The 21st century will be a time of biotech. Most people don’t understand that we are entering a biological revolution. They don’t see biotechnology as connected to things far beyond biology. Biotech has the potential to dramatically change electronics, computational devices via both hardware and software, and multifunctional materials.
– Dan Goldin, Chief NASA Administrator (at the 1999 NASDAQ Biotech Summit in Seattle, WA)
Science Fiction has Disappeared
In a recent special report, Biospace.com – the major online hub for news in the biotech industry – featured “Eight Visions of the Future” from a selected group of researchers in fields ranging from pharmacogenetics to gene therapy. As may be guessed, most of the researchers deployed a rhetoric of combined technological optimism and discovery science, echoing President Clinton’s recent endorsement of biotech by naming January “National Biotechnology Month.” Such intimate fusions of narrativised scientific extrapolation and speculation, and hard science research, are also to be found in the very techniques of biotech itself. This past January, Celera Genomics, a private genomics corporation, announced that it had completed “90%” of the sequencing of the human genome, years ahead of the federal Human Genome Project. As the networks of technological advance, scientific research, institutional and corporate support, market values, and product development become increasingly integrated, the modes of legitimation – that is, the discourses and practices – through which biotech lays claim to the future of medicine, the body, and normativity, are more and more reliant on the domain of science fiction.
Amidst the fin-de-millennium hype surrounding the intersections of postmodernism and science fiction, Fredric Jameson had already outlined two functions for contemporary and future science fiction: a critique of the concept of the future and a politicization of the utopian imagination. With the emergence of the biotech century, near-completion of the Human Genome, and a dizzying array of biotech-research (cloning, tissue engineering, stem cell research, labs-on-a-chip, proteomics, pharmacogenetics, etc.), it is clear that the domain of extrapolation and speculation is becoming an essential component of current technoscience research and practice. However, the points which Jameson makes for science fiction still apply to this contemporary situation, perhaps with even greater resonance.
Function 1 – Forget the Future
As a critical function, science fiction performatively demonstrates what Jameson simply calls “future history,” that moment in which the project of imagining the future – whose narratological converse is the historical novel’s construction of narratives of progress – is seen to be conditioned by the social, scientific, and technological dynamics of the present. Put simply, every imagined future has its past, just as every historical moment has its own vision of the future. We need only to recall the changes in architecture, science fiction film, illustration & design, consumerism, and most of all technology, to grasp this point. Science fiction can not only reveal the baroque industrial clutter of the early twentieth century, the streamlined wind-tunnel futures of the 1930s, the post-war outer space habitats of the 1950s, or the virtual futures of the 1990s, but that it also provides a critique of the very ideological underpinnings of the task of imagining the future.
In this sense, imagining the future is not an issue of imagination vs. actualization, and neither is it an issue of affirming the future, or “keeping the future alive.” Rather, science fiction can configure the future as the conditions of possibility and constraint for social change in the present. It can do this, as Jameson suggests, through techniques of defamiliarization combined with good old-fashioned extrapolation, producing what is essentially a political commentary on the possibilities of imagining radical otherness and difference.
Such a function is especially resonant as the wave of postmodern pastiche and citation begins to wane, and the very ideological infrastructures of what means history may serve are being re-negotiated. We are now entering what many are calling “the biotech century,” in which the management of populations and individual subjects is increasingly becoming an issue of databasing and data profiling, fetal design, off-the-shelf organs, and telemedicine. What the concepts of collective (that is, species) social history and individual (that is, bioinformatic) memory may come to mean in such a context has yet to be seen. But if the trends in genomics, corporate biotechnology, “preventive medicine,” pharmacology, and advanced simulation and hyper-surveillance of the species-population and biological subjects is any indication, then the future definitely appears to be something like the DNA chip or genetic algorithms.
Function 2 – Dysinfotopianism
This leads us to the second function Jameson outlines for contemporary science fiction, which he variously characterizes as “imagining the future” or the “utopian imagination” (referencing Marcuse). Science fiction demonstrates the contingency and impossibility of truly imagining the future (since every vision of the future is conditioned by a historical moment in which it is imagined). Science fiction also demands that the very terms in which the hegemony of “keeping the future alive” be mutated and transcience fictionormed in more cathartic and “impossible” forms. Here the examination of boundaries between a lived, situated present and a lived, imagined future, enter into a tension mediated by the “no-place” or dead zone of utopia. In such a scenario, the utopian imagination becomes something other, or something more, than the critical dynamic expressed by the Frankfurt school; it becomes what Baudrillard has identified as a “fatal strategy,” a technique of hyper-izing a given condition – that is, of applying a science fiction speed-extrapolation – until that condition reaches its mutation point, point of “reversibility,” or its own event horizon.
In one sense, then, this radical utopianism is no different from critique, since it measures the distance between hyper-extrapolation and the present. In another sense, science fiction becomes more than just theoretical critique, and demands of itself that it work from within the very sciences and technologies on which it comments. This understanding and interest in technical matters is a very old aspect of science fiction, extending back to Verne. But, more than science-by-other-means, such an understanding of science and technology can also be mobilized towards unforseen points of crash-tech, pixellation-noise, and polygon monstrosities.
Especially when dealing with biotechnologies, biomedicine, and the transcience fictionormations and rationalizations in species-history and organism-memory, the ability of science fiction to symbolically and technically demand radical otherness not outside of but through existing technologies is a crucial endeavor. Without it, history becomes a linear narrative of exponential evolution (culminating in the “age of spiritual machines”), memory becomes a FireWall-protected online database (the genetic RAM of the flesh), and the task of envisioning the future is condensed into the act of literally putting in VR contact lenses. In this way, radical utopianism or fatal strategy science fiction must not only work towards critique of bioscientific and medical reason, but it must also work on a technical level towards extending and constructively mutating the domain of possibility, such that the future does not become synonymous with a notion of progress.
How might these attributes of future-critique and radical utopianism operate in our present “network society?” I’d like to offer a combination experiment and statement of purpose, by discussing the new media collective Fakeshop, whose concerns over the body-technology relationship, “future memory,” and science fiction provide a test-bed for the functions described above.
First, Fakeshop make no secret of the fact that they operate in the symbolic domain, the domain of the “vision machine,” and the production and distribution of media in contexts of all kinds. In this they can be considered an art-group, but the designation is only temporary. As many new media artists and groups show, a technical know-how (especially a technical know-how of misuse) often forms one of the most generative points of creativity for those working with new media. Thus Fakeshop can be considered more of a site of research into the uses and mis-uses of computer and networking technologies, which often include the Web, streaming media, programming, digital video and audio, IRC, 3-D modeling, and VRML. Combined with such virtual technologies are often physical-space installations utilizing warehouses, abandoned industrial spaces, basic construction materials, and live performers. All of these elements come together in a scheduled networking session involving multiple participants, remote locations, and the real-time generation of “artificial products.”
The challenge which Fakeshop takes on is to utilize spectacular technologies (especially video and projection modes), and to reconfigure them in such a way that they are as far from the standard multimedia-theater format of audience-stage-screen as possible. Such a distancing or defamiliarizing strategy inevitably means a rethinking of the relationships between body, image, and architectural space, as well as different degrees of disorientation for physically-present and remote audience members.
Imploding Dead Media
One way of talking about the affective spaces which Fakeshop construct is to refer to the media revolution of the late 19th century, when pre-cinema technologies such as shadow plays, dioramas, and the like begin to become integrated into the developing urban environment of Industrialism. In particular, the tableau vivant – most often an enclosed space in which a scene from a well-known literary work is displayed through a viewing window – provides one takeoff point for the Fakeshop performances.
The fascination with the tableau vivant was not only that of a kind of living sculpture, but it was also that an entire narrative became condensed into a single space, in which the difference between body and image became blurred. Using this same effect of narrative condensation into space, Fakeshop has taken scenes from several science fiction films – Coma, Solaris, THX-1138, Fahrenheit 451 – and used those scenes to construct tableau vivant-like spaces (both physical and virtual) which audience members can inhabit. For example, a scene from Coma of a large medical warehouse space of suspended bodies used for organ harvesting was transcience fictionormed into a large scaffold structure, suspended performers, biomonitoring stations, and digital cameras, which captured body-images which were then mapped onto wireframe bodies in a VRML space.
Between genre science fiction (which still proceeds mostly through print) and contemporary technoscience (which is increasingly becoming computerized), new media experiments such as those by Fakeshop offer a point of negotiation between a critique of the future and the present mapping of the body. In such an instance, science fiction becomes not a genre, but it actually begins to embody the very technologies it critiques. Again, working on the symbolic level, such a strategy is also a re-membering and a dis-membering of how history is constructed in the future visions of biotechnology and biomedicine. science fiction can thus intervene in the construction of histories which, for example, involve the inevitable future ubiquity of genomics and gene therapy.
Put briefly, science fiction can intervene in the production of the future by such hegemonic industries as biotech. By integrating technoscience with science fiction narrative, a unique, ambiguous, and affective zone is opened up in which real subjects (online or in the physical space) intersect with the celebratory future visions of technoscience, mediated by the perturbations and questioning of science fiction. If the future is a sign of the conditions of possibility for social change in the present, then the utopian function of science fiction is to extend those possibilities, and to seek a future history which is about radical otherness and the “promises of monsters.”
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Science Fiction.” Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Baudrillard, Jean. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.
Jameson, Fredric. “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies #27 9:2 (July 1982): 147-58.