General concept

Written by:
Dr. Karin Harrasser, Dr. Oliver Müller, Georg Seeßlen, Markus MetzDr. Alexander Klose
Mise-en-scène: Hannah Hurtzig
English translation by Robert Brambeer

When does a life begin? When does a life end? And who decides?

Birth and death, the indisputable boundaries of life, over which none but destiny or the gods wield control, have been embedded in cultural activity since the beginning of time. It is not the actual event, but rather the confirmation of birth and death and the repetition through magical rites, religious ceremonies, bureaucratic acts and medical intervention which allow us to enter the community of humankind and leave it again upon our death. In fact, natural or biological factors are just as significant for determining the beginning and end of life as are cultural and historical factors.

The malleability of life’s boundaries through culture (which could have sparked the formation of human culture to begin with) appears to have intensified with the latest cultural and technological developments. In the current biotechnological age, that which is regarded as living finds itself in a never-ending process of negotiation. At the same time, the imaginary arsenal of creatures which exist between life and death continues to grow and diversify. In films, novels, comics, feature pages and bestseller lists, we find dreams (or nightmares) of a world of “undead”. How do the new-found possibilities offered by the “life sciences” and advances in high-tech medicine interrelate with the reproduction of undead fantasies in the imaginary realms of culture?

This event aimed to examine what we regard as “alive” in the biotechnological age. It focused on zones of transition which we haven’t (yet) defined as belonging to the realm of the living, and forms of survival and “underlife” (Erving Goffman) which test the limits of what defines and empowers humans as social and natural creatures. We wanted to examine who exactly is defining the narrative regarding the beginning and end of life and its various stages and what their interests and justification could be. This issue involves ongoing discourse and debate from a variety of fields, including medical ethics, jurisprudence, politics, religion, philosophy, art and popular culture.

The new feasibility

Modern biotechnological advances which enable us to intervene into life processes have led to a revolution which undermines our classical ethical and ontological foundation. As the molecular-biological field forges ahead with “synthesizing” life and “producing” countless embryos (“frozen angels”), the formerly irrefutable boundaries between life and death have become increasingly blurred. Are these “entities” living or dead, not yet alive or not completely dead? Do they deserve our protection? Does this life have intrinsic value beyond its use as mere bio-material, a kind of biotic waste product of technology? Even in other areas of the medical field, especially in intensive care, we are encountering new ontological grey zones. What does it mean when a human supposedly no longer possesses personal traits? How do we convey the state of a patient in a vegetative coma? Or what about the bodies from which we extract organs and tissue – are they truly dead only because a doctor has declared them brain-dead? Furthermore, new biotechnological advances have made forms of “life after death” possible – human organic tissue (cells, organs, blood, bone marrow) can exist in the bodies of others, improving their “quality of life” and postponing their death. Cell lines can be reproduced indefinitely. The possibility of living beyond one’s mortal life in the form of stored information in specialized gene banks is becoming more of a reality every day. “When a person dies nowadays, they’re not really dead.”  (Thomas Lemke)

Whoever establishes the right to define life also controls it. These issues of feasibility are not only negotiated between the scientific community and the political branch. Pop culture plays a key role in a variety of areas – artistic examination, media-based presentation of knowledge and criticism and the drastic narratives of fear and desire. Films, music, comics, illustrations, TV shows and YouTube clips present visions, nightmares, “explanations”, links, myths and parodies of what is conceivable and feasible. The undead must be iconographized in order to stimulate social discourse. Inversely, the imagery-rich discourse strongly contributes to the production of the undead. The science fiction and horror genres have accompanied the development of the life sciences and biotechnology since their inception. And this relationship is by no means one-sided. As much as pop culture delves into science, the scientific field takes advantage of pop culture, not only as a medium, but also as a quarry of ideas, images and rhetoric.

The economic logic of life enhancement

In the differentiation of biotechnologies, we discover a phantasm that claims the bio-body is a perfectible, universally formable, undetermined entity in the current of life. The age-old dream of immortality has returned in the biotechnologically updated and thoroughly materialistic hope that “this bio-body could finally be a deathless body”, as Petra Gehring writes. In view of the logic of optimization that extends to the human body and life itself, the added (economic) value of life is paradoxically rooted in the undead. “From creating ‘good genes’ to acquiring more life time to purchasing euthanasia services for assisted suicide, biotechnologically abstracted life is attractive as a consumer good.” (Gehring) 

One could say that our fear of death is what motivates the life enhancement logic of biotechnologies to produce the undead. This also applies to “trans-humanistic” visions of life-enhancement. The triumph over death through biotechnological means serves as a counter programme to other cultural and religious approaches for dealing with death and thus, takes the form of a rejection of death. The ability to “reprogramme our biochemistry” and the prospect of nanotechnology enabling us to “live forever” are among the research objectives pursued by Ray Kurzweil. His work is based on the guarantee that the “biotic substrate” can continue existing using all possible means. But is this life which is made immortal the same as the life we are familiar with?  Will we be confronted with such undead life in the future? Or does undead life already exist today?

In contrast to survival, “undead life” is an unheroic, undefined state of being which is rather uncanny and possesses only limited symbolic depth because it jumbles semiotics and ethical hierarchies. The iconic image for this type of life is the zombie with all its “vital impairments”. Zombies featured for the first time in their modern form in George A. Romero's famous "Night of the Living Dead" of 1968, only one year after the world's first human heart transplant and concurrent to the announcement of brain death criteria which would allow doctors to clinically determine the onset of death. The zombie offers both simple thrills and a subtle connection to archaic-mythical, sociological, historical, technological and even philosophical questions. Its metaphorical significance extends from the slave legends and revolts to modern epidemics. Beyond that, imagining the zombie prevailing over human life in the future certainly represents a worst-case scenario for all the life sciences.

Although the “inability to live or die” confronts us with ontological, philosophical, legal and very concrete, real-life problems, we should never forget that there are places in the world where countless numbers of people are being killed or allowed to die without a thought. The inequality of (medical) resources has also led to an unsettling and unfair economy of death on a global level. In the 20th century, the zombie became a figure of social criticism of the (colonial) exploitation of the body, the dispossession of the soul and the alienation of work. Today, the zombie is very often a post-human entity which exists in a counter-society. Who or what will the zombie become in the 21st century?

Control of the undead

The control of life and death has shifted to the control of the undead. But who determines what is undead? Who stands to profit from the undead? Who will save us from the undead? A starting point of the congress will be the assumption that Foucault’s theoretical model, which he called “biopower”, i.e. a technology of power based on biological and scientifically quantifiable basic functions, such as performance or capability of reproducing, has to be expanded to apply to the category of the undead. While Foucault bases his model on the dichotomy of “living” vs. “dead” (and the bio-political distinction between “that which should live and that which must die”), modern bio-medicine has produced epistemological and political grey zones and ontological border cases, the ambiguity of which is an expression of an ethical dilemma. Normative decisions require clear-cut distinctions and categories – for example, living vs. dead, or someone vs. something. Yet no such category exists for entities that are neither living nor dead. This leads to a sort of regulative limbo; society must take up the task of providing answers to what the undead is and who controls the undead.

One point of contention lies in whether the “new”, “improved”, “prolonged” life, which biotechnology has created with self-congratulatory hype, can even pass as human life. Another is determining who is permitted to use which resources, be it technical, intellectual or cultural in nature. While science and politics struggle to reconcile what is possible and what is permissible, popular culture has already moved on to other questions. What happens to one’s mind in that zone between life and death, of which we know so little about? What happens to a society in which life forms of "varying degrees of vitality" encounter one another? What rights do the undead have?  What about their sexual and emotional lives? Who do they belong to? Must this trend end in a “war” between human and post-human life-forms? Or are (precarious) forms of coexistence possible?
Popular culture has offered answers to such questions long before political and scientific circles even began asking them. It negotiates the divides separating what is feasible, acceptable and imaginable.

The congress

The relationship between science and popular culture is generally acknowledged with embarrassment or irony. What predictions have turned out to be true? What current neuroses determine the prospective image? What sentiments are being produced and conveyed? We wish to take this relationship more seriously. It would be impossible to imagine the “undead” without the interaction of diverse pop-cultural images on scientific image production. Like the images of pop culture, those of science are also serially produced and reproduced for mass-media presentation. The figure of the “undead” haunts our literary and cinematic cultural memory and dramatically focuses our attention to the blurry boundary dividing the living from the dead. This congress examined the reciprocal relationships of theories and images and presented their mass-media dissemination through performance. Biotech experts, bioethicists, philosophers, artists, film and media professionals and pop icons have been invited to attend the congress. They met in various constellations and debated a wide range of issues in the rooms of a film set, constructed specially for the congress inside a former factory hall at Kampnagel, the theatre and cultural performance venue in Hamburg. Visitors could move freely through the rooms of the film set, each of which invokes places where the “undead” are produced. All the discussions, lectures, presentations and experiments were audio- and video-recorded. Wherever the visitors happened to be, they could decide which programme they would like to listen to via portable radio receivers with multiple channels and headphones. A film programme was shown parallel to the live events. In normal life, scientific, political, ethical and pop-cultural debates run concurrently and independently of one another. At the congress they confronted one another and productively work to make the one thing we are all trying to grasp more visible and negotiable – namely the present and future of what we regard as life.