Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Metalosis Maligna and Life as Surplus

Metalosis Maligna is a documentary about a disease that affects patients with medical implants. Metalosis Maligna occurs when a metal implant interacts badly with human body tissue, causing the metal to grow tendrils, which eventually puncture the skin from within and destroy it. The movie shows the development of the disease from its early stages through to the gory advanced stages, by which point entire sections of flesh have fallen away and all that is left is a skeleton of scrap metal.

Now consider the thesis of Melinda Cooper's Life as Surplus (2008). The inner contradiction of capitalism, re-enacted in the bioeconomy, is that the creation of value from life itself requires a ‘corresponding move to devalue life’ (through imposed limitations). The need to limit the self-regenerative nature of living systems (in order to extract the surplus value) and the continual vigilance needed to guard against the threat of overproduction and excess promise are primarily addressed in terms of the mechanics of the neoliberal shaping of the bioeconomy since the 1980s. However, it is in this chapter that Cooper brings these latent dangers to bear in a more tangible manner in relation to the “extreme mutability, unexpected recalcitrances, and peculiar generativity” (p.124) inherent in the topological models developed by biologists working in tissue engineering.

These bioengineers, Cooper points out, must contend with the challenge of having their tissue constructs adhere to the specifications of the federal regulatory agencies’ definition of “medical device” (which necessarily implies “some degree of stability, reproducibility, and standardized form” p. 124) while acknowledging the reality that products in the regenerative medicine industry, by their very nature, continue to grow and respond to their bodily surroundings well after implantation. As Cooper points out, “Its productivity is dependent on its continued ability to self-transform, to grow, to morph, in ways that are not easily predicted” (p.125). While the problem here seems merely semantic, the sustained threat emphasized in her book is that these extremely plastic , mutable cells should proliferate too well and in the process give rise to potentially lethal cancerous growths.

The following video goes further in developing the notion of emergent ‘biospheric threat’ (p.81). Using techniques of film that have become characteristic of medical/nature documentaries to lure us into a state of comfort and familiarity, Floris Kaayk’s videos offer startling scenarios in which the fundamentally wild, unpredictable, and self-regenerating nature of life itself is brought to the fore. The first film offered a vision of uncontrained growth, contortion and bodily transformation (while curiously avoiding any mention of the threat to the lives of the infected) and, in contrast, the second film puts forward a narrative of abundance, renewal, and vitality. Each explores the possible consequence of surplus life from a different perspective.

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