Scientific iconoclasm and active imagination: synthetic cells as techo-schientific mandalas

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Metaphors allow us to come to terms with abstract and complex information, by comparing it to something which is structured, familiar and concrete. Although modern science is “iconoclastic”, as Gaston Bachelard phrases it, scientists are at the same time prolific producers of metaphoric images themselves. Synthetic biology is an outstanding example of a technoscientific discourse replete with metaphors, including textual metaphors such as the “Morse code” of life, the “barcode” of life and the “book” of life. This paper focuses on a different type of metaphor, however, namely on the archetypal metaphor of the mandala as a symbol of restored unity and wholeness. Notably, mandala images emerge in textual materials related to one of the new “frontiers” of contemporary technoscience, namely the building of a synthetic cell: a laboratory artefact that functions like a cell and is even able to replicate itself. The mandala symbol suggests that, after living systems have been successfully reduced to the elementary building blocks and barcodes of life, the time has now come to put these fragments together again. We can only claim to understand life, synthetic cell experts argue, if we are able to technically reproduce a fully functioning cell. This holistic turn towards the cell as a meaningful whole also requires convergence at the “subject pole”: the building of a synthetic cell as a practice of the self, representing a turn towards integration, of multiple perspectives and various forms of expertise.
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First archival date: 2019-02-07
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