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Re: <nettime> frazzled bio art digest [thacker, crowley]
Benjamin Geer on Sun, 19 Jan 2003 22:35:18 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> frazzled bio art digest [thacker, crowley]

On Fri, 17 Jan 2003 13:45:37 -0500, Eugene Thacker wrote:
> bioart often eschews ethical
> considerations in favor of technical ones.  Anyone will admit
> that learning how to work the automatic sequencing machine
> is cool, but it is worthwhile to reflect on it a little. The
> old question *can I do this* versus *should I do
> this* is worth reconsidering in the context of bioart
> practices as art practices.

I would like to ask, first, why biotech (like bioart) sometimes 
seems to 'eschew ethical considerations', and second, why many 
people react with horror and revulsion to some of what is being 
done in the field of genetic engineering (and subsequently 
appropriated by artists).

In 'On Violence' 
Shierry Nicholsen identifies 'groupthink' as a mechanism that 
inhibits ethical reflection.  She quotes the scientist Robert 
Wilson, who was involved in developing the atomic bomb at Los 
Alamos, and who said afterwards:

  I would like to think now, that at the time of the German
  defeat, I would have stopped and taken stock, and thought
  it all over very carefully, and that I would have walked
  a way from Los Alamos at that time.  In terms of everything
  I believed in before and during and after the war, I
  cannot understand why I did not take that act. On the
  other hand, I do not know of a single instance of anyone
  who made that suggestion or who did leave at that
  time.... Our life was directed to do one thing.  It was as
  though we had been programmed to do that and as automatons
  were doing it.

Perhaps a similar type of groupthink is at work today among the 
scientists and artists whose unbounded enthusiasm for biotech 
brushes aside all ethical considerations.

Eugene Thacker writes:

> too often, in the public discourse on
> biotech, political critique slides into moral conservatism.

Thacker argues that this conservatism is based on an idea of 
'something mysterious called "nature"'.  I think there's a 
simpler explanation.

Take the case of the 'humouse' 
an imaginary genetically-engineered part-human, part-mouse 
creature.  Should we be shocked by this idea, even though we 
aren't shocked by traditional hybrid oranges?  If so, why?

I'm sure that there are some people out there (let's call them 
the 'biopunks') for whom the 'humouse' would represent the 
dawning of new Golden Age.  Even if we feel that the 'humouse' 
in an abhorrent prospect, I suspect that most of us don't 
believe we have a rock-solid ethical system covering these 
issues, which would enable us to argue decisively against the 
biopunks.  At the same time, we're pretty sure that they don't 
have such a system, either.  Our moral conservatism could 
therefore be seen as a sort of ethical 'precautionary 
principle': don't do something if you have no way of evaluating 
the potential consequences.

At the same time, I think it's likely that our revulsion stems 
from a specific ethical position.  Inasmuch as the hypothetical 
'humouse' involves humanity, we might see it as a violation of 
Kant's Formula of Humanity, which enjoins us to treat each 
person always as an end, and never merely as a means.  It is 
useful to compare our discomfort regarding the 'humouse' with 
our feelings about slavery.  A slave is treated merely as a 
means, but at least the slave can hope to escape slavery.  The 
'humouse' would seem condemned from birth, *by its very nature*, 
to be only a means.  This is perhaps why the creation of such a 
creature seems even more ghastly than slavery.

However, if that's the case, what accounts for our queasiness 
about genetic engineering involving only non-human animals?  Why 
shouldn't a bio-artist create, say, a 'guitar-monkey', a 
four-legged, living musical instrument, to be played and 
exhibited in art galleries?

As Erica Fudge points out in her book _Animal_, on the one hand, 
in certain contexts, we treat animals as ends (e.g. by 
considering pets to be almost like members of the family), while 
in other contexts, we treat them as means (as food, or as 
subjects of scientific experiments).  Culture (one might say 
'groupthink') has desensitised us to our use of animals as tools 
in certain contexts, but not in others.  When we encounter 
instrumentalisation of animals in a new context, we are 
unprepared.  We are shocked, not only because the geneticist's 
experiment strikes us as horrible, but because it forces us to 
confront the uncomfortable contradictions in our existing, 
age-old treatment of animals.


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