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Cloning Humans with Media: Impermanence and Imperceptible Perfection
Wolfgang Schirmacher.
Toronto, 2000

1. The Post-modern Condition: Cloning-in-the-world

This time humanity really did it. In more ways than one can imagine, Being became cloning in the post-modern world. But the meaning of cloning has little to do with the scientific-technological act. Dolly, the sheep from Scotland, radically changed what it means to be a human being, and in this respect is a personality of world-historical impact. The public reaction to Dolly was widespread fear. Calling it blasphemy and a fall from grace or a stupid contribution to overpopulation, are judgments based on basic perceptions about human life and our final destiny. Therefore, Dolly became a case study for the post-modern condition: we happily jumped to conclusions, and "anything goes" was not a concept but the only strategy we all had in common. To be sure, "anything goes" is not advice you give other people but is the analysis of our own theory and practice, firmly rooted in personal convictions. Such pluralism can only be misunderstood in terms of relativism or skepticism because sometimes a person will fight to the end for the chosen language game. The crucial move is choice — serious and playful alike — and, therefore, universal acceptance is out of reach: only numbers, approval rates, high ratings prove to be realistic. Most people chose to reject the idea of cloning, and laws against cloning humans were hastily discussed in the US and in Europe.

Like the passengers of the Titanic, nobody noticed that Dolly was merely the tip of the iceberg. The more imminent challenge to humanity as we know it came from a life technique which has taken over the public and also our private life. This most successful technique to shape human life has many names but just one core: It is called information technology, communication, media or internet, and its core activity is cloning humans. Cultural critics from Neil Postman to Paul Virilio have attacked the media as an invitation to be irresponsible, and much has been written about the role model function of media stars. A few philosophers took issue with our emphasis on information as the new commodity, stressing the difference between information based on facts or fiction, and messages which actually mean something to somebody. It was observed that even the Internet, the new frontier of communication, has a bias towards a status quo, the given condition of the world: its most prominent feature is e-mail, a hybrid of oral and written communication which has done little to change the writers. Yet critics and defenders alike gave credit to the mass media for being a possible tool for the betterment of humanity and a medium of global change.

For McLuhan and his followers, hardware is the real news! But since the death of Lady Di, McLuhan has had to eat his own words: the global village showed itself as an ethical world beyond the petty distinction between hardware and software. The Soul was revealed for a long day of mourning, and billions of people celebrated a cloning-of-the-world that media was able to achieve.

Lady Di, the princess of the people, did in her death for media what Dolly, the Scottish lamb, did with her birth for biogenetics. Both life techniques which made us human-only-human are first and foremost cloning techniques. What the public rejected in the case of Dolly was emphatically embraced in the case of Diana. The post-modern condition easily allowed for this split in perception and would explain it as the irony of two contradicting language games which both happen to be true. But aren't we sick and tired by now of this playful attitude, so easy to perform? The post-modern dandy has become a bore who may still be right in his criticism but is such a pain to be with. A media-generated perceptual change may bring back ethics, and it confronts us with a post-modern decision after we stopped enjoying the post- modern condition. This decision has the distinct flavor of an ethical judgment always concerned with a good life we will never know but live on our best days. Ethical worlds which let us live at home are by necessity imperceptible, and their awareness needs concealing. By cloning with media the many ways in which a human being exists, we are also protecting the virtuality of humanity, our principally undefined status, the not-yet as well as the never.

2. The Post-modern Decision: Cloning Humans

"Just gaming," was Jean-François Lyotard's ambiguous answer referring to the double meaning of "just": to take life lightly and at the same time insist on justice for the working of language games. In this respect, the post-modern decision is about becoming a player rather than a spectator in the activity of cloning humans in order to allow for a good life. When the global media merged Lady Di and Mother Theresa after death, an ultimate clone was born: Mother Di. In this clone everybody found him- or her-self reborn, an anthropological twist Arthur Schopenhauer once anticipated. At the core of Schopenhauer's ethics of compassion is a strange recognition which may happen anytime and against our will: The sudden insight in front of a suffering person, "This is you" (tat tvam asi), not only breaks down the protective barrier of my being an individual but is an ethical judgment about the condition of life. According to Schopenhauer, in suffering, not in happiness, are all living creatures one being, and all the others in a very strict sense our clones

The post-modern decision as judgment does not identify or conceptualize the acts of cloning since it continues to favor difference and to resist integration and truth. The lessons we learned from Levinas, Lyotard, Derrida or Bataille are still valid. Interruption, hesitation, postponement, violence: as post-modern preparations for a different way of acting, these have not yet lost their touch. The folding, unfolding and refolding — as Deleuze described our Being-for-the-world — will not recapture identity or Being or time as means to make our lifeworld more accessible and an easier place. Therefore, Mother Di does not function as an icon and is not a lifestyle commercial which allows instant identification. Instead, Mother Di follows the complexities of truth which Heidegger determined as "aletheia," a timeless interplay of revealing and concealing.

Like Dolly, Mother Di reveals the perceptual implications of our ethics and gives humanity a different name: Homo generator. Determined by a self-generating activity, we have to reformulate what it means to be human: mortality as well as natality are called into question again. With openness as our existential taste and co-evolutionary power as our design, Homo generator favors eternal revisions and safeguards the freedom of creation. What we clone is exactly this attitude of open generating and never a mere copy of anything (we leave that to primitive machines). Therefore, a biological copy of Mozart will never re-create the composer, and the media clone Mother Di has as many faces as people who feel themselves cloned by it.

It is worth noting that Lady Di and Mother Theresa formed their identities mainly through hardship and not by their successes. In the case of Mother Theresa, a certain contender for sainthood, it was the suffering of others which made her famous. In dedicating her life to the untouchables on the far side of the world and helping to ease an existence often worse than death, Mother Theresa served as a powerful reminder of our mortality. Lady Di was an ordinary person, a kindergarden teacher sentenced by birth to become a princess one day, who learned to wear her scars in public, and proudly. Hunted to death by paparazzi with whom she had a symbiotic relationship, Lady Di emerged as the bulimic princess scarred by a bad marriage and became the queen of the media confession scene. Without intending to do so, Lady Di impersonated the true post-modern heroine by blurring the borderlines between high and low, serious and playful, fact and fiction.

A point in favor: Clint Eastwood was her most beloved actor. Like Madonna, the notorious champion of media natality, Lady Di regenerated herself through and within media, using them skillfully. In the ultimate clone Mother Di, people experienced the fusion of mortality and natality as a celebration of self-generated wholeness. Fact and meaning together became our responsibility alone, a post-modern decision on an everyday level. Traditional hierarchies such as the British Royals or the Catholic Church were pushed aside by the global event of post-modern cloning which cancelled any other claim to these personalities. But we don't need to turn to Mother Di in order to appreciate how media clones humanity on a daily basis. Talk shows and chat rooms provide a media group therapy which lets even the weirdest people feel like everyone else: This is you — under different circumstances. Soap operas, sitcoms and cartoons have lost their distance to real life, and the members of fictional humanity become our Virtual Family. The characters of "Melrose Place" teach us more about life than our own brothers and sisters, and the finale of the sitcom "Seinfeld" resulted in a higher rating than any real-life event, including sports. Bugs Bunny was never meant to leave Toonland, but Roger Rabbit already had to; and today Bart Simpson is as real as Beavis & Butthead for kids and adults alike — just a different body outfit.

3. Concealing Humanity: Media's Secret Task

The post-modern decision of cloning humans reveals Homo generator — but it also conceals something. What is hidden from us are the ethical worlds we belong to. By cloning freely with media and designing a life-world in between natality and mortality, we pay no attention to the artificial life which always has been (and always will be) generated by humans. Concealed from our consciousness, humans live ethically, a good life behind our backs. Only in feelings, in fascination, satisfaction, joy, but also in mourning do we get a hint of ethical worlds never present, never absent. To be sure, we'll miss even these subtle hints if we try to find some reasons for feeling happy or sad: to fix the fulfilled moment is the best way to destroy it.

It is the time-honored advice of wise men to enjoy life without knowing why, to live happily without expectations and, last but not least, to act without believing in the principles of your action. We call this relaxed attitude towards life with its simple pleasures our art of living. It is a widespread practice which needs little theory and is rooted in judgment and prudence instead of smart concepts. Cloning humans with media works very well in distracting our attention from this ethical art of living, invisible to the censor and beyond good and evil. In media we simulate humanity to the point of not recognizing ourselves anymore, and this life-consuming activity helps us to stay clear of authentic humanity. All the noise and excitement, the ups and downs of cloned humanity serves just one purpose: to fulfill the secret task of media in keeping our minds occupied with the insane things while in the meantime our undisturbed life techniques generate human sanity — behind our backs but not without our active trust.

However, it would be totally wrong to assume that a God or history or the evolution of the brain is pushing for a development which benefits humanity without our participation. There is nothing like a deus ex machina making sure we come out alright at the end! Humans are alone and fully responsible for artificial life which is the only life for us. This responsibility is ethical and, therefore, never fulfilled through intentional control. Even if it cannot be helped that we clone solely openness, cloning humans with media and biogenetics is to be done in the spirit of control and needs to be concealed in order to become authentic. Isn't it surprising that all our progress has not brought humanity any farther — for all the new discoveries in science, society and culture, humans are basically unchanged: love and hate, generosity and envy, trust and distrust are still the bottom line.

What cloning does with its spectacle is to reveal our fundamental activity as Homo generator and at the same moment to conceal the way any generation makes a home in the ethical worlds of bioscaping, soul, Geviert (balance) and kairos (timing). It is the signature of truth to erase its signing right after the fact in order to allow the on-going folding, unfolding and refolding to be done in peace. So we certainly should be grateful for the cloning done by media, but we have to get more experience in perceiving our imperceptible actions of true humanity. In ethical life humanity fulfills itself, of which we are vaguely aware and which we need to forget at once. Pushing hard for this forgetting is media's strongest claim.


Dawnja Burris, "The Virtual Family." New York Studies in Media Philosophy 1 (1997) (www.egs/mediaphi)

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Jean-François Lyotard, The Post-modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Transl.

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Jean-François Lyotard / Jean-Loup Thebaud, Just Gaming. Transl. B. Massumi / V. Godzich. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994.

Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Philosophical Writings. Ed. W. Schirmacher. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor. Transl. J. Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.