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  • Memory, Brains, and Narratives? The Humanities as a Testing-Ground for Bioethical Scenario-Building

On one of the first warm days of spring, students from my Ethnic Literature course and I gathered on the porch of the English House to explore and pull apart a durian fruit. Repeatedly referred to in Larissa Lai’s novel Salt Fish Girl (2002), durian is a Southeast Asian fruit notorious for its pungent smell. Banned from airports, frozen in Asian markets, the durian’s smell lingers, nonetheless, in spaces from which it is barred or obscured.

We stood together, twenty-three of us, in an impossibly small space. The durian, about the size of a soccer ball and dangerously spiky, dug itself into the wooden deck. Beneath its armor, which we punctured with a miniature hammer, was cream the color of custard but with the scent of peppers, fish, and rotten pineapple. Its complex scent rivaled only by its taste, I urged my students to touch, smell and taste it. This was, after all, the first time many of these students had ever seen such a fruit.

A signifier burdened with the weight of many meanings, in Lai’s novel the durian represents disobedience. Aimee desires this fruit, that grows only in the “unregulated zone” and is therefore unsafe to consume, in the first weeks of a love affair. From the consumption of the unregulated durian comes a child even though, at sixty-three, Aimee is well past child-bearing age; in the world of the novel, the durian has been modified to induce fertility in human women. And so the seed inside the durian Aimee consumes is actually Nu Wa—the Chinese Goddess of creation—reincarnated as Miranda Ching, the novel’s protagonist. Disobedience and unruliness extend to other aspects of the story. From the genetic modification of plants that make post-menopausal [End Page 53] women pregnant to the corporation settlements that skilled workers such as Miranda’s parents inhabit, contagions, infections, and barrier crossings abound. Readers learn that the “unregulated zone” is not the only place where durian fruit, and other less savory products of scientific experimentation, reside.1

While the social and political import of science fiction like Salt Fish Girl is firmly established, there is little research on the role that literature and media might play in bridging gaps between bioethics, neuroscience, and the humanities.2 Scholars in the field of bioethics tend to see a gap between bioethics and neuroscience alone; the solution, they argue, is to make room for ethics modules or stand-alone bioethics courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels of science and medical education.3 This paper suggests instead that the humanities can function as a theoretical testing ground for bioethical scenario-building whereby scholars use literature and other forms of narrative representation to theorize and teach emerging bioethical issues in the sciences. To demonstrate this, I offer three case studies in which artists explore the ramifications of augmenting neurological memory.

The stakes of centering this paper on memory—neurological memory in particular—are high indeed. As Alison Winter suggests, “the sciences of memory may well prove at least as consequential for the future of our society and our selves [as debates about climate change].”4 Vital to legal testimony, historical record, personal life narratives, and basic cognitive functioning (including reading, speaking, and physical mobility), the various processes that make up semantic and autobiographical memory shape individual consciousness and identity. They are the building blocks of both personal and communal realities. Furthermore, neural augmentation is no longer simply theoretical or “speculative,” so we urgently need to apprehend its social ramifications. Even now, most scientific research on neurological memory augmentation pays only lip service to the dual-use issues that accompany different modes of augmentation, whereas fiction writers such as Lai in Salt Fish Girl, Joss Whedon in the television series Dollhouse (2009–2010), and William Gibson in the novel Neuromancer (1984) have thought through those issues in far greater detail. They explore the dangerous potentialities of neurological memory modification, including women without bodily autonomy, men severed from corporeal reality, governments in shambles, mass amnesia, slavery, and “mind death.” These case...

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