Judith Roof, The Poetics of DNA. Minneapolis, MN: U Minnesota P, 2007.
In 2000 the Human Genome Project, a consortium of privately and publicly funded researchers, drafted the first full sequence of the DNA in the human genome. Since that event, genes and DNA have exploded in public consciousness. Genes and DNA are not the same, and both determine plant and animal nature more than heredity and far less than total biological causality. Still, both are now understood as the overlapping, nearly-unitary source of biological as well as social and cultural determinism. Though this conception of DNA is not factual, it predominates in discourse about science and society. These popular misconceptions provide simplistic answers to complex social questions about the nature of gender, sexuality, and race, and the role of scientific knowledge in human life. To counter these misconceptions, we need scholars such as Judith Roof, who has channeled her formidable knowledge of gender theory and media studies into The Poetics of DNA, a pioneering cultural studies analysis--alongside cultural studies work on genetics by scholars like Dorothy Nelkin and Donna Haraway--on the narratives of DNA. Roof argues that the language about DNA circulating in the public has adverse effects on our ideas about identity, in particular about gender. However, this language persists because it is rooted in some of our most deeply held ideas about knowledge and about human life. Roof's book outlines how this circular relation has worked in the history of genetics, and demonstrates that the way we talk about DNA reveals more about society than it does about the biological functions of deoxyribonucleic acid.
Roof's central and most powerful argument is historical: DNA was discovered at an eerily perfect moment of scientific and philosophical change, just before structuralism gave way to post-structuralism. Roof describes how early geneticists incorporated structuralist language and concepts into their work on DNA and heredity, though more scientifically accurate models, such as systems and complexity theories, were newly available to them. The physical form of DNA fuels this curious fidelity to structuralism: DNA is a twinned chain of nucleotides that reproduces itself by splitting down the middle and duplicating its matching other half, reproducing biological information in the process of self-replication. DNA is a self-contained knowledge system whose structure equals its function: a perfect example of structuralism. Roof explains, "self-contained and self-identical, DNA does what it is by making more of itself. . . . It links agents of heredity directly to the life processes of living organisms. Structure melds with function in a self-reproducing strand of nucleic acids" (30). However, this structuralist paradigm is misleading; because DNA's "self-identical functional structure [was] regarded as almost infinitely meaningful, it masks a shift to the contemporaneous emergence of less structuralist, less dialectical (or more poststructuralist) ways of thinking about phenomena" (32). Roof argues that scientists and philosophers fixated on a conception of DNA as structuralist and dialectical at the expense of scarier but more compelling notions of unpredictability, complexity, and indeterminacy that were emerging in the mid-twentieth century. In the sciences, theories of complexity, systems theory, and relativity were emerging at the time; complex systems theory in particular better describes DNA's role within reproduction and heredity processes. In literary philosophy, post-structuralist models better suit the ways identity is formed by a still-unknowable interplay of culture and biology. However, Roof argues, the discovery of DNA helped preserve the more comforting and long-standing, if inaccurate and misleading, modes of knowledge crystallized in structuralism. Roof's shorthand for the structuralist conception of DNA as a simplistic agent of heredity and biological determinism is "the DNA gene," a phrase that describes the way popular discourse erases the difference between DNA and the gene and, by extension, other complicated biological processes associated with DNA and genes. Roof argues that "if there hadn't been such a thing as a DNA gene, we would have contrived it anyway" --because "the DNA gene is the point at which many long-lived ideas about the order of the universe converge," because we are already conditioned to conceive of DNA structurally, and because structuralist systems of thought are more exploitable than those that followed them historically (28). The profound power of "the DNA gene" to obfuscate these more accurate but threatening models grounds the rest of Roof's book, which theorizes the ability of our metaphors about "the DNA gene" to preserve patriarchal, binary hierarchies, to privilege reductive narrative over other, more generative models of communication, and to appropriate biological minutiae for capitalist gain:
From this perspective, our cultural and scientific narratives describing DNA and genetics are reductive at best, incorrect at worst. Roof argues that because our use of language and narrative remains rooted in structuralist conceptions of binarism, oppositionality, linearity, and logocentrism, the myriad and omnipresent linguistic metaphors for DNA are deeply integrated with the structuralist conception of "the DNA gene." Both linguistic and structural conceptions of what she calls "the epic acid" have destructive social effects. Linguistic metaphors such as "the book of life," "blueprint," and "code" imply reductive and misleading ideas about DNA: that it functions like language, that genes can substitute for each other without negative side effects, that the arrangement of DNA sequences creates their meaning, that a segment of a DNA sequence has a one-to-one relationship with a particular life process, and that DNA is akin to an authored product available for copyright protection. Roof's book outlines and speculates about the social and scientific effects of these dangerous misconceptions.
While biologically DNA is the means for reproducing and preserving genetic information, culturally it is the mechanism for reproducing and preserving the familiar world of meaningful structure, the linear cause and effect of (narrative) relations, the organizational sense of mechanical hierarchical function, and a belief in the generative power of the word that has typified Western thought from the Greeks to Albert Einstein. (31)
Most of the book applies narrative and gender theories to language about DNA; her primary texts come mostly from popular science writing, but she also discusses corporate public relations material, DNA and genetics scholarship and, all too briefly, screwball comedy films about DNA-based transformation. Though her central argument closely follows the basic premises of gender theories about narrative and about science, it is no less powerful. Roof uses the premise of science studies, that scientists base their research questions on pre-existing cultural norms and then use their experimental results to naturalize those norms. In the case of DNA, its binary, self-replicating structure reinforces the idea that reproduction depends on the complementary binaries inherent in heterosexuality. Scientific knowledge about DNA is then used to reinforce the heterosexual norm, which is in fact not genetically determined. Further, linguistic narratives about DNA perpetuate the patriarchal aspects of language itself as binary, hierarchical, and linear, and these characteristics in turn create the conceptual frames of scientific research and of popular discussions of that research. "With DNA genes, already endowed with reproductive missions, the seemingly inherent and inevitable heteroreproductive pattern saturates the world of imaginary operations" (116), including both the fictional and non-fictional representations of DNA that circulate in culture. For these reasons, Roof argues, gender and sexuality are becoming increasingly associated with genetic determinism while race is disconnected from it; that is, "at the same time that we start imagining genetic cotillions, race as a genetically based category is declared to be genetically nonexistent" (140).
On this point, Roof is off the mark. In an odd reversal of her book's main thesis, she outlines ways in which structuralist taxonomies of human physiological types are out of intellectual fashion, even as genetics has enabled the persistence of structuralist approaches to biologically determined sex and gender (140-3). Her explanation for this, without much evidence, is that the contemporary global economy now privileges a "one- world" model of humanity in which race is no longer an economically or culturally necessary category (144-7). In general, Roof relies on speculation over deep analysis of evidence; on this topic her omission threatens to turn her book into a simplistic restatement of second wave feminism. In fact, she omits a large body of work that addresses the very phenomenon she claims is finished: what Duana Fullwiley calls the "molecularization of race" (1). Fullwiley and others, most notably sociologist Troy Duster, have shown that the ties between genetics and race are even stronger with the mapping of the genome. Even while race is conventionally understood to be a combination of cultural practices, historical forces, and evolutionary traits, technologies such as ancestry testing, DNA-based forensics, genetic screenings for "target" populations, and pre-implantation genetic screening of in-vitro embryos threaten to bring what Duster describes as eugenics in through the back door.
Despite this omission, and despite her claims that sex and gender are more associated with genetic determinism than is race, Roof's arguments about narrative, metaphor, sex and gender are still compelling. For example, she uses feminist narratology to show that linguistic metaphors about DNA technologies reshape our notions of paternity while reinforcing paternity as crucial to identity. She begins with metaphor and metonymy, poetic devices that Freud and Jakobson argued provided two basic "poles" of language and representation. Roof notes that sexual politics have functioned according to these poles as well: paternity has been established using metaphor, the father's name substituting for biological paternity. Metonymy, however, a mother and child's proximity during labor, defines maternity. Similarly, linguistic representations of DNA encourage a misleading understanding of it as metaphor, according to an assumption that substitutions and replacements of DNA sequences result in stable meanings. Systems or complexity theories, biological representations modeling more accurately the way DNA works, characterize DNA as metonym, operating by contiguity and embedded in complex biological systems of which a double-helixed protein sequence is one part. Describing DNA as operating metaphorically perpetuates outmoded patriarchal narratives of reproduction. According to Roof, "the logic of substitution (symbolization, paternity, soul, magic) eclipses the contiguity that underwrites it, even--or especially--in relation to DNA, whose operation is purely metonymic. In this sense, DNA, genes, and metonymy are a figurative mother whose regime is thwarted and constantly reshaped by the representational machinations of an increasingly obsolete paternal law" (89). To avoid losing the meaning of paternity and, more generally, of law, "DNA is rewrapped in metaphor--and not just any metaphor, but the analogy of the Word, the code, the same figure applied to originary paternity and law (which, at least biblically, came together)" (91). This feminist reading of linguistic metaphors of DNA helps explain how new biotechnologies affect social structures such as gender and sexuality. Similarly, Roof argues that linguistic, metaphoric conceptions of DNA preserve human agency: if genes are like language, we can manipulate them easily. We can replace one gene sequence with another the way we use synonyms, or arrange sequences as if they were dependent clauses in a sentence. This illusion of genetic agency consoles those who may be disturbed by the homogeneity that genetic knowledge enforces--all humans share the same genes with each other and most genes with other primates--as well as by the idea that our genes are more in control of us than we are. According to the patriarchal, hierarchical logic of the DNA gene, Roof argues, linguistic metaphors of DNA and genetics facilitate ownership; DNA sequences are like strings of words "written," and thus copyrightable, by the scientists who discover them. Further, these metaphors encourage the magical thinking of pseudoscience, misguided notions of linear cause and effect that characterize genetic science as a simple manipulation of protein sequences with predictable, stable therapeutic effects. Roof's discussion of these various ways that structuralist, linguistic conceptions of "the DNA gene" enable illusions of mastery over our genes is essential reading for any student of biotechnology and culture.
This book's primary weakness, exemplified by Roof's omission of much work on race and genetics, is its lack of disciplinary substance on either the "science" or the "cultural studies" side. There are no extended close readings of texts, no extended analyses of laboratory practices, and no original historical reviews of genetics. This emphasis on theory and speculation rather than on intensive analyses of primary texts points to this book's position as an early union of literary studies and genetic science. To establish the contours of an emerging field--what Lennard Davis and David Morris have called "biocultures," the multidisciplinary approach to the intersections of biology and culture (411)--Roof establishes transdisciplinary understanding. She solves this problem by writing what amount to short introductions to literary theory, gender studies, and genetic biology, and by developing her arguments directly from the premises of those fields, such as the premise of literary studies that language structures understanding. As her background is in literary and cultural studies, her use of those fields' premises overshadow her introductory use of genetics, and her argument is similarly weighted toward the literary. Her discussions of these disciplinary premises are extremely clear and straightforward, written in lively, enjoyable prose, and they make a compelling case for transdisciplinary scholarship. The downside of her choice is that she substitutes basic narrative and gender theories, as well as rudimentary biology, for intensive analysis on either disciplinary side. In general, science studies books such as those by Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, and Anne Fausto-Sterling argue for the cultural studies of science by analyzing ways that culture affects scientific practice, challenging the positivist premise that scientific research is fueled exclusively by a quest for empirical truth. Roof's point, that linguistic practices and their cultural associations affect scientific progress, remains more speculative here. Her best example of the way language shapes science is the etymology of "gene": geneticist William Bateson, a translator and proponent of Mendel, proposed the term "genetics" in a 1906 letter. He felt that this term would represent adequately the field of science devoted to discovering the agents of heredity and of generational variation. Another scientist, Wilhelm Johannsen, then coined smaller etymological units from "genetics"--"gene," "genotype," and "phenotype"--in 1909, establishing a field-wide move toward the reduction of biological processes to ever-smaller agenic objects. The two concepts inherent in this etymology--the root "gen" associated with both birth and race or species, and the increasingly small agents of biological processes--established a subsequent destiny for genetics research to fulfill. Roof argues that "the analogies and figurations of DNA as the genetic agent that prefigure and anticipate the working out of its structure already determine (or overdetermine) the directions research takes as well as predefine the analogies and coincident conceptual baggage that accompanies DNA as the mode of its public transmission" (77). This description of the way language structures scientific understanding is compelling, but it is Roof's only example of language determining science. Her larger argument that structuralist theories determine scientific goals is convincing, as are her analyses of the dangerous consequences of contemporary corporate press releases purveying what she shows are reductively structuralist characterizations of DNA as a language. But Roof's arguments rest on a more humanist assumption, that by creating our perceptions of science, cultural norms affect the social status of scientific research but don't necessarily substantively change the research itself. A stronger science studies position or argument is difficult to find in The Poetics of DNA. The book seems to be written for humanists interested in science culture, rather than for scientists interested in a literary and cultural studies perspective, and so its introductory explanations of literary, narrative, and gender theory seem misplaced. Still, this is a rhetorical problem of audience and not an overriding weakness of argument. As the broader intersection of literature and science and the more specific cultural studies of genetics develop, and as an audience for such work grows and stabilizes, Roof's book will be seen as an important initial investigation of the dynamic and potentially damaging relationship between cultural norms and genetic research.
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Georgia Institute of Technology
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Davis, Lennard and David Morris. "Biocultures Manifesto." New Literary History 38.3 (2007): 411-418.
Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Fullwiley, Duana. "The Molecularization of Race: Institutionalizing Human Difference in Pharmacogenetics Practice." Science as Culture 16.1 (2007): 1-30.