Biomimicry & Bioengineering

A review of Reanimating Bios: Biomimetic Science and Empire, by Elizabeth Randolph Johnson.

When I was about twelve years old, I dreamed — and, I assume, so dream many of the teenage boys still today — about superhuman powers. In my case, the imagination and the desire to become Übermensch were partly conditioned by an insatiable appetite and exposure to North American popular culture and its fantastic figures found in the superhero comic books of the late 1980s. The superpowers I coveted included, among others, the sticky fingers of the Spiderman, the elasticity of the Plastic Man, and the animal-keen senses and super-healing factor of the Wolverine. In a more anthropological sense, this imagination, indeed desire, to become a superhuman by subsuming nonhuman animal powers is an old, and perhaps universal, cultural imagination that in a cosmological sense situates humans among other living creatures and defines their complex mutual relationships within a particular culture. Imitation of non-human capabilities is also a powerful desire, one that has today, within biological sciences and bioengineering, caught the attention of institutions responsible of national security as well as global conglomerates looking for new areas of business innovation.

Elizabeth Johnson’s fantastic dissertation takes this imagination as the starting point, and asks what this imagination and powerful related practices of bioengineering do to our understanding of central cultural categories of “life” and “human.” Guiding the readers through recent developments of the idea of imitation of nonhuman capabilities, Johnson arrives quickly at the core of her thesis, and draws the complex contemporary cartographies of biomimetic worlds for her readers to ponder upon. These worlds are close to the ones depicted in late twentieth century superhero comic books, where a new world order and a multitude of life forms are intertwined in surprising ways. Perhaps the most important element of this new chimera of bodies, their intensities manifested through living, and the politics targeting them both, is a radical transfiguration of life: the shift from a biopolitical focus aiming at policing and maximizing the powers of actual life to the future, and yet undisclosed, potentials incorporated in the flesh of (nonhuman) living beings.

The promissory visions of the posthuman future, where humans have incorporated some of the great techniques of nonhuman life perfected by evolution — from adhesive gecko feet to lobster-style movement, from bee’s complex orientation techniques to jellyfish nervous systems — and the multiple trajectories leading to these futures, is put together by an amalgamization of animal potentialities, biological research agendas and researcher subjectivities. This assemblage is put together in a cultural space, where the military-industrial complex is reaching its tentacles deep into academic institutions. The new world of biomimicry is made of national, economic and nonhuman power interests, and mediated to larger public through award-winning researchers and institutions, such as the most luminous researcher of the biomimicry field Janine M. Benyus (1958- ) and the Montana-based Biomimicry Guild and Biomimicry Institute that she co-founded in 1998 and 2006 respectively.

The dissertation builds on five chapters bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. The first chapter introduces the world of biomimetics through nanotechnology and the efforts to learn and replicate the adhesive feet of geckos for commercial purposes (pp. 10-39). The second chapter takes a look at the current research (“RoboLobster”) on lobster movements in and around the coastlines, funded by the United States Department of Defense as part of the redefined critical borderlines of the battlefields (pp. 40-75). The third chapter discusses the unsettling effect of biomimicry to the definition of the “human,” especially through the visions put forth by the forerunners of the biomimicry movement (pp. 76-126). In Chapter 4, Johnson moves her analytical gaze towards the artificial intelligence research mimicking bees, and discusses the case of “RoboBees” (pp. 127-165). Finally, she analyzes the actual set up of a Jellyfish biomimicry lab, where constant practices of care are required to keep the experiments running properly, effectively translating the practices to new intensities and creating new contact zones for “interspecies love” (pp. 166-197).

Tracing the new cartographies of biomimetic fields of science and bioengineering through five brilliantly written and empirically rich chapters, Elizabeth Johnson also engages in dialogue with some of the key thinkers in social theory in a highly original manner. Inviting the thinkers (Marx, Horkheimer and Adorno, Virilio, Benjamin, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Foucault, Donna Haraway, Actor Network theorists, to name but a few) to weird contact zones where biomimetic science and politics are made, the problematic anthropocentricity of most of their theories is questioned and, in some cases, critically deconstructed by/to their bare basic, and erroneous, axioms. At the same time, however, most of the theoretical work finds interesting rearticulations in the dissertation, and even Marx’s theories of labor and capital are revitalized, or should one say put to “productive use,” in Johnson’s critical inquiry into the new contexts of nonhuman labor. The dissertation nicely redefines some of the key avenues of thinking about bios, or the condition of human existence as a communal life, especially when understood as a self-enclosed sphere consisting of and taking only human life as its political object.

So, what becomes of life and living in this new cartography of bios operating with recombinant logics? Johnson’s dissertation shows beautifully how the imaginative fields of biomimicry subsume life and its attributes, creating new spaces (of war, of institutional and subjective training, interlinked topologies of economic and political interests), in which the work toward the creation of Übermensch and the vision of a posthuman life has been well on its way quite some time already in its politico-scientific sense too. Her incessant questioning of the transformed borders of life and the human — what are we as a species and what we can become in the institutionalized imaginations of the key players operating within biomimetic fields — reveals intimate links to the geopolitical imagination and related military strategies of the United States as well as to the capitalist industry, rearticulated through life’s endless potential. This dissertation is a fantastic read, and one that surely will put the readers to reflect upon the politics involved in the biomimetic visions of future, where Spiderman, Plastic Man and Wolverine represent the highest achievement of our species.

Sakari Tamminen, PhD
Department of Social Research
University of Helsinki

Primary Sources

“Ethnographic research and participation observation in a laboratory at a New England University” (p. 28)
Semi-structured interviews with faculty and researchers in New York, California and New England institutions
Archival and media research

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. 2011. 222 pp. Primary Advisor: Bruce P. Braun.


Image: RoboLobster, photograph by Elizabeth R. Johnson.

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