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  • On Genetic Programs and Feedback Networks
  • Stephen Dougherty (bio)

Whatever we choose to call it—posthuman, postmodern, millennial, global, hypermaterialist—the condition of our present epoch is chiefly characterized by the redefinition of the world as information. We are constituted as subjects according to the places we occupy within the information flows of capital, labor, and goods. We are "informed" by the practices according to which we consume the media delivered to us by an array of analogue and digital communications technologies. In terms of ontology, many chemical, physical, and biological processes have been redefined as informational processes, such that our very bodies are now reducible in both scientific and popular discourses to intricate patterns of swirling data. These discourses instruct us—metaphorically, yet somehow with a profound conviction in their literalness—that we are vessels for the perpetuation of the immortal message of our DNA.

Given the role that genetic information occupies as the new primordial substance, simultaneously embodied and disembodied, the question of how it is ordered is critical both within and beyond the physical and life sciences. How do genes replicate the patterns that constitute the biological world conceived as streaming data? What physical laws ensure informatic stability? What rules govern how informational patterns change over time? The responses to such questions have themselves changed considerably over the last half-century. However, what has remained the same is how those responses impinge on society and politics, both reflecting and reproducing the broader cultural conditions within which they have [End Page 263] been formulated. Thus François Jacob and Jacques Monod's modeling of the genome as a computer program conjured a Cold War world of hierarchy and authority, centralized command structures, rigid determination, sharply defined borders and boundaries, and linear logic. In more recent decades, a network model of genetic communication has emerged. In this paradigm there is no center of command per se, no single gene or group of genes capable of issuing orders, yet the genes prove capable of collective functioning. They exhibit a pattern of emergent or self-organized behavior, a product of the complex and purely horizontal interactions between the individual nodes, or genes, in the network. As Steven Shaviro explains in Connected, the network

works through multiple feedback loops. These loops allow the system to monitor and modulate its own performance continually and thereby maintain a state of homeostatic equilibrium. At the same time, these feedback loops induce effects of interference, amplification, and resonance. And such effects permit the system to grow, both in size and complexity.1

Insofar as the feedback loops in network theory are nested, these complex genetic interactions are themselves coming to be understood among some scientists and researchers as products of interactions with other cellular components—a once-heretical notion that flies in the face of the "Central Dogma" of one-way information flow from genes to proteins.

Unlike the program heuristic, as many self-organization theorists insist, network logic bodies forth the order of a world made more supple, sinuous, and open to the play of difference. Whereas the genetic program was preeminently a Cold War artifact, the network model elicits the image of a post–Cold War world of dispersed authority, flexible control structures, increased complexity, nonlinearity, and contingency. The promise of liberation from old historical constraints has made up a fundamental aspect of network discourses both in genetic science and in other disciplines. For example, the cultural critic Mark C. Taylor argues in The Moment of Complexity that the rise of network logic in genetics, cultural theory, cognitive science, and evolutionary theory marks the end of modernity because it constitutes "the nonlinear dynamics of systems that act as a whole [End Page 264] but do not totalize."2 Whereas the classical structures and dialectical systems of modernity (up through the Cold War) have historically tended toward totalization—that is, they inevitably have sought to exclude otherness and repress difference—Taylor explains that complex systems exist on the edge of chaos. As such, they remain open to contingency and futurity in a way that classical structures figured by the Cartesian geometry of the grid do not.

Yet the broad social implications of networks are far...


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pp. 263-285
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