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biotech fantasia Arrow vol 6 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 1, 2007

 


Biotech Fantasia


Daniel Hourigan

Griffith University

 

 

Biotechnology has emerged in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries alongside a variety of formulations of 'the ethical' and in this way biotechnology has become an ideological phenomenon swept up in structuring freedom and processes of designating living beings in a full and objective manner. In the twenty-first century the mapping of the genome has provided individuals with a means of full self-objectivisation which necessitates a rethinking of the ethical content of biotechnology as human life is laid bare. This paper examines the ideology critique of Slavoj Zizek at the turn of the twenty-first century to show how a post-rational ethics can be generated when the human subject is reduced to an 'objective' phenomenon.

 

The Witching Hour of Biotechnology

1. The advent of biotechnology has drawn an array of social and political problems into a critically concerning constellation. In his usual mode of ideology-critique, Slavoj Zizek has assessed biotechnology, particularly genomics, and noted three features that dramatise the problems of biotechnology (2004: 123-133): the current ethical strictures regulating biotechnology in social and political contexts are a subset of the ethical sphere critically defined by Jürgen Habermas as hyphen-ethics or "provisional ethics"; research into the human genome has taken the "human, all too human" mainstay of philosophical inquiries into the human condition and rendered this as a substantial object of epistemological discourse; and thirdly, the only non-genetic disease that can afflict human beings is trauma, all other diseases and their cures are within the domain of biotechnology. These aspects suggest that the ethical wager to be played out between humanity and biotechnology, while extending from the relations between human subjects, moves in favour of biotechnology. In part, this is due to the full self-objectivisation of the subject enacted by genomics wherein "I am my genes". While the genome offers the possibility of recognising human beings' mutual humanity at a fundamental level, it also threatens to dissolve the subject in a primordial genetic mire by subsuming the constitutive interplay of self and Other and hence the need to rethink the human-technics relationship rather than attempt to restrict biotechnology as a threat to human autonomy (Habermas, 2003: 91-95). As Zizek has noted, apropos of Habermas, biotechnology makes me directly responsible for the Other through biotechnology's direct intervention into the "being" of the Other. This directness suspends the order of belief that sustains ethics as a categorical system of what we "should" do regardless of subjective or objective involvement. Such a suspension takes ethics away from its categorical status and situates ethics within the epistemological divide between subjectivity and objectivity. The ethics of biotechnology binds the objective reality of the genetic structure of the subject to the creative individuality of subjectivity. In this shift, the ethical demand that we "should" do something becomes dominated by the technological promise that we "can" do something. In a provisional ethics the object of an ethical discourse around which ethical strictures are placed precedes the injunctions of the ethical sphere.

2. This positing of the object as a provision is problematic because such a procedure deprives ethics of its ontological dignity and categorical position. It is precisely these two features of ethics that provide an ethics with primacy over its object. Deprived of this ontological dimension, ethics is domesticated by the epistemological objects it appears to regulate. As a collection of practices and products, biotechnology is of great interest to Zizek because it renders the elusive inhuman excess exceeding epistemology as visible and harmless. For Zizek, the smooth operation of biotechnology is biotechnology at its most dangerous; and this danger is disguised as the promise of biotechnology being a virtuous activity, i.e. providing cures and so forth. The promise of biotechnology is the development of solutions to biological, at base genetic, problems. Yet such a promise reveals biotechnology within a social horizon that binds it to ethics at the same moment that it is released from ontological problems such as dignity and universal applicability. Where ethics may try to reign in biotechnical research through an appeal to these ontological categories, such constraints lack the status of need and circulate as demands. Thus, while ethics may take up a very important task by attuning biotechnology to its social outcomes and propriety, the intercession of non-genetic trauma cannot be codified by the demands of such a bio-ethics that emphasises the hyphenated relation of genes and social life. Rather, trauma comes down on the side of need within the realm of biotechnology, and it is here that Zizek's psychoanalytic language serves to unearth some interesting aspects of this impossible object in bio-ethical thinking. This psychoanalytic purview of Zizek then further poses the question of what could be the constraints of the ethical sphere itself if trauma appears to be the product of a biotechnical witching-hour where the biotechnical object is posited as a provision for an "ethics of biotechnology" to take place. While Zizek criticises Habermas' largely dogmatic approach to the ethics of biotechnology (2004: 126), it is useful to couch this discussion in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer where we find an innovative mapping of this dark provisional object of bio-ethics. The Schopenhauerian position on motives for ethical behaviour reveals four aspects that are helpful for elucidating the contours of this space of impossibility in bio-ethics: the malicious desire for another's woe, the egotistic desire for one's own betterment, the compassionate wish for another's betterment, and the ascetic desire for one's own woe. These contours of ethics outline the especially human excesses of any ethics. In the bio-ethical context of the human-technics relation this is especially curious given that it is this all too human element that is laid bare by the provisional positing of biological life in the discourse of bio-ethics. Here we find a shift from Schopenhauer's elusive will-to-live to what Zizek sees being captured in the full self-objectivisation of the subject instigated by genomics. Because this objectivisation takes place within a social horizon, biotechnology enters an ideological discourse at the precise moment it partakes in trying to provide people with a way to live while concealing the dangers of this approach through the promise of scientific neutrality, as with epistemologically "safe" genetic therapies.

Ethics Without Spurious Dignity

3. Let us turn now to the ethical space outlined by Schopenhauer so that we might better grasp the variation between a categorical ethics of imperative ontological dignity and a provisional hyphen-ethics of constraining technical activity. As has already been suggested, in the work of Schopenhauer ethics appears at the limit of motivations for malice, egotism, compassion, or asceticism. These four attitudes guide the social relation between the subject and the Other insofar as the social relation signifies a common bond between the subject and the Other. For Schopenhauer this common point of reference was the "will", or, more precisely, the will-to-live. Although Schopenhauer's discussions of the will are delivered with a prima facie misanthropy, this disdain is acute in what it signals. Schopenhauer is not attacking the "human, all too human", but diagnosing the cause of suffering and pleasure to be the will of the "human, all too human". As human subjects we are all pregnant with this monstrosity. The will is monstrous insofar as it reveals the subject to themselves, the meeting and melding of corporeality and intellect. Because corporeality is the object of the biotechnical discourse, the position of the intellect becomes a question of the attitude toward corporeality a subject retains. The Schopenhauerian method is not one of dialectics as with Zizek. Instead, Schopenhauer ventures through the avenue of existential decay and cyclicality. Ethical attitudes are seen by Schopenhauer as intellectual motivations to escape this malignant cycle of corporeality. Thus, insofar as Schopenhauer presents us with a comportment of the ethical sphere that is intellectual, we may say that the purpose of ethics is to cancel out the will. The problem arises, however, that of these four attitudes presented only asceticism quietens the will with any notable success (Schopenhauer, 1966: 603-605). Why then do the other attitudes fall short of asceticism's normative claim and still retain the status of ethical attitudes as such?

4. As an ethical attitude, malice fails to quieten the will because it carries within itself a bifurcation. One can see this distinction of malice into two species in Schopenhauer's work where he sometimes refers to malice as Schadenfreude, "the taking of pleasure in the discomfort and suffering of others", and as disinterested cruelty wherein the suffering of others "is pursued as an end in itself" (in Young, 2005: 175). Schadenfreude bespeaks a sadistic enjoyment in collateral damage as we venture toward a goal. The cut introduced into the "human, all too human" by some traumatic encounter opens the possibility for Schadenfreude to attach to suffering in a more general sense, unrelated to the aims of the subject. In this sense enjoyment still pertains to the subject, satiating the will-to-live. And this raises an important clarification of Schopenhauer's position: pleasure and pain extend from the satiation or hunger of the will; only resignation overcomes the will with any inimical impact on enjoyment or dissatisfaction because it is a position internal to the will itself. Malice fails to quieten the will because it is a revelling in satisfaction. This enjoyment of the will is what Schopenhauer warns us against; because it is from this root that pathology may emerge, where the will interrupts one's life. Disinterested cruelty is the slavish pandering to this interruption: an extremely wicked person

Seeks indirectly the alleviation of which he is incapable directly, in other words, he tries to mitigate his own sufferings by the sight of another's; the suffering of another becomes for him an end in itself: it is a spectacle over which he gloats (Schopenhauer, 1969: 364).

Schopenhauer's focus on the spectacular nature of suffering may suggest a formal distance is being created between the malicious subject and the suffering Other. While this space may not be apparent in the immediacy of enjoyment, in the "spectacle over which he gloats", it is presupposed by the elevation of collateral damage to a spectacular ideal. Malice retains the status of an ethical attitude because it throws us to great heights of validating our way of life by alleviating our suffering through the greater suffering of another (Schopenhauer, 1969: 363). However, it does not achieve the ontological dignity an (Kantian) ethical space affords with its commands precisely because malice does not alleviate the interruption of the will. Thus malice circulates at the level of an ethical demand but comes to be ruled by the very object it places its demands on.

5. Behind the attitude of malice is the framework of egotism. While malice may rely on the flows between the subject and the Other, it is egotism that provides the investment in oneself capable of giving these flows an anchor. Schopenhauer understands egotism to be a primal quality "of all individuality", wherein "egotistical ends are the only ones on which we can count with certainty" (1966: 538). Egotism rouses the individual to action. And in this movement toward praxis, ethics finds its realisation in the world of things. Therefore egotism is an ethical attitude insofar as it reveals a grounding of the subject from which their actions spring. Schopenhauer qualifies this praxiological attitude by binding it to nature, and herein egotism fails as an ethical attitude because it is revealed as the delusion of instinct, wherein the will appears to exceed our willing. As Schopenhauer states, "in the great majority of cases, instinct is to be regarded as the sense of the species which presents to the will what is useful to it " (1966: 538). Egotism is delusional for Schopenhauer because it reinforces the individuation of the subject, exacerbating the misapprehension of general ends as ends specific to the individual. Schopenhauer draws a neat analysis of egotism in his essay 'The Metaphysics of Sexual Love' (1966: 531-560) where what is taken as the sexual desire of the subject "is just the sense of the species " wishing to propagate itself (539). Thus egotism fails as an ethical attitude because the will supersedes it, and because it hides the will from the intellect without assuaging the lust for life the will brings. Such lustful wishing is precisely what the Schopenhauerian comportment of ethics seeks to quieten because it takes the praxis of the subject off-track and into the dark paths of pathology. This operation of ethics is the definitive feature through which the success of an ethics may be measured wherein "acting ethically" merely needs to present itself under the guise of morally staving off improper deeds. Herein the analytical structure of egotism's failure as an ethical attitude is coextensive with the failure of malice as an ethical attitude: both attitudes fail to quieten the will, and are intellectual dispositions overcome by the will.

6. Whereas malice and egotism may carry more vicious overtones in their cultural history (Flahault, 2003: 1-15), compassion, another of Schopenhauer's ethical attitudes to be considered, lacks this viciousness. In Schopenhauer's philosophy compassion and sympathy are interchangeable, and stand out as the attitude of the subject desiring the betterment of another. This "other" may be another person, an animal, or any of an array of living objects. In effect, this other is an ideal Other. We should note, however, that within Schopenhauer's philosophy this ideation is the product of a two-fold procedure: objectivisation and objectification. Firstly, everything that can be designated as an independent object is merely an objectivisation of the will. To this extent every object is "living" in the sense that it partakes in existence, where "to exist" is "to be of the will". Compassion functions as an attitude to negotiate a path through the objectivisations of the will by recognising objects and individual entities. Such a negotiation is a process of objectification, wherein the very designation of something as an 'object' objectifies the will and bestows on it an ideal, unchanging character.

7. In Schopenhauer's philosophy, objectification is the opening onto the realm of representation. The recognition produced by objectification instigates a different order of being from merely the presentation of individual objects. For Schopenhauer, this recognition is the higher ground of compassion which brings us into ontological notions such as justice. Indeed, Schopenhauer goes on to say in the second volume of Parerga and Paralipomena (1974) that compassion is the basis for our sense of justice (202; see also 1966: 601-602). Justice does not confer dignity onto the Other; that is not Schopenhauer's goal. Rather, by grounding justice in compassion Schopenhauer draws attention to the restless discomfort experienced by the subject as riven by their will:

We should bear in mind only his sufferings, his need, anxiety, and pain. We shall then always feel sympathy with him, akin to him, and, instead of hatred or contempt, we shall experience compassion; for this alone is the agape to which the Gospel summons us. The standpoint of sympathy or compassion is the only one suitable for curbing hatred or contempt, certainly not that of seeking our pretended 'dignity' (Schopenhauer, 1974: 202).

This lesson on compassion is an unusual argument in light of Habermas' objections to biotechnology in The Future Of Human Nature (2003), wherein we find it is the problem of a loss of Kantian dignity that is at stake in the production of modified human beings by biotechnologies (75-100). Within the Schopenhauerian universe, this Kantian dignity of respect for others as rational moral beings is lacking. Habermas is concerned about the loss of dignity, but retains the concept of dignity as a container for his concerns about biotechnology (2003: 29-37). Schopenhauer, on the other hand, subtracts dignity from ethics altogether. This subtraction leads the compassionate attitude into a stasis. By recognising the Other as a suffering being, kin to my own pain, we elevate the will. In compassion the objectifications of the will become "sublime objects", in the presence of which we can alleviate our suffering by ignoring our own (egotistic) condition and recognising the pain of the Other which, in turn, refers us back to our disavowed suffering. The failure of compassion as an ethical attitude is thus more nuanced than either egotism or compassion. The failure of compassion is its neglect of our own will, which amplifies objectifications of the will extraneous to the subject. This is especially pertinent when one considers the metaphysical identity of the will in Schopenhauer's philosophy:

(1) sympathy or compassion, which is, as I have shown, the basis of justice and philanthropy, caritas; (2) sexual love, with capricious selection, amor, which is the life of the species, asserting its precedence over that of individuals; (3) magic, to which also belong animal magnetism and sympathetic cures (Schopenhauer, 1966: 601-602).

When compassion is brought into the metaphysics of the will it is the position whereby the subject gives themselves over to the will. Compassion thus does not quieten the will, but takes it as its sublime object; sublime precisely because, to be compassionate, the subject must sublimate their own will.

8. Heretofore we have discussed the three ethical attitudes Schopenhauer's philosophy considers to be flawed. These flaws are measured against the claim that for an ethics to be ethical it must take as its object the source of living and provide a clearing of vested interest so that morality may take place. The problem is thus how to clear the vested interest of life in living, the will in willing, without committing a turn to nihilistic passivity. Asceticism answers this call.

9. Asceticism appears to Schopenhauer's philosophy as a consistent ethical attitude (1966: 634-639). The ascetic denies the will-to-live in its dictum of "we exist in order to be happy" (634). Asceticism is ethics for Schopenhauer because it is a turning inward of the will against itself. Insofar as the human subject is an objectivisation of the will, and represents themselves as an objectification of the will, the turning against oneself steers the subject away from disappointment. As Schopenhauer points out,

Even when joys and pleasures are attained, they are in themselves deceptive, do not perform what they promise, do not satisfy the heart, and finally that their possession is at least embittered by the vexations and unpleasantness that accompany or spring from them (Schopenhauer, 1966: 634-635).

Turning the will inward, Schopenhauer seeks to lift the veil of sublime objects warping perception because they are misleading in their promotion of attitudes of malice, egotism, and compassion. Clearing away the objectification of the will in this way is what some, including Schopenhauer himself, have referred to as "self-abnegation". With the clearing of objectification we move closer to what Schopenhauer considers the salvation of humanity, epitomised by Seneca as in his last letter: "Then will you have found for yourself your own good, when you see that the lucky ones are the unhappiest of all" (in Schopenhauer, 1966: 635). Where compassion brought us toward the horizon of justice by accenting the relations between objects and the self, asceticism takes this a step further by emphasising the primacy of existence in objectivisation. Beyond the moralising of the subject and their subjective interest, for Schopenhauer the good of humanity is realised in the return of existence to nothingness. In a way, it is not that death is merely the end of life, but that death is the thing that distinguishes life, and therein the moment of subjectivity, from the paradoxical infinity of the world at hand. Thus, where the task of ethics is set in the precondition of asceticism, the task of philosophy as it deals with the world at hand is set in the precondition of quietism.

10. Metaphysical speculation serves ethics in a mutually compatible way as it quietens the swelling and contractions of living, or the "weal" of the will. The ascetic attitude brings Schopenhauer to make a comment less alarming than criticisms of biotechnology by Paul Virilio (2004) or Habermas (2003), but it is nonetheless foreboding:

Fate and the course of things, however, take care of us better than we ourselves do, since they frustrate on all sides our arrangements for a Utopian existence, whose folly is apparent enough from its shortness, uncertainty, emptiness, and termination in bitter death (Schopenhauer, 1966: 638).

The end of death will remove the horizon from life that provides it with urgency, and therein, perhaps, meaning. Augmenting the human creature to experience greater physical feats is a further objectification of the will, which only leads to further need and dissatisfaction with the state of things. It is not the case that biotechnology is an objectionable thing to the Schopenhauerian gaze. But the lesson to be learnt from the Schopenhauerian comportment of ethics is that what exists is will, and we cannot be satisfied with existence if we try to contain and satiate the will with our willing. Even at the heights of consent we must ask ourselves not only "Do I want this?" but also "Why do I want at all?"

The Master, the Mastered, and the Life-World

11. Where Schopenhauer's comportment or framing of ethics subtracts Kantian dignity from the moral being of the individual, Habermas' discussion of bio-ethics in The Future Of Human Nature deals in a dignity domesticated to the level of a sublime moral object. Several features stand out in Habermas' discussion to signal the ways in which an ethics of biotechnology, or bio-ethics, departs from the comportment of ethics proper, as with Schopenhauer's discussions of asceticism. Firstly, bio-ethics is a provisional ethics; an ethics of the hyphen. In lieu of what Schopenhauer reports of malice as an ethical demand ruled by the very object it places its demands on, this provisional status of bio-ethics means that rather than placing the praxis of the human-technics relationship within an ontological frame, as we find with the ethics analysed by Schopenhauer, bio-ethics begins from praxis and antagonistically manipulates the comportment of ethics. Within bio-ethics this antagonism arises because we find nature returning as the master of humanity, where previously humanity had, in technology, become the master of nature (Habermas, 2003: 47-48; see also Zizek, 2004: 125). The return of nature in bio-ethics elides the ascetic precondition of ethics through the introduction of an "objectivating attitude" (Habermas, 2003: 50). Where asceticism turns the will inward, against itself, an objectivating attitude disrupts the correspondence between living things through a demand for possibilities that cannot be normalised in the preconditions of a democratically constituted pluralist society (Habermas, 2003: 47-66). In Schopenhauer we find that self-abnegation subtracts the will, leaving the frameworks of metaphysics and representation to take its place and keep it under control when the will re-emerges. In Habermas, on the other hand, we find that the objectivating attitude of bio-ethics turns the activity of life against itself, rendering life a passive object to be manipulated at the same moment that it is active living substance as such. In other words, bio-ethics deals in the persistence of the will and does not let it recede. Here is Habermas on this point:

With the genetic programming of human beings, domination of nature turns into an act of self-empowering of man, thus changing our self-understanding as members of the species - and perhaps touching upon a necessary condition for an autonomous conduct of life and a universalistic understanding of morality (Habermas, 2003: 47-48).

The shift Habermas is noting here follows the shift in the understanding of human nature in the (natural) sciences. Where human beings had previously found a way to master nature in technology, now humans and nature are one and the same amorphous collection of genes. This shift suggests a crisis for the ontological status of the subject because there is a direct confrontation between scientific breakthroughs and old humanist values, i.e. genetic predisposition confronts human dignity and autonomy (Zizek, 2004: 123). Habermas details the consequences of this shift:

The desensitization of the way we look at human nature, going hand in hand with the normalization of this practice, would clear the path for liberal eugenics. Here we can already discern the future fait accompli, by then a fact of the past, which later apologists will be able to refer to as the Rubicon that was crossed. Looking at a possible future for human nature makes us aware of the present need for regulation (Habermas, 2003: 71).

Regulating biotechnology, as Habermas calls for, is problematic for a reason peculiar to bio-ethics. Because bio-ethics is a provisional ethics and places praxis ahead of ethics, any regulatory effect to be derived from bio-ethics will only ever have a provisional strength. Herein, bio-ethics lacks the prescriptive strength of an ethical imperative which provides the strength of regulation Habermas appears to seek.

12. For bio-ethics to shift toward a Schopenhauerian ethics it would need a revolution from provision to propriety in its structure. The status of bio-ethics is that of a provisional ethics. Zizek mentions that such a provisional status is outlined by Descartes in A Discourse On Method (1978), when a new field of possibility is opened up before us we cling to our existing constellations of values and morals to navigate the dangers of this new space (2004: 123). Zizek articulates this Cartesian position in his Organs Without Bodies :

When we engage on a new path, full of dangers and shattering new insights, we need to stick to old established rules as a practical guide for our daily lives, although we are well aware that the new insights will compel us to provide a fresh foundation for our entire ethical edifice (Zizek, 2004: 123).

Zizek argues elsewhere that Kant's ethics of subjective autonomy provided this fresh foundation demanded by the Cartesian frame (1997: 221; 1999: 2). Following on from Kant, Habermas locates this foundation in the common language of human rights and rational morals as they appear in the organisation of our life-world (2003: 73-74). Zizek however explicitly argues against this conservative clinging to old humanist mores in the life-world, preferring that we "follow the logic of science to the end" (2004: 133).

13. Why does Zizek ask this? Perhaps the unsuitability of the life-world lays in its constitution. Our practical daily life within our life-world retains an Aristotelian constitution. The distinctions between the inorganic and organic are "connected with ontological claims" that appear in ways of "dealing with the world" (Habermas, 2003: 44). If we follow Aristotle, this space of the life-world contains three basic positions/principles: the theoretical attitude of "the disinterested observer of nature", the technical attitude of a subject "engaged in production and, generally, purposeful action and who intervenes in nature by employing means and consuming materials", and the practical attitude of subjects who "either act with prudence or with an ethical orientation and approach one another in a context of interaction" (Habermas, 2003: 44). For Habermas, bio-ethics takes root in the conflation of the theoretical attitude and the technical attitude as made manifest by the dedifferentiation of the modern experimental sciences (2003: 45). The task of finding a new foundation for ethics is thus a complicated one. On the one hand we may radically endorse this conflation of life-world principles and enter the space of deep ecology, where the manipulation and patenting of genes is given precedence over macro issues such as social justice or politics more generally (Lee, 2005: 71-75). Another option is to maintain the current state of bio-ethics as it lags behind the scientific breakthroughs it sets out to codify (Habermas, 2003; see also Parisi, 2004). This continuation faces the distinct dilemma of causing a psychotic break between our values and morals and the reality of the sciences as the field of axiomatic knowledge, moral prudence, ceases to be replenished by the primacy of ethics. A third avenue may be that we negate the conflation altogether by critiquing it and treating this conflation as problematic for the purpose of the sciences themselves. All these possibilities are derived from the structural mode of bio-ethics insofar as it places its object of ethical inquiry ahead of the ethical edifice as a provision. Therefore the fate of ethics is to only be a mediator between the biotechnical object and the human relationship with this object. In this way ethics is never wholly invested in either the epistemological status of the methods for understanding genetics or the imperative of ethics. The critical engagement of bio-ethics is the mediation between these two points; that is how Habermas is able to designate bio-ethics an ethics of the hyphen and not an ethics of the life-world nor an ethics of bare life (Habermas, 2003: 53-60).

14. The interplay of the structured unfolding of the life-world and the savagely wild play of bare life aptly capture the difficult polarisation of the moral sphere in bio-ethics, generated by the status of bio-ethics as a mediator. The structure the life-world encapsulates occurs where humanity takes place; its structure is made of social relations and politics. Bare life, on the other hand, directs our attention to the chaos of life in itself; what Schopenhauer called the will. Habermas draws out this tension in his discussion of bio-ethics by alluding to Aristotle (2003: 44). The interplay of the life-world and bare life suggests that in Habermas' discussion, the dilemma of future ethical developments is not to be left to merely the macro socio-political processes of deliberation. As stated earlier, there is a need for a new foundation. Neither the life-world nor bare life offers a new foundation, although they do suggest a possible gesture for revolutionising and revitalising the axiological frame through which biotechnology is made socially acceptable.

15. Bare life is the difficult base of the life-world. It adheres to the problematic revelry of the will outlined by Schopenhauer: bare life is wild, excessive, energising, unthinking, and self-destructive in its pleasurable hubris (1969: 110-112). In pre-Socratic philosophy bare life (Zoe) is the dark thing-in-itself that constitutes an essence. Coming after the Socratic shift, Aristotle sought for bare life to be mastered and cultivated through the organisation of the life-world. As discussions from a variety of contemporary thinkers, including Habermas, Heidegger, Lacan, and Zizek, have shown, through processes of modernisation human beings have been able to master life through technology. However, bare life returns to haunt humanity in biotechnology. Biotechnology reverses the pre-modern problem of either externally encountering the thing-in-itself as an opaque essence or partaking in essence through a pantheism that relies on a divine order. In biotechnology we find ourselves firmly within the rawness of bare life, having the preconditions of our capabilities set by our genetic profile. The essence of bare life is thus dedifferentiated from the life-world because the macro processes of daily life are grounded in the micro relations of our genetic material. The philosophical difficulty thus arises that what once vanished into the thing-in-itself and made the thing-in-itself appear opaque to phenomenal experience, humanity, is domesticated and rendered visible as a technical object of technological inquiry. There is a shift here in how the human can be presented given that the life-world and bare life now coalesce. The human is now an objectivisation of their genetic ghost.

"Étoffe du Moi"

16. In Organs Without Bodies Zizek delivers a treatment of biotechnology that understands its products, as they appear in the social sphere of consumption, as offering us the opportunity for full self-objectivisation (2004: 132). Not only do I have genes, but my genes are me insofar as they condition the limits of what it is possible for me to do. Biotechnology is therefore able to be problematised at the level of social context:

What makes biogenetics dangerous is the way its use is determined by the interests of corporate capital and of the state agencies tempted to rely on it in order to increase their control of the population (Zizek, 2004: 132).

Zizek is here outlining an economico-political problem, not an ethical one. As was mentioned earlier, from the position of Schopenhauer's ethics, bio-ethics begins from praxis and manipulates the comportment of ethics through an antagonistic relation. This antagonism appears as this "socioeconomic context" in Zizek's thought (2004: 132). Thus whereas Habermas and others seek for a new foundation for the ethical within the ethical domain, Zizek locates a new foundation outside the domain of ethics. The problem for Habermas, as we have seen, was how ethical biotechnology was in an infinite array of possible scenarios which led into an imaginary regress of misreading provisional ethics as a sustainable system. For Zizek, this is the wrong line of questioning; the problem of biotechnology is problematic because biotechnology is open to dangerous abuse by macro social and economic processes. The life-world lingers on over bare biological life even when such bare life has been universalised and the individuality of the life-world become the exception.

17. What then is this socioeconomic crisis of biotechnology in Zizek's work? The insidious concern is the way biotechnology confers an "infinite judgement" on the subject; "Thou art genome" (Zizek, 2004: 133). In what is almost an act of phrenology, we confront "the meaningless Real of the genome" as a contingency that determines who we are (133). In a secular world the spirit of who we are is a bone (Hegel), and that bone is our genome. This bone is revealed through encounters with the Real that strip away the fantasy-screen of values and morals we perceive reality through. Encounters with the Real leave the subject destitute; a pure form without any substantial character (133). Zizek's wager is that to find a new foundation for freedom we must traverse the secular logic of science to its end. A post-secular translation of religious legacies into a modern idiom will not alleviate us of this confrontation with the horrific Real.

18. The post-secular project is flawed for Zizek because the crisis of biotechnology is an ideological belief born of the post-secularist premise that "the inherent logic of Enlightenment ends up in the total scientific self-objectivisation of humanity" (2004: 133). The logic which does not carry belief without reflection is science, and so Zizek wishes to follow science to a possible solution. Religion, on the other hand, does rely on belief, and so a post-secular translation of religion into a modern idiom remains kin to ideology. Zizek wants to intervene in the post-secular discourse at the point where its acceptance of the "total scientific self-objectivisation of humanity" by Enlightenment suppose all human beings are transformed into "available objects of scientific manipulation" (133). Like the post-secularists, Zizek treats Enlightenment as an unfinished project which must be brought to its end. However, Zizek observes that the turning to a religious modernity is a regression from the logic of science. A religious modernity feeds the fantasmatic étoffe du moi , "the stuff of which our egos are made", and makes a claim to the self as a substantial subject, an obscure Gnostic agency, or so forth (133). With the logic of science behind biotechnology however we encounter the subject at its purest: "faced with the genome, I am nothing, and this nothing is the subject itself " (133).

19. Hence Zizek's discussion casts us back to the objectivisation of the subject by biotechnology. The unbearable lightness of being a subject is articulated by the full self-objectivisation found in one's genome. A curious feature emerges from the situating of this void subject between objectification and objectivisation: where previously representation and value were placed in a spectral position of objectification, the spectrality of the subject is now the subject itself as it becomes the point where objectification and objectivisation overlap. This subtle difference marks the transition from the fantasmatic veil of sublime objects to the traumatic encounter with the Real-thing; from egotistically claiming oneself dignified through my "virtuous ethical activity" to ascetically depriving oneself of the illusions of morality with the genome. In the full self-objectivisation of the genome the subject finds their precious core of metaphysical lack, the "I" that desires and wills, presented to their person as a meaningless formula, a mere contingency that determines the subject's capability to desire, want, or will. The unified experience of selfhood is revealed by the genome as an objectification of the self because the genome is an objectivisation that re-contextualises the position of the subject as an extant object in modernity.

20. The full self-objectivisation offered by biotechnology is an interesting social phenomenon. Initially, it seems to offer societies an incredibly efficient grounding of symbolic public rituals, everything from the nightmarish scenarios of corporate exploitation and tyrannical state surveillance or worse to the holy grail of modern orthodox medicine: a cure for every biological affliction. Reflexively however, the subject loses the symbolic enigma of life that provides it (literally) with insurance against a loss of Kantian autonomy acceptable within the institutional limits of our post-Kantian worldview. Within such a worldview I do my duty in my public and private lives to be the authentic "me", the Real-thing.

21. The difficulty with this development is that the heart of the problem is not assuaged; the subject is still an enigma, but is now an enigma in the form of a meaningless formula rather than a master of their own imaginary destiny whose motivations are hidden within. This is the realm of symbolic experience at its real limit. Bio-ethics must begin from praxis (the human-technics relationship) because the symbolic space is separated from ontological meaning. With the symbolic space separated, biotechnology has returned us to the rawness of bare life but with the added complication that our socioeconomic institutions and rituals are limited to being merely symbolic experiences of some undeniable bare life-like substance. For example, economy is the undeniable real-contingency of pluralist political bureaucracy. This is an adjustment of the institutional frameworks to fit what Zizek, following Alain Badiou, refers to as the passion for the Real:

In contrast to the nineteenth century of the utopian or 'scientific' projects and ideals, plans about the future, the twentieth century aimed at delivering the thing itself ( in Hallward, 2004: 165 ).

The genome delivered by biotechnology presents the subject as a Real-thing by objectivising their "ghost"/ subjectivity and rendering their corporeal contingency palpable (Zizek, 2004: 126-127). Therefore, the danger of biotechnology is two-fold: it is open to abuse by socioeconomic institutions because these institutions are deprived of meaning by the full self-objectivisation offered by the genome at the same moment that they control the economy that supports the biotechnology revealing this objectivisation. And secondly, in its "objectivating attitude" the nihilism of biotechnology deprives the subject of the minimum of symbolic structure that keeps them from the abyssal vortex of the Real; the speculative identity of "I am my genes" becomes a psychotic gesture par excellence , without any recognisable appeal to symbolic structures or moral codes. These dangers fit neatly with the cynical attitude of knowing what the objective truth may be, but continuing to believe in the symbolic space. Genomics does not present the downfall of the pluralist socioeconomic sphere. Instead, it fits with the ideological mode of today's politics where the administration of people has become the administration of things (Zizek in Rancière, 2006: 75). The objectivating attitude of biotechnology, then, does not alleviate us of objectification, but rather returns us to objectification by creating a traumatic incommensurability between what life is and how our lives are organised, and our duties fulfilled.

22. Bio-ethics has the potential to become a tool for negotiating between the demands of autonomous agency and the conditions under which these demands emerge. The problem with Habermas' discussion is that it too quickly moves into the objectification of biotechnology without accounting for its reversal of the old Newtonian/ Schopenhauerian relation between objectivisation and objectification as Zizek does. The challenge of biotechnology in its socioeconomic context is a serious one. Biotechnological advances directly confront humanist mores where this humanism lays claim to humanity as a substantial totality. What Schopenhauer, Habermas, Zizek, and others have shown is that humanity is only meaningful insofar as it is an opacity impenetrable to the epistemological gaze. According to Zizek the relationship between the human and technics has this opacity at its core, and he invites further contemplation of the logic of science toward the end of the Enlightenment project.

 

Daniel Hourigan is currently completing a PhD on technology in the work of Slavoj Zizek at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He assists Griffith University's Centre for Public Culture and Ideas in organizing various events involving the themes of continental European philosophy, contemporary theory, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, and socio-political thought.

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© borderlands ejournal 2007

 

 

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