Living Machines: Metaphors We Live By

Published on Apr 1, 2020in Nanoethics1.359
· DOI :10.1007/S11569-019-00355-2
Nora S. Vaage4
Estimated H-index: 4
(UM: Maastricht University)
Within biology and in society, living creatures have long been described using metaphors of machinery and computation: ‘bioengineering’, ‘genes as code’ or ‘biological chassis’. This paper builds on Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) argument that such language mechanisms shape how we understand the world. I argue that the living machines metaphor builds upon a certain perception of life entailing an idea of radical human control of the living world, looking back at the historical preconditions for this metaphor. I discuss how design is perceived to enable us to shape natural beings to our will, and consider ethical, epistemological and ontological implications of the prevalence of this metaphor, focusing on its use within synthetic biology. I argue that we urgently need counter-images to the dominant metaphor of living machines and its implied control and propose that artworks can provide such counter-images through upsetting the perception of life as controllable. This is argued through discussion of artworks by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, by Tarsh Bates and by Ai Hasegawa, which in different ways challenge mechanistic assumptions through open-ended engagement with the strangeness and messiness of life.
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