Meiotic Fictions: Hybridity and the Reproduction of the New

Nicole Matos

Although the metaphorical and literal richness of genetic grammar and protein syntax—the information of life—should be attractive to literary scholars, the various "postmodern" schools of criticism have been more interested in the paradoxes and indeterminacy of physics. This tropism indicates the authority of physics, which is only now being displaced by biology as the dominant science of our times (Slade 11).

[1] Joseph Slade's appraisal identifies succinctly the curious disproportions that have characterized artistic engagement across the breadth of twentieth-century science. It is generally agreed that modernist and postmodernist movements throughout the arts borrowed liberally from developments in physics, particularly at the subatomic and cosmological levels, and that these borrowings intoned something generative, dynamic, and deeply creative. Meanwhile, other branches of science that might have seemed of intrinsic interest have only recently begun to attract literary attention. If biology is next in line, in some sense, for renewed literary investigation, and if this "displacement" does relate to the extended tropological dominance of physics, it might be useful to begin this "new history" of literature and science as David Porush suggests, with Ilya Prigogine: "Any study of this world, asserts Prigogine, requires a science of becoming" (59).

[2] A banal assertion, one might think, from yet another generic postmodern theorist — except that Prigogine is actually a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. Although not widely cited in non-scientific circles, Prigogine initiated what is arguably one of the most important unifications in twentieth-century interdisciplinarity, smoothing seeming discordances between properties at the microscopic particle level and those at the palpable, macroscopic level — explaining, for example, how living organisms can self-organize against entropy without irrevocably breaking the laws of thermodynamics. In essence, his work began the process of mediating between — by making mathematically commensurate — "the orderliness of physics and the complexity of biology" (57). [1] The implications of this disciplinary integration on larger philosophical and humanistic questions were not lost on Prigogine, who viewed his work as a declaration in opposition to the privileged epistemological validity of physics and in support of the seemingly less "pure," more phenomenological paradigms of biology. Prigogine's book-length account of the theories for which he was awarded the 1977 Nobel references in its title the "new synthesis" between physics and biology consequently made possible (Porush 61). In Porush's view, Prigogine's synthesis thus forms an important part of "a larger postmodern reshaping of our universe" — a reshaping that Porush, like Slade, believes "was begun in modern physics and emerges in other postmodern discourses, including the scientific discourses of cybernetics . . . and genetics" (61).

[3] But despite Prigogine's dramatic clearing of the way, the ascendancy that Slade predicts for biology and literature has been slow in coming. Ironically, many have suggested that the intense and too often inept borrowing of concepts from literature by biologists, particularly those in genetic science, is one major factor discouraging the reverse. Bio-linguistic metaphors such as the presentation of DNA as (alternatively) letters, words, instructions, and so on, are now so prevalent as to be accepted almost literally. The version of "language" reflected back from many of these popular comparisons is, however, off-puttingly anti-literary — that is, anti-interpretation, anti-ambiguity or -indeterminacy, crudely and strictly utilitarian. Geneticists alienate their literary brethren, as Van Dijck surmises, when "[l]anguage-related metaphors are used interchangeably with 'code,' 'message' and 'inscription.'" (36) — no slippage between signifier and signified, no distinction between message and means.

[4] But if this inattentive or naïve eliding of "language" with "code" obscures linguists' freshest conceptions of the dynamics of communication and poetics, it may also, as Van Dijck reports, obscure biologists' freshest conceptions of genetics:

[The] comparison of DNA with blueprints and programs engenders the interpretation of genetics as a matching process between a single gene and a trait. This imposes a sense of biological determinism onto what is basically a contingent relationship between biochemical pathways, cellular structures, and physiological processes . . . .misrepresen[ting] development's role in the expression of traits . . . .DNA is not a set of absolute, all-containing orders; cell and DNA are constantly interacting, mutually affecting each other's change (150).

More accurate metaphors for genetic interactions may in fact involve revisionings that explicitly evoke contemporary literary theory; that is, correcting popular misconceptions surrounding language in genetic metaphor, some biologists have begun to suggest, may actually correct corresponding misconceptions about the nature of genetics itself:

In Signs of Life, Robert Pollack severely criticizes the common configuration of the genetic structure as a language - an image that defines language as a static set of coding rules. Instead of taking linguistic concepts as a model, he proposes transferring the analytical apparatus of literary criticism onto genetics. To view genetics as literature rather than language allows recognition of the complexity of DNA . . . . In line with prevailing metaphorical preferences, he describes DNA as a "long, skinny assembly of atoms, similar in function, if not form, to the letters of a book." His notion of reading, however, involves more than deciphering: "The cells of our bodies do extract a multiplicity of meanings from the DNA text inside them, and we have begun to read a cell's DNA in ways even more subtle than a cell can do. The inherent polysemy of DNA texture enables multiple interpretations of the same [molecular] letters]". . . .The idea that there is a single, canonical interpretation of the human genome, whose precise alleles we might hold up as a perfect mirror, is not an innocent misconception but a dangerous tenet shared only by fundamentalists. The purpose of expanding the language metaphor into the realm of literature is to show that DNA opens up whole new worlds of interpretation; the leap from DNA to protein is as arbitrary as the relation between signifier and signified (Van Dijck 153-155).

This example demonstrates the simple but fundamental premise underlying my more complex argument--that biology and literature, while suffering from frequent mutual misunderstandings, are not necessarily mutually unintelligible or monolithically ideologically opposed. Better still than biology taking on the figurative "authority" of physics would be a post-Prigogine, cross-fertilizing meiosis: a new history of biology and literature aligning and recombining the most generative strands of both.

[1] A fuller account of Prigogine's work isn't practical here, but see Porush's article, "Fictions as Dissipative Structures: Prigogine's Theory and Postmodernism's Roadshow" for a much more thorough overview.