Fragment from: Alys Eve Weinbaum. Wayward Reproductions : Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 239-246.
One consequence of the enduring synergy among ideas of race, species, and genomics is that the racial narrative about reproduction that Lee’s piece introduces into “Gene(sis)” inflects not only the interpretation of Chalmers’s transgenic mice but also, by extension, other pieces in the exhibit that meditate upon transgenics, including the monumental installation from which the title of the show was evidently derived (see figure 3). In closing this with a reading of Eduardo Kac’s Genesis, I thus make a move that I have repeatedly made in preceding pages: I consider the work of the race/reproduction bind in a text in which it can be read as foundational but inchoate - in which it is constitutive but nonetheless invisible on the level of manifest content. My point in so doing is to open up a final series of questions about how, within contemporary genomic discourse as in the array of discourses that constituted transatlantic modern thought at the turn of the last century, race and reproduction remain tightly bound, even as race loses its status as biological essence, and reproduction assumes previously unimagined forms.
Kac’s Genesis, which was specially retooled for display at the Henry, was placed in the huge, vaulted foyer through which viewers necessarily passed as they entered the exhibit space. The walls of this passageway were painted black. On one, two stories high, there appeared three pieces of bold off-white text: the uppermost, a passage from the Old Testament, directly below it a dotted and dashed phrase of Morse code, and below that a familiar letter string comprised of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs - the alphabet that represents the four chemicals that comprise the base pairs that make up DNA. At the center of the room, elevated on a black pedestal and protected by clear fiberglass was a microscope that magnified the content of a petri dish and projected it onto a second two-story black wall in the form of a huge illuminated globe of shifting pale blue and lime green particles whose collisions created eerily amplified sounds. As the curatorial note explaining the connections among the various parts of the installation stated, Genesis “translates” a passage from the Old Testament into Morse code, then into the four-letter alphabet of DNA, and finally into actual transgenic organisms (engineered by transferring this artificially produced DNA into-common, fast replicating, E.coli bacteria) that are on view in a petri dish and on a wall onto which the contents of the dish are projected.
The piece was in no way static. As viewers manipulated the level of light that shone on the organisms in the petri dish by sending signals from a nearby computer terminal, a transformation in the chemical base pairs that made up the DNA, and thus a mutation in the genetic composition of the transgenic organisms, took place.
As is explained on Kac’s Web site, after shows in which Genesis is displayed close, the DNA of the transformed organisms is again sequenced, translated back into Morse code, and then again into the English language alphabet, such that viewers’ play at a computer terminal and the resultant mutation of the transgenic organisms become legible as a change in the component parts of the original passage from the Old Testament with which Kac began. This new, partially nonsensical but nonetheless easily recognizable text is posted on Kac’s Web site:
“let aan have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that loves ua eon the earth.”15
As is evident from my necessarily difficult description, Genesis is a complex and intellectually challenging piece that has the potential to spark a wide variety of interpretations. My intention is not to limit these or to suggest that a single correct analysis exists but rather to offer a focused reading that allows us to think about the issues that such a work of creative imagination raises for us as we consider what has become of race and the concept of reproduction to which it has historically been wed. Put differently, how might Genesis be used to help us update and then address the question of how to think about the race concept - the question that Du Bois felt himself to have confronted in the previous century - in our present one? And how might Genesis reveal the importance of persistent excavation of the race/reproduction bind not only in the nineteenth - and early-twentieth-century texts treated in preceding chapters but also in those that constitute our cultural horizon in the twenty-first century?
Although the relationship between “translation” and race may not be immediately apparent, the concept of “ translation” that Kac’s piece mobilizes and explores can be read as racialized. To move from the biblical Book of Life to actual living organism, Kac translates and in the process transposes the idea of reproduction into that of translation. In fact, the intelligibility of Genesis hinges upon the idea that reproduction is a process of translation that is smooth, perfectible, pure, glitch-free, and fully within human control. To get from text to living organism Kac depends upon the idea that it is possible to translate words into morse code, code into DNA sequences, and such sequences into living organisms without anything getting lost. Within this model meaning can be transferred across various semiotic systems and remain perfectly, transparently intact. Indeed, according to the logic of Genesis, Kac’s transgenic organism is not so much something that has been reproduced as it is a living thing that has been created by producing a direct translation of the book of Genesis - such a good translation that unless human beings intentionally corrupt the translation process meaning will effortlessly travel in one direction (from text to living organism) as well as back the other way.
The disturbing idea that underpins this notion of perfected reproduction as a form of translation that moves from text, to code, to life itself is of course a familiar one: biological determinism.
Behind the metaphor of translation that is constructed and set to work in Genesis is that rather simple and all too familiar idea that one thing (in this case text), can find direct and accurate expression in another thing (in this case a living organism) - that is, that genotype can find accurate, direct, and predictable expression in phenotype, and that there is thus something in genes themselves that can be said to determine the essence of those life forms that genes code. In a world in which genomics reigns supreme, divine creation and human reproduction alike have become obsolete, as Genesis can now be translated into being like those other organisms, the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air, for whose miraculous existence the Book of Life was once itself thought to provide an explanation.
From one perspective, as at least one critic has pointed out, Genesis prompts the thought that some omnipotent translator has led human beings (coded them?) to uncode the system of marks by which we are coded so that we might begin to rework the code of codes written into our very core and to thus remake, as we rewrite, nothing less than ourselves.16 From another perspective, which places Genesis in the transatlantic modern historical context that this book addresses, the piece can be read as implicitly engaging an idea of reproduction as translation that has been consistently racialized - the idea of reproduction upon which eugenic movements have been based, that upon which surrogate mothers and donor genetic materials are selected by consumers of reproductive technologies, and the very same idea of reproduction as perfected translation that has bound race to reproduction by calculating racial belonging as reproducible, and genealogical “purity” as achievable.
The difficulty with any notion of perfected translation will be immediately apparent to anyone who has attempted to translate from one language into another, or who knows even a little about the numerous factors that impinge upon genes and alter their expression in a complex system of interlocking contingencies involving biochemical pathways, cellular structures, physiological relationships, and environmental fluctuations. Such perfection is quite simply impossible. All translation involves transfiguration; each repetition is with a difference, however slight. For all texts, organic and inorganic, are in flux, open to multiple iterations that vary depending upon who is doing the translating, the circumstances in which it is being done, and the limitations and flexibilities of the language into which one text is transformed into another. Poststructuralists have repeatedly made this point, not only about translations but also about reading generally. As Gayatri Spivak has observed, “ Each reading of the book produces a simulacrum of an ‘ original’ that is itself the mark of the shifting and unstable subject ... using and being used by a language that is also shifting and unstable.”17 And perhaps just as significant, scientists have underscored this point in their attempts to accurately capture the dynamic, dialogical process of gene expression: “ The cell uses DNA as data, and the resultant effect is a new pattern of gene expression that creates an altered cellular network. Viewed as an extended process, DNA acts in the dual capacity of program and data, and the cellular machinery likewise acts as both passive interpreter and program. The genotype and phenotype are intertwined, each acting responsively to the other, both contributing to the process and the result.”18
Initially it would seem that what Kac’s Genesis leaves out in its apparent preoccupation with construing reproduction as purified translation is the messiness of translation, nothing less than the waywardness of reproduction, albeit in a petri dish. What becomes evident on further contemplation of Genesis, however, is not that waywardness has been left out of the story of creation, but that it has been deliberately and quite literally represented as something added by human beings. For in translating living organisms that have mutated in responde to random exposure to a light source that is controlled by viewers back into text whose meaning (or, as the case may be, meaninglessness) they cannot control, Genesis begins to undermine the very notion of perfect translation that it initially appears to represent and depend upon. In so doing Genesis suggests that translation processes can always be - indeed, are always already - corrupted.19 It would seem that gene/alogies are not any easier to maintain in a “pure” state across generations than are the purified national genealogies of which Charlotte Perkins Gilman and other nativists and restrictionists dreamed more than a century ago.
If Genesis can be interpreted as suggesting that, in an age of genomics, reproduction - even in its guise as translation - is necessarily wayward, it can also be read as indicating that it is human beings whose interactions, not only with science but also with texts, possess the ability to alter both the “facts of life” and the Book of Life. By putting the viewer in a position of control in relation to Genesis, if only to make of it a text that is recognizable if no longer clearly intelligible, Kac demonstrates that human actions, including acts of reading and translation, impinge not only on the production of texts but also on the (re)production of organisms.
Indeed, the globe populated by shifting and colliding pale blue and lime green life forms, like the texts we read and translate, reproduce and transform acts of reading and translation as they are in turn transformed by them.
Is the race/reproduction bind undone by Genesis? Perhaps not fully, but the reading of Kac’s installation that I have offered here foregrounds for us the manner in which our active reading and writing of texts will constitute the unbinding process in a genomic age in which race is said no longer to exist and reproduction has assumed strange new forms. For Genesis can be read as an allegory that alerts us to the fact that it is by reading and interfering with purportedly perfectible translation processes that we have until now been written, including those biologically determinist scripts that have consistently bound race to reproduction within the modern episteme. In some sense this work of reading the race/reproduction bind so that it might be unbound or translated differently in the future has been the project and greatest aspiration of this book. As the Genesis installation suggests, reading and translating race, reproduction, and the facts of life are tasks that have been assumed by science, but just as important they are tasks in which those of us who produce, consume, read, and translate texts cannot afford not to participate.
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