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Configurations 11.1 (2003) 47-79
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What Is Biomedia?
Georgia Institute of Technology
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Virtual bodies, cyberbodies, cyborgs, avatars, hypertext bodies, and a host of other "incurably informed" corporealities continue to populate the ongoing discourses surrounding cyberculture and new media (which, as Friedrich Kittler reminds us, are not so new). 1 At the core of these and other formulations is a concern for the ways in which a medium associated with immateriality and disembodiment will affect our views of having bodies and being bodies (and becoming bodies . . .) . In this almost mythic encounter, an assumedly preinformatic body confronts a set of techniques and technologies whose central aim is to render everything as information—not only can everything be understood as information, but information is everything, in that every thing has a "source code." While some perspectives see this as an emancipatory promise of the posthuman, other, more critical perspectives have questioned the hidden theology masked by the technical speak of pattern, emergence, and code. [End Page 47]
A number of media theories do highlight the "materiality of informatics," or the ways in which information technologies articulate themselves as technologies of immateriality, but there has been relatively little exploration of the ways in which an informatic paradigm pervades the biological notion of the body and biological materiality itself. 2 The aim of this essay is to outline some concepts for doing so, and, hopefully, to point to directions in need of further consideration. As we will see, the position taken here goes against many of the current discussions surrounding cyberculture and virtual bodies. Instead of pointing to the pervasive "informatization" of the body, my aim will be to ask two questions: First, in what ways is the notion of biological materiality already informatic? And second, in what ways does information (biologically) "matter"?
In particular, the wide range of techniques and technologies that are grouped under the rubric of "biotechnology" (or just "biotech") will be considered. The historical trajectory of biotech as a science, as an industry, and as a cultural force has been recounted by others, and will not be repeated here. Instead, the focus will be on biotech as a set of practices in which the body is a medium. Put another way, biotech will be considered here, not simply as a technological instrumentalization of the (natural, biological) body, but as a unique domain in which biology is a technology (in fact, a better technology than any we can build). It is not just that the medium is the message, but that biology is the new medium: the medium is a message, and that message is a molecule. This is the crux of the concept of "biomedia," which will be explained further on.
In its current state, we can describe biotech not as an exclusively "biological" field, but as an intersection between bioscience and computer science, an intersection that is replicated specifically in the relationships between genetic "codes" and computer "codes." Areas [End Page 48] of specialization in biotech, such as genomics, proteomics, or pharmacogenomics, are each unthinkable without an integrated relationship to computer technologies. 3 Increasingly, a large number of the tools that researchers use are not only computer-based, but also Web-based, running from servers housed at universities, companies, or research institutes. As industry publications have noted, the traditional "wet lab" of molecular biology is being extended, augmented, and even replaced by the dry lab of "point-and-click biology" in bioinformatics and computational biology. 4
What Can a Body Do?
This intersection between genetic and computer "codes" is more than merely technical. It involves the intermingling of two disciplines—computer science and molecular biology—which have traditionally held radically different views on the body. To begin with, let us take two techniques, from two related fields, both of which make use of DNA.
The first technique is protein prediction, often referred to as "homology modeling." 5 The field is proteomics, or the study of how DNA sequences produce amino acid sequences, and how those amino acid sequences fold into the complex structures we know as proteins. 6 One way to...