Bring me my Philips Mental Jacket

Slavoj Žižek welcomes the prospect of biogenetic intervention

Do we today have an available bioethics? Yes, we do, a bad one: what the Germans call Bindestrich-Ethik, or ‘hyphen-ethics’, where what gets lost in the hyphenation is ethics as such. The problem is not that a universal ethics is being dissolved into a multitude of specialised ones (bioethics, business ethics, medical ethics and so on) but that particular scientific breakthroughs are immediately set against humanist ‘values’, leading to complaints that biogenetics, for example, threatens our sense of dignity and autonomy.

The main consequence of the current breakthroughs in biogenetics is that natural organisms have become objects open to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is ‘desubstantialised’, deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called ‘earth’. If biogenetics is able to reduce the human psyche to an object of manipulation, it is evidence of what Heidegger perceived as the ‘danger’ inherent in modern technology. By reducing a human being to a natural object whose properties can be altered, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama is right in Our Posthuman Future: the notion of humanity relies on the belief that we possess an inherited ‘human nature’, that we are born with an unfathomable dimension of ourselves.[*]

The gene directly responsible for the onset of Huntington’s chorea has been isolated, and anyone can now be told not only whether they will get Huntington’s, but when. At issue is a transcription mistake: the stuttering repetition of the nucleotide sequence CAG in the middle of a particular gene. The age at which the disease will appear depends implacably on the number of repetitions of CAG: if there are 40, you will get the first symptoms at 59; if 41, at 54; if 50, at 27. Healthy living, keeping fit, the best medicine, none of them can help. We can submit to a test and, if it is positive, find out exactly when we will go mad and die. It’s hard to imagine a clearer confrontation with the meaninglessness of a life-determining contingency. No wonder the majority of people (including the scientist who identified the gene) choose not to know, an ignorance that is not simply negative, since it allows us to fantasise.

The prospect of biogenetic intervention opened up by increasing access to the human genome effectively emancipates humankind from the constraints of a finite species, from enslavement to the ‘selfish gene’. Emancipation comes at a price, however. In a talk he gave in Marburg in 2001, Habermas repeated his warning against biogenetic manipulation. There are, as he sees it, two main threats. First, that such interventions will blur the borderline between the made and the spontaneous and thus affect the way we understand ourselves. For an adolescent to learn that his ‘spontaneous’ (say, aggressive or peaceful) disposition is the result of a deliberate external intervention into his genetic code will undermine the heart of his identity, putting paid to the notion that we develop our moral being through Bildung, the painful struggle to educate our natural dispositions. Ultimately, biogenetic intervention could render the idea of education meaningless. Second, such interventions will give rise to asymmetrical relations between those who are ‘spontaneously’ human and those whose characters have been manipulated: some individuals will be the privileged ‘creators’ of others.

At the most elementary level, this will affect our sexual identity. The ability of parents to choose the sex of their offspring is one issue. Another is the status of sex-change operations. Up until now, it has been possible to justify these by evoking a gap between biological and psychic identity: when a biological man experiences himself as a woman trapped in a man’s body, it is reasonable that (s)he be allowed to change her biological sex in order to introduce a balance between her sexual and her emotional life. Biogenetic manipulation opens up much more radical perspectives. It may retroactively change our understanding of ourselves as ‘natural’ beings, in the sense that we will experience our ‘natural’ dispositions as mediated, not as given – as things which can in principle be manipulated and therefore as merely contingent. There can be no return to a naive immediacy once we know that our natural dispositions depend on genetic contingency; to stick to them through thick and thin will be as false as sticking to the old ‘organic’ mores. According to Habermas, however, we should act as if this were not the case, and thus maintain our sense of dignity and autonomy. The paradox is that this autonomy can be preserved only by prohibiting access to the contingency which determines us – that is, by limiting the possibilities of scientific intervention. This is a new version of the old argument that, if we are to retain our moral dignity, it’s better not to know certain things. Curtailing science, as Habermas seems to be suggesting, would come at the price of widening the split between science and ethics: a split which already prevents us from seeing the way these new conditions compel us to transform and reinvent the notions of freedom, autonomy and ethical responsibility.

According to a possible Roman Catholic counter-argument, the true danger is that, in engaging in biogenetics, we forget that we have immortal souls. This argument only displaces the problem, however. If this were the case, Catholic believers would be the ideal people to engage in biogenetic manipulation, since they would be aware that they were dealing only with the material aspect of human existence, not with the spiritual kernel. Their faith would protect them from reductionism. If we have an autonomous spiritual dimension, there is no need to fear biogenetic manipulation.

From the psychoanalytic standpoint, the core of the problem resides in the autonomy of the symbolic order. Suppose I am impotent because of some unresolved blockage in my symbolic universe and, instead of ‘educating’ myself by trying to resolve the blockage, I take Viagra. The solution works, I am able to perform again sexually, but the problem remains. How will the symbolic blockage be affected by this chemical solution? How will the solution be ‘subjectivised’? The situation is undecidable: the solution might unblock the symbolic obstacle, compelling me to accept its meaninglessness; or it might cause the obstacle to return at some more fundamental level (in a paranoiac attitude, perhaps, so that I experience myself as exposed to the caprice of a ‘master’ whose interventions can decide my destiny). There is always a symbolic price to be paid for such ‘unearned’ solutions. And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for attempts to fight crime through biochemical or biogenetic intervention; compelling criminals to take medication to curb excessive aggression, for example, leaves intact the social mechanisms that triggered the aggression in the first place.

Another lesson of psychoanalysis is that, contrary to the notion that curiosity is innate, that there is deep inside each one of us a Wissenstrieb, a ‘drive to know’, there is, in fact, the opposite. Every advance in knowledge has to be earned by a painful struggle against our spontaneous propensity for ignorance. If there’s a history of Huntington’s chorea in my family, should I take the test which will tell me whether or not (and when) I will inexorably get it? If I can’t bear the prospect of knowing when I will die, the (not very realistic) solution may appear to be to authorise another person or institution whom I trust completely to test me and not tell me the result, but, if the result is positive, to kill me unexpectedly and painlessly in my sleep just before the disease’s onset. The problem with this solution is that I know that the Other knows the answer, and this ruins everything, exposing me to gnawing suspicion. The ideal solution may then be for me, if I suspect that my child may have the disease, to test him without his knowing and kill him painlessly at the right moment. The ultimate fantasy here would be that an anonymous state institution would do this for us without our knowledge. Again the question surfaces, however, of whether or not we know that the Other knows. The way to a perfect totalitarian society is open. What is false is the underlying premise: that the ultimate ethical duty is to protect others from pain, to keep them in ignorance.

It’s not so much that we are losing our dignity and freedom with the advance of biogenetics but that we realise we never had them in the first place. If, as Fukuyama argues, we already have ‘therapies that blur the line between what we achieve on our own and what we achieve because of the levels of various chemicals in our brains’, the efficiency of these therapies implies that ‘what we achieve on our own’ also depends on the ‘levels of various chemicals in our brains’. We are not being told, to quote Tom Wolfe, ‘Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died’: we are in effect being told that we never had a soul in the first place. If the claims of biogenetics hold, then the choice is between clinging to the illusion of dignity and accepting the reality of what we are. If, as Fukuyama says, ‘the desire for recognition has a biological basis and that basis is related to levels of serotonin in the brain,’ our awareness of this fact must undermine the sense of dignity that comes from being recognised by others. We can have it only at the price of a disavowal: although I know very well that my self-esteem depends on serotonin, I nonetheless enjoy it. Fukuyama writes:

The normal, and morally acceptable, way of overcoming low self-esteem was to struggle with oneself and with others, to work hard, to endure sometimes painful sacrifices, and finally to rise and be seen as having done so. The problem with self-esteem as it is understood in American pop psychology is that it becomes an entitlement, something everyone needs to have whether it is deserved or not. This devalues self-esteem and makes the quest for it self-defeating.

But now along comes the American pharmaceutical industry, which through drugs like Zoloft and Prozac can provide self-esteem in a bottle by elevating brain serotonin.

Imagine the following scenario: I am to take part in a quiz, but instead of working away at getting up the facts, I use drugs to enhance my memory. The self-esteem I acquire by winning the competition is still based on a real achievement: I performed better than my opponent who had spent night after night trying to memorise the relevant data. The intuitive counter-argument is that only my opponent has the right to be proud of his performance, because his knowledge, unlike mine, was the result of hard work. There’s something inherently patronising in that.

Again, we see it as perfectly justified when someone with a good natural singing voice takes pride in his performance, although we’re aware that his singing has more to do with talent than with effort and training. If, however, I were to improve my singing by the use of a drug, I would be denied the same recognition (unless I had put a lot of effort into inventing the drug in question before testing it on myself). The point is that both hard work and natural talent are considered ‘part of me’, while using a drug is ‘artificial’ enhancement because it is a form of external manipulation. Which brings us back to the same problem: once we know that my ‘natural talent’ depends on the levels of certain chemicals in my brain, does it matter, morally, whether I acquired it from outside or have possessed it from birth? To further complicate matters, it’s possible that my willingness to accept discipline and work hard itself depends on certain chemicals. What if, in order to win a quiz, I don’t take a drug which enhances my memory but one which ‘merely’ strengthens my resolve? Is this still ‘cheating’?

One reason Fukuyama moved from his ‘end-of-history’ theory to a consideration of the new threat posed by the brain sciences is that the biogenetic threat is a much more radical version of the ‘end of history’, one that has the potential to render the free autonomous subject of liberal democracy obsolete. There is a deeper reason, however, for Fukuyama’s turn: the prospect of biogenetic manipulation has forced him, consciously or not, to take note of the dark obverse of his idealised image of liberal democracy. All of a sudden, he has been compelled to confront the prospect of corporations misusing the free market to manipulate people and engage in terrifying medical experiments, of rich people breeding their offspring as an exclusive race with superior mental and physical capacities, thus instigating a new class warfare. It is clear to Fukuyama that the only way to limit this danger is to reassert strong state control of the market and to develop new forms of a democratic political will.

While agreeing with all this, I am tempted to add that we need these measures independently of the biogenetic threat, simply in order to control the potential of the global market economy. Maybe the problem is not biogenetics itself, but rather the context of power relations within which it functions. Fukuyama’s arguments are at once too abstract and too concrete. He fails to raise the full philosophical implications of the new mind sciences and technologies, and to locate them in their antagonistic socioeconomic context. What he doesn’t grasp (and what a true Hegelian should have grasped) is the necessary link between the two ends of history, the passage from the one to the other: the liberal-democratic end of history immediately turns into its opposite, since, in the hour of its triumph, it starts to lose its foundation – the liberal-democratic subject.

Biogenetic (and, more generally, cognitivist-evolutionary) reductionism should be attacked from a different direction. Bo Dahlbom is right, in his 1993 critique of Daniel Dennett, to insist on the social character of ‘mind’. Theories of mind are obviously conditioned by their historical context: Fredric Jameson recently proposed a reading of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained as an allegory of late capitalism with its motifs of competition, decentralisation etc. Even more important, Dennett himself insists that tools, the externalised ‘intelligence’ on which human beings rely, are an inherent part of human identity: it is meaningless to imagine a human being as a biological entity without the complex network of his/her tools – it would be like imagining a goose without its feathers. But in saying this he opens up a path which should be foll0wed much further. Since, to express it in good old Marxist terms, man is the totality of his/her social relations, Dennett should take the next logical step and analyse this network of social relations.

The problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal activity, or replace the language of mind by that of brain processes, but rather to grasp how mind can emerge only from the network of social relations and material supplements. The real problem is not how, if at all, machines can imitate the human mind, but how the ‘identity’ of the human mind can incorporate machines. In March 2002, Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University, had his neuronal system directly linked to a computer network. He thus became the first human being to whom data could be fed directly, bypassing the five senses. This is the future: not the replacement of the human mind by the computer, but a combination of the two. In May 2002, it was reported that scientists at New York University had attached a computer chip directly to a rat’s brain, making it possible to steer the rat by means of a mechanism similar to that in a remote-controlled toy car.

It is already possible for blind people to get elementary information about their surroundings fed directly into their brain, bypassing the apparatus of visual perception; what was new in the case of the rat was that, for the first time, the ‘will’ of a living agent, its ‘spontaneous’ decisions about its movements, were taken over by an external agency. The philosophical question here is whether the unfortunate rat was aware that something was wrong, that its movements were being decided by another power. And when the same experiment is performed on a human being (which, ethical questions notwithstanding, shouldn’t be much more complicated than it was in the case of the rat), will the steered person be aware that an external power is deciding his movements? And if so, will this power be experienced as an irresistible inner drive, or as coercion? It is symptomatic that the applications of this mechanism envisioned by the scientists involved and by the journalists who reported the story were to do with humanitarian aid and the anti-terrorist campaign: the steered rats or other animals could be used, it was suggested, to contact earthquake victims buried under rubble, or to attack terrorists without risking human lives.

A year from now, Philips plan to market a phone-cum-CD-player woven into the material of a jacket, which can be dry-cleaned without damaging the digital machinery. This is not the innocent advance it may appear to be. The Philips jacket will represent a quasi-organic prosthesis, less an external apparatus with which we interact than part of our self-experience as a living organism. The parallel often drawn between the increasing invisibility of computer chips and the fact that when we learn something sufficiently well, we cease to be aware of it, is misleading. The sign that we have learned a language is that we no longer need to focus on its rules: not only do we speak it spontaneously, but actively focusing on the rules would prevent us from speaking it fluently. We have, however, previously had to learn the language which we have now internalised: invisible computer chips are ‘out there’, and act not spontaneously, but blindly.

Hegel would not have shrunk from the idea of the human genome and biogenetic intervention, preferring ignorance to risk. Instead, he would have rejoiced at the shattering of the old idea that ‘Thou art that,’ as though our notions of human identity had been definitively fixed. Contrary to Habermas, we should take the objectivisation of the genome fully on board. Reducing my being to the genome forces me to traverse the phantasmal stuff of which my ego is made, and only in this way can my subjectivity properly emerge.

[*] Profile, 272 pp., £8.99, April, 1 86147 495 7.