Biosynthesis: Same as It Ever Was

— by

An edited version of this essay appears in Volume #35: Everything Under Control. The printed version contained some errors, and so we’re happy to published the original version here, as intended by the author. You can read more about the issue here. You can purchase the issue here.

On May 23rd 2013, Timothy Morton will be the keynote speaker at Perceptions on Nature, an event held by Ja Natuurlijk at the Gemeente Museum in The Hague. You can read more about the event here.

While a growing faction of designers and scientists campaign to have us accept biosynthetic innovations as a brave new world, Timothy Morton points to some problematic notions in the rhetoric. The spectacular lists of magic tricks that biosynthetic design promises to perform, indeed fits squarely into the long trajectory of modernity and the Anthropocene. The bioluminescent tree and the steam engine are not-so-distant cousins. With that assertion he suggests we take a long hard look at what it means to be human, when we tinker with the very things that constitute life.

This essay is a caution against the notion that we are indeed about to enter a ‘brave new world’ – a thought that has defined the human as such for about five hundred years. The concept of ‘next nature’ precisely (though unconsciously) states the paradox: what is being thought here is simply a ‘new and improved’ version of the same old thing, a repetition. How well has that been working out for the last two hundred years, namely since the inception of the Anthropocene? The Anthropocene, in case we need reminding, is the radical intersection of human and geological time that began with the inception of the steam engine in the later eighteenth century. Since then, humans have deposited a layer of carbon in Earth’s crust that is now found in deep lakes and within Arctic ice. The term Anthropocene was recently ratified by an international consortium of geologists.

From The Economist special issue on the Anthropocene.

From The Economist special issue on the Anthropocene.

Before I suture gizmos to my flesh, I think a re-examination of what being human – qua this actual entity, called homo sapiens – is, is in order. Especially in light of the fact that knowledge now operates on a 100,000 year time scale (the amortization rate of global warming), well beyond the efficacy of a fluorescent tree. On the other hand, the knee-jerk reaction against the biosynthetic is just as problematic, though one can surely understand the impulse. It is the impulse of the Luddite, who quite realistically decides that the best first response to a machine that can take over her livelihood is to attempt to destroy it. The reaction is problematic, because I does not want to go down the rabbit hole we have already gone down – the rabbit hole called modernity, which is marked by industry on the one hand, and philosophies that swim in the wake of Hume and Kant on the other. This essay will all too briefly work out a map for a possibility space that includes more than simply accepting or bluntly denying biosynthesis, which just is the culmination of a certain trajectory of modernity.

Neil Harbisson wearing his Eyeborg, a device which translates colors into soundwaves.

Neil Harbisson wearing his Eyeborg, a device which translates colors into soundwaves.

We know that humans are symbiotic kluges of humans and nonhumans – this is not a new idea. In a sense all life is a kind of biosynthesis. Thus this essay will by no means be a cry of nature in a denatured world. Life already is artificial life, as any glance at a biology textbook will show you.

But what less well accepted is that ideas in (human) minds are also like that. Scholarship should be about studying the DNA of ideas. An idea is a virus, from a certain point of view: it cannot reproduce on its own, and needs a (human) mind to do so. Humans are vectors for idea viruses. An idea’s phenomenological structure is independent of the mind that is having it. We know this since the other way of thinking – that ideas are simply produced by minds or brains, as symptoms of them, as it were – involves an infinite regress. The assertion that a thought is a squeezing of the brain, for instance, must itself be on its own terms a squeezing of the brain. Thus psychologism, a view that logic is simply the rules for how a healthy brain functions, becomes unable to think at all, since now we must define what a healthy brain is, and for that we need logical assertions that are brain squeezings, and so on.[1] Thus an idea has an inner logical structure that is not dependent on the mind or brain that is having it.

The rhinovirus, the most common infective agent in humans, causing the common cold.

The rhinovirus, the most common infective agent in humans, causing the common cold.

The question then becomes, how do humans (and others with minds) become susceptible to ideas? How do we become their vectors? In a similar way we are vectors for built objects such as chairs, and presumably for other things that we might make, such as biosynthetic entities. We know that things like chairs are not always benign – indeed, humans are vectors for all kinds of objects that don’t do us any good at all and chairs would be quite high on my list of such objects. As we proceed, we shall see that the thought of biosynthesis is contaminated with a very old, very virulent, and very archaic thought-virus: the Law of Noncontradiction, a law that derives from Section Gamma of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. We will see that human and nonhuman history (that is, ecological polity) is now up against a limit at which this law is now breaking down under the strain of modernity. And we will see why it matters.

Now the biosynthetic paradigm is suggesting that we integrate our bodies to a greater extent with nonhuman entities. First of all, isn’t it clear from the preceding brief analysis that this has always been the case? What is so new about it – apart from its assertion of radical newness? In the second place, before we rush pell-mell into a utopian idea-and-thing flu party, in which we expose ourselves joyfully to all kinds of viruses, isn’t it worth thinking about what kinds of virus we might like to catch?

Diane Von Furstenberg testing Google Glass

Diane Von Furstenberg testing Google Glass

The assertion of radical newness is called modernity. Modernity produces statements such as: “We are now in a totally new historical moment.” Or “I am now talking to you from a viewpoint outside of philosophy or metaphysics.” Modernity is what begins in the later eighteenth century, in a forked emergence. The first prong of the fork is the acceleration of industrial agriculture into the Industrial Revolution, in which machines are able to make other machines, thus creating an emergent layer of machinic being ‘above’ the human (and biological nonhuman) worlds.[2] This emergence is, as Marx argues, enabled by the steam engine, whose patent in 1784 specified that it did not have a specific purpose. This generality is very significant. A steam engine can be plugged into a train, or a gigantic hammer, or a power loom. (I use the term gigantic throughout this essay to evoke the somewhat nonhuman scale of computation itself and the industrial and technical phenomena of modernity.) It humiliates the human insofar as it not only produces hammers that can hammer gigantic bolts incapable of being hammered by humans, but (and more eerily) it can enable the same ‘Cyclopean’ hammer to tap a tiny nail into a soft piece of wood, as Marx puts it.[3] These entities show that even activities we took to be exclusively human are not. Again, I am not arguing that we return to a pure world of nature or the human, a world that never existed.


The steam engine of 1784 is also the instigator of the Anthropocene. Paul Crutzen, the atmospheric chemist who coined the term Anthropocene, states this in all his initial arguments about this geological period.[4] Surely the generality of this machine, which I can plug into a power hammer or a power loom, is precisely what makes it the defining organ of the Anthropocene. The steam engine could be used to power Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, as he wanted. And a computer just is a more general machine still, a machine that can pretend to be any other device: a diary, a calculator, a piece of paper and pen.

And isn’t this the logical condition of possibility for biosynthesis? I can grow a tree that pretends to be a lamp. I can make a cell that pretends to be an antibiotic. And so on. (And of course I need gigantic technical apparatuses and gigantic computational machinery to achieve fluorescent trees – so I need things like steam engines to supply the energy.) When we get anxious about biosynthesis, isn’t what is being warded off precisely this: that things do not (and cannot) coincide with their phenomena? What is being warded off, then, just is Hume’s devastation of scholastic metaphysics with its pregiven clunking cogwheels of causality; and Kant’s deeply disturbing grounding of Hume in an irreducible phenomenon–thing gap. Since a fluorescent lamp does not coincide with its phenomena, I can make one out of a tree. There is nothing about a tree that makes this impossible. However, a tree just is tree-like: a tree is not a popsicle. Yet since there is a gap between phenomenon and thing, I can imagine making a tree-flavored popsicle, or a tree that grows popsicles.

The Bio-light uses bioluminescent bacteria that are fed by a home's methane digester.

The Bio-light uses bioluminescent bacteria that are fed by a home’s methane digester.

Here is the trouble: the happy nihilism of “I can make anything out of anything” is covering over a more disturbing truth opened up by the philosophy that happens at the start of the Anthropocene. What is this happy nihilism covering over? It obscures precisely the way in which Hume and Kant have opened up a world of nothingness. The difference between a tree and a fluorescent lamp is not absolutely nothing at all. Rather, there is an uncanny gap between the tree as thing and the tree as phenomenon. I cannot locate this gap anywhere in ontically given, phenomenal space. I feel raindrops. They are not gumdrops more’s the pity. They are raindroppy – their phenomena are measurably to do with themselves. But I can’t access the actual raindrops. Their phenomena are not raindrops. There is a fundamental, irreducible gap between the raindrop phenomenon and the raindrop thing. But it is worse than that. I cannot locate where this gap is anywhere in my given, phenomenal, experiential or indeed scientific space. Things do not come with little dotted lines and drawings of scissors telling me where their phenomena stop and their ‘real’ thing-ness starts.[5] There is a gap, but I can’t find it. The best term for this is nothingness, by which I mean (meontic) nothing (from the Greek mē, ‘nothing’). A meontic nothing is not absolutely nothing at all – that would be the ‘not even nothing’ some call oukontic (from the Greek ou, ‘non-‘ or ‘not’). By contrast, meontic nothing or nothingness is a strange flickering distortion, a something that is nothing, a quality or –ness of nothing: nothing-ing, or nihilation.[6]

Isn’t this nothingness the truth of Darwin, of Marx, of discoveries of climate phenomena such as El Niño. I can compute evolution, capital and El Niño, but I can’t see or touch them. All I see when I try to find evolution are cats, bacteria and sponges. Yet when I examine them, I find that sponges are not sponges, but rather kluges of things that aren’t sponges, such as DNA and RNA, which are themselves kluges, and so on. Life forms in a Darwinian context just are fuzzy sets of things that contain members that aren’t members of them. They are contradictory entities – and so it would be logical, according to an old (now defunct, I claim) Aristotelian thought-virus to assert that there are no life forms. So I can turn a tree into a lamp, and this has various benefits, but one benefit is that it leaves the old Aristotelian (that is, totally antiquated) logic in place. I can turn a tree into a lamp, because there are no trees. Thus I do not have to cope with the idea that trees exist because they are also not-trees.

Kluge 2.0? The military Alphadog, a four legged robot that can follow a soldier for 20 miles carrying his pack and equipment.

Kluge 2.0? The military Alphadog, a four legged robot that can follow a soldier for 20 miles carrying his pack and equipment.

It is as if the machination of biosynthesis promises to get rid of this disturbing gap, with its attendant dialetheias (things that are contradictory and true at the same time, like trees) through a strategy of proving the gap ‘wrong’ by making more and more things out of anything at all. But no computational or technical strategy can get rid of reason. It will only shuffle the pieces around in a different way. And I already know that there is a gap between computation or technics and reason as such: I can count, but when I try to show you number, I can’t and must resort to counting – yet number is a logical precondition of counting. There is an irreducible gap.[7] So my computation and machination just keeps on reinforcing the gap that I am trying to get rid of, as we know from Cantor and Gödel, who showed us the way computation can’t help but open up even more gaps in the very attempt to close the gap.

Isn’t this desperation acknowledged, albeit tacitly, in the gigantic lists favored by ‘next nature’ rhetoric? I am thinking of the one hundred ‘case studies’ on the Zeri website, and the endless-seeming posts of ‘next natural’ phenomena on nextnature.net.[8] Or consider the call for papers for this Volume: “Gone are the days of blunt engineering as a means of total control; concrete dams and electro-shock therapy; today science is moving us deeper into the nano-world of microchips and molecules, where new more refined forms of control are possible, where organic processes can be mimicked, modified, and augmented. In this new biosynthetic world, luminescent trees will light our sidewalks, massive oyster beds will defend us from the floods, and hacked Lyre birds will broadcast the radio.” The very enormity of the lists is a symptom of the impotence of computation to close the phenomenon–thing gap.


The problem is precisely not how to have responsibility for this brave new world. The problem is whether this is a new world at all. The problem is whether happy nihilism succeeds in covering over the darker and more intimate nihilism in which a tree is already not a tree, whether we make it into a lamp or not. The answering is a resounding no.

Happy nihilism is simply a continuation of the ‘blunt’ technics of earlier phases of modernity. To learn how to cope with a greater biosynthetic world must be distinguished from the desire to usher in that world or the modernity that thinks it has just woken up from the stasis of prehistory. Otherwise it is precisely not coping with biosynthetic things, but instead allowing them to reproduce wildly, both inside and outside our heads. On this view, only two attitudes are available. The first is total despair, and the second is a sadistic rubbernecking of the triumph of the fluorescent trees – the two attitudes are really the same attitude, encapsulated in the look on the face of Dr. Peters, the scientist in 12 Monkeys (played by David Morse) who at the end, allows the security guard to open the vial containing the virus that will wipe out mankind.[9] The look on his face, of contemplative horror and amusement, is the only look permitted in a reality in which we simply ‘accept’ biosynthetics. This is not coping with them. What is required is an encounter with the dark, intimate nihilism that leaks out of the phenomenon–thing gap.

Final scene from 12 Monkeys

Final scene from 12 Monkeys

Happy nihilism is simply the old attitude of watching Nature unfold, like a picturesque sunset – the attitude of aesthetic contemplation of preprogrammed agricultural space that was the condition of possibility for modernity as such. It is simply this old thought-virus, with some slight upgrades to make it, once again, freshly attractive, that is, to render humans freshly susceptible to it. At the very start of the Anthropocene, an art movement arose that tried to smash this aesthetic distance: it was called Romanticism. Romanticism is a desperate attempt to wake up from the aesthetic dream that brings about modernity. In the words of one scholar the geologist’s hammer came to bear on the picturesque Claude Glass.[10] Yet the supposedly post-Romantic attitude that we must simply accept whatever biosynthetics stand for just as regression from what was already figured out in the later eighteenth century.

If going forward really means going forward, we must think some way of getting out of this loop, which just is the Anthropocene in philosophical and aesthetic form. This essay has argued that what is disturbing about the idea of biosynthesis is not that it gets rid of good old humans or nature. What is disturbing is precisely the lack of disturbance, the continuation of the happy nihilism of noncontradiction by any means necessary.

An edited version of this article appears in Volume #35: Everything Under Control. You can read more about the issue here. You can purchase the issue here.

Corrections to the printed version: In the 12th paragraph of the printed version it was written “I can’t show you a number…”. The author originally wrote and intended to say “I can’t show you number”. In the second paragraph of the printed version it is written “…a map for a possible space…”. The author originally wrote and intended to say “…a map for a possibility space…”. Our sincere apologies to the author.

1 Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, tr. J.N. Findlay, ed. Dermot Moran (London: Routledge, 2006) 1.275–276, 2.95, 98–99, 100–104, 110–111.
2 Karl Marx, Capital, tr. Ben Fowkes, 3 vols. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, 1990), 1.496–497, 499.
3 Marx, Capital 1.508.
4 Paul Crutzen and E. Stoermer, ‘The Anthropocene’, Global Change Newsletter 41.1 (2000), 17–18; Paul Crutzen, ‘Geology of Mankind’, Nature 415 (6867) (2002), 23.
5 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1965), 84–85.
6 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 188.
7 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 51.
8 http://www.zeri.org/ZERI/The_Blue_Economy.html, accessed February 14, 2013. http://www.nextnature.net, accessed February 14, 2013.
9 Terry Gilliam, Dir., 12 Monkeys (Universal Pictures, 1995).
10 Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 45.