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  • Performing a Cult

Popular wisdom in Western culture has long told us that science is our new religion. This trope has been repeated regularly since Turgenev’s creation of the nihilistic Bazarof and Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God. Like most propositions derived from popular perception, there is an element of truth in it. Science is the institution of authority regarding the production of knowledge, and in the West tends to take over this particular social function from conventional Christianity. In keeping with this position, science has slowly but surely become a key mythmaker within society, thus defining for the general population the structure and dynamics of the cosmos and the origins and makings of life, or, in other words, defining nature itself. Much as religion once defined the human role in the cosmos, science does the same, so that the political economy of the day seems to be a part of nature and attuned to its laws and imperatives. Certainly the theory of evolution is an example of science fulfilling the ideological needs of capital.

Science has never been very comfortable with its designation as the new religion, and rightly so. After all, the analogy is very loose, since science and religion share very few master narratives. The rhetoric of science has also generally strayed far from the rhetoric of theology. Science has developed its own language to represent itself to the public (i.e., those outside any scientific specialization), and the roots of its language are in the secularized speech of the Enlightenment. While the promises made about technology are many and appear in various permutations, they tend to fall into four main categories: democracy, liberty, efficiency, and progress.

Democracy appears as the notion that everyone will be empowered by the new technology, and thereby have increased agency within the social realm. For example, one promise is that new transportation technology (the elder of the technorevolutions birthed with capital’s commitment to trains) will create a cosmopolitan state in which no one is restricted by spatial limits. Of course there is no real gain, only relative gain. Class structure replicates itself in the technology. Class strata reveal themselves in who can go farther, faster, more often, and in what degree of comfort. While a less privileged person can travel farther than ever before if so inclined, the relative gap between what members of different classes can and are likely to do remains about the same (or increases).

Liberty is usually presented in terms of freedom from restrictive social elements. This promise can take many forms. Liberation from drudgery in the form of work is a typical example; however, decades of technoculture have taught us only that the greater the intensity of technology, the greater the [End Page 167] workload. Much the same is true of efficiency. Improved efficiency only means more profit and speed for capital, while the implied promise of individual benefit never seems to materialize. Taken together, a working definition of progress emerges that means nothing more than the expansion of capital, but presents itself as advancement of the common good.

This collection of rhetorical truisms has worked well for over 100 years, ushering in numerous innovations both mechanical and electrical, both analogic and digital, with strong public support. As the biotech revolution is being set into motion, the standard practice of parading the utopian principles of bourgeois society should be happening again, but strangely enough, it isn’t. The problem is that history is disrupting the deployment of another round of the same old promises. Biology tried to have its social revolution once before (before it was technically ready to carry it out), when it was believed that Darwinism could explain the nature of biological process and its relationship to social “progress.” The usual promises were made: real democracy would emerge through biological engineering, because all citizens would be fit agents for political action. A truly self-aware, self-generating equality would emerge. People would be liberated from biological destiny by controlling it themselves, and would be able to apply the values and morals of society to the production of the flesh. In this manner, biological progress would parallel technological progress.

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pp. 167-173
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