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
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
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?
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
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 called for
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 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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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.