Baudrillard and Biology

Lora Schwartz

The real is commonly identified with the biological. That which is produced by organic processes without the help of human constructed devices is often considered actual and that which is constructed by humans is a simulacrum or simulation. Modern day biotechnology combines the simulated, in the form of technology, and the actual, in the form of biology, but there is still a noticable separation unlike Jean Baudrillard's predictions for the role of biology that he describes in his "cloning" section of Simulacra and Simulation.

Baudrillard's predictions that the real and simulated converge and become indistinguishable seem to be increasingly true in areas of cyberspace or advertising. In biology, the simulation, what is accomplished by means of technology, does play an increasingly important role, especially in cloning as Baudrillard suggested. However, that the genetic code works without any tools other than its own organic processes implies that no matter what manipulations are done to it, the products of the code remain real, not simulations. It has turned out that Baudrillard's ideas of simulacra rather than simulation are more relevant in cloning and its accompanying biotechnology.

Baudrillard discusses cloning in depth from the alarmist view of a man who seems to prophesize that the whole world is divorced from the real. Looking at biology as part of the simulation digs deep into Baudrillard's version of what is a simulation. For instance, saying "It is the genetic formula inscribed in each cell that becomes the veritable modern prosthesis of the body," transforms the realm of biology from actual to simulation.

"If the prosthesis is commonly an artifact that supplements a failing organ, or the instrumental extension of a body, then the DNA molecule, which contains all information relative to a body , is the prosthesis par excellence, the one that will allow for the indefinite extension of this body by the body itself - this body itself being nothing but an indefinite series of prostheses." (p. 98)

While his new view of genetics is academically interesting, it does not serve a scientific purpose by proposing a new way of investigating genetics. Rather, it serves only to manipulate already existing science into a mode that can be discussed according to his simulacra and simulation framework.

The importance of Baudrillard's theories to biological science aside, he does choose to make his points in the context of cloning, a new technology in this book's time that recently has grabbed media attention again. Baudrillard says that "biophysioanatomical science," which presumably means the biology of physiology and anatomy, is a way of modeling the body. Cloning, then, is his ultimate self-referential model .

"Cloning is thus the last stage of the history and modeling of the body , the one at which reduced to its abstract and genetic formula, the individual is destined for serial propagation." (p.99)

Describing what cloning leads to as a "cancerous metastasis" of the original model, Baudrillard paints a prophetic picture where sexual reproduction is not part of society and where clones are exactly the same. He leads to the conclusion that there will be no double, no mirror, but an endless 1+1+1+1 repeat.

In 1981 when his book was written, such frantic predictions probably seemed outrageous, but now that cloning has successfully happened in animals, the questions of cloned human births become more relevant. Baudrillard suggests that cloning will lead to repetitions of individuals. This is probably not the case. First of all, it is unlikely that humans will need or want to have genetic replicas of themselves when sexual reproduction is easier, less expensive, and still passes on the parents' genes. Furthermore, even though the old nature versus nurture argument has not been entirely settled, it remains obvious that nurture, environment, and experience create an individual and that genetics do not determine everything. So even if genetically identical individuals were produced, they would not be copies of each other.

Baudrillard's depiction of the cloned individual as an "exacerbated redundancy" implies a moral repulsion because biology's natural modeling of the genetic code has been taken over by technology. However, though technology manipulates how the code is used it is still biology that allows the creation of an individual from that code and the individual is no more and no less a simulation than the first one to be made from that code.

The equivalence of cloned animals that share the same genes is a way of expression biologically Baudrillard's idea of the loss of the original, the simulacra. When two individuals share the exact same genetic code, it is impossible to say that one is real and one is a copy, only that one was created earlier than another. However, this understanding is more useful to biologists if they understand that both copies of the animal are real, that they are both made from living cells from the DNA code, than that they are both simulations, prostheses reproduced genetically.

Baudrillard appears to make the same mistake that many in today's media make: confusing control of cloning with control over the genetic code. Cloning means that another individual is created via the same code but does not imply that the scientist has any control over what that code is. By representing cloning as "bodies enucleated of their being and their meaning by being transfigured into a genetic formula," (102) he seem to imply that it is possible to know what that formula is. It is not. It is only possible, currently, to know that there is a formula. That biology is a technology that "has itself become interstitial and molecular" is true, but not wholly so. Biotechnology implies that technology can manipulate biology and that biology can be used in technological advances. It does not mean that biology has become technology nor the other way around. Technology can be applied on a molecular genetics level but it does not become biology. There is still a separation of the real and the simulated.

[To other discussions of Baudrillard by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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