The premature arrival of the future: clones and genetic engineering 1973

Christina Brandt


In his analysis of the emerging futurology or “future studies” in the 1960s and 1970s, Alexander Schmidt-Gernig has argued that, in contrast to older, more or less teleological approaches of the 19th and 20th century, the characteristics of the new future studies were their empirical, scientific and cybernetic basis. The attempt was not to predict the future with respect to “historical laws” (as it was common in 19th and early 20th century approaches such as utopian attempts or philosophies of history by Comte, Marx, Spencer or Spengler) but to get to “models of the future” by empirically collected and calculated data of the present. However, from this calculating attempt towards the future it was expected that it could help to steer development in a desirable direction.[1] As Schmidt-Gernig shows, the new “future studies” and the new futurology was a transnational phenomenon that became institutionalized already since the early 1960s, but it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that a massive wave of organization, think tanks and publications devoted to research on the future became established. During this period (and with a peak in 1970 and 1972), each year 80 to 120 books were published, that were dealing with problems and research on the future.[2]

However, these massive transnational concerns with the future, lead to the almost paradoxical situation that the very basic notion of a “future” was disappearing, since it became integrated into present realities. In this article, I trace these shifts in Modernity by focusing on one element in the discussion about science and technology, namely the public debates about human cloning. My thesis is that 1970s debates about cloning contributed to a broader shift in social categories of temporalities and new ways of perceiving temporal processes. The popular figure of the human clone became a symbol for the advent of the (technological) future and, with that, a symbol for a collapse of a specific kind of historical time. The 1970s discussions about science, technology and society raised the question how one could already prevent or steer future consequences of research in advance, that is,: before they will lead to dangerous facts and before they could turn into new, “irreversible” realities. With the idea that it should be politically important, at the present moment, to try to steer outcomes in a specific direction, that is: in a period in which these future results are still in the process of being made, the concept of an “open horizon” or “open” future became replaced by notions of a projectable future: a future that was regarded as something which can, at least to a certain extent, be “created” (or be controlled with respect to technological risks) already in present days, and that, therefore, was now regarded as something that starts already in the present. With that the “present has suddenly become wider than merely the thin layer that used to separate the past (that is always being rapidly left behind) and the future (towards which societies are always accelerating”[3] as Pedro D. Chagas has emphasized a characteristic element of the early 1970s cultures. The clone – as a popular figure in media, science fiction and public discourses –represented this process of “defuturization” in the 1970s in a twofold sense: First, the clone (as a kind of a-historical figure, with its meanings of a repetition of sameness and as something that is exempt from historical changes) turned into a widespread symbol for this extension of the present and the crumbling of a linear temporal model of progress. On a very basic level, the clone became a post-modern symbol for the breakdown of historicisms in a general sense, where “time” lost its historical quality or its “historical force”. Secondly, some science fiction novels picked up the motif of cloning man and draw dystopian scenarios of future conditions of mankind. In these apocalyptic scenarios, the clone also represents the end of history, but in a slightly different sense: Here, the figure of the clone became a motif for a post-historical situation, since it was used to show that (due to an ecological collapse of the world), the end of history and the end of mankind as we know it was a threatening close-by reality.

[1]Alexander Schmidt-Gernig: „Ansichten einer zukünftigen ‚Weltgesellschaft’. Westliche Zukunftsfoschung der 60er und 70er Jahre als Beispiel einer transnationalen Expertenöffentlichkeit“, in: H. Kaelble, M. Kirsch, A. Schmidt-Gernig (Ed): Transnationale Öffentlichkeiten und Identitäten im 20. Jahrhundert, Frankfurt: Campus, 2002, p. 399.

[2]And these numbers refer only to English publication. See ibid., p. 397.

[3]Proposal of the organizer of the conference : „Around 1973: Historicism, Self-Cause, Popular Culture“, Akademie Schloss Solitude, 2011.

Texto completo:



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