The Politics of Allusion: Brave New World and the Debates about Biotechnologies

By McQuillan, Gene | Studies in the Humanities, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Allusion: Brave New World and the Debates about Biotechnologies


McQuillan, Gene, Studies in the Humanities


Most people in these discussions are only interested in knowing: Are you for it or are you against it? I'm interested mostly in understanding what it means, and what its full human import is, both for good and bad.

--Dr. Leon Kass, Chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, and author of "Preventing a Brave New World"

The bottom line is that you can't avoid the brave new world.

--Bioethicist Max Mehlman, quoted in Joannie Schrof Fischer's "Copies upon Copies"

In 1978 Stephen King published The Stand, a post-apocalypse epic in which 99% of Americans are wiped out by the accidental release of a government-engineered superflu. In the midst of this 1,138-page book, one of the survivors ponders all the rapid dislocations that have led him and others to the Free Zone of Boulder, Colorado, where they will now build from scratch: "The world, he thought, not according to Garp but according to the superflu. This brave new world. But it didn't seem particularly brave to him, or particularly new. It was as if someone had put a large cherry bomb into a child's toy box" (658).

Almost thirty years after King's novel, we live in a post-9/11, postanthrax, potentially post-human world, one in which bio-engineered terrors are far from fantasy. It has become easy, far too easy, to say that the world of biotechnology and designer babies will be "a brave new world." The "toybox" that King described is now filled with glowing rabbits and fish, mice that are given genetically-enhanced abilities for memory and muscle strength, Dollies and Dollies and Dollies, and techno-utopians who claim that "We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it" (see D'Souza 1). When King refers to "this brave new world," he taps into a rich series of popular allusions to a novel which is cited so often and so automatically in discussions of technology-gone-wrong that it has become both a powerful and cliched example of the ways in which literature can (mis)inform public debate. As often happens when a complex text is introduced into public debates, allusions to it often become predictable and trite, and of course contemporary popular culture has a ready-to-use list of (mis)allusions: politicians are said to adopt Machiavellian tactics, police surveillance evokes the shadow of Big Brother, selfish old folks appear as unrepentant Scrooges, misguided teenage lovers channel the souls of Romeo and Juliet.

A more serious study of references to Brave New World reveals how it has recently become the literary context for debates about biotechnology. This context has become so obvious that any student that browses an on-line database can soon find hundreds of allusions to Brave New World, and there's little point in making even a short list of these. Yet even the most casual of these listings would probably include a few citations from economists and philosophers, molecular biologists and bioethicists, historians and presidential commissions, science writers and talking heads. The ways in which Brave New World has been cited and sampled for arguments in the bio-culture wars serve as much more than a scorecard of who is "for or against" such technologies. While politicians are not expected to offer nuanced commentaries about literary texts, what about the many other well-informed writers who have entered these debates? What, if anything, can readers expect from the many articles and essays which boldly claim to be more than just partisan editorials?

The Not-So-Brave, Not-So-New World of Editorials

Bioethics and literary classics aren't usually mentioned in the same breath.

--from Kathi Wolfe's "Questioning the Biotech New World"

The many, many allusions to Brave New World in the popular media fall into four general categories: those that make trivial associations with book; those that brandish the title in an attempt to score quick wins in politically-oriented editorials; those that refer to the novel as a crucial context for understanding more comprehensive philosophical debates about our "post-human future"; and those that find the book to be a resonant, yet questionable, warning about the future of scientists and science. …

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