A Review of Wetwares

Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living
By Richard Doyle
Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press, 2003. 235 pp.

Richard Doyle’s Wetwares is a fascinating narrative that combines critical theorizing, autobiography and philosophical reflection. Exploring the transformation in the linkages between man and machine, and the various chemical-biological-mechanical connections that constitute this linkage, Doyle seeks to understand how life and the body have been transformed from a ‘living’ (or vital) object into a set of a data or information (wetware). Postvital paradigms necessitate a radical redefinition of what it means to be alive in an age of cloning, cryonics, and genetic manipulation.

Doyle argues that Artificial Life (Alife) blurs the border between life and nonlife, flesh and machine. Alife actualizes a set of data obtained by constant iteration and performance, a repetition of an itinerary (what he calls an ‘itineration’, 11). Complexity unfolds vertiginously, as one awaits performance of the future that is beginning to manifest. Like Alife, ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ life is increasingly seen as the operation of informatic events in the nuclei acids of our genes. Coding, replication, or mutation of these bits of information creates lives. That is, information routinely adjudicates on the nature of our lives. Doyle argues that the arrival of ALife suggests that we are now free from carbon. The human (or for that matter, any life form) is a distributed event. They are unfolding processes, and postvital biology is interested in the sequences of these molecule-driven processes rather than in the function or feature of the organism. These processes are articulations of repetitions and connections rather than any autonomous interiority of the organism. Every molecule, every process is relational – connected to numerous other processes through flows and disruptions. Life itself is a set of relational attributes and not a sovereign ‘thing’. Alife reveals the fluid, linkage-driven condition of life. The postvital understanding of life emphasizes connection. It is no more closed, or autopoietic (self-referential) but networked, linked, with no inside or outside. This is the major paradigm shift that Alife makes in biology.

Doyle argues, following theoretical biologist Marcello Barbieri, that Alife emerges through a set of translational mechanisms. The genotype (genetic code, or hereditary information) can be expressed as phenotype (the embodiment of this information as physical features or behavior) only after the first has been translated from information-codes into meaning. That is, there exists a ribotype mediating between the two, which translates code and information into LIFE. This is exactly what Alife does – transform computer codes into life. We, therefore, need to redefine life as involving the translation of information into something which is ‘lively’. The ‘liveliness’ of Alife creatures is based on the preferences and definitions of what constitutes life for humans: ‘their “liveliness” – their ability to achieve the reproductive success of and other “lifelike behaviors” in the virtual ecology of the computer depends on their success in representing “life” to their human wetware’ (29). Ultimately, therefore, their status and authenticity depends on their powers of rhetoric – the act of representation where the language of their behavior/movement is understood as ‘life’ by human watchers. In short – though Doyle does not state is so crudely – life is not an immanent feature of Alife product, but is ascribed to it on the basis of representation and interpretation. Alife seeks practice and expression on the basis of human notions of a life-yet-to-come. Doyle is thus basically interested in the rhetorics of Alife, of the new science, and the rhetoricity of computers and life itself.

A similar case can be made out for screen life. The screen does not just reflect, it constitutes life, suffusing the human condition with its network and information. In simulated life (SimLife), one performs the double gesture of transcendence and immanence. We seek the genetic basis of everything, while also submitting to the inscriptions on our genes. We are not transcending these ‘codes’ of life, rather, we are in a rhizome with what is unfolding on screen as life, choosing, altering and linking events that eventually become LIFE.

Cryonics, like Alife, presents new paradigms for natural sciences and wetware-philosophy. Cryonics is also based on an act of translation – the information contained in databanks about the once-alive body, the body itself, must be read properly at some future date. The essential point is that one records data before dying in an act of (capital) speculation – since it also involves not an insubstantial financing – hoping that someone can reconstruct it in the future. The human becomes an ‘information construct that is put on hold’ (99).

Internet and databank uploads – where consciousness and data about the human is uploaded into a computer, a la William Gibson’s characters – in contemporary science (Alife, SimLife, cryonics) means that there is a deterritorialization of life itself – vitality is distributed into the new ecology of silicon and chips. Subjectivity is uploaded into silicon, and is closely aligned with not just technoscience but the practices of the market. Doyle suggests, following Brian Rotman, that this transformation into data is based on a speculative future value of the subject itself. It is always an anticipatory program. Uploading is a series of ‘speech acts whose articulation only emerges out of a multiplicity … the future(s)’ (135).

In terms of distributed vitality, the issue of coma, where the family and the physician control the ‘right to life’ in a specific sense, is also, as Doyle points out in a detailed chapter, significant. The comatose body is virtual – since it can, medically speaking, ‘wake up’ any time – and its future cannot be divined. The decision to terminate life-support systems, or to preserve a comatose ‘maternal’ body for the birth of the fetus/child, in which a whole set of contexts such as the familial, medical and legal are involved, is essentially about the production, actualization of a virtual (virtual is also potential, as Levy points out) ‘liveliness’. If families are contexts for life and consciousness, then what of communities where transplants and genetic exchange occur? Shared organs, shared life, shared wetware radically redefines communities and subjectivities.

Looking at the ‘abduction discourse’ of alien kidnapping, Doyle argues that the ‘problem’ of extraterrestrials is essentially one of information. It is not only about rumor and gossip, but also about cover-up (government’s, of course), the message of the alien world/intelligence to earth/human race, and the reliability of our preparedness to face them. Each successive citation of the UFO/alien is a refrain in a general economy of rumor and information, while also being a variation in the same. It achieves its ‘reliability’ (if there is any) as the effect of a rhetoric of sameness and difference, of surprise and expectation, created by very material informatics of websites, reports, newspapers writings, documentaries, autobiographies. In a word, abduction is rhetoricized into reality through information.

Wetwares is an interestingly heterogeneous work. Adapting a range of ideas from poststructuralism to political economy, Doyle is able to provide a synoptic survey of what is now called the ‘posthuman’. Echoing Hayles in defining life as distributed into circuits, chips, and maps (Hayles 1993, 1999), Doyle draws out the more visible cultural manifestations of the informatization of life in abduction discourse, cryonics, Alife games and transplants. Doyle demonstrates how the materialization of human life in the late 20th century is inextricably tied to conditions of global capital, technoscience and the market.

Doyle’s human body is not gendered. Choosing to speak of a paradigmatic, universal ‘human’, Doyle blurs very crucial distinctions – of context, interpretation and technologies – that accrue to being male, female or transsexual. No doubt biological determinism can be dangerous, and cyberculture enables gender-switching at least in cyberspace, but one cannot ignore the fact that material bodies are gendered and life is lived in contexts where gender plays a crucial role. While Doyle assimilates Haraway’s reading of the fetus (39-40), he curiously ignores the bulk of her thinking on the imbrication of race, technoscience and gender (1991, 1997). Sarah Kember (2000), for instance, has looked at the masculinist assumptions behind Alife, and suggested that we need to look at this materialization in the sense of social and individual responsibility of this life-as-it-could-be. This nuance is somehow missing from Doyle’s otherwise astute reading of the information-and-interpretation based science of Alife. These lacuna – which one hopes (noting Doyle’s emphasis on ‘futurism’!) will be addressed in subsequent work – apart, Wetwares is a useful meditation on the rhetoricity of all new science and ‘all new’ life.


References

Hayles, N. Katherine. 1993. ‘Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers’. October. 66: 69-71.
----. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lévy, Pierre. 2001. Cyberculture. Tr. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press.
Kember, Sarah. 2000. ‘Get ALife: Cyberfeminism and the Politics of Artificial Life’. In Cutting Edge, The Women’s Research Group (ed.), Digital Desires: Language, Identity and New Technologies. London and New York: I.B. Tauris. , pp. 34-46.
Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
---. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_Oncomouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. London and New York: Routledge.


Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad (India). He is the author of Literary Theory Today (2002), Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology (2004) besides essays on English travel writing and India. Forthcoming books include The 1857 Reader, a book on cultural studies, a history of English literature, among others. He is Series Editor, Contemporary Indian Writers in English.