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diacritics 33.2 (2005) 42-70

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"O Happy Living Things"

Frankenfoods and the Bounds of Wordsworthian Natural Piety

With all the flowers Fancy e'er could feign
Who breeding flowers will never breed the same.
—John Keats, "Ode to Psyche"
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each in natural piety.
—William Wordsworth, "My heart leaps up"
O happy living things! no tongue
      Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gusht from my heart,
      And I bless'd them unaware!
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
      And I bless'd them unaware.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

"O happy living things!"—vitamin-enriched grains; potatoes equipped to kill their predators; silk-producing goats; fast-growing salmon that hardly require feeding. Is it possible to predicate the breathless exclamation that escapes Coleridge's mariner, unaware not of water snakes but of the fantastic array of genetically modified creatures—animals and plants—currently under design or production by biotech industries? Already in May 2000 a New York Times article was announcing the imminent arrival of "fast-growing trout and catfish, oysters that can withstand viruses, and an 'Enviropig,' whose feces are less harmful to the environment because they contain less phosphorus." An article inset describes the emergent production of "pharm-animals":

These domesticated beasts—cows, pigs, goats, sheep, and chickens—have been given the ability to produce pharmaceuticals and other valuable substances in their milk, eggs or semen. Endowed by scientists with foreign genes, often taken from humans, these animals, or bioreactors, as they are also known, earn their keep as living chemical factories. Two companies, the Genzyme Corporation of Cambridge, Mass., and PPL Therapeutics, a Scottish company, already have products from pharm animals being tested in clinical trials supervised by the Food and Drug Administration. Many other animals are [End Page 42] still in the development stage. For example, Nexia Biotechnologies in Canada is working on a goat that carries a gene from spiders allowing it to produce spider silk in its milk. When the spider silk, which consists of extremely strong, light proteins, is extracted from the goat's milk, the substance, potentially, can be used in applications like bulletproof vests.

This last sentence is intriguing. The genetic revolution often bills itself as a second green revolution that will prevent starvation and alleviate disease, promising to feed the world's growing population in terms that tend to essentialize poverty and hunger as inevitable symptoms of a human condition, rather than understand them through the lens of specific colonial and postcolonial histories. But bulletproof vests? The indignant leftist response here would be to deride the collusion between biotechnology and the military-industrial complex—bulletproof vests leaving little doubt as to whose desires count as universal, timeless needs. Yet such a response is perhaps too quick to attribute reason to these genetic experiments in cross-species breeding, and too quick to accept the terms in which biotechnicians present themselves—as the instruments of reason, whether of global capitalism or universal human progress. Part of what this essay wishes to suggest is that to dream up such things and to think of wanting to do them—make a goat produce spider silk in its milk—involve particular fantasies, fantasies not simply about recreating the world in one's image, but about learning to desire the world again, to be excited by it or "surprised" by its existence, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell. The journalist's parenthetical "potentially" indicates that no use has yet been determined, no burning need fuels such experiments, and hints at the boredom behind them—what William Wordsworth might have called the "state of almost savage torpor" in which desire itself has to be invented.

As the New York Times writer's double metaphor of animal as laborer- and factory-in-one suggests—"these animals, or bioreactors, as they are also known, earn their keep as living chemical factories"—the binaries animal-human, machine-animal...