Until recently, the term “bioethics” had been used solely to denote ethical issues within the field of medicine, a practice which (Ivan Illich not withstanding) has largely escaped criticism. In Joanna Zylinska's radical and challenging new work Bioethics in the Age of New Media, the idea that bioethics should be the sole concern of doctors comes under considerable scrutiny. Moving far beyond the concept of medical bioethics, Zylinska explores the relationship between human, animal and technology in fresh and engrossing new ways.
The goal of this book is to propose an alternative framework for thinking about bioethics, constructed through the interplay of media studies and philosophy. The main focus of the content is an exploration of various conflicting moral positions concerning human and non-human life, and the various possible technological transformations therein. Sadly, the book is slow in starting because of the necessary burden of recapitulating the conventional perceptions of bioethics (which is to say, medical ethics). This makes for a rather dull opening, but once the foundations have been laid, Zylinska moves into increasingly fascinating territory.
The alternative bioethics that Zylinska proposes is rooted in the work of a number of key twentieth century philosophers, including the concept of alterity (“Otherness” or difference) considered by Emmanuel Levinas, and the notion of biopolitics explored by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agambens. A grounding in this background material is not necessary for understanding Bioethics in the Age of New Media, and indeed it serves as an extensive introduction to several pivotal ideas in recent philosophical thought (although this is far from an introductory text to philosophy, and will present a considerable a challenge to anyone who has not tackled a work of this kind previously).
From Levinas, Zylinska examines ethics from outside of its usual presentation as a normative, humanist conception, comprised of universal rules (following a tradition rooted in Kant). The Levinas-inspired position on morality is effectively an ethics of hospitality, taking responsibility for the “infinite alterity” of the other. To put this another way, according to Levinas the fundamental ethical question emerges when we meet someone that is not us, and that question concerns how we will react: with violence, or with hospitality? However, whereas Levinas comes at this issue solely from the perspective of the human having a monopoly on ethics, Zylinska attempts to push beyond the assumption of “the human” entirely. Her goal is not some kind of reconstructed animal rights agenda, but rather to deconstruct the underlying assumptions of our concepts of “human”, “animal” and “machine” (a perspective that owes a debt to Donna Haraway) thus interrogating the assumption of a privileged position for our species. This allows her to bear on issues such as genetic engineering with an extremely fresh point of view.
In addition, the notion of biopolitics forms a key concept in the arguments that Zylinska explores. Zylinska claims one of the vectors of the twentieth century was an increasing degree of life management – from the brutality of the labour camp to the “democratisation” of countries, the political machinery of nations are pursuing vast (and often unstated) agendas of life control, and this includes the life management of the citizenry with respect to desirable lifestyles (such as not smoking, eating balanced diets, assumptions of appearance etc.) Rather than pre-supopose that this life management is necessarily wrong or bad, Zylinska recognises that the political organisation of populations will always be conducting this kind of life management, and that it is from this that both dominion and freedom result. Thus, biopolitics is examined as an inescapable background to life as a citizen within a nation, a network of relations and forces that occurs both between the State and the individual, and between the individuals themselves.
Four essays (three of which are grouped as the second half of the book, “Bioethics in Action”) constitute the core of what Zylinska is exploring, and are considerably more engaging than the necessary but slightly tedious prefatory materials. The topics explored include the role of narcissism in blogging, the biopolitics of extreme makeover television shows, the effects of branding DNA as “the secret of life” and the ethical dimensions of what is called “bioart” (the use of biological materials as an artistic medium). Each examination is highly engaging, and leaves the reader with much to think about. There is little pre-assumed moralism behind Zylinska's discussions; indeed she expressly calls for “a clearly articulated ethical supplement to counteract anti-ethical moralism and profit-driven economism”. It is this project which clearly has engaged Zylinska's concern and imagination.
While media studies has certainly taken a shine to so-called New Media (including, but not restricted to “Web 2.0” i.e. community content and social networking), this book is perhaps the first attempt to take on this domain from a philosophical perspective. In looking at the phenomena of blogging, Zylinska conducts a highly revealing dissection of existing reactions to an activity which occupies an uncomfortable position for many people, being both too public (anyone can read your personal dirty laundry) and simultaneously not public enough (most blogs are read by no-one, and disappear into the infinite abyss of the internet). The criticism that blogging can be reduced to mere narcissism is both accepted and rejected – yes, narcissism does underlie the act of writing a blog, yet there is no reason to presume that this is necessarily negative. Indeed, cannot one claim that narcissism is an emotional root to the work of most artists? Following Derrida, Zylinska suggests that there are “good” and “bad” narcissisms, and that narcissism might even be an inevitable and necessary condition for sociality.
Her analysis of “extreme makeover” TV shows and in particular The Swan, which combines elements of both the freak show and the beauty pageant, is one of the most insightful pieces in the book. In reality TV, biopolitics – the ubiquitous process of life management – is packaged as entertainment. Zylinska suggests that, contrary to the mythology that the show's makers deploy, the viewers of such a show glean much of their enjoyment from the branding of the contestants as “abnormal”, thus reassuring the viewer of their normalcy. But far from being unequivocally hostile to what The Swan is doing, she finds within it aspects both terrible and promising. The concentration camp fascism of the reality TV show “training camp” is chillingly compared to real “zones of indistinction” such as the Guantánamo bay detention centre, but at the same time she seems to believe that such shows have the possibility of exploring the ethical ambivalence of the kinship between humans, animals and machines (the women, having been altered by plastic surgery, bearing the artifacts of machinery upon them and being, in effect “cyborgs” of some kind). She finds that the show forecloses on this potential, but still acknowledges that there was some potentiality to be explored.
Although not intended as a work of philosophy of science, the chapter discussing how the term “the secret of life” came to be applied to DNA and research into the genome is one of the more penetrating critiques of the interface between science and the wider world that have been published in recent years. Studiously researched, she catalogues how the trope of “cracking the secret of life” was used to reposition biology (previously seen as somehow inferior to the mathematically-grounded physical sciences) as a matter of serious importance. From this “rebranding” stems a wide range of modern biotechnological fields, almost all of which have not yet come under serious critical scrutiny from the philosophical community. Zylinska argues compellingly that having allowed the “secret of life” gloss to be applied to genetics, and from there, to allow genetics to obscure the realities of life in favour of an information theoretical slant that elides precisely what life means to most of us, the question of what life is, should be, or could be, has been lost in favour of a glorification of an imperialistic biopolitics, the consequences of which could be dire if not addressed thoughtfully.
Finally, Zylinska explores the field of bioart with a critical eye, and while she concedes that some work in this arena has been thought provoking, she accuses many of the artists of falling into didactic, moralising, deterministic and excessively pro-technological stances which ultimately undermine the credibility of bioart as a medium. However, she identifies a few interesting cases, and in particular expresses admiration for the work of Stelarc (an artist perhaps best known for grafting a cell-cultivated ear onto his left arm), whom she notes considers technology “first of all an environment... rather than merely an object”. This perspective clearly resonates with Zylinska, but on the whole the chapter on bioart serves as more of a media studies review than a philosophical enquiry. This need not be a deficiency of the chapter, but it rests in a slightly uneasy space in the wake of the essays that have preceded it.
This, on the whole, is the principle problem with Bioethics in the Age of New Media: the individual pieces from the latter part of the book are all magnificently compelling and leave the reader with much to think about, but in terms of the overall goal of generating an alternative framework of bioethics the individual chapters fail to cohere into a tangible whole. It is not that Zylinska fails in her goals – rather, it is that this book can only begin to scratch the surface of the challenge that is being mounted here. It is perhaps impossible for one lone individual to achieve the outcome that has been posited. However, I will not criticise Zylinska for not attaining the impossible – it is surely the work of many individuals to re-envisage bioethics. As a multi-faceted signpost to this emerging and ongoing ethical project, this book warrants considerable praise.
in the Age of New Media by Joanna Zylinska is published by
MIT Press, ISBN 978-0-262-24056-7.
For full disclosure I wish to note that the cover of the hardback first edition carries an endorsement by me; I was invited by MIT to read the book, and offer an endorsement. After reading the book, I was happy to do so. You can read the endorsement on the Amazon page for the book.