Bioethics Otherwise, or, How to Live with Machines, Humans, and Other Animals

Zylinska, Joanna. 2011. Bioethics Otherwise, or, How to Live with Machines, Humans, and Other Animals. In: Tom Cohen, ed. Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, v. 1. 1 Open Humanities Press, pp. 203-225. ISBN 978-1-60785-237-7 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

How can the human speak in the shadow of the post-humanist critique? This essay arises out of a prolonged moment of doubt, a cognitive and affective confusion over the ontology and status of what goes under the name of “man.” Now, that confusion is of course nothing new. It has been inherent to the disciplinary inquiry within the humanities conducted under the aegis of philosophical positions broadly associated with post-structuralism over the last few decades. The early twenty-first century attempts on the part of humanities scholars to turn to a more serious engagement with those hard sciences that deal with different human parts and particles – anatomy, neurology, genetics – have contributed even further to this uncertainty, as has the discovery that the typical signal points of the human such as language, tool use, culture (or “leaving traces”), and emotions are to be found across the species barrier. Rather than aim at ascertaining the identity of the human/non-human animal, in all its biodigital configurations, what I am predominantly concerned with in this essay is discussing how this transformed understanding of the human can help us not only think better about ourselves and others who may or may not be like us, but also live better with others - machines, humans, and other animals. The emphasis in this investigation falls on the pragmatics of the “how” as much as on the nature of that “we.” My focus here is therefore primarily ethical rather than ontological. And yet the very inquiry into ways of living a good life must be accompanied by the assessment not only of who will do the living but also of who will be involved in the process of judging its goodness, and in structuring a theoretical discourse around our biological and political forms of existence.

In a certain sense this essay is an attempt to return to the human “after the cyborg.” This attempt is underpinned by an intellectual and, dare I say it, personal imperative to find a way out of what I see as the posthumanist impasse of some strands of contemporary cultural theory, whereby the widespread acceptance of the notions of transhuman relationality, interspecies kinship, and machinic becoming by many humanities scholars seems to have diminished the need for a more rigorous interrogation of the singularity of trans-species and intra-species difference. It is thus armed with doubt and singularity as my analytical tools, coupled with the intransigent use of the “I” pronoun which simultaneously undermines and reasserts the humanist pretence of this piece of writing, that I set out to explore these issues. Obviously, there is also a possibility that this posthuman, all-too-human interrogation is just another exercise in narcissism, a desperate attempt to return to the self and hang on to a fantasy of human exceptionalism. In this context, Jacques Derrida’s query, “Is there animal narcissism?,” becomes something of an accusation, aimed perhaps at those of us who are still obsessed by Descartes’ question: “But as for me, who am I?.”

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Book Section

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Media, Communications and Cultural Studies



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Date Deposited:

14 Oct 2011 08:42

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 15:50


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