Postvital Signs

By Mute Editor, 9 September 2004

Melanie Gilligan casts a sceptical eye over Richard Doyle’s ‘postvital’ experiments

Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living, Richard Doyle, Minnesota Press, 2003

In Wetwares: Experiments in Postvital Living, Richard Doyle argues that essence is being replaced by becoming in scientific and popular discourse on ‘life’, the body and the subject. He demonstrates this deterritorialisation of ontological categories through a discussion of various biotechnological phenomena such as Artificial Life, Cryonics, the market for human organs and the proverbial coma patient.

Doyle focuses on the discursive construction of his biological and technoscientific subject matter. Illustrating and analysing the unpredictable overlaps of scientific and cultural discourses, Doyle’s book moves between A-Life creatures and their video game counterparts, Cryonics and the internet chatrooms where its enthusiasts hang out (in fact Cryonics is just a chatroom), medical definitions of coma and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone. Doyle’s writing emphasises his interest in ‘rhetorical softwares’, on occasion breaking out into self-reflexive and absurdist rants. His fast-talking, rebel-academic ‘conceptual persona’ can be quite entertaining – for example a protracted dialogue with alien abductors about Alan Sokal or a stand up routine whose reoccurring gag is ‘Take my organs – please!’

Doyle asserts that the old definition of a living organism – coherent, discrete and organic being – is being supplanted by a conception of life as a network system of information. He begins with a slightly parochial discussion of A-Life, a field entirely indebted to the computer industry that creates distributed systems of interconnected nodes whereby ‘living’ properties apparently emerge and self-regulate once they reach a sufficiently complex and chaotic level of interchange.

Here, vitality is no longer understood to inhere in the organism but is rather a property brought about in informatic transfer, a result of communication within a system. Information itself is reducible to and consists of the very act of transfer between nodes. Life is not an enigmatic quality of the whole organism, but rather an effect of the interstitial, complex interrelation between parts connected in the system. Owing his basic argument to Deleuze and Guattari’s theorisation of the ‘machinic’, Doyle goes on to demonstrate how a parallel informatic axiom operates in Cryonics’ desire to preserve the body as code in order to decipher and reanimate it at a later date, as well as in the organ trade’s reduction of human organs to real abstractions for exchange.

Supporters of the life-rebooting technologies of mind ‘uploading’ are in effect fixated with procedures for anticipating and managing future contingency. Doyle demonstrates that their project is inextricable from the rhetorical nature of capital as informatic credit and speculation on future investments; a capitalist future is a precondition for these ventures, their projections informing the types of life imagined and becoming actualised today. The ‘technologies of the self’ Doyle discusses are processes of ‘becoming-value’. He points out that these technologies are ‘dissipative structures literally becoming machines for the production of selective wealth’.

Although Doyle uncovers how every step of progress in biotech demonstrates its homology with the commodity form, he also sees these technologies of the self as lines of flight that could yield different forms of subjectivity. But one doubts whether the ‘difference’ that they promise really represents the radical indeterminability vis-a-vis existent power structures that Deleuze intended in his use of the term. The ‘addiction to contingency’ that Doyle is so excited to find in the rhetorical construction of contemporary biotechnology could also be regarded as a strategy, indeed the presiding logic, in the contemporary ‘society of control’. Though Doyle’s methods of discursive refraction afford some very useful insights, his picture of the postvital condition omits any reference to the escalation and proliferation of controls that characterises our age of indeterminacy.

Melanie Gilligan <megili AT> is an artist and writer