The Genetic Bomb: Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer
THE GENETIC BOMB: PAUL VIRILIO & SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER
from the Psychomilitary issue
Sylvère Lotringer: More than twenty years ago you warned against the militarization of knowledge. At first mobilized to protect humanity, science is now in the process of destroying it.
Paul Virilio: For fifty years now – but those of our generation know it well – we have been witnessing the militarization of knowledge. Not simply with Nobel prize-winning scientists involved in the Vietnam War, but in all research we’ve seen it. The fruit of this is the three bombs: the atomic bomb, the cyber bomb – we know where the internet comes from – and now finally the genetic bomb which is in the works: they are all the fruit of this militarization of science. That’s why I was able to speak of the ‘politics of the worst’* today with regard to cybernetics.
SL: It all follows logically from what we had developed in Pure War.*
PV: Yes, unfortunately. Still I recall that this desire goes back to the Futurists and thus to fascism. You would have to reread Marinetti. We must not in any case forget what he says about bodies: he says that the body must be nourished on energy, nourished on technology, etc. Marinetti is a prophet of fascism, not only the fascism of Mussolini but also the eugenic fascism of Mengele. And he foresaw it. Futurism foresaw internal flesh-eating prostheses, the revolution of transplants, technology inserted on the inside of the body, this sort of cannibalism of man which causes him to feed himself on implants such as the pacemaker, all the way to additional memory, to microchips, and incorporated telephones.
SL: That is the first offensive. The other offensive is not to penetrate a body that is already there, but to construct one.
PV: The other aspect is genesis, the possibility of the industrialization of the living being, the industrialization of the species itself. It will no longer be a question of the eugenics of relative performance, Galton’s eugenics of artificial selection, or Mengele’s for that matter. It will be a question of informational selection. In effect, one would go right to a total, an absolute eugenics, a eugenics of the perfecting of creation itself.
SL: It is no longer a modification of the body according to selection criteria we label ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ – eliminating the handicapped or reinforcing the carriers of good genes – but a programming, pure and simple. They produce a new human object from nothing.
PV: In that case, it is the program that would be the essential and not the culture. In my opinion, artificial selection and informational selection cannot be separated because I believe that both are quite simply aberrations. Behind them, there is obviously the idea of an improved humanity, not to mention a post-humanity. You can imagine human species no longer the human species in the singular, but human species in the plural.
SL: By altering the map of the human genome, you could create highperformance men, but also under-men.
PV: Behind the idea of the super-man, Galton’s idea that was taken up by Mengele, there is inevitably the idea of the under-man.
SL: The idea of the under-man did not have to wait for the genetic revolution. It’s the history of colonialism.
PV: But this world misfortune was not programmed in a factory. Whereas, in this case, with genome modification, it would be an industrial program as in Terminator. The whole question of the control of the living being is the contraception of the human species.
SL: And that raises again the question of racism…
PV: Or rather of super-racism. The biggest racist knows that there exists a unity of the species. Even the degraded are degraded within the unity of the species. He says ‘inferior,’ but it is a man or a woman. Through all its excesses, its massacres, its horrors, racism remains within the unity of the human species. It is relative to this unity. However, through transgenetic research, through chimeras or hybridization, through eugenics, they have raised the question of multiplying human kinds. The racist was yet preserved from his excess by the fact that there was only one human kind, and different races – blacks, whites, etc. But I am saying that the genetic bomb risks exploding this unity for the multiplicity of the human kind, and then racism will become exponential.
SL: It would be a transhuman racism.
PV: This is transhuman racism, whereas the other was endo-human.
SL: The heterogeneity of races will make the old racism impossible…
PV: …whereas heterogeneity will be a racism beyond the human kind. And that is the unthinkable.
SL: In a sense, that’s what the Nazis had tried to do.
PV: In my view, we cannot advance in the genetic question today without positing the fatal dimension of eugenics. As soon as you create the idea of the super-man, you discredit, you downgrade, you degrade a kind of man. In super-racism you would find all over again the foundations both of colonalism and of racism and of xenophobia, but on a cosmic level I would say – hence the idea that the extra-human is the future of the extra-terrestrial. And that the search for little green men was not at all science fiction, but the forerunner of the search for a superior man. Simply, since nobody dared to be part of Nazi eugenics, we went to outer-space and opted for little green men.
SL: William Burroughs saw in genetic engineering the possibility of bringing about a final ecological leap into space. Science fiction pioneers, too.
PV: It pioneers. It opens something, which has more to do with the human than the extra-human. I believe that the plurality of humankind is an unthinkable thing. In other words, it will be necessary to think the unthinkable, that is, make the jump beyond ethics. And we know that they made this jump at Auschwitz.
SL: The Nazi doctors made genetic research something that no longer had anything to do with knowledge.
PV: We can indeed ask ourselves whether genetics is still a science, or whether it is an art. If you answer that it’s an art, then we entertain the possibility of creating kinds, or styles. The human kind becomes the product of a creator. But this time, it is no longer the creator who is the cause. It’s Monsanto, or Novartice, that does the programming…
SL: If it’s art, it’s a mutant art…
PV: Exactly. There is an esthetic dimension to the camps, which was voluntary, which was part of Aryanism. I am thinking of the Viennese Actionists, or certain forms of art today like the ‘Sensation’ exhibition in London, or Gunther von Hagens’ exhibition in the Museum of Work in Mannheimm, where he presented plastified bodies, cadavers of living beings sculpted in a surrealist manner, etc.
SL: In both cases, in the camps as in the galleries, the border between art and science disappears.
PV: It’s the same logic. Genetics would become an art, a genetic art, an expressionist art, which would favor the multiplicity of humankind. The idea that in laboratories one would create – I’m exaggerating – impressionist living beings, or pointillist, or cubist, etc., all the way to genetic operas. In other words, something from fashion. Fashion is becoming a living phenomenon, and we know that fashion goes out of fashion. Here we are touching on the mutation of humankind.
SL: It will no longer be esthetic surgery, since they will no longer conform to a predetermined model. It will be genetic esthetics. They will create new species the way they present a new collection.
PV: Right, there will be chimeras, and then there will be hybrids, which we have already seen in the research on cow ova, that is, the centaur or minotaur research.
SL: Science will give birth to monsters, and they will be works of art.
PV: Yes. In my opinion, if you look at what is happening in contemporary art, they are at the point of considering genetics and cloning to be an art form. That is, a form of the liberty of expression. Or does the liberty of expression stop in the domain of the sciences? If it doesn’t stop, Mengele will be a prophet… We’re at the limit. This is total delirium. This delirium is comparable to the frenzy of atomic research. The third bomb is the search for the genetic bomb.
SL: The phrase is Einstein’s, I believe.
PV: Yes. Einstein recognized three bombs: the atomic bomb, the cyber bomb, and the genetic bomb. And here we are faced with delirium. The atomic bomb has been a delirium, which we have not been able to leave behind. Then they set off the second frenzy, the cyber bomb, the bomb of information. And now the third bomb, which is beginning, the third delirium, Einstein called it the demographic bomb, but it goes without saying that the demographic bomb is tied to the genetic bomb. It is possible to think that this research is in fact being done to counter demographics, that is, to introduce an under-species and a super-species.
SL: What does this have to say about the function of art in relation to science?
PV: Art is initiatory. Pointillism is already an analysis of light. The Impressionists did cloning too – Monet’s series. The art of these periods, it’s prophetic somehow. I don’t know if it is still the case today, but certainly since Romanticism, since the 18th and 19th centuries in any case, the arts have been, in the profane sense of the word, prophetic of political mutations. One can say that in some way the arts had a role comparable to religion and philosophy, but the role of art was not to put on trial the way philosophy and religion did; the role of art was to announce prophetically what was happening. I think Romanticism as well as Surrealism announced as much. I recall that Surrealism is born after WWI and is sort of the child of the war, whereas Futurism straddles WWI: it is 1910, so just before. But between Futurism and Surrealism, the prophecy of modern times, the period we are talking about, passes through Kafka, who is the profane prophet par excellence, the prophet of extermination. Because somehow it is the question of extermination which is raised. Extermination has been undertaken over and over since the 19th century. There was the extermination of the concentration camps, Auschwitz; there has been the atomic extermination, Hiroshima. And now with the genetic bomb there is once again the possibility of another type of extermination in the works.
SL: Presented as a positive thing.
PV: Yes, presented as positive. We would have not only control over birth, or contraception, but also control over the living being.
SL: But it’s not all negative. As people have proposed, it’s possible that an ‘improved’ agriculture could prevent famines in the Third World, that we could replace coal and oil by renewable resources produced by micro-organisms and plants…
PV: This is always the case. Good and evil cannot be separated. That’s why Aesop’s phrase is still the best. When people ask me what I think of computer science and the cyber bomb and cybernetics and cyberspace, etc., I answer with the same phrase that Aesop did: What is the best of things? Computer science. What is the worst of things? Computer science. Today we are faced with a kind of slack-jawed optimism with respect to new technologies, which is for me perhaps the latest conformism. Good and evil tend to be replaced by optimism. Optimism is good, and pessimism is evil. It’s an academic form of ethics. It is thus academic and media-friendly, I would say. And a thinker cannot be an optimist. That’s why I said a minute ago that genetics is the best and the worst. Obviously, the possibilities of control over the book of life, of decoding the human genome, can promote treatments for the sick. But we know very well that those techniques invented for the treatment of the sick are quickly turned towards the treatment of those in perfect health [laughter]. We know that. For example, you can see it happening with Viagra. Viagra is for the impotent. Do you really think that those who are taking it are impotent? Of course not! It’s a stimulant. So we have the same thing every time we invent a technology. Its aspects are always presented in a positive light, an optimistic light, but they mask the negative dimensions. But you can’t mask it! We’re living in a double bind. Technology is a double bind. There is no progress without progress of the catastrophe. At the beginning we invent a new technology, and at the end, well, we render natural seeds sterile to make money.
SL: You think we’re heading for catastrophe?
PV: I think the genetic bomb has an apocalyptic dimension to it. The three bombs, moreover, together have an apocalyptic dimension. Not the end of the world, but extermination in the broad sense. You know, contrary to what people think of me, I am not a thinker of the excess. I try to be a kind of periscope of probable catastrophes. What I believe is that these three bombs are developing in parallel. This catastrophic triptych is preparing a universal accident, a total accident whose dimension we cannot even imagine. Each time we invent a technology, whether electronic or biogenetic, we program a catastrophe and an accident that we cannot imagine. When we invented electricity, we didn’t imagine Chernobyl. So, in the research on the living being, on the book of life, we cannot imagine the nature of the catastrophe. We can imagine a monster, OK, but artists have been imagining that since Breughel and Bosch. Since Bosch, the search and programming for monsters has already taken place. I, for my part, believe that the total catastrophe, which these three bombs are programming, is the accident of science. It is no longer science that programs the accidents; it is science that is going to have a permanent accident. You see? The accident of science is that science is going to destroy itself. I believe that just as there was an accident of politics, so to speak, in the 20th century – and what an accident, otherwise we will understand nothing about Auschwitz and the Shoah – so at this very moment an accident of science and knowledge, whose consequences we cannot imagine, is being programmed. The cyber bomb and the genetic bomb are ripe, as they say, pregnant, the two of them, with a scientific catastrophe which we cannot imagine because it is perhaps the catastrophe of science itself.
SL: The genetic manipulation of the human is the accident of science.
PV: In a certain way, the accident of science is an accident that has not yet taken place, even if we can say that the labs – I mean the labs, not extermination, not the gas chambers – the labs at Auschwitz-Birkenau were the prefiguration of this accident. Auschwitz was not only a crime against humanity; it is the beginning of the accident of science. But that drags in the question of art.
SL: What you call the Nazi esthetic, it is not the grandiose one that they have shown in museums or erected as monuments; it is the one that they practised in secret in the labs.
PV: Yes, that is what I call, citing Camus, a pitiless art.
SL: To sum up, what we don’t realize is that everyone is in the process of becoming Nazi in a new way.
PV: Auschwitz-Birkenau – and you have to say Auschwitz-Birkenau – was the prefiguration of what is happening today with transgenetics. The extermination camps – not the concentration camps, they had those in Australia for the indigenous peoples – have been the biggest genetic laboratories of the period. The whole thing enriched the big pharmaceutical labs and enriched science itself. And it is not by accident that ‘twin birth’ was at the center of this research.
SL: The Shoah would thus be not an event that separates from what went before, but the contrary: a way to follow…
PV: It’s a prefiguration. The Shoah is not an end but the beginning. A book by Ernst Klee which just appeared, on the role of doctors in the development of pharmaceutical complexes today, shows to what extent the development of research on man today leads no longer to experiments on man, to human experimentation, as was the case with the Mengele twins, but to man-experiments. No longer experiments on man, but man-experiments. The freedom of expression to produce a man, to create him, no longer to procreate him. We see there the religious dimension of the divinization of the scientist: the demiurge. I believe that we are leaving biology behind to enter the realm of teratology, that is, the creation of monsters.
SL: Monsters that would be men.
PV: Monsters that would be men, that would be living beings. And there, teratology becomes an expressionist form of art, an expressionist form of science as art, of genetic science as art.
SL: They have already grafted a human ear on the back of a mouse, produced ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’ athletic pigs with chicken genes… If this kind of experimentation is possible, we are already in the process of pursuing it in a certain way.
PV: I’m convinced of it. Who would dare claim that hybrids and human cloning have not begun? When you see what America has done – I say America, but I could just as well say France – when they radiated their own citizens to test the atomic bomb, forty years later now let’s not think that none of this can happen.
Translated by Mike Taormina
* Pure War, by Paul Virilio & Sylvère Lotringer, was published in 1983 by Semiotext(e), Inc. in New York and Politics of the Very Worst in 1998.
This is an excerpt from Crepuscular Dawn (New York: Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press, 2002), a book-length dialogue between Paul Virilio & Sylvère Lotringer.