We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE
What’s So Great about Nature?
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

What’s So Great about Nature?

This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself . . . . The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958, 3; emphasis added)

For many years I have been thinking and writing about cosmetic psychopharmacology (CP) precisely because it underscores Hannah Arendt’s view above that technical innovations, which enable us to remake ourselves, lead to important political questions about the kind of beings we wish to become—earth dwellers (the human condition), dwellers of the universe (solipsistic and worldless), or some unarticulated third option? Biotechnologies that promise to enhance human functions engender new public understandings of bodies. Written on our bodies are the aspirations of any age. And the Prozac age—which is what I call our current age—urges us to embody superhuman resilience in the face of enormous environmental threats.

In what follows, I will sketch out my observations about the essential relationship between politics and embodiment. More specifically, I will articulate what I find problematic in most ethical criticisms of our human quest “to escape our human condition” (Arendt 1958, 2). Ultimately, what I hope to point out is that critics—such as Arendt herself—uncritically depend upon a concept of a “natural” or “authentic” body; the crux of their arguments is that enhancement technologies threaten a “natural” or “authentic” body. While there may be a great deal to worry about in biotechnologies, I contend that we have yet to articulate adequately the harms that lie therein because of our inability to transcend an entrenched cultural narrative of authenticity.

CP is a practice either identified or imagined by psychiatrist Peter Kramer, wherein consumers seek out biotechnologies such as selective serotonin reuptake [End Page 183] inhibitors (SSRIs)—such as Prozac—to transform themselves into more socially rewarded persons:1 “Since you only live once, why not do it as a blonde? Why not as a peppy blonde? Now that questions of personality and social stance have entered the arena of medication, we as a society will have to decide how comfortable we are with using chemicals to modify personality in useful attractive ways” (1993, 15). Kramer coined this phrase in his best seller Listening to Prozac (1993), which he wrote to draw philosophers (or otherwise philosophically minded readers) to debate the permissibility of enhancement technologies that work specifically on our underlying temperament or personality.2 The point of the book is not to champion the effectiveness of the new generation of antidepressants in treating clinically depressed patients but, rather, to document an intriguing off-label use of Prozac—its ability to turn socially awkward, melancholic wallflowers into sanguine, superwoman seductresses. CP, argues Kramer, could give women a much more aggressive and commanding persona in the macho atmosphere of business without donning the shoulder pads and power suits of the bygone 1980s.3

While eventually ethicists responded to Kramer’s book—albeit about ten years later and most notably by the President’s Council on Bioethics (2003)—the media jumped on his book, portraying Kramer as selling a “happy pill” that either made women less weepy and feminine or trivialized some of our greatest intellectuals as mere melancholics who had the misfortune of living before Prozac.4 The first real attacks on Kramer’s work came from feminist scholars who challenged his premise that Prozac was a “feminist drug” (1993, 40). David Rothman, reviewing Kramer’s book for the New Republic, presages the ensuing feminist work (see, e.g., Metzl 2003; Zita 1998), observing: “A feminist criticism of Kramer would rightly see Prozac as enforcing the values of aggression and self-seeking ambition . . . . In his stories, Prozac emerges as...