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Céline Lafontaine “Regenerative Medicine’s Immortal Body”

Lafontaine, Céline 2009. Regenerative Medicine’s Immortal Body: From the Fight against Ageing to the Extension of Longevity. Body & Society, 15(4): 53-71.

As a re-engineering of the body, regenerative medicine is the most accomplished manifestation of biopolitics: it concretely announces the emergence of a ‘culture of life’ in which individual existence is symbolically assimilated to biological conditions (Knorr Cetina, 2005). (54)

In this way, regenerative disease constitutes one of the primary avenues of a postmortal society in which death is considered a disease or an accident that can be avoided thanks to control and safety devices (Lafontaine, 2008). (54)

While as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, death haunted the cradle, attacking infants and birthing mothers, it has since taken on the traits of a fragile and sickly old man, patiently waiting for Death to come and take him away. All caricatures aside, it is true that, until recently, the increased life expectancy in developed societies was essentially due to lowered infant and mother mortality rates (Yonnet, 2006). (55)

In a shocking French publication entitled La Guerre des âges[The War of the Ages], researcher Jérôme Pellissier (2007) shows how older people have become the scapegoats of our time. Seen as a threat to progress and prosperity, old age is likened, in some people’s eyes, to a reef on which society may run aground and sink. Extending greatly beyond the scope of France, this negative representation of old age is found in most Western societies. Whether it is a question of economic productivity, the cost of health care or political conservatism, the ageing of the population is named in many socio-economic studies as a factor contributing to stagnation and regression (Pellissier, 2007). (56)

The social construction of old age as a problem is, in fact, directly connected to the biologization of old age, and its representation in terms of decadence and decrepitude. Therefore, it is not so much age but rather the physical signs of ageing that are the source of stigmatization (Gilleard, 2005: 162). (56-57)

The discrimination against the elderly seems, to a great extent, to be connected with their increased social visibility. Vulnerable and fragile, they are now considered to be victims condemned to degeneration, accepting the verdict of announced death without budging (Mykytyn, 2006a: 646–7). This victimization of older people presumes that ageing is a form of terminal illness that must be treated since it cannot be eliminated. (57)

Inseparable from the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the affirmation of autonomy and youth stems from a representation of personal freedom as pleasure and enjoyment. First focused on the physiological maladies connected with menopause, research on ageing came to see reduced sexual functioning as a medical disorder that could be treated and controlled (Staehelin, 2005: 173). In following this trend, hormonal therapy – in this case estrogen shots intended to preserve menopausal women’s vitality and femininity – quickly became commonplace in developed societies (Marshall and Katz, 2002: 44–5). However, it was only with the availability of Viagra in 1998 that the medicalization of ageing took on its full meaning. So much so that this pill for erectile dysfunction has become a symbol of modernity. (59)

Perfectly falling in step with the concept of biopower as described by Foucault (1976), age-related erectile problems became a public health problem over the course of the 1990s, on equal standing with obesity and diabetes. Causing loss of autonomy and enjoyment, erectile difficulties are not only the object of biomedical research, they are also associated with degeneration. Therefore, everything occurs as if ‘the erect penis is now elevated to the status of a vital organ’ (Marshall and Katz, 2002: 59). The message, which conveys the social discourse around Viagra, comes to no more and no less than erectile loss as a precursor to death (2002: 58–9). (59)

Merging normal and pathological, regenerative medicine aims to reproduce the biological processes that allow the body to repair itself, and even recreate itself. Therefore, it is no longer a question of conserving the body in a state of balance to fight against disease, as it is for modern medicine, but rather to fight degeneration itself. Thus, the objective is no longer healing, it is regeneration, which in itself presumes no limit. (62)

For the researcher Stanley Shostak, it is clear that the future of biology resides in the recycling of bodily waste: ‘Some biologists have come to appreciate that life itself depends on the recycling of wastes and corpses’ (2002: 35). Despite their controversial social and legal status, embryonic stem cells are part of this notion of biological recycling. The use of ‘surplus’ embryos for experiments is justified because these precious vital resources should not be ‘wasted’ (Waldby, 2002: 317). Created for in vitro fertilization, these embryos are not the object of ‘a parental project’ and are therefore recycled into biomedical products available for research via a biomedical standardization process (Tournay, 2007). (63)

The experimental treatments Geron offers greatly exceed the scope of healthcare systems and, therefore, access to this private treatment depends entirely on patients’ capacity to pay for it (Mykytyn, 2006a: 649). Indeed, as anthropologist Sarah Franklin explains, Geron capitalizes on the search for immortality by a clever marketing of scientific advances that stem as much from speculation as from real accomplishments (2003: 123). In this way, what is sold is simply the dream of controlling and reprogramming the human mechanism to make it potentially immortal. (63)

‘It is rational to want a longer life because life itself is the precondition for all else that we might want. At its most fundamental level, prolonged life offers the opportunity for additional and varied experiences’ (Overall, 2003: 184). Stemming from the concept of freedom in terms of individual enjoyment and increased personal experiences, contemporary narcissism would appear to be inseparable from the biologization of culture, in that pursuing life in and of itself becomes an objective independent of all other cultural, social or political dimensions (Knorr Cetina, 2005). (67)

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