Is the Genetic Code Bourgeois?
Richard Powers’ novel The Gold Bug Variations seems to contain a moral for those aspiring scientists who seek to remain detached, objective pursuers of “complete” knowledge: tread with care, for you will fail. Stuart Ressler’s increasing involvement with his coworker Jeanette Koss, along with his burgeoning obsession with music, provides Powers with an apt metaphor for describing the fundamental error in Ressler’s attempts to construct a “cell-free system” “in vitro,” showing in both cases that the cell/person’s “substance” is too intertwined with the message that it carries for the two to be separated in any meaningful manner. What I would like to call attention to are the two competing options that Powers establishes for Ressler and his successors, Jan O’Deigh and Franklin Todd. On the one hand, there is Ressler’s fantasy of intellectual detachment that would distinguish the message of the genetic code from its physical substance through an analogical metaphor; on the other hand, we see any such detached position repeatedly undermined by Ressler’s own participation in the everyday workings of “life” within his reduced social circle. Significantly, Powers uses the word “desire” to describe Ressler’s unavoidable contamination with the object of his experiment – a term that immediately calls to mind the heterosexual relationships around which the narrative turns. The dichotomous pair desire/detachment appear to be mutually exclusive options within Ressler’s scientific investigations – one can either perform an experiment “in vitro” or perform an experiment “in vivo” – but I would like to suggest that Powers resolves this contradiction within Ressler’s methodology by sexualizing the genetic code in the terms of bourgeois heteronormativity. In this case, the “either/or” opposition that seemingly ordains an inevitable gap between Ressler’s fantasy (pure knowledge) and his object of investigation (physical life) halts its dialectical oscillation when these terms are analogically translated into the language of bourgeois heteronormativity. For example, Powers broadens the “desire” that endlessly frustrates Ressler’s search for the genetic code to include both the twinned pairings of Ressler/Ross and Jan/Franklin, thus enabling him to sexualize the very structure of DNA itself: four possible base nucleotides “bond” with another predetermined nucleotide to create two twinned “pairs” of nucleotides. We can already see the sexualized rhetoric in embryonic form here, but Ressler takes this language one step further when he extrapolates from the “complementarity” of base pairs a biological imperative to select the proper mate in a heteronormative fashion: “We don’t even know each other, but in seconds, we have confirmed the predetermined fit” (282). Obviously, Ressler is invoking a biological equivalent to the well-worn concept of “soul mates,” but even more important for the discussion at hand is the way in which he describes this complementarity as a “predetermined fit,” a notion which comes dangerously close to falling back on a biologically determinist view of sexual differentiation. (For instance: men and women have different sexual organs that fit together, therefore they must copulate together; note how the chemical difference of nucleotides is here slipping into functionalist reproduction, while the “must” that Ressler often invokes shades from personal necessity to biological necessity.) Taken in light of Ressler’s favorite quote, “everything that is possible is real,” we are left with the somewhat troubling syllogism that everything that is real has been produced (heterosexually) and therefore everything that is possible is likewise produced heterosexually. The physical arena of reproduction becomes the unquestioned reality of “life,” the only site of active possibility.
Ressler’s fantasy of detachment similarly fulfills a function within the bourgeois sexual economy through its emphasis on restraint. Over the course of the narrative, Ressler actively ponders two key paradoxes that prove problematic to his work: how can nature evolve a being that can understand its own structure, and why does nature instill instincts that benefit other species members than the individual. These two problematics share one common characteristic in that each deals with the short-circuiting of desire through the application of restraint, whether this be instinctual (care for children) or self-conscious (intellectual detachment from life). This fantasy of restraint has historically been instrumental in shoring up the fault-lines of bourgeois heteronormativity and defending its presuppositions of companionate marriage and domesticated gender relations from potential alternative practices of sexuality. (One need only think of the demonizing discourses of excess sexuality deployed against colonized populations and homosexual communities to see how the rhetoric of restraint guards against potential threats to bourgeois heteronormativity.) Once again, Ressler injects this valuation of restraint into nature itself, effectively casting Darwinian evolution as the vehicle that has fueled bourgeois restraint in its selection of instinctual drives. We might call this the final bourgeoisification of nature: on the micrological level, DNA functions as an analogue for heterosexuality, while on the macrological level natural selection produces bourgeois values for its human subjects. Of course, this restraint remains nothing more than a fantasy: Ressler/Koss and Jan/Franklin give in to temptation, throw restraint away, and indulge in heterosexual coupling. But that’s exactly the point: it is only within bourgeois heterosexuality that this particular conjunction of fantasy (restraint) and physical structure (heterosexual coupling) coincide. Restraint, non-physical, non-actual, fantastic, unreal, is precisely the complementary pairing that validates the insistent heterosexual reproduction of the physical world as reality, that which escapes the un-being of fantasy.