[This post is inspired by a twitter exchange with Mark Carrigan over this post, which reveals Foucault’s latent neo-liberal sympathies. Emilie Whitaker and I then had an exchange over this exchange, in which she coined ‘transhuman necropolitics’, capturing what I’m talking about here.]
Ever since I became interested in ‘Humanity 2.0’, it was clear that in the future the life/death distinction would be up for grabs. As a participant-observer in many events involving self-described ‘post-‘ and ‘trans-‘ humanist thinkers, what the US anthropologist Ernest Becker 40+ years ago dubbed ‘the denial of death’ is very much a bone of contention. Both biologists and sociologists have remarked that humans are striking in the fanfare attached to the birth and death of individual members of its species. The Abrahamic religions raised this species tendency to a fevered pitch, the secular legacy of which is canonized in the meaning of the word ‘humane’ (which Jeremy Bentham extended to animals).
At the same time, there remains the pagan legacy of the Greco-Roman world that treats life and death in a more generally resigned fashion. Their punchline is that we shouldn’t invest too much emotional energy in matters that, in the final analysis, are simply ‘natural’, in the sense of indifferent to whatever we might think or wish. Thus, the ‘good life’ and the ‘good death’ are about avoiding extremes in behaviour that can lead to needless suffering in oneself and others. Here personal experience is accorded an overriding role in ethical judgement: If you or others feel pain as a result of what you do, then it’s probably wrong.
But, for better or worse, we still live in a more Abrahamic world, notwithstanding the best efforts of atheists. In this world, life is treated as a project of self-realization — to be sure, just as much in matter as in spirit. Life and death are, at least in principle, voluntary and rational. Life is not something into which we are thrown – ‘abjection’, as those touched by Heidegger and Lacan like to put it. Now, why should anyone take literally the idea that life and death are in our own hands? Our having been created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ remains the most straightforward justification. Everything else either tries to replace the deity or deny the validity of the question.
Accordingly, our lives can be seen as sites for doing in small form what God does in ultimate form – namely, create the best possible world. The ethic of efficiency and productivity to which Max Weber drew attention in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is the most influential outgrowth of this sensibility. In this context, life is seen as an ‘inheritance’ in both economic and biological terms, out of which the heir is supposed to make something greater. If you fail, then it is your fault and the law – both positive and natural – will deal with you accordingly.
In light of the actual history of capitalism, we are prone to understand Weber’s thesis as justifying an ethic of productivity, where ‘productivity’ is equated with ‘endless production’. But ‘productivity’ is ultimately about doing the most with the least – i.e. our attempt to simulate God’s creatio ex nihilo. In that case, productivity may be achieved by knowing when to stop producing, which is to say, when we’re likely to get diminishing returns on each additional investment of effort. Of course, this can apply to living itself. Once we take this prospect seriously, then we can start talking about an optimal life and death. To strengthen such ‘optimality’ intuitions, we might consider how what one does later in life has the potential to detract value from what one did earlier.
To be sure, we already do something like this when we pass post-mortem judgements on the lives of ‘creative’ people. The paradigm case is the English Romantic poets, some of whom died at 30 and others at 80. The reputations of the longer-lived poets (Coleridge, Wordsworth) suffered, whereas those of the shorter-lived poets (Keats, Shelley) benefitted. The former are stigmatized for having become more reactionary, whereas the latter are presumed to have possessed unfulfilled promise – even though with age they too might have become reactionary. Closer to home, Max Weber was spared the reputational fate of his rival Werner Sombart, who lived twenty years longer than Weber, just in time to endorse the Nazi regime. In our own time, the radical glow that continues to surround Michel Foucault is abetted by his death in 1984, just before the neo-liberalism toward which he was already inching came to acquire a hegemonic grip on the world-order. Had he lived another twenty years, Foucault might have come to be known as the French Nikolas Rose, an unabashed theorist of the neo-liberal self.