Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Global Genome and Biotech in Pop Culture

Eugene Thacker is a Associate Professor in the School of Literature at Georgia Tech whose studies touch on philosophy, science fiction, and horror, with an emphasis on the expanding role of biotechnology. In 2006 Thacker was interviewed by Roy Christopher about his book The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture, which looks at biotechnology as a global phenomenon. Thacker expanded a bit on biotechology in pop culture:
It’s pretty obvious, if one looks around, that the life sciences and biotechnology have pervaded popular culture. A great way of demonstrating this is to look at all of the re-makes of Cold War-era science fiction and comics: Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc. It seems to now be a requirement to somehow put genetics in the stories, even if it really doesn’t make any sense (which is often). I’m less interested in what the director ‘intended’ to mean by this than what it means culturally that genetics, biotech, and even nanotech are always found in SF. One thing it means is that these sciences and technologies are normalized in a way that the general public going to a film will ‘accept’ their inclusion as a matter of course. Certainly there are always SF-geeks who dispute the technical accuracy of how the genetic mutation actually creates the superhero or villain, but on a general level these technosciences have become a part of a certain cultural imaginary. So the question is ‘what conditions had to be in place such that these particular technosciences could become normalized as a part of a certain world-view?’ Perhaps this process is somewhat parallel to the normalization of medicine and public health practices themselves.

So I think that popular culture is relevant, not because I believe that films should educate and moralize, but because there is actually a great deal of ambivalence in pop culture’s treatment of technoscience. We can’t live without it, and yet it seems to be our downfall. The movies that moralize about the ineradicable human spirit do so using the most advanced computer graphics and special effects. There’s also a sense in many of these films, books, and comics, that we as a culture are not quite sure what to do with all of this information and all these gadgets. It’s almost as if the greatest challenge posed to SF now is finding something interesting to do with all the technology that exists.
I think Thacker makes an interesting point that genetics has been "normalized" in pop culture, even though the science isn't usually accurately portrayed. I wonder if that (inaccurate) familiarity with biological concepts is actually a detriment to the public understanding of science. Is learning about real biology like unlearning a bad habit to the general public? I hope not.

Other publications by Eugene Thacker:
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