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Céline Lafontaine “The Postmortal Condition”

Lafontaine, Céline 2009. The Postmortal Condition: From the Biomedical Deconstruction of Death to the Extension of Longevity. Science as Culture 18(3): 297-312.

In other words, in view of the deconstruction of death, ‘nothing nowadays is external to medicine’ (Foucault, 2001, p. 53; free translation). Viewed through the biomedical prism of pathology, even ageing looks like a disease. (298)

Far from being an inevitable and irreversible phenomenon that formerly bore witness to the passing of time, death has become multiple and plural, subject to indefinite extension (Carol, 2004, p. 128). Extracted from its symbolic and religious setting, death is now a complex biological process that can be broken down into a series of physiological stages connected either with an accident or with simple temporal use (Thomas, 1975, pp. 30– 31). (298)

By defining life as being ‘the ensemble of functions that resist death’ (free translation), as early as 1800, French anatomist Xavier Bichat marked not only theBirth of the Clinic,as later subjected to detailed analysis by Michel Foucault, but also the naturalization of death and its integration into life (Foucault, [1963] 2005, p. 147). Before this, death was seen as an exterior force, a divine, mythological or accidental essence that descended upon an individual (Arie`s, 1977). (299)

[…] biopolitics is a new form of social control: each individual is called on to manage his or her life according to a constantly increasing number of risk factors and with the assistance of an extensive biomedical system made up of all kinds of experts. Assimilated into modern emancipation, this biocontrol corresponds to the technical capacity to intervene directly in individuals’ lives and to erase the lines between social and biological life in favour of an engineering of the living (Franklin, 2003, p. 105). (300)

While geriatrics is focused on the study and treatment of age-related disease, this new discipline aims to understand and master the biological processes that characterize ageing (Mykytyn, 2006b). In an openly anti-age perspective, biogerontology rejects the generally admitted idea that senescence is a natural and inevitable phenomenon and that death is a biological necessity.(300)

The technoscientific desire to indefinitely prolong life is based on a particular conception of human perfectibility. Whereas during the Enlightenment it underlay global social progress through reason, perfectibility (as defined by supporters of the anti-age struggle) is brought back to its strictly individual and biological aspect (Knorr Cetina, 2005). While the political ideal of the Enlightenment stemmed from a belief in the perfectibility of society—based in a desire to improve living conditions through collective action—postmodern society is characterized by the belief in perfectibility itself. Thus, it is not society that must be changed, but rather the individual, who is essentially understood to be an informational being (Lafontaine, 2004). (301)

‘We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment’ (Wiener, [1954] 1988, p. 46). This statement alone from the founder of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, summarizes the logic of adaptation and technoscientific perfectibility for which the defenders of life extension call. (302)

The human/machine fusion which cybernetics implies takes on its full meaning only when replaced in the theoretical context of an informational paradigm in which information is primary data regardless of its source (be it physical, biological, technical or human). Theoretically perceived as a quantifiable physical principle with which the efficiency of a given system can be measured, information in the cybernetic model becomes a more fundamental concept than the notion of life itself, as it applies to living beings and machines alike (Lafontaine, 2004). This absence of conceptual distinction between living and non-living leads to the assimilation of death to the phenomenon of entropy. (302)

The engineer and specialist in artificial intelligence, Raymond Kurzweil, suggests a complete reprogramming of the human body in order to produce a Version 2.0 that is better adapted and performs better than the original biological version (2004, pp. 4 – 5). A member of the Immortality Institute, Kurzweildirectly associates life extension with the complete biological modification of the species. In this perspective, technoscientific evolution replaces the inevitability of death. (303)

Faced with this evolutionary decrepitude of human nature, Kurzweil hopes for the beginning of post-biology or, in other words, an era in which the body will be overcome via biotechnologies, information technologies and artificial intelligence. (303)

Oscillating between an extreme materialism that founds subjectivity on the molecular level and an idealism that translates all reality into information, the contemporary technoscientific paradigm participates in a conceptual non-differentiation between human and machine, between nature and artifice and between the living and the non-living (Lafontaine, 2004). (304)

Nanotechnologies participate in a twofold process—naturalizing the technical and artificializing nature—which leads not only to the idea that we could imitate nature by creating new materials, but also that it will be possible to improve it (Bensaude-Vincent, 2004). Transposed to the human being, this double logic causes us to see the improvement and modification of the body as a ‘natural’ continuation of evolution. However, we must clarify that this reasoning is possible only because nature and life were already epistemologically redefined as malleable and controllable molecular assemblages (Dupuy, 2002). (304)

Intended to treat weaknesses leading to natural death, dechronification would consist of first ridding each cell of its accumulated toxins, then replacing any chromosomes showing genetic errors and finally repairing one by one the more serious damages to cellular structure (Freitas, 2000). Faced with such promises, the seniors who die each day by the thousands are the poor victims of a yet underdeveloped technological world late in declaring war on ageing (de Grey, 2004, p. 265). (305)

According to science historian Cyrus C. M. Mody (2004), there are indeed two types of determinist arguments in the discussions on the development of nanotechnologies. The first argues an autonomous development of the technical, while the second presents technology as the major determinant in economic and social development. These types of determinism are found at the very basis of the life extension movement, which can be summarized as follows: the human body is inevitably called on to be transformed to adapt to its new technoscientific environment. 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. (305)

Demonstrated by experiments on the human embryo duringin vitro reproduction, the fact that we can suspend and restart vital processes on a cellular level makes up one of the main arguments cited to defend the scientific validity of cryonics. Technically speaking, the vitrification process (freezing the body below – 120 degrees Celsius) avoids the formation of ice and irrevocable cellular deterioration. According to Alcor, any cell damage caused by this preservation method is entirely neutralized by nanotechnologies once the patient is unfrozen (Alcor Life Extension Foundation, 2007). (306)

The movement in support of voluntary death, which began as a response to the prolongation of life by medical means and to biomedical control, is based on a profound paradox, as the assertion of the subject’s right to selfdetermination, in the cases of euthanasia and assisted suicide, stems entirely from technical and medical assistance. Thus the principle of autonomy, which is at the root of claims to ‘the right to die’, moves towards increased control and dependency of patients with respect to the biomedical authorities (Tierney, 1997). (307)

As part of this reasoning, death becomes an option among others, including, in particular, that of turning to cryonics in the hope of one day coming back to life. Furthermore, recognizing the henceforth optional nature of death, transhumanists reject the very idea of death’s inevitability. Qualifying as ‘deathists’ (religion of death) the opponents to the transformation of the human being for an indefinite extension of longevity, transhumanists affirm that ‘death should be voluntary’ and that it is simply an individual choice. (308)

In postmodern society, death has become a strictly individual affair and is defined as a right, even as a choice (Walter, 1994). Through the life extension movement, neoliberal individualism finds its most extreme form. Thus, according to philosopher Christine Overall, from an individualistic point of view, there is no valid reason to die to make room for a new generation (Overall, 2003). (309)

For bioethicist John K. Davis, one of the primary ethical consequences of the life extension movement is to have made the death of a 97-year-old all the more tragic, since it is a sign of the failed promise of amortality (Davis, 2004, p. 7). Without any other meaning than the end of an individual, death is still as, if not more, terrifying than ever. In other words, contemporary individualism participates in the desymbolizing of death. Death thus becomes socially insignificant (Lafontaine, 2008). (309)

The devaluing of old age, the desocialization of death, its loss of meaning and the feeling of absurdity that accompanies it are the negative sides of the postmortal condition. The latter appears to be the historic result of scientific deconstruction and the reduction of human perfectibility to its purely technical aspect. (309)

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