A few years ago, I re-watched the 1997 film, Gattaca, which imagines a future world where the idea of liberal eugenics (i.e., the practice of tailoring the genetic traits of foetuses) is commonplace, such that a person’s social class is genetically determined by way of her or his DNA. For this reason, citizens living in this world are frequently screened to determine their “genetic fitness”. However, the protagonist, Vincent Freeman, is born without the facilitation of liberal eugenics. As such, he is susceptible to the development of mental disorders, has a heart condition and is projected to live only 30 years. Nevertheless, Vincent aspires to be an astronaut, even though the odds are stacked against him due to genetic discrimination. Those who are genetic “superior” tend to hold a strong prejudice against anyone with bodily and cognitive defects. In a world where babies are treated like commodities and parents can customize the physical characteristics and capabilities of foetuses, the identification of these so-called “future bodies” is fraught with ethical tension.
Despite the fictionality of its content, Gattaca does serve to provoke some serious questions regarding the categorization of people according to their genetic makeup which in turn determines their physical and mental capabilities, a classification system that is similar to the disability/normalcy matrix used in our contemporary world. Vincent is very much like most of us, a naturally born human being (that is, without the aid of technology) with physical and mental “defects” in the form of myopia, a heart condition, and a potential for developing mental disorders. In the futuristic world of the film, he is categorically defective and disabled. In our own world, however, Vincent appears to be a ‘normal’ human being. He is independently mobile and he does not suffer from any medicalized “intellectual deficiency”. To us, he may be considered a “regular” guy. Yet, in the film, he faces genetic discrimination, as he is constantly outperformed by those around him who have been genetically engineered before birth to become “perfect bodies” who are capable of doing what we would consider “super-human feats”. In order to fulfil his dream of becoming an astronaut, he borrows the superior genetic identity of Jerome, a former elite swimmer whose genetic profile is flawless. However, his genetic superiority had taken a mental toll on him, when he only managed to win a silver medal at a high-profile competition. Given his perceptibly sub par performance, he decided to throw himself in front of a car. The accident left him wheelchair bound. Nevertheless, he still retains a superior genetic profile, which Vincent is able to borrow in order to qualify as an astronaut.
– Vincent (left) appearing together with Jerome (right) who is seated on a wheelchair.
The appearance of Jerome, whom we would categorically term a disabled person, is striking on two levels. On the one hand, he is supposed to be the flawless product of genetic engineering and despite his paralysis, he still possesses a genetic profile that is superior to Vincent’s. On the other hand, because he has mobility issues, he has to rely on a prosthesis (i.e., the wheelchair) in order to move about. In this sense, Jerome embodies the inherent contradiction between the ideology of genetic superiority and the material reality of his physical condition. It is due to the gap between the symbolic reality of Jerome’s genetic profile and the materiality of his current state of being that Vincent is able to inherit the perceived superiority of his identity in order to enter the spaceflight facility. In this way, Gattaca problematizes the notion of identity in relation to future bodies that are supposed to be genetically engineered to perfection, as both Vincent and Jerome exist on both the levels of the symbolic and the real.
The idea of “birth defects” foregrounded in the film is based on the “eugenic model of the human body” (Davis 20). Eugenics is still alive and kicking. As Lennard Davis points out, eugenics is now carried out through prenatal screening and genetic engineering. While prenatal screening methods such as amniotic testing has proven to be only somewhat effective, genetic engineering has only worked for plants and animals thus far. There is, as the scientist establishment informs us, quite some way to go before the customization of human characteristics and capabilities can become a social reality. Nevertheless, what Gattaca foreshadows is the possibility of creating designer babies “who will not contain, for example, genes for breast cancer or high blood pressure” (Davis 22). But here is where we need to be careful about the potential for controlling a natural process such as sexual reproduction. As the film portends, the possibilities that genetic engineering offers could also further obfuscate the social and cultural forces that inform the categorization of bodies into the dichotomous distinction between “valid” and “invalid”, “normal” and “disabled”. Lennard Davis argues that we need a “new ethics of the body that acknowledges the advances of science but also acknowledges that we can’t simply go back to a relatively simple notion of identity” (22). In order to resist any attempt to further essentialize the body by re-inscribing old cultural attitudes a prejudices onto it, Davis proposes that this “new ethics of the body begin with disability rather than end with it” (23). Perhaps if we were to reconstitute the administration of social justice through the critical lens of disability studies might indeed serve to react against the prevailing social and cultural prejudices towards the disabled body.
However, to devise a new ethics that resists essentialism, Davis is mindful that disability needs to acknowledge the instability of its self-defintions in order to transcend the problems of identity politics. As such, he contends that we need to question the clear distinction between the socially constructed “disability” and the impairment that is thought to be prior to it (23). In this regard, I think Gattaca has served to foreground the problem with such a distinction, as Jerome’s physical impairment is not prior to his disability. Rather, both are inscribed at the exact moment that he becomes disabled (that is, right after the car accident). But because the social context in which he lives privileges genetic perfection over the actual ability of the person (i.e., it is a society that prefers to cite the codification of the body as a basis for the type of treatment that a particular body deserves), he is able to transfer the genetic identity of his body to Vincent, even though in reality, his body as code and his body as material do not coincide. For this reason, I take Davis’ point that a new ethics of the body has to be rigorously debated, especially as we begin to imagine and identify future bodies. However, we also need to ensure that this new ethics is not simply a rehashing of old (Eugenic) assumptions about the human body and its capabilities or a straightforward reiteration of an ableist ideology that reinforces the normalcy/disability matrix. Transposing the ethical frameworks used to analyze our present social and cultural contexts into the future would almost certainly mean that the identification of future bodies will also be based upon the eugenic perception of the disabled body as ‘defective’ and ‘flawed’.
What Davis proposes is not a postmodern ethics, but rather, a dismodernist ethics that reacts to the localization of identity. He explains that a dismodernist ethics consists of three areas that can be summarized as the caring of/for/about the body. This form of ethics takes into consideration the impact of global economic forces and the biases of class in terms of the formation of cultural attitudes towards the body. For Davis, the postmodern subject actually disguises the hegemony of normalcy by presupposing a self that is de-centred and localized but nonetheless complete and able. It is still an ideal rendition of the body that is at once autonomous and physically and cognitively able. As such, Davis argues that dismodernism advocates the “commonality of bodies within the notion of difference” (31). For this reason, a dismodernist ethics aims to “create a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence” (Davis 30). What this means is that a new ethics of the body (whether we prefer to call it dismodernist ethics or otherwise) should take into consideration the community within which human beings are situated. Instead of imagining the human body as singular and independent, it would be more productive to think of the ways in which our bodies relate to one another. While the contexts of these interactions may be localized, the ethical impulses that drive the relations between different bodies should be universal. In other words, the new ethics need to be general enough to be applicable to a multitude of contexts, even though the way in which it is applied in each context would depend on its specific social and cultural conditions as well as the agents involved.
The material reality of the social situation cannot be discounted. As Tobin Siebers explains it, the realist model – as opposed to the social constructionist model – holds the view that “there is no contradiction between identity politics and a certain moral universalism because both rely on the belief that human beings, regardless of culture or society, are capable of rational agency and therefore of cultural and political self-determination” (83). However, I am inclined to argue that the assumption that human beings are rational beings who are capable of behaving in an ethically responsible manner needs to be robustly debated, especially given that moral universalism works best only when the complexities of specific local contexts are taken into account. For instance, if we were to look at the case of Gattaca, Vincent’s borrowing of Jerome’s genetically superior identity for the advancement of his own career ambition is ethically contentious, as he is effectively exploiting the latter’s symbolic existence whereas in reality, he remains physically disabled. Jerome’s disability is a material reality, despite the superiority of his genetic profile. Vincent’s disability in the film, however, is based entirely on a symbolic projection of his deficiency by way of genetic determinism.
Analyzing the relationship between Vincent and Jerome from the perspective of moral universalism, we might be tempted to conclude that Vincent has committed an ethically contentious act by exploiting the identity of a person with a disability. However, if we were to consider the specific social and cultural context in which their relationship takes place (i.e., the futuristic world where liberal eugenics and genetic discrimination are commonplace), then we might well arrive at a different conclusion. Perhaps we could argue that given the inherent prejudice against Vincent’s genetic profile, a social barrier that effectively deprives him of any opportunity to become an astronaut, he has “no other choice” but to borrow the superior genetic identity of a person who happens to be physically disabled due to a car accident. Yet, no matter how we may choose to analyze the ethical quality of his relationship with Jerome, what this relationship actually foregrounds is the dominance of an ableist ideology in the future world of the film. Thus, in order to deconstruct this ‘problematic’, it is imperative that we should work towards the development of a new ethical perspective that takes into consideration the social and cultural forces that inform the identity politics surrounding future bodies. However we choose to name it, this new ethical paradigm should be continually challenged and subjected to rigorous debate, so as to expose its contradictions and biases.