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Imagenation. Popular Images of Genetics.

Imagenation. Popular Images of Genetics. By Jose Van Dijck. (New York: New York University Press, 1998. Pp. vii + 235, bibliography, index.)

In Imagenation. Popular Images of Genetics, Jose Van Dijck makes an important contribution to the emerging literature on the media and to cultural analyses of molecular biology and society. Those who witnessed the remarkable press conference at the White House in the summer of 2000, where President William Clinton brought together Francis Collins from the government-funded Human Genome Project with Craig Venter, CEO of Celera Genomics, the key private sector rival to the publicly funded venture, will appreciate Van Dijck's work as she attempts to unpack the mythology and metaphors deployed since the 1950s in the "gene race" to unlock "the book of life" (21). Van Dijk sets out to challenge the schools of thought subscribed to by many in the scientific and journalistic communities who espouse theories of technology diffusion which are essentially teleological narratives: scientific progress gradually wipes away layers of ignorance to reveal a broader understanding and acceptance of scientific claims and technologies. She correctly points out that these narratives do not come to terms with the "polyvalent struggles for the meaning of genetics" (5) which move in fits and starts as diverse actors contest competing truth claims and control over science and its representation.

Van Dijck views these struggles over meaning through the lens of theater, or in her words, "the theater of representation" (16) which plays out as a drama complete with metaphors, stages, scripts, and actors assuming various roles. Central to the theatrical presentation of truth and meaning would be the images deployed by actors and how they shape perceptions of what counts, who can speak, and the place of gender in the construction of representations. Thoughout the book she examines the leading scientists, journalists, artists, writers, and political activists engaged in the drama. She does not attempt to describe these groups as unified categories. Among the ranks of feminists, for example, there are important differences in the underlying assumptions of the constructions of nature and culture and how these terms are deployed in the rhetoric of criticism. Many feminists share the fundamental assumption that nature and culture comprise a dyad or accept a strict separation between science and society, while others have sought to transcend such traditional grounds for criticism.

The book is organized by chronological periods, each marking a new script and set of roles in the drama in which actors play against each other. However, often these actors carry over metaphors from previous times or works of fiction and science while giving them a new valence in any given historical moment. She begins her narrative with the 1950s as scientists attempted to refashion biology by distancing it from the discourse of Nazi eugenics. They accomplished this through new images and the "New Biology" which sought to situate molecular biology in a neutral political space. She highlights the role of one of the leading scientists or "founding fathers," James Watson and his own account of the discovery of the DNA molecule. His narrative deployed religious imagery for the "code of life" as well as a patriarchal view of knowledge production in the biological sciences. The journalistic actors largely viewed the New Biology with "awe and mistrust" (50) while strictly enforcing the separation between science and society.

The 1960s marked a shift in the cultural politics affecting both journalism and science. A more apocalyptic view of science emerged in science fiction. By the 1970s a more oppositional role for journalists emerged as they increasingly rejected any claims to objectivity while frequently assuming the roles of judge, prosecutor and jury. This accompanied a shift in the image of the gene. Originally viewed as neutral, genes became endowed with agency. In the journalistic and science fiction mediums we find images of scientists as negligent, selfish, and capitalistic. Both genes and geneticists become marked as enemies of nature. The same dyad of science and nature played a role in bringing together seemingly oppositional sides as both genetic and social determinists jousted for control of the meanings of genetic sciences. Important critics such as Jeremy Rifkin found a voice in the 1970s as a more activist journalism emerged. A new regulatory discourse in the form of bioethics began assuming a larger role in the debate through the deployment of the discourses of compassion, justice, and responsibility while simultaneously advocating ethical training for scientists. The Human Genome Project was perhaps the largest funder of bioethics research, yet, many would argue, an ineffective one. Van Dijck correctly points out that bioethicists could become part of the debate as long as the way scientists worked remained untouched. We might use some of her observations here to call into question the role of bioethics in contemporary debates over the politics and ethics of technology. The Asilomar Conference of 1975 is presented as a first attempt by scientists to regulate their own profession while managing the journalistic discourse at the same time. The conference thus marks a point of growing tension among scientists themselves.

The late 1970s and early 1980s mark a new era in the discourse as biotechnology firms emerged on the scene as an outgrowth of university and private sector collaborations and networks. The public relations discourse assumed new meaning in the rise of biotechnology in constructing the image of the scientist as heroic doctor struggling for the cure. Throughout the 1980s and 90s criticism of genetics became more dispersed through the media, artists, academy, and science fiction. The most interesting examples provided here compare the fictional works of Robert Pollack and Richard Powers and feminist writers such as Octavia Butler. Here we find more powerful musings over the role of metaphors and images to visualize DNA, genes, genomes, and the future. Throughout this work, Van Dijck challenges us to rethink the linear notions of technology diffusion in favor of her metaphor of circular transformation of knowledge and a more complex understanding of knowledge production and representation--powerful metaphors in the continuing contest of meaning as biotechnology assumes greater importance in our everyday lives.

Jody Ranck

Independent scholar
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ranck, Jody
Publication:Cultural Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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