knowledge's use and application in new technological products.

In this way, Venter can be seen as a model of what has been called technoscience (herein used as a way of saying scientific exploration linked whether as goal or byproduct to a kind of technological invention and production). I'm not here drawing any moralistic divisions, but I do hold that a different paradigmatic structures merit different formulations of accountability. I think there is a functional difference useful to delineate between how to look at a more exploratory science and one that could be called technological, the which - to explore the latter - is my current concern.

I'm particularly interested in Venter's language and certain aspects of his recent project, a "synthetic" bacterium which the ETC called "Synthia", where a synthesized imitation of the Mycoplasma mycoides genome was transplanted into a cell of Mycoplasma capricolum, whose DNA had been removed. Scientifically speaking, everything about the project consists in slight modifications of current methods, mimicry of biological parts and while certainly in ways this can be practically distinguished from other experimental practices, the extent to which it can be is dwarfed by the amount that this is largely differentiated as a conceptual and medial event. In this way it might be considered a fitting conceptual pillar from which to analyze current technoscientific engagement.

"To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!" - these are some of the "words" that are etched in the synthetic genome (a mind-bogglingly arbitrary association that coincides well with the "genetic poems" of Bok (whose words's roman letter abstracts were, in all probability, generally unknown in the early grammar schools of Hadean hyperthermophiles)). Barring the combinatoric and desultory fact of their logographic being, the choice itself is quite interesting. This line, from Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is contextualized by a preamble of the protagonist, on the beach, gazing at a woman. His voyeuristic silence (matched only by his Dantesque relationship to the shore's Beatrice) is monologued in the kind of epiphanic aesthetic manner that makes up some of Joyce's best prose. This stream-of-consciousness encounter, one that - aside from a returned look mentioned in the text - has little to no physical or interactive involvement either of the "gazee" or even the protagonist himself (in another framing, you might say that as a film scene it would have appeared largely inactive or, shall I say, very effectively Tarkovskian).

The quoted line however, only comes after the momentous and riveting encounter (in what might fittingly be described as an instance of Kierkegaardian recollection), after the protagonist-viewer has fled, overwhelmed at the statuesque sight. The encounter already from its inception is experienced from the monologue of the protagonist (not to say that being viewed is merely the non-act of a passive object, but whatever the subjective experience of the woman being viewed, the text does not represent it) - thus already the viewed lacks the reality that might be attributed to interaction, dialogic description, speech or action and instead is largely an epiphanic fixation for the viewer in its terms of description (think here of the medieval story's insta-love sight that precedes the intrepidly random quest to marry someone unknown, if but for that all-descriptive initial mental photograph).

The overwhelmed protagonist then suddenly sprints away, no longer able to handle the burgeoning emotion, and launches into inspired tongues of speech bitten by the bug of transcendental love. Love, in this case, of the sort that involves little to no action nor interaction, is immediately perceived, and is, finally, something that - like the young man in Kierkegaard's Gjentagelsen - can only effectively be experienced alone, tending towards either the silence or absence of the actual object of love (making it in this sense a form of virtual love). It is in this state of enraptured retreat that our possessed subject intones the inspired line "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!"

And now, this line is "written" into Synthia, or at least so the team has coded it to be as such, and so it is claimed which is, in the respect of their intentions and choice of Joyce quotes, the same in practice. Now you could say that any analysis is useless, that it's just a line, and it says life and Venter put it in there, and whatever who cares it doesn't mean anything. However, I think to actually hold that there was no real selection process at all (aside from say, looking for nice sounding words and maybe a mention of the word "life"), wouldn't really hold up to any scrutiny, and if we are to concede that, then the next question is how exactly does it relate, in its entirety (whether in a premeditative or accidental way) to the project to which it's being applied. This line, which might, in Joyce's own general terms of Aquinian gradations into epiphany, be described as a transcendental form of aesthetic appreciation. Everything the protagonist is experiencing is in the abstractive realm - his living and triumphing are inspired by the virtual abstraction of a viewed beach siren, and out of this, to say that life is being recreated out of life, is to say that the virtual is created out of the virtual (or, if one were to disagree with this interpretation, s/he would be hard-pressed to discover what specifically "life" is referring to here, other than the ineffable simulacrum of the girl in the protagonist's memory, or some equally vague idea of "all life" or some such blanket concept). So the virtual begets the virtual and this includes falling, triumphing, living and erring (as well as most anything else, I dare say).

"To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!" To now return to this line (and our inauguration of Venterian textual analysis), we can do so through Venter's own words. Venter talks about the Synthia project as one that - for him at least - changes the definition of life - we've sloughed off the old heavy baggage of formerly overbearing life definitions and moved into a realm where "we're limited mostly by our imaginations". It is "the first species.... to have its parents be a computer", whose active ingredient, DNA, itself is fittingly the "software" (compare the materialist Lewontinian concept of DNA as recipe book) and of course, this ineffable, immaterial definition fits precisely in the abstracted territory of patents and watermark signatures (more gene "writing" that accompanied the various literary selections). In one of those gene-quotations, we have our Joycean expression of abstracted beauty, of the imaginative and virtual sublime whose eternal newness evades specific description beyond the solitary experience of the observer. The material object or experimental subject at hand is eschewed for abstractive concepts of imagination, new definitions, logographic substitutions and the aleatoric gamut of the virtual entities of software that - while certainly never denying the scientific and material elements underlying all this - focus instead on the abstracted elements which play more effectively into patent and media. Those material elements might be comparable to the plethora of wet lab work in transfections, transformations, transductions, protofections and similar common techniques in current lab practice, yet the language (the very fact there's "language" in the synthetic organism) and descriptive elements mark out Venter's project as conceptually exemplary.

This is, then, a model for technoscientific discussion, science as taken into a realm that focusses more on object-orientation and the symbolizing procedures of computation and simplification and away from what could be termed naive empirical description. The automatic and isolative elements of effective technology (perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the machine-talking-to-machine singularity concept - no human agent is even required at all) in fact invert the experiential portions of scientistic encounter, emphasizing its philosophical counterpart, a kind of classical rationalism tweaked to reinvent Lullian combinatorics (or finally, those of an exemplary rationalist himself, Leibniz) into a more complexly abstracted form of computational object arrays (in this case, the formula for recording and remaking the gene itself).

Capital, in its essential formation, is coincidentally a displaced symbolism of value (you're not getting the cow you want to eat, but you're getting the equivalent symbolic value which could be applied to getting the cow, or something else entirely). The technical, patentable portion of Venter's endeavour is thus fittingly an ideal object for market introduction (as were the inventions of Edison), and the human relation thereto, becomes increasingly complexified, insofar as the web of uses into which that technology is reapplied is complexified (say, a lab technique used for multiple different areas of research, such as a technique like PCR).

This withdrawl of the human, as it might be termed (into, let's say, the universal black hole that will co-evolve with the singularity), is perhaps in few places better represented than by Stephen Daedelus, Joyce's protagonist, and his retreat from the object of his fascination. His actual relation becomes nill, limited now only by his imagination and the "life" that is born out of that, may not be a collectively distinguishable entity by anyone but himself. Conversely, it is just that move to symbolically abstract "life" that puts it entirely in the hands of Daedelus to redefine it however he likes and then if - like a good maze-building Daedelian - he could then reify that concept, his personally patented version of the term could then take actual form. Of course any such idea will then be resubject to the empirical events of nature's course (the more rigorous experiment of observing different results of different genetic "transplants"), yet these results, both relatively enabling and paradigmatically undermining/disabling (say, a fantastic computer that a kid benefits from and his grandparents get "left behind" by) are still subject to the human creator (that is, Daedelus, the technowizard) whose visions, insofar as they are speculatively practical, must take responsibility for the abstracted dreams they have actualized into effect.

Technoscience - as opposed to strictly experimental science - then as the Daedelian experience or epiphany and its technological manifestation. However, unlike a religious epiphany, there is more than simply the persuasive aspect of the vision to account for - its rhetoric is not just rhetoric but, in Fregeian terms, referential language. What in Joyce can be aesthetic and entirely in the realm of the hypothetical, for Venter applies that aesthetics into potentially practical objects (quite literally in "writing" in genes) whose activity forces the transcendent into a scrutiny of its potential applications. The problem, of course, with multi-referent language is that, while in a poetic space it can demolish trite distinctions and seemingly liberate, in scientific endeavour it becomes questionable insofar as its actual referent is unknown (in this case, what sort of "life" will *actually* exist with this genetic mixing, beyond the vaguely affirmative language of Joyce's quote). Technoscience - the pragmatic and collectively implicated aspect of the properly empirical - creates tools that, contextually speaking, quite simply extend ability in relation to need. They are simple social decisions that work to address an issue (say, a physical disability, and the social accommodation thereof) through invention and application. Yet like nothing else, it's these practicable elements of science - from textual creations to mainframe computers - that require the most multilayered scrutiny and analysis. Whether through verification or more severely, falsification, or in the case of the unfalsifiable (say, a realm where imagination rules over everything), a contextual analysis and, in pseudo-Kuhnian terms, a revolutionary approach that re-evaluates the very precepts under which investigation is conducted.

A possible view here could be (and is, for some) that both Venter's science and his overarching theoretical vision are sound and to be supported. So be it, this is a possible viewpoint, and the primary concern of this analysis is that that is a possible perspective, but hopefully in terms that are increasingly collective in their generalized or public understanding (one key catch here is that "science communication" is a two-way, not a one-way street). Likewise, insofar as this description is laid out, another might hold that the singular patent model and the vaguely optimistic definitions and descriptions might, if nothing else, call for a more open and collective model, that works to ground the abstracted terms in a more pluralistic forum, as in a more open patent system and a more empirically-grounded set of descriptions (contrast the usual funding-seeking report of "it works" with a relation of both the negative and positive data).

Maybe then, if we were to attempt to glean a complete, practical picture of Joyce's scene (and not his lyrical flight), we might, quite simply want a monologue from the woman on the beach shore (which could well be like Molly Bloom's thoughtstream which ends Ulysses' final chapter). But while such "practicality" might rightly be said to entirely miss the point of the subject's transformative experience (which is, after all, a key event that turns the "young man" into the "artist"), I think this sort of a reply would hold little water in relation to a genetic practice which will proliferate into multiple aspects of daily life. Here the epiphany and its transcendental imagination becomes a crucial object of analysis which only hints - as a dream hints a reality - at what the actual manifestations of an unlimited imagination really are.