Futures and folk devils

 A crisis produces its own folk devils, and currently these are Pfizer, Bill Gates and Covid vaccines

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 29th Dec 2020   12:05 am Updated: 29th Dec 2020   12:55 am

Where does one go to examine a record of the past? As every schoolchild who has been dragged into an ‘educational trip’ will answer: the Museum. But where would you go to see the prospective shape of human and other lives, the future of our evolutionary possibilities, the tomorrow of humanity?

The Centre for PostNatural History, which has held showings at prestigious places such as the Museum of Natural History, University of Zaragoza, the Seattle Art Fair and elsewhere, is a space of reflecting on the possibilities engineered by human technoscience. By mapping the events thus far, it gestures at the imminent rise of post-natural forms. In the process, the Centre also gestures at popular renderings and consumption of contemporary technology, but also generates folk devils.

The Centre

The Center for PostNatural History (CPNH), Pittsburgh, describes itself as:
“dedicated to the advancement of knowledge relating to the complex interplay between culture, nature, and biotechnology. Our mission is to acquire, interpret, and provide access to a collection of living, preserved, and documented organisms of postnatural origin.”
Co-sponsored by, among others, The Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, CPNH is an account of human interventions in the planet’s lifeforms, lifecycles, climate and everything else.
Genetically modified plants and animals, lifeforms such as fruit flies used to serve the human race’s aspirations in biotech, the artistic rendering and specimens are, let us admit, not about the history of human interventions alone: they gesture at the possible routes of future operations in these fields. CPNH captures and communicates anxieties around the possibilities of chemical, genetic and other modes of biotech engineering.

A New Folk Devil

The artist Eduardo Kac created a transgenic rabbit, Alba, which glows in the dark. It was an artistic ‘product’, but one that immediately raised the hackles of those who saw humanity and biotech ‘playing God’. In line with CPNH’s initiatives in documenting the story of human intervention in the planet, and Kac’s work, we see Alexis Rockman’s now-celebrated paintings, The Farm, Battle Royale, Manifest Destiny, among others. Rockman (who created the concept art for Life of Pi) too is interested in examining what humanity has achieved so far, and is likely to do in the future.

What these images and stories did was to produce a new folk devil for the late 20th century. Critics like the Johns Hopkins political economist Francis Fukuyama ranted against the biotech revolution for altering Nature irrevocably. Fukuyama urged us, being unintentionally funny, to stay ‘natural’.

Theologians and scientists, rumourmongers and the ignorant — all saw the future as genetically monstrous. Genetics became the new ‘folk devil’, a term coined by sociologist Stanley Cohen, and inducing the single greatest moral panic since Adolf Hitler, about what Fukuyama called ‘our posthuman futures’. In the ‘century of the gene’, as the title of the wonderful book by Evelyn Fox Keller, the historian-philosopher of science, puts it, DNA became the object of anxiety as people began to treat it as the element that ruined the ‘natural’ progression of events on earth, thanks to human interventions.

The folk devil was now out of the bottle or coffin or crypt…and on the loose. Popular culture thrived on the imminent arrival of mutants and genetically engineered creatures. Theologians saw it as the arrival of the much-prophesied end-of-the-world scourge. Those working within biotech laboratories saw protests and curses in equal measure.

Yet, all of these depictions of the new folk devil assumed that only genetic interventions and modifications are problematic because then humanity is ‘playing god’. The idea of a post-natural world in which humans have altered the lifeforms around itself emanates from this assumption. This conveniently ignores the fact that farming and agriculture, mining and industry, literacy and print have also, over centuries, altered the earth and its inhabitants, in significant ways – genetic engineering is only one more instance. The earth has not been natural for a long time. Neither has humanity.

 folk devils

Anxious Museum of Future

When CPNH, Kac or Rockman foreground the impact humanity and its sciences have had on the environment, they also direct our responses to these technologies. While undoubtedly they are right to call attention to ethical issues around cloning, the production of folk devils could be detrimental to a wider social and cultural acceptance of enhancement technology or the promises of, say, stem cell engineering.

We are witnessing, in the midst of the pandemic the making of an anxious discourse, or museum, of the future, with the Covid vaccine as the new folk devil. The rumours and conspiracy theories around the vaccine – including but not limited to the fear that the vaccines carry bionic chips manufactured by Bill Gates, and will be used to control humanity – have become serious enough for the BBC to provide a response citing Oxford dons and numerous researchers.

A crisis produces its own folk devils, and currently Pfizer, Bill Gates and the vaccine are these. The conspiracy theories engender moral panics about what the vaccine will do, its multigenerational effects, its use, allegedly, of human foetuses, among others. Moral panics, as Stanley Cohen argued, are about the morality of any behaviour, process or event. They amplify the event and its effects.

Moral panics appear in the language of fear, hysterical rants, unsubstantiated claims and an appeal to the emotional rather than the rational. While moral panics thrive on appeals to the moral side of things, they also ignore the structural, scientific, social causal factors and processes. For example, the anxieties and panics around genetic engineering or the Covid vaccine do not account for testing procedures, scientific protocols, legal checks and balances, welfare possibilities. It is enough to represent the vaccine as the devil incarnate.

Ensuring an audience due to its supposed evil provenance (Microsoft, capitalism) and power (alteration of the DNA, and hence inducing transmissible effects), this new folk devil is thriving, making the task of health professionals, the state and the scientists that much harder. In the museum of the future, we should be alert to the anxiety-inducing manufacture of folk devils.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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