The Affect of Nanoterror – Luciana Parisi and Steve Goodman

0. Fear & futurity

The history of bioterror stretches back at least to the 6th century BC, when the Ayssrians attempted to poison the wells of their enemies with rye ergot. In the 15th century Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztec civilization with fewer than 600 men aided by a small pox epidemic to which the Spaniards were immune. It has been noted that, shortly after — during his conquest of South America – Pizzaro enhanced his chances of victory by giving the natives gifts of clothing imbued with the variola virus. 300 years later, Napoleon made use of swamp fever in an attempt to overpower the citizens of Mantua.

In the 20th century, from the infamous Japanese bioterror agency, Unit 731 (formed in 1936), through to the reassignment of the US Army Medical unit as the Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (1969), bioterror has attained increasing significance in global warfare. In the last 15 years, its role in the field of terrorism has intensified, from the activities of Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo in the 1990s right through to the post-9/11 anthrax attacks.

The implications of this evolution of bioterrorism cannot be understood without reference to the complementary functioning of the affective and the viral. To this end, we will seek to qualify the notion of terror in five interrelated but distinct ways. Step by step, the switch from one sense of terror to the next plunges us into the domain of dark matter: terror as intensified fear; bioterror as the organic fear of microbial invasion; microterror as bacterial contagion and nanoterror as the biosensation of the atomic unraveling of matter. What links these modes of terror is the prescient contact with incipient entities: the virtual.

In the early 1990s, Brian Massumi described fear as our overriding affective syndrome, the ‘inherence in the body of the multicausal matrix’ recognizable as late capitalist human existence’ (1993: 12). In the early 21st century we must push this analysis further. Taking bioterrorism as a prototypical distillation of the fears of the human security system, we map the continuum of asymmetric conflict which cuts across the fields of both neuroaffective and biomolecular immunology. From the mass modulation of mood via affective epidemics, to the release of viral spores into oblivious populations, fear or apprehension, as the future lurking in the present, becomes a starting point for a discussion of cybernetic control and becoming. These affective syndromes, dread, or ominous anticipation, are modes of sensitized contact with bodies not yet actualized. In the age of the simulation of epidemic dynamics, control shifts from deterrence to ambient catastrophe engrained into the microphysical fabric. Control no longer attempts merely to stop an unwanted future from happening, but switches towards the rule of the pre-emptive strike whose very intervention, in a strange paradoxical feedback, activates the future at every turn. Fear itself becomes the weapon. But while fear is known to heighten sensation, sensitizing the nervous system, which is poised for fight or flight, terror – as intensified fear – immobilizes. But is there anything that leaks from, or rather seeps under and across, the apparent freeze of fright?

Geneticists can now greatly speed up evolution in the laboratory to create viruses and bacteria that never existed in all the billions of years of evolution on earth. What kind of threat does bioterrorism therefore pose to life in its intersection with genetic engineering and nanotechnology? It is too easy to argue that bioterrorism entails a man-made manipulation of life and evolution, and that the scientist is acting like God. Here the implication is that nature is limited in its power, but is extended by the human activity. In other words, if we argue that bioterrorism is a by-product of man, who in the name of scientific progress continues to manipulate and ultimately design nature, we risk presupposing a passive and inert notion of nature — an organic whole that is dismembered by man. On the other hand, if we dismiss the singularity of technologies such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology, then we risk assigning to nature instinctual spontaneity to evade human-technical control. Instead, we suggest that the issue is much more complicated, and elides this distracting nature-culture binarism. For us, bioterrorism does not just concern natural, human or technological evolution. It does not concern life merely as a homeostatic process of disorder and order. Rather, it concerns the contagious fabrication of life and ultimately the continual variation of matter. Security, in this sense, is an ancient business.

The synthetic ecological compression cycles of hypercapitalist urbanism have densely packed bodies into tubes and channels, forcing contact via airborne circulation (weapon of choice — aerosol), smeared skin deposits on plastic surfaces, sticky transversal communication forging nomadic bacterial trajectories across grids of epidermal sterilization. A bacterial eye view of bioterrorism would see it within its context of symbiotic processes of evolution which question the difference of scale between simple and complex organisms, individual and environment, organic and inorganic and point to how all evolution pertains to society: collective colonies and multi-dimensional life. As Whitehead reminds us: ‘The most general examples of such society are the regular train of waves, individual electrons, protons, individual molecules, societies of molecules such as inorganic bodies, living cells, and societies of cells such as vegetable and animal bodies’ (1978: 98).

Bioterrorism belongs not simply to the history of humanity, but the symbiotic evolution out of which humanity has emerged. The threat of contagion then is not exclusively a problem of organic life but extends on a wider ecology of genetic relations exposing cellular connectedness in evolution. We call this contagion, microterror. We suggest however that with the emergence of nanotechnology, this micro-history of bioterror approaches a new threshold — from bioterror as fear of bacterial invasion, via microterror, to nanoterror as the distress1 of info-material implosion via atomic engineering: the modulation of life itself at the smallest of scales.

1. Affective contagion

If, as Massumi argues, fear is the barometric affect of contemporary capitalism, what is the evolutionary status of this sensory and nervous mode in immersive media-saturated societies? To investigate this problem, we will probe the future feedback affect of what we term nanoterror on 21st century life, via a symptomology of terror, of intensified fear, as a neuro-sensory weapon.


Fear, according to pioneering physiologist Walter Cannon in his theory of fight and flight, posed the question of the body’s homeostatic balance with the external environment. In his controversial article entitled ‘Voodoo Death’ published in the American Anthropologist in 1942, Cannon explored cases in which fear spirals out of control, generating damaging physiological effects. The examples he discussed revolved around the dark magic of tribal societies, but also the intense trauma suffered in the context of early 20th century warfare. Cannon was particularly fascinated by the prospect of offering a scientific explanation of deaths which occurred after the victim being subjected to a sorcerer’s spell, or ‘hex’; death from fear. Cannon sought to show that such instances, while ridiculed in the West, possessed a ‘reality’ explainable due to ‘shocking emotional stress — to obvious or repressed terror’ (1942: 180). The superstitional systems constituted a set of virtual (yet real) thresholds, which, when crossed, unleashed a fatal affective power ‘through unmitigated terror’ (1942: 170).

Cannon’s analysis of fear and the metastable autonomic tendencies it triggered was definitional:Fear, as is well known, is one of the most deeply rooted and dominant of the emotions. Often only with difficulty can it be eradicated. Associated with it are profound physiological disturbances, widespread throughout the organism. There is evidence that some of these disturbances, if they are lasting, can work harmfully. In order to elucidate that evidence I must first indicate that great fear and great rage have similar effects in the body. Each of these powerful emotions is associated with ingrained instincts — the instinct to attack, if rage is present, the instinct to run away or escape, if fear is present. Throughout the long history of human beings and lower animals these two emotions and their related instincts have served effectively in the struggle for existence. When they are roused they bring into action an elemental division of the nervous system, the so-called sympathetic or sympathico-adrenal division, which exercises a control over internal organs, and also over blood vessels. As a rule the sympathetic division acts to maintain a relatively constant state in the flowing blood and lymph, i.e. the ‘internal environment’ of our living parts. It acts thus in strenuous muscular effort; for example, liberating sugar from the liver, accelerating the heart, contracting certain blood vessels, discharging adrenaline and dilating the bronchioles. All these changes render the animal more efficient in physical struggle, for they supply essential conditions for continuous action of labouring muscles (1942: 176). Cannon, working with the physiological concept of homeostasis, tracks the corporeal effort exerted to reattain the equilibrium of body with environment via an escape to calmer territory or a struggle for survival. But it is his focus on tendencies towards disequilibrium in affective mobilization which interests us here. Cannon points to the conditions which lead to spiraling physiological dysfunction:

Since they [these physiological changes] occur in association with the strong emotions, rage and fear, they can reasonably be interpreted as preparatory for the intense struggle which the instincts to attack or to escape may involve. If these powerful emotions prevail, and the bodily forces are fully mobilized for action, and if this state of extreme perturbation continues in uncontrolled possession of the organism for a considerable period, without the occurrence of action, dire results may ensue. (1942: 176)

Because of the fear or ‘malignant anxiety’ the spell triggered, Cannon proposed that the victim’s body went through a number of physiological reactions (rise of heart rate, increase in muscle tension, rise of blood sugar levels, the release of adrenaline and other hormones) that prepared it to confront an emergency. When there actually was no emergency to confront, either through the removal of the threat or its prolongation, a state of shock could result, reducing the blood pressure, and potentially damaging the heart.

Cannon’s analysis of ‘Voodoo Death’ allows us to think the affect of bioterrorism in terms of what we could call ‘nocebos’, the dark twin of a ‘placebo’ — a speech act, a positive statement or sugar pill which induces a positive response in a patient. With a ‘nocebo’, on the other hand, from the Latin nocere (to harm), the fear which issues from the negative statement, or hex, attains a reality more powerful than the actual threat. In contemporary medicine, there is much made of the increased likelihood of succumbing to illness if verbal suggestions of susceptibility are emphasized, underlining the artificiality of the separation of physiology from psychology. In fact ‘Voodoo Death’ is commonly taken to be the prototypical nocebo study (Benson: 1997, 612-15). For ‘Voodoo Death’ to occur it has to be embedded within a collective virtual architecture in which everything guides the victim towards his death; the family and friends of the victim must treat the hex as genuine, all previously known victims must have died of the hex (unless it was removed), and the tribe must isolate the victim leaving him to his fate. If a body warned of immanent illness is rendered more likely to develop its symptoms, what of the ambient panic dynamics of mass populations? Some have begun to map such processes as they swept through mass mediated populations of the age of asymmetric warfare.

The irony of now commonplace non-specific systems of high terror alert is that by attempting to provoke readiness in the populace, the resultant stress and increased intensity of anxiety can actually lead to side effects in which bodies are less prepared to deal with the introduction of alien agents into the population. In the follow up to 9/11, an issue of official health publication Vaccination News explored this conjunction of nocebos with Cannon’s analysis in ‘Voodoo Death’, suggesting that intense stress triggers high circulating levels of Cortisol, one of a range of chemical messengers unleashed by the adrenals. Cortisol has the potential to change both the quantity of immune cells in the body and their specific function, making a body more susceptible to disease.

Cannon’s article therefore initiates a line of psychoneuroimmunological research, which can be utilized in the examination of collective affective syndromes as complex dynamic processes on a nature-culture continuum which transects biology, physiology and psychology. However, Cannon is most widely known for developing the concept of homeostasis, and it is this emphasis on self-stabilizing interiority which forces some crucial modifications to his theory. Most importantly, his designation of fear and rage as emotional states needs to be unfolded. Emotion, as an infolded, or captured, interiorized, subjectified and qualified intensity must be distinguished from affect.2 An affective (as opposed to emotional) concept of fear lends itself more concretely to the modulation of mood across networked populations, whereas relying on a narrow sense of fear as emotion deprioritizes the collective.

Alongside reducing fear to an emotion, Cannon’s analysis also rests too heavily on a somewhat clumsy, patronizing psychologistic formulation of tribal superstition, belief and imagination. Clearly in Voodoo Death’ Cannon wishes to treat the belief systems of superstitions as to some extent ‘real’. However, by relying too heavily on the concept of imagination contrasted to the rational matrices of the civilized West, he hinders the challenge he sets himself of ascribing concrete reality to the voodoo death syndrome. What Cannon’s analysis lacks is a conception of the virtual, which would give full reality to incorporeal systems, regardless of representational criteria which subordinate a demonology to science.3

Deviating from Cannon’s homeostatic analysis, it is important to note that the awareness of such complexes of sensation and feeling is always only retrospectively processed, or captured as human emotions, where awareness constitutes a ‘residue of potential’, or the ‘sediment of futurity’. Fear then becomes the feedback of futurity, underlining the body as probe, as open sensor. Could it be that terror as intensified fear marks a disengagement of the fight and fright logic, immobility in the face of futureshock? Under the shadow of this stasis, something is spreading, growing, trading.

1.2 Futurity modulation and the unspecified enemy

The history of bioterrorism reveals a feedback circuit between makeshift biological weapons, engineered vaccines and agents, and runaway mutation. Paul Virilio’s analysis of the accident is insightful here in unraveling the swollen viral potential which accompanies innovations in biomedical engineering. Virilio’s analysis of the Aristotelian substance/accident formula (in which substance is absolute and necessary while the accident is relative and contingent) is an attempt to reinstate change at the heart of matter. He points out, for example, that the ‘production of any “substance” is simultaneously the production of a typical accident, breakdown or failure, [it] is less the deregulation of production than the production of a specific failure, or even a partial or total destruction’ (1993: 212). This formulation underlies an older mode of security — deterrence – in which the recognition of the unintended consequences of a biotechnical innovation is taken to inform strategy.

However, Virilio reverses the conventional formula, thereby pointing to an emergent mode of control which could be termed futurity modulation, in other words ‘a prospective of the accident. Since the accident is invented at the moment the object is scientifically discovered or technically developed, perhaps we could reverse things and directly invent the accident in order to determine the nature of the renowned “substance” of the implicitly discovered product or mechanism ” (1993: 212). Futurity modulation coincides, in the current meteorology of mood, with the generalized affect of bioterror. Here, the population’s relation to the accident is transformed, prioritizing the accident above all and producing a phase shift in control from organic defense to microbial pre-emption. The axiomatics of control function then, via collective affect management, to reduce the potential of the bacterial continuum to merely the possibility of accident or disaster. Massumi has noted, in the interchangability of the accident and its avoidance, that our relation to the future has shifted and is now defined by the immanence of a generalized, nondescript catastrophe, a ‘syndrome’ registered through the modulation of affect. If for Whitehead, the concept of prehension concerns relations of causal connectedness between ‘actual entities’, then apprehension denotes a particularly intensified sensitivity to these relations.4

Fear marks the openness of the body to the virtual, the very large and the very small, and therefore explains the response of ‘dread’ to the infinity of the ‘unspecified enemy’ and its tendency to exceed classification:

[V]iral or environmental ‘ these faceless, unseen and unseeable enemies operate on an inhuman scale. The enemy is not simply indefinite (masked or at a hidden location). In the infinity of its here-and-to-come, it is elsewhere, by nature. It is humanly ungraspable. It exists in a different dimension of space from the human, and in a different dimension of time; ‘. The pertinent enemy question is not who, where, when, or even what. The enemy is a what not; an unspecifiable may-come-to-pass, in another dimension. In a word, the enemy is virtual. (Massumi, 1993: 11)

In this context, intensified, generalized fear concerns much more than individuated human emotions, and instead testifies to the virtualization of power in contemporary control societies. Potential mutation is reduced to a possible event where the ‘event is the accident, or its avoidance. The exact nature of the accident, even whether it happened, is not terribly important ‘ . What is important is a general condition, than of being on uncertain ground’ (Massumi: 1993: 6).

Aside from this contagious neuro-affective milieu, we can also map this enemy in terms of what we call biofilmic contagion and microterror. Interestingly, the neuro-transduction of fear as affect into an emotion parallels the body’s immune response to a virus.5 Intensified fear or terror taps into the microfabric of life, opening the discussion of bioterrorism out onto a broader plane of symbiotic evolution, of microterror. Bioterror therefore does not merely concern a population’s fear of bacterial invasion, but in addition, the body sensing itself as a bacterial colony in which a recognition between inside and outside is no longer apparent. Bioterror in this sense indicates the incipience of bacterial bodies turning against themselves, i.e. microterror.

2. Symbiotic microterror

The theory of the gradual drift of evolution towards higher forms of complexity no longer makes sense in the face of engineering microbes that trade genetic material (viruses and plasmids) across lineages and time scales. Eukaryotic6 animals and plants – i.e. organisms characterized by membrane-bounded nuclei — are not the main branches of the tree of life, but only a tip on a single branch on a tree composed of bacterial colonies living within larger organisms, which in turn occupy even larger organisms. Lynn Margulis argues that colonies of bacteria are at the very heart of evolution that proceeds by symbiosis.7 Symbiosis is not simply the joining together of two distinct entities. Rather endosymbiosis defines the condition of one organism that lives within cells of another organism. It defines the micro-relations connecting bodies through contagion. According to this theory, eukaryotic creatures are the result of prolonged parasiting associations of distinct colonies of bacteria or multicellular micro-organisms.8

In particular, endosymbiosis suggests that all eukaryotic cellular organizations are newly formed guests of ancient bacterial hosts. In this sense, eukaryotic organisations are envelopes of bacterial colonies parasiting within each other. Far from determining a gradual development towards more complex cellular life, eukaryotes bring within them an ancient history of microterror, whose collective agents, bacteria, continue to affect their immune network.9 This network is the result of heterogeneous matrices of distinct bacterial colonies assembling together by means of horizontal gene transfer. Drawing on endosymbiosis, we argue that horizontal gene transfer is crucial to understanding the formation of the eukaryotic immune system and therefore to mapping the threat of microterrorism at the molecular level.

Horizontal gene transfer has been defined as a non-Mendelian or non-linear – i.e. without tracing a genealogical line of descent — hereditary transmission, which enables bacteria to share genetic information and to reprogram their collective genome in response to certain conditions, for example antibiotic pressures. Bacteria respond to these pressures by converting their genes and by activating the genetic reprogramming of those colonies that enter in contact with them. Not only do bacteria convert genetic information but they also transport any other genetic material from their former host bacterium. This function of transport occurs through the use of a virus and is called transduction: the passage of information from one bacterial colony to another by means of genetic mutation. In other words, although bacterial colonies are far from constituting a homogeneous phylum, they are all connected by common strains of DNA organized in circular and self-replicating molecules, plasmids and prophages.10 This connectedness provides evidence of collective behavior changing under certain circumstances. In particular, the bacterial modulation of antibiotics has been considered as a striking proof that these microbial colonies act as a united symbiotic entity, where contagion spreads from one colony to another across the most distant-related phyla (Margulis and Sagan, 1986: 94-5). Bacteria belong together to an interconnected body of colonies, assembling and forming new colonies with a mutated genetic make up. Spreading contagion defines the mode of communication of this body of microcolonies.

2.1 Biofilmic contagion

Under certain pressures – such as environmental alterations or alimentary changes – bacteria group together to transfer genetic information in order to spread contagion. This transfer involves microcommunication: bacteria communicate with each other through chemical signals in order to reach closer proximity. As Bonnie Bassler explains, bacteria do this using molecules comparable to pheromones (1999). They secrete a chemical that accumulates in the environment to trigger proximity and assemble once they reach some threshold of density. This formation of a critical mass in bacterial communication is called ‘quorum sensing’.11 As Bassler argues, quorum sensing is not just a function for bacteria to keep track of their own numbers in a certain environment. Rather, and more importantly, quorum sensing acts as a warning for bacteria, indicating the urge to modify their behavior in response to changes in their environment. This process of collective organization enables bacteria to form, at the right moment, spores to resist antibiotics or to unleash virulence.

Bassler – together with other researchers – has highlighted the importance of understanding cell-to-cell networks in bacterial communication in the context of research on the efficacy of antibiotics. She points out that not long ago, bacteria were thought to behave as individual organisms: they were identified as a self-contained unicellular body. This view, however, has been challenged by new research on bacterial communication demonstrating that microbes communicate, cooperate, and specialize – i.e. they show distinct strains of DNA – and have a basic circulatory system also common to plants and animals. Rather than as unicellular individuals, bacteria are now better understood as colonies, multicellular creatures.

By tapping into this cell-to-cell network, microbes are able to collectively track changes in their environment, conspire with their own species, build mutually beneficial alliances with other types of bacteria, gain advantages over competitors, and communicate with their hosts — the sort of collective strategizing typically ascribed to bees, ants, and people, not to bacteria. (Silberman, 2003: 2)

Bacterial communication thus entails a contagious coordination of collective activities – such as sharing information about the environment. Whilst communicating, bacteria form together new ecologies of relations and build up the most diverse agglomerate of bodies in the most diverse conditions. These agglomerates have been called biofilms (i.e. mats of bacterial cells building over a solid surface). In other words, biofilms are urban agglomerates of buildings, channels, bridges, and high streets on a microscale. These intricate compositions of distinct bacterial colonies cooperating together build up the architectures of the molecular cityscape. Even when the biofilm consists of a single bacterial phylum, the most elaborate architectures are formed within specific regions of the biofilm exhibiting all kinds of different activities, compared to bacterial colonies spreading in other regions.

Biofilms form cityscapes in wetland, dank closets, the stomachs of cows, your mouth, the kitchen drain with a decidedly futuristic look: towers of sphere, cone or mushroom-shaped skyscrapers rising from a hundred to two hundred micrometers upward from a base of dense sticky sugars, big molecules and water. Diverse colonies live in different microneighborhoods. They glide, motor or swim along roadways and canals. The more food is available, the denser the populations become in certain regions, and the more contagious the microurban setting becomes. In these microcities, different strains of bacteria with different enzymes help each other to exploit food supplies that no one strain can break down alone. Bacterial colonies thus expose an intricate social capacity to build urban agglomerates together composing an extra cellular multifaceted matrix. Biofilmic contagion thus is the nexus between bacterial colonies sharing information whilst building up new cityscapes from their interdependent infective architectures.

2.2. Micro-urban Cityscapes

Biofilmic contagion spreads in hyperurban sprawls: multiple pools of bacterial populations joining together from very different worlds and environmental conditions, building up new architectures out of viral encounters, forced migrations and parasitic coexistence. Zooming in the microscale of bacterial connection, cities become a blob of sticky biofilms layering onto each other and transversally across regions of distinctive agglomerates. Biofilmic architectures hold together populations in channels and vessels, through air and water, across scales, kinds and lineages. They are the carriers and the mixers of variations across the globe, linking cities to cities in a sort of biofilmic sphere that supersedes the face of the earth. Yet bacterial biofilms, however diverse and mutable, are not the only architectures composing the molecular cityscape. As the endosymbiotic theory of evolution suggests, 2200 million years ago, some ancient bacterial colonies were forced to merge with newcomers, engendering a different architecture organized around a nucleus, reproducing by means of filiative heredity, and finally securing its nucleic borders through the organization of the immune system.12 Since then, symbiotic life has seen ceaseless tensions between nucleic architectures and urban bacterial sprawls. The threat of contagion underpins microterror at this molecular scale. Although eukaryotes are symbiotic descendants of bacteria, their architecture shows a distinctive structure and dynamics of organization. Since their symbiotic emergence, eukaryotes have reproduced their own distinct architectural phylum, transmitting information to eukaryotic offspring through the hereditary exchange of chromosomes between members of the same species, entangling sex (the transmission of genetic material) to reproduction (the increase in the number of individuals), locking the nucleic genome away from the sprawling colonies of bacteria. Eukaryotes have thus developed an immune response to the open-end traffic of genes — mainly from bacteria and viruses that continue to share and recombine all information without respecting species barriers.13 Bacteria have no immune system and transfer information independently from their reproduction, which involves not sexual mating, but cloning and budding. Bacterial sex is instead dedicated to the building up of an urban genetic nexus amongst the most unrelated phyla: the slimy biofilms that connect all kinds of cellular bodies living within larger bodies. In eukaryotes, on the contrary, sex always already entails a filiative architecture: the way one nucleic genome mates with another to generate nucleic offspring.

Considered in its various levels of organization, the symbiotic cityscape lays out distinctive processes of molecular order, in which biofilmic colonies of bacteria and eukaryotic specialized lineages grow. Yet, it would be misleading to think of these distinct orders in terms of difference in kind, whereby nucleic architectures have an essence in themselves constituted by an autonomous substance – a sort of individual difference – that determines an ultimate distinction from the bacterial colonies aggregating in biofilmic cities. On the contrary, bacterial colonies and eukaryotic species belong together. Their distinction only points to a symbiotic coexistence of differential degrees of molecular organization. Between bacterial and eukaryotic life there emerges an intensive differentiation of symbiotic processes of evolution. Eukaryotic cells and genetic structures are embedded in bacterial biofilms packed as tightly as urban centers traversed by channels connecting buildings for the circulation of water, nutrients, enzymes, oxygen and recyclable wastes.14 In this sense, it is less a question of difference in kind than of an intensive degree of difference between levels of order mutually composing each other. This intensive differentiation between bacterial and eukaryotic architecture has nothing to do with an internal contradiction or conflict in evolution between a less and a more organized and structured matter. The symbiotic cityscape lays out differential tendencies of collective individuation in matter that cannot be explained by the family tree of gradual development from simple unicellular to complex multicellular beings. We argue, therefore, that symbiotic processes open the question of microterrorism onto biofilmic contagion: and the threat of contagion spreading through slimy architectures entails a threat to the immune network of a microbial network of communication. The nucleic immunity confronts its participation in the bacterial biofilms.

2.3 Bacterial tactics

It could be argued that on the level of eukaryotic life, microterror points to the threat that bacterial colonies pose to the immune systems of nucleus-bounded cells: the threat to eukaryotic life of participating in the microbial body. From this standpoint, such a threat coincides with the way bacteria and viruses are able to evade or suppress the nucleic hosts immune response. For example, molecular mimicry is a tactics that bacteria use to mimic the chemical make up of their host, enabling them to hide and multiply inside the cells of the immune system, ultimately relying on the relentlessness of the immune system to act against the body itself (autoimmunity). Bacteria can also attack directly those antibodies that specifically react against them, pre-empting antibodies from retaliating. These pre-emptive tactics of evasion and suppression of immune response rest on the symbiotic interdependence between the invader and the invaded insofar as they both belong to a molecular network. In such an intricate constellation of molecular terror, the threat of contagion exposes the continual mutual production of variation in matter.

In this sense, the immune system does not constitute a self-contained individualized mechanism of defense, which protects the eukaryotic multicellular organism from its outsiders, pathogenic bacteria and viruses.15 Endosymbiosis forces us to take another stance and engage with the various modes through which the threat of contagion signals the very symbiotic microrelation between bacteria and eukaryotes. The immune system developed in eukaryotic cells cannot be considered in isolation from the bacterial colonies whose merging generated the nucleic cells in the first place. As bacterial descendants, nucleic immune systems are then prone to host, hide and facilitate bacterial and viral invasions. As McNeill suggests: ‘a disease organism that kills its host quickly creates a crisis for itself, since a new host must somehow be found often enough, and soon enough, to keep its own chain of generations going’ (1976: 9).

However, it is important to specify here that the threat of contagion does not only concern the relation between bacterial colonies and eukaryotes, but underpins the microrelation between bacterial colonies themselves. As Margulis and Sagan remind us, bacteria have no immune system (1997:97). This is why there is a ceaseless microbiological war in the soil around us. One of the weapons bacteria employ against their microneighburs in soil — other bacteria, eukaryotes and fungi – is antibiotics: a compound produced by one microbe to inhibit or kill another microbe. Antibiotics are used to prevent the formation and function of cellular architectures. Whilst some microbes produce an antibiotic, other bacterial colonies adapt to the pressures of this antibiotic environment by producing their own antibiotics and thus developing defensive weapons to neutralize the antibiotics produced by the enemies.16 Some bacteria can produce enzymes that destroy antibiotics through genetic information located in plasmids. However, as explained before, plasmids can be shared: so whilst some bacteria produce antibiotics, others produce enzymes to destroy them. If an antibiotic is not used, the enzyme produced to destroy it is eventually lost by being tossed out of the cell. Similarly, if an antibiotic is in the local environment for long all the bacteria will have the plasmid that codes for the enzyme to destroy it. These types of plasmids are called resistant or r-plasmids.17 They play a crucial role in the genetic reprogramming of bacterial colonies. In this case, the threat of contagion is immanent to the symbiotic network of bacteria.

Manufactured to prevent the propagation of biofilms, the mass-scale dissemination of industrialized antibiotics has instead induced rapid changes in the microbes’ environment. In response to the antibiotic proliferation in the atmosphere, bacteria have been evolving and adapting to new environmental pressures, acquiring the necessary genetic variability through the r-plasmids.18 It has been argued that in the last fifty years, a massive increment in the consumption of industrialized antibiotics has actually incremented the threat of microbial contagion through the formation of new variations of old epidemic diseases, which come back to haunt nucleic life.19

We have seen how microterror is an ancient and complex war underpinning symbiotic cellular networks. The nucleic immune network partakes of a wider microbial network. The immune network is always already in contact with its bacterial guests. The threat of contagion is thus inside the symbiotic network. Yet the immune network points to a pre-emptive strike, whereby nucleic cells anticipate the threat by simulating antibiotic response to all potential antigens or microbes. However, we would like to suggest that microterror is now approaching a new threshold where not only the immune network but also the microbial network itself will be subject to a new threat. Pre-emptive power here will no longer operate by anticipation of potential mutation in a molecular network holding together distinct scales of matter (i.e. non-nucleic and nucleic). This new threshold rather concerns the threat of mutation on the nano-scale of matter – the combinatoric dynamics of atomic evolution.20

2.4 From microterror to nanoterror

Recent research in nano-medicine suggests that the battle against pathogenic bacteria will soon assume a new face.21 And so will microterrorism. If biotechnology has made its fortune by using bacteria to produce antibiotic as well as probiotic drugs, nanotechnology is planning to modulate biofilmic networks of communication so as to inhibit bacterial colonies, to reengineer and readapt their genome. Biotech had only to prevent the propagation of biofilmic networks of communication by devising antibiotic and probiotic drugs. Nanotech, on the contrary, will no longer prevent such propagation, but anticipate the emergence of such patterns in the first place.

Bassler and others are developing little ear’s muffs on bacteria so they can’t tell each other’s presence or make them talk.22 Rather than killing bacteria, such future antibiotics would use the bug’s own communication language to sabotage their organization. These sonic drugs that interrupt bacterial communication also prevent bacteria from sharing information and reprogramming their genetic make up under the pressures of these newly designed drugs. A drug that blocks bacterial communication can prevent biofilm formation – the sticky cityscapes of the microworld – by designing biofilmic networks. Small biotech companies, such as Quorex Pharmaceuticals and Microbia Inc., are working to produce chemicals that discourage the formation of biofilms (Holloway, 2004). This is only a small step towards the nano-engineering of microbial communication, in comparison to the generation of smart drugs, aiming not to suppress certain colonies of the microbial networks under certain pressures, but to redesign these colonies altogether.

As we have discussed before, microterror exposes the dread of the microbial war machine: the symbiotic connectedness between bacteria and nucleic multicellular bodies suspending the distinction between the inside and the outside, simple and complex, inorganic and organic. The immune system’s fear of microbial invasion here becomes the nucleic terror of participating in the invasion, partaking of the very microbial colonies that threaten to infect organic life. Nucleic terror coincides with the potential threat of the enemy within, the dissipation of homeostatic immunity in the microsphere of contagion. This terror of the microbial war machine has spread a contagious paranoia of the organism: if the enemy is within us then the enemy is everywhere and everyone – nowhere and no one – a mad proliferation of contagion.

Yet we think that microterror is now tending towards a new state of intensified terror or nanoterror: no longer nucleic terror in the face of symbiotic bacterial colonies. Nanoterror encompasses microbial colonies themselves. It coincides with the threat of assembling nano-particles designed to reprogram the bacterial communication network itself. No longer the terror of participating in the bacterial phylum, facing the enemy within the immune system itself. Nano-programming matter now threatens to reengineer bacterial colonies themselves. Nanoterror is the affect of nano-design on the bacterial body itself, its confrontation with its own virtual becoming.

We suggest that microterror will soon give way to nanoterror: the nano-modulation of contagious life through the nano-engineering of new vaccines, antibiotic chemistry and smart bio-molecular sensor devices aiming to reprogram the bacterial and nucleic communication networks. Here nanoterror coincides with a virtual microwar: the potential breeding of new microbial cities, colonies of superbugs and biochemical weapons. As such, it is the ultimate tendency of pre-emptive power. It implies the ultimate elimination not of competitors – bacterial and nucleic organization – immune and non-immune responses – but of competition itself, relying on the smart redesigning of the bacterial network. Nanoterror will then feed on the cooperative behavior of bacterial colonies – the engineers of slimy architectures of the anterior future – as the redesigned particles can spread across the microbial phylum by means of contagion.

This is no longer then a question of life and death, fear of human extinction and self-destruction. It is a question of redesigning biotic life no longer by simulating patterns of communication in bacterial colonies to produce pro- and antibiotics, but by deriving these patterns from assembling nano-particles. Nanoterror marks a new threshold of molecular variation, encompassing symbiotic evolution itself. It marks a break from a harmonious order or chaotic disorder, good and bad nature, pro-biotic and antibiotic life.

3. Conclusion

In summary, we propose an understanding of bioterrorism which is reducible neither to a dystopia of human destruction, nor to a harmonious utopia of probiotic life. In terms of symbiotic evolution, the abolition of competition between human and bacteria does not eliminate warfare. Rather the impending nanoterror, and the intensified fear it produces across the bacterial body itself, expose human evolution to the nano-rubbing of matter. Nanoterror affects the human security system as the immanent threat to reengineer biotic life across scales, opening up biotic evolution to unprecedented mutations. Nanoterror implies the particle modulation of the biofilmic operating system as opposed to merely local antibiotic and probiotic interventions. Nanoterror thus signals an affective participation in the bio-digital re-programming of biotic life, whose outcomes are just starting to unfold. We have unfolded bioterrorism as threat of bacterial invasion to the human organism onto the flood plane of symbiotic evolution as essentially a war between bacteria and bacteria folded into nucleated cells: microterror. What we call nanoterror unravels this dynamic even further, threatening the very infrastructure of symbiotic war itself, and sending waves of distress backwards in time, and upwards in terms of scale.

How does this resonate on the human scale in the early 21st century? As Whitehead points out: ‘the human body is to be conceived as a complex amplifier’ (1978 19), which we can understand as intensifying nano and micro vibrations into collectively contagious affects and sensations on a higher scale. The resonance of these emergent folds and pockets in matter plays out at the level of cybernetic control systems operating in the field of bio-security. The simulation of epidemics, for example, lies at the heart of bio-terror management and disease control in social systems. But it is possible to identify three modes of simulation which range from deterrence (avoid a future) to pre-emptive intervention (prepare for a future by running it) to pre-emptive engineering (modulate the future). They constitute a microcosm of the deeper evolutionary processes which we have previously discussed. If simulation in the service of deterrence revolves around the statistical probability of the unfolding of a certain outcome, simulation in the service of pre-emptive intervention engages dress rehearsals, thereby adjusting the likelihood of an event to occur by actually making it happen. We have argued, however, that control has now entered a new mode, dominated by what we called pre-emptive engineering, which instigates disaster, making it happen at every turn (not just in localized controlled conditions), by taking hold of the biotic matrix. Control here no longer merely reduces potential to the possibility of disaster, but acts on the virtual via nano-modulation. In terms of affective drift, the emergence of this mode has been paralleled by the intensification of fear to nanoterror as a weapon of control. While we have traditionally understood the response to fear as one of fight or flight, nanoterror provokes a cultural response suspended in the collective fright of ever tightening security. Poised in an unfolding ambient catastrophe, the collective body is immobilized in the face of the terror of the indeterminate creeping into the microfabric of biotic life.

The drift from an explosive atomic age marked by deterrence, to an implosive nanopolitics marked by pre-emption thus points to a new installment of control. The attempt to lock down micro threats opens a new battleground on which even more ontologically profound nano-threats are posed. From sea space to the desert. From airspace to cyberspace, from the biofilm to the nano-film; a new smooth space across which the war machine slides.


1 The notion of distress here derives from Greg Egan’s fascinating science fiction text, Distress, (1995). Distress in the book relates to an affective virus, a condition brought on by the impending implosion of the information/matter duality through the discovery of a ‘theory of everything’ which would reengineer reality from the bottom up.

2 On this point, see B. Massumi (2002: 27).

3 To sidestep this obstacle, the CCRU (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit) has develop the concept of unbelief in relation to hyperstitional phenomena, i.e. virtual (or fictional) entities which actualise themselves, e.g. the migration of the concept of cyberspace from fiction to the everyday. On the concept of hyperstition, see the Digital Hyperstition edition of Abstract Culture at

4 Whitehead ‘s notion of prehension, together with the notions of ‘actual entity’, ‘nexus’ and ‘ontological principle’ constitute the primary notions of the philosophy of the organism. Prehensions aim to ‘express the most concrete mode of analysis applicable to every grade of individual activity.’ Prehensions define the real individual facts of relatedness. See Whitehead (978: 18-22).

5 See Damasio (2003: 58).

6 The term ‘eukaryotic’ derives from “eukaryote” or nucleated cell or organism. Nucleated cells are characterised by a nucleus-bounded membrane.

7 See L. Margulis (1971: 3-11).

8 This understanding of eukaryotic evolution was first proposed in the 1920s by the American biologist Ivan Wallin. In the 1981 book, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, Lynn Margulis confirmed the endosymbiotic theory as she proposed that the eukaryotic cells originated as communities of interacting entities that joined together in a specific order.

9 As explained by A. Goffey (2003), the understanding of the immune system in terms of networks derives from Niels Jerne hypothesis of idiotypic networks, pointing at the connectedness of all cells composing the immune system and explaining how immune reactions ‘are a consequence of the network’s loss of plasticity.’ Goffey goes on to explain that the notion of immune networks was adopted by Varela and Anspach arguing that such network is an autonomous autopoietic system. The connectedness of this system challenges any distinction between the inside and the outside, which was at the centre of a previous understanding of immunity: as the ‘science of self-nonself discrimination’ (6). For Varela et al. the network of cell interactions defining the immune system ‘determines the sensitivity of the network to any of its elements. Such sensitivity coincides with these elements degrees of connectedness: the less connected the network to any element, the more likely that element will be rejected’ (27). Goffey concludes that metastability is a useful term to understand such network dynamics, in which the immune networks ‘provide evidence for an ongoing process of individuation, itself a more or less chaotic process.’ (28). From this standpoint we argue that the symbiotic evolution of the immune system from bacterial colonies provides an insight in the chaotic incipience of bioterror at a molecular level.

10 On the distinction between bacteria and eukaryotic cellular and genetic structure see Margulis and Sagan (1986: 87-94).

11 On this point, see B. L. Bassler (1999: 582-7).

12 On the modification of bacterial colonies into eukaryotic or nucleic structures, see Margulis and Sagan (1986: 9-114).

13 On the variety of bacterial sex, see Margulis and Sagan (1986: 89-90).

14 The urban lifestyles of bacteria is characterized by all their metabolic technologies, which includes producing methane gas, deriving energy from globules of sulfur, precipitating iron and maganese while breathing, combusting hydrogen using oxygen to make water, growing in boiling water and salt brine, storing energy by use of purple pigment rhodopsin and so on. ‘As a group bacteria obtain their food and energy recycling everything, using every sort of plant fiber and animal waste as a staring material.’ (Margulis and Sagan, 1986:128).

15 On the changing conception of the immune system from a self-self defence mechanism to immune network, see A. Goffey (2003).

16 For further explanation, see R. M. Anderson, ‘The pandemic of antibiotic resistance’, Nature Medicine, 1999, 5(2): 147-149.

17 On antibiotic resistance, see F. M. Painter, ‘The Challenge of Antibiotic Resistance’. Scientific American, March 1998. (Also available here.)

18 On this point, see S. Graham, ‘Superbug Gained Resistance from Neighboring Bacteria’, Scientific American, 1 December 2003. See also A. Chernavsky, ‘ASK THE EXPERTS: medicine’, Scientific American, 18 July 1998.

19 On this point, see Cohen M. L., ‘Epidemiology of Drug Resistance: Implications for a Post-Antimicrobial Era’, Science 1992, 257: 1050-55.

20 As Thacker points out: ‘Nanotechnology works towards the general capability for molecular engineering to structure matter atom by atom, a “new industrial revolution”, a view of technology that is highly specific and combinatoric, down to the atomic scale. But, in this process, nanotechnology also perturbs the seemingly self-evident boundary between the living and the non-living (or between organic and nonorganic matter) through its radical reductionism’ (2004: 117). Nanotechnology aims to be able to control, engineer and design matter at the level of the nanometer — one billionth of a meter. See Eric Drexler (1986) and Drexler et al. (1991).

21 As Thacker explains, nanomedicine, predicated on the notion of ‘programmable matter’, combines molecular biology and mechanical engineering. See Thacker (2000).

22 For further insight on bacterial communication research see, M. Holloway (2004: 34-6). See also E Peter Greenberg, ‘Tiny Teamwork’. Nature, Vol. 424, 10 July 2003, 134.


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