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Pilot Issue

How we speak about bio-technologies

Editor's note: Genetic engineering is currently a much discussed subject both in mainstream media and in activist groups struggling against the strategies of power of such agrochemical giants as Monsanto and Novartis, or medical corporations like Bayer or American Home Products. If you look at the struggle against the European Patent Directive, you will notice that the struggle was quite successful, for some time. The European Parliament twice rejected the legal text. Then, the chemical industry's public relations departments used a powerful means of changing the outcome in a third debate on almost the same text - they had patient organizations do the lobbying for them. The effect was impressive. It seems that a substantial number of parliamentarians, and apparently other people too, are sensitive to the chemical transnationals' promises of heaven on (medical) earth, and allow their attention to be diverted from profits to promises and hopes.

We think that in struggling against gene technologies, it is essential to have a close look at how the attractivity of those technologies are created in public discourse. What images are used in describing genetic processes? Which hopes or fears of people do the promises of genetic engineering appeal to? Who believes in genetech and why?

The following article by Stephan Geene and Renate Lorenz looks at how we speak about gene and other biotechnologies, and how their attractivity is constructed against the fundamental failures of those technologies, in all but the field of profits and social control.

(Olga & Alain)

[Source: geld.beat.synthetik (Copyshop 2), Edition ID-Archiv, 1996, pp. 8-27]

read me

by Stephan Geene and Renate Lorenz (translation from German by Alain Kessi)

Contents of this article:


In the course of the thematic evening on Arte [French and German culture- and education-oriented television station; ak] on the question "Genetic engineering, danger or chance?", two French advocators and two German critics of gene technologies are invited to a round-table discussion. In her fairly long contribution, the sociologist Gerburg Treusch-Dieter criticizes the often-made demand to control the dangers and the chances of gene technologies by means of legislation. According to her, the decisive questions elude legislative approaches. She quotes an example from the United States, where a field on which genetically modified corn (Brit. maize) was grown, was flooded and the question arose whether the modified genes could be transmitted to other organisms through the water. The processes going on on this field are outside the view of the observer, says Gerburg Treusch-Dieter. How could one then demand that a "right" be applied. Overall the "vocabulary of security" used in such legislation shows how besides the point the social/state measures are. It is part of a militaristic language according to which, e.g., a prison's "high security wing" is set up; this language cannot be reconciled with the promise of "salvation", of "healing" through gene technologies. Noëlle Lenoir, member of the French constitution council and advocator of gene technologies, introduces her reply with the remark: "I understand what you are saying, from an emotional point of view, but less from the point of view of the argumentation."


The exhibition "20 years of genetic engineering, pros & cons" in the Museum of Natural History in Basle is announced as a "special exhibit" since it has been worked out in a common effort by advocators of genetic engineering (especially the corporations Ciba, Roche and Sandoz) and organizations critical of genetic engineering. A general plan shows the exhibition subdivided into five sections. Sections 2 to 4 describe the processes of hereditary transmission, a genetic engineering laboratory and the applications of gene technologies. About Section 2 for instance it says: "Learn to know what genes are and how they work. You can test two of your own genes yourself." In the process, knowledge about hereditary transmission can be acquired "by playing", by trying, e.g., to match pictures of children to pictures of their mothers. Human genetics is represented using the prevalent metaphors, such as the image of the matchbox in which the entire genome fits, or the metaphor of the genetic information which describes the gene as a "code" for the development of body functions. Section 5 of the exhibition is devoted to the assessment of the impact of the technology and to the ethical arguments for or against the use of genetic engineering - such as genetically engineered medication or foodstuff.


A TV scientific broadcast: music (heartwarming). Voiceover: "Gene technology. After years of research work in the laboratory, the youngest branch of biotechnology has now reached the long-awaited breakthrough to profitability. In California at least. Los Angeles, the Golden West. There are more than one hundred gene technology firms there. This is where the very most important innovations of the past 50 years have come from. With a microscope and a micromanipulator, the genetic engineer alters the genes of fertilized egg cells. Parts of a foreign gene are injected into the cell with a glass needle. Planned in advance on the drawing board, purposeful and controlled. With the penetration of the needle a new life has been created, with characteristics hitherto unknown in nature in this form. Man has now really begun to take nature, evolution into his own hands."

Further on, the broadcast concentrates on the Californian company AMGEN which is already testing six genetically modified pharmaceutical products. The greatest profit - a turnover of around 350 million dollars is expected - is likely to come from the production of a human enzyme ("Epo") by genetically modified bacteria. The company AMGEN uses its information edge - it maintains consultancy contracts with 12 university professors all over the United States. The television program notes that 60 scientists from Harvard University alone represent 33 biotechnology companies.


An advertising of the US-American company Operon for synthetic DNA shows a fruit/a vegetable, half banana, half zucchini ("the zuccana"). The text reads: "At $ 2.80 per base, OPERON'S DNA makes anything POSSIBLE." (1)


Under the title " 'Genetic art' builds cryptic bridge between two cultures" (2), the magazine "nature" in November 1995 reported on an exhibition at the Harvard University in Cambridge. This collaboration between artists and scientists refers to an exchange of letters between the two Nobel prize laureates Max Delbrück and George Beadle. In 1958, Delbrück sent a telegram to Beadle at the Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm, containing a row with 229 letters. They formed a coded message in which each of the letters A, B, C and D corresponded to a DNA base, and a sequence of 3 bases in its turn stood for a letter in the English alphabet. Beadle deciphered this message "Crack this code or give back the Nobel prize" and replied with another coded message. Delbrück sent a new message, this time in the form of a row of colored toothpicks, which when decoded read "I am the riddle of life. Know me and you will know yourself." Speaking of the exhibition initiated by himself at Harvard University, the "unofficial and unpaid" artist in residence (3) Joe Davis explained that it reflected the notion that - however much had been discovered about it - the DNA still remained "the riddle of life". The aim of the sculptures developed was, Davis went on, to "make the invisible visible", an effort which is common to art and science. In addition to, e.g., a sculpture made of colored wooden sticks, the "Riddle of Life" code was also to be inserted - using the relatively new PCR technology - as a synthetic DNA sequence into Escherichia Coli bacteria (a gene technological intervention). Davis wanted to present these recombinant E. Coli organisms in the exhibition in a deep-frozen state. The security department of the university then demanded that the cultures be "inactivated" using formaldehyde and chloroform, a demand which the head of the security department, John Mekalonos, considered an "absolutely sensible proposal which does not interfere with Davis' artistic freedom". Joe Davis emphasized that the idea of using DNA to develop an "entirely new form of communication and of artistic expression" fascinated him. He rejected, however, the idea of "killing" organisms he considered "harmless" and decided instead to exhibit only the synthetic DNA in a deep-frozen state. The anthropologist of biology, Sarah Zehr, who also took part in the exhibition, said she agreed with Davis that it was "unnecessary to fix the cultures". The "DNA is inactive and codes nothing". But she accepted that DNA in Cambridge was still a political issue. "There are still a few old resentments dying hard."


Gene technology is brought into circulation in society by TV programs, feature films, newspaper reports, presentations, exhibitions, advertising, discussions in a doctor's office. Representations like those in the examples above contribute to determining the social and individual relation to the models coming from science and to the promise of applications. Neither gene technologists nor critics of gene technology are immune to these effects.

Today, in general, conflicting worlds of ideas are connected to each other by gene technology: The clean, efficient, glittering images of new technologies from the computer sector reappear in gene technology as "code", "message", "copy" - i.e., the arsenal of disturbance-free + immaterial functioning. But gene technology also refers to another area, of illnesses, pregnancies, birth, dying. While the latter is associated with duration, weariness, fatigue, fear, bodily resistance, the technology in the consumer sector is associated with speed, precision and indifferent painlessness. The word "gene technology" relates the two fields to each other. The traditional motive (topos) of "health" fulfills the function of a mediator between the two "worlds of experience": As a commodity, health promises a way out from the socially rather tabooed zone of bodily limitations and a way into the phantasm of a sovereign existence as a consumer.

Each of us on their own goes through the socially predetermined ideological patterns which are embodied in (bio-) technologies: by falling into the trap of the technologically mediated expectations of happiness, ownership and self-experience and through individual skepticism or resistance. The obvious economical interests of the pharmaceutical industry must impose this new type of goods, i.e., must develop new forms of adaptation for the user/patient. To what extent such adaptation can be achieved by building up the attractivity of the technologies, is at this moment being field tested through the current hype on bio-technologies and communication technologies (internet, etc.). People are not helplessly exposed to this - be it only because past attempts to allow other forms of attractivity ("jute instead of plastic") are an integral part of the set of social instruments. This finds its prolongation on the level of the resistance against the authoritarian gesture of medicine (and reaches all the way to the wide dissemination of alternative medicine + then turns into the integration of this critical potential into a 'window' of the capitalist choice of goods). Thus the urgency of new communication technologies asserting itself, and its carrying over to bio-technologies induces one to underestimate the broadness of contradictory elements (cyberpunk, ecotechno, hyppieism) contained in this fuzzy culture paradigm ('techno-culture') (cf. 'Strange Weather' by Andrew Ross, 4). This spectacle of assertion has overshadowed another line of development: the seclusion of the scientific discourse or the rather long history of attempts by critics to open this discourse (e.g., epistemology with Canguilhem, sociology of knowledge with Gernot Böhme + feminist critique of science).


The disparaging of the feminist sociologist Gerburg Treusch-Dieter in the TV discussion shows that the debate around gene technology is not about a pro and con of 'good' arguments. The knowledge on genetics and gene technology is considered to be expert knowledge not accessible to persons outside a constructed community of natural science. While this knowledge is considered to be objective, criticism/resistance is considered subjective (attributions which apply doubly to female critics). There is no way to speak of a balanced coexistence - often demanded in the name of 'pluralism' or 'democracy'. Arbitrary disparaging, intrigues, deals, representations of oneself, gender struggle, career expectations etc. are part of this debate.

In this concrete example the historical separation between the social sciences and the natural sciences (the 'two cultures') comes to bear, in which the latter claim their need to refer to the requirement of objective facts, while the former only embody an additional cultural achievement of thinking about ethics and sense. Even if it is widely recognized by science theory that this separation is itself not objective and that mental, psychological and social factors make the scientificity of science possible in the first place (5), in practical terms all non-scientific arguments retain 'emotional value', i.e., are subjective and relative. Gerburg Treusch-Dieter's line of argument in the Arte program, pointing out the contradiction between the security rhetoric of bio-technologies and their metaphors of salvation, has a similar claim to 'objectivity' as, say, a thesis on the program logic of a cell - both introduce into their observations preliminary knowledge and prejudice, both make an implicit judgement on what might be sensible in research. The 'world stands on its head' when, as in the Arte program, the line of argument of Treusch-Dieter receives sympathy, even approval, but this explicitly refers only to its quality as an emotion (the moderator becomes pathetic and thinks he sides with Treusch-Dieter when he expresses how important he thinks emotions are in this debate) and thus denies the seriousness of the argument.


Along the prejudice of an objective 'expert knowledge' and a subjective/critical discussion, the exhibition on 'the pros and cons of genetic engineering' separates research in the field of gene technology from its applications. The representation of hereditary transmission (Section 2 of the exhibition) - what does the genome (the molecules to which heredity is attributed) look like, how does it determine the human being and how do he + she pass these determinations on to their heirs - is excluded from this critique. The model - by and large the double-helix outlined by Watson and Crick in 1953 and the description of its functioning - is presupposed. Conflicts within science as the model was imposed, deviations, alternative and more complex models ('jumping genes', retroviruses, regulator genes, cDNA, so-called 'mutations') go unmentioned both usually + in this exhibition.

Gerburg Treusch-Dieter in a text (6) commented on the image used also in the exhibition in Basle, of the matchbox fitting the complete human hereditary material (meaning the DNA of all the body's cells). According to this image, a surprisingly little amount of substance is responsible for the development of all body functions. The rest of the body, a kind of passive effect or surplus of this development, is excluded from the image of the matchbox. And so is feedback from psychological, social and chemical factors on hereditary material. From a philosophical point of view, the DNA according to this representation founds the identity of the subject.

In the exhibition the 'laboratory' (Section 3) is located between the representation of the model of heredity and the discussion on applications. In fact, the economic success of an application feeds back to the laboratory and to the granting of further research projects. With the distinction between "Science in the Making" and "Ready Made Science", Bruno Latour describes the fact that the laboratory is a kind of real and symbolic interface for coincidence, conflicts and industrial interests which however do not find their expression in reports on research results. (7) In the exhibition, the laboratory is represented only through its installation equipment. The power relations sedimented there are not part of the representation, and therefore not part of the critique.


The TV program on the AMGEN company however names the economic relations + dependencies between research and applications - the industry finances research at universities and thus makes decisions on potential research projects. The universities pass on information about potential areas for investment to the industry, which in its turn sets the trends for research projects. Despite this critique the program contributes to imposing the model of a gene technological intervention - the assumption that specific DNA fragments can be included in cells in such a way as to have a predictable effect on the functioning of the organism. The inclusion of the DNA fragment is represented in a computer graphic and apparently 'observed' through a microscope. It is commonplace even in TV programs critical of gene technologies to use computer graphics without labeling them as simulations. It is thus suggested that the transfer of genetic material can be visualized or controlled in this way at all. The representation in the program anticipates the 'success' - both economical and technological. The non-functioning of so-called gene therapy (a word creation which already links the gene technological intervention with medicine, with the anticipated 'healing') on the other hand shows that such a simplified model of control cannot be applied to the phenomena observed.


The advertising with the zucchini-banana ("makes anything possible") ironically adapts a scenario such as had been developed by critics of gene technology. Scenarios are instruments often used in technology impact assessment in order to make conceivable or probable futures imaginable. They are used to willfully create wishes with the recipient about the active design of this future. "Scenarios of horror" such as monstrous breedings have been sketched by gene technology critics in order to provoke rejection of gene technologies. The representation of such scenarios however also suggests the feasibility of the projects the critique refers to. It is interesting enough that with twisted humor, a biotech company builds an exaggerated hybrid ('zuccana') into its advertising campaign. In doing this, it self-confidently hints at a problem of this traditional 'horror critique'. When in opposition to these 'Frankenstein' visions the loss of 'nature' is deplored, then nature is asserted as an area of non-technology. This nature untouched by relations of power however does not 'exist'. It functions as an ideological instrument which on the one hand raises technology to the status of the only paradigm of our culture and on the other, with its pretended 'naturalness', has a conservative effect (the 'natural' role of woman, etc.). The 'nature' of a forest is a product of culture, not only because a forest needs an idyllic gaze in order to associate with nature what we associate with it (quiet, purity), but also because our forests have been changed since the middle ages by human intervention and are nowadays cultivated forests.


In the exhibition project at Harvard University cultural and political antagonisms collide in complex ways. It demonstrates how playful + born by metaphysical feelings the 'pioneers' of gene technology were, as the metaphor of the 'riddle of life' ("Know me, and you will know yourself") shows. This makes the 'pioneers' maybe 'human'/likable but also hints at the non-neutrality of their approach. The artist ('as researcher') in his/her turn makes use of the technical state-of-the-art of genetic manipulation for his/her work. Where seemingly interdisciplinary boundaries are lifted here, in the same moment the separation of the various cultural planes is reiterated. While the two scientists received the Nobel prize, the artist has a merely tolerated and unpaid position. The material for his commentary is drawn exclusively from the playful + metaphysical aspects of gene technology, its surplus which contributes to creating and reinforcing its social meaning. Ultimately, it is not the artist who makes 'free' decisions, but the security department for which an economically meaningless project is the perfect occasion to prove its 'no-compromise' attitude in matters of security.

The artistic work planned here for Harvard University, the live organisms put on display (as was the original project of the artist) or the DNA finally displayed make their aesthetic deal through playing with the invisible, non-graphical. Looking at the organisms, one could not have noticed that within them there is a coding DNA that 'means' a saying. But it is precisely this non-seeing in relation with the knowing-about-it which is aesthetically in a 'sublime' way ennobled in this project. In addition, the establishing of DNA as a form of communication blindly anticipates the social project of treating DNA precisely as such.

Though the 'two cultures' have met in this project, they did so only in order to see the presupposed separation confirmed - in this form, they have nothing to tell each other.


Gene technology belongs to the bio-technologies, in the sense that the latter designate all technologies in which one proceeds purposefully on a biological/biochemical level. On the other hand, the term "bio-technology" receives its strong meaning only with the spread of gene technologies.

This central position of gene technology for the new industrial applications of biology/chemistry/bio-technology stems from the fact that gene technology sets to work at the point where organisms are themselves active in producing, namely at the growth, i.e., the cell division.

Genetics, the 'science of heredity', is not new; the fact that characteristics are transmitted is obvious from family resemblance. The historical development of genetic research from the experimental 'beginnings' to its apparent breakthrough with the discovery of the double helix has followed a winding path and can be told in different ways. Its experimental side oriented towards mutation is especially interesting; the attempts to theoretically subdivide heredity in elements and methodize it made a qualitative leap in 1927, when the geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller drew the conclusion, from his experiments with the fruit fly Drosophila, that the cell as the location of heredity allowed manipulations which did not necessarily lead to the death of the cells. It was more by accident that he recognized that a radioactive irradiation of fly zygotes provoked modifications, such as limbs attached in a variety of places. These flies were viable and brought forth further generations bearing analogous modifications. With an immediate normal/abnormal pattern (8) at hand, at this stage only the possibility of an intervention in the growth of the flies was proved. Muller and an already not-so-small circle of other scientists drew the non-obvious conclusion that with continuing development of research, such an intervention could eventually be made purposefully.

The plausibility of the double-helix model - i.e., its success in the science community - has lifted cognitive contradictions and unified fragmented approaches (such as the 'Phage Group', a group of scientists around Max Delbrück). In principle, i.e., on the level of the model, what happens in the cell now seems explainable. Precisely these models of genetic activity which are present nowadays on all levels of communication are a problem in themselves, with their one-dimensional technicality charged with meaning. To repeat them here in the book instantly brings along the whole scenario of a truth of life held in technical termini. The endless metaphorical descriptions of the 'program', the 'building blocks' or the 'alphabet of life' carry, besides the claimed (but never materialized) determinism of the cellular processes, also a reification of what life is supposed to be. While 'life', 'growing up', 'death', as subjective factors are experienced [by the subjects; ak] as rather obscure + contradictory, a phantasmagoric substance which - once completely grasped - is meant to embody the solved riddle of life, is now offered to the subjects. Maybe the fact that dreams of a reified truth (fleece, grail [from Greek and Christian mythology, respectively; ak]) shine through is too trivial to have greater meaning.

The model of the DNA double helix describes the detail structure of the chromosomes as long chain molecules, the desoxyribonucleic acid. According to this description, such a molecule consists of two threadlike arrangements of bases facing and spirally coiled around each other. The specific sequence of the 4 bases adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T) is considered to be the 'genetic code' or the 'alphabet for building up all important substances'. The bases are arranged in complementary patterns: A always faces T, and G always C. The formation of a new double helix, e.g., during cell division, is described as the dissociation of the two threadlike chains after which complementary bases dock onto the bases of each of the separated chains. In this case, one speaks of an 'identical copy'.

A 'gene' designates a fragment of DNA (approx. 1000 pairs of bases) which is considered to be responsible for the assembly of a protein. For the assembly of a protein once again the complementary bases dock onto this fragment (where Thymine in this case is replaced by Uracil). They become the so-called 'messenger RNA'. This first copying process is called transcription. The mRNA moves from the cell nucleus to the cytoplasm where it induces the assembly of proteins in the ribosomes (translation). In this process a so-called triplet, a sequence of 3 bases of the mRNA, is responsible for the assembly of one aminoacid - a component of a protein. A 'universality' of the so-called 'genetic code' is deduced primarily from the fact that the correspondence between a given triplet and a given aminoacid is described as being the same in every living being. The various proteins consisting of aminoacids participate in important ways in many different body functions.

Is the description of cell division accurate or not? - This question is not put correctly: Obviously 'there is something' in the cells which can be described in this way; if this was not the case the experiments could not be made. But - by what criteria are the categories, the drawing of boundary lines, the discarding of that which is considered irrelevant, determined? For the material described here could also be analyzed for different parameters, according to other criteria if everything was not already 'arranged' in the experimental setup (the training and selection of the scientists, the financing, the machines to be used, access to the laboratories, the formulation of research goals, etc.).

Seen from this perspective the technological approach is not fundamentally more correct than for instance an approach based on natural medicine (naturopathy), but not falser either. The various 'schools' cite examples to prove the extraordinary conclusiveness of their approach + always also refer to especially glaring examples of the failure of the other 'ideological' approaches. The question which arises as political in this context is in what continuity + with what tendency the 'facts' are selected (e.g., the historical continuity of biologizing and eugenics). On a more concrete level however, such models must be judged based on what role they attribute to the subjects. The deterministic picture is especially elaborate in giving the subjects virtually no freedom of movement to interpret their own state + to deduce an action from this interpretation - the subject is faced with a mechanism that can be treated only through a medical complex/system.

The establishment of the double-helix model led to the formulation of the so-called Central Dogma according to which the genome determines body traits and characteristics (the DNA moulds the RNA, the RNA the proteins), but can itself never be influenced in its turn. The hereditary material present in the somatic cells thus determines the processes of life, by which it is not influenced in its turn.

The Central Dogma has been repeatedly challenged and has nevertheless remained to this day the yardstick for the representation. Epigenetic functions influencing the expression of genes, according to the US-American molecular biologist Richard Strohmann, are thus not taken into account. "Let us assume that one hundred genes are involved in an illness (such as high blood pressure or cancer) - this is not an unrealistic number. These genes code one hundred proteins, some of which are enzymes, so that we have an epigenetic network of one hundred proteins, numerous biochemical reactions and many reaction products. This is a system which evolves from minute to minute under the influence of signals from the body and the environment and feeds back to the DNA through various components, thus controlling the expression and non-expression of genes." (9)

Gene Therapy

With gene therapy, the genetical technologization enters the human realm and thus carries on a development which has already established itself in the so-called high-technology medicine and, from cardiac pacemakers to heart transplants, implies existential and symbolic interventions into the corporeal self-perception of the people concerned and their surrounding.

For gene therapy it is necessary to maintain the Central Dogma for, unlike in laboratory cultures in which it is sufficient that from a arbitrarily large number of cells some turn out to react to the manipulation in the manner envisaged, in the application to humans one must be able to expect the highest specificity; for a patient, it is not enough that a certain percentage respond to the treatment - for the individual the point is that the therapy works successfully on them.

'Gene therapy' designates a variety of methods with which illnesses are supposed to be prevented or healed using specific modifications of the human DNA. This is attempted chiefly through replacing genes in order to control a desired body function - e.g., the production of a missing enzyme - or to increase the immunity functions of the body - e.g., in case of cancer. The DNA fragments required are to be introduced into the body cells by means of genetically modified viruses or through physical methods. These procedures however can have a lasting effect only for cells with an ability to divide; most of the differentiated body cells lack this ability, and thus the gene technological intervention has to be repeated each time the body cells have died and are replaced by new ones. Gene therapy also lacks adequate vectors, so-called 'gene taxis' with the help of which the genetic material can be introduced into the cells. In most cases retroviruses are used. These are 'deactivated' in order to exclude (it cannot be safely excluded) that a virus production is started in the infected cells, which could for instance lead to an unknown infection or carry on as a rapid and uncontrolled production of viruses in the body. Problems arise also in that the viruses have to be produced in cell cultures and therefore there could be genetical contamination. Furthermore, it is possible that the virus used as a vector is inactivated by the immune system. It is also not possible to ensure that the vector reaches the intended cell and cannot get into other cells unexpectedly (cf. Weß, 10). So far no illness has been demonstrably healed or improved through gene therapy. Reports on the world's first approved therapy carried out by the group around W. French Anderson and Michael Blaese on two children with ADA deficiency, a very rare immuno-deficiency, long remained quiet about the fact that the ostensibly 'successfully' treated children continued to receive medication. As the doses of the medication are reduced, their state deteriorates again + the measurable number of T cells diminishes. Also in the USA, patients with mucoviscidosis symptoms were treated with somatic gene therapy, in which adenoviruses are used as vectors and applied through nasal spray. In 5 of 12 patients of one experiment the genes introduced could not be detected, in five more patients only in a few cells. There was no improvement of any person's state; five persons came down with pneumonia. (cf. Raubuch, 11) Richard Strohmann notes that at best 2 % of human illnesses make sense as targets for gene therapy, since all the others are due to the complex interaction of many genes and environmental factors. But even 'monogenetic' illnesses, i.e., illnesses provoked by a single gene, can in no way be explained using the simple model of the double helix and the Central Dogma, says Strohmann looking back on his own twenty-year-long research on muscular dystrophy (withering away of muscles). "Take for instance the BRCA-1 gene, the so-called breast cancer gene: So far over a hundred mutations have been found in this gene, and there is no correlation between the mutation event and the symptom; the same applies to mucoviscidosis. This means that even these monogenetic illnesses for which there are linear models - here the gene as the cause, there the illness as the effect - are non-linear. Whether a mutation will give rise to a product which is defect, normal or anything inbetween, depends on the circumstances, on the genetic context, on the environment and a combination of these factors; and it is practically impossible to predict these elements of modulation and regulation." Here, Strohmann disputes the affirmation made in human genetics that hereditary and environmental factors are additive and can therefore be analytically separated from each other.

The expectations of profit linked to gene therapy are based on the possibility of bringing a row of completely new medication onto the market. Specifically, the patenting of processes of therapy would become possible, which so far was ruled out. Because the European Patent Convention excludes patenting of therapies only on the human body; the gene therapeutic treatment however is applied to cells temporarily extracted from the body. These economic factors also apply to the whole spectrum of prenatal diagnostics being developed at this moment, i.e., the prediction of illnesses for which no symptoms are apparent (yet). Predictive diagnostics is applied prenatally, i.e., fetuses are tested for certain genes in order to get confirmation that the child will not be born with a so-called hereditary illness, or disabled. Since the tests are available, every pregnant woman is individually forced to make a choice as to whether she wants to make use of them or not. As a woman becomes older, or if illnesses conceived of as hereditary have occurred in the family, the medical doctor - but also representations in magazines, TV programs, etc. - will recommend her to make use of a test. The availability of the test creates a coercive situation: the omitted test loads as much of a burden of responsibility on the woman concerned as the test she actually goes through: the choice is thus only between two 'dangers'.

The test creates the possibility for a practice of eugenics based also on economic criteria. In Ukraine a medical-genetic decree effective as of 1993 requires every pregnant woman to undergo several prenatal examinations. According to WoZ 8/96 [WochenZeitung, a weekly newspaper from Zürich, Switzerland; ak] the representatives of the authorities in the region of Chernobyl openly mention that fetuses with anomalies would have to be aborted because the state lacks means to look after disabled persons.

Another application of predictive diagnostics is the 'gene test' with adults: This test seeks to identify, and eliminate, hereditary illnesses like mucoviscidosis or Chorea Huntington. Starting in the USA, more and more tests intended to evaluate the 'predisposition' for getting a multicausal illness such as cancer are entering the market. Against the possibility to predict body functions through a genome analysis, Richard Strohmann raises the objection that the epigenetic system is adaptive and can often simply offset genetic modifications such as mutations. "Maybe the complete network breaks down, maybe it reacts by switching on other genes, and maybe it just produces other proteins in order to compensate for the defective one. . Take high blood pressure. In rats a gene has been found which provokes high blood pressure when mutated. A corresponding gene exists in humans. It turns out that five or ten other genes pitch in to compensate for the failure due to the mutation. Our genetic equipment is redundant, so to speak, and therefore defect-friendly. Of course, this is a nightmare for the gene diagnostics, for all the predictive approaches."

That a person with a gene for high blood pressure should not have high blood pressure is an 'exception to the rule' in the logic of gene diagnostics. The exception must by all means be integrated into the rule (by making the rule more specific or by adding a 'yet'; the person does not y e t show signs of high blood pressure + if they die at some point, they have died before the illness broke out), or the theory is abandoned. At any rate the field to be regulated conforms closely enough with this training of regulation to suggest homogeneity even where the individual experiences just as often testify to the failure of the rule - how often do we hear of wrong diagnoses, do people fall life-threateningly ill + the cause + possible treatment remain unknown; not to speak of the fundamental incapacity of classical medical science in the face of AIDS and most forms of cancer. But it is not for its failure that mainstream medical science and research should be blamed, but rather for covering up its incapacities + standing in the way of seeing the field of illness as more complex.

The SPK (Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv; engl. Socialist Patient Collective) in Heidelberg represents a historical position + an attempt existing since the 70ies to regard 'illness as a weapon' - theoretically + practically. The setting up of the patient collective followed the insight that illness cannot be described independently of the capitalist conditions in which it comes about and under which it can be seen as a kind of resistance to or withdrawal from the conditions. The acknowledged sick, writes Jean-Paul Sartre in a text on the SPK, are placed outside the laws of society by a medical 'police officer' by refusing them their most elementary rights. The medical doctor continues to isolate the individual cases as if the disorders detected were a deficiency or a personal fate specific to a person. "Then he compares the sick," says Sartre, "who seem to resemble each other in their specificity, studies the different modes of behavior - which are merely manifestations - and links them among each other. The sick is thus atomized as a sick and classified into a special category in which though there are other sick, these cannot have any social relation to him," since they are seen as particular specimens of the same category. Thus solidarity is precluded, and the collective social causes of illnesses cannot be seen. In the SPK no distinction is therefore made between medical doctor and patient. For this distinction has always led to the medical doctor being the only signifier (namer) and the isolated sick deprived of his/her rights being the only signified (named), and therefore being made a pure object. But every person can be at the same time signifier + signified. The SPK tries to avoid a hermeneutics of the illness, i.e., a semantic analysis of the illness according to fixed rules. In place of healing as a reintegration into society, it puts solidarity + an attack of the patients against the society.

In an extended sense the aim is to give the situation of falling ill a singularity, where the singularity consists in recovering in this situation all the attributions + social entities. A 'microanalysis', as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have labeled this type of procedure developed in the context of May 1968 in Paris and of the anti-psychiatric movement, attempts in a given situation to uncover relevant factors on as many levels as possible. (12) Causes, aims and coincidence are dissolved into their building blocks + must be reevaluated for the respective situation. In this context it is also always clear that the assessment or diagnosis is itself productive + intervenes in the process. Thus potentially countless micro-events become part of the observation - does the person him/herself think in 'medical' categories, is she/he bored; what is atypical in the clinical picture or the development of the illness; what fears are present to what extent; in which logic does the falling ill enter into a relation with work or other expectations. On the other hand, the rule-determined case history imposes a power structure. Between the fragmentation of the elements of a microanalysis which is heterogeneous + open for everything + the standardization by a power apparatus (the traditional clinical picture as a reterritorialization) there is a distance, but also an interdependence. The power (= the illness) can also be desired; a need can be felt to adapt oneself to a given clinical development - there can be a desire to be the victim/object; but also the ever recreated possibility to escape from it in being lucky, in being an exception to the rule, in the collapse of the medical diagnosis or by struggling against the illness, by turning against the system in solidarity with others. This presupposes that the fetishized body as a producer of truth is faded out in favor of a field of possible + diverse meanings.


This is opposed by the economical relations; the health system, the macrostructure of the pharmaceutical industry + presently the need arising from a capitalist crisis to develop new markets using gene technologies. The fact that bio-technologies are always developed and applied in an existing social context explains why critics cannot make any difference, or so little, in parliamentary committees or so-called 'bio-ethics' committees. Ethical criteria for the application of bio-technologies accept the existing capital structure as the basis of society and pretend that its members are equal. They reproduce the socially effective mechanisms of exclusion instead of attacking them as the triggers and concomitants of a bio-technological ideology of progress. In Switzerland for instance, asylum seekers are excluded from kidney transplants.

Looking at reproduction technologies we can also clearly see how the development of medicine remains in agreement with the social regulations of normal/abnormal categories, but also of sexuality and gender and does not lead to an increase of self-determination. Since the 80ies, the relationship between technologization, expectations of profit, and control has been described by women/lesbian groups under the keyword of 'demographic control'. Thus beyond the expected profit in-vitro fertilization, fertilization in a test-tube, stands in a social context which reinforces the family model with a legislation allowing IVF only in married + hetero-couples. Since IVF does not treat an illness, politicizing it, e.g., through self-help groups, is difficult and possible only if women have already been damaged through the massive hormone treatment or the long-lasting + painful but mostly unsuccessful therapy. A critique of IVF can however not consist solely in pointing out the dangers + the limited prospects for success. 'Image pollution' or the attempt to circulate different images already accepts the commodified nature of reproduction technology. 'Counter-advertizing' can function as counter-information, but also serves the individualization created by bio-technological offers.

In this and in many respects the so-called AIDS crisis is a social prototype - as an attempt of launching a gene technological era (of constraint), but also as an accelerator of steps towards collectivizing illness + working on self-determination. A complex system (complex both for the AIDS-sick and on the level of society in the form of anti-sexuality, homophobia, etc.) has been traced back in a strong sense of the word to a micro-agent, in order to graphically embody the invisible as a "killer virus" in models of its functioning. The highly technical definition of the HIVirus as the cause of AIDS 'virtually' already contained the deduction - gene technology as "our only weapon against cancer and AIDS," as it is presented in this standard formula by the gene-technological lobby. Thus gene technology appears as a decisive national + transnational project of the West - as in the Human Genome Project (HUGO) which attempts with immense financial + public relations efforts to 'decrypt' the entire human genome. Even though the sense of the genome project was called into question from the start as a mere exercise in diligence providing no real insights, it continues to serve, with its science-fiction-like announcement of the projected deadline ('2001'), to endow an imaginary community with meaning, much like the landing on the moon in the 60ies. On the other hand AIDS also gives rise to steps towards politicizing illness + placing it in social contexts; although by no means to lift, but at least to modify in decisive ways the being-thrown-back-on-one's-own-resources brought about, e.g., by a positive test result, and the individualization of the problem, through the creation of groups and by seeking publicity. However, AIDS also demonstrates how the complete failure of the medical institutions + research could be twisted into a success story of the discovery of the HIV and its mechanisms. At the same time the enormous potential of new magnitudes of profit begins to emerge here.

The interaction between biological and technological imagery has proved its social effectiveness in the case of AIDS: Whether a 'virus' is an image carried from the field of computers into the biological world or the other way around can almost not be clarified nowadays, but endows the computer viruses with their 'treacherous, creepy' image + conversely has allowed the 'HIVirus' to readily become plausible as a thing with 'deadly precision'.

In his text "Chain Molecules and Chains of Association" Bernhard Gill comments on examples of metaphors used in gene technology and genome analysis, both in popular science texts and in technical journals. (13) He points to the fact that there is a link between the establishment of the double-helix model and the 'victory' of the informal imagery and of "its deductive perspective". The use of informal metaphors has led to a situation in which the processes inside the cells are seen "in analogy to copy, storage and sign treatment automata, in short - the computer". For instance by saying that the metabolism is "programmed" in the genes. What would be more natural then than to "reprogram" it using genetic engineering? The use of such metaphors, according to Gill, leads to a lifting of the boundaries between analogy and object, though not epistemologically (I am not a computer) but at least practically (e.g., in gene therapy). (Gill 419, 420) In addition, through this use of language the success of computer technology and its widely accepted social significance are projected onto the expected success of gene technology.

Communication technologies/art/existentialism of the world of commodities The multiplication of the technologically possible 'communication'/consumption through the Internet etc. corresponds to the reduction of that which participates in the communication: The computer conference with Tokyo uses less 'personal parameters' (arms, legs, voice) than a trip. The person bound to the monitor is not only alone on his journey, but also deserted of parts of her/his own body and, though it is not incorporeal (the brain is body no less than the belly), at least manages without greater use of the muscular and the motor parts. The journey of a person travelling in this way is limited to what is explicitly articulated on the screen. All of the advertising on the internet and the data highways is based on this kick of abstraction. The idea that the information communicated by the computer represents the relevant elements is treated in much the same way as the idea that the genome is representative of a person + that person's life experience. By giving the information 'substance' universal significance, it takes on a similar function as money in capitalist conditions. It seems to be the quintessential medium and is thus pseudo-existentially charged with meaning. Much like money as the universal medium of adventure and property under capitalist conditions not only regulates access to property and adventure, but can also be mistaken in fetish-like ways with what it is supposed to make possible, the mediumistic contact/'communication' appears to the [male?] freak as contact to the world.

But a taste for the rejection of the alleged natural and authentic also contributes to this alienation charged with existence. This form of pleasure can currently be found in the most varied fields - it applies to techno music and fashion (products which draw their chic from being created by technological gear), but also to the withheld chic of grunge + punk revivals, to scenarios of cybersex + a variety of art events. There, elements of an industrial shaping of the subject meet with strategies or moments of calling in question, of searching for the gap. By means of alienation in the world of commodities and the distanced gaze on one's own body participating in fashion trends, on the one hand associations with ideas from bio-technology can be called up, but on the other also their cover-ups + contradictions can collide (such as those of the allegedly genetically determined sexual identity + characteristics, those of gender + beauty).

The transfer of communication technoid qualities to bio-technologies, to biochemical substances and processes does not so much lead to asserting bio-technologies as a natural (as the gene technological industry attempts to do), but rather, instead, as a cultural state-of-the-art. Art that deals with bio-technologies fits in exactly at this point, no matter whether it openly affirms bio-technologies or only 'reflects' them skeptically or playfully. By striving to cope with the technical-scientific significance, it reflects back its significance, conceals its historicity + its functioning within a social restructuring led by interests.

to be continued

The phantasmal aspects of the sovereign access to matter 'planned' by bio-technologies work from within the subject-building in capitalism and are a precondition for these technologies to reach such social plausibility. These effects can be easily observed by everyone. Since however the resistance cannot come from people other than the ones existing now, it has to be developed on the basis of an already existing 'agreement' with what is to be criticized (the already existing relation to techno-attractivity + hospitals). Precisely the subject building + thus the relation to technologies is by no means gender-neutral + this may be one of the reasons why feminists have discussed technologies not only more widely, but also in different ways than other social groups (the academic sector, the left, etc.).

If an objection to this consensus cannot fall back on counter-images (such as images of naturalness and non-alienation) and also does not want to let itself be limited to merely reeling off political criticism which is not itself capable of a counter-cultural practice, then it has to pick up its entanglement with these images, appropriate it and try it out as a political device.

If the rejection of gene and bio-technologies is to be formulated out of this entanglement with technology, there is a danger of adopting the exclusions linked with technology. What about persons who really cannot or will not go into a somehow participatory relation to technologies? Thus the thing being criticized may project its mirror image into the criticism - hence when the 'technological thing' appeals to the desire created in the industrialized West, the critique about it becomes a conversation with themselves of those very conditions, in which once again non-participants are excluded.

Translation of an illustration from a book by Bruno Latour:

"We start with a textbook sentence which is devoid of any trace of fabrication, construction or ownership; we then put it in quotation marks, surround it with a bubble, place it in the mouth of someone who speaks; then we add to this speaking character another character to whom it is speaking; then we place all of them in a specific situation, somewhere in time and space, surrounded by equipment, machines, colleagues; then when the controversy heats up a bit we look at where the disputing people go and what sort of new elements they fetch, recruit or seduce in order to convince their colleagues; then we see how the people being convinced stop discussing with one another; situations, localisations, even people start being slowly erased; on the last picture we see a new sentence, without any quotation marks, written in a text book similar to the one we started with in the first picture." (Latour, p. 15)


1 In English in the original.

2 In English in the original.

3 guest artist.

4 London 1991.

5 Cf., e.g., Thomas S. Kuhn, 1967.

6 Gerburg Treusch-Dieter, 'Jenseits der Geschlechterdifferenz - Das Knacken des genetischen Codes', in: Mitteilungen aus der kulturwissenschaftlichen Forschung 31, November 1992, here: p. 89. (Engl.: "Beyond the gender difference - the cracking of the genetic code")

7 Bruno Latour, Science in Action, Cambridge 1987

8 Muller was, like many geneticists of his time, a proponent of eugenics, who among other things approved of compulsory sterilization. Cf. Ludger Weß, 'Die Träume der Genetik', Nördlingen 1989. p. 16. (Engl. "The dreams of genetics")

9 Richard Strohmann in a discussion with Ludger Weß, 'Die Mausefalle - Der Molekularbiologe Richard Strohmann über das erfolglose 'genetische Paradigma' in der Medizin', WoZ 17. November 1995. (Engl. "The mouse trap - the molecular biologist Richard Strohmann on the unsuccessful 'genetic paradigm' in medical science")

10 Ludger Weß, 'Der grosse Bluff', Junge Welt 10. February 1995. (Engl. "The great bluff")

11 Markus Raubuch, 'Abgekühlte Euphorie - Auf die hochgesteckten Erwartungen in die Gentherapie folgt die Ernüchterung', in GID 108/109, December 1995. (Engl. "Cooled-down euphoria - the high expectations in gene therapy are followed by disillusionment")

12 Cf. Deleuze/Guattari, Anti-Ödipus - Kapitalismus und Schizophrenie, (1972) Frankfurt 1988. (Engl. "Anti-Oedipus - capitalism and schizophrenia")

13 Bernhard Gill, 'Kettenmoleküle und Assoziationsketten. Metaphern in der Gentechnologie und Genomanalyse', in: PROKLA 88, 1992 Nr. 3. (Engl. "Chain molecules and chains of association. Metaphors in gene technology and genome analysis")

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