Scattered Thoughts on Glowing Trees and Other Transgressions

The New York Times website ran an article this morning about a bioengineering scheme to create glowing plants that could replace our current lighting technologies through their bioilluminescence.  Evidently hobby scientists in “communal laboratories” are making use of crowd-sourced fundraising in order to finance projects such as this.  The predictable, and probably justified reaction to this story might be to call to mind the common reading of Frankenstein as a cautionary tale of scientific overreach.  I might add that this reading does not even begin to unlock what is most intriguing about Mary Shelley’s novel, but I don’t care to get into that here.1  Emancipated from the old channels of funding, like Victor Frankenstein the people profiled here are working outside of the structures of institutional knowledge.

What struck me instead was the connection to Singularity University, a Silicon Valley based collective of technophiles in the academic and business sectors.  On a slow news day they can usually be hauled from the pages of Wired magazine onto more general interest domains to air their fantastic predictions of the future.  This is the crowd that you hear telling us that within a generation technology will allow for the transcending of our limited, slowly decaying biological bodies into a state of pure consciousness on a hard drive somewhere, where we will live forever in fear of nothing, except perhaps for the occasional stray kitchen magnet.  It’s a fantasy that doubtless looks more convincing if you happen to be a wealthy white employee of Google living in a gentrified San Francisco neighborhood with a reliable source of electricity.

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On a related note, NPR yesterday aired a story about one Corinna Lathan, another who has drifted from academia into the private sector.  Lathan is interested in more thoroughly saturating daily experience with those technologies with which we are already amusing ourselves to death (sensors on clothing that can read our emotional and physical states, glasses that display information about our surroundings, etc.).  In the introduction NPR draws a connection to another vision of technological excess more recent than Mary Shelley’s, the Borg from Star Trek.  As a Star Trek fan myself, I have more than once been drawn into a discussion of the Borg as an allegory for this or that.  It’s a topic that can occupy fans for days.”  I don’t tend to argue much with the “Borg as communist” thesis, although if we wish to go down that road, we should say more specifically that the Borg can be read as reflecting American Cold War ideological anxieties about the society in the “Second World.”  But like so many common sense readings, this one in my view misses what’s really interesting about the Borg.

If we start asking about the difference between the Borg and the set of relations that govern life on the U.S.S. Enterprise, then the apparent differences between the two start to collapse.  If the Borg are an allegory for communism, then surely that is so because they completely level the chain of command that structures Starfleet and that is the subject of so many plots.  But in this they have only put into practice the Federation’s democratic platitudes.  More than that, though, is the relation to technology.  Like the Borg, the people on the Enterprise live in, with, and through technology, and when minute 40 to 45 comes around and it’s time for the thrilling climax, the day can always be saved by pulling a rabbit out of some kind of techno-hat.  The key difference, it seems to me, is the illusion maintained on the Enterprise that the edges of the human body delineate some sort of border, marking off the physical interior as a sovereign space from the inorganic.  The illusion is maintained in spite of the fact that they all eat food from a kind of 3D printer.  Picard’s assimilation is a major moment of trauma in the series, but we already know he was pursuing his career with an artificial heart beating in his chest, and as we learn in the episode “Tapestry,” that piece of equipment signifies a watershed moment in his own subject formation.  Perhaps the real horror of the Borg with their cubic vessels and grotesque bio-technical bodies is simply that they present to the Enterprise an image of itself stripped of the aesthetic layers that support the illusion.

1. Instead I can recommend Paul Outka’s essay “Posthuman/Postnatural: Ecocriticism and the Sublime in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in LeMenager, Stephanie (ed.) Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2011. 31-48

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