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Unthinkable biotechnology: the standing-reserves and sacrificial structures of life itself

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(Thesis) Ph.D.
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The emergence of biotechnology has resulted in intense debates about its promises and dangers. Advocates hail its promises, ranging from alleviating starvation through genetically engineered food to curing major diseases through gene therapy and pharmacological discoveries. Opponents decry its dangers, drawing attention to the inherent risks of genetic engineering, cloning, and the patenting of life forms. As these debates have continued, biotechnology has become a dominant mode of understanding the very life of living beings. There is, however, the need to examine the double-edged dynamics by which the discourse takes place. A theoretical framework informed by Heidegger, Foucault, and Agamben reveals that biotechnology is a structure of thought in which living-in-general is constructed as a metabolic “standing-reserve” (Heidegger). In this structure, biotechnological archives hold “life itself” as an ontologically unthinkable placeholder for a general mass of metabolic activity. The discourse of biotechnology constitutes its standing-reserves of the living-in-general by way of three modes that bring forth life for some, while sacrificing others. The first mode is eating, whereby the resources of the world were used to feed the bodies of Western Man, a prerequisite, according to Foucault, for the development of modern democracy. The second mode is incineration, exemplified by hot box experiments conducted by the U.S. Air Force during World War Two, ranging from analysis of heating systems to fire bombing strategies. These experiments enacted the fiery incorporation of bodies in militarized systems that ultimately signified U.S. power. The third mode is feverish genomics, by which scientists store the genomic sequences of all living things in global bioinformatic archives. Intellectual Property Rights, whose prime example is the U.S. Supreme Court’s approval of a patent on a genetically engineered life form (Diamond v. Chakrabarty 1980), defends all three modes as a right and expression of freedom by instituting the force of law. It is only by understanding biotechnology as a sacrificial structure that theoretical work on its privileging of U.S. interests can become more ethically charged.
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