International Journal of Baudrillard Studies

ISSN: 1705-6411

Darwin’s Artificial Ancestors and the Terroristic Dream of the Transparency of the Good1

 

Jean Baudrillard

(Paris, France).

 

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...perhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test: to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the greatest ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called ‘human’: some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test – that the human will be permanently eradicated.2

 

There is some justice that modern man treats himself as a waste product, having treated the Indians the same way.3

 

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            The worst of it is that, in the course of this universal recycling of waste, which has become our historic task, the human race is beginning to produce itself as waste-product, to carry out this work of waste disposal on itself. What is worst is not that we are submerged by the waste-products of industrial and urban con­centration, but that we ourselves are transformed into residues. Nature – the natural world – is becoming residual, insignificant, an encumbrance, and we do not know how to dispose of it. By producing highly centralized structures, highly developed urban, industrial and technical systems, by remorselessly condensing down programmes, functions and models, we are transforming all the rest into waste, residues, useless relics. By putting the higher functions into orbit, we are transforming the planet itself into a waste-product, a marginal territory, a peripheral space. Building a motor way, a hypermarket or a metropolis automatically means transforming all that surrounds it into desert. Creating ultra-rapid communication networks immediately means transforming human exchange into a residue. The example of Biosphere 2 is an eloquent one: in the image of ideal synthesis it wishes to provide of our planet, in its character as experimental artifact, it is a way of transforming our environment into an archaic residue, to be tipped into the dustbins of natural history.

            As for the dustbins of history themselves, they are not so much full of events or outdated ideologies as of present events, immediately voided of their meaning by news, transformed into crusher residues, into a charnel-house of images. News is the excremental production of the event as waste; it is the current dustbin of history. There is nothing to counter the implacable rule which  states that the virtual produces the real as its waste ­product. No ecology – no benevolent ecology – can do anything to stop it. It would take a maleficent ecology – one which treats evil with evil.

            Moreover, waste is today produced as such. We build huge office spaces which are intended to remain eternally empty (the spaces, like the people, are “laid off”). We put up buildings that are still-born, remnants which will never have been anything but remnants (our age no longer produces ruins or relics, only wastes and residues). Genuine monuments to disaffection with the human project, insofar as all that was asked of them was to provide employment, to keep the economic wheels turning for the time required by their useless construction. Perhaps it is they which stand as true testimony to this civilization – commemorat­ing within its own lifetime an industrial and bureaucratic system that is already dead? Here again, history is taking a fantastic step backwards by building the ruins of the future, the ruins of an apparatus which continues to grow like a virtual waste-product. One can imagine entire towns put together not from the wastes of what has already served a purpose and therefore retained some trace of its previous usage, but of things that were waste “from the outset” (this is already the case with generations of missiles, and with industrial plant and real estate), assured of never growing old or being revived in any memory – the phantoms of breakneck investment and even more rapid disinvestment.

            The production of waste as waste is accompanied by its idealization and its promotion in advertising; It is the same with the production of man as waste-product, which is accompanied by his being idealized and promoted in the form of human rights. Idealization always goes with abjection, just as charity always goes with destitution. This is a kind of symbolic rule. A new wave of human-beings-as-waste (“boat people”, deportees, the dis­appeared, “ghost-people” of all kinds) is accompanied by a new human rights offensive.

            Hence the recent proposal, following this same logic, from the moment it achieved the status of virtual waste-product, to accord nature international recognition of its rights, to elevate it to the status of a subject in law. Thus the “contrat naturel4 amounts to a definitive recognition of nature as waste. Just as, in bygone days, the recognition of the rights of the unfortunate meant not their emancipation as citizens, but their liberation as the unfortunate.

            It is always the same with rights: the right to water, the right to air, the right to existence, etc. It is when all these fine things have disappeared that the law arrives to grant their disappearance official recognition. The law is like religious faith. If God exists, there is no need to believe in Him. If people do believe in Him, this is because the self-evidence of his existence has passed away. Thus, when people obtain the right to life, the fact is that they are no longer able to live. When nature is recognized as a subject in law, as it is by Michel Serres, we have objectified it to death, and this ecological cover merely asserts our right to go on doing so.

            All this has been brought about by the highly dubious way in which the concept of nature has evolved. What was initially matter became energy. The modern discovery of nature consists in its liberation as energy and in a mechanical transformation of the world. After having first been matter, and then energy, nature is today becoming an interactive subject. It is ceasing to be an object, but this is bringing it all the more surely into the circuit of subjection. A dramatic paradox, and one which also affects human beings: we are much more compromised when we cease to be objects and become subjects. This is a trick that was pulled on us long ago in the name of absolute liberation. Let's not pull the same one on nature. For the ultimate danger is that, in an interactivity built up into a total system of communication, there is no other; there are only subjects – and, very soon, only subjects without objects. All our problems today as civilized beings originate here: not in an excess of alienation, but a disappearance of alienation in favour of a maximum transparency between subjects. An unbearable situation, all the more so for the fact that, in foisting on nature the status of a subject in law, we are also foisting on it all the vices of subjectivity, decking it out, in our own image, with a bad conscience, with nostalgia (for a lost object which, in this case, can only be us), with a range of drives ­in particular, an impulse for revenge. The “balance” we hear so much of in ecology (“out of balance”) is not so much that of planetary resources and their exploitation as the metaphysical one between subject and object. Now, that metaphysical subject/object balance is being upset and the subject, armed as he is with all the technologies of advanced communication (technologies on whose horizon the object has disappeared), is the beneficiary. Once that balance is disrupted, it inevitably sparks violent reactions on the part of the object. Just as individuals counter the transparency and virtual responsibility inflicted on them as subjects with unexplainable acts, acts of resistance, failure, delinquency and collective disorder, so nature counters this enforced promotion, this consensual, communicational black­mail, with various forms of behaviour that are radically other, such as catastrophes, upheavals, earthquakes and chaos. It would seem that nature does not really feel a sense of responsibility for itself, nor does it react to our efforts to give it one. We are, admittedly, indulging in a (bad) ecological conscience and attempting, by this moral violence, to stave off possible violence on nature's part. But if, by offering it the status of subject, we are handing it the same poisoned chalice as we gave to the decolonized nations, we ought not to be surprised if it behaves irrationally merely so as to assert itself as such. Contrary to the underlying Rousseauist ideology, which argues that the profound nature of the liberated subject can only be good and that nature itself, once emancipated, cannot but be endowed with natural equilibrium and all the ecological virtues, there is nothing more ambiguous or perverse than a subject. Now, nature is also germs, viruses, chaos, bacteria and scorpions, significantly eliminated from Biosphere 2 as though they were not meant to exist. Where are the deadly little scorpions, so beautiful and so translucent, which one sees in the Desert Museum not far away, scorpions whose magical sting certainly performs a higher, invisible – but necessary – function within our Biosphere 1: the incarnation of evil, of the venomous evil of chance, the mortal innocence of desire (the desire for death) in the equilibrium of living beings?

            What they have forgotten is that what binds living beings together is something other than an ecological, biospherical solidarity, something other-than the homeostatic equilibrium of a system: it is the cycle of metamorphoses. Man is also a scorpion, just as the Bororo are araras and, left to himself in an expurgated universe, he becomes, himself, a scorpion.5

            In short, it is not by expurgating evil that we liberate good. Worse, by liberating good, we also liberate evil. And this is only right: it is the rule of the symbolic game. It is the inseparability of good and evil which constitutes our true equilibrium, our true balance. We ought not to entertain the illusion that we might separate the two, that we might cultivate good and happiness in a pure state and expel evil and sorrow as wastes. That is the terroristic dream of the transparency of good, which very quickly ends in its opposite, the transparency of evil. We must not reconcile ourselves with nature.

            It seems that the more the human race reconciles itself with nature, the less it is reconciled with itself. Above and beyond the violence it inflicts on others, there is a violence specific to the human race in general, a violence of the species against itself in which it treats itself as a residue, as a survivor – even in the present – of a coming catastrophe. As if it too were ready to repent of an evolution which has brought it such privileges and carried it to such extremes. This is the same conjuncture as the one to which Canetti refers, in which we stepped out of history, except that here we have not stepped out of history, but have passed a point beyond which nothing is either human or inhuman any longer and what is at stake, which is even more immense, is the tottering of the species into the void.

            It is quite possible that, in this process, the species itself is commencing its own disappearance, either by disenchantment with – or ressentiment towards – itself, or out of a deliberate inclination which leads it here and now to manage that disappearance as its destiny.

            Surreptitiously, in spite of our superiority (or perhaps because of it), we are carrying over on to our own species the treatment we mete out to the others, all of which are virtually dying out. In an animal milieu which has reached saturation point, species are spontaneously dissuaded from living. The effects produced by the finite nature of the earth, for the first time contrasting violently with the infinity of our development, are such that our species is automatically switching over to collective suicide. Whether by external (nuclear) violence or internal (biological) virulence. We are subjecting ourselves as a human species to the same experimental pressure as the animal species in our laboratories. Man is without prejudice: he is using himself as a guinea-pig, just as he is using the rest of the world, animate or inanimate. He is cheerfully gambling with the destiny of his own species as he is with that of all the others. In his blind desire to know more, he is programming his own destruction with the same ease and ferocity as the destruction of the others. He cannot be accused of a superior egoism. He is sacrificing himself, as a species, to an unknown experimental fate, unknown at least as yet to other species, who have experienced only natural fates. And, whereas it seemed that, linked to that natural fate, there was something like an instinct of self-preservation – long the mainstay of a natural philosophy of individuals and groups – this experimental fate to which the human species is condemning itself by unprecedented, artificial means, this scientific prefiguring of its own disappear­ance, sweeps away all ideas of a self-preservation instinct. The idea is, indeed, no longer discussed in the human sciences (where the focus of attention would seem, rather, to be on the death drive) and this disappearance from the field of thought signals that, beneath a frenzy for ecological conservation which is really more to do with nostalgia and remorse, a wholly different tendency has already won out, the sacrificing of the species to boundless experimentation.

            A contradictory dual operation: man, alone of all species, is seeking to construct his immortal double, an unprecedented artificial species. He caps natural selection with an artificial super-­selection, claiming sole possession of a soul and a consciousness and, at the same time, he is putting an end to natural selection which entailed the death of each species in accordance with the law of evolution. In ending evolution (of all species including his own), he is contravening the symbolic rule and hence truly deserves to disappear. And this is without doubt the destiny he is preparing for himself, in a roundabout way, in that, in his arrogant desire to end evolution, man is ushering in involution and the revival of inhuman, biogenetic forms. Here again, we have before us a reversive effect, running counter to any ideal or 'scientific' vision of the species.  

            The idea running through the writings of Darwin that natural selection leads to a species capable of morally transcending natural selection is thoroughly specious. In aiming for virtual (technical) immortality and ensuring its exclusive perpetuation by a projection into artifacts, the human species is precisely losing its own immunity and specificity and becoming immortalized as an inhuman species; it is abolishing in itself the mortality of the living in favour of the immortality of the dead. It is immortalizing itself as the zero degree of a living species, as an operational artifact which no longer even obeys the law of species, except the law of artificial species, whose mortality is perhaps even more rapid. As a result, by going down these paths of artifice which were supposed to ensure its indefinite survival, it is perhaps hurtling even more quickly to its doom.

            The human species is currently domesticating itself, this time for good, by means of its technologies. It is submitting collectively to the same rituals as insects. Soon it will submit to the same controlled techniques of reproduction as the protozoa, will inflict on itself the same biogenetic (phylo- or ontogenetic) destiny to which it has subjected others. It no longer, in fact, sees itself as different from the others, in spite of its supremacy. It treats itself as a species that may be ruthlessly exploited, condemned to a brutalization and annihilation of its own. Here again, all the advances it has made and has forced others to accept have had a reversive effect upon it. To such an extent that it – the guardian, in its zoos, museums, reserves and laboratories, of condemned species – regards itself as a condemned species, and keeps an anxious eye trained on its biospheric destiny.

            The finest example of what the human species is capable of inflicting upon itself is Biosphere 2 – the first zoological gardens of the species, to which human beings come to watch themselves survive, as once they went to watch apes copulate. Outside Tucson, in Arizona, right in the middle of the desert, a geodesic glass and metal structure accommodating all the planet's climates in miniature, where eight human beings (four men and four women, of course) are to live self-sufficiently, in a closed circuit, for two years, in order – since we are not able to change our lives – to explore the conditions for our survival. A minimal representation of the species in an experimental situation, in a kind of spaceship allegory. As a museum mock-up of the future, but of an unpredictable future – a century hence, a thousand years, millions... who knows? – it forms a pendant to the Desert Museum some sixty miles away, which retraces the geological and animal history of two hundred million years. The point of convergence between the two being the idea of the conservation and optimal management of residues – of the relics of the past for the Desert Museum, the anticipated relics of the future for Biosphere 2 – not to mention the magical desert site which allows the problem of survival to be examined, both that of nature and that of the species with equal rigour.

            Such a very American hallucination this ocean, this savannah, this desert, this virgin forest reconstituted in miniature, vitrified beneath their experimental bubble. In the true spirit of Disney­land's attractions, Biosphere 2 is not an experiment, but an experimental attraction. The most amazing thing is that they have reconstituted a fragment of artificial desert right in the middle of the natural desert (a bit like reconstituting Hollywood in Disneyworld). Only in this artificial desert there are neither scorpions nor Indians to be exterminated; there are only extraterrestrials trained to survive in the very place where they destroyed another, far better adapted race, leaving it no chance.

            The whole humanist ideology – ecological, climatic, micro­cosmic and biogenetic – is summed up here, but this is of no importance. Only the sidereal, transparent form of the edifice means anything – but what? Difficult to say. As ever, absolute space inspires engineers, gives meaning to a project which has none, except the mad desire for a miniaturization of the human species, with a view perhaps to a future race and its emergence, of which we still dream...

            The artificial promiscuity of climates has its counterpart in the artificial immunity of the space: the elimination of all spontaneous generation (of germs, viruses, microbes), the automatic purifica­tion of the water, the air, the physical atmosphere (and the mental atmosphere too, purified by science). The elimination of all sexual reproduction: it is forbidden to reproduce in Biosphere 2; even contamination from life [Ie vivant] is dangerous; sexuality may spoil the experiment. Sexual difference functions only as a formal, statistical variable (the same number of women as men; if anyone drops out, a person of the same sex is substituted).

            Everything here is designed with a brain-like abstraction. Biosphere 2 is to Biosphere 1 (the whole of our planet and the cosmos) what the brain is to the human being in general: the synthesis in miniature of all its possible functions and operations: the desert lobe, the virgin forest lobe, the nourishing agriculture lobe, the residential lobe, all carefully distinct and placed side by side, according to the analytical imperative. All of this in reality entirely outdated with respect to what we now know about the brain – its plasticity, its elasticity, the reversible sequencing of all its operations. There is, then, behind this archaic model, beneath its futuristic exterior, a gigantic hypothetical error, a fierce idealization doomed to failure.

            In fact, the “truth” of the operation lies elsewhere, and you sense this when you return from Biosphere 2 to “real” America, as you do when you emerge from Disneyland into real life: the fact is that the imaginary, or experimental, model is in no way different from the real functioning of this society. Just as the whole of America is built in the image of Disneyland, so the whole of American society is carrying on – in real time and out in the open – the same experiment as Biosphere·2 which is therefore only falsely experimental, just as Disneyland is only falsely imaginary. The recycling of all substances, the integration of flows and circuits, non-pollution, artificial immunity, ecological balancing, controlled abstinence, restrained jouissance but, also; the right of all species to survival and conservation – and not just plant and animal species, but also social ones. All categories formally brought under the one umbrella of the law – this latter setting its seal on the ending of natural selection.

            It is generally thought that the obsession with survival is a logical consequence of life and the right to life. But, most of the time, the two things are contradictory. Life is not a question of rights, and what follows on from life is not survival, which is artificial, but death. It is only by paying the price of a failure to live, a failure to take pleasure, a failure to die that man is assured of survival. At least in present conditions, which the Biosphere principle perpetuates.

            This micro-universe seeks to exorcize catastrophe by making an artificial synthesis of all the elements of catastrophe. From the perspective of survival, of recycling and feedback, of stabilization and metastabilization, the elements of life are sacrificed to those of survival (elimination of germs, of evil, of sex). Real life, which surely, after all, has the right to disappear (or might there be a paradoxical limit to human rights?), is sacrificed to artificial survival. The real planet, presumed condemned, is sacrificed in advance to its miniaturized, air-conditioned clone (have no fear, all the earth's climates are air-conditioned here) which is designed to vanquish death by total simulation. In days gone by it was the dead who were embalmed for eternity; today, it is the living we embalm alive in a state of survival. Must this be our hope? Having lost our metaphysical utopias, do we have to build this prophylactic one?

            What, then, is this species endowed with the insane pretension to survive – not to transcend itself by virtue of its natural intelligence, but to survive physically, biologically, by virtue of its artificial intelligence? Is there a species destined to escape natural selection, natural disappearance – in a word, death? What cosmic cussedness might give rise to such a turnabout? What vital reaction might produce the idea of survival at any cost? What metaphysical anomaly might grant the right not to disappear ­logical counterpart of the remarkable good fortune of having appeared? There is a kind of aberration in the attempt to eternalize the species – not to immortalize it in its actions, but to eternalize it in this face-lifted coma, in the glass coffin of Biosphere 2.

            We may, nonetheless, take the view that this experiment, like any attempt to achieve artificial survival or artificial paradise, is illusory, not from any technical shortcomings, but in its very principle. In spite of itself, it is threatened by the same accidents as real life. Fortunately. Let us hope that the random universe outside smashes this glass coffin. Any accident will do if it rescues us from a scientific euphoria sustained by drip-feed.


Jean Baudrillard, the "Angel of Extermination" and one of the most important thinkers of his age, passed away on March 6, 2007.


Endnotes


1 This paper originally appeared as Maleficent Ecology” in The Illusion of the End (c1992). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994:78-88. Translated by Chris Turner.

2 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. Columbia University Press, 2000:15-16.

3 Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:128. Translated by Chris Turner. The two opening quotations to this version have been inserted by the editor.

4 See Michael Serres. Contrat Naturel. Paris: Éditions F. Bourin, 1990.

5 Translator Chris Turner notes that “Arara” is a name of Tupi origin for a bird of the genus Ara which includes the macaws.

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From:  http://www.ubishops.ca/BaudrillardStudies/vol4_2/v4-2-baudrillard.html

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©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)