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Living Factories

Living Factories: Biotechnology and the Unique Nature of Capitalism

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Living Factories
    Book Description:

    Techniques of genetic engineering are changing the role of living things in the production process. From rabbits that produce human pharmaceuticals in their milk to plants that produce plastics and other building materials in their leaves, life itself is increasingly harnessed as a force of industry - a living factory. What do these cutting edge developments in biotechnology tell us about our relation to nature? Going beyond the usual focus on the ethics and risks surrounding genetically modified organisms, Kenneth Fish takes the emergence of living factories as an opportunity to revisit fundamental questions concerning the relation between human beings, technology, and the natural world. He examines the coincidence of the living factory metaphor in contemporary accounts of biotechnology and in the work of Karl Marx, who described the machine as "a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic powers ... burst forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs." Weaving together accounts of biotechnology in the molecular- and cyber-sciences, corporate literature, and environmental sociology, Living Factories casts our contemporary relation to nature in a new light. Fish shows that living factories reveal the unique role of capitalism in infusing the forces of nature with conscious purpose subordinated to processes of commodification and accumulation, and that they give a new meaning, and urgency, to the liberation of the forces of production from the fetters of capital.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8801-1
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Of Spider-Goats and Mechanical Monsters
    (pp. 3-25)

    The focus of this book was inspired by an image in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2004). When I read the novel I was a PhD student focused primarily on the ontological challenges posed by new technologies. I had become all the time more interested in biotechnology and was convinced of the value of Marxian theory for making sense of its extraordinary capacity to destabilize the relationship of humanity with nature. What I was missing, however, was that elusive “empirical object,” a specific example of biotechnology that would allow me to explore my more ontological concerns. A friend recommended the...

  5. 1 Marx and the Unique Nature of Industrial Capitalism
    (pp. 26-45)

    While there is now general agreement that Marx, at least implicitly, identified a specific human–nature relation unique to capitalism, few elucidations of his thought have addressed the kinds of ontological questions that concern me here. According to most, capitalism is a social logic or set of class relations that has some unique set of effects on a natural world that is ontologically distinct from it. To be sure, Marxists have generally identified a disjuncture in our relation with nature, but it lies in the unique way in which nature is treated in a capitalist economy as opposed to any...

  6. 2 Conceptualizing Living Factories
    (pp. 46-61)

    The first obstacle to grasping the meaning of our living factories is that they are generally subsumed as one more example of “biotechnology,” “genetic engineering,” the “life industries,” or some other equally vague term intended to capture what is unique about recent productive applications of molecular biology.¹ Although I have been content to use these terms myself to this point, I run the risk of obscuring what is unique about living factories, by contrast both to other uses of life and to non-living technologies. As we will see, problems of definition figure prominently in discussions of the uses of life...

  7. 3 Harnessing Life Itself as a Productive Force
    (pp. 62-89)

    Edward Yoxen argued in 1981 that the significance of molecular biology, and its reductionist conception of life, lay in the degree to which it would facilitate the emergence of “life as a force of production.” What Yoxen meant by this, and what others have meant who have subsequently made similar kinds of arguments, is that developments in molecular biology, and rDNA more than any other, allow for a repositioning of the biosciences relative to industry so that they might play the kind of research and development role assumed by the physical and chemical sciences beginning in the nineteenth century. What...

  8. 4 Breaking the Machine Metaphor: The Difference that Life Makes
    (pp. 90-113)

    While the traffic in metaphors between engineering and the life sciences has a long history, the capacity to construct an organism in a way that harnesses its synthetic capacities to human purpose has given new meaning to the notion of life as machine.¹ And it must be admitted that, to this point, I have embraced something of this machine thinking in my use of the term living factory to describe transgenic biotechnologies. Though the notion of the living factory has proven useful thus far in distinguishing a transgenic labour process from previous uses of life in industrial microbiology, agriculture, and...

  9. 5 The Conscious Organ of the Living Factory
    (pp. 114-142)

    Despite their self-movement, machine systems require human labour for their design, production, and employment, and so where life is equated with machinery the “engineers” of life are never far behind. And indeed, as was the case with the machine metaphor, I have to this point been content to characterize transgenic labour in just these terms. I have conceptualized the creation of transgenic organisms as “genetic engineering” and the employment of microbes as tools as “biochemical engineering.” And it is possible to go further still and consider practices of agriculture and animal husbandry under the engineering rubric as well, insofar as...

  10. 6 The Meaning of Marx’s Organic Metaphors
    (pp. 143-160)

    We can begin resolving the contradictions with which we concluded the previous chapter by bringing to light a puzzle suggested in chapter 1, only to be left lurking beneath the surface of our analysis to this point. As we first saw in chapter 1, the ontological disjuncture in the human–nature linkage that Marx attributes to machinery rests primarily on a contrast of large-scale industry with pre-industrial handicraft rather than agriculture; indeed, Marx is explicit in regarding agriculture as outside of his historical analysis of the industrialization process proper and as a labour process sui generis insofar as it merely...

  11. 7 Living Factories and the Materiality of Capitalism
    (pp. 161-178)

    To this point I have kept capitalism bracketed in our analysis of the transgenic labour process. Even in my elucidation of Marx in chapter 1 I did not fully draw out the significance of the ontological disjuncture engendered by industrial labour processes for our understanding of the relation between capitalism and nature. While this has proven useful in focusing our attention on the ontological significance of living factories for the human–nature encounter, we risk obscuring the specific form and purpose of our living factories. For Marx, ontology and political economy intertwine. Thus, while the topic may open the door...

  12. CONCLUSION: Towards a Bright Green Marxism?
    (pp. 179-190)

    There is, at the root of environmental thought, a tacit rejection of Marx’s understanding of the contradiction between human industry and the socio-economic structure of capitalism (Bahro 1984). “Modern bourgeois society,” Marx writes,

    a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 191-202)
  14. References
    (pp. 203-216)
  15. Index
    (pp. 217-224)