Who Will Operate the Flesh Machine?

The patient finger

The theory of evolutionary aesthetics argues that in our partner choices, we are driven by evolutionary concerns. Our partner choices are determined by a concern, conscious or not, with the survival of our gene pool. This is supposed to hold true regardless of our sexual orientation. Whom we think is beautiful is biologically determined. For many, this is no doubt a theory that is difficult to accept. At the same time, we aren’t creationists either. During that dinner conversation, we will happily come to the aid of Charles Darwin–but without being willing to pursue evolutionary theory to the above end. Both creationists and scientists may be quick to hold this ambiguity against us. Suddenly, it appears necessary to decide. What side are we on? Are we with or against evolution?

As in many such situations, it is not entirely certain that we must choose. It may be that the answer is neither. “Of course,” when it comes to the creation of human life, we are with evolution, and not with the bible. But that shouldn’t mean that we follow the theory of evolutionary aesthetics. Indeed, since the creation of human life, culture has speeded up to such a degree that we might have spun outside of the realms of evolution altogether. As the members of Critical Art Ensemble state in a text titled Flesh Machine, “evolution is a theory, not a fact”—and they are hardly creationists. Evolution, as we know, moves forward like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history: with its back turned towards the future, it sees wreckage being piled upon wreckage as part of what Benjamin describes as “a single catastrophe.” It doesn’t know what it is doing. It just does—and out of all of this doing, certain gene pools survive. But it’s not as if we know what we are looking for when we choose our mates. From an evolutionary perspective, we might at best be making educated guesses.

Are will still within the era of evolution? If Critical Art Ensemble is correct in its diagnosis of the emergence of a flesh machine—a power machine that operates onto our biological lives directly–, does it still make sense, within this emergence, to speak of evolution? It may be that we can only hold on to this notion if we recognize that we have become its masters, that we have become our own gods, that we have entered into the era of “superhumanism,” as Peter Sloterdijk in a text from the late 1990s already put it. The risk, of course, is that we won’t have the courage to take on this responsibility, and that evolution will be run for us—by capital. To be sure, there is no way out of the flesh machine. But who is going to operate it?

References: Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998; Peter Sloterdijk, “Rules for the Human Zoo: Response to the Letter on Humanism”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2009), 12-28; Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. 253-264. Image: Willem Weismann, The patient finger, 50 x 60 cm, oil on canvas, 2010.

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