Virality, Vitality: Narrativity and the Sciences of Life Restricted; Files Only

Basile, Jonathan (Spring 2022)

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The virus and life are two concepts, terms or germs, that have an oddly disruptive relationship to biology. Despite being fundamental to the life sciences, the question “what is life?” is often treated disdainfully by biologists, as something outside of or even irrelevant to their field. This dissertation does not propose to answer a philosophical or ontological question of the sort “what is life?” or “what is a virus?,” but poses these questions to demonstrate their necessity and impossibility to the task of the sciences of life. The authority necessary to answer such questions definitively is nowhere to be found, neither within biology nor in another discipline (such as philosophy), and yet the opening left by these questions necessarily plays a role in orienting the life sciences and exposing them to their interminable revision and revolution. One must study and preserve life without knowing what it is; thus, the life sciences are in deconstruction, exposed to a necessary non-closure and unanticipatable future—the virality of vitality.

        My introduction positions the project of a deconstruction of science relative to other tendencies in science studies, including new materialism and the sociology of scientific knowledge. In the introduction and first chapter, I examine how viruses and virology interact with the living in a fashion that disrupts the typical models scientists invoke to define life and its evolution. I focus on synthetic virology, evolutionary theory (especially the concepts of vertical and horizontal inheritance, homology and analogy, and gene or genealogical loss), and the history of virology to demonstrate that definitions of the virus and life always rest on a stabilization of the fundamental undecidability that makes every re-configuration of the tree of life possible—while also harboring the seeds of its dissolution. My final two chapters focus on artificial life and synthetic biology in order to demonstrate that the attempt to fix life as autonomous self-reproduction always insinuates the operations of virality. Because scientific knowledge is an attempt to control these risks, it repeats gestures as old as Aristotle and the Bible, where life is defined or commanded to be self-reproduction.

Table of Contents


Chapter I: Of Virology………………….52 

Chapter II: Imitations—of Life…………144 

Chapter III: Conceptions of Life: Diffinitions………198 

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