Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Bioethics in the Age of New Media$

Joanna Zylinska

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780262240567

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: August 2013

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262240567.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM MIT PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.mitpress.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright The MIT Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in MITSO for personal use (for details see http://www.mitpress.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 21 June 2018

The Secret of Life: Bioethics between Corporeal and Corporate Obligations

The Secret of Life: Bioethics between Corporeal and Corporate Obligations

(p.125) 5 The Secret of Life: Bioethics between Corporeal and Corporate Obligations
Bioethics in the Age of New Media

Joanna Zylinska

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, the author talks about “traditional bioethics,” which includes predefined normativity, human subjectivity, and universal applicability. The author talks about the “secret of life” —about the analysis of DNA. In the 1944 book, What is Life?, Erwin Schroedinger talks about the fact that after the ghastly aftermath of world wars, most physicists took up biology as a safer option. At this time, the study of human DNA came to the forefront. The chapter focuses on the origin of the human life, which is no longer a secret but a code that is imprinted on the DNA. Cracking the code of life became the aim of a number of scientists the world over. The Human Genome Diversity Project was launched to gain more knowledge about the human origins, prehistory, and evolution.

Keywords:   human subjectivity, DNA, secret of life, genome, evolution

Cracking the Secret of Life

This chapter starts from the premise that, if there is something like an ethico-political imperative in the humanities and social sciences that underpins their quest for knowledge1—that is, an imperative to respond to, and take responsibility for, incalculable difference in what we term “culture” and “nature”—this imperative obliges us to address the most “vital” issue through which difference manifests itself: the issue of “life.” Drawing on a number of rhetorical tropes that have played a significant role in the life sciences, I want to suggest that cultural critics have an obligation to engage with the tropes of life developed both in science and in popular discourses about science. Specifically, I propose to look at the conceptualization of the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and of the mapping of the genetic code,2 through the trope of “cracking the secret of life,” a trope which has to a large extent shaped the dominant ideas about life, nature, and the human. It is not my intention, however, to position cultural criticism as a corrective to science, a superior critical discourse that can be used to adjust scientific error, as I am aware of the complexity of the debates around questions of life and vitality conducted within the sciences themselves, as well as the ongoing discussions among biologists, social scientists, and cultural theorists regarding the ideological, representational, and performative aspects of the trope of secrecy in the narratives about life.3

My own contribution to these debates, as shown throughout the book, lies in the area of ethics. Through an engagement with the discourses of (p.126) the life sciences, with their rhetoric and materiality, I want to continue in this chapter with my exploration of the possibility of outlining an “ethics of life,” a new way of thinking about bios informed by the parallel trajectories of continental philosophy and media and cultural studies. This alternative bioethical framework is intended to go beyond some of the more established ways of thinking about bioethics that have been developed within the corporate world of biotechnosciences, as well as beyond the dominant positions on life within traditional moral philosophy. Although, as demonstrated in chapter 1, bioethics today is rooted in diverse philosophical positions, they all presuppose a certain idea of good, a rational human subject that can make a decision about this good, and, last but not least, a need to universalize and apply a moral judgment to a particular situation. It is these three aspects of dominant moral philosophy—predefined normativity, human subjectivity, and universal applicability—that I want to challenge in my questioning of what I refer to as “traditional bioethics.” What is of principal interest and importance to me in this chapter is thus not so much cracking “the secret of life” once and for all but rather exploring the already existing cracks in the current discourses and debates on bios and bioethics, as well as considering an emergence of a different bioethical proposition from within these cracks.

It should be clear by now that when I am speaking about “the secret of life,” I am not referring to general, nebulous formulations that capture the unknowns concerning human life on earth in a more metaphysical or abstract sense: our origin, destiny, quest for the meaning of life, and our unpreparedness for death. Instead, “the secret of life” trope is connected here with a particular moment in the history of the natural sciences, when life was redescribed as a secret that needed cracking and a mathematical problem to be solved, with the solution already looming on the horizon. As the crystallographer J. D. Bernal put it in 1967, “Life is beginning to cease to be a mystery and becoming … a cryptogram, a puzzle, a code.”4 It was the very scientists involved in the mapping of the biological processes at the cell level—and, more specifically, in the analysis of DNA in the newly emergent conceptual entity which became known as “the gene”5—that drew on the rhetoric of secrecy in order to convey the significance of their research to the wider public. Inspired by (p.127) the 1944 book What Is Life?, penned by the founder of wave mechanics, Erwin Schroedinger, numerous physicists took up this eponymous question in the 1940s and 1950s as a new vector for their scientific careers. It allowed them to leave behind allegedly more ambitious physics, which had nevertheless become tainted in the aftermath of the atomic bomb experiments, and take up biology—previously seen as a “softer” and easier option—while at the same time borrowing physics’ authority and methodology. Consequently, in the middle of the twentieth century biology underwent a process of conceptual recalibration—from a science where the language of mystery had its functional place to a science more like physics, “predicated on the conviction that the mysteries of life were there to be unraveled, a science that tolerated no secrets.”6 In other words, the secret already implied the need to crack it, and a realistic possibility of achieving this.

As the author of The Double Helix, James Watson (who, incidentally, started his academic career in biology, although he had always been actively interested in physics), acknowledges, Schroedinger’s argument that life could be thought of in terms of storing and passing on biological information resonated particularly well with his own dislike of vitalism, a belief in the mysterious forces of life “emanating from an all-powerful god.” Watson admits to being totally swayed by “the notion that life might be perpetuated by means of an instruction book inscribed in a secret code.”7 Even though Schroedinger’s book belonged to an earlier era in biology, one based on older ideas of cellular organization, and focused on permutations in proteins rather than on relations between proteins and DNA (as would be the case in molecular biology),8 it paved the ground for a rhetorical shift in the life sciences toward the perception of life as information, before the discipline as a whole underwent a paradigm shift from protein- to DNA-based explanations of heredity.9

Defining life, or, more specifically, the genome10—although the exchangeability of these two concepts is precisely what concerns me in this chapter—as an information system, a message written in DNA code which needed cracking, was part of a broader epistemic transformation taking place in the 1950s, when cybernetics, information theory, and mathematical theory of communication made a substantial impact (p.128) on a number of disciplines. In Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code, Lily E. Kay traces the development of cybernetics and information theory in the context of academic and military work on secrecy systems and cryptanalytic techniques in post-World War II America. She explores this shift toward the discourse of information as a dominant paradigm in the life sciences, where life is no longer seen as a mystery but rather as a secret to be deciphered, via an account of the emergence of communication theory in the United States. Kay explains that Claude Shannon’s 1948 paper, “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems,” treated cryptology in information-theoretical terms, with information being seen as quantifiable, transmissible over different media, and bearing no semiotic value (i.e., having no “meaning”). Shannon’s general theory of communication, developed from his earlier work on telegraph transmission, “seemed to generate a theory applicable, in principle, to any system, physical or biological, in which information can be properly coded, quantified, and manipulated through time and space.”11 Although Shannon himself, as Kay notices, was against the extrapolation of information and communication theory to genetics, his work on the transmission of information, combined with Norbert Wiener’s redescription of heredity in terms of message and noise, led to numerous attempts by other scientists to trace parallels between machinic and organic systems, between automata and cells.

Biology’s alliance with the information sciences via a shared interest in “code” in the mid-twentieth century, coupled with a promise of a search for an answer to the “vital” question of life, strengthened its authority and significance even further, as explained by the feminist critic of science, Evelyn Fox Keller. The specific scientific task of attempting to map the structure of the essential “carrier of life,” DNA, was given extra valence through the cunning use of a figure of speech known as metonymy: a series of laboratory experiments and modeling exercises became equivalent to cracking the secret of life. Seeing these experiments as leading to the discovery of nothing less than “life itself” was indeed necessary if the project was to be taken seriously, both by the funding bodies and the cultural and media agencies that quickly transmitted the mission to the public. The mapping of the DNA structure (p.129) thus began to stand for the cracking of the secret of life. The story goes that the modeling of the double helix structure of DNA as consisting of base pairs made up of four chemicals—adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine—led to Watson’s collaborator Crick proudly announcing to everyone in the Eagle pub next to their laboratory in Cambridge on February 28, 1953, that they had found “the secret of life.”12 It was this announcement perhaps that gave impetus to the further proliferation of this kind of reductionist discourse in the popular imagination. This newly developed discourse on life focused exclusively on singular, if imaginary, entities—genes—at the expense of the processes occurring between multiple genes and proteins, not to mention environmental influences or social and political causes, which also played a significant role “in life.”13 The “secret of life” trope was quickly picked up by other scientists as well as the media in their reports of the “discovery” and its consequences. In 1987 the U.S. network PBS made a series of episodes entitled “The Secret of Life” for their educational TV program NOVA, to be followed by the 2001 series “Cracking the Code of Life.”

To sum up, the shift to the information paradigm in biology seems to have been to a large extent a strategic rhetorical gesture, intended to performatively align the allegedly less prestigious academic discipline with the more powerful fields of enquiry, such as physics and computing, which at the time were receiving sponsorship from government military programs. It was also an attempt to capture public imagination through the daunting metaphysical connotations that “cracking the secret of life” entailed. This explains why, even if most scientists did not “believe” in this rhetoric, they continued using it. Indeed, Kay points out that borrowing the concepts of code and information for biology was first of all a rhetorical maneuver. “The code of life” or even “genetic code” were nothing else but metaphors, as, from linguistic and cryptanalytic standpoints, the genetic code is only a table of correlations, not a relationship between two distinct linguistic systems that would involve changing one set of signs into another.14 She also explains that, unlike in machine communication, information in biology cannot be easily measured, nor can the materiality of its channel and its genomic, cellular, organismic, or environmental context be ignored. In contradistinction to technologically (p.130) specific communication theory as developed by Shannon and Wiener, the semantics of information in biology does matter and cannot be reduced to mere quantity.15 Genetic information is content specific; it is not a meaning-free message. Nevertheless, the technical inconsistencies did not prevent the radical rhetorical shift to information discourse, as Kay points out: “despite the acknowledged technical impotence of information theory in molecular biology, its discursive potency intensified by compromising its technical structures…. The discourse of information linked biology to other postwar discourses of automated communication systems as a way of conceptualizing and managing nature and society. And it provided discursive, epistemic, and, occasionally, technical frameworks for the scriptural representations of genetic code.”16

This rhetoric of coding and secrecy is still quite prominent in popular representations of genetics. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the mapping of the double helix, on February 17, 2003, Time magazine published a special issue, with the cover story by Nancy Gibbs, “The Secret of Life,” claiming that “Cracking the DNA code has changed how we live, heal, eat and imagine the future.” Gibbs writes further: “Any 4-year-old who likes ladybugs and lightning can tell you that life is wildly beautiful as far as the eye can see. But it took the geniuses of our time to reveal how beautifully ordered life is deep down where we can’t see it all—in the molecular workshop where we become who we are.”17 Her piece is preceded by an article by Michael D. Lemonick, who promises to explain to us how “Two unknown scientists solved the secret of life in a few weeks of frenzied inspiration in 1953.” On its Web site the pharmaceutical company Pfizer makes it clear it sees itself as part of the new caste of code masters through a comically ambiguous title: “Genome: the Secret of How Life Works, made possible by Pfizer.”18 To coincide with the golden anniversary of his and Crick’s discovery, in 2003 Watson penned another book, appropriately titled DNA: The Secret of Life. Last but not least, the December 2007 issue of Wired carried an article on the new Silicon Valley startup called 23andMe, a company offering users a subscription to an online service which provides individual and family genetic profiles across generations. The significance of the project was highlighted via a bold slogan on the magazine’s cover: “Your life decoded.”19

(p.131) Significantly, the development of the “secret of life” project was accompanied by a thorough redefinition of what counted as “life.” Poetic, philosophical, and religious concepts aside, molecular biologists moved away from the traditional description of life used by the natural sciences in terms of growth, development, and reproduction to its definition as instructions or “information” encoded in the genes, or, more simply, a code or code-script.20 As Watson puts it in the Introduction to DNA: The Secret of Life, “The double helix is an elegant structure, but its message is downright prosaic: life is simply a matter of chemistry.”21 These pronouncements did not make life any less mysterious, though. According to Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee, DNA itself was quickly recoded in popular discourses as “a sacred text that can explain the natural and moral order,” “The Bible,” the “Book of Man,” and the “Holy Grail.” Giving mystical powers to a molecular structure in popular, or rather “general,” culture led to the perception of DNA as autonomous and independent of the body. Nelkin and Lindee explain that modern molecular genetics promised “a ‘complete’ understanding of human life, but such promised knowledge, in the form of genetic engineering and genetic therapy, also commonly appears as dangerous and taboo.”22

However, the definition and redefinition of life in the life sciences, or the way scientific developments have affected the understanding of life in popular knowledges and discourses, are not the primary focus of this chapter, which is why I am unable to do justice to the complexities of the debate on the issue. As suggested earlier, many scientists were suspicious about positioning life as a secret to be cracked. Even if they did use the “secret” trope, they did so strategically and rhetorically—although from a humanities scholar’s point of view such a prevalent rhetorical use of a phrase cannot be left unexamined, even if the user is aware of it being “only” a figure of speech. But what I am first of all interested in here is the specific historical conjuncture of life and secrecy, when life was redefined as a task to be solved, a code, or secret to be cracked. Aware of the fact that there were doubts about this formulation in the scientific community already at the moment of its pronouncement,23 and that the contestation of the notion of code had been ongoing among biologists themselves, I want to explore the political mechanisms of (p.132) revelation and occlusion that were at work in the formulation of these tropes, tropes that have managed to exert so much force on public imagination for years to come. This question of the veiling and unveiling of the secret of life therefore presents itself to me as a political and ethical question; it is a question of taking responsibility for, and a decision in and about, language, and bearing the political and moral consequences of this decision.

The link between “the secret of life” and politics was already implicitly established by the physicist J. D. Bernal in his pronouncement about life ceasing to be a mystery and becoming only a “puzzle” or a “code,” which I evoked earlier. This statement implies a clear demarcation line between those who can decipher the code and those who can only be awed by it. The description of biology’s task in terms of cracking the secret of life has involved a shift over what counts as “life,” as well as also over who has the power to define, control, or even own this life. This particular rhetorical gesture has also had some material effects: it has instigated a new politics of life management. Molecular biologists working together with computer experts have positioned themselves as new guardians of truth or holders of the key to the secret of life, but they have also taken a substantial share in what Michel Foucault describes as biopolitics: the sovereign power over life and death, exerted over the bodies of the population. We already discussed in chapter 3 how in the first volume of The History of Sexuality Foucault traces back the origins of biopolitics to nineteenth-century Europe, to the preparation of natality and mortality tables, the development of sanitation, and the general management of “public health.” This form of politics has arguably gained a new form and intensity in the biotechnological era, with the life and health of the populations becoming an object of a permanent attention of different sovereign forces: politicians, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, life coaches, the media.24 The scientific process of revealing the structure of DNA thus constituted a significant episode in the political colonization of the private realm of the flesh, with all its ambivalent imperial undertones. This form of colonization entailed, first, the transformation of individual lives and bodies into a calculable biological entity described as a “population,” and, second, the inclusion of this newly emergent “population” at the center of sovereign power—an (p.133) inclusion that, in case of genomics, was nevertheless occluded by being presented only as a scientific discovery, not an act of control. The development of sociobiology,25 a discipline involved in studying the behavior of social groups by using tenets from population biology and genetics, and its fine-tuning of the eugenic tradition, is one example of the role that molecular biology has played in this coming together of life and politics.

The biopolitics of “life in the molecule” has been accompanied by the arrival of another, globalized form of biopolitics: sovereign control and command over local or national communities has shifted to embrace the world population, since the early 1990s “unified” under the auspices of the Human Genome Project and the allegedly more inclusive Human Genome Diversity Project.26 This explicit incorporation of biological life as an object of political and media attention has not been value-free or unproblematically beneficial. As discussed in chapter 3, in his engagement with the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben explores the vicissitudes of this “inclusive exclusion” of life by proposing the term “bare life,” la nuda vita, which can also be translated as “life as such” or “life itself.”27 Bare life becomes for him a limit concept situated between natural life, the simple fact of living, and organized or already politicized life. This zoē-bios opposition implies another one—that between oikos (home, or the private realm) and polis (city, or the public sphere). As Agamben explains in Homo Sacer: “the inclusion of bare life in the political realm constitutes the original—if concealed—nucleus of sovereign power. It can even be said that the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power. … Placing biological life at the center of its calculations, the modern State therefore does nothing other than bring to light the secret tie uniting power and bare life, thereby reaffirming the bond … between modern power and the most immemorial of the arcana imperii [state secrets].”28 The critical task today, we may suggest, is to expose this secret uniting power and bare life, a secret which remained hidden among the scientific revelations about the DNA structure. Scholars in science and technology studies, feminist studies of science, media and cultural studies, as well as the hard sciences have undertaken the interrogation of the relationship between politics and (p.134) life in their work over the last few decades, but it is through Agamben’s reading of the zone of indistinction between bare life and the political realm, where zoē is included in bios only through its exclusion, that this critical interrogation of life secrets as arcana imperii can be undertaken.29

We can see from the above how the genetic paradigm of life—where life is seen as reducible to the sum of the organism’s genes—is established as a “common law” (which is also a “common sense law”) and how it gains legislating powers over the lives and bodies of a population. However, its normative functioning remains a secret, or rather the genetic paradigm enters a zone of indistinction between being a description of what life is and a prescription of what it should be.30 What holds life and law together, according to Agamben, is the relation of a ban through which “he who has been banned is not … simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable.”31 In the context of life defined as a sequence of DNA packets, we can perhaps suggest that it is corporeality and bodily marked sexual difference, or rather humans as corporeal and sexuate beings, that constitute a ban to the genetic law (although I will later consider some other, “secondary” bans imposed and demanded by this law). Naturally, chromosomal difference is important to genetics—any high school biology student knows that each human cell contains twenty-three pairs of identical chromosomes in both men and women, with the twenty-third pair determining the difference between the sexes (in males, the twenty-third pair contains two unlike chromosomes, called X and Y, while in females both members of homologous pair no. 23 are X chromosome). Genetic difference is also the subject of the investigation of the Human Genome Diversity Project. As its chief proponents put it, “By an intense scrutiny of human diversity, we will make enormous leaps in our grasp of human origins, evolution, prehistory, and potential.”32 However, this is difference which is understood only as opposition and complementarity (between male–female) or as local variation (between different alleles of the same gene, affecting, for example, skin, hair, and eye color), not as an irreducible difference from itself, a crack within the identity of the self-same. Rosalyn Diprose argues that modern genetics (p.135) ultimately attempts to efface differences and claims that “genetic theory is itself a genetic operation—it is involved in the production of difference in terms of sameness.”33 Even though, through complexity theory applied to biology, structural and functional differences between organisms are foregrounded, “all these differences are sidestepped when we consider the nucleic acid sequences [i.e., RNA and DNA] from whence all creatures derive.”34

The recoding of life as a bioinformatic secret has not just resulted in the foreclosure of difference through its disembodiment or desexualiza-tion; it has also involved the wresting of life from women.35 Cracking the secret of life has been presented as a victory of male productivity over female procreativity,36 as the overcoming of messy “stuff,” of flesh and blood, and the illumination and purification of Nature. This move away from “life itself” has led, according to Keller, to a closure of a gap between lifeless and life-destroying forms: nucleus cells and nuclear energy, babies and bombs.37

This does not mean, however, that the secret of life is out in the open. The exclusion of the dirt of the matter from the scientific conceptualizations of life has only shifted the boundary of the licit and the illicit, the speakable and the unspeakable. The originary relation of a ban that excludes difference as foundational to life by recoding it as mere complementarity, and that relegates life’s meatiness to the epiphenomenon of cellular processes which can nevertheless be ignored through a change of scale, has also established a series of what we may call secondary bans, whose working is premised on secrecy. For Agamben, a ban is an act of naming someone or something through cursing them (cf. the etymology of the word bannan—to summon—in the Old English) and placing them outside the licit, but it works through concealing its operation of power. In other words, the fact that the process of exclusion is also a simultaneous inclusion of the banned in the relation of exception needs to remain secret. Significantly, the secret itself works according to a similar principle. Originating from the Latin word secernere, which means to separate or shift apart, it is an act of drawing boundaries, of excluding something to the margins while also activating the unstable tectonics of the margins, where the provisional and always contingent centrality of the included is only maintained by depending on its (p.136) “constitutive outside,” on what it is not. It is also, contra Agamben, a process of establishing a relation with alterity and, thus, setting up an ontology of foundational difference that poses a challenge to Agamben’s philosophy of immanence.38

The Secret Is Out … Long Live the Secret!

There is no room for such philosophical vacillations, though, in the discourse of one of the most prominent “crackers” of life secrets, James Watson. Watson claims that molecular biology has shown us clearly and unambiguously that “life itself was not complex, as had been thought, but simple—indeed simple beyond our wildest dreams. The only secret of nature was that there were no secrets, and now that secret was out.”39 While the secret of molecular biology is thus established here as being out there in the open, as a plaything of the scientist who celebrates its cracking as soon as he declares its secrecy, it conceals but also generates many other secrets. And it is these other secrets, beyond the “exquisitely organized physics and chemistry,”40 that are more important from the point of view of engaged cultural criticism. How can we begin to disentangle this underlying web of secrecy that manages to conceal some of the vital questions about “life” precisely via the scientific rhetoric of revelation and transparency?

In addition to the issues of corporeality and sexuality discussed above, we should mention the secrecy issues brought up by the development of genomics and genetic testing in the aftermath of the cracking of the DNA code. Indeed, over the last few years we have witnessed the rise of the material-spiritual bio-industry that promises to help us reveal our genetic secrets, allegedly “for our own good.” And yet it is worth asking whether we would want it to be revealed, for example, that we are carrying a gene for a disease for which there is no cure.41 How would we handle the secret of being a carrier of a “breast cancer gene”—would we opt for preventive double mastectomy or carry on as usual in the hope of beating the odds? In “The Secret of Life” issue of Time Nancy Gibbs raises a further question regarding genetic testing in the context of privacy and its links with individual and corporate responsibility: “Can it really be kept a secret from your boss or your (p.137) insurance company or your future spouse that you carry a gene that predicts you will develop Alzheimer’s by age 45?”42 A thorough consideration of all these questions would, of course, require a detailed study of particular diseases and the possibilities of their prevention and cure (testing couples preprocreation for the possibility of Tay-Sachs disease would bring up different issues than testing fetuses for Huntington’s disease or adults for Alzheimer’s); it would call for the interrogation of the political ideologies that support individuals’ right to “privacy” while also positioning them as bearers of corporate responsibility; it would demand questioning what kind of life is considered worth living and what kind of values underlie this concept of life; and, last but not least, it would require us to take a closer look at the financial interests and ideological positions of the gentech companies involved in the business of cracking the secrets of life. All these issues would open up into a whole lot of new questions and singular contexts, which could not possibly be dealt with within the space of this chapter. I am only raising them here in order to indicate that such a difficult, painstaking interrogation is necessary in a discussion of the politico-ethical issues concerning bodies and lives. Any attempt to develop a clear policy of bioethical regulation prior to the consideration of the above issues (a consideration which will inevitably be ongoing)—no matter if conducted in the name of moral responsibility, defense of human rights, or political pragmatism—will only thicken the veil of secrecy that envelops “life.”

The big secret of interests and investments, both affective and financial ones, in the biotech-gentech industry deserves separate consideration. There already exists a substantial body of work critiquing the corporatization of the biotech industry and raising objections to its politics and ethics: one can think here of Vandana Shiva’s Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge, Jeremy Rifkin’s The Biotech Century, Donna Haraway’s Modest_Witness, or Sarah Franklin et al.’s Global Nature, Global Culture. However, the affective investments raise as many questions. The feminist critic Mary Jacobus argues that the quest for cracking the secret of the DNA code could be seen as driven by erotic energy, with life positioned as an object of male desire—less for itself but rather because it was desired by another scientist. Both (p.138) Jacobus and Keller analyze the competition between the scientific teams on the way to conquering the deepest entrails of nature and tearing out her secrets in terms of a stereotypically gendered sexual conquest, with the metaphorical elision of woman from the story of life accompanied by the actual erasure of Watson and Crick’s Cambridge colleague Rosalind Franklin from the official story of their scientific triumph.43 We could also seek parallels between this earlier adrenaline-driven quest for life and the Human Genome competition between the U.S.-government-backed team and J. Craig Venter’s corporation Celera Genomics over who will produce (and, subsequently, own and manage) the “map of humankind” first.

As Deleuze and Guattari recognize in another context, “the secret always has to do with love, and sexuality.”44 The cracking of the secret of life, its redescription in terms of mother molecules, originally involved a de-Oedipalization of family ties, a liberation of life from traditional kinship structures, and the establishment (via programs such as the Human Genome Diversity Project) of other forms of international and interracial community and belonging. Nevertheless, the potentially radical consequences this severing of family ties might have had for sexual and gender politics was quickly scuppered by the immediate transference of the love interest to the corporate structures. Rather than build “inoperative communities” based on new forms of nonbiological, nonessentialist kinship, the “hackers” of the secret of life quickly passed on this secret to the biotech industry, whose own desires and libidinal investments are primarily driven by the flow of capital. Thus, the question of investments, interests, and corporate obligations of biotech companies entails a call to probe to what extent libidinal energy drives the business of the decoding of life. Also, from a critical feminist perspective, it is worth mentioning that the Oedipal relation of paternity seems to be reestablished once the disembodied and disentangled secret of life enters the corporate world, once it is encoded again—this time as a node in the economy of biopolitical production.

There is another layer in this web of secrecy, where the ideality of the secret is enacted through its unnameability. This is the secret of a life for which we either yet do not have a name (new “soft” cyborgs— (p.139) children of OncoMouse and Dolly the sheep, creatures of unknown provenience, human-machines, artificial life forms) or whose name we dare not speak (asylum seekers, victims of torture, “local” civilians dying in the Iraq war as part of the “collateral damage”). Situated outside the vital network of social and political recognition, already in an uncanny proximity to death that life in the polis sanitizes and denies, these “precarious lives” do not have a place within the traditional political dis-courses.45 They even remain outside the category of a “problem” that needs to be resolved and managed. These are immaterial lives, true ghosts haunting the democratic polis with their absent presence, with their—to borrow Agamben’s Auschwitz-inflected term which has gained a new resonance in the context of current Islamophobia—Muselmann exceptionality.46

It might seem that from a political point of view, it is more important to reveal the secret of the second group, that is, to claim political legitimacy for those whose lives do not seem to occupy a prominent position in our economy of biocalculation—asylum seekers, victims of torture, and so forth—rather than explore the livability of cyborgs or alife creatures. Also, it might equally seem as if I have just turned from a narrower, more specific definition of life as “code” to its broader understanding in terms of livability, the possibility of biological and political existence. However, it is worth pointing out that the metaphysical idea of life as transcendence shapes the mechanistic concept of life as information, or code, in the life sciences—even if, in case of the latter, it is placed in the position of negativity, both evoked and denied through an act of reflective mirroring.47 And thus all these issues, bodies, and levels of life are not unconnected. The consideration of the “unlivable lives” of those banned or forgotten by democratic states is, of course, vital to the ethical project outlined here, but it cannot be undertaken without a more thorough interrogation of what counts as (human and nonhuman) life, and, in particular, of the economy of calculation that informs both the dominant forms of capital-invested politics and market-driven bioethics (the latter usually presented within the framework of utilitarianism). Neither can it be attempted without looking at the individualistic premises of dominant politico-ethical models in the capitalist world, where the relationality of living beings (p.140) is overlooked for the sake of the analysis of monadic entities, and at the expense of the forgetting of flesh, of sex, of sexual difference. The very process of the rhetorical conceptualization of life in science is thus of interest to me here because it both underpins and drives the current democratic biopolitics of life management. It is precisely the perception of life in terms of information flows and codes that is significant to the rearticulation of politics in biological terms, to it becoming a biopoli-tics. This process also involves the dematerialization of life, which in turn facilitates the bracketing off of those who are not deemed worthy of membership in the category of the living. While licit biopolitical citizens have their identity and political belonging reconfirmed through a series of prosthetic data extensions—biometric data cards and passports, magnetic strips on their credit and store cards—those whose names we dare not speak function only as white noise in the computational system of life management, as a disturbance to be watched out for in order for it to be eliminated (e.g., in the form of a digital image rendered by a surveillance camera installed in the Channel Tunnel between England and France).

By turning to the secret of unnamable and unspeakable lives I have not therefore shifted my critical attention from the micro- to the mac-rolevel, or replaced the definition of life as information with a more abstract, philosophical, or even fuzzy concept. Indeed, a neat separation between these different concepts of life is not possible, as the very articulation of life as code activates the working of exclusionary mechanisms at the (bio)political level of the state and its institutions—such as welfare agencies, asylum and immigration centers, counterterrorism cells, DNA testing laboratories, and so forth—that rely on information and data in order to process, survey, and control the state’s subjects. One of the secrets behind the promotion of the “secret of life” trope, where the secret’s cracking lies within scientists’ power, is precisely the elision of the more messy, material as well as political, aspects of life that cannot be neatly rendered as a sequence of DNA base pairs or codons.

If the mathematical and information sciences have provided one of the dominant paradigms for thinking about human life today, the recod-ing of life as a sequence of data that holds no secrets, a secret that has (p.141) already been cracked, has facilitated the multilevel politics of life management and control—from the cell to the organism as a whole. The question of cyborgs, human-machine, material-virtual life forms that trouble our traditional understanding of what it means to be alive, therefore needs to be considered together with the question of unnam-able, excluded lives whose function is to conserve the legitimate boundaries of the democratic polis. The work conducted in science and technology studies, feminist studies of science, and media and cultural studies in particular can prove useful in tracing the parallels between the working of biopower on the minds and bodies of the inhabitants of both “virtual” and “real” worlds. But it can also allow us to query the demarcation of virtuality, as well as ask further questions about the invisibility and unspeakability of certain forms of life that do not fall into the clearly delineated binary. Judith Butler warns us that “There is always a risk of anthropocentrism here if one assumes that the distinctively human life is valuable … or is the only way to think the problem of value. But perhaps to counter that tendency it is necessary to ask both the question of life and the question of the human, and not to let them fully collapse into one another.”48

A Bioethics of Corporeal Obligation

If the political today is caught between a ceaseless constitution of human and nonhuman, and human and animal,49 it seems to me that an attempt to crack the secret of life has involved not only reconceptual-izing living beings as pockets of DNA but also endowing different “pockets” with differential values. We could perhaps repeat here, after Agamben, that within this zone of (DNA) indetermination, the human has become “the place of a ceaselessly updated decision in which the caesurae and their rearticulation are always dislocated and displaced anew.”50 I would like to suggest we adopt this formulation as a new line for bioethical thinking, which will function as a response to the current biopolitics and its underlying genetic law. The indeterminacy of the human, coupled with the need to make a decision about the status of human, nonhuman, and inhuman life constantly anew, can be seen as a positive obligation driving this new ethics of life (an obligation that (p.142) perhaps goes beyond some of the negativity of Agamben’s own diagnosis of “the human condition” in Homo Sacer and The Open). This obligation places a demand on us to respond to this indeterminacy of living beings and not to foreclose it in advance—be it by means of a humanistic belief (“human life is sacred”) or scientific calculation (“human is a mere collection of data”). And thus the original structuration of life in terms of the secret in molecular biology, waiting for “experts” to reveal it while concealing its own foundation or its “constitutive outside,” needs to be taken issue with in this context precisely because of what it excludes. This is particularly important because, as Sarah Franklin observes, it is the biogenetic definition of life that informs many moral debates today.51

An alternative bioethics thus requires a new entry point, outside the traditionally delineated discipline of moral philosophy. I would like to suggest that cultural studies in particular—with its ethical imperative to respond to and take responsibility for incalculable difference, and its critique of institutions, capital, and power from Marxist and postMarxist perspectives—may provide a valuable perspective for conducting this sort of investigation. Cultural studies can help us intervene into the network of discourses of secrecy and transparency surrounding issues of life with something we might term “an ethics of life’s countermanage-ment” that will also consider irrational investments, incalculable spending, and the contingency of life that nevertheless refuses to remain tied to the biocapitalist machinery. The theoretical and political frameworks developed under the aegis of cultural studies seem particularly useful in addressing the question of life’s secrecy and the legitimate and illegitimate participation in both its definitions and secrets because, as Clare Birchall has put it, “As an originally oppositional discourse that still has a precarious status within the university (despite an undeniable institutionalisation in some locations)—cultural studies has a greater capacity for opening itself up to questions of legitimacy than others. Cultural studies is well placed to ‘expose’ rather than ‘keep’ the secret of undecid-able legitimacy: a secret that conditions any knowledge statement, and anything that we could recognise as cultural studies.”52

In its interrogation of the legitimacy of the genetic law, of the reductionist thinking which equates life with DNA information, this new (p.143) bioethics will be “experimentally concerned with what ‘bio’ means in relation to ‘ethics,’ with the ways in which ethics always involves a ‘bio’ component.”53 Considering the very definition and conditions of life that are both its driving force and regulated object, this bioethics will also allow us to cast light on the link between violence and the law, and between power and bare life, as the secret of biopolitics that organizes life in Western (and increasingly other, or “newer”) democracies today. For Agamben, in the modern state the secret is already out in the open—and yet it seems paradoxically concealed precisely thanks to the ubiquitous, all-pervasive visibility of biotechnological machines that constitute, manage, and exclude different forms of “life itself.” The secret of life thus seems analogous to what Birchall has described as the Derridean secret: “that which remains outside the phenomenal event as it happens but which nevertheless conditions that event [i.e., “life itself”]. The irreducible, nonpresent secret (or in fact ‘nonpresence’) in this sense structures presence. I can name this secret ‘undecidable legitimacy’ or something like that, but this is really only akin to saying the secret is that no-one knows the secret. The secret remains irreducible even while we try to reveal it, keeping the future open.”54 Another way of articulating this paradox of the secret of life is by saying that life as revealed to us in the discourse of the life sciences depends on secrecy or that it is in fact the product of a secret. We may go so far as to suggest that it would indeed be impossible to think life without or outside secrecy, because the secret is the very condition of its conceptualization. As Richard Doyle puts it, “the great unsaid of the life sciences, of a molecular biology that sought and found ‘the secret of life,’ is the fact that life has ceased to exist. Or, rather, that it never did exist, that the life sciences were founded on an embarrassing but productive ambiguity, the opaque positivity called ‘life.’”55 The “secret of life” trope used by both science and public discourses about science conceals the fact that the privileging of mechanism over vitalism in its definition of life as code is itself a mechanistic division. It is a structuration within language which temporarily keeps apart such terms as materiality and virtuality, matter and spirit (terms which are mutually implicated in each other as their conditions of possibility). Any attempt to reduce or reveal the secret of life—even, or especially, if conducted in the name of science and with (p.144) the application of all of science’s legitimating apparatuses and protocols—will only end up displacing the secret, rearticulating it, while also concealing science’s own situation in the networks of power and the law (the latter having illegitimacy and originary violence as its condition of possibility).56

If “cracking” reveals itself as a somewhat futile approach to the secret of life, we should therefore rather focus our attention on the more doable and practical problems that this secrecy commands. It is in the thinking of an alternative bioethics, as explained above, that I locate this pragmatic task of addressing the secret of life otherwise. Responsible bioethical thinking today needs to involve looking at the secrets of the state, of biotech corporations and of scientific knowledge protocols that are already out in the open, or at least in the process of being drawn, but it also concerns the consideration of what constitutes a livable life and who has the power to determine livability. The recognition of the concepts, terms, and norms that govern life is important because, as Butler explains in Undoing Gender: “I may also feel that the terms by which I am recognized make life unlivable. This is the juncture from which critique emerges, where critique is understood as an interrogation of the terms by which life is constrained in order to open up the possibility of different modes of living; in other words, not to celebrate difference as such but to establish more inclusive conditions for sheltering and maintaining life that resists models of assimilation.”57

The main task of bioethics today is thus not only to “concentrate on ethical challenges due to quite striking biomedical advances, such as those in genetics,” as Stephen Holland’s textbook of bioethics postu-lates,58 but also to imagine different ways of naming, and thus recognizing, the new forms of life, without taking premature recourse to the rhetoric of assimilation or exception—via the tropological strategies of moral panics, monstrosity, or alienness. This approach requires the acknowledgement of yet another, perhaps most significant, secret of life, the secret of the alterity of the other (lives), of the fact that the other (life) does not yield itself to thematization, that there is always something that escapes my conceptual grasp. This recognition is the first condition of a new bioethics, an ethics of life that arises as a response to, and (p.145) responsibility for, the secret that reveals itself before me and that imprints itself on my skin.

Speaking against the totalizing view of the world in which the self is the source of all meaning and the starting point of both morality and politics, while human life can be synthesized as a sum total of all events and experiences in which consciousness leaves nothing outside of itself,59 Emmanuel Levinas defends the secret of life in the following terms: “The real must not only be determined in its historical objectivity, but also from interior intentions, from the secrecy that interrupts the continuity of historical time. Only on the basis of this secrecy is the pluralism of society possible. It attests this secrecy.”60 Secrecy here entails the abandonment of a desire to render a complete narrative of the other’s life, of her past, present, and future. It is thus also a condition of both ethics and responsible politics. Ethics does not consist here of a code of morals—it will not tell us in a prescriptive and formalized way how to respond to challenges brought up by genetic testing, xenotransplanta-tion, or cloning, as that would reduce ethical thinking to a reflection on totality and would thus prove ultimately unethical. Instead, ethics is seen as a primary demand or obligation posed by the infinitely other, whose otherness transcends the Leibnizian monadism or genetic complementarity and goes beyond difference within a genus. Significantly, for Levinas, “it is not as the individuals of a genus that men are together. One has always known this in speaking of the secrecy of subjectivity….”61

One can hear echoes of Levinasian ethics as well as Hegel’s notion of the self as ek-stasis in Butler’s injunction, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”62 If we follow this injunction, we can interpret secrecy—which, as we know by now, is never absolute—as an ethical condition of being with others. Secrecy does not amount here to embracing passivity, ignorance, or lack of interest in relation to the other, nor does it mean egoistic self-enclosure against the other’s reaching out to me. However, it does stand for the suspension of the possibility of totalization with any relationship to the other forms of life—human and nonhuman ones, those legitimately recognized as livable and those excluded from the conditions of livability. This suspension is only one aspect of my relation to other lives and (p.146) bodies. Another one involves the need to respond, always in a singular way, to the demand that other lives and bodies place upon me, to the vulnerability and corporeal dependency that my being in the world always already implies. This form of bioethics can provide a political grounding for a new biotech era, in which the ontology of human and nonhuman bodies and lives is being redrawn. It can also allow us to think of some new forms of sociality, of being with radically others, where their alterity is not immediately absorbed into the biopolitical machinery of technocapitalism, with human and nonhuman lives all assigned a biovalue that determines their visibility and legitimacy. Even though Levinas’s ethical thinking focuses on the human other, it is from the idea of infinity as God, and the other human as if he or she were God, that openness to other forms of life for which we do not yet have a name can be derived. This openness can create possibilities for ethical politics, “the pluralism of society” Levinas talks about, which would not be rooted in self-focused and interest-driven liberalism but rather in what Philippe Nemo describes in his conversation with Levinas as “the essential secrecy of lives.”63 This notion of secrecy, based on the conviction that the social results primarily from the limitation of the principle that “men are for one another,” is opposed to the concept of the “secret of life” discussed at the beginning of this chapter, which posits society as “the result of a limitation of the principle that men are predators of one another,” subject to the ultimately cognizable laws of nature.

This is by no means to defend something like an intrinsic dignity of the human or the sanctity of life. Secrecy stands here rather for a pragmatic recognition of limitations of the self, any self, and of its both ontological and epistemological dependence on other bodies, lives, and nonmaterial entities. This is why, even if I have reservations about its anthropomorphism, I nevertheless want to suggest that Levinas’s theory of sociality which is not predicated on the identity of the self-same would be ethically better than the genetic paradigm, which posits life as a soluble and systematic task while seeing human society as a genus, a Family of Man united under the auspices of the Human Genome Diversity Project. Even if Watson assures us in the last chapter of DNA: The Secret of Life that the essence of humanity is love and that its inscription (p.147) in our DNA “has permitted our survival and success on the planet,”64 his hope that someday “particular genes … could be enhanced by our science, to defeat petty hatreds and violence”65 risks obliterating the boundary between a love parade and a prison camp. In order to avoid entering such a zone of indistinction between the protection of innocent lives and the regulation of disorderly ones which would be run by the biopolitical machinery of life management, it may be worth taking account of Levinas’s story of the secret. (p.148)


(1.) Cultural studies is one discipline at the crossroads of the humanities and the social sciences that has taken the issue of responsibility for knowledge, and for its own relationship to knowledge, on board. Even though it initially defined itself in explicitly political terms, more recently discussions over cultural studies’ political engagement have been linked to ethical considerations. For more on this see Mark Devenney and Joanna Zylinska (eds.), “Cultural Studies: Between Politics and Ethics” (special issue), Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture and Politics, vol. 14, no. 2 (2001); Joanna Zylinska, The Ethics of Cultural Studies (London and New York: Continuum, 2005); and Joanna Zylinska, “Cultural Studies and Ethics,” in New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory, eds. Gary Hall and Clare Birchall (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

(2.) The genetic code is a set of rules which maps DNA sequences to proteins in the living cell and is employed in the process of protein synthesis. Nearly all living organisms use the same genetic code. The mapping of the DNA structure by Watson and Crick in 1953 was the first step in the process of mapping the genetic code, which was finally accomplished in 1966.

(3.) As someone whose academic background lies in the humanities rather than the hard sciences, I remain open to learning from scientific debates—here in particular those taking place in molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics, and bioinformatics. I also share the commitment of a number of theorists working in science and technology studies, feminist studies of science, and now, increasingly, media and cultural studies, to an immersed, participatory, and “hospitable” approach to science.

(4.) Quoted in Evelyn Fox Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Gender, Language and Science (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 96. (p.204)

(5.) Genes are hypothetical particles carried on chromosomes and mediating inheritance. As Steve Rose explains, “Roughly speaking, a gene can be defined as a unit of information. That’s how Mendel saw it. Biochemically, it’s a segment of DNA, which produces an RNA message which is read off it. But now that we know more about the genome, the old central dogma, that genes make RNA protein, is by no means straightforward. For example, there are genes within genes, some genes overlap with each other, and there are great acres of DNA called ‘junk DNA,’ which doesn’t seem to do much at all. So ‘gene’ is a convenient shorthand for what may turn out to be a rather complicated phenomenon.” In Jeremy Stangroom, “Darwinism and Genes: In Conversation with Steve Jones,” in What Scientists Think (London and New York: Routledge, 2005): 122, 10.

(6.) Keller, Secrets of Life, 42, see also 101–5.

(7.) James Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life (London: Arrow Books, 2004), 35.

(8.) See Lily E. Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 59–72.

(9.) Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life?, 5. This paradigm shift took place in 1953, with the mapping of the DNA structure by Watson and Crick.

(10.) The genome is the entire genetic setup of an organism (i.e., all of its genes). In other words, it is all of the genetic information or hereditary material possessed by an organism.

(11.) Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life?, 90.

(12.) Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life, 53.

(13.) See Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 69.

(14.) Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life?, 2, 23.

(15.) Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life?, 21, 100.

(16.) Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life?, 127.

(17.) Nancy Gibbs, “The Secret of Life,” Time, February 17 (2003): 42.

(19.) Thomas Goetz, “Your DNA Decoded,” Wired 15.2 (2007): 256–265, 283.

(20.) Keller, Secrets of Life, 96.

(21.) Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life, xx.

(22.) Dorothy Nelkin and Susan M. Lindee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1995), 41.

(23.) See Henry Quastler, “The Status of Information Theory in Biology,” in Symposium on Information Theory in Biology, ed. H. P. Yockey (New York: Pergamon Press, 1956), 399–401.

(24.) Western political sovereignty has always concerned itself with bare life, but this concern has taken a new form in the era of bio- and nanotechnologies, and (p.205) of the proliferation of the discourse (if not yet the material effects) of ubiquitous computing. For more on this point, see Eugene Thacker, “Nomos, Nosos and Bios,” Culture Machine, vol. 7 (2005): nonpag.

(25.) See E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1975).

(26.) Completed in 2003, the Human Genome Project was a thirteen-year effort coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. Its aims were to identify all of the approximately 20,000–25,000 genes in human DNA, determine the sequences of the three billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA, store this information in databases, and transfer related technologies to the private sector. (Source: Web site of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, working for the U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/home.shtml.)

The Human Genome Diversity Project was announced in 1991. Its aim is to collect samples from 10% of the world’s total groups, determined by their biological and geographical isolation, as well as their linguistic integrity. See Joanne Barker, “The Human Genome Diversity Project: ‘Peoples,’ ‘Populations’ and the Cultural Politics of Identification,” Cultural Studies, vol. 18, no. 4 (2004): 571–606, 574–5.

(27.) Sarah Franklin explains in her entry on “life” in the Encyclopedia of Bioeth-ics: “As the historian Michel Foucault points out, life itself did not exist before the end of the nineteenth century; it is a concept indebted to the rise of the modern biological sciences.” Foucault’s concepts of biopower and biopolitics, developed in relation to this idea of life itself, were a direct inspiration for Agamben’s work on biopolitics. Sarah Franklin, “Life,” in The Encyclopedia of Bioethics, ed. W. T. Reich, 5 vols. (New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1995), 1347.

(28.) Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 6, emphasis in original.

(29.) See Agamben, Homo Sacer, 26, 32, 35. Keller explores what we might describe as the unwelcome secret of those secret-cracking endeavors in science. She argues that the “perennial motif that underlies much of scientific creativ-ity—namely, the urge to fathom the secrets of nature, and the collateral hope that, in fathoming the secrets of nature, we will fathom the ultimate secrets (and hence gain control) of our own mortality” has proceeded “on two fronts: the search for the wellspring of life and, simultaneously, for ever more effective instruments of death,” Keller, Secrets of Life, 40.

(30.) Agamben, Homo Sacer, 53–5.

(31.) Agamben, Homo Sacer, 28.

(32.) Quoted in Barker, “The Human Genome Diversity Project,” 574.

(33.) Rosalyn Diprose, “A ‘Genethics’ That Makes Sense,” in Biopolitics: A Feminist and Ecological Reader on Biotechnology, eds. Vandana Shiva and Ingunn Moser (p.206) (London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Third World Network and Zed Books, 1995), 167.

(34.) C. Adami, “What is Complexity?,” BioEssays, vol. 24, no. 12 (2002): 1085–94, 1086.

(35.) “Life has traditionally been seen as the secret of women, a secret from men. By virtue of their ability to bear children, it is women who have been perceived as holding the secret of life.” Keller, Secrets of Life, 40.

(36.) See Keller, Secrets of Life, 41; Mary Jacobus, “Is There a Woman in This Text?” New Literary History, vol. 14, no. 1 (1982): 117–41.

(37.) Keller, Secrets of Life, 52–4.

(38.) Andrew Benjamin argues that what is assumed, even if not acknowledged, in the conception of difference assigned by Agamben to “bare life” is a primordial relatedness with the ineliminable specific other. He writes: “The excluded bear the mark not just of exclusion—a mark that could be no mark at all—but also the link between their particularity and exclusion.” In “Particularity and Exception: On Jews and Animals,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 107, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 71–87.

(39.) Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life, 106–7.

(40.) Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life, 58.

(41.) Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald explain in Exploding the Gene Myth that often it does not matter if you are a carrier of a particular gene, as, with diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Tay–Sachs, when recessive genes are involved, you need two gene carriers to procreate for the disease to develop.

(42.) Gibbs, “The Secret of Life,” 43.

(43.) See Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), and Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life, 46–57.

(44.) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: The Athlone Press, 1998), 197.

(45.) I have borrowed the term “precarious life” from Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2004).

(46.) The Muselmann, literally a Muslim, the living dead, is a product of the concentration camp. It is a term prisoners attached to those who had lost all will to live, and whose bodies approximated a vegetative state. Agamben uses this term after Primo Levi. See Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 44.

(47.) As Maria Hynes argues, “when we speak about life we invariably bring into play a certain metaphysics. Indeed, any claim to offer a purely materialist description of life merely fails to examine the metaphysical assumptions made about the way that matter relates to an incorporeal or ideal dimension.” In “Rethinking Reductionism,” Culture Machine, vol. 7 (2004): nonpag. (p.207)

(48.) Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 18.

(49.) See Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 16.

(50.) Agamben, The Open, 38.

(51.) Franklin, “Life,” 1350.

(52.) Clare Birchall, “Cultural Studies Confidential,” Cultural Studies, vol. 21, no. 1 (January 2007): 5–21, 18.

(53.) Eugene Thacker, Biomedia (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 184.

(54.) Birchall, “Cultural Studies Confidential,” 18.

(55.) Richard Doyle, On Beyond Living: Rhetorical Transformations of the Life Sciences (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 10.

(56.) If we agree that the law is not God-given or eternal, we must envisage a time when it did not exist. The law cannot therefore have legitimized the force (or violence) that established it and that brought into being its authority. For more on this, see Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: ‘The Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” Cardozo Law Review: Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, vol. 11, nos. 5–6 (1990): 920–1045.

(57.) Butler, Undoing Gender, 4.

(58.) Stephen Holland, Bioethics: A Philosophical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), 1.

(59.) Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 74.

(60.) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 57–8.

(61.) Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 78.

(62.) Butler, Undoing Gender, 19.

(63.) Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 79.

(64.) Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life, 431.

(65.) Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life, 431.