Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Assembling Desires: Synthetic Biology and the Wish to Act at a Distant Time

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Assembling Desires: Synthetic Biology and the Wish to Act at a Distant Time

Article excerpt


Wonderful living things such as biological clocks, sensors, living cameras and switches are often presented as iconic designs in synthetic biology. The wonderfulness of such living things resides in their performative powers: they 'count', 'memorise' or 'imprint', and they do so by living. This paper explores design in synthetic biology. It follows a basic biological part, a BioBrick construction, situating it as an element of more complex socio-technical assemblages. The paper explores how living designs in synthetic biology are stabilized and given credit. Rather than producing static matters of fact, synthetic biology turns the dynamics of life itself into a matter of design. Arguably, living designs in synthetic biology displace the epistemic focus, moving its referential anchoring from 'back' in reality to 'ahead' in the future or from the natural organism to the possible living thing. A will to act at a distant time is inscribed in the living wonderful things of synthetic biology. The paper proposes a number of ways in which action is displaced towards the future within synthetic biology designs: as recursive innovation, potentiality, technological acceleration and anticipatory action. Matters of design in synthetic biology are justified on the premise that wished-for futures can be realized.


Design, action at a distance, synthetic biology, future

The activity of the frontier is to make human subjects as well as natural objects ... It is a space of desire: It calls; It appears to create its own demand; once it is glimpsed, one cannot but explore and exploit it further. (Tsing, 2005: 29-32)


When looking back at developments in the life sciences, fields such as botany, agronomy and more recently biotechnology seem to have developed through ambitions of transgressing frontiers and colonizing new territories. In Pandora's Hope, Bruno Latour (1999) describes how such scientific interventions were performed through spatially oriented epistemological strategies: Science could thus turn the Amazonian jungle into a system of Cartesian coordinates (Latour, 1999). Plants and other pieces of the Amazonian forest were extracted from their original context, to be turned into pure (or purified) matters of fact. The forest was represented objectively. By such work of objectification, nature was often turned into a catalogue of exotics wonders, to be transported to other parts of the world, to become the property of collectors and pieces of a universal natural history (Leigh Star and Griesemer, 1989), and later fragments of a global biodiversity. Those fragments of nature were often presented as discoveries. Yet, as science gets closer to industry, it becomes more apparent that discoveries might not be easily distinguishable from inventions, as when standard Genetically Modified (GM) seeds were locally produced, then globally exported. My concern in this paper is with what happens when the objects of scientific research are decreasingly justified as discoveries or inventions, but they are publicized as innovations. What the paper suggests is that as the scientific enterprise gets increasingly oriented towards the affordance of novelty, we might need to consider an approach to epistemology that is not only (or mainly) concerned with space (and with representation for that matter) but also with time, and particularly with the conquering of another frontier: the future.

From matters of fact to matters of design: Biology as technoscience

This paper attends to developments in synthetic biology (SB), a fast-growing emerging field often introduced in policy documents as being at the forefront of research in the life sciences and as entailing great potentials for industrial innovation. Like nanotechnology and other emerging technosciences, SB has often been presented to the public as a catalogue of wonders: Living sensors that will monitor cancer cells, help to clean the environment or sense light as part of biological living cameras; Biological circuits for the fast and cheap production of desired substances from biofuels to drugs; Biological oscillators, switches and timers; Programmed memory cells 'that can perform specific tasks, such as counting mitotic divisions, measuring life span and remembering past events'. …

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