. . . life itself destroys beings.
—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
hat is life in the hands of these twenty- first-century protein
What forms of life are in the making in their laboratories?
Life, according to Michel Foucault, was an invention of the nineteenth cen-
tury. Prior to that “life itself did not exist”: “All that existed was living beings,
which were viewed through a grid of knowledge constituted by natural his-
tory.”1 In his classic text The Order of Things, Foucault digs deep into the ar-
chive to observe mutations in the human sciences from the classical episteme
to the nineteenth century. Caught between vitalism and mechanism, the sci-
ences of life in the nineteenth century manifested what Foucault calls an “un-
tamed ontology.”2 At this time, “life itself” came to be figured as both an “in-
exhaustible force” that propels “all existence” and as the very force behind
the undoing of living beings: “For life—and this is why it has a radical value
in nineteenth- century thought—is at the same time the nucleus of being and
of non- being: there is being only because there is life, and in that fundamen-
tal movement that dooms them to death, the scattered beings, stable for an
instant, are formed, halt, hold life immobile—and in a sense kill it—but are
then in turn destroyed by that inexhaustible force.”3 Life, in this formulation,
is a force that cannot be held still without dissipating its vitality: to “hold life
immobile” is to destroy it and the beings that were its transient manifestation.
In this sense the “itself” of life, figured as a force, could be named only once
it was extracted from rhythms of life and its manifest beings. Any attempt
to capture its essence would extinguish it and the beings whose lives it pro-
pelled. “Life itself” thus would remain always a secret force lurking behind
living beings.
As a secret force, “life itself” has long been a conceptual lure for experi-
mental inquiry in the life sciences.4 The promise of its capture continues to
entice practitioners today. And yet its contours have transformed significantly
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