The Cinematic Life of the Gene

The Cinematic Life of the Gene

by Jackie Stacey


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What might the cinema tell us about how and why the prospect of cloning disturbs our most profound ideas about gender, sexuality, difference, and the body? In The Cinematic Life of the Gene, the pioneering feminist film theorist Jackie Stacey argues that as a cultural technology of imitation, cinema is uniquely situated to help us theorize "the genetic imaginary," the constellation of fantasies that genetic engineering provokes. Since the mid-1990s there has been remarkable innovation in genetic engineering and a proliferation of films structured by anxieties about the changing meanings of biological and cultural reproduction. Bringing analyses of several of these films into dialogue with contemporary cultural theory, Stacey demonstrates how the cinema animates the tropes and enacts the fears at the heart of our genetic imaginary. She engages with film theory; queer theories of desire, embodiment, and kinship; psychoanalytic theories of subject formation; and debates about the reproducibility of the image and the shift from analog to digital technologies.

Stacey examines the body-horror movies Alien: Resurrection and Species in light of Jean Baudrillard's apocalyptic proclamations about cloning and "the hell of the same," and she considers the art-house thrillers Gattaca and Code 46 in relation to ideas about imitation, including feminist theories of masquerade, postcolonial conceptualizations of mimicry, and queer notions of impersonation. Turning to Teknolust and Genetic Admiration, independent films by feminist directors, she extends Walter Benjamin's theory of aura to draw an analogy between the replication of biological information and the reproducibility of the art object. Stacey suggests new ways to think about those who are not what they appear to be, the problem of determining identity in a world of artificiality, and the loss of singularity amid unchecked replication.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822345077
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/02/2010
Pages: 346
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jackie Stacey is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Star Gazing: Female Spectators and Hollywood Cinema and Teratologies: A Cultural Study of Cancer; co-author of Global Nature, Global Culture; and co-editor of several books, including Queer Screen: A Screen Reader, Thinking through Skin, and Romance Revisited. Stacey is an editor of the journals Screen and Feminist Theory.

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The Cinematic Life of the Gene



Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4507-7

Chapter One

The Hell of the Same

Cloning, Baudrillard, and the Queering of Biology

Cloning presents us with the potential to undo what we have come to understand as the uniqueness of human life, the finality of death, and the place of sexuality and reproduction in the formation of culture. Despite the obvious overlap with psychoanalytic concerns (such as twinning, doubling, alterity, the death drive, the end of Oedipus, the uncanny, mourning and melancholia, intersubjectivity, womb envy and abjection) the subject has attracted surprisingly little commentary from such theorists. We might have expected recent developments in genetic engineering to have generated a plethora of debates about the unconscious desires underpinning these new scientific techniques and governing our responses to their increasingly evident social presence. But in the burgeoning literatures across the humanities and social sciences there are strikingly few accounts of the psychic or affective dimensions of cloning and genetic engineering, nor indeed of how the Oedipal foundations of culture are currently being threatened by the existence of these potential forms of artificial life.

In contrast, Jean Baudrillard is one of the few to theorize the unconscious drives behind cloning as a scientific project. Specifying the psychic violence it poses to the structural underpinnings of the symbolic order, Baudrillard asks: What are the phantasms "underlying the whole genetic project?" (2002, 198). Sitting somewhere between cultural theory and science fiction, his deliberately provocative and apocalyptic answers caution against the ways in which these postmodern imitations of biological life are destroying the foundations of both the human psyche and the symbolic order through the current social realignments of the human and the technological, and the reconfiguration of life, death, and sexuality. This focus makes Baudrillard's writing on cloning an obvious starting point for a book concerned with elaborating the dynamics of the genetic imaginary.

This chapter takes Baudrillard's writing on cloning as a symptomatic focus for mapping the conceptual mise-en-scène of this imaginary in which the psychic forces of techno-scientific innovation might be read through particular cultural forms. Part of a wider critique of the cultural economies of postmodernity, Baudrillard is concerned here with the ways in which genetic engineering threatens unconscious processes of subject formation (or, as he puts it, perhaps requires us to dispense with both the notion of the unconscious and of the subject altogether). Crystallizing the profundity of the current cultural interference generated by genetic engineering, he asks: "Is it possible to speak of the soul, or the conscience, or even the unconscious from the point of view of the automatons, the chimeras, and the clones that will supersede the human race?" (Baudrillard 2000, 23).

But to read Baudrillard's theories as indicative of the shape of the genetic imaginary more generally may also provoke scepticism from some readers unconvinced by the universalizing and often inflammatory rhetoric for which he has become famous (see Edelman 2005). Many of his critics would dismiss his interventions as mere paranoia and polemic. For my purposes here, though, this is precisely what makes his writing so significant, since his hyperbole is performative of many of the underlying psychic terrors driving such an imaginary. In mapping the deepest cultural anxieties about cloning as part of an analysis of the "phantasms underlying the whole genetic project" (ibid.), Baudrillard's work reiterates the associative moves which constitute the genetic imaginary. Building on the force of Baudrillard's discursive excess, my readings of his work trace the "transmission of affect" (Brennan 2004) generated by the advent of cloning. Baudrillard's work is perfectly suited to an indicative reading of the genetic imaginary because of the ways in which it rehearses the affective disturbances of cloning and genetic engineering.

This rest of this chapter explores the landscapes of such an imaginary through a series of close readings of the discursive production of sameness in the account of "the genetic project" in Baudrillard's work. Drawing on my previous work on how abjected desires and bodies become associated with a deathly proliferation of sameness (see Stacey 1997), I examine Baudrillard's claims that, in dispensing with sexual difference as the embodied guarantee of the humanness of reproduction, cloning threatens to reverse evolution and announce the end of the species as we know it. The fear of sameness, much debated in queer and feminist theory, is pivotal here to the desire to re-privilege heterosexual difference, even as genetic discourse simultaneously enables its most profound denaturalizations. As I discuss below, for Lee Edelman, Baudrillard's "paradigm of sameness" implicates his work irredeemably within the heteronormative logic of what Edelman calls "reproductive futurism" (2005, 61). My reading seeks to make explicit how the genetic imaginary casts the current problem of sexual difference as a simultaneously technical, psychic, and social one, implicating the new possibilities of genetic interference within the transformation of social structures and the loss of the legitimizing power of foundational sexual categories.

Baudrillard's writing on cloning appears in Screened Out, published in 2002; perhaps appropriately, however, there are numerous previous incarnations of these ideas. His most elaborated challenge to cloning and other forms of genetic engineering is his essay titled "The Final Solution," published in 2000 in The Vital Illusion. With its direct reference to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe-an association which continues to haunt contemporary genetics, despite attempts to recast the latter's ethical and political credentials and genealogy-this essay pushes the logic behind the cloning project to its discursive limits in an attempt to reveal what Baudrillard considers the self-destructive absurdities of its impetus. In this short piece, Baudrillard rehearses the violent symbolic implications of the new genetic imitations of life and elaborates what he sees as the phantasms driving such a project.

In his claim that as a fantasy of immortality, cloning is ultimately a "fatal strategy" powered by the death drive, Baudrillard places center stage the threat posed by genetic engineering to traditional configurations of sexual difference and embodied heterosexual reproduction (Baudrillard 2002, 197-99). For Edelman, Baudrillard's arguments about cloning here reveal him to be an advocate of "reproductive futurism"-the framing of the political field as defined by terms "that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable ... the possibility of a queer resistance to this organising principle of communal relations" (Edelman 2005, 2). Edelman rightly exposes a logic generated in Baudrillard's polemic through which the subject not only has much to fear, but might already be lost, since the foundational function of sexual difference is to be replaced both biologically and culturally by a proliferation of sameness, imitation, and artifice. In his declaration that the age of the clone, or what he calls "the degree xerox of the species," means we are approaching the end of life as we know it, Baudrillard reads genetics as simply the latest manifestation of the desire to reinvent the "rules of the game, at the risk of coming to grief" (Baudrillard 2002, 198).

Placing cloning within the more general framework of his polemic against the simulacra and simulations of postmodern culture, Baudrillard sees genetic engineering as the biological equivalent of the cultural imitations that surround us in contemporary Western society: "isn't virtual reality as a whole an immense cloning of the so-called real world?" (ibid., 200). Cloning thus blends the biological and cultural through the structures of communication that can now only be mobilized for repetition. As an écriture automatique of the ready-made, cloning is conceived here as writing from beyond the grave through the live body, offering vicarious agency to the dead. As such, it threatens to replace both the authenticity of the body and the spontaneity of creativity with the ghostly replication of multiple automatons, whose illusory individuality becomes the exchange value of the markets of new technologies.

With the advent of cloning, according to Baudrillard, it is not simply that the economic relations of capitalism require social reproduction through culture, but that biological and cultural reproduction have now become unified and serve the same futile end. If it seems that culture alone will preserve us from "the hell of the same" (1993, 113) of cloning, Baudrillard cautions us that "in fact, the reverse is true. It is culture that clones us, and mental cloning anticipates any biological cloning" (2000, 25). In this sense, the logic of genetic engineering is already present in the "social register, where what the system produces and reproduces are virtually matching beings, beings substitutable for each other, already mentally cloned" (2002, 199). Since cloning is merely the logical biological extension of the "culture of the copy" (Schwartz 1996), we have already been programmed to accept cycles of replication. Baudrillard argues that "social cloning, the industrial reproduction of things and people, ... makes possible the biological conception of the genome and of genetic cloning, which only further sanctions the cloning of human conduct and human cognition" (Baudrillard 2000, 25).

More than this, he suggests that cloning is an "infinitely more subtle and artificial prosthesis than any mechanical one" (Baudrillard 2002, 200). The desire for cloning is an extension of previous accumulated imaginings: "everyone may at some time have dreamt of duplicating or multiplying himself to perfection, but this is, precisely, a fantasy: it is destroyed when you attempt to force reality to conform to it. Everything-utopias, transparency, perfection-becomes terrifying as soon as it is turned into reality" (ibid., 199). In this sense, if cloning builds on existing phantasms which have haunted Western culture (so keenly wedded to singularity and authenticity as the anchors of subjectivity), it is the literal manifestation of what was up until now a "merely mental or metaphysical" fascination: "when this fated character of the Same ... becomes materially inscribed in our cells ... science itself becomes a 'fatal strategy'" (ibid., 198-99, emphasis added). As the ultimate consequence of all modern technologies, cloning both repeats the accumulated errors of misguided history and leads to unprecedented violence that threatens the very foundations of the symbolic order. Baudrillard's apocalyptic rhetoric of "fate" and "fatality" gives force to this discourse of historical inevitability, anchored in the marriage of psyche and biology.

Cloning thus conceived is the result of a nostalgic longing for a "return to ... the Same" and can be understood only as the triumph of the death drive: "this dizzying temptation to return to annihilation in the eternal repetition of the Same, to go back beyond the biological revolution of sex, back beyond death" (ibid., 197). This declaratory rhetoric gives further force to the sense of the inevitability of cloning, however undesirable. The breadth of this historical sweep (encompassing past and future so readily) intensifies this pessimism as it condemns the similarity in forms of biological and cultural reproduction. For Baudrillard, it is the death drive which propels such insanity forward into inevitable oblivion. Only that drive, he says,

would impel sexual beings towards a presexual form of reproduction (in the depths of our imagination, moreover, is it not precisely this scissiparous form of reproduction and proliferation based solely on contiguity that for us is death and the death drive?). And what, if not a death drive, would further impel us at the same time, on the metaphysical plane, to deny all otherness, to shun any alteration in the Same, and to seek nothing beyond the perpetuation of an identity, nothing but the transparency of a genetic inscription no longer subject even to the vicissitudes of procreation? (Baudrillard 1993, 114)

If science has become a "fatal strategy" through which the desire for death masquerades as the desire for life, then fantasies of immortality and the death drive collaborate in the cloning project. Contrary to the common-sense assumption that the desire for death and the desire for immortality might pull in opposite directions, Baudrillard suggests that they are united in the figure of the clone, since the form of immortality longed for is itself a kind of species suicide: the drive for immortality and the death drive "are in play simultaneously, and it is possible that one is nothing but a variant of the other, nothing but its detour" (Baudrillard 2000, 27). Rather than enacting a longing for life, cloning represents the opposite: a longing for a return to nondifferentiation, sameness, and self-annihilation. He formulates this in another way, saying that cloning represents "the forgetting of death"-the possibility that we shall not die (ibid., 5). Perhaps this is the greater terror: "at the slightest hesitation in the fight for death-a fight for division, for sex, for alterity, and so for death-living beings become once again indivisible, identical to one another-and immortal" (ibid., 5-6). In the genetic imaginary, the clone figure thus embodies both the death drive which impels a culture toward such a genetic science, and the desire for immortality which such techniques, like others before them, promise to deliver.

The fantasies of immortality motivating the project of cloning, Baudrillard suggests, return us to an unhealthy longing for biological immortality from which we had previously escaped: "blindly we dream of overcoming death through immortality, when all the time immortality is the most horrific of possible fates" (2000, 6). The force of his rhetorical case against cloning in effect rests upon the invocation of a familiar (and highly conventional) version of evolutionary biology: "The evolution of the biosphere is what drives immortal beings to become mortal ones ... Encoded in the earliest life of our cells, this fate is now reappearing on our horizons ... with the advent of cloning." The threat of cloning is located within an evolutionary teleology of biological and psychic progress from undifferentiated life to advanced human sexual reproduction: "Contrary to everything that seems obvious and 'natural,' nature's first creatures were immortal. It was only by obtaining the power to die, by dint of constant struggle, that we became the living beings we are today" (2000, 6). A culture that endorses cloning is cast as a diseased return to the "primitive" moment of futile biological cycles of cell division and replication; cloning reverses the previously natural order of evolution, whose drive toward mortality saved us from the horrors of immortal self-replication:

By way, paradoxically, of science and progress, we are now quite simply eradicating the greatest revolution in the history of living beings, the transition from protozoan, bacterial, undifferentiated cell division-the immortality of the single-cell organisms-to sexual reproduction and the inalienable death of every individual being, and replacing this with the biological monotony of the earlier state of affairs, the perpetuation of a minimal, undifferentiated life, for which we have perhaps never stopped yearning. (Baudrillard 2002, 196-97)


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: Technologies of Imitation and the Genetic Imaginary 1

Part 1 Sameness Ad Infinitum

1 The Hell of the Same: Cloning, Baudrillard, and the Queering of Biology 19

2 She Is Not Herself: The Deviant Relations of Alien: Resurrection 36

3 Screening the Gene: Femininity as Code in Species 66

Part 2 Imitations of Life

4 Cloning as Biomimicry 95

5 Genetic Impersonation and the Improvisation of Kinship: Gattaca's Queer Visions 113

6 The Uncanny Architectures of Intimacy in Code 46 137

Part 3 Stairway to Heaven

7 Cut-and-Paste Bodies: The Shock of Genetic Simulation 179

8 Leading Across the In-Between: Transductive Cinema in Teknolust 195

9 Enacting the Gene: The Animation of Science in Genetic Admiration 225

Afterword: Double Take, Déjà Vu 257

Notes 273

Bibliography 287

Filmography 303

Index 307

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