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The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture (Part Two)

Posted in Uncategorized by ce399 on 18/12/2009

Events such as the 2001 anthrax attacks elicit fearful images of a new type of war, on in which conventional weaponry will be augmented by more precise, more long-lasting, and more comprehensive genetic weapons or bombs. In fact, this image of the “genetic bomb” is what Paul Virilio points to as the likely outcome of the current “militarization of science” in biotechnology and genetics. 87 For Virilio, the “genetic bomb” is both a literal and metaphorical configuration. It is, quite literally, a new type of weapon, but, as noted previously, a weapon that makes use of technology as its payload (be it viruses, bacteria, or an engineered biological agent). Like all bombs, this genetic bomb will attain its effectiveness through explosion, dispersal, and destruction. But the genetic bomb is also a bomb in a more metaphorical sense in that it serves to proliferate an awareness of the possibility of exterminating the species in a new way. Paraphrasing Einstein, Virilio distinguishes between three types of bombs: the atomic bomb, the information bomb, and finally, the genetic bomb. Whereas the atomic bomb “sets off the question of a possible end of the human species through extinction of a way of life,” the information bomb, produced from research in military mainframe computing, not only makes possible the atomic bomb, but also “allow[s] one to decode the encoding of the human genome map.” 88

The idea of a genetic bomb is not new – indeed, it was concretely imagined by postwar field tests conducted by the United States and the United Kingdom, if not foreshadowed by the deployment of American eugenics policies, which later inspired Nazi medicine. But the doomsday scenario is also a powerful image, having been applied not only to genetics, but also to information technologies (infowar, cyberwar, and the information bomb). Indeed, if the atomic bomb makes possible the idea of total species-wide extermination, then the genetic bomb would appear to follow upon that, but with more refinement: the extermination of genetically targeted populations within a given region. As Virilio notes, the genetic bomb is a more updated term for the population bomb, the demographic explosion that was seen to occur in the United States during the 1950’s. noted by Einstein and many sociologists of the postwar era. But Virilio discounts the population bomb thesis and suggests that, now, the genetic bomb is in the process of engineering new divisions within the species, a “super-humanity that has been ‘improved,’ a eugenic humanity, by virtue of decoding the genome.

Indeed, the 2001 anthrax attacks would seem to illustrate Virilio’s comments, if in a more attenuated form. A literal genetic bomb – a package of weaponized anthrax – triggered a wave of genetic and medical interventions in the body of the population, from new antibiotics and vaccines to biohazard equipment and clothing, to immunization-boosting for soldiers. According to Virilio’s scenario, a kind of preemptive, neoliberal eugenics would soon follow: gene therapy, customized  drugs, consumer devices for monitoring an environment. This attitude of genetic preemption is the result of a new neoliberal eugenics that is combined with the national security concerns of the militarization of science.

87. See Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lottinger, Crepuscular Dawn, trans. Mike Taormina (New York: Semiotext[e], 2002), pp 135-136.

88. Ibid., p. 135. Virilio’s three types of bombs roughly correspond to three technical revolutions in speed: “So, these are the three characteristics for the three revolutions. The revolution in physical transportation came first: movement and acceleration up to supersonic speeds. The revolution in transmissions, which comes second, is the revolution of live transmission. It is the cybernetic revolution.  It is the ability to reach the light barrier, in other words, the speed of electromagnetic waves in every field, not only television and tele-audition, but also tele-operation. Finally, the revolution in transplants, the last revolution, introduces this technology of transmission inside the body by means of certain techniques. After the revolution in transportation and the revolution in transmissions, now with the twenty-first century begins the revolution in intra-organic transplants” (p.99).

The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture
Eugene Thacker
MIT Press 2006
ISBN-10: 0-262-20155-0

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