Lacanian Review Online 257: From Galileo toDNA Barcodes in Food Products

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LRO 257
14th November 2020

 




From Galileo to DNA Barcodes in Food Products
Dominique Rudaz

In an article in Science, researchers developed a system whereby artificially created DNA barcodes can be dispersed in environmental objects, including food products.[1] This practice is starting to be used in food safety, for example by allowing the natural origin of a food product to be identified. As a researcher in the Swiss newscast put it, the DNA barcode is reliable, “unlike a label that could be lost.”[2] We will come back to that.

I asked myself the following question: how did we get here? The question is less about scientific exploits than about the causes that agitate us, as well as the hoped-for effects, to arrive at the integration of DNA barcodes in consumer products. Let's take a step back and take a look at Galileo, the one who, according to Alexandre Koyré, paved the way for modern science.

Galileo’s fundamental step was to consider that nature was written in mathematical language, that is, the idea of a knowledge inscribed in the real. Upheaval for the doctrine of the Middle Ages as well as the Renaissance, until then dominated by Aristotelian physics. The latter saw mathematics as abstract conceptions that had little to do with physics. The Aristotelian scientific system is based on perception, on the observation of facts, on the common sense of everyday experience. Whereas with Galileo, whom Koyré considers a Platonist, nature, formerly known as the real, is geometric. Science is no longer linked to experience and common sense, but to the experimental method “[…] which uses mathematical language (geometric) to formulate its questions to nature and to interpret the answers of this one.”[3] For example, the law of inertia would have been unthinkable for an Aristotelian, because uniform rectilinear motion is not observable in nature: Galileo did not observe it, but demonstrated it. As Koyré wrote in 1943, “No wonder the Aristotelian felt astonished and bewildered by this astonishing effort to explain the real by the impossible.”[4]

First consequence: everything that had its place in the natural order of a finite, hierarchical universe no longer exists. “With the infinite universe of mathematical physics, nature disappears […] and the real begins to be unveiled.”[5] Scientific knowledge takes precedence over the knowledge we had of the world we lived in and which is now denaturalized. Second consequence: if in “[…] the most ancient tradition, all human order should imitate the natural order,”[6] it is also the human being who is denaturalized with the disappearance of nature. Our subjectivity is now given by a chain of letters of deoxyribonucleic acids, and no longer by chosen signifiers of which  the traditional subject was the effect.

But from Galileo to the DNA barcodes in consumer food products, is not another step taken? We can identify it with the arrival of capitalist discourse alongside that of modern science. Let us allow ourselves to be taught by what Véronique Voruz formulates concerning capitalist discourse: “In consumerist capitalism, the subject finds compensation for this loss [the costs of jouissance which make the structure function], this entropy which is at the heart of psychoanalysis, in the addictive consumption of plus-de-jouir objects, from which he is promised he will derive consistency of being.”[7]

Let’s sum up. With Galileo and the introduction of scientific discourse, we face yet another loss. If in the master’s discourse the loss concerns the fruit of the slave’s labor, in the scientific discourse loss, to use Voruz’s words, concerns the “consistency of being”. To come back to my question, let us propose that it is this loss, this denaturalization, which agitates us. Would the capitalist discourse allied with science be an attempt to recover this loss? Let’s take a look at a food market.

As I read the article in Science and listened to the newscast that featured it, a food-related signifier immediately struck me: “natural”. “Product naturally derived”, “100% natural ingredients”. I propose to consider this signifier as an S1.

“A label that could be lost.” If before the advent of modern science, “[…] the rhetorical agitation of the signifier in human speech was thus framed by a weft of signifiers fixed like the heavenly bodies,”[8] today the S1 are multiplying exponentially and quickly expire, they falter. The liberal subject is no longer sure that the label is properly fixed to the product. By themselves, the master signifiers no longer give any guarantees.

Therefore, recourse to scientific knowledge: the DNA barcodes – artificially created, let’s not forget – integrated into food products, are at the same time a mediator and guarantor of natural origin. Finally, the product arrives at the table of the liberal subject.

However, what is the liberal subject hungry for? Is it the food product itself, or the signifier “natural”? What we can at least note is that the food market (as well as markets for  clothing, luxury goods, etc.) sells signifiers – we buy, we consume, we eat the signifier and today the signifier “natural” must be on the menu of the banquet of capitalism.

 


[1] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6495/1135?rss=1

[2] https://www.rts.ch/info/sciences-tech/11629727-le-codebarres-adn-nouvel-outil-pour-tracer-les-produits-alimentaires.html

[3] A. Koyré, Etudes d’histoire de la pensée scientifique, Gallimard, 1973, p. 83

[4] Ibid., p. 185

[5] J.-A. Miller, “The Real in the 21st Century” Hurly-Burly, No. 9, p. 203.

[6] Ibid., p. 201.

[7] V. Voruz, “L’insurrection du symptôme”, La cause du désir, 2020/2 no 105, p. 60.

[8] J.-A. Miller, op. cit., p. 201.


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