ZOE-PHILIA AND THE PREDICAMENT OF ANTHROPOCENTRISM

24 02 2009

By MONIKA BAKKE

Bio-technologies produce, modify, and sustain life in forms no longer comprehensible within the traditional Western frameworks, nonetheless the distinction made by the Greeks between the two terms for life – bios and zoe – still proves to be very useful. Zoe, as Rabinow points out, ‘referred to the simple fact of being alive and applied to all living beings per se’ while bios ‘indicated the appropriate form given to a way of life of an individual or group.’ (Rabinow 2002, 15) Historically, only bios – the good life – has been considered worth philosophical attention as limited strictly to humans (although, Aristotle excluded e.g. women and slaves), while zoe as its animal other remained marginalized in the phallogocentric tradition of the West.

Currently, it is the bio-power of zoe that attracts so much attention. On the one hand it is an object of desire of anthropocentrically oriented transhumanists and neo-liberal humanists who tend to instrumentalize and commercialize it. On the other hand, postanthropocentric thinkers focusing on pre-human and non-human aspects of zoe point out the necessity of considering subject as ecological entity. (Braidotti 2006, 41) Yet, it seems to be generally accepted that zoe – the nonhuman – can no longer be neglected as it is crucial for bios. This view extends to human body which can no longer be considered unitary and only human therefore the notion of corporality is in a need of a serious reconsideration. Nikolas Rose gives a very accurate diagnose of our current zoe-philic situation:

“Our very understanding of who we are, of the life-forms we are and the forms of life we inhabit, have folded bios back to zoe. By this I mean that the question of the good life – bios – has become intrinsically a matter of the vital processes of our animal life – zoe.” (Rose 2006, 83).

This new zoe-philia evokes questions of belonging and identity, responsibility and sustainability which also include territorially expanding ‘extreme’ environments of biotech labs where in vitro life dwells in a highly controlled new set up of man-made environmental networks. The developments in the life sciences constantly challenge the notion of life and call for reconsideration of the status of in vitro life. I believe that only by recognizing the impersonal and inhuman vitality of zoe shared by all life, we have a chance to fully include in vitro life in our world of symbiotic dependencies and responsibilities. I believe that it is absolutely crucial not to isolate in vitro life as an object positioned outside of the ecology of other forms of life where we also belong.

IMMORTALITY FETISH

‘It’s organism that die, not life’, Deleuze (1995, 143) points out, and this endurance of zoe, as ‘just life’, often evokes lots of hope and dubious fascination. Unlike bios which has its time limits, as the life span of an individual, zoe goes on, in some sense, forever. Yet, this extreme vitality is not only impersonal but also inhuman as extending to all life forms and carrying on regardless of any individual deaths. Michael West, a bioengineer and a president of the Advanced Cell Technology, interested in ageing, or rather immortality, proposes his own interpretation of zoe/bios distinction. In his views, somatic cells (our body) represent bios, that is the individual life with its limited life span while germ-line cells (sex cells) qualify as zoe allowing ‘life [to] continue generation after generation, in an apparently immortal fashion.’ West explains:

This is because germ-line cells (our sex cells) come from the previous generation of germ-line cells, and there’s an immortal lineage of these cells that connects the generations of all living beings on the planet. That lineage of cells is immortal in the sense that they have no dead ancestors and have survived all of the insults of life—free radical damage, cosmic rays, and everything else that can injure living things. (West 2007)

West’s ambition, as gerontologist, is to employ germ-line cells to prolong life of somatic cells – bios: ‘Our goal has been to learn from the immortality of the germ line and transfer these characteristics to somatic cells.’ (West 2007) This project, indeed, reflects the undeniable zoe-philia, yet, it also presents a serious ambiguity: it ‘folds bios back to zoe’ and at the same time it forces zoe into the realm of bios. The expected outcome, the extension of an individual life, is strictly limited to one species, moreover, it actually concerns only a very limited group of individuals. This apparently goes against the trans-species and egalitarian aspects of this generative force. Yet, zoe-philia manifested in this form is common and well established among transhumanist thinkers and in the bio-tech industry which employs zoe in the service of bios. It reproduces the old anthropocentric schemata in the context where good life (bios) is a growing business still dependent on the vitality of zoe supporting a breathing, digesting, and procreating cluster of human and nonhuman cells that we are.

This instrumentalization of germ-line cells corresponds to the Aristotelian concept of sheer existence (zoe) considered not worthe of any extended reflection because limited to the mundane mainly supervised by women perceived as the incubators of life. In the more contemporary context this negative way of identifying sheer life, mere life, bare life, and zoe is present in Hannah Arendt’s writings (1998) and more recently also in Agamben’s work (1998). For Agamben bare life is a sphere of negative influence of bio-politics, therefore vulnerable, reduced to matter, and easily disposable in its moment of capture and passivity. In vitro life – living cells no longer attached to the body they come from – despite its powerful vitality is often viewed in these highly negative terms. Such narratives of victimization are themselves a form of oppression and instrumentalization. They underline the superiority of individuality traditionally attributed to the body-as-unity and the unitary subject.

Anthropocentric positions clearly avoid affirming zoe as a generative force in which we all partake as living entities. Here desire for zoe is based on the familiar model of desire understood as lack which creates a dynamics of trapping, taming, isolating, subordinating, etc. This way zoe is instrumentalized and moved to the realm of bios (Squire 2004) as the final product of bio-technologies is nothing else but Aristotelian good life, the life of an individual, as the only life worth consideration and protection. In this context, ‘life is an addiction’, Braidotti (2004, 211) would rightly conclude.

DEADLY SECRETS OF LIFE

One of the most daring alternatives to the humanist and transhumanist attitudes to zoe comes from the new materialist vitalism inspired by Deleuze that is non-essentialist and anti-teleological hence radically postanthropocentric. Speaking from this perspective, Rosi Braidotti claims that ‘death is overrated’ therefore she is certainly not on her quest for immortality. On the contrary, her claim is that ‘the process of confronting the thinkability of a life that may not have ‘me’ or any ‘human’ at the center is actually a sobering and instructive process.’ (Braidotti 2006, 40) Human life, then, is not situated in eternity, but rather, it works in a daily survival mode based on the imperative: ‘whatever gets you through the day is just fine’ (Braidotti 2006, 205) Daily survival, then, is a full time job aiming for some kind of sustainability and balance based on awareness of one’s location and responsibility for the environment. Postanthropocentric perspectives require changing our attitude to death which being unavoidable is not final; zoe carries on regardless of individual loss. This calls for reconsideration of the concept of body as unity, and as Dorion Sagan points out that ‘we are all multiple beings’; life is always corporeal and corporate (Sagan 1992, 368). Therefore the human body, being a cluster of cells in various levels of symbiosis of which not all are human (as we are inhabited by bacteria) is not unfamiliar with death, and deliberate killing, happening on a regular basis (e.g. brushing teethe). Being dead always means having already been living. Thus zoe is postulated as a generative power, a pure vitality of life which Braidotti wants to reconsider in positive terms and reclaim her ‘zoe-philic position’ away from the anthropocentrism of Arendt and pessimism of Agamben.

Zoe is egalitarian; it includes all life forms no matter how they live – in the natural or artificial environment – and how they came to existence: being born or made. Especially the technologically augmented life as in vitro life and the post-evolution forms of life such as genetically engineered life forms, come under the scrutiny of bio art. As bio art nowadays does not operate on the level of representation but actually on the level of intervention into the living matter, it offers the viewer the opportunity to actually experience the materiality of the lab life and helps to build the awareness of zoe as a generative force which ‘rules through a trans-species and trans-genic interconnections’. (Braidotti 2006, 111) In vitro life no less than any other form of life demonstrates the vitality of zoe, the ability of life to go on and inhabit new environments. It is not passive but affecting and affected as any other wet life form.

In this respect the art works of Tissue Culture & Art (TC&A) project are pioneering and particularly insightful. Their peculiar sculptures are created with tissue engineering and stem cells technologies out of parts of complex organisms and can survive only with the aid of technology. (Zurr, Catts 2003, 2006) However, it also means that, as any other life form, they need nutrition and protection; they procreate and they also die. Yet, these in vitro life forms and art forms at the same time, belong to a category of life named by the artists the ‘Extended Body’ (Zurr, Catts 2006) which includes cells and tissues removed form their host bodies and inhabiting the labs. Yet, they are still descendants of surviving cell lines that connect them with any life as sharing a common ancestral past going back as far as the first existing life. The tissue sculptures, are also called the ‘semi-living sculptures‘ which term may be a bit perplexing as it could indicate that their life is inferior to what is living. However, being designed entities and grown on the artificial scaffoldings, their life is marked with death as any life is, just in a different way. They are neither totally manufactured, because harvested from a host body, nor totally controlled by humans, hence is not life which is created here but the form which it takes to carry on. For that the artists themselves and their tissue sculptures are descendants of the common one-cell ancestors as ‘we are in this together, but we are not all the same’ (Braidotti 2006, 131) However, only when we manage to manufacture a Wet Artificial Life, which is predicted to happen between 3 and 10 years from now, will we break the present genealogy lines of life-as-we-know-it. Yet, even then, when the first cell will be created and kept alive, its very corporality will leave no doubt that such life form also is embedded into a system of exchange between organic and inorganic in which all life partakes.

TC&A artists, Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts, declare that ‘as “tissue artists” [they] found [their] tissues sculptures rather humble collaborative, dynamic living communities that are in need of care.’(Zurr, Catts 2003, 7) For these entities the artists establish ‘the feeding ritual’ and ‘the killing ritual’ performed in the exhibition spaces, which become a constant reminder that any life is embodied and embedded as a process of exchange with its environment. However, as Braidotti argues, ‘the practices of life and death have been dislocated and redefined in fundamental ways by contemporary culture and technology’ (Braidotti 2006, 224), life is always on the edge of death. To die means to merge with the environment and at the same time enabling other dynamics within the organic and inorganic realm. Zurr and Catts explain it in respect to their tissue sculptures:

The killing is done by taking the Semi-Living sculptures out of their containment and letting the audience touch (and be touched by) the sculptures. The fungi and the bacteria which exist in the air and on our hands are much more potent than the cells. As the result the cells get contaminated and die (some instantly and some over time). (Zurr, Catts 2003, 6)

Zoe as a total vitality may also hurt, as it continues regardless of deaths happening on its way, and because of these deaths. This dynamic includes us who not only fear for life but also of life. For that it would be impossible to ‘reclaim [our] zoe-philic location’ (Braidotti 2004, 130) without fulfilling ‘the minimum requirement’ that is abandoning, or actually outliving, anthropocentrism.

THE POSTANTHROPOCENTRIC VERTIGO

Postanthropocentric attitudes seems to be spreading really quickly especially in academia and the art world but anywhere else it is still rather an uncommon and marginalized condition evoking lots of hostility. As it brings a radical reformulation of the notion of subject, at the same time it offers a reformulation of the notion of life itself. However, this new awareness emerging vis a vis the techno-scientific novelties produces the effect of vertigo as it subverts the stability and balance of the anthropocentric subject. Yet, I argue, this vertigo is only a temporary symptom of a highly desired and invigorating shift from the anthropocentric stupor of the subject to the much needed flexible subjectivity operating in the mode of continuity and symbiosis. Donna Haraway for whom ‘human nature is a multi-species interdependency’ points out that although we all know it, we keep denying it. Indeed, we can locate the nonanthropocentric ideas not only in life sciences, but also as far back as the pre-socratic philosophy, but the specisism of classical humanism and Christianity with their later mutations successfully suppressed the non-anthropocentric convictions almost entirely and separated humans from the rest of the life forms. This is the reason why opening up a human subject to the multi relations with the myriads of life forms including the technologically augmented life causes mental vertigo. Here, in Bataille’s words, the subject is confronted with ‘the immensity of everything that is, unintelligible to the intelligence which explains everything in terms of acts, causes or aims, this immensity terrifies him.’(Bataille 1987, 233)

For the subject of the humanist tradition this is the unprecedented situation of not knowing one’s location in respect to other life forms, as its location is no longer anthropocentrically fixed. Alphonso Lingis brings this up as a specific version of zoo-philia when stating that ‘our bodies are coral reefs teeming with polyps, sponges, gorgonians, and free-swimming macrophages continually stirred by monsoon climates of moist air, blood, and biles.’(Lingis 2003, 167) Our identities are in the process of becoming and our bodies constantly communicate and merge with the environment. Here, not roots but passages and flows are important as life is transient. The further ‘not knowing’ comes with the techno-scientific production of spheres of ambiguity related to life in its mutated or constructed forms such as transgenic organisms and the ‘Extended Body’. As Zurr and Catts claim:

We are all becoming part of the Extended Body, dependent on the techno-scientific project in order to extend our survival. Fragments of our bodies are potentially becoming part of the Extended Body and fusing with other semi-living beings. (Zurr, Catts 2006, 4)

The humanist subject is not able to comprehend and conceptualize its own condition if holding on to the traditionally established frameworks, therefore, paradoxically, it experiences not only fear for life but often also fear of life. Zoe goes in its various life forms beyond the boundaries of the individual while ‘consciousness attempts to contain it, but actually lives in fear of it. Such a life force is experienced as threatening by mind that fears the loss of control.’ (Braidotti 2004, 110) Living vertiginously means living on the edge of sustainability, in vivo and in vitro, or ‘being on the edge of too-muchness’ as it may be the only way to actually carry on living. As Bataille claims it is in the moment of vertigo that one somehow is even more alive, as on the border of life and death, life is the most intense.

References:

Agamben, G. (1998) Homo sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Arendt, H. (1998) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bataille, G. (1987) Eroticism. London: Boyars.

Braidotti, R. (2006) Transpositions. On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Deleuze, G. (1995) Negotiations 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press.

Haraway, D. Keynote address at the Kindred Spirits Confrence.

http://www.homepages.indiana.edu/2006/09-29/story.php?id=854

Lingis, A. (2003) ‘Animal Body: Inhuman Face’. Wolfe, C. (ed.) Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rabinow, P. (2002) French DNA. Trouble in Purgatory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rose, N. (2006) The Politics of Life Itself. Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sagan, D. (1992) ‘Metametazoa: Biology and Multiplicity.’ In: Incorporations.

Crary, J. Kwinter. S. eds. New York: Zone.

Squire, S., M. (2004) Liminal Lives. Immagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine. Durham: Duke University Press.

West, M., Brawn, D. J. (2007) ‘The Technology of Immortality: An Interview

with Dr. Michael West.’Smart Publications.

http://www.smart-publications.com/articles/MOM-west.php

— (2003) The Immortal Cell. One Scientist’s Quest to Solve the Mystery of Human

Aging. Doubleday.

Zurr, I., Catts, O. (2003) ‘Are the Semi-Living semi-Good or semi-Evil?’

http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/atGlance/pubMainFrames.html

— (2006) ‘Towards a New Class of Being: the Extended Body’. Intelligent Agent, 06/02 http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/atGlance/pubMainFrames.html

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