When going about our daily lives, the majority of us rarely sit down to think about something so bleak and unpleasant as death. Many of us shudder and cringe at even the slightest mention of the word whose meaning has, for the most part, remained unchanged throughout time. The word "death" carries with it a mysterious, depressing, and terrifying aura filled with unimaginable pains, horrors, and darkness. We would much rather talk about life and all of the bright opportunities we are given, the joys we experience, and the wonders of human achievement and valor we witness. Our emphasis on the importance of living has consequently created in us a fear and unwelcoming attitude towards death, which is seen as an antithesis of life itself. Biomedicine and technological advances have provided us with the tools and knowledge necessary to fight infectious diseases and thus live longer healthier lives, but they have also embedded in us the notion that we should not just want to live longer, but that we should want to live forever. Any doubts we may have on our ability to "freeze eternity" (Lafontaine, 306) and live forever young are immediately bludgeoned by society's reassurance that not only is immortality possible, but that it is our right and responsibility to conquer death.
Above is an image taken from a website on the evolution of technology (http://www.swictech.com/artificial-intelligence-and-inkling.html). The image shows a half-woman/half-robot hybrid whose missing midriff exposes lose ends of metal wires and gizmos. The "woman" in the picture is a classic example of what one might typically imagine if man were to meet machine - the birth of a human robot. The image of a human robot (better yet, the idea itself of the possibility of a human robot) was unimaginable and seemingly impossible for past generations, yet today, it is easily accepted as feasible and for some, an expected outcome of our continually advancing technoscience. Newly obtained scientific (or shall we say pseudo-scientific?) knowledge of the possibility of prolonging life by eliminating death has absorbed the minds of many individuals within society. Mortality, which was once seen as an unwelcomed yet inevitable natural process in life, has now become the "motivation to find a biomedical arsenal to fight death and extend life" (Lafontaine, 299). Unlike past generations, modern societies have "[deconstructed] death into a series of physiological stages" (Lafontaine, 299) that can be separated into differentiated forms of death - that is, functional death (loss of function in one or more organs), clinical death (loss of function in the entire body), and elementary death (loss of function in cells of all tissues). This deconstruction of death holds implications for the shifting meaning of not only bodily health, but of identity and self as well. As we frantically chase after the idea of reengineering our bodies to fit in the technology-obsessed world in which we live, we fail to realize that biopolitics, implemented as "a new form of social control" (Lafontaine, 300), has been manipulating our minds and bodies to change and control the power we have (or used to have) over our own identities.
The life extension movement that we have become so absorbed in reveals much about our peceptions of human perfectibility. As Celine Lafontaine states in her reading titled "The Postmortal Conditon", "postmodern society is characterized by the belief in perfectibility itself" (Lafontaine, 301). According to science, aging and death are seen as accidental effects of natural selection (Lafontaine, 300) and must thus be reversed or buffered. Health would consequently need to be promoted and delivered in order to help people prolong life and ultimately cheat death. This growing emphasis on the need to optimize human capacities through the eradication of aging has led many to fear the dangerously thin line between "necessary care and performance-based medicine" (Lafontaine, 302). This concern however does not seem to have any effect on technoscience and nanomedicine, which reassures the public that "the much-awaited technological revolution will be a salvation, since it carries the hope of an existence spared at long last from illness and death" (Lafontaine, 305). The decision of whether or not such a revolution is truly a "salvation" should not be up to those who have created its existence in the first place. The meaning and value of life begin to change as attitudes and approaches to death begin to shift towards a more clinical and medicalized understanding of again within the body. According to biotechnology, an individual undergoing aging is seen to represent a "temporarily depotentialized life, awaiting its future resuscitation" (Cooper, 8).
The field of regenerative medicine claims that its goal is to "protect the old and promote growth" (Cooper, 9), but how will the old be protected if current science is using this sort of technology to put an end to the process of aging? Growth is desired, yet continued growth is what leads to aging and eventually death. Promoting growth while shunning aging and death seems to be an ironic gesture since once cannot exist without the absence of the other. Our quest for infinite longevity and obsession with fighting death have blinded us from realizing how we have become puppets in the hands of bioeconomics. We as individuals have "become consumers called upon to make financial investments in extending [our] own lives" (Lafontaine, 309) without even knowing it. As Cooper states, "as the life sciences and their cutting-edge biotechnologies become ever more integrated into the circuits of capital accumulation, it is clear that no appeal to the lost sanctity of human life will protect us from the incursions of the market" (Cooper, 16). This sad, yet undeniable fact is evidence of our inability to better understand the possible consequences of our choices before it is too late. We have allowed ourselves to fall victim to the demands of the market by hastily accepting what science tells us and claims to be true. As technology continues to become more advanced and human knowledge more abundant, I fear for mankind. As I sit here reading articles discussing the pitfalls of biomedicine and technoscience, I cannot help but feel a little grateful that I was not born in an era in which I would have to witness this scientific exploitation at work.
Cooper, Melinda. 2006. “Resuscitations: Stem Cells and the Crisis of Old Age”. Body and Society 12(1): 1-23.
Lafontaine, Celine. 2009. “The Postmortal Condition: From the Biomedical Deconstruction of Death to the Extension of Longevity”. Science as Culture 18(3): 297-312.