- Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine
In a time that we may describe as increasingly biocultural, Susan Merrill Squier's new book, Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine,is a welcome guide. The book takes as its central subject the now very controversial notion of liminal lives. By this, Squier means those lives that are created and put into the cultural imaginary by actual and figural developments in biotechnology. The now primitive notion of test-tube babies, as they used to be called and about which Squier has written in her book Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology (1995),has birthed itself into the many-headed monster of the new reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization, prenatally engineered fetuses, and xenogenic reproduction, as well as the currently famous or infamous embryonic stem cells.
In this sense, Squier is elaborating the borderlands between life and death, between subject and object, between person and thing. Squier's interest in this liminal world, the world between concepts, between boundaries, is something that must interest us all. If nothing else, we are living in an era that demands attention to this new redefinition of the human in which all is projected and nothing is certain. What is important is that this liminal world is no longer a subject only for scientists but for politicians and the general public as well. The Terri Schiavo case is the tip of the iceberg. Stem-cell research, abortion, end-of-life technologies, genetic engineering, cloning, and so on are in the public view almost daily. Squier raises many interesting and provocative questions about these subjects, and she does this by examining not only bioethical and biotechnical dimensions; she informs the discussion by also bringing fiction into the mix.
For Squier, fiction, particularly science fiction, is not simply a marginalized, often cheaply popular genre, but it is the testing ground for many of the biocultural ideas that will come to the fore. One of the pleasures of reading this book is accompanying Squier on her rambles through the archive of sci-fi literature. Many of the texts mentioned are [End Page 315] works that one has read, but many more are ones that most of us will never read, and which Squier culled from the pulp weeklies and monthlies of the 1920s and '30s. These stories were devoured by devoted readers whose imaginations were in many ways the forerunners, according to Squier, of the scientific research that would later take place in the areas of replacement medicine and regenerative medicine, reproductive and genetic technologies, and antiaging research and practice.
But Squier is not only a literary critic, she is also an historian of science and its culture. She takes us to research laboratories, professional conferences, and various medical practices that parallel these fictional works. In effect, the book analyzes the communications of science and medicine as well as the collective fantasies of a public who reads science fiction and journalism that touted the imaginary—in the sense of future—accomplishments to be attained by researchers who project the applicability of their experiments into a brave new world of practice that includes eternal youth, children created purely by science, cross-species chimeras, prosthetic naturalism, and so on. Indeed, when one writes about this study, one tends to make lists; and when Squier writes, she often gives us catalogs of possibilities.
It is the open-ended nature of the liminal that sets this book off on what becomes a Cooke's Tour of our biocultural age. The reader must be as educated as the author to keep up with Squier's catalog of erudition and amazing examples of both science and science fiction. Pleasing to this reader was a stop in 1926 to observe Dr. Serge Voronoff, who astounded a convention of physiologists in Stockholm with the news that he had grafted the sex organs of a human female into a chimpanzee named Nora and artificially impregnated...