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Science as Culture
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The Postmortal Condition: From the Biomedical Deconstruction of Death to the Extension of Longevity
Céline Lafontaine
a a

University of Montréal, Canada

Available online: 16 Nov 2009

To cite this article: Céline Lafontaine (2009): The Postmortal Condition: From the Biomedical Deconstruction of Death to the Extension of Longevity, Science as Culture, 18:3, 297-312 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09505430903123008

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the scientific deconstruction of death assumes that a calculation of risks and a mode of intervention to fight death are put in place (Bauman. altering its boundaries. Montreal H3C 3J7. artificial prolongation of life and cryonics. altering its boundaries. biomedicine. as expressed in the life extension movement and in discourses accompanying biomedical advances. this article will look at the new technoscientific representations of death and longevity. 2008). Inseparable from the medicalization process. 297– 312. 18. Departement de sociologie. addressing its causes. this article will investigate the social and ethical consequences of this marked desire to conquer death scientifically. Universite de Montreal. controlling all of its parameters and understanding its process in order to prolong life as long as possible or even surpass the temporal limits of human existence—such is the objective that the scientific and political authorities are pursuing so doggedly that health has become one of our societies’ major concerns. 3. Starting with the biomedical deconstruction of death. life extension. technoscience. Drawing a parallel between the status of older people and biomedical advances’ fight against ageing. Canada. 1992). the development of regenerative medicine and of nanomedicine. to live without ageing and even to extend life indefinitely. This permeates the theoretical debates surrounding genetic immortality.Science as Culture Vol. Deferring death. ´ succursale Centre-Ville. biopower. September 2009 The Postmortal Condition: From the Biomedical Deconstruction of Death to the Extension of Longevity Downloaded by [Fondren Library.ca 0950-5431 Print/1470-1189 Online/09/030297-16 # 2009 Process Press DOI: 10. addressing its causes. controlling all of its parameters and understanding its process in order to prolong life as long as possible or even surpass the temporal limits of human existence—such is the objective that the scientific and political authorities are pursuing so doggedly that health has become one of our societies’ major concerns (Lafontaine. ageing. In the theoretical extension of the theses on biopower and bioeconomics. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 ´ CELINE LAFONTAINE ´ University of Montreal.1080/09505430903123008 .P 6128.lafontaine@umontreal. KEY WORDS : Death.1 ´ ´ ´ ´ Correspondence Address: Celine Lafontaine. particular attention will be paid to the issue of the perfectibility and the reengineering of the body. Email: celine. individualism Introduction The endless health advice presented in the media and in public-health campaigns attests to the ever-increasing importance of biomedical science in our societies. C. Canada ABSTRACT Deferring death. No.

the very concept of cerebral death could not have emerged (Saint-Arnaud. 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. 2003). The biomedical deconstruction of death (Bauman. The unlimited extension of biopower that results from the right to health care places biomedical knowledge at the very core of social regulation. 2006). the development of anti-age medicine and nanomedicine and the use of cryonics. 2004. 30– 31). even ageing looks like a disease. p. This permeates extensionist debates of genetic immortality. 128). 2001. this article will examine the new technoscientific representations of death and longevity (Waldby. Thus. as expressed in the life extension movement and in the discourses accompanying biomedical advances. To conclude this introduction. Particular attention will be paid to the issue of the perfectibility and reengineering of the body. without the resuscitation technologies that make it possible to reverse cardiopulmonary arrest. Viewed through the biomedical prism of pathology. 11). subject to indefinite extension (Carol. 2002. Within the context of bioeconomics focused on the battle against ageing. in which ageing is perceived both as a collective burden and as a risk for which individuals should be given personal responsibility. Like the myths and beliefs surrounding immortality. 2008) must be understood in its overall socio-historical context.298 C. 53. of indefinitely extending life and even of reaching immortality on earth (Boia. p. the belief in science’s unlimited extension of human life is no more real and empirically founded than the resurrection of Christ or the attainment of Nirvana. how can we perceive the limits of biomedical knowledge? What is the status of mortality in the directions currently being taken by biomedical research? As death becomes increasingly medical and biomedical devices become increasingly technical and perfected. 1992) and its demographic entrenchment in old age feeds many scientists’ and researchers’ fantasy of transcending the biological limitations of human existence. Sociologist Downloaded by [Fondren Library. 2002). according to the logic of the commodification of health care. such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. individuals must make a financial investment in order to ensure their longevity. As maintained by the largest international organizations. ‘nothing nowadays is external to medicine’ (Foucault. sociologist Brett Neilson shows not only that ageing has become one of the major challenges faced by Western states but also that it is above all at the heart of contemporary biopolitics. Lafontaine The constantly increasing public burden of health-care costs is at the heart of the political and economic concerns of ‘postmortal’ society. 2006). In other words. pp. free translation). p. if we are to truly appreciate its scope. This thesis is echoed in the work of Melinda Cooper. the definition of death is seen as malleable and historically constructed (Lock. Extracted from its symbolic and religious setting. Thus. Far from being an inevitable and irreversible phenomenon that formerly bore witness to the passing of time. in view of the deconstruction of death. 1975. In his article ‘Globalisation and the biopolitics of aging’. the notion of an ‘old-age crisis’ falls within the context of capitalist globalization. 1996). Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 . In a context of that sort. the technoscientific quest for ‘postmortality’ (Lafontaine. aiming to control individuals and make them aware of their responsibilities for their own health (Neilson. which draws a connection between the World Bank’s prediction of an economic catastrophe caused by the ageing of the population and the massive investments in research intended to combat geriatric diseases (Cooper. death has become multiple and plural. let us clarify that from a socio-anthropological view point.

In considerations of immortality: The dream of the elixir of life or the fountain of youth is indeed quite ancient. cancer/chemotherapy) (Bauman. The knowledge of the inexorable nature of death is hidden by efforts made to push it away as far as possible—thanks to medicine. each new cause of mortality is motivation to find a biomedical arsenal to fight death and extend life (for example. Building on Foucault’s theories of biopower. p. 2004. French anatomist Xavier Bichat marked not only the Birth of the Clinic. Not only did the ‘interiorization’ of death following this anatomical – clinical definition historically lead to the privatization of death. medical science began to deconstruct death into a series of physiological stages. sociologist Nikolas Rose (2007) analyzes how. or. p. Before this. Starting in the nineteenth century. free translation). pp. several stages can come in between life and total death’ (Thomas. so much so in fact that the mortal process reaches above and beyond the limits of an individual’s life. The process of the biomedical deconstruction of death comes under a broad historic movement in which health and extended life expectancy have become central issues in Western democracies. insurance policies and the hope that we could indeed succeed (Elias. a pseudo-scientific one. pneolators and organ transplants to grasp the current elasticity of the boundaries of death (Lock. to live without ageing and even to indefinitely extend life. We only have to think of cardio-resuscitation. this article will investigate the social and ethical consequences of this marked desire to scientifically conquer death. But only in our times does it take a scientific form. Deconstruction of Death By defining life as being ‘the ensemble of functions that resist death’ (free translation). 147). This fluctuation regards not only the identification of the final moment. death was seen as an exterior force. a divine. free translation).The Postmortal Condition 299 Norbert Elias was one of the first to identify this interference between science and mythology. in certain cases. 1975. infectious diseases/ vaccinations. mythological or accidental essence that descended upon an indi` vidual (Aries. The cessation of function in one or more vital organs (functional death) is scientifically differentiated from the death of the entire organic system (clinical death) or the death of cells of all the tissues that make up the organism (elementary death) (Fantini & Grmek.2 Thus. [1963] 2005. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 . Death and old age are thus treated like diseases. it also gave a combative impulse to medical science. as early as 1800. moving from the lungs (breath) to the heart to end in the brain (Carol. but also the naturalization of death and its integration into life (Foucault. p. 2002). [1982] 2002. 138 – 139). 30– 31. Its place has changed across history. as later subjected to detailed analysis by Michel Foucault. ills against which one must fight. As anthropologist LouisVincent Thomas explains: ‘As a result. but also the place in the body where death is registered. 65. Continuing in this vein. 1416). 1992. public health and individual ‘well-being’ overtook the grand modern political projects to henceforth become the primary collective horizon. biopolitics is Downloaded by [Fondren Library. after the Second World War. This distinction between an individual’s death and the irreversible deterioration of his or her tissues opens the door to medical intervention to extend the process. 1977). Tightly connected with the genetic revolution. pp. 2004).

p. 644). improve the physical performance of older people and increase longevity (Juengst. see also Davis.000 members. p. completely thwart them (Klatz. 280). Ageing would simply be explained by natural selection. which favours reproduction and had no ‘plan’ for the extension of organic life beyond it. Founded in 1992 by a group of scientists and doctors. 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. Rather. they present themselves as the adventurers and conquerors of old age against a backdrop of the conservative and Downloaded by [Fondren Library. The first hypothesis argues that it is a phenomenon genetically programmed by evolution. biogerontology oscillates between two broad methods for scientifically explaining age-related regression. senescence would be a fluke of evolution and would have no particular function from an evolutionary point of view (Caplan. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 . the American Academy of AntiAgeing Medicine (A4M) gives biogerontology institutional footing. to a new way of practising medicine. Lafontaine 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. anthropologist Courtney Everts Mykytyn shows that its goal is to optimize health and prolong life indefinitely (2006a. including humans. 2005). 2004. 2004). The Fight against Ageing By extending the biomedical deconstruction of death. this testing of the limits of human longevity gave rise in the early 1990s to a new scientific discipline: biogerontology. p. Deeply interested in the anti-ageing current of biomedicine that A4M represents. With more than 11. 2005). While geriatrics is focused on the study and treatment of age-related disease. 105). p. in a yet more optimistic perspective. Accused of being charlatans lured by potential gains. whether it is the result of genetic programming or the unforeseen consequence of the laws of evolution. Concerned with the cellular and molecular processes of the body. it is based on the conviction that it is scientifically possible to intervene in the ageing process to detect its effects or. Caplan. For bioethicist Arthur L. 2003. This would explain why. this new discipline aims to understand and master the biological processes that characterize ageing (Mykytyn. 2006b). A4M proposes not only a different approach to ageing. 2006a). biogerontology rejects the generally admitted idea that senescence is a natural and inevitable phenomenon and that death is a biological necessity. very few individuals reach or outlive the age of reproduction. ageing is a mortal calamity that science must combat (Mykytyn. 2004. From biogerontology’s viewpoint. Movements in support of extending life via the technosciences are part of this context. 2004).. A4M biogerontologists are the subject of lively debate (Binstock. Assimilated into modern emancipation. under natural conditions. this argument alone justifies why we consider ageing to be a disease and not a natural phenomenon (Caplan. Other than the purely negative representation of old age that it conveys—turning older people into consenting victims—this movement is characterized by belligerence within the biomedical community. Of course. this is true for most animal species. this association aims to fight the symptoms of ageing. but also. Resembling more a social movement than a new scientific discipline. and most significantly. 280). while the second claims that it is an accidental effect of natural selection (Anton et al.300 C. In an openly anti-age perspective. In this second hypothesis. 2003.

Attacking both medical authorities and gerontologists who express concern about the ethical consequences of anti-age medicine. 2004. This is why scientific development perspectives show not only a tendency to progressively eat away at death. Condorcet’s dream that a time will come when death would result only from extraordinary accidents or the more and more gradual wearing out of vitality. 2006). p. it is not society that must be changed. 350. 2005). 651).000 people each day that this technology is not developed if we delay that progress by failing to speak and act to bring it about’ (de Grey. but also a tendency to revolutionize mankind in his very nature ([1951] 2002. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 servile biomedical establishment (Mykytyn. 2008). . p. the duration of the average interval between birth and wearing out has itself no specific limit whatsoever ([1795] 1988. what must now be overcome are the obstacles imposed by the limitations of life itself. free translation) is more relevant than ever. This passage from the perfectibility of society to the perfectibility of life itself corresponds with the depoliticization of society and the increase in a new genre of individualism founded on the belief in the superpower of science and its capacity to intervene in the vital process (Knorr Cetina. If we take seriously the philosophy generated by the concept of posthumanism or groups like the World Transhumanist Association. p. The technoscientific desire to indefinitely prolong life is based on a particular conception of human perfectibility. If we trust the predictions of Dr Ronald Klatz. perfectibility (as defined by supporters of the anti-age struggle) is brought back to its strictly individual and biological aspect (Knorr Cetina. Thus. and that. at the very core of the life extension movement: Overcoming specific death also signifies domesticating the species on all levels. To colonize the species is to colonize death itself: it is the triumph of individuality and its infinite possibility. the avenues of antiage medicine are practically unlimited. finally. 265). since they will soon allow us to overcome the limitations of human longevity (currently established at around 120 years) to eventually reach theoretical immortality (2005. From Perfectibility to Overcoming the Limitation of the Human Species More than 200 years after its formulation. 2005).The Postmortal Condition 301 Downloaded by [Fondren Library. a member of A4M. Current research in the biomedical sector is indeed converging in anti-age medicine. p. 2006a. free translation). As such. Science’s quest for immortality goes hand in hand with a desire to overcome an evolutionary framework in order to access the postmortal condition (Lafontaine. The desire to transcend the biological framework of the human species is. 2004). but rather the individual. regenerative medicine constitutes in some ways the scientific standard of this fight against ageing (Cooper. 348. Bringing about a major change of paradigm. p. 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. biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey affirms that ‘we risk being responsible for the deaths of (count them) over 100. who is essentially understood to be an informational being (Lafontaine. as sociologist Edgar Morin points out. Whereas during the Enlightenment it underlay global social progress through reason. 541).

Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 . p. they explicitly aim to optimize individual biological capacities in order to buffer the ‘errors’ of nature (Mykytyn. technical or human). as it applies to living beings and machines alike (Lafontaine. p. information in the cybernetic model becomes a more fundamental concept than the notion of life itself. [1951] 2002. he states that engineering an artillery system capable of following and identifying its target effectively is what inspired Wiener to develop a theoretical model in which the pilot is integrated as a part of a self-regulated machine. In an article titled ‘The ontology of the enemy’. 2005. gave rise to a new perception of living beings in terms of codes and genetic information (Kay. from a conceptual absence of differentiation between human and machine. in fact. The pilot represents an integral part of the technical device. 46). p. 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. free translation). the line between necessary care and performance-based medicine is difficult to draw—all the more so because the ideal of perfectibility itself has no limit (Thacker. 2006a. behind the notions of code and a genetic programme hides the idea that it would be possible to decode the ‘book of life’ in order to conquer and surpass the limits of death. p. It is in that sense that Peter Galison uses the phrase ‘ontology of the enemy’ (1994). Without going into the historical details. Theoretically perceived as a quantifiable physical principle with which the efficiency of a given system can be measured. 2004). This absence of conceptual distinction between living and non-living leads to the assimilation of death to the phenomenon of entropy. 2000). [1954] 1988. In a society where ‘only accidental death is natural’ (Morin. Called on to be improved and modified. following the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crik in 1953. the body is indeed seen as a sketch that can Downloaded by [Fondren Library. biological. this imperative for self-transformation via the technical is anchored in an informational representation of the world in which the human species is a stage in an as yet unfinished evolutionary process (Lafontaine. 321. This statement alone from the founder of cybernetics. let us emphasize that the introduction of cybernetic concepts into molecular biology. 644). Indeed. summarizes the logic of adaptation and technoscientific perfectibility for which the defenders of life extension call.302 C. the analytical model he developed during this period stems. Beyond biomedical advances. In fact. Based on the feedback notion. Norbert Wiener. The processing and control of information seem like a way to postpone death. Human/Machine Hybridization: An Avenue to Postmortality ‘We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment’ (Wiener. In his article. one of the main characteristics of which is the systematic devaluation of the human body. before being physically relegated by the machine. Lafontaine regenerative medicine. science historian Peter Galison demonstrates the significance of a military experiment as a defining moment in the elaboration of the cybernetic model (1994). the enemy pilot is the first-ever cyborg model created and later becomes the icon of the cybernetic subject after the war. 2004). 295). it is actually all of the technosciences that seem to be carried by the informational model. Formulated at the end of World War II. nanomedicine and biogerontology conduct the biomedical deconstruction of death and ageing.

William Sims Bainbridge (2004) goes so far as to affirm that the transfer of information from brain to computer will liberate the body. A member of the Immortality Institute. . it is not just the digestive system that is obsolete. historian David F. .3 In this perspective. 156– 157). and type II diabetes’ (2004. that ‘bloody mess of organic matter’. In the eyes of this engineer.The Postmortal Condition 303 Downloaded by [Fondren Library. 1999. or other thing that has a mind’ (Noble. pp. Kurzweil argues. 103). this biological strategy [the digestive system] is extremely counterproductive. like Kurzweil. the robotics specialist Hans Moravec believes that intelligent machines represent the next evolutionary stage: Minsky described the human brain as nothing more than a ‘meat machine’ and regarded the body.) The possibility of an utter separation of mind from the thinking person underlaid his belief in the possibility of a thinking machine—‘machine that manufacture thoughts’—and view intelligence as something that could be achieved by any ‘brain. suggests a complete reprogramming of the human body in order to produce a Version 2. the overcoming of the body through technosciences may take several forms: either a complete remodelling of the biological body through genetic engineering and nanotechnologies or the downloading of the contents of the brain to a computer.0 that is better adapted and performs better than the original biological version (2004. p. an era in which the body will be overcome via biotechnologies. technoscientific evolution replaces the inevitability of death. Raymond Kurzweil. The engineer and specialist in artificial intelligence. Faced with this evolutionary decrepitude of human nature. the conception of the body as an evolutionary weakness is clearly transparent in the Human Body Version 2. information technologies and artificial intelligence. For instance. Dominant in life extensionist discourse. Our outdated metabolic programming underlies our contemporary epidemic of obesity and fuels pathological processes of degenerative disease such as coronary artery disease. for example. but the entire human organism. as a ‘teleoperator for the brain’ (. 1999).0 project. pp. The idea that it would eventually be possible to download the contents of human intelligence to a machine in order to pursue post-biological existence is also very present in cyberculture circles. machine. which is but a fragile and flawed medium for our informational ‘essence’. Kurzweil directly associates life extension with the complete biological modification of the species. in other words. According to Kurzweil. Kurzweil hopes for the beginning of post-biology or. 4 – 5). the idea that it would eventually be possible to transfer the contents of a human being to an artificial medium is clearly found in Norbert Wiener’s thought: . Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 be entirely remodelled (Le Breton. that: ‘Today. Although it seems to come directly out of a science fiction plot. Considering the digestive system to be poorly adapted to the new technoscientific world. A sociologist connected with the National Science Foundation. Noble demonstrates how the belief in informational immortality is quite widespread in the fields of artificial intelligence and the information technologies. The transfer of the human mind to an artificial medium would assure the transformation of Homo Sapiens into Machina Sapiens—a supreme form of intelligence liberated from the torments of mortality. Informational Immortality In a book entitled The Religion of Technology.

thus. nanotechnologies are a clear avenue to postmortality. the contemporary technoscientific paradigm participates in a conceptual non-differentiation between human and machine. Transposed to the human being. They are in some ways an ‘umbrella’ term encompassing a set of technoscientific mutations (Schmidt. to the difficulty of keeping an organism in being during such a radical reconstruction. computer science and genetic engineering. were in keeping with this idea when he declared that it would soon be possible to burn the contents of a human being onto CD and. between nature and artifice and between the living and the non-living (Lafontaine. transport them in one’s pocket (Kay. and in particular. Downloaded by [Fondren Library.4 Quoted by many researchers as the miracle solution to human weakness and death. this double logic causes us to see the improvement and modification of the body as a ‘natural’ continuation of evolution. The brain is a neurological soul. The idea itself is highly plausible ([1954] 1988. to conceive of broadening the scope of the human body via electronic chips and nanorobots (Lafontaine. the fact that we cannot telegraph the pattern of a man from one place to another seems to be due to technical difficulties. microelectronics. Lafontaine In others words. Indeed. 2002. 2002). p. thus questioning the discursive boundaries between science and science fiction (Colin. 2004). nanotechnologies seem to be able to accomplish practically all imaginable scientific exploits. including that of fighting old age and the possibility of overcoming death via molecular machines able to repair the cellular damage of ageing. A research field in which the results are still experimental. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 The Future without Limits via Nanotechnologies Produced by a technoscientific convergence of quantum physics. In 1990. in the eyes of some. 5). 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. 2000. This blurring of the lines has repercussions for the posthuman imagination in the belief in a subjective continuity between corporal and artificial media—therein lies the fantasy of downloading—but also the project to improve the body. 104). Electron storage creates the silicon soul. p. the Nobel Prize winner for molecular biology. Nanotechnology makes possible the atomic soul’ (Gullichsen. nanotechnologies are characterized by the manipulation and recombination of matter on the atomic level. However. Pairing living organisms and inert matter on the molecular level makes it possible. 201). for example. the unequalled potentialities of nanotechnologies feed a futurist’s imagination. nanotechnologies leave room for researchers’ and futurologists’ speculations. 2004). 2006). 2004). nanotechnologies embody the technoscientific ideal of a world without mortality. p. 1994. . but also that it will be possible to improve it (Bensaude-Vincent. Oscillating between an extreme materialism that founds subjectivity on the molecular level and an idealism that translates all reality into information. Lopez. 2004). we must clarify that this reasoning is possible only because nature and life were already epistemologically redefined as malleable and controllable molecular assemblages (Dupuy. even make it amortal through the incorporation of molecular machines.304 C. the arguments of Walter Gilbert. Carrier of all hopes. In Eric Drexler’s founding argumentation (1986). Eric Gullichsen’s positions are in fact the very soul of the postmortal condition: ‘The DNA is a molecular soul.

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. p. 265). These types of determinism are found at the very basis of the life extension movement.The Postmortal Condition 305 Robert A. Downloaded by [Fondren Library. Mody (2004). 2000). dechronification would consist of first ridding each cell of its accumulated toxins. Freitas set up a research project with the goal of establishing a therapeutic ‘dechronification’ process. According to science historian Cyrus C. those that improve human performance and extend life play a central role. Among the many promises of the conquest of the infinitely small. pursues this logic when he states: Most investigators think ageing is the result of a number of interrelated molecular processes and malfunctions in cells. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 . Freitas. Thus if nanomedicine can learn to reverse most cellular malfunctions. nanomedicine researcher at the Foresight Institute. 2002). M. Entitled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance. 2004. while the second presents technology as the major determinant in economic and social development. in other words. discussion around nanotechnologies is directly in keeping with the outlook of the life extension movement. 2000. middle-aged and even elderly people should be able to regain most of their youthful health. The first argues an autonomous development of the technical. While waiting for the massive investments in nanomedical research to bear fruit. 2004. cellular rejuvenation. the very man who defended cyberimmortality via the transfer of human intelligence from biological to informational media (2004). since it carries the hope of an existence spared at long last from illness and death. life extensionist researchers are not marginalized. The issue of mastery and manipulation frequently found in the debate on nanotechnologies attests to the epistemological primacy bestowed upon technological applications (Mody. then replacing any chromosomes showing genetic errors and finally repairing one by one the more serious damages to cellular structure (Freitas. By blurring the lines between science and science fiction. Therefore. there are indeed two types of determinist arguments in the discussions on the development of nanotechnologies. We must point out that one of the co-authors of the NSF programme is none other than sociologist William Sims Bainbridge. see also 2004). rather. 7). Persuaded that nanotechnologies will make it possible to reverse the ageing process on the molecular level. these issues participate in fact in a dual determinism. The speculative discourse to which they lend themselves provides a perfect framework for contemporary technological determinism. they are generally well positioned on the political and economic chessboard of research. p. the project to modify and improve the human being through nanotechnologies was the object of a research programme in 2002 led by the National Science Foundation. Founded on a technological reductionism that tends to blur the lines between science and the technical. the NBIC programme [nano-bio-infocogno] prospectively presents the technoscientific advances that are imaginable thanks to the strength of a convergence of nanotechnology (Roco & Bainbridge. institutionally. The much-awaited technological revolution will be a salvation. Far from being restricted to a circle of marginal researchers and futurologists. which can be summarized as follows: the human body is inevitably called on to be transformed to adapt to its new technoscientific environment. Intended to treat weaknesses leading to natural death. Faced with such promises. and to enjoy an almost indefinite extension of life (Freitas. strength and beauty.

patiently frozen.306 C. point out the major role that nanotechnologies played in enhancing the credibility of their company: ‘Alcor grew slowly in its early years. If a patient is placed in a state of biostasis (i. the criteria of biological death are constantly changing. Positioned in keeping with the biomedical deconstruction of death. Lafontaine well-off seniors of our underdeveloped era can nonetheless wait. the defenders of cryonics simply extrapolate in an imaginary futuristic landscape the trends that are already present in the technoscientific world. the idea of chemically freezing ‘patients’ immediately after their death. those who promote this body conservation method drink at the same theoretical fountain as life extensionists. took root as long ago as 1964 when physics professor Robert C. 2007). p.e. The argument in favour of cryonics perfectly fits into the reasoning of the molecularization of culture as analyzed by Nikolas Rose (2007). 2005. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 . Demonstrated by experiments on the human embryo during in vitro reproduction. Downloaded by [Fondren Library. In the context of the biomedical redefinition of what constitutes death. Definitively crossing the line between science and science fiction. frozen). they could therefore hope to eventually regain health and pursue an indefinite lifespan: ‘Clinical death is often reversible. Current scientific knowledge concerning the definition of death will then become obsolete (Alcor Life Extension. visionary nanotechnology engineer Eric Drexler (1986) sees cryonics as a practical solution for those who hope to take advantage of any future miracles provided by molecular machines. Technically speaking. In a radical manner. the directors of Alcor argue that the future development of biomedical technologies will make it possible to shorten the time to resuscitate an individual in cardiac arrest without causing irreparable damage to the brain. 2008). Thus. If the prospective discourse around the development of nanotechnologies lent cryonics additional legitimacy. 3). and even cellular death is a matter of degree. since it is possible for an individual cell to be made nonfunctional by minor and eventually reparable damage’ (Ettinger. The directors of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Founding his position on scientific knowledge acquired in cellular cryogenetics and changes in the biomedical definition of death. W. for our scientific revolution to come to term (Lafontaine. 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. Frozen Eternity An extreme manifestation of the biomedical deconstruction of death. According to Alcor. 2008). he pushes to the limits the concept of the latter in terms of processes to affirm that the criteria for clinical death change according to the function of technoscientific developments. 2007). Ettinger argues that it may eventually be possible to bring back to life an individual who has been placed in cryonic suspension. the vitrification process (freezing the body below – 120 degrees Celsius) avoids the formation of ice and irrevocable cellular deterioration. thanks to cryonics. Ettinger published a work entitled The Prospect of Immortality (2005). before the concept of nanotechnology helped to legitimize the possibility that future science could repair cell damage caused by freezing’ (Alcor Life Extension Foundation. to allow them to benefit in the future from possible scientific advances. any cell damage caused by this preservation method is entirely neutralized by nanotechnologies once the patient is unfrozen (Alcor Life Extension Foundation. one of the largest human cryonics companies in the United States. cryonics is the most far-flung incarnation of the technoscientific imagination of postmortality (Lafontaine.

other movements that are very well organized. 176. Quest for Voluntary Death Biomedical deconstruction. to the technoscientific community. stems entirely from technical and medical assistance. in the cases of euthanasia and assisted suicide. prizes such as the Methuselah Mouse Prize are compensating advances in the field. moves towards increased control and dependency of patients with respect to the biomedical authorities (Tierney. it is a treatment targeting ‘patients’ whose cellular processes have not completely shut down (Cryonics Institute. Beyond being financially prosperous. death becomes a series of easily solved problems: care for one’s body. biotechnologies and nanotechnologies indeed give the illusion that it is possible to take action against death. which began as a response to the prolongation of life by medical means and to biomedical control. as the assertion of the subject’s right to selfdetermination. cryonics participates in a wide-reaching technoscientific network and has a far from negligible influence on the overall orientation of research. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 2007). which is at the root of claims to ‘the right to die’. 2002). A fundamental and unsolvable problem. so far as to make it disappear completely. the members of the two primary cryonics companies—Alcor and the Cryonics Institute—have the sociological characteristics of belonging. It appears all the more plausible that a whole series of highly financed research projects and organizations are taking action. p. Thus the principle of autonomy. following the example of the more serious scientific institutions. The movement in support of voluntary death. and that. although it is a very marginal practice. One must simply consult the list of scientific committee members of these two organizations to realize to just what point they are rooted in the institutional and financial milieu of university research. The technoscientific promises of anti-age medicine. extension of life expectancy and the research to fight ageing have contributed to dissipating the inevitable horizon of death by seemingly wielding power over mortality. Alongside claims for the right to a dignified death. Connected to this are the movements in favour of the right to dignified death through euthanasia and assisted suicide.6 .The Postmortal Condition 307 Downloaded by [Fondren Library. This is one reason why the directors of the Cryonics Institute—founded in 1976 by Robert Ettinger—insist upon the fact that cryonics is not a method for conserving cadavers. 1997). physical fitness. such as the World Transhumanist Association (2007a). Philosopher Marina Maestrutti clearly describes this new attitude towards death: Practical worries about the risks threatening life cast aside the metaphysical worry of death as an inevitable conclusion to existence. is based on a profound paradox.5 Thus. regenerative medicine. Death is henceforth seen as an obliged passage that can nonetheless be controlled by biomedical parameters. 2008). The ever-increasing technicization of death leaves little room for patients and their loved ones who are entirely overcome by the biomedical complex (Lafontaine. nutrition and general health are tasks that the individual takes on responsibly in a daily struggle against the end (2007. free translation). openly militate for the right to live as long as possible thanks to unlimited use of biomedical technologies. for the most part. rather. Good personal hygiene therefore becomes a way of acting against the causes of death that give the impression of actively being able to put a contrasting action in place.

so much so that ageing becomes pathology. vitamins. the fight against ageing contributes to the isolation and devaluation of the elderly. in particular. British sociologist John A. 2006). Featherstone & Hepworth. the ageing of the population appears in many socioeconomic studies as a factor contributing to stagnation and regression (Cooper. Based on an analysis of the scientific representations of ageing. and includes genetics and genetic engineering or research on degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The first category is made up of products intended to camouflage or compensate the effects of ageing. p. death becomes an option among others. As a true civilizational ‘problem’ (Neilson. the fight against ageing mobilizes an entire arsenal of professions and products. Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 Postmortal Condition or the Denial of Age Whether the issue be economic productivity. In the . such as regenerative medicine and nanomedicine. The typology that John A.308 C. that of turning to cryonics in the hope of one day coming back to life. Furthermore. Cancer treatments are the most convincing example of curative medicine. This means that everybody should be free to extend their lives and to arrange for cryonic suspension of their deanimated bodies. diets. Downloaded by [Fondren Library. 2006). 2007b). exercise programmes or even drugs such as Viagra or growth hormones that are intended to reduce symptoms of ageing. people who are ‘suffering’ from it are not only excluded from society. 688). The claim for the right to technically prolong life by all means is emblematic of the postmortal condition. Qualifying as ‘deathists’ (religion of death) the opponents to the transformation of the human being for an indefinite extension of longevity. It also means that voluntary euthanasia. they become an element of biopower via an increasingly far-reaching medicalization (Neilson. the individual signs of the passage of time. If old age is a state against which one must fight. is a basic human right (World Transhumanist Association. This is all the more true as the line between disease and ageing is blurred in medicine. transhumanists affirm that ‘death should be voluntary’ and that it is simply an individual choice: The transhumanist position on the ethics of death is crystal clear: death should be voluntary. Vincent (2006) creates makes it possible to measure the scope of this phenomenon. the purpose of which is to attenuate. such as anti-wrinkle creams. transhumanists reject the very idea of death’s inevitability. 2003. Lafontaine As part of this reasoning. Cooper. Vincent demonstrates the obvious use of war metaphors in the discourse of old age (2006. Paradoxically. The third category consists of preventative science. 2005. the cost of health care or political conservatism. the ageing of the population is culturally accompanied by an overestimation of youth and a systematic devaluation of old age (Seale. The second category is curative medicine that today makes it possible to considerably extend life expectancy. even eradicate. including. under conditions of informed consent. The fourth and final category is made up of those who openly call for the elimination of ageing altogether and the infinite extension of individual life via the technosciences. Inseparable from the biomedical deconstruction of death. which aims to counter the phenomenon of ageing on the cellular level. 2003). 2005). recognizing the henceforth optional nature of death.

p. Without any other meaning than the end of an individual. However. its loss of meaning and the feeling of absurdity that accompanies it are the negative sides of the postmortal condition. instead. individuals become consumers called upon to make financial investments in extending their own lives (Franklin. a series of interchangeable moments and experiences on a timeline that can be broken down into identical units (Kass. terrifying than ever. 2008). Rice University ] at 11:02 22 August 2011 The concept of the ‘biomedical deconstruction of death’ harks back to the historical process through which medical science perceives death as a natural phenomenon that can be combated. 2003). there is no valid reason to die to make room for a new generation (Overall. life has a vital cycle that begins at birth and takes place through a series of stages that correspond to corporeal. but to meaninglessness. the desocialization of death. Feeding the fantasy of infinite longevity. particularly with regard to access to technological innovations in the area of anti-ageing medicine. however. from an individualistic point of view. neoliberal individualism finds its most extreme form. the cultural. For the life extension movement. the biomedical deconstruction of death and anti-age medicine threaten to shake even more fundamentally the anthropological reference points on which human existence and experience is based. Death thus becomes socially insignificant (Lafontaine. contemporary individualism participates in the desymbolizing of death. 2004. Strangely. even as a choice (Walter. the current directions that biomedical research is taking raise important ethical questions. For bioethicist John K. 1994). During this period. bioethicist Daniel Callahan has raised the issue of a technoscientific logic based on a desire to extend life indefinitely whilst the resources of the health-care system are limited (Callahan & Prager. 7). Death comes to end this cycle of individual life by symbolically opening the way for new generations. 2003). Conclusion In postmodern society. it is by taking stock and transmitting consciousness of the vital cycle that old age takes on its full meaning as the last stage before the ultimate passage (Kass.The Postmortal Condition 309 context of bioeconomics based on the fight against ageing. death has become a strictly individual affair and is defined as a right. 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. 2008). since it is a sign of the failed promise of amortality (Davis. This concept also harks back to the transformations of the bodily and biological boundaries of death . ageing in itself is a disease that can be fought. In this sense. 2003). Thus death is deconstructed into a series of causes and risk factors. subjective and social transformations. if not more. 2008). according to philosopher Christine Overall. According to this logic. scientific and demographic pushing away of death and the idea that death can be actively fought have not attenuated the fear death inspires—in fact. life is seen as linear and extensible. the linear vision of a theoretical unlimited life leads not only to the devaluation of old age. The latter appears to be the historic result of scientific deconstruction and the reduction of human perfectibility to its purely technical aspect. Additionally. Avowedly adopting neoliberal perspectives (Copper. The devaluing of old age. Through the life extension movement. death is still as. In other words. quite the contrary. Thus. human life does not in any way correspond with this fictive temporality. Davis. Notes 1 Downloaded by [Fondren Library. 2003).

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