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Re-embodying Technoscientific Fantasies: Posthumanism, Genetically Modified Foods, and the Colonization of Life

From: Cultural Critique
53, Winter 2003
pp. 98-115 | 10.1353/cul.2003.0021

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Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 98-115

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Re-embodying Technoscientific Fantasies:
Posthumanism, Genetically Modified Foods, and the Colonization of Life

Jill Didur


If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates Wnitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life as embedded in a material work of great complexity, on which we depend for our continued survival.

—Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman

The Nightmare

In July 1999 philosopher Peter Sloterdijk gave a lecture titled "Rules for the Human Zoo: An Answer to the Letter on Humanism" to a small group of scholars gathered to discuss "the exodus of being" in Elmau, Germany. In this talk he suggested that the advancement of humanist ideals lay in the hands of genetic engineers. As Andrew Piper reports in his Lingua Franca article on the controversy that emerged in the wake of that talk:

[Sloterdijk] posed a blunt question: Was the age-old humanist ideal of educating human kind ever all that different from the more recent notion of genetically engineering or breeding humankind? (2000, 74)

Humanism, as it is understood by Sloterdijk, is informed by Enlightenment assumptions about "Man" as an autonomous and rational thinker, able to fashion or improve himself and society through education and self-reflection. Sloterdijk's talk reportedly emphasized the close relationship between humanist ideals and genetic engineering and argued: [End Page 98]

the advance of reason is not an emancipation from the body but a certain way of conditioning the body. Seen in this light, humanist education and genetic engineering—the selection or creation of genes that will fashion people who are more healthy, more intelligent, more attractive, perhaps even more ethical—are closely related. (Piper 2000, 74) 1

According to Sloterdijk, "Reading and selection [Lektionen und Selektionen] have more to do with each other than any cultural historian is willing or able to imagine" (Sloterdijk in Piper 2000, 74), and his talk went on to trace what he sees as the parallels between the practice of teaching reading in the classroom and genetic selection in the lab. In Sloterdijk's view, however, the power of education as a tool for human improvement has lost its effectiveness. With reference to violent events in the U.S. school system, such as the shootings at Columbine High School in Denver, Colorado, he argued that "[c]ivilization's potential for barbarism is growing; the everyday bestialization of man is on the increase" ("Anger," 2). He suggests that, with the tendency toward "barbarism" in the classroom on the rise, "traditional instruments of education have become thoroughly obsolete, rendering genetic engineering the only viable form the human progress can take today" (Piper 2000, 74). In a follow-up interview about the paper he gave at the Elmau conference, he stated: "One must Wnally accept that people are always 'made' in all cultures," and that "[t]his has happened until now only through the interaction of the rules of class, caste, marriage and upbringing . . . in accordance with rules of selection and combination. In the meantime improvements in biotechnology have come into sight" ("Anger," 2). By September 1999, Sloterdijk's paper had caused a furor in the German public media: over a hundred articles were written about it, "frightening images of Aryan clones" were featured alongside discussions of the controversy, and Der Spiegel ran a cover story titled "GEN-Projekt Übermensch" (The superman gene project) (Piper 2000, 74). The manner in which Sloterdijk's comments splice together genetic engineering in the lab with the drive for "improvement" or "development" characteristic of humanist discourse has led the media to characterize his views as everything from reminiscent of Nazi eugenics ("Anger," 2) 2 to a kind of "post-human humanism" (Piper 2000, 77).

This essay seeks to unpack the significance of Sloterdijk's claim that genetic engineering is...