Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Ruptured Bodies and Invaded Grains: Biotechnology as Bioviolence in Indian Science Fiction

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Ruptured Bodies and Invaded Grains: Biotechnology as Bioviolence in Indian Science Fiction

Article excerpt

Since the late twentieth century, posthumanist identities such as cyborgs, androids, and the disembodied existences in cyberspace have been invoked to challenge the hegemony of a patriarchal and corporate capitalist order. As early as 1970, Shulamith Firestone suggested an emancipatory role of exo-physical birthing technology. In the 1980s, Donna Haraway's cyborg feminism powerfully proclaimed the technologized body as a political category and symbol that has no "truck with bisexuality, pre-Oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labor, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of parts into a higher unity" (2270). More recently, N. Katherine Hayles has advocated viewing humans as "part of a distributed system" (290) in context of evolving cybernetics, and Sadie Plant finds the internet/ cyberspace a liberator from fixed gender identities. (1) A multitude of science fiction and utopian narratives such as Marge Piercy's Woman at the Edge of Time (1976), which borrowed Firestone's ideas, and her later He, She, and It (1991); William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) and its sequels; and Pat Cadigan's Tea from an Empty Cup (1998) similarly use imageries of technologically enhanced or altered physicality for subversive purposes.

However, such imageries and symbols take on more problematic and sometime contradictory values in the context of so-called "Third World" narratives--theoretical as well as fictional. Rather than playing a liberating role, such images of technologized flesh and engineered biology can indicate the crushing power of mechanically aided global capitalism that tries to patent indigenous knowledge and colonize organic resources and bodies. (2) This is especially the case in a large portion of Indian theoretical and fictional writing of the last two decades, even though scholars such as Jill Didur suggests that such opposition to Posthumanism is actually a misplaced distrust for Enlightenment rationalism and its humanist legacy. While bioethicist and activist Vandana Shiva has been one of the biggest critics of bioprospecting by western multinationals, Indian sf authors such as Anil Menon, Manjula Padmanabhan, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, and Sukanya Datta have also challenged such biotechnological control in service to corporate greed: they interrogate scenarios in which human and animal bodies are assembled and disassembled as commodities or fused with machines and human and plant resources are genetically manipulated for profit maximization by seed giants of questionable motive such as Monsanto and Syngenta. Although the term "bioviolence" is mostly associated with terrorism using biological agents such as toxins and pathogens, (3) following Shiva's logic the term can be used as well for the domination of the developing world's biological resources through coercive methods by state and non-state agents, because such exploitation ultimately leads to economic and biological devastation comparable to direct acts of violence. Hence, the literary images derived from such scientific endeavors--e.g., technologically altered/enhanced bodies and scientifically modified nature/vegetation--are coded more negatively in the context of the exploited Third World than in the post-industrial West. This essay investigates two such works of sf, Manjula Padmanabhan's play Harvest (1999) and Anil Menon's novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet (2009), in arguing that biotechnological imageries play a darker role in bioethical context of the developing world in general and India in particular.

While Harvest depicts Third World human bodies as crops to be harvested for the consumption of the industrialized West, Beast addresses the ethical dilemmas of genetically modifying any life form for profit maximization of the business corporations. Harvest confronts the image of the cyborg by rejecting the cannibalized/technologized body and by defending women's natural reproductive rights, while Beast problematizes biotechnological excesses through foregrounding questions of sustainability and bioethics. …

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