Cheating At Life?, pt. VI: Art and the Biotechnological Embodied Self

Last week, we wrapped up by suggesting that the control revolution of biotechnology in the modern era of biopolitics issues a demand for escape; viz., escape from the power relations that immediately take up my body and transform it into something otherwise than my own. The control revolution set forth over both the biopolitical body and the body politic has been established as a decisive problem for modernity. In this week’s post, the final of this series, I want to take some preliminary steps towards framing the question of escape as a flight from modernity, into postmodern thought.

Last week we took up the theme of escape as it appears in Levinas, through and against the philosophy of one of his most important intellectual forebears, Heidegger. We must recall that, for Heidegger, the essence of technology is nothing technological; rather, its essence is Enframing [Gestell]. Enframing is best understood as a gathering together of objects, as within the frame of a painting, that orders and reveals its objects in a particular way. Technology orders its objects in the mode of standing-reserve, in which objects become cease to become objects in their gathering together as such, and rather fall into a mechanical ordering, as in the ‘rods, pistons, and chassis’ of an engine.   Technology, in this sense, transcends mere instrumentality; “man stands within the essential realm of Enframing. He can never take up a relationship to it only subsequently. Thus the question as to how we are to arrive at a relationship to the essence of technology… always comes too late.”[1] The modern crisis is such that the human subject no longer finds itself in the human being, but as an already biotechnological body whose pure exchange-value is the reproduction of biopower. It is this Levinasian bondage of the subject to the facticity of its biological being, in which it finds itself always already in the order of standing-reserve; that is, as already transformed into pure exchange-value. Enframing, as a kind of revealing, is always what reveals the being of the subject to itself. This Enframing, in which the question of the relationship of the human being to the essence of technology ‘always comes too late’, thus destines [‘destining’, Geschick] the subject upon a history [Geschichte] not essentially different from its way of revealing. Here we have another view of Heidegger as a thinker against modernity, in the form of an identifiable ‘end of history’ which being immediately confronts, and in relation to which being is forced to reorient itself as a subject. The view of the essence of technology as pure instrumentality challenges humanity’s freedom in relation to it, precisely because the failure to acknowledge its real essence, which is Enframing, sets being upon a destining in which it is always already revealed to itself as if through the frame, which in an important sense predetermines the history of being (if not in the strong sense of predetermination, perhaps we can say that Enframing sets boundary conditions on the possibility of the history of being). For Heidegger, “[f]reedom is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts a revealing upon its way [my emphasis].”[2] The ‘at any given time’ condition is important; man cannot simply step out of the frame and find his being there once he has set himself upon the course of a destining as Enframing.

The supreme danger of a “destining [that] reigns in the mode of Enframing,” is exactly the problem of the modern constitution of biopolitics and the biotechnological transformation of the body. “This danger attests itself to us in two ways. As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.”[3] That is, man comes to the point of encountering himself only in the commodity form, as instrument of biopower. “Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth.”[4] Here we find the modern constitution of the sovereign body as the biopolitical body, which excludes ‘bare life’ [zoē] from the body politic precisely by including it in the sovereign sphere as standing-reserve, on the threshold of inclusion into the political body [bios] only on the condition of its transformation to a commodity form under biocapitalism, whose labour-power is biopower. This returns us to Agamben’s claim that “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power,”[5] coupled with a logic of the sovereign structure of the law in which the self-constitution of the sovereign is always as an exception from the juridical order, putting the sovereign body on the threshold of what is included and what is excluded from the sphere of law. The sovereign body as biopolitical body includes in the form of the incorporation of ‘bare life’ into the political body, and excludes in the form of a rejection of ‘bare life’ outside of the threshold of the sphere of law, the political body which the sovereign immediately is.

The modern era of biopolitics leaps forth dramatically from history in the form of the Third Reich – so much so, that Agamben eventually equates the sovereign body with the body of the Führer: “[t]he Führer’s body is… situated at the point of coincidence between zoē and bios, biological body and political body. In his person, zoē and bios incessantly pass over into each other.”[6] The Führer’s word is immediately law [nomos] setting forth into the sphere of law, which sets forth immediately from his self-constitution as bios including zoē only as an exclusion from self. In The New Biopolitics, “Body is knowledge, and knowledge is power”[7]; in the body of the Führer, knowledge can also be read nomos in this sense. Agamben takes the death camp for the paradigm political form of modernity, conceiving of what gets excluded from the sovereign body only as ‘bare life’, Homo sacer: that which can be killed, but not sacrificed. When the state of exception becomes the rule, all citizens are potentially Homines sacri; then the death camp is shattered, decentralized and spread out over the entire polis until the polar distinction borne out by the question, “What is German?/What is not German?” becomes the sole constitution of the former by the total exclusion and annihilation of the other. What Agamben fails to account for is the possibility of transcendence by ‘bare life’ into the life of the body politic, which is only as a biotechnological appropriation that transforms the body into the commodity form under biocapitalism. We have seen that this transcendent inclusion of ‘bare life’ into the body politic also drives the commodity-subject to take its being to be only as standing-reserve, subject to lordship under the sovereign body, exactly in the sense that my left foot is subject to mastery by my body.

We can connect this error equally to Vattimo, who regards the current crisis of humanism and metaphysics under the dominion of modernity by technology as dislocating the primacy of being from the human subject, and holding being under scrutiny only as a weakened return to the subject mediated by technology. The weakening of being is partly a result of the fact that our resignation (another sense of Verwindung) to humanism comes as a resignation to the fact that technology cannot be reappropriated, which Marxism has strived for and which we have seen results in a failure to orient oneself critically in relation to biopolitics. Rather than connecting this resignation to anything biopolitical, Vattimo suggests that the lack of any basis for reappropriation is rather connected to the death of God and Nietzsche’s proclamation of nihilism in the wake of God’s death. In The Question Concerning Technology (1977), Heidegger claims that poetic language [poiēsis] is another form of revealing, destining and bringing-forth, which is blocked by the essence of technology: “Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding-sway of truth… The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.”[8] The saving power in the essence of technology is that which allows us to see that “[o]nce there was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called technē. And the poiēsis of the fine arts also was called technē.”[9] Vattimo thus calls for a resignation to the weakness of being that reconstitutes itself, or sets itself free by newly destining itself, upon a notion of the aesthetic. This falls under the project of hermeneutic ontology. Being is traumatized by technology, and retreats from it, which is only to retreat back into itself through it. And this is basically the result of the confrontation of being with an appropriating force that infinitely transcends it. However, what I have attempted to show in expounding the transformation of the body into a commodity form of biocapitalism, at the intersection of biotechnology and biopolitics, is that being – rather than being merely weakened in the face of an essence greater than it – is itself under constant threat of appropriation by the greater being. Levinas’ claim that the biological becomes the heart of spiritual life gives a facticity to being that is always at the margins of an inclusive transformation by biocapitalism into the commodity form whose exchange-value is the pure reproduction of biopower. A weak being stands no chance where its beating heart is under constant duress. For Levinas, escape is the basic need of being.

What we seem to require is an orientation for being that allows it to emerge the stronger – to confront its biopolitical Goliath and assert its magnanimity with greater force. Such a gesture would appear to require us to cheat death, whatever sense one could make of this. What it does make clear is that “cheating at life” is no longer the appropriate question; life is no longer under the control of the living, such that whether we cheat at it or not, we are not doing so freely. The genealogy that paved the way for the question only revealed that my life is no longer my own, but exists only at the margin of immediate control by inclusion into the sovereign body. The question of how ‘bare life’ may make its decisive turn away from the totalitarian bondage of the sovereign sphere, by showing itself to be the stronger being, opens itself to postmodern thought, but never in the spirit of a submission or a resignation, as Vattimo concludes. But, whether it is even possible to emerge from the modern with anything other than resignation, remains to be seen.

My suggestion for future research would be to investigate the postmodern aesthetic as a poetic mode of revealing the immediate truths of the body; by contrast, biotechnological control takes the form of a mediation. Tattoos and piercings, underground dance and erotic art: these and other domains might allow us an avenue to regain some control over the body, provided that what is artistic in them doesn’t devolve into kitsch. Kitsch is closely related to pure commodification, which the body abhors. The goal of this craft is to regain ways in which the body can actively and faithfully perform the ‘I’ in its immediacy.

[1] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (1977), 12.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 13-14.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Agamben, Homo Sacer (1998), 7.

[6] Ibid., 184.

[7] Yu & Liu (2010), 289.

[8] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (1977), 14.

[9] Ibid., 18.

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