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?"
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
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.
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
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
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
philosophy...by 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
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
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
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, Bread...is worth...is the Effect
of Labor...Nature and Earth furnished only the almost
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
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
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
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
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
The story I just outlined accommodates all these
evaluations, and more besides.
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,
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
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.
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.