As we have seen in recent decades, not only have the demand for wholesome foods and the obsession with health and environmentalism not meant a return to “traditional” products and processes (although the image of tradition is successfully marketed) but it has accelerated, and will continue to accelerate, the improvement, the enculturization of nature drawing on tradition as a resource to be selectively improved. [. . .] Traditional taste poses a challenge not a threat to technoscience; the more one specifies what is missing from the new product, the more the civilizing process proceeds. Tomatoes aren’t what they used to be? But you don’t like bugs either? Let’s see what can be done. A company in Menlo Park is perfecting a bioengineered vanillin, one of the most complex of smells and tastes. Scientists are approaching museums armed with the PCR [polymerase chain reaction] technique, which enables them to take a small piece of DNA and amplify it millions of times. This recovered DNA could then, at least in principle, be reintroduced into contemporary products. If eighteenth-century tomatoes are your fancy, there is no reason a priori why one day a boutique biotech market aiming at the Berkley or Cambridge market couldn’t produce one that is consistently pesticide resistant, transportable, and delicious for you – and those just like you. In some, the new knowledges have already begun to modify labor practices and life processes in what Enlightenment botanists called nature’s second kingdom.
Paul Rabinow, “Artificiality and Enlightenment:
From Sociobiology to Biosociality” (2005)
* * *
to put this quote in context one needs to know that when writing of the “enculturalization of nature,” Rabinow is not talking about an ahistorical, universal given, but a Nature that has a history, and is itself involved in a particular configuring of our relationship to the world. “Nature,” as histories have shown, is, and continues to be a moving target; what Rabinow is trying to get at is that biotech, biomedicine, is stepping up the game. the question is whether this constitutes an unprecedented development, an epochal shift, or whether a continuity can be established between his postulated molecular-artisanal tomato and the tomatoes humans have been eating for centuries that are nonetheless the products of less streamlined (more “traditionally” horticultural and agricultural) genetic engineering practices?
it depends, i guess.
what immediately comes to mind for me is the suspicion, bordering on conviction, (that is bound up in, but not totally reducible to, precisely the discussion of artificiality/”authenticity” [nature] that Rabinow’s piece deals with) that however skillfully engineered, the genetically manipulated 18th century tomato will taste somehow wrong. you could say that this is just the residue of countless reminders of how bad factory-farmed tomatoes taste in relation to “real” tomatoes, but i don’t think that is the whole story. one need not produce a litany of cultural citations to establish that we have an ongoing anxiety about the limits of our creative powers; unfeeling robots, scheming clones, etc. the cinematic moment that replays itself incessantly in the background as i think about this is the Steak Scene from Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). it’s a shame i can’t find a clip, because it would save some time, but if you don’t recall, it goes as follows (Jeff Goldblum has just run a test with his teleportation device, sending a cooked steak through so that they can compare it to another, unteleported. also present, Geena Davis.):
Seth Brundle: Now, I want you to try this… teleported half.
Ronnie: Oh, are you serious? A monkey just came apart in there.
Seth Brundle: Baboon. …Eat.
Ronnie: [eats it] Oh… Oh! oh, tastes funny.
[spits it out]
Seth Brundle: Funny? How?
Ronnie: It tastes um… synthetic.
Seth Brundle: [Seth smiles and takes the napkin] Mmm-hmm.
Ronnie: So, what have we proved?
Seth Brundle: The computer is giving us its interpretation… of a steak. It’s, uh translating it for us; it’s rethinking it, rather than *reproducing* it, and something is getting lost in the translation.
Ronnie: Me… I’m lost.
Seth Brundle: The flesh. It should make the computer, uh crazy. Like those old ladies pinching babies. But it doesn’t; not yet because I haven’t taught the computer to be made crazy by the… flesh. The poetry of the steak. So, I’m gonna start teaching it now.
the steak in this case is not a copy, or is it? a translation, a transportation? is it like a twist on the old Ship of Theseus: if one deconstructs a boat, and then rebuilds it with all the same parts, is it still the same boat? or the modern referent (like, 10 years ago, when this was considered entertainment), putting a phrase into Babelfish, then copy and pasting its translation, and translating it back, to marvel over the fundamental non-equivalencies of the given languages, the incapacities of the program to grasp the nuances of idiom, of syntax.
there has been considerable debate about how attainable a goal it is map and master the complexities of the chemical interactions that produce the “naturally occurring tastes” in many of our foods, but how much of this is a necessary check on progressive hubris, and how much entrenchedness of the idea that we are not meant to meddle in God’s/Nature’s works? is it humility or mythology that is speaking? for that unattainable qualia, the poetry of the steak, these occupy the same category as (we can argue over whether it is cohabitation with or derivation from) that other unattainable qualia, that possession or suffusion that divides the human from whatever it is that it needs to be distinguished from: the soul. if we are not ready to cede this ground to the spiritual, the property of “life” turns out to be as slippery as Nature, receding further and further into the abstract spaces of physical chemistry, and it is the rearticulation of this question (what is life?), or the reconfiguration of the terms in which it can be posed, let alone answered, that is argued by scientists and science studies wonks alike to be ongoing in contemporary molecular biology, genetics, genomics.
what is remarkable, in light of this, is how often we verge on a rhetoric of transcendence in our attempts to pin down this quality of the natural, the traditional, that we cannot but feel is imperilled in these projects of genetic comprehension and intervention. and that smacks in an interesting way, not of naturalism, folks, but vitalism. right?