Tuesday, November 2, 2004

On engineering

From an interview with Luciana Parisi:

Matthew Fuller: You use the word 'engineering' a number of times, as a process that sorts things out, arranges, modifies and moves materials. But this is done without the figure of the engineer, as something self-organising. When you turn in the chapter on Biodigital Sex the figure of engineering is somehow doubled. It occurs again in the guise of capital-intensive military, pharmaceutical and medical organisations deploying engineers who employ analytical and instrumental techniques in order to ensure that matter does not self-organise but that it operates according to plan, becomes a standard object. How do you see these two forms interacting?

Luciana Parisi: Engineering as you say entails a process of selection, organization and modification, which is not piloted by an ultimate designer. Its self-organization however has not to be attributed to a sort of autopoietic system, where distinct parts sustain the whole. To some extent, I have a conceptual problem with autopoiesis as it still presupposes a certain subjection of the parts to the whole with a limited capacity for them to feedback on it. On the contrary, my use of the word engineering entails a double or mutual process whereby each actualized organization becomes a modifying dimension of the whole. Now a key notion that may help to understand how I discriminate between engineering dynamics and the intensive capitalist investment in the engineering of molecular life is the notion of selection.

In Darwinism and neo-Darwinism the notion of selection has a negative attribute - i.e. it entails elimination or negative force. The function of selection employed by engineers in the manufacturing of genetic drugs, cells and tissues indeed implies that ill-fitted genetic structures will not be able to sustain themselves and will eventually - or naturally in their jargon - die. In other cases, the selective function may also imply that the ill-fitted traits are pre-established and therefore easy to eliminate once they have emerged as it happens in the now acknowledged realm of biocomputing where the recoding of genes, proteins and sequences enables a rematerialization of molecular life in vitro. Indeed this rematerialization together with the preselection of best and ill-fitted traits will lead us to the conclusion that there is an engineer, a designer of life in the world of biotechnologies or, even more so nanotechnology.

As I said the key point lies in the notion and real (read virtual) function of selection. From Bergson to Simondon, Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari the process of selection has been turned in a dynamics of production of the new. Selection far from eliminating deviances entails a mutual change of ecological relations (between the organism, environment and pressures) unleashing a virtual force impinging on the relation between the organism and its environment whereby their mutual capacity to change remains indeterminate. In other words, selection even when predeterminate cannot escape unleashing its residual effects in the region of relations (at the threshold of critical joint between one phase and the other) in which it has operated. In this sense, the planning and standardization of an object cannot exhaust the capacity of that object to catalyze a change in its proximate environmental relations.

Thus, I see engineering assemblages and their use in the capital-intensive military, pharmaceutical and medical organizations in direct contact as if undergoing a new symbiotic merging. I mean that the use of engineering assemblages cannot occur without ecological consequences on a planetary scale - and without acknowledging the technoscientific capitalist responsibility of accelerating unexpected mutations in an interdependent ecology of relations. The work of engineers therefore is not independent from the consequences of ecological self-organizations. On the contrary, it is as if engineers were directly called in to experiment with the evolutionary capacities of the body. From another point of view however, it is clear that the investment in biotech and even more so in nanotech is linked to a paradigm of control, adjustment and optimization of engineering assemblages.

Since the first wave of cybernetics, control remains the most difficult of strategies to manage populations and their environment. Control indeed cannot occur without the unexpected phase of becoming. Its affective power cannot impinge without facing the indeterminate capacities of a body of relations to change - to engineer a new dimension of the whole modifying its conditions with the rest of parts.


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