The Commodification of the Genetic Code

In Oryx and Crake, Oryx is a sex-slave, a child-prostitute, and a human commodity.  She was bought, sold, and even by the time she dies, never really escapes corporate ownership.  But then, what does in the novel?  Crake may be Oryx’s boss, her semi-emancipator, yet before his own death Crake achieves the highest position seemingly available in his society, and even he is closely monitored by his corporation’s police for profitable beings to sell.  At his graduation from high school, colleges bid on the right to own his brain and a percentage of the results which issue from it.  Before a genetically engineered disease wipes out the overwhelming majority of humanity, even the Crakers — the species which may potentially supplant homo sapiens from their ecologic niche — are owned and patented by Crake and his corporate backers.  In this dystopic world everything is owned or ownable, and not only people can be intellectual property, but the molecules which form DNA are also available for control.  I was dismayed at the possibility reading the novel, seeing too many similarities to our own times for comfort.

But the NOVA special on The Human Genome Project forced me to confront the fact that Atwood is not extrapolating anything from our current situation; she’s simply stating the facts.  If I were an enterprising gentleman with a genetic analysis laboratory I could own a component and fundamental piece of every human on the planet– a strand of base pairs which produce, say, human brain proteins.  The implications of this are profound, but perhaps not in the obvious directions.  Sure, it seems absurd that someone can patent genetic code and own it, but as the business representatives in the NOVA special ask, what’s the difference between owning DNA and a pharmaceutical which can save lives?  For that matter, I’d like to push that question farther about the confrontation between intellectual property and the genetic code: specifically, what does it mean to own anything?

To bring it back to the novel, in Oryx’s narrative of her own life, she continually evades Jimmy’s defintion of what it means to be forced into child pornography and willfully misconstrues his concepts of shame.  Her narrative begs the question: Is control over life and death the “ownership” of a human being?  Does Crake’s ability to destroy humanity mean he “owns” humanity?  The answer, in the novel, is a resounding, “no,” but to achieve this “no,” it has to destroy humanity and Crake, it has to question and sneer at the commodification of what we call Capitalism by pushing it into what Jimmy’s father calls “fiefdoms” – a contiuum of feudalism and capitalism which both upsets Marx’s teleology of history and, in a similar vein, opposes what we might call real politick with an ideal of property that material conditions do not sustain.



~ by michaelalijewicz on February 18, 2009.

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