New Perspectives on the Biotechnology Debate

New Perspectives on the Biotechnology Debate

Visiting sociologists add to BC's scholarship in bioethical issues

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer


Visiting professors in sociology Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, in front of large-screen display of a page from their World Wide Web site. "Technology is not simply gadgets, it is everything. It is us," says Arthur Kroker. (Photo by Justin Knight)
"Experts Plan to Clone Humans"..."Release of Genome Sequence Carries Hope For Cures to Disease, Even Clues to Our Fate"..."Genome Project Can't Explain Human Nature"...

The headlines are arresting. They resonate especially in the Boston-Cambridge-Worcester corridor, where more than 200 biotech firms have grown up around the region's world-famous universities and medical centers, giving the area the nickname "Genetown."

At Jesuit Boston College, such topics as genetic engineering, cloning and the mapping of the human genome have engaged some of the campus' most noted scholars, among them Monan Professor of Theology Lisa Sowle Cahill, Walsh Professor of Bioethics John Paris, SJ, Luce Professor of Nursing Ethics Sara Fry and members of the Jesuit Institute.

But none of their colleagues, it is safe to say, have come at the questions from quite the angle of Arthur and Marilouise Kroker.

Described by Toronto newspapers as "international cyberstars" and "Canada's digital-theory doyennes," the husband-wife duo from Concordia University have brought their mix of performance art and critical theory to Boston College's Sociology department, where Arthur is a visiting professor this year, and Marilouise a visiting scholar editing the electronic journal CTHEORY.

Next month, the Krokers' journal will host an on-line symposium, "Tech Flesh," featuring multimedia explorations of bioethics and technology by contributors from Boston College, Rutgers University and Cornell University.

"CTHEORY will examine the simultaneously ethical, social and political issues raised by the Human Genome Project," the Krokers explained in a joint e-mail last week. "Widely hyped as a 'bible of life' and a 'map' to the future of human evolution, the Human Genome Project throws into sharp ethical relief key social issues raised by this newest phase of eugenic experimentation.

"Simultaneously speaking the language of facilitation (genetic engineering as about the eradication of disease and extending the human life span) and the language of control (genetic engineering as third-wave eugenics), the Human Genome Project, with its vision of pure genes and designer biology, raises again the specter of scientific hubris and the development of a potential genetic superclass.

"In the genetic age, traditional issues of race, class, ideology are very much present. What will be the 'normal' body of the future? What will be 'human' in the era of the genetically engineered body which has been cleansed of all its 'impurities?'

"As editors of CTHEORY, we find Boston College to be an ideal site for launching this project on the ethics of biotechnology. Given the University's commitment to social justice, Boston College is already a major center for ethical reflections on biotechnology and the future of genetic engineering."

The Krokers' book collaborations include Digital Delirium, Hacking the Future: Stories for the Flesh-Eating 90s (with an accompanying CD), and Panic Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Postmodern Scene. Their weekly journal claims a readership of some 2,500 readers in 25 countries around the world. The couple was profiled in a 1999 film about their work and lives, "Hacking The Future: Road Stories For The Flesh Eating Future," based on their book of a similar title.

A taste of the Krokers' post-modern spin may be found at their journal's World Wide Web site, where a previous multimedia event curated by the couple, "Digital Dirt," opens with the following burst:

"What's the smell of blood on the digital tracks? What's the sound of static deep in the wires? What's the color of electronic discharges as they bond flesh to the machine? What's the speed of the body when it has been force-fed by high tech? What's the rate of burn of the digital nerve as it blasts off from the gravity field of the human sensorium?"

"Id," by Bjorn Wangen, one piece of interactive "e-art" in the "Digital Dirt" compendium, invites the online visitor to pass the cursor over an image of a nude man and shatter it to pieces.

The naked-body-morphing theme is central to a piece of new media performance art by techno-composer Steve Gibson, "Telebody: The Altered Human Figure in the Digital World," at www.telebody.ws, where an accompanying essay by Arthur Kroker offers another representative riff on the bio-bending theme.

In the essay, "The Transgenic Art of Telebody", Kroker, blending critical theory with futuristic bebop, lauds Gibson's piece as "a sonic blast off into the gene-time and gene-space of recombinant culture.

"In its high-distort noise and liquid images the castle of modern referentials collapses under the pressure of the aesthetic imagination," Kroker continues. "Gender blinks its way into the floating space of android hermaphrodites, skin smoothes out into Flash flesh cut at the speed of syncopation, and the face itself floats away, not into an aesthetics of facialization, but into something more indeterminate, more tentative, more slippery in the codes."

Said Arthur Kroker in a recent interview: "The 20th century really ends with the triumph of the digital revolution and the 21st century opens with the biotech revolution.

"Technology is not simply gadgets, it is everything. It is us," he said. "How do we navigate something that is dangerous and that wants to shut down your sensibilities? Technology is Western Civilization. You don't have a choice."

 

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