Troping Life

English 474
Professor Richard Doyle
mobius@psu.edu
S-136 Burrowes
Office Hours: Tuesday10-11:30, Thursday 9-10:30

Vital and Post Vital Rhetorics: Troping Biology in the 19th and 20th Century  

The precision and resolution of contemporary descriptions of living systems - perhaps best exemplified by the sequencing technologies that render DNA for its unique "fingerprint" - would seem to have evacuated all ambiguity from our knowledges of "life." Life appears not as the impossible object of a science which it will always elude, but as a set of phenomena that can be characterized according to a sequence of nucleotides, the instantiation of a genetic program. In short, we in the late 20th century finally know what life is.

 

And yet if this technoscientific resolution is persuasive at the level of very specific scientific statements - "Biology has demonstrated that there is no metaphysical entity hidden behind the word "life" - life's character as a scientific concept, a political entity and as an object of narrative has become perhaps more uncertain than ever, Are artificial life organisms - sequences of software that "evolve" - alive? Is the earth, as researchers Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock have argued, itself a living organism? If humans are informatic entities, in what sense are they anything other than machines? This course will analyze the rhetorical formations that form the history of questions such as these, looking to discourses as varied as 18th century biology and late 20th century science fiction.

 

Books:

Blood Music Greg Bear

 Dawn Octavia E. Butler

 The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

 Fetal Positions : Individualism, Science,Visuality Karen Newman

 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick

 The Double Helix : A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure

 of DNA James D. Watson

 The Origin of Species Charles Darwin

 

Video:

 "The Book of Life"

 "The Fly" (To see reponses to "The Fly", click here)

 Software:

Simlife (To see responses to Simlife, click here)

Websites:

Jane ROE, et al., Appellants, v. Henry WADE.

The Visible Human

The Gaia Hypothesis


  Syllabus