Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The genetic contingency of natural disposition

This piece isn't at all new, it appeared in the LRB in 2003, but I came across a reference to it in a book I've just finished reading for a review & thought it worth following up. Here's Slavoj Zizek arguing in favor of biogenetic interventions:

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.

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