Life, in Theory

This is work in progress for a short monograph, co-written with Manuela Rossini, as an intervention in the current “life wars” (between the arts, humanities, social and life sciences) and the regime of “biopolitics”. The title of this project also gave its name to the 2014 SLSAeu (Society for Science, Literature and the Arts Europe) convention, in Turin & Vercelli.

After a number of “wars” and “turns” (linguistic turn, culture wars, science wars, etc.) critical and cultural theory has entered a new phase that one could call “life wars”. In these new reconceptualizations of “life” (what is (a good) life?) theory no longer just engages interdisciplinarily with the humanities and social sciences but, increasingly with the new life sciences, technology and new media and their effects. The stakes have thus been raised: literally to the level of life, death and survival, ecology, extinction and life “after” humans. This volume is drawing together some work we have done in recent years on the status of “in vitro meat” (brooding), “tissue culture” (intertissuality), “autoimmunity” and “life writing”.

Parts already presented or published are:

Brooding – Life after Animals

(a sub-plenary by Stefan Herbrechter given at the Zoontotechnics -Animality/Technicity conference at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, Cardiff University, 12-14 May 2010)

Unpublished manuscript

Brooding refers to one of the most essential “life technologies”, namely to incubate, warm, protect, or cover (young) with wings or body. In human animals, however, brooding also seems to bring about some unwanted side-effects: namely to think or worry persistently or moodily about, to ponder or dwell on a subject, or to meditate with morbid persistence. There is thus something disturbing about brooding, or a “brood”, i.e. the result of breeding. Which is why the controversy around “breeding humans”, as discussed again a few years ago, in Peter Sloterdijk’s Regeln für den Menschenpark – Ein Antwortschreiben zu Heideggers Brief über den Humanismus (1999) and Das Menschentreibhaus – Stichworte zur historischen und prophetischen Anthropologie (2001), in relation to new gene-technologies and eugenics, seems so unethical, so dehumanising. Sloterdijk’s aim was to provoke by developing a “prophetic anthropology” based on the notion of “anthropotechnics” – the evolutionary “production of the human” alongside technics (in the Heideggerian sense – which, of course, allows for a parallel discussion with Bernard Stiegler’s work). Within this long term view of “hominisation”, the current genetic and biotechnological turn can be seen as merely the latest form of a “breeding process” that started a long time ago and, in fact, constitutes the very process that “made us humans” in the first place, namely by changing our breeding and brooding habits. Sloterdijk refers to this originary condition as the “human greenhouse” (Menschentreibhaus) – an “insulation mechanism” that created a protective interiority where human evolution and especially human “cerebralisation” could take place. It was the beginning of anthropogenesis understood as an anthropotechnical “breeding-brooding process”. What interests me here is how Sloterdijk, in following and radicalising Heidegger, is forced, like Heidegger before him, to play down the “animal question” in his argument. On closer inspection, however, it is not at all clear to what extent the specifically human “greenhouse effect” would be radically different from animal “brooding”, which instead would have to be seen as an even more fundamental “theriotechnics”, repressed in Sloterdijk’s model. Brooding in the end undermines Sloterdijk’s effort to “technically” distinguish between human and nonhuman evolution.

The erosion of the tentative boundary between breeding and brooding, under late modern technological and social conditions, however, opens up an even more “monstrous” possibility. I am thinking in particular of the advent of a phenomenon like “cultured meat” – the in vitro production of animal muscle for human consumption. The developing biotechnological breeding-brooding of “meat” might turn out to be a quite unforeseen by-product of the erosion of the human-animal boundary. What exactly is it that continues to cause “disgust” in the idea of “breeding meat”, since bypassing the whole slaughtering process might mean the end of animal cruelty and of animal rights concerns, maybe even, the end of the “sacrificial” metaphysics underpinning human exceptionalism (cf. Derrida’s notion of “carnophallogocentrism”)? Especially since some animal rights groups have already signalled that “as far as we’re concerned, if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal there’s no ethical objection” (cf. “Meat grown in lab”, Sunday Times 29 November 2009, pp. 1-2), thus plunging into crisis the whole ideology of vegetarianism as we know it. The erosion of the difference between breeding and brooding might, quite unexpectedly, imply the “end” of vegetarianism and, ultimately, even the end of animals as such. It also shows that behind the current theoretical return to questions of “life”, “bare life”, “bio” versus “zo?” etc. lies a more fundamental anxiety than the impossible distinction between the human and the animal, namely the question of “brooding” itself – and with it, the spectre of an entirely different form of “biopolitics”, which promises to upset any (t)issues of life “before” the distinction between animal and vegetal, vitalism or morbidity.




(originally written by Stefan Herbrechter for the SLSA in Riga)

Arguably the central aspect of the poststructuralist legacy is a certain “ontological” understanding of “textuality”. It is impossible to clearly distinguish between the text and the world, since there is no “outside-text” (cf. Derrida’s often misunderstood “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”). Most posthumanisms, however, have had very little time for this generalized notion of textuality, and, instead, focused on all sorts of “real” posthumanising transformations through technology and biology. Our aim is to show that posthumanism’s lack of interest in textuality is short-sighted. A critical rereading of “textuality” might prove useful in strengthening the position of posthumanist criticism or “critical posthumanism”.

“Text”, as Roland Barthes wrote in “Theory of the Text”, is “the interweaving of a tissue…” It is “in the work, what secures the guarantee of the written object, bringing together its safe-guarding functions”. What derives from this is, on the one hand, a notion of generalized intertextuality or “interweaving” and, on the other, the centrality of the “signifying” or “textual practices” in the human understanding of the world. However, the mixing of metaphors in this understanding of textuality as “tissue” gives rise to at least two possibilities: text-tissue as interlacing fabric, and an “organic” model of tissue/texture. It seems that the “weaving” aspect has become the privileged model of the cultural production of meaning. But what happens if we start taking the second, “organic” analogy, between text and “live” tissue, more seriously, or even “literally”? What if there was, underlying the idea of intertextuality, some “intertissuality” giving rise to our understanding of the text and the world?