The Xenotext Experiment and the gift of death

'Eunoia' patanoia patadox patadise

Christian Bök at North of Invention; click here to view his performance. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

When I write, I face my own death. This is the message the writer sends from the edge of the grave. Only days before stepping over the threshold, in Learning to Live Finally, Jacques Derrida, the specter of différence writes back to us as though from the other side:

The trace I leave signifies to me at once my death, either to come or already come upon me, and the hope that this trace survives me. This is not striving for immortality; it’s something structural. I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die: it is impossible to escape this structure, it is the unchanging form of my life. Each time I let something go, each time some trace leaves me, ‘proceeds’ from me, unable to be reappropriated, I live my death in writing. It’s the ultimate test: one expropriates oneself without knowing exactly who is being entrusted with what is left behind. Who is going to inherit, and how? Will there even be any heirs?

Faced with the exponential increase in data, and the rapid passage into obsolescence of hard and virtual archival alternatives, the question of the Überleben, afterlife or survival, of one’s work becomes all the more acute. The structure of the trace that requires me to live my death is inescapable. There is no way to ensure my inheritance. In fact, in a kind of Heisenbergian gesture, when I read a text, as I am now misreading the Xenotext project, I have already done it irreparable damage, if one considers transformation as damage. That is the very nature of the Überleben.

It may be, as we shall see, that the archival obsession is an impossible desire for immortality in the face of death. All life, even the afterlife, is ephemeral. Here, as wherever we are faced with an irreducible contradiction, is the ideal place to propose a pataphysical solution.

The pataphysical solution simultaneously subverts the grand narratives of science as progress, and art as genius. By offering solutions to problems that are either insoluble or imaginary in the first place, pataphysics reveals the aporia and lets it stand. Pataphysics points to the paradox of the problem it seeks to resolve. It compels us to turn elsewhere, to think otherwise. To confront our responsibility.

The Xenotext, if we read it as pataphysics, demonstrates that even when we abandon the unreliable paper and virtual substrates, to encode our text instead in the hardiest of living cells, the problem of its survival remains.

Undeniably, as Pak Wong and Eduardo Kac have already demonstrated, it is absolutely possible to encode text as DNA strands in minute organisms such as bacteria. In this way human data can be attached to organisms with proven track records for longevity, and thus hitch a ride into the distant future, to be retrieved either by future humanoid generations or, if that unfortunate species has destroyed itself by then, by alien anthropologists and art lovers from distant planets.

The genius of the Xenotext Experiment is that it not only stores information, but that the encoded poem generates a response from the host organism in the form of another poem. The bacteria itself becomes a machine for writing poems. There appears to be a dialogue between the geneticist-poet and the organism, even if that binary is conceived stereotypically as male human/female bacterium.

And yet we know that, in fact, the genetic nucleotide is already a poem. With endless permutations. Its own secret language. A language that human science has only begun, not to decipher (because that would assume some original signified prior to language, and attribute some teleological purpose to the genome’s language), but to translate in what might be described as a radical translational process. Radical because there is no way to translate in a literal sense the genome’s language into any human language. The geneticist produces a translation that she can understand or that can be useful to her human needs, for medical purposes, for example, or to store data. But the poem is already there. If “the word is now a virus,” the virus has always been the word.

The biogeneticist then is a reader. Her relationship to the text is that of a translator, seeking to give the original an Überleben, which is the task of the translator. The translation emerges from the original text, it lends itself, offers itself to the original text, as an Überleben, an “afterlife” or, in Derrida’s translation of Benjamin, a form of “survival,” of living on. To speak of translation — and writing is always already translation — is to speak of death and responsibility.

But the Xenotext Experiment is not listening; it imagines it is initiating a conversation, when the other has already been speaking. When the geneticist-poet penetrates the organism to encode new information into the nucleotide, he in a sense interrupts the other’s speech, the nucleotide’s own poem. What if the aliens were not somewhere out there in heaven or in the World-to-come, but instead had always been here, reading the poetry of nucleotides? Or more potentially radical: what if these tiny organisms are in fact the aliens, the xenos who have always been here reciting long strings of generative poems to each other while humans are busy murdering each other?

We sometimes imagine ourselves reaching out to alien civilizations the way our ancestors reached out to the angels. Or like Paul Davies we speculate that they are already here, speaking in codes implanted in the tiniest organisms among us. Aliens standing in for God: superior in intelligence and yet harboring some sort of inexplicably benevolent interest in our planet.

But xenos, the foreigner, the unknown, can be guest or host, stranger or friend. The word lies at the root of the Greek policy of xenia (comparable to the ancient Hebrew practice of akhsania of which Levinas speaks): hospitality toward the guest, the foreigner, the other, who might turn out to be a god disguised as a beggar (xenia was also extended to the poet or traveling bard, in the form of bed and board).

The aliens are not out there, but already here; they are both guest and host, and they have been writing poems long before we chipped a stone. As I am compelled to turn back, to face my death, and the irretrievable future of the trace, what remains is my responsibility. When I write, faced with my death, I am faced with my responsibility. Like Socrates, I am compelled to take responsibility for my death, to give it meaning.

The pataphysical solution to the extinction of the earth and its inhabitants compels me to reflect on my responsibility to that biosphere. The Xenotext calls upon us to turn our face away from the heavens and back to the smallest living being on this our planet. What is my responsibility toward that nucleotide, and toward the bacteria which I encode with my message? I am compelled to reflect, not only on the attribution of value to different organisms, based on criteria like size and closeness to my own species, but also on my attitude towards the other in general. Towards writing. What is my responsibility toward the living biosphere in which my death awaits me? What is my message which I seek to encode in another living organism?

“This concern for death, this awakening that keeps vigil over death, this conscience that looks death in the face is another name for freedom.” — Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death