One could say that the current food crisis resulting from biotechnology applied to mass production of foods as well as their commodification into bio-fuels is an act of black magick.
Fulfilling the prediction made by Shulamith Firestone back in the seventies when she did her feminist critique of reproductive biotechnology warning of its return to the creation of the alchemists homonuclus; the creation of life without the mother.
Black Magic, Biotech & Dark Markets
“On some islands mana [magic] is the word for money”
The characterisation of biotech as black magic is primarily meant to indicate the
ambivalence of instrumentality in biotech, an ambivalence which actually enables the connection between biological life and economic value. Traditionally, black magic refers to the use of magical actions for maleficent purposes (spells, witchcraft, demonology). The idea of black magic took a particularly strong hold in Renaissance Europe, where it coincided with trends in Jewish and Christian mysticism.
The infamous black magicians of the period and after – from Cornelius Agrippa to Eliphas Levi – were often seen as instrumentalists, manipulating the forces of the natural world (in the Hermetic tradition) or of the traditions of ‘white magic’ (occultism, cabala, alchemy).14 At the root of black magic was the fear induced by an instrumentalisation of the natural world, in order to gain
Curiously enough, the tropes of black magic specifically, and magic generally, are not uncommon in popular accounts of the biotech industry. For instance, Cynthia Robbins-Roth’s book From Alchemy to IPO provides a hero-narrative of the biotech industry, recounting the development of recombinant DNA techniques and the formation of Genentech, the first biotech start-up.15 For Robbins-Roth, the biotech industry realises the dream of alchemy, not only through its ability to control matter, but in its ability to generate value through this transformation of matter. Robbins-Roth does not mention black magic, because this alchemical biotech activity is seen as the ultimate in humanistic endeavor. But neither does she explore
in depth the controversies genetic engineering experiments prompted in the 1970s.
But what if we take this trope of biotech as magic seriously? We would, first of all, have to point to a definition of ‘magic’ that would warrant the connection to biotech.
A number of historians of religion, including James Frasier, have positioned magic as incommensurate with technology (for Frasier magic is situated between religion and technology, for it has a logic, but that logic is not rational or ‘scientific’). Indeed the division persists to this day, along the lines of the rational/irrational.
In this context, Marcel Mauss’ famous study, A General Theory of Magic, is useful, for it attempts to conceive of magic as deeply connected to both the social and the technological.
Mauss’ study, though not without its problematics (including an exclusive focus on
‘primitive’ cultures), is noteworthy in that it redefines magic according to social and technological criteria. It suggests that magic is not transcendental (above and beyond social reality), but immanent to collective and individual practices in daily life. Mauss’ theory of magic also points to the implicitly pragmatic and instrumental character of magic in society; magic rites associated with healing and medicine are among his most common examples. To this we can add several more qualifiers, for we want to suggest that biotech is a form of black magic, and not just magic generally speaking. If magic is both immanent (social) and instrumental (technological), then black magic is an instrumental use of the immanent qualities of magic. That is, black magic folds the instrumental back upon the immanent, it folds technology back upon the social. When this happens, the object of the magical action becomes the social body itself. Instead of magical practice constituting orcontributing to the social (as in Mauss’ theory), in black magic it practices on the social.
(This is biopolitics with smoke and mirrors.) In this folding back of the instrumental upon the immanent, the social body is ‘shaped’ according to the hermetic dictates of the technological (the technological becomes synonymous with its efficaciousness). This can be said to constitute the maleficent character of black magic. It results less from a desire for world domination and more from a confusion specific to black magic, a confusion of the interrelation of the immanent (social) and the instrumental (technological).
What does this have to do with biotechnology? On one level all of this is perhaps too
abstract. But, if we keep in mind our notion of black magic (aided by Mauss’ theory), then it is hard to deny certain analogies in the biotech industry. For instance, consider the pharmaceutical industry. The manufacture of drugs has long been the single most lucrative output for bioscience research. Even when discussions of ‘post-genomic complexity’ abound, the output for such research is first and foremost in drug discovery. Drugs operate not only by sympathy (vaccines), antipathy (anti-virals) and contiguity (GM foods), but the integration of the pharmaceutical industry with health care systems means that a network for regulating
“biovalue” operates in the long term (health insurance, drug prescriptions and subscriptions).
Likewise, any computer based laboratory technology achieves a magical
transfer of properties, simply by encoding and decoding DNA into a computer. Finally, the biological database can be seen as a means of ‘capturing’ or possessing biological life via the various property and patenting structures and health care systems.
Recall our initial question: how does biotech create a link between biological life and economic value? And how does it do this as a network which displays control-without-control?
In short, biotech as a form of black magic mediates between ‘life’ and ‘property’ via
the use of information technologies. Information is the ‘medium’ – in both senses of the term. The space in which black magic biotech operates is the space which separates and connects biological life and economic value, matter and property. ‘Information’ has become the equivalent of mana in the biotech industry. The notion of information – genetic codes, computer data, stock quotes – covers a wide range of meanings, and in doing so it functions as the means by which biotech establishes and regulates the interactions and transactionsbetween life and property. For contemporary biotech, ‘information’ is mana.
Notes on Alchemy, Metonymy and Engendering Simulacra
Growing Things: Banff New Media Institute, 2 – 4 June, 2000 and Australia, 1 July – August, 2000
The representational imaginary of Nature “disappears with simulation – whose operation is nuclear and genetic …genetic miniaturization is the dimension of simulation” according to Jean Baudrillard. From this situation forward many scenarios are possible. Many proximate universes and combinations could evolve. It is possible that a benign biotechnology will take place in controlled environments such as isolated fields and greenhouses and will be economically viable in these special regulated areas. Nanoscience and nanoengineering could develop new and improved material properties including ones with enhanced electrical conductivity, optical properties and mechanical strength that will lead to breakthroughs in classical electronics, architecture, pharmacology and artificial life forms. Materials that are actually intelligent surfaces and films could perform everything from photosynthesis and camouflage to building materials that last longer and sense weather conditions, modifying their structures in order to be more or less permeable to humidity, air and light. Intelligent antibodies could find and destroy malignant cells in the body. Nanochemists and engineers are also designing nanometer-scale machines and molecular motors that are capable of interacting with the environment as well as within the human body. In all of these instances nanotechnology is characterized by a kind of organicism that imitates nature at the atomic and molecular level and is exemplified by a non-linear, distributed, redundant, parallel and overlapping intelligence. Nanoengineering aspires to transform inexpensive, abundant and inanimate constituents into self-generating, self-perpetuating, self-repairing, self-aware entities that are capable of communicating with each other and responding to the environment. These new technologies represent formal ways of organizing architectures of all kinds from cities to computers and telecommunication systems and seemingly provide humanity with unprecedented control over the material world. This research is in its earliest stages, and as is often noted, it is similar to the transistor technology and silicon-based research of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Early experiments indicate that at least at a certain scale these goals are attainable.
At the risk of presenting a classical binary critique, much of nanoscience and nanotechnology is not the result of multidisciplinary research, and is following more formal rather than content-based developments typical of the early stages of research. Although much of this breakthrough science is a positive result of pure research, it is now time for more multidisciplinary work by artists and scientists in order that new applications, forms of content and visualizations can evolve simultaneously with technological advances. In this sense, as artists, we are moving further away from mimesis and representation that have typically positioned us across a critical gulf (distance) between art and life and moving further into the integration of life-like art. These developments are occurring at the same time that many scientists are becoming more involved with mimesis and representation (at least on the nanoscale) even though they are of course modifying the world. It is essential that these new technological developments incorporate a cultural component that includes re-thinking humanism or what it means to be human in these changing terms. We need to explore ways of using these new tools to access our past and future within the present in order to maintain our cultural diversity while creating rich new hybrid forms of art, entertainment and life. The decisions of what it means to exist within this world that science fiction has been charting during the past several decades should not be left to scientists, engineers, politicians and the military – industrial complex. Issues that address what can be built and accomplished in the nanoscale universe need to be explored by the public in ways that are experimental and critical while communicating the implications of future developments.
In another scenario of refictionalization, one could see that escaped and mutant versions of modified plants would begin to spread and a situation similar to the Borges story where the map becomes the territory actually takes place. Only it is the territory that finally remains in tattered shreds in various regions of the profuse desert of prolific and disease resistant plants that aren’t plants. In the case of nanomaterials replacing organic surfaces with ones that are impervious to decay and erosion, but not to mutation and change, we could end up with a new world built on the premise that it would require little maintenance, while actually needing constant reading and interpretation. In fact this simulation could require more maintenance to control mutations and the catalytic changes of positive feedback that could result in out of control rapid, accelerated growth, rather than slow evolutionary change. At this point where information and material properties would be intelligent and self-propagating, we would also change. Through molecular and quantum computing we would co-inhabit the world with intelligent artificial life forms who perhaps initially become the farmers of this extensive simulation whose purpose is to control and maintain the simulation within certain boundaries. It is possible that massively parallel quantum computers and devices would be ideal for maintaining this simulation. This is a scenario of the near future and it may be that we never create quantum and molecular computers that are capable of these phenomena, or that the applications development will be slowed by competing technologies. However I believe that it will be possible to create quantum devices and quantum algorithms surprisingly quickly.
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