The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others
Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies (New York; Routledge, 1992) , pp. 295-337.
If primates have a sense of humor, there is no reason why intellectuals may not share in it. (Plank, 1989)
A Biopolitics of Artifactual Reproduction
"The Promises of Monsters" will be a mapping exercise and travelogue through mind-scapes and landscapes of what may count as nature in certain local/global struggles. These contests are situated in a strange, allochronic time-the time of myself and my readers in the last decade of the second Christian millenium-and in a foreign, allotopic place-the womb of a pregnant monster, here, where we are reading and writing. The purpose of this excursion is to write theory, i.e., to produce a patterned vision of how to move and what to fear in the topography of an impossible but all-too-real present, in order to find an absent, but perhaps possible, other present. I do not seek the address of some full presence; reluctantly, I know better. Like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, however, I am committed to skirting the slough of despond and the parasite-infested swamps of nowhere to reach more salubrious environs.7 The theory is meant to orient, to provide the roughest sketch for travel, by means of moving within and through a relentless artifactualism, which forbids any direct si(gh)tings of nature, to a science fictional, speculative factual, SF place called, simply, elsewhere. At least for those whom this essay addresses, "nature" outside artifactualism is not so much elsewhere as nowhere, a different matter altogether. Indeed, a reflexive artifactualism offers serious political and analytical hope. This essay's theory is modest. Not a systematic overview, it is a little siting device in a long line of such craft tools. Such sighting devices have been known to reposition worlds for their devotees-and for their opponents. Optical instruments are subject-shifters. Goddess knows, the subject is being changed relentlessly in the late twentieth century.
My diminutive theory's optical features are set to produce not effects of distance, but effects of connection, of embodiment, and of responsibility for an imagined elsewhere that we may yet learn to see and build here. I have high stakes in reclaiming vision From the technopornographers, those theorists of minds, bodies, and planets who insist
effectively--i.e., in practice--that sight is the sense made to realize the fantasies of the phallocrats.2 I think sight can be remade for the activists and advocates engaged in fitting political filters to see the world in the hues of red, green, and ultraviolet, i.e., from the
perspectives of a still possible socialism, feminist and anti-racist environmentalism, and science for the people. I take as a self-evident premise that "science is culture."3 Rooted in that premise, this essay is a contribution to the heterogeneous and very lively contemporary discourse of science studies as cultural studies. Of course, what science, culture, or nature-and their "studies"-might mean is far less self-evident.
Nature is for me, and I venture for many of us who are planetary fetuses gestating in the amniotic efffluvia of terminal industrialism,4 one of those impossible things characterized by Gayatri Spivak as that which we cannot not desire. Excruciatingly conscious of nature's discursive constitution as "other" in the histories of colonialism, racism, sexism, and class domination of many kinds, we nonetheless find in this problematic, ethno-specific, long-lived, and mobile concept something we cannot do without, but can never "have." We must find another relationship to nature besides reification and possession. Perhaps to give confidence in its essential reality, immense resources have been expended to stabilize and materialize nature, to police its/her boundaries. Such expenditures have had disappointing results. Efforts to travel into "nature" become tourist excursions that remind the voyager of the price of such displacements-one pays to see fun-house reflections of oneself. Efforts to preserve "nature" in parks remain fatally troubled by the ineradicable mark of the founding explusion of those who used to live there, not as innocents in a garden, but as people for whom the categories of nature and culture were not the salient ones. Expensive projects to collect "nature's" diversity and bank it seem to produce debased coin, impoverished seed, and dusty relics. As the banks hypertrophy, the nature that feeds the storehouses "disappears." The World Bank's record on environmental destruction is exemplary in this regard. Finally, the projects for representing and enforcing human "nature" are famous for their imperializing essences, most recently reincarnated in the Human Genome Project.
So, nature is not a physical place to which one can go, nor a treasure to fence in or bank, nor as essence to be saved or violated. Nature is not hidden and so does not need to be unveiled. Nature is not a text to be read in the codes of mathematics and biomedicine. It is not the "other" who offers origin, replenishment, and service. Neither mother, nurse, nor slave, nature is not matrix, resource, or tool for the reproduction of man.
Nature is, however, a topos, a place, in the sense of a rhetorician's place or topic for consideration of common themes; nature is, strictly, a commonplace. We turn to this topic to order our discourse, to compose our memory. As a topic in this sense, nature also reminds us that in seventeenth-century English the "topick gods" were the local gods, the gods specific to places and peoples. We need these spirits, rhetorically if we can't have them any other way. We need them in order to reinhabit, precisely, common places-locations that are widely shared, inescapably local, worldly, enspirited; i.e., topical. In this sense, nature is the place to rebuild public culture.5 Nature is also a tropos, a trope. It is figure, construction, artifact, movement, displacement. Nature cannot pre-exist its construction. This construction is based on a particular kind of move- a tropos or "turn." Faithful to the Greek, as tro'pos nature is about turning. Troping, we turn to nature as if to the earth, to the primal stuff-geotropic, physiotropic. Topically, we travel toward the earth, a commonplace. In discoursing on nature, we turn from Plato and his heliotropic son's blinding star to see something else, another kind of figure. I do not turn from vision, but I do seek something other than enlightenment in these sightings of science studies as cultural studies. Nature is a topic of public discourse on which much turns, even the earth.
In this essay's journey toward elsewhere, I have promised to trope nature through a relentless artifactualism, but what does artifactualism mean here? First, it means that nature for us is made, as both fiction and fact. If organisms are natural objects, it is crucial to remember that organisms are not born; they are made in world-changing technoscientific practices by particular collective actors in particular times and places. In the belly of the local/global monster in which I am gestating, often called the postmodern world,6 global technology appears to denature everything, to make everything a malleable matter of strategic decisions and mobile production and reproduction processes (Hayles, 1990). Technological decontextualization is ordinary experience for hundreds of millions if not billions of human beings, as well as other organisms. I suggest that this is not a denaturing so much as a particular production of nature. The preoccupation with productionism that has characterized so much parochial Western discourse and practice seems to have hypertrophied into something quite marvelous: the whole world is remade in the image of commodity production.'
How, in the face of this marvel, can I seriously insist that to see nature as artifactual is an oppositional, or better, a differential siting?8 Is the insistence that nature is artifactual not more evidence of the extremity of the violation of a nature outside and other to the arrogant ravages of our technophilic civilization, which, after all, we were taught began with the heliotropisms of enlightment projects to dominate nature with blinding light focused by optical technology?9 Haven't eco-feminists and other multicultural and intercultural radicals begun to convince us that nature is precisely not to be seen in the guise of the Eurocentric productionism and anthropocentrism that have threatened to reproduce, literally, all the world in the deadly image of the Same?
I think the answer to this serious political and analytical question lies in two related turns: 1) unblinding ourselves from the sun-worshiping stories about the history of science and technology as paradigms of rationalism; and 2) refiguring the actors in the construction of the ethno-specific categories of nature and culture. The actors are not all "us." If the world exists for us as "nature," this designates a kind of relationship, an achievement among many actors, not all of them human, not all of them organic, not all of them technological.10 In its scientific embodiments as well as in other forms nature is made, but not entirely by humans; it is a co-construction among humans and non-humans. This is a very different vision from the postmodernist observation that all the world is denatured and reproduced in images or replicated in copies. That specific kind of violent and reductive artifactualism, in the form of a hyper-productionism actually practiced widely throughout the planet, becomes contestable in theory and other kinds of praxis, without recourse to a resurgent transcendental naturalism. Hyper-productionism refuses the witty agency of all the actors but One; that is a dangerous strategy-for everybody. But transcendental naturalism also refuses a world full of cacophonous agencies and settles for a mirror image sameness that only pretends to difference. The commonplace nature I seek, a public culture, has many houses with many inhabitants which/who can refigure the earth. Perhaps those other actors/actants, the ones who are not human, are our topick gods, organic and inorganic.]'
It is this barely admissible recognition of the odd sorts of agents and actors which/ whom we must admit to the narrative of collective life, including nature, that simultaneously, first, turns us decisively away from enlightenment-derived modern and postmodern premises about nature and culture, the social and technical, science and society ~nd, second, saves us from the deadly point of view of productionism. Productionism and its corollary, humanism, come down to the story line that "man makes everything, including himself, out of the world that can only be resource and potency to his project and active agency."l2 This productionism is about man the tool-maker and -user, whose highest technical production is himself; i.e., the story line of phallogocentrism. He gains access to this wondrous technology with a subject-constituting, self-deferring, and self splitting entry into language, light, and law. Blinded by the sun, in thrall to the father, reproduced in the sacred image of the same, his reward is that he is self- born, an autotelic copy. That is the mythos of enlightenment transcendence.
Let us return briefly to my remark above that organisms are not born, but they are made. Besides troping on Simone de Beauvoir's observation that one is not born a woman, what work is this statement doing in this essay's effort to articulate a relentless differential/oppositional artifactualism? I wrote that organisms are made as objects of knowledge in world-changing practices of scientific discourse by particular and always collective actors in specific times and places. Let us look more closely at this claim with the aid of the concept of the apparatus of bodily production.!, Organisms are hiological embodiments; as natural-technical entities, they are not pre-existing plants, animals, protistes, etc., with boundaries already established and awaiting the right kind of instrument to note them correctly. Organisms emerge from a discursive process. Biology is a discourse, not the living world itself. But humans are not the only actors in the construction of the entities of any scientific discourse; machines (delegates that can produce surprises) and other partners (not "pre- or extra-discursive objects," but partners) are active constructors of natural scientific objects. Like other scientific bodies, organisms are not ideological constructions. The whole point about discursive construction has been that it is not about ideology. Always radically historically specific, always lively, bodies have a different kind of specificity and effectivity; and so they invite a different kind of engagement and intervention.
Elsewhere, I have used the term "material-semiotic actor" to highlight the object of knowledge as an active part of the apparatus of bodily production, without ever implying immediate presence of such objects or, what is the same thing, their final or unique determination of what can count as objective knowledge of a biological body at a particular historical juncture. Like Katie King's objects called "poems," sites of literary production where language also is an actor, bodies as objects of knowledge are materialsemiotic generative nodes. Their boundaries materialize in social interaction among humans and non- humans, including the machines and other instruments that mediate exchanges at crucial interfaces and that function as delegates for other actors' functions and purposes. "Objects" like bodies do not pre-exist as such. Similarly, "nature" cannot pre-exist as such, but neither is its existence ideological. Nature is a commonplace and a powerful discursive construction, effected in the interactions among material-semiotic actors, human and not. The siting/sighting of such entities is not about disengaged discovery, but about mutual and usually unequal structuring, about taking risks, about delegating competences.14
The various contending biological bodies emerge at the intersection of biological research, writing, and publishing; medical and other business practices; cultural productions of all kinds, including available metaphors and narratives; and technology, such as the visualization technologies that bring color-enhanced killer T cells and intimate photographs of the developing fetus into high-gloss art books, as well as scientific reports. But also invited into that node of intersection is the analogue to the lively languages that actively intertwine in the production of literary value: the coyote and protean embodiments of a world as witty agent and actor. Perhaps our hopes for accountability for techno-biopolitics in the belly of the monster turn on revisioning the world as coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse. So while the late twentieth-century immune system, for example, is a construct of an elaborate apparatus of bodily production, neither the immune system nor any other of biology's world-changing bodies-like a virus or an ecosystem-is a ghostly fantasy. Coyote is not a ghost, merely a protean trickster.
This sketch of the artifactuality of nature and the apparatus of bodily production helps us toward another important point: the corporeality of theory. Overwhelmingly, theory is bodily, and theory is literal. Theory is not about matters distant from the lived body; quite the opposite. Theory is anything but disembodied. The fanciest statements about radical decontextualization as the historical form of nature in late capitalism are tropes for the embodiment, the production, the literalization of experience in that specifi' mode. This is not a question of reflection or correspondences, but of technology, where the social and the technical implode into each other. Experience is a semiotic process- a semiosis (de Lauretis, 1984). Lives are built; so we had best become good craftspeople with the other worldly actants in the story. There is a great deal of rebuilding to do, beginning with a little more surveying with the aid of optical devices fitted with red, green, and ultraviolet filters.
Repeatedly, this essay turns on figures of pregnancy and gestation. Zoe Sofia (1984) taught me that every technology is a reproductive technology. She and I have meant that literally; ways of life are at stake in the culture of science. I would, however, like to displace the terminology of reproduction with that of generation. Very rarely does anything really get reproduced; what's going on is much more polymorphous than that. Certainly people don~t reproduce, unless they get themselves cloned, which will always be very expensive and risky, not to mention boring. Even technoscience must be made into the paradigmatic model not of closure, but of that which is contestable and contested. That involves knowing how the world's agents and actants work; how they/we/it come into the world, and how they/we/it are reformed. Science becomes the myth not of what escapes agency and responsibility in a realm above the fray, but rather of accountability and responsibility for translations and solidarities linking the cacophonous visions and visionary voices that characterize the knowledges of the marked bodies of history. Actors, as well as actants, come in many and wonderful forms. And best of all, `'reproduction"-or less inaccurately, the generation of novel forms-need not be imagined in the stodgy bipolar terms of hominids.15
If the stories of hyper-productionism and enlightenment have been about the reproduction of the sacred image of the same, of the one true copy, mediated by the luminous technologies of compulsory heterosexuality and masculinist self-birthing, then the differential artifactualism I am trying to envision might issue in something else. Artifactualism is askew of productionism; the rays from my optical device diffract rather than reflect. These diffracting rays compose interference patterns, not reflecting images. The "issue" from this generative technology, the result of a monstrous,16 pregnancy, might be kin to Vietnamese-American filmmaker and feminist theorist Trinh Minhha's (1986/7b; 1989) "inappropriate/d others."17 Designating the networks of multicultural, ethnic, racial, national, and sexual actors emerging since World War II, Trinh's phrase referred to the historical positioning of those who cannot adopt the mask of either "self" or "other" offered by previously dominant, modern Western narratives of identity and politics. To be `'inappropriate/d', does not mean "not to be in relation with"-i.e., to be in a special reservation, with the status of the authentic, the untouched, in the allochronic and allotopic condition of innocence. Rather to be an "inappropriate/ d other" means to be in critical, deconstructive relationality, in a diffracting rather than reflecting (ratio)nality-as the means of making potent connection that exceeds domination. To be inappropriate/d is not to fit in the taxon, to be dislocated from the available maps specifying kinds of actors and kinds of narratives, not to be originally fixed by difference. To be inappropriate/d is to be neither modern nor postmodern, but to insist on the amodern. Trinh was looking for a way to figure "difference'' as a "critical difference within," and not as special taxonomic marks grounding difference as apartheid.
She was writing about people; I wonder if the same observations might apply to humans and to both organic and technological non-humans.
The term "inappropriate/d others" can provoke rethinking social relationality within artifactual nature-which is, arguably, global nature in the 1990s. Trinh Minhha's metaphors suggest another geometry and optics for considering the relations of difference among people and among humans, other organims, and machines than hierarchical domination, incorporation of parts into wholes, paternalistic and colonialist protection, symbiotic fusion, antagonistic opposition, or instrumental production from resource. Her metaphors also suggest the hard intellectual, cultural, and political work these new geometries will require. If Western patriarchal narratives have told that the physical body issued from the first birth, while man was the product of the heliotropic second birth, perhaps a differential, diffracted feminist allegory might have the "inappropriate/d others" emerge from a third birth into an SF world called elsewhere-a place composed from interference patterns. Diffraction does not produce "the same" displaced, as reflection and refraction do. Diffraction is a mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection, or reproduction. A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of difference appear. Tropically, for the promises of monsters, the first invites the illusion of essential, fixed position, while the second trains us to more subtle vision. Science fiction is generically concerned with the interpenetration of boundaries between problematic selves and unexpected others and with the exploration of possible worlds in a context structured by transnational technoscience. The emerging social subjects called "inappropriate/d others" inhabit such worlds. SF-science fiction, speculative futures, science fantasy, speculative fiction-is an especially apt sign under which to conduct an inquiry into the artifactual as a reproductive technology that might issue in something other than the sacred image of the same, something inappropriate, unfitting, and so, maybe, inappropriated.
Within the belly of the monster, even inappropriate/d others seem to be interpellated-called through interruption-into a particular location that I have learned to call a cyborg subject position.18 Let me continue this travelogue and inquiry into artifactualism with an illustrated lecture on the nature of cyborgs as they appear in recent advertisements in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. These ad figures remind us of the corporeality, the mundane materiality, and literality of theory. These commercial cyborg figures tell us what may count as nature in technoscience worlds. Above all, they show us the implosion of the technical, textual, organic, mythic, and political in the gravity wells of science in action. These figures are our companion monsters in the Pilgrim's Progress of this essay's travelogue.
Consider Figure 1, "A Few Words about Reproduction from a Leader in the Field," the advertising slogan for Logic General Corporation's software duplication system. The immediate visual and verbal impact insists on the absurdity of separating the technical, organic, mythic, textual, and political threads in the semiotic fabric of the ad and of the world in which this ad makes sense. Under the unliving, orange-to-yellow rainbow colors of the earth-sun logo of Logic General, the biological white rabbit has its (her? yet, sex and gender are not so settled in this reproductive system) back to us. It has its paws on a keyboard, that inertial, old-fashioned residue of the typewriter that lets our computers feel natural to us, user-friendly, as it were.19 But the keyboard is misleading; no letters are transferred by a mechnical key to a waiting solid surface. The computeruser interface works differently. Even if she doesn't understand the implications of her lying keyboard, the white rabbit is in her natural home; she is fully artifactual in the most literal sense. Like fruit flies, yeast, transgenic mice, and the humble nematode worm, Cacuorhabditis elegans,20 this rabbit's evolutionary story transpires in the lab; the lab is its proper niche, its true habitat. Both material system and symbol for the measure of fecundity, this kind of rabbit occurs in no other nature than the lab, that preeminent scene of replication practices.