Zylinska: “Bioethics: A Critical Introduction”

The first chapter in Bioethics in the Age of New Media was an accessible and helpful gloss of the historical and theoretical underpinnings of what Zylinska calls “traditional” or “conventional” bioethics. I read this chapter before moving on to our other readings for this week and I think that was a good decision. “Bioethics” provided a lot of baselines and reference points valuable to the perusal of the other more specific (or technical) chapters we were assigned this week.

Zylinska traces the development of numerous strands of bioethics in this chapter, so many, in fact, that I think it would be fruitless to try to summarize. Instead I will talk about specific passages and concepts that might be useful for discussion.

The various (tradtional) bioethical frameworks share in common: “predefined normativity, human subjectivity, and universal applicability” (6). Most problematic for Zylinska, however, is the humanism underpinning all of the disparate approaches to traditional bioethics. Therefore, a “critique of humanism, and of the inherent ‘truth’ of the human and its preestablished, albeit competing, definitions of what it means to live a meaningful life, thus presents itself as inherent to bioethical enquiry” (12).

Zylinska also critiques traditional bioethics for becoming overly prescriptivist and utilitarian, “a ‘technological fix’ to a technical problem” (9). Even more explicitly, “‘Applied bioethics,’ understood as the application of the previously agreed moral principles, informed by the rational argument and based on biological knowledge, can thus perhaps be seen as threatening to close off an ethical enquiry into the emergence of, and encounters between, organisms and life forms that defy traditional classification all too quickly” (10). This foreclosure of possible realms for enquiry is a major problem because, as Zylinska points out, numerous bioethical issues are still developing, or “emerging,” as Cooper might say. Again and again, Zylinska calls for specificity and openness. She critiques the bioethical positions that seem to account for only abstract situations, “disembodied and decontextualized” problems (9).

Zylinska’s discussion of technology helped me to understand Thacker’s argument (who Zylinska glosses on 27-28) a little easier. “if we think technology beyond its Aristotelian concept of a mere tool and see it instead as an environment, or a field of dynamic forces, we will have a more interesting and more critical framework for understanding ‘human enhancement’ or ‘extension'” (16). Her succinct call for a change in our understanding of technology as a tool resonated with me while I was reading the Thacker (which I found more difficult to get through).

In the section “A Medical History of Bioethics,” Zylinska notes the historical import of the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in the emergence of bioethics. To Zylinska, this history “signals its [bioethics’] inevitable and necessary engagement with issues of race, heredity, the technization of modernity, and the constitution of the caesura between the human and nonhuman” (18). I thought this was a unique point to make and it helped connect this gloss of bioethics to some of the readings we have had from previous weeks dealing with the intersectionality of biopolitics, race, tech, and modernity.

Other possible points for discussion:

-the centrality of public discourse for the significance of bioethics (21-22) and Zylinska’s discussion of the “right” to participate in discourse on life (4)

-the concept of risk in bioethics (19-20). The discourse of risk is one that appears and reappears in our readings. Authors emphasize different things, however, when discussing risk. It might be useful to trace the differences. Zylinska discusses risk/benefit as part of the utilitarian perspective in bioethics. Calculations of risks and benefits, and the theoretical perspectives that value these calculations, lead to “increased proceduralism and codification of the field” (19). This is connected to the ‘technical fix’ idea discussed above (as well as to lack of specificity- risk calculations deal in populations rather than in specific persons or cases). Rose discusses risk in his section on susceptibility: “What is treated by doctors and drugs here is not disease but the almost infinitely expandable and malleable empire of risk” (87).

-the distinctions Zylinska makes between Deleuze and Derrida (and the way she uses them alongside one another in her own methodology). I think Zylinska’s own perspective would be more clear if we read another chapter from her book since so much of this one is introducing the field overall and what she is writing against. Seeing it put to use would make her theoretical framework more apparent.


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