December 23, 2016
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Adam Zaretsky
My libertarian friend Conor Friedersdorf has stared into the abyss, and has been jolted by what stared back. He writes about it in a must-read essay with the deceptively anodyne title “The Limits of Diversity”.
Conor begins by laying out his own openness to diverse experience. Then he imagines, as an intellectual exercise, someone who is totally closed to experiencing different things. He says that his “bubble may be thickest” precisely here: in trying to see the world through the eyes of those who are highly closed to diversity.
(Nota bene: the standard narrative in our culture is to stigmatized those who are closed to diversity, but that is the normative human experience. Besides which, as we often talk about on this blog, progressives who take pride in their supposed openness to diversity can be some of the most closed-minded people you’ll ever meet. They just draw their lines in different places.)
Conor says that listening to a recent podcast, he came hard up against the borders of what he would consider acceptable diversity. He writes:
Its main subject, bio-artist Adam Zaretsky, is not one of these authoritarians. Rather, he is a member of my tribe, a “libertarian,” Stenner’s term for those who prize individualism, diversity, and difference. And he is the first person to evoke in me a gut desire for enforced sameness and suppressed diversity––a visceral reaction I cannot recall having before.
That’s pretty strong. But read on, and it’s very easy to see why:
At the edge of science, researchers are using a newfound ability to edit any gene to work toward wonders: sustainable biofuels, ridding the world of malaria, seeking cures for genetic diseases. Trans-genesis, the process of taking a gene from one organism, cutting it out, and pasting it into another, has advanced radically, with new precision that will revolutionize medicine. It could give rise to genetically enhanced soldiers or astronauts; it may allow whole nations to increase their IQs.
Its aesthetic ramifications are less discussed. Consider the embryos that Adam Zaretsky has tweaked in the course of his bio-art projects and the art classes he teaches. “To call a developing embryo that’s been altered a sculpture is meant to cause a kind of double-bind in people’s minds,” he said. “They’re like, ‘It’s not a sculpture, it’s a being, or growing to be a being.’ What I’m trying to get across is that the making of transgenic humans, or non-humans, is a somewhat invasive act, but also based on a particular aesthetic, at a particular time, in a particular state of mind.”
Never mind curing Alzheimer’s or understanding the universe.
“I’m not here to cure anything or make knowledge. I’m here to make enigma,” he said. “I’m trying to problematize the concept and de-science it so people can see it for what it is.”
Let that sink in. He is not bringing new forms of human life into existence for aesthetic reasons; he’s working on animal embryos. But if you read the transcript of the podcast you’ll see that he’s looking forward to working on humans. Excerpt:
Transgenesis is taking one gene from one organism, cutting it out and pasting it into another organism. Now, we are reaching a point where we’re getting better at the potential for making transgenic humans, genetically modified humans, humans that are GMOs.
First of all, let me just say this – transgenic human embryos are already being made. They’re not necessarily being grown full-term, but this is something that’s possible. It’s been possible to do this since the ’70s, but people have been saying “I don’t know… No one would actually do that! That would be psychotic” because the technique that was how to target the genes into the human genome without them falling anywhere or everywhere, so it lands willy-nilly in the genome and can cause all kinds of problems, like cancer or death. But there’s a new way to get genes into the human genome that isn’t as disruptive as before. CRISPR/Cas9 has made the news as a technique that’s more refined, it’s more targeted, exactly where your gene is gonna land, so we could just use it to knock in or knock out problematic genes or ad genes, and so it won’t harm the rest of the organism.
It’s a fairly easy to use technology, and it’s available in do-it-yourself CRISPR kits already for yeast, for worms, but not necessarily on human cells. It’s not perfected yet, but on the world scene there are different laws in different nations, and I have to say this is one of those standard Pandora things – if you can do it and it’s been 50 years, it’s about to be released that people ARE doing it because they HAVE been doing it.
Later, he says:
It’s been a goal of mine for more than ten years to make transgenic humans. I do have problems with the process, I do have problems with the results, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do it if I could.
Just so you know what kind of sick monster Adam Zaretsky is, here he is describing himself and his background:
I think I wanted to be a banker, a pornographer and a communist. It’s hard to mix all those three, but I’m on my way. I’m already a pornographer and a communist, so I think I just have to go to business school.
Somewhere between science fiction and sado-masochism is an aesthetic based on prurient interest. It’s alright. It’s alright. Sexuality shouldn’t just be about flowers and a glass of wine and some smooth music and some loving sex. I actually love dropping cotton balls on someone who’s tied up – that’s fine, but there’s something raw and rancorous, and there’s something camp, and there’s something trans, and there’s something transvestism, and there’s something transgenic. They’re all sort of flowing together under the aegis of basically queerness.
Let’s just face it, okay? I’m a child of Rocky Horror, I’m a child of Soft Cell. I really like luring disco dollies to a life of vice.
You guys are just uncovering every little thing about me, this is so nice. It’s nice to study myself like a specimen!
“All sort of flowing together under the aegis of basically queerness.” Do you understand what’s being said here, reader? He reminisces about being in New York as a young man, and seeing the performance artist Karen Finley do her infamous routine where she shoved yams up her rear end. He remembers being enthralled by Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait shoving a whip handle up his butt. More Zaretsky:
And some people refer to shock art in a way to dismiss it, when actually art that shocks is achieving an aesthetic goal. The goal is to make you revulsed; the goal is to make you dismiss or repress the art, but also the goal is to crack through your resistance, your screen, and show you what’s underneath. It’s not always pretty, but this idea that you’re allowed to bullshit-detect rational culture and go ahead and be honest without it being like a situation comedy that ends in a moral, happy ending… I felt a little freer, to go ahead and do the work of the negative. It actually matters.
Desensitizing people to the perverted, the radically abnormal, the … evil. This is what he’s into. More:
To call a developing embryo that’s been altered a sculpture is meant to cause a kind of double bind in people’s minds, where they’re like “Oh, it’s not a sculpture, it’s a being” or “It’s growing to be a being.” What I’m trying to get across is that the making of transgenic humans or transgenic non-humans is a somewhat invasive act, but is also based on a particular aesthetic at a particular state of time in a particular state of mind. I’m trying to problematize the process, and sort of de-science it a little bit so that people can see it for what it is.
He believes in creating mutants for the sake of art. Just because he can. As an expression of the artist’s will. Here’s the world Adam Zaretsky foresees:
I think that it’s important to make versions of transgenic human anatomy that are not based on idealism. I wanna make sure that there’s plaid kids, all the other queer anatomy out there to compete with the other add-ons that parents are gonna be paying for. To get bio-queer transgenic humans is going to save a lot of difference on the planet. It’s gonna stop us from monoculturing ourselves and it’s gonna also offer a real and possibly unacceptable face of the democratization of the human genome.
The idea is that you take a gene, say for pig noses, or ostrich anuses, or aardvark tongue, and you paste that into a human sperm, a human egg, a human zygote. A baby starts to form. Developmentally, the baby is mostly human, but it has an aardvark tongue, a pig nose and an ostrich anus. That makes for bodily difference and surely metabolic differences etc, but it also makes for a version of ourselves that’s based on collage. It’s literally gene collage.
What’s weird about it is that once you get that started, if it stabilizes, if you can find partners, if you’re still fertile, if you’re still into it, you go ahead and reproduce and you’ll have children born with ostrich anuses and aardvark tongues and pig noses.
Children born with ostrich anuses. That’s what this man dreams of. A sane society would forbid his work and throw him in prison if he got anywhere near a lab. But this mad scientist-artist is on the faculty at MIT, and teaches at has taught or been affiliated with other prestigious universities.
Adam Zaretsky freaked Conor Friedersdorf out. Drawing on the insights of Jonathan Haidt and Karen Stenner, he says:
The point here is not to evaluate sanctity as a moral intuition, never mind to defend every application of it. The point, rather, is to remember that sanctity is a powerful driver of moral intuition for many, and that lots of Americans who aren’t particularly prone to disgust would, when confronted with antlered, aardvark-tongued babies, agree with Leon Kass.
“Repugnance,” he once wrote, “revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity.”
Insofar as the power of those intuitions is forgotten or dismissed by liberals, or libertarians, or difference loving peoples, or transgressive artists understandably alarmed by the prospect of “perfect” designer babies, the result is as likely to be a horrific backlash against diversity and neophilia as a future in which they face no limits.
I will tell you this. I would eagerly vote for a leader who promised to put Adam Zaretsky and his kind in prison, and close their labs. These are lines that must not be crossed.
But I also tell you this: our society will never do this. If it is okay to manipulate human genes to protect someone from disease, why not to provide them with enhanced abilities? And, having established that there is nothing sacred about human genes, who’s to put a limit on what the Adam Zaretskys of the world choose to do with them?
If you convince people that we must tolerate Adam Zaretsky’s children with ostrich anuses for the sake of curing childhood disease, or helping them to have their dream baby, they’ll accept it. That’s how we are. We Americans figure out what we want, then come up with the rationalization later. Zaretsky is right that if the technology exists, people somewhere are going to do whatever they want to with it. I can’t argue with that. But if this evil is going to come into the world, let it not be through my country. That’s my belief. I would accept severe restrictions on liberty to stop that evil.
Also, notice how Zaretsky accurately points out the role transgressive art plays in desensitizing us and making us willing to accept ever more transgressive acts as normative. It’s true not just of transgressive art, but transgression itself. Look at this image of the two covers National Geographic ran this month:
The one on the left, featuring a nine-year-old transgender boy-girl, went to subscribers. The other was for newsstands. Apparently the magazine’s editors realize that there are still plenty of people who find the idea of a prepubescent child presenting as the opposite sex disturbing. The editor of the magazine described this child as “brave,” which gives you an idea of the editorial slant of its presentation of transgenderism.
You can hardly get more establishmentarian than National Geographic. This is the future. Adam Zaretsky is right: “everything is sort of flowing together under the aegis of basic queerness” (and by “queerness” he means most broadly the overturning of all values and distinctions). Many of the most intelligent and powerful people in this culture are deliberately destroying the categories of man and woman, and calling it virtue.
When I call the Benedict Option “a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation” (the subtitle of my forthcoming book), I’m not talking about preserving our political views. I’m talking most fundamentally about preserving basic humanity and sanity through this coming darkness.
I shake my head at my fellow conservative Christians who think the danger has passed because Donald Trump is president. One of Trump’s big backers is the Silicon Valley transhumanist Peter Thiel. If you think there’s anything within Donald Trump that will stand against the technological exploitation of human life, you’re dreaming. The Democratic Party won’t oppose it because they see Science as sacrosanct. Plus, the philosophical principles they accept to justify abortion lays the basic groundwork.
As for the Republicans, if you think the sanctity of life will cause them to stand against transhumanism, ask yourself how far a proposal to outlaw IVF would get in Congress. It’s a procedure which has created and continues to create millions of human embryos that have been, or will have to be, destroyed (here are the numbers for the UK; ours are certainly worse, given our larger population). Isn’t it wrong to compare IVF to Zaretsky’s evil folly? No. Once the principle is established that human life can be deliberately created, knowing it will be destroyed in embryo, we’re only talking about details.