Gene Technology and the Posthuman: Biopunk

Scene from "Splice" (2009), © Gaumont


by Jan Niklas Meier


A human is prowling through the deserted and weed-infested ruins of New York City. He is on a hunt, hunting for anything eatable. Suddenly, a deer crosses the scope of his gun and he is safe to find a supper. Back in his shelter, the man shares the food with his dog. In some way, this scenario appears idyllic, back to nature. But as the sun goes down, the very same hunter barricades his habitation and spends the night, trembling in fear in his bathtub. Because at night the monsters come out. Change of scene: A laboratory, sterile, dire and eerie. A young woman, dressed in a plastic coat is facing an obscure creature. It is small, small with no arms and seems androgyne. The little monster appears vaguely human, yet it has a spiky tail and poisonous glands. It will grow and eventually, someday it will give birth to more little monsters itself. Another change of scene: A city of art déco. A city under the sea. A small girl is running through a devasted room, ostensibly searching for something. A man appears and approaches the child. Suddenly, a colossus emerges, a giant old-fashioned diving suit. A diving suit with a horrible a drill, where a hand ought to be. That drill tears the offensive man to tatters. One last change: We are passing through a door into bright sunlight. After adjustment to the lightness, we become aware of our destructed environment. Only ruins, hidden steel work and remains of vehicles remind us that some kind of manufactory must have once stood here. A martially looking Buggy approaches and we meet the driver. He introduces himself as Dan Hagar. Soon, we will be fighting mutants in the wasteland, trying to figure out what’s going on with our world.



Futuristic worlds?

What do all these scenarios have in common? First of all, it appears that we all are quite talented, when it comes to imagination of murky alternative realities. The world as we know it may parish in such scenarios and alternative societies may come into existence. But is that really true? Let’s get back to the second scenario, the one in the lab. If we zoom out of the scene, we will detect that the whole world seems rather normal in this scenario. Except for the little creature of course that by the way happens to like spiking cats with its tail.


As it turns out, it is not necessarily the question of human society after cataclysm that links these scenarios. Let’s find out: what do our lonely hunter from “I am Legend”, our genetically modified creature from “Splice”, the Little Sister and her Big Daddy from “BioShock” and our disoriented self from “Rage” have in common? They are all protagonists from a genre-hybrid called Biopunk. This compositum includes the words “bio” and “punk”. A school subject asking for memorization of detailed knowledge with infrequent field trips for plant picking, and a style of music that for long, after the “Sex Pistols” and “the Clash” disappeared, has for long been searching for new heroes. What are the commonalities?



No Brave New World

In principle, our genre hybrid derives from Cyberpunk. Since Ridley Scott’s „Blade Runner” came on screen in 1982 and William Gibson brought “Neuromancer” into the bookstores two years later, Cyberpunk has been established within the genre of Science Fiction. Scott, Gibson and numerous other representatives are creating sinister futuristic worlds. In these worlds, high-tech societies are dependent on computers and artificial intelligence. Nothing would work without such technics and ruthless corporations are taking their advantage: governments are mostly replaced by profit-oriented companies that rule the nation. Of course, values such as democracy or humanity remain to fall by the wayside. In Cyberpunk, man and machine are merging, little by little. This has unpleasant consequences – and may be a warning to us. An exaggeratedly proceeded digitalization has created a world, no one but a few privileged would want to live in.


Biopunk is taking a similar line. But: While Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner” or Keanu Reeves in “Matrix” are facing robots, artificial intelligence, computer-generated parallel worlds or psychedelic drugs, focus in Biopunk is on biotechnology. Genetic manipulations, clones, viruses, mutations: computers and test tubes are swapping places. In case of our introductory scenes, this means: in “I am Legend”, a virus has turned humanity into furious, zombie-like creatures. They are afraid of ultraviolet light and hide in the day. But at night, they come out in rage. In “Splice”, a pair of scientist raises a creature from a test tube. Dren, as it is called, is supposed to become a sensation, a revolutionary progress in gene technology. But the spiky creature has a will of its own… In “Bioshock”, utopia has failed. Under the sea, far from external influences, a place was formed that would allow for a human development that’s completely free. The utopia relies on Ayn Rand’s concept of objectivistic philosophy. It works out fine, until a civil war breaks out. The Little Sisters and Big Daddies, gene manipulated girls and their constantly drugged protectors, are right in the middle of it. The kids suck blood from corpses and turn it into a substance called ADAM – which allows for certain operations on their own bodies. In our last example “Rage”, a giant asteroid has crushed into earth and left it largely uninhabitable. A few privileged people survived in arches. The player is one of them and comes to the surface at the beginning of the plot. It is populated with mutants and of course, something’s off with his own genes as well.



Second-class and provocative

Punk is not just a style of music, but to some people it also incorporates an attitude, a lifestyle – a term that would probably be rejected by most punks. Basically, the term punk has a negative connotation: it refers to something worthless, like rotting wood. It has been told that “the Clash” bassist-player Paul Simonon’s girlfriend was the first one to associate the term with music, as she was trying to highlight her partner’s band from regular working-class rock ’n’ roll. In any case, groups such as “the Sex Pistols”, “the Clash”, or “the Ramones” attracted a young and mad audience. The term punk became designation of a subculture, a protest movement. A punk behaves in a striking manner; provoking, protesting, politically divergent and not in conformity with economic and social developments.


This aspect of being a punk, the rebellion is, what condenses in biopunk: texts, movies, games, they are all addressed against authorities. It may be bio companies, governments or the military: mighty big players are irresponsibly handling technologies with concern only to their profit, but not to consequences of their actions. Biopunk is anti-capitalistic. And that’s what’s interesting about it: the authors want to provoke and to draw attention to maladministration. This would turn biopunk into a quiet dystopic business. But for real: Who would ever want to live in zombie-haunted wasteland and constantly meet blood-sucking children on his paths?



With Bio-Power to the Apocalypse?

It can hardly remain unnoticed that at the beginning of the 21st century, our society is in a time of transition. Besides alarming political changes, rapid scientific progress is a main cause of such developments. World is becoming more digital, and people are coming together – with all positive and negative consequences. Technology is not only bringing us together, it is capable of changing us, improving us and even replacing us. The components of what constitutes a human being are widely analyzed and genetic research has begun to create new life on its own – no human life yet, but what will stop it? Are we facing a question of technical limitations? Or should we rather consider ethical boundaries to be imposed on science? In case of the latter, what if those boundaries disappeared? Medicine is controlling our reproduction already. Would the creation of artificial human not be the next step?


In 2001 in their book “Empire”, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have raised attention to a new world order coming into existence. Nowadays, not only nations are in charge. In a progressively globalized society, internationally operating companies are becoming the new big players in world politics. The potential of power, inherent in such new world order, is significantly larger than the one traditional nations have. Because: the cross-linking in society becomes more evident and companies are able to expand their control into single households and families. Hardt and Negri refer to Michael Foucault’s thesis of a “disciplinary society” in order to underpin their claim. Society used to be built on a construct, recognizing common values and standards and punishing aberrant behavior. Instead, the new world order creates a system of control: Corporations are directly influencing body and soul of individuals – this is possible because of an according networking in society. Bio-power seems to be a main aspect of such disciplinary societies. It is the technique that ultimately paves the way for disciplinary societies as an instrument of power for a new world order. It controls the entire society by addressing the whole population on an individual level. The best way to do this is through biological processes: If aspects like level of health, reproduction and mortality rate are regulated, this will allow for a high level of control. According to Hardt and Negri, the opportunity to carry out such actions is now solely in the hand of globally operating companies, not nations. Only companies have the necessary technology and cross-border influence.



Biopunk and Dystopia

It doesn’t have to be a scenario of such kind that biopunk is radically thinking over up to the end. But a main aspect of the genre is constructed from reflection of this sort. If companies get in charge, and there are no nations to control them, ethical norms to obey simply disappear. Once overarching capitalistic striving for power is possible, biotechnology can be used to control existent life or even create new life.


One representative of such rigorous economic thinking certainly is the “Umbrella Corporation”, known from the “Resident Evil” series. Towards the outside world, the corporation acts as a global pharmaceutical firm. Behind closed curtains (or better: beneath the ground) they confidently work on the so-called T-Virus, a virus that can revive dead cells. As is known, things go wrong in the research institute “Hive” and the virus escapes into the outside world, eliciting the apocalypse. Thoughtless striving for profit ends the world, as we know it. The same is true for “I am Legend”, even though initially noble goals caused the catastrophe: years before the onset of the plot, medical doctor Alice Krippin has found a treatment for cancer, promising a hundred percent chance of success. After first tests go well, the virus mutates and kills billions of people.


„Splice“, also mentioned at the start of the text, takes a similar approach, even though the catastrophe is only implied: genetic researcher Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast are pioneers in the field of splicing, the generation of new life through merging of animal and plant genes. Driven by academic ambition, they try to create an artificial life form. What follows is Dren, a rapidly evolving creature of mixed genome. While Clive want’s to kill her at first, Elsa quickly develops motherly feelings. The Scientists accommodate Dren in their own house. The inevitable finally happens: Dren grows and gets out of their control. Elsa and Clive don’t know how to handle her. For instance, they give her a cat as companion that gets stabbed and killed on spot by the creature’s spiky tail. Dren gets more and more defying and rebels against her parents. During the course of the movie she sleeps with Clive in order to provoke a crisis between him and Elsa. A fight erupts, and is seems like Dren gets killed. Later on, we realize she survived, changed gender and rose from the grave. Dren attacks again, rapes Elsa and kills Clive’s brother. In a great finale, the creature finally gets defeated. But: the last scene of the movie shows Elsa in her office talking about a new project. It’s about a test period at an increased personal risk she would be facing. As she get’s up, the spectator realizes, she is pregnant. Their ambition drives Clive and Elsa to raise a creature that almost kills them, but they end up continuing their work – with ever higher risk. Because in a couple of months, Elsa will give birth to a creature of uncertain capabilities. With all questions of the moral principles involved in Clive and Elsa’s actions in mind, one further ethical question should not fall by the wayside: Why does Dren act the way, she does?



The Posthuman

Years before the technical knowledge of our time, Mary Shelley was one of the first to think of the consequences of artificial life. The creature “Frankenstein” seems pitiful to us. His creator formed a body from parts of corpses, just because he could do so. Only when the monster comes to life, he realizes the consequences of it being able to think and feel. Biopunk is radical, in most cases, creators of artificial life pay a high price for what they did. This is also true for “Splice”: On a whim, Elsa and Clive create life. They don’t understand what they do and don’t understand Dren’s needs, how to take care of her, raise her and explain the world to her.


Essentially, this is about the question, what happens, once we create artificial life? How do we know, how it will act? Will it act human-like? And what is human behavior anyway? In the end, we’re all products of the culture surrounding us, it’s values and standards. If we look at it this way, an artificial creature should learn these principles. We would be responsible to teach it. The scientist becomes parent. He is in charge of taking care. Elsa and Clive fail to manage this task, just like Victor Frankenstein does. Things get particularly difficult, if the created being evolves skills that are superior to the human ones. Such a posthuman being must supposedly be the goal of a progress-oriented gene technology. It’s about improving the existing. But what happens, if the posthuman is of the opinion that from the very beginning, it’s intellectual and physical abilities exceed the human? Who would be teaching whom? In other words: is the posthuman the end of the human?



Biopunk and Utopia

In „Rapture“, the undersea city in “BioShock”, the perfect society is meant to arise. Perfectionist gene technology should enable the habitants to live free from impairment, from limitations of state sovereignty. But if the consequence of civil war was that the necessary biotechnology is based on exploitation of children, the question remains: Can things come to a good end after all? The situation appears bad for us, but what about our creatures?


A utopic potential in biopunk probably cannot be deducted for common 21st century people. But it surely can be for the posthuman. For an example, we may take a look at George A. Romero’s Zombie series, starting in 1968 with “the Night of the Living Dead” and ending in 2009 with “Survival of the Dead”. In the first parts, Romero traces the doom of human society and expresses an abundantly clear critic on capitalism and dominant political trends – in “Night” particularly on the Vietnam war. Later movies focus more on the posthuman. Zombies are bit by bit forming a new society. They develop. In “Land of the Dead”, published in 2005, Zombies get off much better than human: While human live in the last giant skyscraper complex “Fiddler’s Green” in a strict two-class society, zombies are acting as a collective. They are protected and guided by undead gas station attendant Big Daddy, but he leads no authoritarian regime. It almost seems, as if future zombies have established a new, a better form of society, free from crime and social injustice.


Such interpretation focusses strongly on the provocative, the punk, but yet it is plausible. In any case, biopunk makes highly topical trends in society a subject of discussion. It takes existent developments to a conclusion in a radical, sometimes exaggerated way. And it makes a plain statement: we should think, before we act.




Translated by Malte Bertram