Closure for You, Jedermensch ein Übermensch

de Zengotita


         The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes.  "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you.  We have killed him—you and I... But how did we do this?  How could we drink up the sea?  Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?  What were we doing when we unchained the earth from the sun?  Whither are we moving?... Are we not straying through an infinite nothing?  Do you not feel the breath of empty space?  Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?  Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?  Gods, too, decompose.  God is dead... And we have killed him. 
         How shall we comfort ourselves...?  What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?  Is not the greatness of the deed too great for us?  Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"

                                                                                      - Nietzsche


K, you want closure?  Wrap yourself in this:

What would Nietzsche have to say about cloning if he were alive today?  It's hard to know, but one thing's for sure; he would not be noodling around on the practical margins, he would not allow experts to reduce this fabulous eventuality to mere policy.  He would plunge straight to the metaphysical heart of the matter, to the delicious and terrible dilemmas that cluster around the possibility of self-replication. 

And so will we, because one way to interpret this account of mediation I have offered is to say that we have now realized—but democratically—the concept of the Overman, the Übermensch.  That Olympian figure was to earn his standing by dint of self-overcoming, you may recall.  That meant self-creation.  Nietzsche thought of this as the most demanding of all projects, to be undertaken only by the rarest and greatest spirits in history.  But the enterprise of self-construction turned out to belong to everybody. 

Nietzsche thought a lot about how the herd was flattered by its shepherds, but even he couldn't foresee the extent of that flattery's effects or the technological modalities of it's expression.  The possibility of cloning yourself is the ultimate representational achievement, the archetype of simulation, the final form of flattery. 

That's the context for thinking about the possibility of cloning.  And let's not forget that the human genome project is coming to fruition at the same time, as if scheduled by Sophocles.  The information technology we call genetic engineering is opening up fabulous new options for the single parent of tomorrow. 

How conveniently the term stands ready to assume its full meaning! Nietzsche might have helped us understand cloning as the ecstatic realization of a destiny.  Maybe we should welcome this as the defining triumph of the mediated self.  "God is dead" would sum it up just right if you considered the whole sweep of the enterprise of self-construction culminating in literal self-(re)construction through cloning and genetic engineering.  Self-Help on a divine scale.  If I hadn't already said I didn't trust the idea of huge unfolding historical patterns anymore, I'd be mighty tempted to see this as a logical outcome, the climactic fulfillment of modernity's essential aim: replacing God with Me.  You want a Monster Vision?  Here. 

The aim of modernity fulfilled means this: humanly created options that endow ordinary people with entitlements no mortal in history, no matter how exalted, could ever have assumed before.  While these entitlements are now limited to a relative and privileged few, this cohort already comprises many millions, shows every indication of expanding, and is, in any case, the source of the global Zeitgeist.  Members of this cohort can take for granted, or realistically anticipate, the obliteration of all barriers of time and space, instant access to every text and image ever made, the free exercise of any life style or belief system that does not infringe on the choices of others, custom-made environments, commodities, and experiences in every department of their activity, multiple enhancements of mind and body, the eradication of disease, the postponement of death, and the manufacture of their progeny in their own image. Plus improvements.

How could we not think of divinity in the presence of such powers?  If we refuse the description because God does not seem to us to be playing a prominent role at this climactic moment, aren’t we collaborating with a repression of the obvious?  If our usurpation of God's role is in fact the climax of the modern story is it surprising that we would want to keep it quiet?  We resist religious literalisms for obvious reasons, but their resurgence among us, all over the world, is certainly a response to the situation as I am describing it—and we ignore that at our peril.   God, in His various forms, has been obliged by our silence to make a last stand among fundamentalist refuseniks clinging to anchors no longer grounded in anything but willful blindness, compulsive ritual, and totalitarian discipline.  But where else could God go after He was—not expelled, but counseled out, shall we say—by modern humanists?  The whole transaction had to be discreetly handled, a manifold of dissimulations crafted to disguise our assumption of His responsibilities—you know, creating life, creating human beings, stuff like that.  The trick has been to leave that whole topic off the table and concentrate on practical issues, health and environment issues, instead of the "issue," in the original sense of the word, instead of what it means for us to be creating life forms like goats that give milk that turns to spinnable silk because they've had spider genes implanted in them. 

It helps a lot if the only people talking about this development—modernity in general, cloning in particular—in terms of displacing or replacing God are, well, you know, them, those fundamentalists.  That could be why you might not want to think about things in these terms.  Nietzsche did, though, and that's good enough for me.  He understood that you don't have to believe in God in order to recognize Him as a major historical player. Unmasking power, exposing its various guises, especially the humble ones—that was Nietzsche's mission.  And the power of the flattered self at the center of the field of representations in this mediated age has been very effectively disguised.  Look, it could always say, I don't have power, it's them, the rich and famous ones, those corporations, those prime ministers and presidents, look over there, don't look at me.

But let's consult some more established Big Thinkers on this issue, besides Nietzsche.  Here's a little gem from the one who first gave us the modern self, in its purest form:

Now, if I were independent of all other existence, and were myself the author of my being... I should have given myself all those perfections of which I have some idea, and I should thus be God.

- Descartes

Now Descartes was highlighting his imperfections in this passage.  He was denying himself divinity.  His deficiencies were to be the premise for a logical proof of God's existence.  But—like Locke with his fantasies about adjustable eyeballs—Descartes was flirting with a possibility.  After all, he had just called the existence of his own consciousness the only thing of which he could be absolutely certain, the one thing he couldn't doubt. He had discovered that his mind continued to exist in the very effort to doubt it. 

And he was about to show that everything outside his mind, outside his subjective experience, trees and tables, other people, his own body—even God—had to be derived by argument from his own mental existence.
So, right off the bat, we've got the human self in a pretty central position.

And, in other contexts, when God wasn't immediately on his mind, Descartes was eager to promote a standing for humanity that resonates like a call to arms.  For example, when he called for

...a practical which, knowing the power and the effects of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us, as distinctly as we know the various trades of our craftsmen, we might put them in the same way to all the uses for which they are appropriate, and thereby make ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature.

"As it were?"


Or there's the concluding paragraph of Discourse on Method, the archetype of modern self-help books.  Descartes there commits himself to the exclusive study of medicine, on the basis of his method, and hints at a cure for death. 

Stuff like that.  Lots of it.  Right from the beginning of the modern adventure.  Like Locke, Descartes could not explicitly countenance the implication, but it was definitely there.  He had to know at some level.  When educated people think of modernity, they think of technology, first of all, and then of individualism (human rights, free enterprise), and also of secularization—the separation of church and state, the decline of medieval institutions.  And they are right to do so.  But these features of modernity worked together, as aspects of a single historical development.  Cloning and genetic engineering, regarded as the crowning synthesis of that development, reveal the underlying unity.  They constitute the ultimate in mediation—life forms express a code, after all, and, with genetic engineering, living creatures become the screens that display our designs.

Let's coin a term.  "Proprietorial humanism"—to contrast with Renaissance humanism, the kind they introduce in High School history—Erasmus and Da Vinci and so on.  Renaissance humanism took Classical antiquity as a model in order to leverage itself out of the Middle Ages.  That's the basic storyline.  What I'm calling proprietorial humanism emerged later, in the 17th century, as moderns decided they had surpassed the ancients by dint of achievements in what they called the “useful arts”—that is technology and all it's applications. 

Effects of technology on material nature have always been obvious.  Some metaphorical extensions are also obvious—the machinery of government, things like that.  But other influences were subtler.  They shaped the way the rising middle classes, the historical agents of modernity, conceived of themselves.  They called themselves the “productive classes” to sharpen the political contrast with aristocracies.  They were thinking of products of industry in the usual sense, but the term can be revealingly extended—modern persons and societies were also products.  That's the essential point to grasp. 

Here's the beginning of a list:  the French Republic, the Ford Motor company, Teddy Roosevelt....  Here's the beginning of another:  The New Britain, Google, Governor Arnold...  You could extend the lists indefinitely.  Your grandparents probably belong on the first list.  You probably belong on the second.  And what a difference between the lists.  Those hoary old industrial-age constructs feel as solid as the Rocky Mountains compared to the hyper-fabrications of our time. 

This book has mostly been about the difference between the two lists.  But notice that the entities on both lists were consciously designed.  Compared to medieval or tribal institutions and persons, they have this in common:  they are all fabrications.  Products.

These products vary enormously, of course.  The French Republic of 1792 was not the Weimar Republic of 1921.  The bohemian aesthete of the late 19th century was not a captain of industry, but he might have been his brother. 

What makes all the variants modern (and, later, postmodern) is this: using raw materials of nature and historical circumstance, people undertook to fashion themselves in accordance with their own designs—through politics and education, fashion, manners, psychology, through enterprises of all kinds.  People began to make themselves as they remade the world.  And these self-made people and their projects flourished, succeeded—they just took over.

That is the essence of proprietorial humanism.  The reflexivity and self-construction we have been talking about throughout this book begins here.  Popular expressions that reflect that origin have always shaped our public culture—Make Something of Yourself, the American Dream, the Better Tomorrow.

But we can get a deeper grip on why the word “proprietorial" is so apt a description, and on why cloning and genetic engineering realize the concept.

Let's return to John Locke, this time to consider some ideas he is known for.  Brief excerpts only, but every word counts:

The mind as it left the "hand of nature," is a tabula rasa, a blank slate or "white paper" or "empty cabinet"      

...all the Straw, Bran, the Effect of Labor...Nature and Earth furnished only the almost worthless materials...

He that is nourished by the Acorns he pickt up...when did they begin to be his? When he digested?...Or when he boiled?...if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could.

For Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker...they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are... 

The first three claims were Locke’s most influential.  Founders of modern institutions from Sieyes to Jefferson had them specifically in mind when they did their constituting work.  Anyone who takes a survey course on Western thought is exposed to them.  The blank slate doctrine justified scientific method and progressive education.  The labor theory of value made property a natural right—not something kings and lords could claim by hereditary right, but something the productive classes earned. 

The fourth selection only matters today to specialists interested in Locke's religious beliefs.  But it was the foundation of the whole enterprise for Locke.

In his attack on absolute monarchy, Locke depended upon this premise: human beings have a natural (God-given) right to preserve themselves.  They are free to do whatever serves that purpose as long as the same right is respected in others.  Most substantially, their human labor, which gives value to the almost worthless raw materials of nature as it transforms them into useful goods, also gives title to those goods.  Thus were a parasitic monarchy and nobility disenfranchised, and the productive classes given their due. 

See how the fourth selection provides the foundational analogy?  The human right to property mirrors God's ownership of His human creatures, who were His Workmanship. 

Everything follows from that.  All the rights and duties Locke attributed to persons he discovered in them as products of the Maker.  He figured out how God intended human beings to live the way you might figure out how some gadget works.  There was undeniable evidence of functional design in our physical nature, after all—from the eyeball, to the hand, to the physiognomy of the sexes.  Don't forget, Locke had no concept of evolution or natural selection to account for that.  The Maker's designs were evident in the human products of His Workmanship, in his human properties—and Locke took it from the physical to the political and ethical on that basis.  He says murder is wrong because it is robbery of God; likewise, suicide and slavery.  The right to life and liberty, the right to make laws and elect representatives—all the rights and duties that defined the modern political landscape were derived, in Locke's mind, from our obligation to preserve the Maker’s human creatures.  Politicians would hold such truths to be self-evident because inalienable rights were given to us the way hearts and feet and teeth were given to us.  By our Maker. 

That's the core of Locke's political philosophy.  And it was accepted—more than accepted—it was taken for granted by educated early moderns.  But, in another classic text (The Essay on Human Understanding), focusing on abstruse epistemological matters, Locke declared that the human mind, the defining characteristic of the human being, left the hand of nature—as a tabula rasa.

Oh, fateful seed.

Locke never let himself see the consequences of combining his political and epistemological premises.  But think about it in light of the four selections just cited.  Locke was opening up the most fabulous investment and development opportunity of all time.  The tabula rasa of human nature was an uncultivated and unimproved piece of raw material of an entirely new order, and the human analogs of the divine Maker were quick to seize upon it.  The improvement of humanity itself, the labor of civilization, would become the first aim of modern progress.

Moderns pursued the project of progress into every natural space and cultural arena.  And the more extensively and elaborately they labored, the more everything in the world became manmade.  It just did.  That's just a fact.  And what was not—the forests, the heavens, the depths of the sea—was frontier, molded in the aspiration of the map.  And similarly for one's own potential, and for children, and for the lower orders, and for savages—these were also raw materials for the project.  Whatever was not yet consciously designed and governed was marked for improvement, or simply for using.  The process of modernizing, in all its detail and variety, over the whole course of those astounding centuries, was a process of fabrication through which moderns took over the Maker’s role.

And title to ownership was accordingly transferred.

By the mid 19th century, in the shadow of Malthus and Darwin, the implicit aim was made explicit.  Modernity's hidden agenda surfaced.  For Marx, "the whole of what is called world history is nothing more than the creation of man through human labor, and the development of nature for man" which provides "a palpable and incontrovertible proof of his self-mediated [Marx' usage] birth" and renders "an alien being, a being above nature and man...impossible in practice." 

The founder of positivism was even more explicit.  Comte went beyond exposing God's irrelevance.  He established a religion, with ritual and liturgy, an active church, the Church of Positivism—whose members worshipped Humanity, the "only true Great Being." 

With Nietzsche, the death of God was formally announced and the figure of the Overman—the one who makes himself—appears on the horizon, hailed in terms that leave no doubt as to his standing. 

God died slowly.  He was not executed on a given horrific day.  As the status of Maker fell more and more to those who actually made the settings that constituted people's lives, God simply evaporated.  He could not sustain Himself as the subject of a world that no longer displayed His designs.  At the most comprehensive level, this giant phenomenological fact is what accounts for the retreat of religion to the realm of private belief and practice under the regime of  modernity.

And it's public reemergence in the postmodern context?  Well, that's the next book.

What applies to the settings in which we live applies also, and more essentially, to our selves.  As we become authors of our being, the proprietorial entitlement followed.  Across the whole spectrum of the means and ends by which moderns have practiced self-government, socially and individually, since the 17th century, they have been realizing (as in "making real") the connection between secularization, the rise of technology, and the emergence of the modern individual—the Self-Maker, the Self-Owner.  This book has focused on how much more extensive, various, and malleable self-ownership becomes as representations and options multiplied with the rise of mediation—but such are the roots.

With just that much perspective, genetic engineering and cloning appear as the fulfillment of a destiny.  Literal human self-making is obviously continuous with the whole process of modern fabrication, but, with the focus on the theme of God, it looks more than continuous—it looks climactic.   And this holds no matter how you evaluate it, no matter how secular your convictions are.  You might see it, with Lee Silver, as a triumph, a breakthrough in our noble quest to liberate humanity from accidents of nature.  You might welcome it, in the manner of Donna Haraway, because it liberates us from categories like "natural" and "human."  Or you might see it, as Husserl or Heidegger would have, surely—as the ultimate technological abomination. 

The story I just outlined accommodates all these evaluations, and more besides.

Obviously, a clone of you, improved or not, wouldn't literally be you, wouldn't have the same consciousness, experiences, memories.  People realize this, but that doesn't smother the frisson of taboo evoked by the idea of self-replication, the rapture and horror of a narcissism intensified to the point of incestuous implosion.  For the questions that hover at the edge of every mind that even glances toward a future populated by our virtual progeny living in virtual worlds, the questions that haunts this prospect at its moral limits, the questions Nietzsche would have seized upon immediately, are these: 

What would it be like to gaze into your own eyes?  What would it be like to caress and comfort, to love and care for, a clone of yourself?  To kiss a person who looks exactly like you did thirty years ago?  It would be as if the impossible solipsism of Descartes' original meditations were being acted out in the flesh.  And then there's the whole question of giving yourself "all those perfections" Descartes mentioned, and so becoming the "author" of your being. 

What would it be like to endow a clone of yourself with a few extras—an ear for music, an eye for color, a talent for languages, not to mention those few extra inches that make all the difference?  And then, having given yourself what you were missing, what would it be like to raise and educate yourself as you deserve?  Well, some of us are going to find out.  Bank on it.  It's a destiny.  Parental pride at school concerts will take on a whole new dimension.  And imagine those soccer games.


Thomas de Zengotita is a contributing editor at Harper's and the Nation, and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University.  He teaches at the Dalton School and at the Draper Graduate Program at NYU.  This article is based on a chapter from his forthcoming book, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live, by Bloomsbury.