Monday, March 22, 2010

a hundred thousand pages of the heart: inkjet printing our own organs




About eleven minutes into his TED talk, Anthony Atala speaks about a regular inkjet printer that can print an actual functioning heart. Through some miraculous feat of modern cellular prestidigitation, the ink cartridge of the printer is filled with cell material which can be printed onto a sheet. Tens of thousands of these sheets each printed with a tiny cross-section of a real heart are printed and compiled. When stacked one on top of another, they bond together. Soon, through the principle of the sum-is-greater than the parts (how do individual cells sum together to form a functioning sight-producing eye?) the heart begins to beat.

An individual page combining together to create a ‘book’ which is a functional heart. A neat true-if-experimental science metaphor for a literary book. Individual marks, individual words, individual paragraphs, single pages, each come together to create a functioning unit, a written organ, to create a pulse--of sound, of meaning, of characterization, of plot. It depends at which level of detail one chooses to follow the metaphor.

But back to the heart. There’s a computer program, a heart processor, which is sending instructions to the printer. One could create deviant hearts. Hearts which were half text, half word, half story. A heart like a wheel or a river. A heart mixed with ink. A heart which is also a star chart. A poem which has a real pulse, a story which expands and contracts. Which quickens.

What else could one print? A body? A tongue? An eye? A heart which sees. An eye which is a simile like no other. Fingers which are wings and prehensile poems. One might ask for a heart which beats and which is also a tree. Or a phone book.

A heart which is aware of its own organicity. Of the language of itself. A heart which problematizes its own heartiness. A heart which will go on. A body which is interleaved with a favourite story, a brain interleaved with the names of loved ones, happy memories, ‘if found please return to’, or instructions about to defuse a bomb.

We could print lungs which inhale our own breath. We could print the materials of our own minds. And one day, from each of our desktops, we will have another way to print ourselves, to write ourselves into being.

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