Insomnia | Essays

The Final Solution, or The Revenge of the Immortals

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Chris Turner


The final solution is, in fact, our deepest fantasy and the fantasy of our science. A fantasy of immortality by deep-freezing or cryogenics, or by replication and cloning in all its forms.
   The most famous example is obviously Walt Disney in his coffin of liquid nitrogen. But at least he, with his whole body cryogenized, has the prospect of being resurrected whole. Other variants are appearing today which are so many experimental chimeras. In Phoenix, Arizona, for example -- a place predestined for rebirth (from one's ashes) -- only bodiless heads are now cryogenized, since the hope is to resuscitate individuals in their entirety from the brain, regarded as the core of the individual. By contrast with these cephaloid beings, in some laboratories across the Atlantic headless mice and frogs are being cloned, the intention being later to clone headless human beings which will serve to provide substitute organs. Since the head is regarded as the site of consciousness, it is better to manufacture headless creatures, so as to be able freely to use their organs without too many moral and psychological difficulties.
   These are some of the forms of experimental cloning: but there is also cloning -- and hence automatic immortality -- in nature. It lies in the heart of our cells.
   Normally, these cells are destined to divide a certain number of times, then die. If, during these divisions, a disturbance occurs (an impairment of the anti-tumour gene, or of the function of apoptosis), the cell becomes cancerous: it forgets to die, it forgets how to die. It will clone itself in billions of identical copies, forming a tumour. Usually, the subject dies and the cancerous cells die with him. But in the case of Henrietta Lacks, tumour cells removed during her lifetime were grown on in the laboratory, and continued to proliferate endlessly. Because they were particularly virulent, remarkable specimens, these cells were sent to all parts of the world, and even into space on Discoverer 17. Thus the disseminated body of Henrietta Lacks, cloned at the molecular level, continues on its immortal rounds many years after her death.

Something in us is hidden: death. But something else lurks in each of our cells: the act of forgetting to die. Immortality hovers ominously over us. We speak always of the struggle of life against death, not of the opposite danger. But we have to fight against the impossibility of dying. At the least let-up on the part of living beings in their struggle for death -- their struggle for division, sex and otherness -- they become indivisible again, self-identical, and hence immortal.
   Contrary to everything we ordinarily believe, nature first created immortal beings, and it was only by winning the battle for death that we became the living beings that we are. Blindly, we dream of defeating death and achieving immortality, whereas that is our most tragic destiny, a destiny inscribed in the previous life of our cells. It is this we are coming back to today in cloning (Freud's version of the death drive is simply this nostalgia for the unsexed, non-individuated states we knew before becoming mortal and discontinuous -- true death being not so much the physical dissapearance of the individual beings as a regression towards a minimal state of undifferentiated living matter).
   The evolution of the biosphere leads from immortals to mortals. In moving from absolute continuity to the subdivision of the selfsame -- unicellular organisms -- we gradually come closer to birth and death. Then the egg is fertilized by a sperm, and germinal cells specialize out: the organism produced is no longer the one or the other of its progenitors, but a peculiar combination of the two. We have moved from pure and simple reproduction to procreation. For the first time, the first two will die; and, for the first time, the third is born: we are at the stage of mortal, sexed, differentiated beings. The earlier order of viruses, of immortal beings, continues, but henceforth that world of eternal beings is encompassed within the world of mortals. The victory in evolution lies with mortal, discontinuous beings -- with us. But things are not set in stone, and reversion to the earlier state is always possible. Not only in the viral revolt of cells, but in the present colossal undertaking, on the part of living beings themselves, to reconstruct a homogeneous, continuous universe -- a continuum which in this case is artificial, in which, through our technical media and machinery, through our immense system of communications and information, we are building a perfect clone, an identical double of our world, a virtual replica of the world which heralds an endless replication.
   We are currently reproducing and copying the cancer cell's pathological immortality in the individual and the species.
   This is the revenge of the immortal, undifferentiated beings over mortal, sexed beings. It is this we may term the final solution.

After the great revolution in evolution which the coming of sex and death represented, we have before us the great involution -- the involution which, through cloning and any number of other techniques, aims to free us from sex and death. Whereas living matter has done its utmost for millions of years to wrest things out of sameness, to wrench itself out of this kind of primitive entropy and incest, we are currently, through the very process of science, re-creating the conditions for entropy and incest, and working on the disinformation of the species by cancelling out differences.
   Here the question of the destiny of science arises. Does not its very progress lie on a (perverse) curve of evolution which could be said to lead to a total involution? And might not this final solution, towards which we are unconsciously working, be the secret destination of nature, and simultaneously that of all our efforts? This casts an unexpected light on everything we still regard today as a positive development.

The sexual revolution -- the one and only sexual revolution -- is that of the coming of sexuality in the evolution of living beings. The revolution of a duality putting an end to perpetual undividedness, to the perpetuity of the Same and its subdivision to infinity. It is, therefore, also the revolution of death. The opposite movement -- ours -- is the involutive movement of the species back beyond the revolution of the sexual and death. A colossal revisionist movement in the evolution of living matter.
   Seen in this perspective, "sexual liberation" is perfectly ambivalent. For though it seems to run in the same direction as the sexual revolution, of which it might be said to be the crowning glory, it turns out to be completely opposite to that revolution in its effects. The first phase is that of the dissociation of sexual activity from procreation: contraception, the pill, and so on. The second phase, even more fraught with consequences, is the dissociation of reproduction from sex. Sex had liberated itself from reproduction: today, reproduction is liberating itself from sex. Asexual, biotechnical reproduction, running from artificial insemination to full-blown cloning. This, too, is a form of liberation, but it is the complete opposite of the other. We were sexually liberated; now, we are liberated from sex or, in other words, virtually rid of the sexual function. In clones -- and soon in humans too -- sexuality, following upon its total liberation, becomes a useless function. Thus sexual liberation, the self-styled crowning glory of the evolution of sexed beings, marks, in its final consequences, the end of the sexual revolution. There is the same ambguity here as with science. The benefits we had foreseen are inextricably intertwined with the harmful effects, or the perverse side-effects.
   And death? Being linked to sex, it must, in some respects, meet the same fate. There is indeed a liberation of death which is contemporary with sexual liberation. Similarly, we attempt to dissociate life from death -- conserving only life, of course, and making death a useless function which we should be able to do without, just as we can do without sex in reproduction. Deprogramming death as fateful event, as symbolic event, and including it from now on only as virtual reality, as an option, as an alternative in the software of living beings. Like that virtual reality of sex -- cybersex -- which awaits us in the future: as a kind of attraction, so to speak. All these functions which have become useless -- sex, thought, death -- will not disappear purely and simply, but will be recycled as leisure activities. It will be possible to preserve the -- now useless -- human being itself as an ontological attraction -- a new variant of what Hegel called "the self-propelling life of the dead [das sich in sich selbst bewegende Leben des Todes]". From having been a vital function, death will become a luxury, a diversion. In a future civilization from which death has been eliminated, future clones might, perhaps, afford themselves the luxury of death, and become mortals once again in simulated form (cyberdeath).

Nature itself offers us a kind of anticipation of cloning in the form of twins and twinness: a mind-boggling situation of the reduplication of the same, of primitive symmetry, which we escape only by a breaking of -- a break in -- symmetry. But perhaps we have never entirely escaped this. And, with cloning, this hallucination of the twin from which we have never fully managed to separate ourselves might be said to re-emerge, at the same time as the fascination for a sort of archaic incest with this original double (for the dramatic consequences which ensue, see Cronenberg's film Dead Ringers).
   Most of the time this twinness remains symbolic, but when it assumes material form it illustrates the mystery of that undivided separation that lies deep within us all (some have even claimed to find a biological trace of it). Hence, no doubt, the sacred, accursed character of twinness in all cultures and, as its converse, the eternal remorse of individuation. It is, in fact, with this "ontological" break from the twin that individual being begins, and hence the possibility of otherness and a dual relation. Individuated beings we are -- and proud of it -- but somewhere, in an unconscious deeper than the psychological, we have never quite come to terms with this... Do we not still hanker after this double, and -- going even further back -- do we not feel a yearning for all the many fellow beings from which we were wrenched during evolution? Is there not, where all this is concerned, an eternal remorse of individuation?
   A double repentance, in fact, not just the repentance of individual emancipation from the species but, more deeply, sexed living beings repenting of leaving the inorganic realm. This is how it is. Any liberation whatsoever is experienced as anomie and betrayal, and hence as a source of interminable neurosis, more and more serious as we move away from that origin. It is difficult to bear freedom -- difficult, perhaps, to bear life itself as a break with the inorganic chain of matter. This is the revenge of matter, of the species, of the immortal beings we thought we had won over.
   Should we not see this collective phantasm of a return to an undivided existence, to the destiny of undifferentiated living matter, this drift towards an in-different immortality, as the very form of the repentance of living matter in respect of the non-living? As an age-old repentance for a state that is past and gone, but has become, by virtue of -- by the power of -- our technologies, a form of silent compulsion?
   Have we here a desire to put an end to the genetic randomness of differences, to put an end to the vagaries of living matter? Are we not tired of sex and difference, of emancipation and culture? The social and individual world offers many examples of this faltering, this resistance, or this nostalgic faithfulness to some earlier state. We are dealing with a kind of revisionism, a painful revision of the whole evolution of living matter and of the human species in particular -- incapable of confronting its diversity, its complexity, its radical difference, its otherness.
   But this may also be an adventure: pushing the artificilization of life as far as possible, to see what will survive this life-size experiment. If it turns out that not everything can be cloned, programmed, genetically and neurologically controlled, then what survives can truly be termed "human" -- an indestructible, inalienable form of the human. Naturally, in veering off down this experimental side-road, there is the danger that nothing will remain -- the danger that the human will, purely and simply, be wiped out.
   This was the experience of Biosphere II, the artificial synthesis of all the planet's data, the ideal duplication of the human species and its environment. In miniature, Biosphere II revealed the fact that the species and the entire planet (Biosphere I) had become their own virtual reality, that they had already yielded up, beneath the giant geodesic dome of information, to a one-way experimental destiny. But can we still speak here of the human species? Is a species which aims to become artificially immortal, and to transform itself into pure information, still human?
   Humankind has no prejudices: it is as happy to use itself as a guinea-pig as anything else, animate or inanimate. It will as happily gamble with the destiny of its own species as with that of all the others. In its blind will for greater knowledge, humanity is programming its own destruction with the same offhandedness, the same ferocity, as it is programming that of other species. It cannot be accused of greater egoism. Humanity is sacrificing itself to an experimental destiny unknown to the other species, which have hitherto been left to meet their natural fates. And whereas something like a self-preservation instinct seemed to be associated with that natural fate, this recent experimental destiny sweeps any such notion aside. A sign that, behind the ecological obsession with protection and conservation, which has more to do with nostalgia and remorse, a quite different trend has already won out: the trend towards the sacrifice of the species and unlimited experimentation.

A double, contradictory movement: alone of all the species, the human being seeks to construct his immortal double -- crowning natural selection with an artificial selection, which confers upon him an absolute privilege. But by that very act he puts an end to natural selection, which implied the death of each species, including his own, in accordance with the law of evolution. In this way he is breaking the symbolic rule and, in his haughty attempt to put an end to evolution, ushering in the involution of his own species, which is currently losing its own specificity, its natural immunity. The mortality of artificial species is even more rapid than that of natural species; hence, along these artificial paths, the human race is perhaps rushing even faster towards its end.
   There is a very strange truth underlying all this: namely, that the human species seems to have trouble being reconciled with itself. In parallel with the violence it wreaks on others, it wreaks a violence of its own on itself -- a violence in which it treats itself, here and now, as the survivor of a future catastrophe. As though, while being convinced of its own superiority, it were repenting of an evolution which has brought it to such a position of privilege and taken it, in a sense, beyond its end as a species. This moment is like the one Canetti identifies as the point when we passed out of history, except that here we are passing out of the species -- and hence out of something even more fundamental. We are crossing a point beyond which nothing is human or inhuman any more (in Canetti's piece, this was the point beyond which nothing was true or false any more), and what is at stake here is no longer merely history lurching over into post-history, but the species lurching into the void.
   Might not the human race, by some unexpected twist, rediscover that law of animal species which, at the critical point of saturation, automatically turn towards a form of collective suicide?
   The inhumanity of the undertaking can be seen in the abolition of everything within us that is human, all too human: our desires, our deficiencies, our neuroses, our dreams, our disabilities, our viruses, our lunacies, our unconscious and even our sexuality -- all the features which make us specific living beings -- are now being ruled out of court. All genetic manipulation is haunted by an ideal model from which all negative traits are eliminated. So, in Biosphere II, an experimental prototype, there are no viruses, no germs, no scorpions, no sexual reproduction. Everything is expurgated, immunized, immortalized by transparency, disembodiment, disinfection, prophylaxis.
   The reduction of life to survival is achieved by gradual reduction to the lowest common denominator -- to the genome and the genetic inheritance -- where it is the perpetual movement of the code which carries the day, and the distinctive signs of the human are effaced before the metonymic eternity of cells. The worst thing is that the living beings generated by their own formulae will undoubtedly not survive the process. What lives by the formula will die by the formula.
   The boundaries between the human and the inhuman are indeed being wiped out. But we are transcending those boundaries not toward the superhuman and the transvaluation of values, but towards the subhuman and a disappearance of the very characteristics symbolic of the species. In the end, Nietzsche is being proved right: the human species, left to itself, can only duplicate or destroy itself.

The original humanism, the humanism of the Enlightenment, was based on the qualities of human beings, their natural gifts and virtues, their human essence, together with the right to have freedom and to exercise that freedom. Current humanism, in its extended version, is more concerned with conserving the organic being and the species. The justification for human rights no longer lies in a sovereign, moral being, but in the prerogatives of an endangered species. And with this shift these rights themselves become problematic, since the question arises of the rights of other species, other breeds, and of nature, against which these rights have to be defined. Now, is there a definition of the Human in genetic terms? And if such a thing existed, could a species have rights over its own genome, and over its potential genetic transformation? We share 98 per cent of our genes with apes, and 90 per cent with mice. What rights does this share heritage confer on apes and mice? Moreover, it seems that 90 per cent of the genes in our genome have no function. What right have those genes to exist? This is a crucial question, for if we decree that they are useless, we grant ourselves the right to eradicate them. And there is the same problem for any part of humanity itself: as soon as the human is no longer defined in terms of freedom and transcendence, but in terms of a biological equilibrium and functions, the specificity of human beings is eradicated and, with it, the specificity of humanism. Western humanism has already seen itself threatened once: by other cultures bursting on to the scene in the sixteenth century. At present, things are not giving way at the cultural level, but at that of the species: anthropological deregulation and simultaneous deregulation of all the moral, legal and symbolic rules that were those of humanism. Can we still speak of a soul and a conscience, can we speak of an unconscious, in view of the automata, clones and chimeras which will carry on the human species? Not just individual capital, but phylogenetic capital is threatened by this evaporation of the boundaries of the human -- an evaporation not even into the inhuman, but into something which falls short of the human and the inhuman: the genetic simulation of life.
   The respective interplay of the human and the inhuman has been halted, the balance between them destroyed. And, though the potential disappearance of the human is indeed a serious matter, the disappearance of the inhuman is every bit as grave. The specificity of everything that is not a human being, and of everything in human beings which is inhuman, is threatened by an emerging hegemony of the human in its highly modern, highly rational definition. Everywhere we see the desire to annex nature, animals, other races and cultures, to a universal jurisdiction. Everything is assigned its place in a hegemonic evolutionary anthropology, marking the positive triumph of a single-track conception of the human (in its Western definition, of course) in the name of the universal, the good, and democracy. Human rights are the engine of this anthropic, anthropocratic thinking today, behind which both the human and the inhuman proliferate in strict formal contradiction. And the result is a simultaneous re-emergence of human rights and human rights violations.
   The other cultures do not make this distinction between the human and the inhuman. We invented it, and we are currently abolishing it -- not in a higher synthesis, but by reduction to an undifferentiated technical abstraction, in accordance with the same dizzying prospect of a final solution.

*

We are told that whatever the genetic destiny of the clone, it will never be exactly the same as the original (naturally enough, since there will have been an original before it). Allegedly, we have nothing to fear from biological cloning, since culture already differentiates us in any case. Salvation is to be found in acquired characteristics, and in culture. They alone save us from infernal sameness. Now, it is, in fact, precisely the other way round. It is culture which clones us, and mental cloning precedes biological cloning by a long way. It is the acquired characteristic which clones us today culturally, under the banner of la pensée unique. It is through ideas, ways of life, the cultural context and milieu that our innate differences are most surely cancelled out. It is through the school system, the media system, the mass culture and information systems, that human beings become copies of each other. And it is this de facto cloning -- social cloning, the industrial cloning of persons and things -- which engenders the biological idea of the genome and genetic cloning, which is a mere ratification of mental and behavioural cloning.
   This changes all thinking on prescriptive limits and the rights of the individual where scientific and technical experimentation is concerned. All the issues currently before the ethical committees and the collective consciousness, and all the speculation on them, have no meaning (other than a pseudo-moral and pseudo-philosophical meaning) when it is our culture of difference itself which acts most effectively to produce indifferentiation, the "Human Xerox" and la pensée unique.
   On the other hand, this whole business of cloning may have an unexpected side to it. For example, the clone may be seen as the parody of the original, its ironic, grotesque version. In that case, we may imagine all kinds of situations which might overturn our "Oedipal" psychology. Such as the future clone killing his father, not in order to sleep with his mother -- something which is impossible now, since there is only one parent-cell, and the father may very well be a woman -- but to recover his status as an original. Or, conversely, the original, disqualified by his double, avenging himself on his clone. All kinds of conflicts which will be not between children and parents, but between the original and its double. We may even envisage an entirely new function of clones (one that runs counter to all the functions assigned to them today, which generally have to do with perpetuating life): they may be used to satisfy the death drive, the instinct of self-destruction. One will be able, for example, to kill off one's own clone and so destroy oneself without any really mortal risk: to commit suicide by proxy. But our biologists and moralists have not got round to this yet. They have not got to the point of seeing the death drive as a fact just as basic as immortality, though both are simultaneously in play in cloning -- which by no means simplifies matters.
   It has been one of the benefits of this enterprise more generally to reveal to us what any halfway-radical philosophy already knew: that there is no morality to set against this immoral desire, this technical desire for immortality. There are no laws of nature, nor is there any moral law which might be said to emanate from such laws. That is all an idealist vision which has, indeed, been perpetuated within science itself. There are, then, no natural rights or prohibitions which could base themselves on a division between Good and Evil. What is at stake here is not moral, but symbolic. There is a set of rules for living things; its form is secret and its purpose unexplained. Life is not "worth" anything, not even human life. And if it is precious, it is precious not as a value, but as a form -- an excessive and immoral form. Unexchangeable for any other life or value whatsoever. The human race itself is not exchangeable for any other artificial race of beings, even if that race were superior to it in value and performance.
   Against the alleged immorality of cloning we should not, then, set an "ethics of difference" and a humanistic, value-based morality. Cloning should be opposed, rather, with a superior immorality of forms. Not an abstract conception of law, but a vital exigency -- which is the exigency of thought also, for thought, too, is a form which is not exchangeable for any objective purposive goal, or for its own artificial double. And this is how it can protect us.

So immortal creatures ruled the earth, followed by the reign of mortal, sexed beings, which got the upper hand. But now the immortals are taking their silent revenge with all the techniques of cloning, artificial immortality and the marginalization of sex and death.
   However, the outcome of the contest is not yet decided, and we can be sure of some fierce resistance from the mortals that we are -- a resistance from the very depths of the species, consisting in a rejection of final solutions in all their forms.