Interview with Gerburg Treusch-Dieter: immaculate conceptions

published: 
December, 1999

This is an interview made with Gerburg Treusch-Dieter made at V2 organisation in Rotterdam December 19th 1999. It is only a brief introduction to her work, but Treusch-Dieter is one of few who deal with the tension between biotechnology and feminism. Gerburg Treusch-Dieter is a sociologist, and she works at both the Freie Universität Berlin and the University of Vienna. She also teaches genderstudies, plus she has "a history" in the women's movement (as she calls it: the second or 'new' women's movement.) The interview was roughly translated from German.

 

JB: What kind of theory are you referring to when you say you try to connect all fields you work in? Considering we are here at V2, would that be mediatheory?

 

Gerburg Treusch-Dieter: It would be cultural sociology. I do involve the media. Not so much in this specialisation that is the computer. The computer is an end stadium on the one hand, and on the other hand it is a new phase of *possibilities* in communication. We'll have to see what happens with that. To me media are means that connect or divide us. In Latin *media* also means public. The problem is whether we will remain in our own forms of public life, our own creations, or whether we, well, 'freak out virtually' and loose the earth beneath our feet.

 

JB: Is this what you were talking about here at V2, this concern that we are loosing control over developments in genetic science etc?

 

GTD: Hannah Ahrend said: "In moments of fear one maybe thinks clearest." So danger would be necessary to think clearly. I would say that in modern history there has not been enough clear thinking. Hannah Ahrend knew what she was talking about. In her case of course it concerns national socialism/nazism. We are about to forget this history. My concern is with the political implications connected to these technologies.

I think that information technology and biotechnology, even though they are only just beginning, continue the creation of (what Hannah Ahrend called in relation to concentration camps) "the superfluousness of humans". What happened in the middle of the twentieth century cannot simply be wiped off the table. It has fundamentally changed our relationship to what we can call (or want to or have to call) human. The question of the feminine, the female is an important factor to consider at the core of these issues.

I say that the technical replacement of the female, which has become possible through reproduction technologies, is a requirement for genetic technology. It is a requirement in the sense that whatever is genetically altered is then given the possibility to actually reproduce. I think that reproduction technology has a starting point that is not completely understood yet in terms of its effects. This is the fact that the origin of life can be taken from the female body, and it will be taken from it. From this viewpoint life is lying on the table of capital.

Already now life is sold on a broad scale for practically no money/value. We are in the phase where everything that makes us up physically, and what in principle originates from the feminine (until now birth from women was absolutely necessary to create a society) will start to come onto the *market*, and already is on the market.

 

JB: Can I play the devils' advocate for the moment? As women are more emancipated, and often do not even want children, do not want to have a child come from their body, is it in this light still a bad development?

 

GTD: That is difficult to answer. I have to point at history again. When in the history of Christianity birth from a woman (and I first want to look at the figure of Eve) is identical to original sin (which we drag with us simply because we are desiring physical creatures), when in such a history the feminine simply is part of damnation, this does not exclude it does not also have an idealising dimension. One is not separable from the other.

On the one hand damnation: the mother of all bad things, Eve. On the other hand the ideal: Mary, the virgin mother. The woman without sex. Why does she not have a sex? Because in this Christian culture this is under sanction, it is forbidden, denied, ignored. We cannot see ourselves separate from this history.

This history has the effect that being female, dealing with this heritage, has become a great burden for us females. All women's movements of this century have fought against the idea of being birth machines. They have opposed having to deliver a production of humans for a society that does not even appreciate them, for a society that does not acknowledge them. In this light I can understand your question. "Thank god we are rid of that!" And "thank god" then says it all. We still express relief in terms of the one who has caused all this trouble in the first place.

If we would now start to say "Thank god we can leave childbirth to technologies: we leave this to this connection between reproduction technology and genetic technology, the connection between biotechnology and information technology", if we would do that, we would only abstractly talk ourselves out of this history. I completely understand one would want to get rid of this history. I am also convinced it is impossible to achieve this via these technologies.

Bring children into the world, communicate with them, lead them into the world, raise them to politically responsible individuals is an old program, but in my opinion it is still valid, also in the 21st century. Because of this I am very sceptical about this alleged freedom. It is only a freedom *from* something, it is no freedom *for* something. We as women have to consider this, but not just women. That is the old shit so to say: women have to consider something again, to be able to improve what has been created by men. We have to discuss this together, men and women. Gender is totally unimportant in this case. We simply all have to take more responsibility for a change, instead of saying: the machines will do it for us. This last thing seems to be the general attitude at the moment.

About the issue of childwish: again I have to say it belongs in this same Christian history. A woman that has not at least given birth to a son is not worth much in this world anyway. She only gains value through a child, a son. The son belongs to the father; the mother is the figure through which the father realises a son. Through the son, through a child, a woman gains value. Women let themselves be put on lists for IVF maybe because they do not see other possibilities to become pregnant, but I think they also want to give themselves some value this way.

Childwish has been *produced* in my opinion. I know it sounds opposite to what I say about forming a relationship to childbirth in the light of biotechnology and lifescience, but one can have a full life as a woman without children. I don't want to wave the flag and say: come and reproduce yourselves! I think I made that clear. I think the compulsions are there in both cases. On the one hand technologies are an effect of the denial of the feminine: it has to be replaced. Secondly the devaluation of the feminine, which we as women have to keep in mind, is that we are supposedly only valuable when we have a child. The Christian model is that the child should be a son, whom then has his place on this earth. When childwish forces women into clinics this is also because they do not look for other values, they do not look for other content for life. They do not want to look for it, but they also cannot look for it. It is not rewarded in and by society.

 

JB: You work as a professor. Do you only discuss these issues with your students, or do you also try to formulate an answer to the questions these issues create?

 

GTD: Firstly I try to analyse and show history through constantly discussing new themes. We discuss bio ethics in the seminars, but also the question of the *flesh*: what values did and does the flesh represent? How do we perceive flesh, what kind of repulsion does it call forward, what horror, what does the wrapping industry mean in relation to the flesh?

Next I also present the theme *addiction*. I believe that not in the last place because of our history we have come into the situation where our relationship to the world produces necessary, unavoidable addictions. I try to approach those questions analytically. I try to not reduce them to the relationship between feminine and masculine. I do always try show the construction and differences of the sexes. I think that this construction, the way both men and women are *constructed*, that we are constructed from our *ideas* of ourselves as sexual beings, that this is fundamental for all further questions.

I just named three: bio ethics, flesh and addiction, but there are of course more. I then try to also show this at the level of significations. We are sexually constructed as men and women, and this means we have to signify ourselves as men and women. This takes us into a dimension that has influences on the symbolic, the imaginary, our representation of images, our power to imagine in relation to the aesthetic, etc. Everything will however take place on the level of *reality*, and this is why I bring everything back to these things: we have to be aware of the basis of reality and stay politically motivated. I am against giving a program. I am not a prophet. I try to limit myself analytically to the question of power. How is power constructed through, with and *over* us.

 

JB: What does bio ethics mean?

 

GTD: Bio ethics is the attempt to legitimize all what has started as reproduction medical science, which has now *technologized* itself, researching the beginning of life outside of the feminine body. It is an attempt to legitimize everything which is possible in the field of genetic or life science: altering DNA structures, transgenic creations, the influences of genetically altered structures on their surroundings (in field research and experiments), genetic surgery (cell transplants based on genetic codes)... fetuses, or fetal cells are used for this.

The position of Peter Singer is very controversial in this respect for instance. It is the prototypical position, namely applying a way of thinking purely based on ideas of usefulness to ethical questions like: what is good, what is not, what can we do, what can we not do, where do we apply human rights to create limits to these experiments? In 1997 a European bio ethics convention has been accepted, for which the basis was usefulness, which means ‘what is the most profitable way to use these technologies’.

The question of what we as individuals mean in this all... Think of brain death, which belongs to this issue as well. Brain death is the requirement for organ transplants. Doctors fight nurses on this, nurses fight relatives over this, relatives fight each other... when can we declare someone dead? Are we in fact not killing someone, when we take the organs from this individual? There have been cases where in the end re-animation turned out to be possible. It could maybe just be a temporarily situation of our knowledge to declare people dead at a certain point. If we knew other ways to re-animate, then it would not have been possible to declare this person dead. Then it would be murder to take the organs from this persons' body.

These are all border questions that are debated in bio ethics, but are always decided on in favour of usefulness. There are worldwide lists for organ transplants. It is very profitable business. Peter Singer as an example again would say that a person who is brain dead is a vegetable, a plant, and thus can no longer be seen as a person. Everything starts to slide; everything starts to tumble in the light of these questions. One should concern oneself with bio ethics, as it tries to answer these questions for us, because the decisions made there are in the end based on costs/usefulness based thinking. It is a eugenetics ethic, a genetics that transforms the old eugenetics into a new one.