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Giorgio Agamben “The Sacrament of Language”

December 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Agamben, Giorgio 2011. The Sacrament of Language. An Archaeology of the Oath (Homo Sacer II, 3). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[…] the issue here, above all, is the question, What is an oath? What is at stake in it, if it defines and calls into question man himself as a political animal? If the oath is the sacrament of political power, what is it in its structure and its history that has made it possible for it to be invested with such a function? What anthropological level – a decisive one in every sense – is implicated in it, so that all of man, in life and death, can be called to account in it and by it? (2)

Benveniste, 1948: “[The oath] is a particular modality of assertion, which supports, guarantees, and demonstrates, but does not found anything. Individual or collective, the oath exists only by virtue of that which it reinforces and renders solemn: a pact, an agreement, a declaration. It prepares for or concludes a speech act which alone possesses meaningful content, but it expresses nothing by itself. It is in truth an oral rite, often completed by a manual rite whose form is variable. Its function consists not in the affirmation that it produces, but in the relation that it institutes between the word pronounced and the potency invoked.” (B, The Expression of the Oath in Ancient Greece, 81-82, 4)

All the sources and scholars seem to agree that the oath’s primary function, in its various forms, is that of guaranteeing the truth and efficacy of language. (4)

It is possible […] not only that what was originally at issue in the oath was the guarantee of a promise or of the truthfulness of an affirmation but that the institution that we know today by that name contains the memory of a more archaic stage, in which it was concerned with the very consistency of human language and the very nature of humans as “speaking animals”. The “scourge” that it had to stem was not only the unreliability of men, incapable of staying true to their word, but a weakness pertaining to language itself, the capacity of words themselves to refer to things and the ability of men to make profession of their condition as speaking beings. (8)

The oath is, then, a verbal act that accomplishes a testimony – or a guarantee – independently by the very fact that it has taken place. The formula of Pindar cited above acquires here its full meaning: karteros horkos martys esto Zeus, “as a mighty oath, may Zeus be our witness”: Zeus is not a witness of the oath, but rather oath, witness, and god coincide in the utterance of the formula. As in Philo, the oath is a logos that is necessarily accomplished, and this is precisely the logos of God. The testimony is given by language itself and the god names a potentiality implicit in the very act of speech. The testimony that is in question in the oath must therefore be understood in a sense that has little to do with much of what we normally understand by this term. It concerns not the verification of a fact or an event but the very signifying power of language. (33)

Blasphemy presents us, then, with a phenomenon that is perfectly symmetrical to the oath, to understand which there is no need to drag in the biblical interdiction or the ambiguity of the sacred. Blasphemy is an oath, in which the name of a god is extracted from the assertorial or promissory context and is uttered in itself, in vain, independently of a semantic context. The name, which in the oath expresses and guarantees the connection between words and things and which defines the truthfulness and force of the logos, in blasphemy expresses the breakdown of this connection and the vanity of human language. The name of God, isolated and produced “in vain”, corresponds symmetrically to perjury, which separates words from things; oath and blasphemy, a bene-diction and male-diction, are co-originally implied in the very event of language. (40-41)

What the curse sanctions is the loosening of the correspondence between words and things that is in question in the oath. If the connection that unites language and the world is broken, the name of God, which expressed and guaranteed this connection based in blessing [bene-dicente], becomes the name of the curse [male-dizione], that is, of a word that has broken its truthful relation to things. (42)

If, in polytheism, the name assigned to the god named this or that event of language, this or that specific naming, this or that Sondergott, in monotheism God’s name names language itself. The potentially infinite dissemination of singular, divine events of naming gives way to the divinization of the logos as such, to the name of God as archi-event of language that takes place in names. (49)

It is a certainty, or better a “faith”, of this kind that is in question in the oath and in the name of God. The name of God names the name that is always and only true, that is, that experience of language that it is not possible to doubt. For man this experience is the oath. In this sense very name is an oath, and in every name a “faith” is in question, because the certainty of the name is not of an empirico-constative or logico-epistemic type but rather always puts in play the commitment and praxis of men. To speak is, above all, to swear, to believe in the name. (54)

It is precisely the status of the oath that we have sought so far to reconstruct that allows us, in fact, to understand in a new light the theory of performatives. They represent in language a remnant of a stage (or, rather, the co-originarity of a structure) in which the connection between words and things is not of a semantico-denotative type but performative, in the sense , as in the oath, the verbal act brings being into truth. This is not, as we have seen, a magico-religious stage but a structure antecedent to (or contemporaneous with) the distinction between sense and denotation, which is perhaps not, as we have been accustomed to believe, an original and eternal characteristic of human language but a historical product (which, as such, has not always existed and could one day cease to exist). (55)

[…] in the performative, language suspends its denotation precisely and solely to found its existential connection with things. (56)

Considered in this perspective, the ontological (or onto-theological) argument simply says that if speech exists, then God exists, and God is the expression of this metaphysical “performance”. (56)

[…] metaphysics, the science of pure being, is itself historical and coincides with the experience of the event of language to which man devotes himself in the oath. If the oath is declining, if the name of God is withdrawing from language – and this is what has happened beginning from the event that has been called the “death o f God” or, as one should put it more exactly, “of the name of God” – then metaphysics also reaches completion. (56)

Assertion and veridiction define, that is to say, the two co-originary aspects of the logos. While assertion has an essentially denotative value, meaning that its truth, in the moment of its formulation, is independent of the subject and is measured with logical and objective parameters (conditions of truth, noncontradiction, adequation between words and things), in veridiction the subject constitutes itself and puts itself in play as such by linking itself performatively to the truth of its own affirmation. (57)

Religion and law do not pre-exist the performative experience of language that is in question in the oath, but rather they were invented to guarantee the truth and trustworthiness of the logos through a series of apparatuses, among which the tecnicalization of the oath into a specific “sacrament” – the “sacrament of power” – occupies a central place. (59)

The interpretation of sacretas as an originary performance of power through the production of a killable and unsacrificeable bare life must be completed in the sense that, even before being a sacrament of power, the oath is a consecration of the living human being through the word to the word. The oath can function as a sacrament of power insofar as it is first of all the sacrament of language. This original sacratio that takes place in the oath takes the technical form of the curse, of the politike ara that accompanies the proclamation of the law. Law is, in this sense, constitutively inked to the curse, and only a politics that has broken this original connection with the curse will be able one day to make possible another use of speech and of the law. (66)

With a tenacious prejudice perhaps connected to their profession, scientists have always considered anthropogenesis to be a problem of an exclusively cognitive order, as if the becoming human of man were solely a question of intelligence and brain size and not also one of ethos, as if intelligence and language did not also and above all pose problems of an ethical and political order, as if Homo sapiens was not also, and of course precisely for that reason, a Homo iustus. (68)

[…] uniquely among living things, man is not limited to acquiring language as one capacity among others that he is given but has made of it his specific potentiality; he has, that is to say, put his very nature at stake in language. (68)

Just as, in the words of Foucault, man “is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question”, so also is he the living being whose language places his life in question. These two definitions are, in fact, inseparable and constitutively dependent on each other. The oath is situated at their intersection, understood as the anthropogenic operator by means of which the living being, who has discovered itself speaking, has decided to be responsible for his words and, devoting himself to the logos, to constitute himself as the “living being who has language”. In order for something like an oath to be able to take place, it is necessary, in fact, to be able above all to distinguish, and to articulate together in some way, life and language, actions and words – and this is precisely what the animal, for which language is still an integral part of its vital practice, cannot do. The first promise, the first – and, so to speak, transcendental – sacratio is produced by means of this division, in which man, opposing his language to his actions, can put himself at stake in language, can promise himself to the logos. (69)

On the one hand, there is the living being, more and more reduced to a purely biological reality and to bare life. On the other hand, there is the speaking being, artificially divided from the former, through a multiplicity of technico-mediatic apparatuses, in an experience of the word that grows ever more vain, for which it is impossible to be responsible and in which anything like a political experience becomes more and more precarious. When the ethical – and not simply cognitive – connection that unites words, things, and human actions is broken, this in fact promotes a spectacular and unprecedented proliferation of vain words on the one hand and, on the other, of legislative apparatuses that seek obstinately to legislate on every aspect of that life on which they seem no longer to have any hold. The age of the eclipse of the oath is also the age of blasphemy, in which the name of God breaks away from its living connection with language and can only be uttered “in vain”. (70-71)

The decisive element that confers on human language its peculiar virtue is not in the tool itself but in the place it leaves to the speaker, in the fact that it prepares within itself a hollowed-out form that the speaker must always assume in order to speak – that is to say, in the ethical relation that is established between the speaker and his language. The human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say “I”, must “take the word”, assume it and make it his own. (71)


Ed Cohen “A Body Worth Defending”

October 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Cohen, Ed 2009. A Body Worth Defending. Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Introductory Ruminations

Despite our ready acceptance, however, immunity is not a natural choice of images for our ability to live as organisms among other organisms of various sizes and scales – nor is defense, for that matter. Instead, both terms derive from the ways that Western legal and political thinking accounts for the complex, difficult, and at times violent manner that humans live among other humans. (3)

[…] biological immunity as we know it does not exist until the late nineteenth century. Nor, for that matter, does the idea that organisms defend themselves at the cellular and molecular levels. For nearly two thousand years, immunity, a legal concept first conjured in ancient Rome, has functioned almost exclusively as a political and juridical term – and a profoundly important and historically overdetermined one at that. “Self-defense” also originates as a political concept, albeit a much newer one, emerging only 350 years ago in the course of the English Civil War, when Thomas Hobbes defines it as the first “natural right.” (4)

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, biomedicine fuses these two incredibly difficult, powerful, and yet very different (if not incongruous) political ideas into one, creating “immunity-as-defense.” It then transplants this new biopolitical hybrid into the living human body. (4)

[…] the modern body proffers a proper body, a proprietary body, a body whose well-bounded property grounds the legal and political rights of what C.B. Macpherson famously named “possessive individualism.” (7)

[…] until the end of the nineteenth century, the modern individual’s atomized body does not accord with prevailing scientific theories that apprehend living organisms as contiguous with, rather than fundamentally distinct from, their lifeworlds. Indeed, this book holds that only with the advent of biological immunity does a monadic modern body fully achieve its scientific and defensive apotheosis. (8)

With immunity as its avatar, modern biomedical dogma holds to the contrary that as organisms we vitally depend on a perpetual engagement against the world to maintain our integrity or indeed our selves. (8)

Immunity incarnates ideas about human being culled from modern politics, economics, law, philosophy, and science, which then belatedly achieve scientific status when immunity inoculates them into the living organism and thereby validates them as essentially “natural.” (8)

[…] we might characterize the transformations that European modernity incorporates by saying that they enable the essential metonym for the person to morph from immortal soul to mortal body. (9)

Modernity might thus appear as an ensemble of practices that literally incorporates – or incarnates – a historical paradox: modernity produces and reproduces humans as both natural and cultural, biological and social, empirical and transcendental, finite and infinite, insofar as it conjures the body as a hybrid biopolitical formation which we must have in order to be a person. (10)

[…] biopolitics names a “hybrid domain,” or a domain of hybridization. It makes visible and intelligible relations of force which, on the one hand, seek to distinguish biology and politics epistemologically and ontologically and, on the other, endeavor to mobilize “life” as a vital resource for, and target of, power. (15)

When it conceives immunity as its physiological doppelgänger in the last decads of the nineteenth century, medicine naturalizes this governmental project by proxy. According to the new bioscientific doxa, the organism’s own cells now seem to engage in the very warlike actions that the modern state itself enlists to protect its subjects’ lives as its most vital asset. […] by relegating defense to the organism’s interior, modern medicine transforms the body into the apotheosis of the modern. (22)

Today immunity informs us deeply: as organisms, as individuals, as citizens, as peoples, and as a species. In the wake of immunology, we no longer just live our politics, but our politics literally live in us. Conversely, the world in which we live has been recast according to this new “natural” order such that overtly political acts of violence and aggression can be interpreted immunologically […]. (31)

  1. Living Before and Beyond the Law, or A Reasonable Organism Defends Itself

[…] immunology’s enthusiastic investment in biochemical reductionism led it to devote itself almost single-mindedly to analyzing the biochemical events underlying specific antibody-antigen reactions throughout the first half of the twentieth century. As a consequence, it largely ignored the biological dynamics of cellular immunity from which it first emerged (i.e., Metchnikoff’s “phagocytosis”), which have become so interesting to immunology since then. Instead immunology so effectively promoted biomolecular specificity as its main object of interest that this paradigm became an overarching frame for much biomedical theorization during the period. […] the case of immunity, rather than simply applying reductionism as a bioscientific premise, instead provides one of its exemplary instances. Furthermore, by borrowing against its ancient juridico-political capital, immunity makes the “lawfulness” of such biochemical reductionism seem entirely natural. (48-49)

[…] we might say […] that immunity makes the law matter for biology and consequently makes biology a matter of law. (49)

If property supposes dominium and dominium implies control, then loss of control means loss of property. To retain property as property requires a defense against its loss. In the mid-seventeenth century, when natural law construes the body as a human possession, that is, as personal property, it mandates bodily defense as a possessive imperative that politically safeguards the person as a person. Thus, at least two centuries before bioscience conjures immunity to describe how the (human) organism defends itself, self-defense already appears as a foundational principle of natural law. (54-55)

In its original juridico-political context, the doctrine of self-defense literally and naturally establishes the individual as the paramount form of personhood. It locates the person in a body constituted as its own property – that is, in a body “owned” by “the self”. (55)

Life appears only negatively as that which resists its own negation. In its natural habitat, human life possesses no positive attributes. Hobbes rhetorically emphasizes this constitutive negativity by elaborating a long list of everything it lacks: “In such a condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation; nor use of the Commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much Force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society.” (59)

This negative formulation provides the (negative) basis for Hobbes’s quintessential definition of liberty: “By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments”. Or as he reframes it later, “Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth”. (59)

Here immunity receives a new inflection under the sign of liberty. Drawn from its early modern extension to the denizens of immune domains, immunity now appears as a negative form of freedom. Immunity gestures toward a “free” space carved out from the sphere of obligation entailed by the commonwealth, an obligation incurred in exchange for the commonwealth’s protection against – or negation of – the state of nature’s life-negating effects. (59-60)

[…] when modern politics imagines itself as distinct from nature, as determining its own order (as Latour suggests), it construes itself not as a part of, but rather as apart from – or even opposed to – the natural world in which it lives. When bioscience recruits immunity at the end of the nineteenth century to describe the abilities of – and the presumed necessity for – organisms to “defend themselves” against the pathogenic microbes that live around and within them, it turns this quintessentially modern trope back into animate nature. In other words, it identifies a hybrid legal and political mechanisms, immunity-as-defense, as the natural basis for the endurance of living organisms. (61)

Endel Tulving “Chronestesia”

October 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Tulving, Endel 2002. Chronestesia: Conscious Awareness of Subjective Time. In: Stuss, Donald T.; Knight, Robert T. (eds). Principles of Frontal Lobe Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 311-325

chronestesia, which is tentatively defined as a form of consciousness that allows individuals to think about the subjective time in which they live and that makes it possible for them to “mentally travel” in such time. (311)

Noetic consciousness is evolutionarily older and the more “primitive” of the two, and is the default mode of the semantic memory system. Noetic awareness accompanies an individual’s memory-based interaction with aspects of its environment in the present. When individuals think about the “facts of the world,” they are noetically aware of what they are thinking, as well as aware of such awareness. Noetic consciousness also provides individuals with access to their own past, but the mode of such access is one of “knowing”, not “remembering” (Gardiner, 1988; Rajaram, 1993). Autonoetic consciousness has a more recent origin in evolution and is more advanced than noetic, because in addition to allowing people to know what happened in the past it also allows them to re-experience past experiences. Autonoetic awareness accompanies retrieval of information about one’s personal past as well as projection of one’s thoughts into the future. When individuals remember the past, they are autonoetically aware of what they did or thought at an earlier time, and they are also aware of such awareness. (313)

Although both autonoesis and chronestesia imply awareness of self in time, the emphasis on self versus time is different in the two concepts: in autonoesis the emphasis is on awareness of self, albeit in subjective, whereas in chronesthesia the emphasis is on awareness of subjective time, albeit in relation to self. (315)

Thomas Lemke “Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on ‘Postmodern Biopolitcs'”

September 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Lemke, Thomas 2017. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on ‘Postmodern Biopolitics’. In: Prozorov, Sergei; Rentea, Simona (eds.). The Routledge Handbook of Biopolitics. London and New York: Routledge, 112-122.

[…] Hardt and Negri draw on Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, but they submit it to an important revision. They argue that the creation of wealth in society ‘tends ever more toward what we will call biopolitical production, the production of social life itself, in which the economic, the political, and the cultural increasingly overlap and invest one another’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, xiii). In this perspective, economic value is not linked to the production of material objects but to the production of social relations and forms of life. The authors describe biopower as ‘the real subsumption of society under capital’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 255). (114)

Following Deleuze, Hardt and Negri conceive of biopolitics as a form of ‘control that extends throughout the depths of the consciousnesses and bodies of the population – and at the same time across the entirety of social relations’ (2000, 24). It directs itself at social life as a whole, but also includes the existence of individuals in the most intimate details of their everyday lives. (114)

[…] ‘biopolitics production for Hardt and Negri also denotes a new relationship between nature and culture. It signifies a ‘civilization of nature’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 187), nature here meaning everything previously external to the production process. Life itself becomes an object of technological intervention, and nature ‘has become capital, or at least has become subject to capital’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 32). (115)

Instead of simply exploiting nature, the discussion in the era of ‘sustainable’ or ‘environmental capitalism’ is about translating the biological and genetic diversity of nature into economic growth and opening it up to the development of profitable products and forms of life. (115)

When economics and politics, nature and culture converge, then there is no longer an external standpoint of life or truth that might be opposed to Empire. Empire creates the world into which it unfolds. (115)

The paradox of biopower, according to Hardt and Negri’s reading, comes from the fact that the same tendencies and forces that secure the maintenance and preservation of the system of rule are at the same time the ones that weaken and may overthrow it. It is precisely the universality and totality of this systematic nexus that makes it fragile and vulnerable: ‘Since in the imperial realm of biopower production and life tend to coincide, class struggle has the potential to erupt across all the fields of life’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 403). (117)

The authors draw on the notion of a pre-capitalist form of common property: ‘the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty – which in classic European political texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together’ (Hardt and Negri 2009, viii), but they also refer to the notion of commons to designate forms of contemporary social production and modes of interaction. By rearticulating the ancient tradition with recent transformations in the social powers of knowledge, affects, and communication that escape private ownership or public authority, the authors seek to define a new concept of the commons that transcends the ‘false alternatives’ (ix) between private–public and capitalist–socialist. For Hardt and Negri the commons represents a radical alternative to capitalism and socialism, which, beyond their apparent political differences, share a common feature as they both negate and exploit the common. (117)

While Hardt and Negri demonstrate the impossibility of an ‘external position’ in relation to Empire, their reference to life breaks with the principle of immanence. ‘Life’ in this instance is not, as it is with Foucault (1970), configured as a material-discursive assemblage or as an element of a historical knowledge; rather, it functions as an original and transhistorical force. The ontoogical conception of biopolitics proposed by Hardt and Negri is so comprehensive that it remains unclear in what way it might be circumscribed and how it relates to other forms of political and social action. The theoretical merger of the concept of biopolitical production and the idea of a control society results in ‘biopolitics’ becoming a kind of catch-all category that no longer captures the historicity and specifics of political technologies. (119)

Hardt and Negri’s ontologization of biopolitics results in yet another problem. It enables them to present a well-considered dramaturgy that consistently counterposes two principles: the vital, autonomous, and creative multitude struggles against the unproductive, parasitical, and destructive Empire. The authors’ diagnosis of the rule of Empire corresponds with a glorification of the multitude. (119)

Hardt and Negri do not limit themselves to tracing the historical emergence of the multitude as a new political figure. They tend to anchor the new revolutionary subject ontologically. Negri discusses, for example, ‘biodesire’, which is contrasted with biopower: “The desire for life, the strength and wealth of desire, are the only things that we can oppose to power, which needs to place limitations upon biodesire” (Negri 2005, 65). There is a danger that the ontological rendering of biopolitics, quite contrary to the intentions of the authors, has the effect of depoliticizing their work, when they conceive of the multitude per se as an egalitarian and progressive force that is invested with a radical-democratic goal. Instead of contributing to social mobilization, this way of thinking could create the impression that political struggles are nothing other than incarnations of abstract ontological principles that almost automatically proceed without the engagement, intention, or affect of concrete actors. (120)

Lily E. Kay “Who Wrote the Book of Life?”

September 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Kay, Lily E. 2000. Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  1. The Genetic Code: Imaginaries and Practices

Information theorists, cryptologists, linguists, and life scientists criticized the difficulties (some would say inappropriateness) of these borrowings in molecular biology, arguing that the genome’s information content cannot be assessed since the key parameters (e.g., signal, noise, message channel) cannot be properly quantified. DNA is not a natural language: it lacks phonemic features, semantics, punctuation marks, and intersymbol restrictions. So unlike any language, “letter” frequency analyses of amino acids yield only random statistical distributions. Furthermore, no natural language consists solely of three-letter words. Finally, if it were purely a formal language, then it would possess syntax only but no semantics. Thus the informational representations of the genome do not stand up under rigorous scrutiny. From linguistic and crypt-analytic standpoints, the genetic code is not a code: it is simply a table of correlations, though not nearly as systematic or predictive as the periodic table, for example, because of contingencies, degeneracies, and ambiguities in the structure of the so-called genetic code. These culturally animated imaginaries, nevertheless, have persisted, making it now seem inconceivable that genes did not always transfer information, or that the relation between DNA and protein could be something other than a code. Yet, there were (and probably could be) other ways of knowing. These particular representations were historically specific and culturally contingent. The genetic code is a “period piece,” a manifestation of the emergence of the information age. (2)

Though remarkable compelling and productive as analogies, “information,” “language,” “code,” message,” “text,” have been taken as ontologies. The consequences are far-reaching, for the limits of these analogies also challenge the mastery of the genomic “Book of Life,” the technological and commercial goals of its “reading” and “editing.” (3)

Genetic information signified an emergent form of biopower: the material control of life would be now supplemented by the promise of controlling its form and logos, its information (the DNA sequence, or the “word”). (3)

In the postwar world order, the material, the discursive, and social practices of molecular biology were transformed. Information theory, cybernetics, systems analyses, electronic computers, and simulation technologies fundamentally altered the representations of animate and inanimate phenomena. These new communication sciences began to reorient molecular biology (as they did, to various degrees, other life and social sciences) even before it underwent a paradigm shift (1953) from protein- to DNA-based explanations of heredity. It is within this information discourse that the genetic code was constituted as a latter-day Book of Life. The disciplinary terrain and representational space of molecular biology changed, as well, partly through the growing participation of physical scientists. Worldwide, its institutional structures were reconfigured within cold-war organizations, military patronage, and the unprecedented commitment of government resources for scientific research. In short, from the 1950s on, the diachronic resonances of the Book of Life as transcendent writing were amplified by the synchronic articulations of DNA as a programmed text, and information became the animating Primum Mobile. The genetic code became the site of life’s command and control. (5)

Technical manipulations – namely, cryptanalysis, information theory and mathematical theories of coding, Monte Carlo simulations, statistical analyses, and symbolic logic – composed this “paper and pencil” approach to genetic decoding. Through these studies, which proceeded at a relatively leisurely pace, the genome was textualized, as researchers transported the information discourse, its tropes and semiotics, into molecular biology, reconfiguring its representational space. As with other contemporary forms of knowledge production, the genetic code, as an icon of biological command and control, can be also viewed as part of the cultural experience of the cold war. (9)

Despite their mathematical prowess, access to the most recent findings about genetic mechanisms of viruses and bacteria, and command of cutting-edge computer analyses and simulation technologies, leading scientists failed to break the code. This is because from linguistic and cryptanalytic standpoints, the genetic code is not a code; it is, rather, a powerful metaphor for the correlations between nucleic and amino acids. However, despite the acknowledged pitfalls in applying information theory, linguistics, and cryptanalysis to molecular biology in the 1950s, these informational and scriptural representations of heredity set roots and proliferated. (11)

The notion of “code” carried multiple historical allusions and contemporary referents, eliciting imagery of transcendent knowledge, Mosaic tablets, positivists’ ideals of nature’s laws, secret writings, period intrigues with espionage and cryptology, ideas from linguistics, information theory, and cybernetics. At times it was a language, or a tape storing information; at other times it was viewed as a DNA code, RNA code, or the protein code, though it also referred to the correlation between nucleic acids and proteins. A code is, by definition, a relation, or a set of rules of transformation from plaintext to cryptogram; always operating on defined linguistics entities (e.g., words, sentences). It is neither a thing nor a language. This diversity of meanings could be confusing, but for the scientists involved the referents were clear by context and practice. Used loosely, tautologically, and inconsistently, the code was caught in a web of signifiers. This multiplicity of significations, definitional slippages, shifting meanings, and aporias ultimately served to destabilize the validity and predictive power of the genomic writings. (14)

Recounting the “Breaking of the Code” in his book, The Language of Life (1966), geneticist and Nobel laureate George Beadle reflected: “What has happened in genetics during the past decade has been the discovery of a Rosetta stone. The unknown language was the molecular one of DNA. Science can now translate at least a few messages written in DNAese into the chemical language of blood and bone and nerves and muscle. One might also say that the deciphering of the DNA code has revealed our possession of a language much older than hieroglyphics, a language as old as life itself, a language that is the most living language of all – even if its letters are invisible and its words are buried deep in the cells of our bodies.” (17)

These discursive practices were not ex post facto rhetorical veneers on sober scientific facts, nor were they constructed primarily to appeal to wider audiences: Monod, Jacob, and many other molecular biologists had deployed cybernetic models, informational tropes, linguistic and communication representations of nucleic acids and protein synthesis in their experimental and interpretive framework since the 1950s. (17-18)

The information discourse is used here as a historically and culturally situated system of representations, which in the 1950s became configured together and increasingly intuitive and commonsensical, and as an emergent form of biopower, where material control was supplemented by the control of genetic information. (19)

But information theorists used “information” (and the communication idioms associated with it) metaphorically, subverting its sense of meaningful communication. Contrary to its generic use, “information” in the mathematical theory of communication implied that information had to be thought of in a manner entirely divorced from content and subject matter. As Warren Weaver, director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Natural Science Division, explained, “The word “information” in this theory is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular, information must not be confused with meaning.” (20)

Information theory, therefore, cannot serve to legitimate the DNA text or the Book of Life as a source of biological meaning. Even if it were possible to determine mathematically (in bits) the information content of a genomic message or a “sentence” in the Book of Life, this would not yield any semantics, not unless its context (genomic, cellular, organismic, environmental) could be properly specified. (21)

When applied metaphorically to biological phenomena, “information” becomes even more problematic: it seems actually to restore its first sense as intelligence and meaning, but as such it violates the precepts of information theory, which supposedly and initially legitimized the biological applications. It thus becomes a metaphor of a metaphor, a catachresis, and a signifier without a referent. (24)

What remained in the wake of these aborted attempts to apply information theory to molecular biology was not a blank slate, but the information discourse: the system of representation – information, messages, texts, codes, cybernetic systems, programs, instructions, alphabets, words – that first emerged in the late 1940s. From information theorists’ standpoint, it was merely a rhetorical shell; its technical content emptied out. But as such, information in molecular biology served as a potent metaphor for the century-old ideas of chemical and biological specificity and as a (re)validation of molecular nature as text (the Book of Life of the computer age). (26)

Thus these discursive practices of information and language were neither external to the researchers’ analyses nor merely exegetical. Rather, they became constitutive of the reasoning and modes of signification of researchers by supplying productive models, analogies, and interpretive frameworks; though this borrowing was by no means a simple transfer but more of a two-way reworking. As Georges Canguilhem observed, “A model only becomes fertile by its own impoverishment. It must lose some of its own specific singularity to enter with the corresponding object into a new generalization.” (26)

“Once ‘information’ has passed into protein it cannot get out again,” he proclaimed in the notorious “Central Dogma” (1958). In a single masterly stroke, Crick encapsulated the imperative logic of the genetic code and the ideology and experimental mandate of the new biology: genetic information, qua DNA, was both the origin and universal agent of all life (proteins) – the Aristotelian prime mover – according to Delbrück. By that time biochemist Marshall Nirenberg had already begun tracking that genetic information by envisioning protein synthesis as “the code of life.” (30)

But aside from the paradoxes associated with a stochastic concept of information devoid of semantics there was also the problem of linguistic signification devoid of agency. Geneticist Philippe L’Héritier pointed out in 1967 that, “Being a symbolic language, human language presupposes an interlocutor and a comprehending brain but in genetic language we have nothing but information transfer between molecules [and even then ‘information transfer’ is just a metaphor]”; an objection later echoed by Florkin. (34)

Writing, from this vantage point, is the on the side of techne. It is the process of signification – ordering, naming, isolating, measuring, describing – by which knowledge of entities and phenomena become manifest; writing could be seen as a technology of representation, be it the surface of the earth, cells, or DNA. From this Derridean vantage point it is the writing itself (qua production of representation) that writes; it comes to possess a kind of agency. For once committed to describing and manipulating biological entities through the information discourse and its scriptural technologies, the scientists became part of the representational space within which techno-epistemic events of molecular biology take place. The actors’ freedom of movement, from experimental design to data interpretation and presentation, is always already mediated through that discursive/material space. (36)

Thus, if the genome stands for the origins of human life, then the Word – the DNA sequence – has brought molecular biologists as close to the act of creation as could be experienced, invoking supernatural, Faustian powers. This scriptural and material mastery was articulated by James Watson in the mandate for the Human Genome Project: “For the genetic dice will continue to inflict cruel fates on all too many individuals and their families who do not deserve this damnation. Decency demands that someone must rescue them from genetic hells. If we don’t play God, who will?” (37)

Gregory Claeys “The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism”

September 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Claeys, Gregory 2000. The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism. Journal of the History of Ideas, 61(2): 223–240.

The work which provoked Charles Darwin was T.R. Malthus’s Essay on Population (1798), which he later claimed first suggested to him the idea that “on the whole the best fitted live.” This idea Darwin would popularize through the notion of the “struggle for existence,” a phrase which he famously claimed to use as a “metaphor” but which meant simply “the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” (223)

[…] we know of course that Darwin was not the inventor of the term, “the survival of the fittest”. That honor belongs to Herbert Spencer, today best known as a founder of sociology, but the greatest polymath – and to Darwin, as well as Wallace, the greatest philosopher – of his day. Spencer coined the term in 1852 in an article on population theory, while suggesting that intraspecific struggle – largely provoked by the pressure of population growth – resulted in “progress”, with the survival of plant and animal species being dependent on their fertility. (227)

The most recent study of the subject, Mike Hawkins’s Social Darwinism and European and American Thought 1860-1945, isolates four main assumptions as composing the Social Darwinist world-view: First, biological laws govern the whole of organic nature, including humans; second, the pressure of population growth on resources generates a struggle for existence among organisms; third, physical and mental traits confer an advantage on their possessors in this struggle, or in sexual competition, which advantages can, through inheritance, spread through the population; and last, the cumulative effects of selection and inheritance over time account for the emergence of new species and the elimination of others. (228)

What unites the various forms of Social Darwinism is not a specific political stance but the application of the idea of evolution to a higher social type on the basis of social competition between “fit” and “unfit” groups and individuals, whose “fitness” or “value” to society can be defined in a number of ways. (229)

In Malthus, Original Sin, in the form of sexual desire, thus returns with a vengeance, pushing population growth relentlessly onwards unless “positive checks” like war and misery curtail it. […] Society is not fashioned by rational, creative designs but always operates within constraints imposed by the lower, animal passions. (230)

[Malthus, Essay, 1803 edition]: “A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall. (230)

Malthus viewed society in terms of an organic metaphor in which similar laws governed both animal and human worlds. He strongly distinguished between people who benefitted society (as defined in terms of productivity) and those who did not, and he defined rights as derived solely from productivity, competition-as-natural-selection dictated the survival of the “fittest”, and the starvation of the less successful, unless other factors intervened. We do not, of course, have a theory of inherited characteristics in which this “fitness” is transmitted, but we do very nearly have the symbolic imagery, so suitable to an age that prized usefulness above all else, in which such a concept functioned not as science, but as social theory. (232)

Political economy provided a technical vocabulary and a model for showing how Malthusian ideas of struggle could be understood in terms of social class and economic competition. It is no exaggeration to assert, moreover, that the triumphal conquests of the new science effected a near-seismic shift in perceptions about nations and the international order as well as classes and individuals within nations. (234)

I have contended so far that Darwin’s metaphorical application of the “survival of the fittest” to society was in fact virtually a commonplace by 1859. Malthusianism and political economy in particular created a world-view in which the first three of these components were prominent – mankind being governed by natural laws shared by animals, in a world in which scarce resources were acquired through greater mental and physical effort (or in the case of thrift, abstinence from present pleasures), and in which the most “fit”, “desirable” or “valuable” members of society, the most “useful” or productive, survived or ought to survive. (235)

Yet “Social Darwinism” is not entirely a misnomer. What, then, was novel about, and what remains distinctly “Darwinian” about, Social Darwinism? Four theses suggest themselves.

1) […] what was new in the 1850s (at least at the popular level) was the notion that inherited characteristics, rather than individual and collective moral effort and education, cumulatively played a distinctive role in the character of a people. But this view can of course also be associated with Spencer’s idea of the improvement of type. Malthus had formulated the struggle for existence. Darwin, Wallace, and Spencer added that this struggle improved species as well as generated new species via the hereditary transmission of traits. (236)

2) […] the application of ideas of inherited characteristics to society not only came from sources other than Darwin, but Darwin himself, in the years between the Origin of Species (1859) and the Descent of Man (1871) reformulated his ideas considerably. The Origin was not of course concerned with human, much less social, evolution; nor were its social implications necessarily optimistic. Indeed, as soon as Darwin’s ideas were applied to society, it was widely recognized that if the criterion of “fitness” was fecundity, it was the poorer and most degraded classes, with the largest families, who seemed most likely to dictate the future course of human evolution. By the mid 1860s Darwin was anxious to resist this conclusion. Here he turned for assistance to Wallace’s 1864 research on the tendency of natural selection to promote human intelligence. […] In the mid-1860s Darwin himself became in effect a Social Darwinist, and came increasingly to hope that the optimal outcome of human natural selection would be the triumph of “the intellectual and moral” races over the “lower and more degraded ones.” (236, 237)

3) […] we see that a complex language of race played a pivotal role in this transition. In the Origin Darwin had used the term race very loosely, to denote species in general. Although the language of race in the Descent is overlaid almost exactly on an earlier, familiar language of savagery and civility, which was itself central to the existing justification of imperial expansion, Darwin here presumes that the “civilised races … encroach on and replace” the savage, with the “lower races” being displaced through the accumulation of capital and the growth of the arts. (237)

4) […] what was most distinctive about much (though not all) Social Darwinism was its concern not with “race” as such in the loose sense of a term of general classification but with a new definition of race directly attached to skin color, in which ideas of racial hierarchy and supremacy were wedded to earlier notions of “fitness”. Race was now assumed to be a determinate, independent factor in human evolution. (238)

James G. Lennox “Darwin Was a Teleologist”

August 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Lennox, James G. 1993. Darwin Was a Teleologist. Biology and Philosophy 8: 409-421.

The conclusion that Darwin was not a teleologist follows inexorably from two premises: (i) The only “non-trivial” teleological explanations are those which appeal to divine design or an internal vital force; (ii) Darwinian selection explanations appeal to neither. (410)

Selection explanations are inherently teleological, in the sense that a value consequence (Darwin most often uses the term ‘advantage’) of a trait explains its increase, or presence, in a population. (410)

[…] Darwin essentially re-invented teleology. Encouraged by many close followers to drop the term ‘natural selection’, Darwin steadfastly refused. He saw, better than his followers, that it could not easily be dropped. In the context of viewing variation as the provision of a random set of alternatives, a mechanism for selecting among them is crucial. The concept of selection permits the extension of the teleology of domestic breeding into the natural domain, without the need of conscious design. As in domestic selection, the good served by a variation continues to be causally relevant to its increasing frequency, or continued presence, in a population – but the causal mechanism, and the locus of goodness, shifts. (417)