The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

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 The Art and Science of Synthetic Biology:  Critical and Creative Perspectives on 'New Life'

“Living fragments of biological bodies, forms of lab-grown life . . . require a different epistemological and ontological understanding and, by extension, a different taxonomy of life. The liminality of this kind of technological approach to life can lead to a form of fetishism, which we call Neolifism.”  (Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Partial Life)
Recent rapid advances in the biosciences have had a transformative impact not only on the biosciences themselves, but also on the wider cultural imaginary, reshaping research and cultural production in very different fields. The emergence of synthetic biology has played a key role in this. Developments in this field, such as Charles and Joseph Vacanti’s “earmouse”—in which an artificially-grown ear was transplanted under the skin of a hairless mouse—have been widely reported in the popular press, and said to herald a new era of biological engineering and manufactured body parts. Contemporary artists like Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr draw on techniques in synthetic biology to produce artworks that are both aesthetic provocations and critical interrogations of the new existence of “lab-grown life.” Disciplines across the humanities, particularly affect theory and new materialism, have also urged a critical turn towards the biological. As Elizabeth Wilson argues: “In most projects on ‘the body,’ the body is pursued in its socially, experientially, or psychically constituted forms, but rarely in its physiologically, biochemically, or microbiologically constituted form” (Neural Geographies).  In recent years, such work has been pursued with increasing vigour. Elizabeth Grosz, Rosi Braidotti and Nik Rose, amongst others, have drawn on foundational works by Darwin, Bergson, Canguilhem and Deleuze to theorise changing understanding of “life itself” over the course of the 20th century.
This symposium has two aims. The first is philosophical and historical: to examine the impact of synthetic biology on existing concepts of the biological through consideration of the historical emergence and philosophical implications. The second is to consider how artistic production and cultural expressions informed by work in the biosciences are able to feed back into debates in the biosciences themselves, or to cast new light on the way knowledge in these fields is developed and circulated.  Our purpose is to bring these different perspectives to bear on two central questions: whether synthetic biology and the development of technologically-mediated life represent the emergence of a new kind of biology, in which the line between the artificial and organic has become increasingly uncertain; and, secondly, whether the invocation of these questions in both the biosciences and humanities represent the emergence of new forms of knowledge, in which the clear delineation of disciplinary boundaries has become increasingly irrelevant.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


9.00am -4.30pm
Reception to follow
Room 228
Molecular Biosciences Building (76)
University of Queensland
St Lucia
This symposium is funded by a UQ-UWA Bilateral Research Collaboration Award. It is free and all are welcome to attend. 
Please RSVP to Elizabeth Stephens for catering purposes:
Elizabeth Wilson, Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University and author of Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body (Duke University Press, 2004) and Affect and Artificial Intelligence (University of Washington Press, 2010).
Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Directors of SymbioticA, centre of Excellence in the Biological Arts at the University of Western Australia and founders of the Tissue Culture and Art Project.
Elizabeth Stephens, Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, author of Anatomy as Spectacle: Public Exhibitions of the Body From 1700 to the Present (Liverpool and Chicago University Presses, 2011), and editor of Anatomical Imag(inari)es: The Cultural Impact of Medical Imaging Technologies (Somatechnics Journal 2.2 [2012])
Greg Hainge, Associate Professor in the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, and author of Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise (Continuum, 2012)
Alison Moore, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Western Sydney and co-author of Frigidity: An Intellectual History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
Peter Cryle, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, and co-author, most recently of Frigidity: An Intellectual History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).   
Provisional programme
Welcome and Introduction
Keynote Address
Elizabeth Wilson: “Co-adaptations of Gender: Mutuality, Darwin, Lamarckianism”
Morning tea
Panel session
Alison Moore: “Culture as an Organism? The History of Biology in the Humanities”
Peter Cryle: “Philosophical and Historical Perspectives on the Normal in French Bio-Medical Thinking: Canguilhem and Foucault”
Panel session
Elizabeth Stephens: “The Biological Imaginary: Aesthetics as Critique in Synthetic Biological Art”
Greg Hainge: “P(art)ial Life: Situating the Art in Bioart”
Afternoon tea
Keynote Address
Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr: “Neolifism: Life With No Context”
Wine reception
Please see the Centre for the History of European Discourse’s website for updates:

Elizabeth Wilson: Co-adaptations of Gender: Mutuality, Darwin, Lamarckianism
Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (in The Descent of Man 1871) has long been the object of feminist criticism. Right from the beginning there was concern that the mechanisms of sexual selection, as described by Darwin, kept women and men locked in asymmetrical, conventionalized roles. In the section in Descent on ‘Differences in the mental powers of the two sexes,’ for example, Darwin famously notes that “man has ultimately become superior to woman” (Part II, p. 328). In this paper I look at Darwin’s use of co-adaptation, and what value this might have for feminist uses of Darwin. I argue that there is more traffic/mutuality between the characteristics of men and women (less separation, less stasis) than many feminist critiques have noticed in the theory of sexual selection. In particular, I argue that a revaluation of Darwin’s Lamarckianism may be an effective tool against the regressive uses of Darwin in the contemporary scene.

Alison Moore: Culture as an Organism? The History of Biology in the Humanities
This paper frames the early stages of a research project on the attempted application of evolution to human culture and sexuality in the history of European thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It takes as a case study, the work of the Spanish endocrinologist and sexuality doctor, Gregorio Marañon who – like Freud, but not because of him – argued that the psychological and sexual development of modern civilised subjects reflected the biological evolution of the species. Marañon was an erudite, multilingual polymath who appears to have questioned his own assumptions and to have genuinely engaged with the views of others in his association with feminist and hygienist circles of the interwar period. His extrapolations from evolution to culture produced fantastical visions of embryonic influences on later psychological development, while reiterating traditionalist gender stereotypes and accepted aetiologies of perversion. The tense pronatalism of interwar European politics may explain Marañon’s conclusions to some extent; but the longer history of biological evolutionary thought, with its continual attempts to account for culture as an organism, is an important context to both to Marañon and to Freudian psychoanalytic thought in the early twentieth century. Throughout its history, the dialogue between evolutionary biology and cultural visions of sexuality has tended to combine the speculative dimensions of humanistic epistemologies with the fragmentary data of scientific observation.
When sexuality is invoked in evolutionary psychology and sociobiological thought today, it is without any apparent recognition of the preceding versions of such accounts in the history of thought after Darwin. Biological evolution was perhaps more widely adopted in humanistic traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than has often been recognised. Marañon was an inspirational thinker to many in his time, and while his contribution to endocrinology was enshrined in the Spanish medical establishment, the legacy of his conclusions about sexuality and culture has been negligible. What lessons might theorists of evolution in culture and sexuality draw from this history?

Peter Cryle:
Philosophical and Historical Perspectives on the Normal: Canguilhem and Foucault
This paper will consider the work of Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault in relation to a critical genealogy of the normal. In Le Normal et le pathologique (1943) Canguilhem asks some searching questions about the normal, but his aim is not simply to undo the prestige of that notion. He makes a clear distinction between normativity, defined as functional solution found by life to respond to the requirements of a given milieu, and normalisation, defined as a social process involving standardisation and calibration. For Canguilhem, mechanistic models can give a good account of normalisation, but should have no place in biological thinking as such. In the application of Canguilhem’s thought in France today, there is an assertion of vitalism as the capacity of living beings to innovate. That serves, for example, to ground a critique of such notions as disability and generic victimhood. But a question arises about the significance of historical analysis for philosophical thought. Canguilhem actually offers a history of normalisation, but he does so in summary fashion. His interest is not in social processes as such, but in epistemology, in the biological becoming of science as life raises itself up to consciousness of itself. Can it properly be said, by contrast, that Foucault is concerned not with the philosophical significance of normativity, but with the history of normalisation as a set of governmental and scientific practices? This paper will argue that that Foucault’s perspective is indeed historical, but that his account of normalisation gives it a broad socio-political import, making of it something more immediate and less “simple” than Canguilhem would allow.

Elizabeth Stephens: Making Monsters: the Tissue Culture and Art Project’s Lab-Grown Life
This paper focuses on the work of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, and in particular their practice of producing bio-sculptures—organisms grown from tissue cultivated onto a polymer structure—as “semi-living” artworks. In Partial Life, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr describe their work as “forms of lab-grown life,” and argue that these require “a different epistemological and ontological understanding and, by extension, a different taxonomy of life.” While critical analysis of the Tissue Culture and Art Project’s work has tended to focus, in consequence, on the bioethical questions it raises, this paper argues that such questions must be understood within the context of their production as works designed for public display within art galleries and exhibitions.

The central purpose of this paper is hence to show that the relationship between the aesthetic, the scientific and the ethical is precisely the thing that is called into question in the Tissue Culture and Art Project’s work. It argues that in order to understand this work, we need to move between consideration of the aesthetic practices, exhibitory cultures, fields of scientific knowledge and modes of perception by which it is shaped. It will do this by focusing on a central critical figure: that of the monster. As recent scholarship on this subject has stressed, the monster is a figure not simply of unusual embodiment but of ontological uncertainty. For Georges Canguilhem, it is that which “throws doubt on life’s ability to teach us order” (27); for Margrit Shildrick, it is less a particular physical type than it is “an encounter with the strange” (1). This paper will accordingly approach the Tissue Culture and Art Project’s semi-living sculptures and “lab-grown lives” as made monsters, representative of the strange encounters with the new forms of synthetic biology emergent at the start of the twenty-first century.

Greg Hainge: P(art)ial Life: Situating the Art in Bioart
In this paper I wish to attend to the place that “art” or, more specifically, the “work” of art occupies or might occupy in forms of bioart that figure entities conforming to the idea of “partial life” formulated by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. I will firstly, then, attend to the place that the specifically artistic aspects of bioart have been given in some existing writing on this subject by both critics and practitioners. In doing this, it will be shown that a particular relationship between the artistic and scientific realms is often figured in these discussions, and I will subsequently suggest why this is the case via an argument formulated with the help of Groys’ article “Art in the Age of Biopolitics”. Ultimately, however, I wish to suggest that a different kind of critical appraisal of bioart has the potential to generate very different readings of bioart to those that have been proffered to date. It is not my intention to give specific examples of this kind of analysis, but merely to take a first step in this direction by suggesting an alternative methodology for such a reappraisal that draws on the writings of Andrew Benjamin on painting. In this approach, the notion of the work performed by the work of art and the role that the critic plays in enabling that work to take place are of great importance. To realise such a critical project would, I suggest, potentially allow bioart to destabilise even more than it might already the ontological taxonomies that it puts into question by generating a certain indiscernibility between form and process – biological and artistic in both cases – that would liberate it from a representational model.

Oron Catts: Neolifism: Life With No Context”
The fetish of technological approaches to life seems to overshadow the context in which life operates; we call it Neolifism. It seems that the biological milieu is transformed into an abstracted technological instrument of control, where life is just another raw material to be engineered. Decontextualised life has been reconfigured, mixed and remixed, reappropriated, and instrumentalised to such an extent that the technologically imagined potential of life stands for life itself. Drawing on some historical and personal stories as well as two recent works by the Tissue Culture & Art Project (Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr) – Odd Neolifism (2010) and Crude Matter (2012- in progress), the talk will look at recontextualising life through the idea of the substrate. For more than fifteen years I have been researching (mainly with Ionat Zurr) the use of tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression. In our work we were initially focused on the living fragments- cells and tissues, taken from the original body of the complex organism and maintained alive using artificial/technological support. We called them semi-living. Then we paid attention to the technological-body in which the semi-living lived. This surrogate technoscientific body acted as a chamber of life and death and a metaphor to the increasing technologisation of life. We also looked at the taxonomical and ontological crisis brought about by the growing existence of lab made and lab grown life. However, there was yet another important aspect to our engagement with the semi-livings that was always present but not yet well articulated – the substrate, the matrix, the milieu. In the last few years we were developing a project that would attempt to contextualise the substrate as a major agent acting upon life.


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