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  • Nano/Splatter:Disintegrating the Postbiological Body
  • Colin Milburn (bio)

This much we know; that it isn't simply our lives at stake, but the very biology that supports them.

—Wil McCarthy, Bloom (1998)

Let the bodies hit the floor.

—Drowning Pool, "Bodies" (2001)

Nanobiology and the Machinic Phylum

At the intersection of biotechnology and nanotechnology, in the hybrid frontier of "nanobiology," we find the future. The future of technoscience and socioeconomic development, certainly—the administration of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, for one, sees nanobiology as an essential route for advancing nanoscience and its attendant industrial potentials—but even the future of "life" itself and what counts as living in the nanotech era.1 For through the perspective of nanobiology, not only does the material horizon of the organism shift from the microscale to the nanoscale (recent claims about "nanobacteria" and "minimalist organisms," for example, instantiate this shift), but life ceases to remain fixed in the domain defined by prevailing conceptions of "biology."2 As nanotechnology theorist Charles Ostman suggests: "[T]he very definition of life itself may be perched at the edge of the next great revolution in medicine—nanobiology. What is emerging now are technologies and applications in the arenas of biomolecular 'components' integrated into microscale systems, . . . synthetically engineered quasi-viral components, modified DNA and related pseudoproteins, biomolecular prosthetics, and biomolecular organelle component 'entities' . . . [that] will redefine the very essence of what is commonly referred to as 'life.'"3 [End Page 283]

With repeated emphasis on the consequences for "life itself," Ostman envisions an inevitable global transformation in the wake of nanobiology, writing that the "'history of the future' is already unfolding and the primary elements of this evolutionary eventstream that are poised to reshape the economies of the world, and perhaps even the very definition of life itself, are currently at hand."4 This collapse of science-fictional speculation into the technological present—typical of rhetorical efforts to legitimate nanoscience and bring molecular nanotechnology into being5 —is more than hype, for Ostman's discovery of the "already unfolding" future at the site of nanobiology works performatively to relocate life elsewhere, beyond biology. The "biomolecular components" of engineered microsystems already become present examples of the "redefinition of life" yet to come: they are postbiological creatures in sufferance, provisional "entities" displaced prematurely from the "evolutionary eventstream." The imagination of nanobiology regularly fabricates autonomous life-bearing agency outside traditional topographies of organismics, cytology, and genetics; biology as such is transformed by the "newly emerging arena of nanobiology, in which the molecular components of living organisms can be 'disassembled' and reconstructed to create viral-like entities" and "biomedical 'systems' which . . . mimic the physiology of living organisms in their operational and behavioral characteristics."6 In this "arena," vital signs migrate beyond biological space via a narratival procedure—informing both scientific and literary texts—that involves a promise, a vision of organelle components liberated from the biological organism, of cytoplasmic systems spilled from phospholipid membranes and thereupon enabled to self-actualize. It is a narrative of opening bodies through nanotechnological processes and reabsorbing subcellular molecularities into the epistemic domain of nanobiology, the domain of their "becoming-entity."

The molecular "entity" materializes as an object of knowledge for the experimental systems of technoscience within a narrative discourse of corporeal violence immanent to nanobiology. This narrativity—which takes place within what I will call the "scene of disintegration"—deterritorializes the components of the body and simultaneously destines the molecular machines of the living cell towards a future where "life itself" has been "reshaped." The scene of disintegration is therefore both specular and speculative: it makes the nanoscale symbolically accessible by "disassembling" organisms and translating molecules into technoscientific representations, but in doing so it also visualizes the "history of the future" and reverse-transcribes the destiny of molecular entities into the present.7 As Ostman suggests, the radical reshaping of life in the nanobiological future is "an emergent, transformative phenomenon which has already become manifest."8 [End Page 284]

Disintegration represents a narrative form of experimentation, both a way of imagining nanobiological operations in advance of their performance and a rhetorical simulation that plays out, even when they are performed, as their script or...


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