Unlearning Eugenics: (Un)Forgetting Genetics

Mia Florin-Sefton //

What’s cool about us/ we take our time/ we do it slow.

These lines, taken from Eileen Myles’ poem Epic for You, bookend the concluding chapter of Dagmar Herzog’s new book: Unlearning Eugenics. What — one might very well ask — does this provocative and poetic evocation of sexual longing, lingering intimacy, and queer temporality contribute to a discussion of abortion rights, reproductive self-determination and disability activism in a post-war Europe? And, more importantly, what does it have to do with Herzog’s invitation to shed the skins of eugenicist imperatives that, she argues, continue to overdetermine the stakes and terms of these debates? “Eugenics” broadly understood to be the hereditary ghost that continues to haunt the attempts of activists and lawmakers to present restrictions of sexual and reproductive rights as justice for the physical and cognitively disabled.

unlearning eugenics image

To disremember, forget, discard, neglect, overlook. These are common synonyms for “unlearning”; traditionally defined as the forgetting or relinquishing of knowledge.  To “unlearn” can mean to deliberately discard something from one’s memory, or it can mean, to undo the effect of.  Nevertheless, the title question remains: what exactly is it that Herzog is imploring us to willfully forget? For it is only in her final chapter, when she turns to examining more contemporary instances of radical disability activism and collective community building, that she comes closest to prescribing a possible un-doing. Crucially, this is positioned as a challenge able to upset both the hierarchical and valorizing logic of eugenic sentiments, and the presiding legacy of the Philosophical Enlightenment: the individual, autonomous, and modern subject. Thus, quoting Myles, she concludes:

We take our time . . . open oneself up to the intensities, flows and forces of becoming-disabled. One way of unlearning eugenics, then, might be to see this too as not solely a minoritizing message but also a potentially universalizing one . . . a message that could speak to everyone (98).

This is an optimistic invitation that inevitably prompts the following rejoinder. What purchase does such a recommendation have for– what many argue are — the most recent and the most insidious reincarnations of eugenic imperatives: reprogenetics and genetic engineering? Indeed, given this contemporaneous context it is striking how little attention Herzog gives to what many have termed a “new” or “liberal” eugenics. Especially given that, as Marius Turda states in Crafting Humans, “the recent revival of interest in eugenics has been largely shaped by a climate of genetic optimism and the accompanying (or driving) process of geneticization” (93). For while Herzog does briefly acknowledge the problematics posed by assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization and prenatal testing, she refrains from explicitly discussing molecular biology and the question of genetic engineering. Yet surely it is precisely with regard to these contexts that her recommendation for a “universalizing” model of “becoming-disabled” should also be explored.

To open oneself up to the intensities and flows of becoming-disabled. This prescription immediately follows her discussion of theorists and activists whose work with different forms of cognitive and physical alterity offer compelling models for living-with, being-with, and “unlearning” disability. Her closing remarks, therefore, directly bespeak an undergirding ambition to adopt a Deleuzian frame in service of reconceptualizing disability as it is actually experienced and lived. As such she offers us another attempt to think outside the liberal framework of rights and recognition, that necessarily reifies and interpolates disability as a minority identity, and instead — in the words of queer disability theorists Margrit Shildrick and Janet Price’s — “queer the nature of individuality” (qtd. in Unlearning Eugenics, 81). A challenge that, just as it seeks to implode the self-contained unit that is the “political subject”, simultaneously reconfigures the body as a highly technologized, cybernetic, rhizomatic proliferation of connections and extensions. Crucially, this is an effort that, through discarding the paradigmatic subject and terms of critique, necessarily also embraces the prosthetic body as the rule and never the exception. We might also think of Christina Crosby’s terrifying and touching insight: “we are all utterly at stake to one another” (43).

However, as Bruce Braun in Biopolitics and the Molecularization of Life suggests, advances in biotechnology, molecular biology, genetics and biochemistry have already, and very successfully, “molecuralized” and spatialized conceptions of the body in novel ways. These changes, he writes, have given birth to the “genomic body” within what Bernard Vallat, Director General of the World Organization for Animal Health famously called the “great biological cauldron” of the twenty-first century (qtd. by Braun, 14). Here both Vallat and Braun are describing the ways in which, even as dimensions of the somatic self still hold sway, biology and genetics – in close conjunction with immunology and virology — have already fostered an understanding of a body embedded within, and constituted by a chaotic and unpredictable molecular world within a general economy of exchange and circulation (Braun, 14). One result of which, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder argue, is a biomedical industry that produces consumers actively encouraged to experience their “bodies in pieces” (220). Subsequently, as Mitchell and Snyder diagnose: “the body has become a multisectional market” within the context of a neoliberal capitalism that relentlessly pitches imperfection as the standard of precarious embodiment (220).

     This is all to say that the material modulations and manipulations that animate a universalizing Deleuzian sense of “becoming” equally subtend the ambitious drives that underpin the promises and practices of genetic testing and genetic engineering. Indeed, both Delueze and Felix Guatarri were highly influenced by the fields of genetics and embryology (Pearson, 5). It is worth stating that this connection is not intended to belie either condemnation or endorsement. Instead, it is a relation drawn simply to ask: to what extent would a challenge to liberal notions of the “bounded self” be able to successfully intervene in the reincarnations of eugenics that depend upon the advances in genetics that Braun names. To put it differently: how might the emergence of genomic citizens and genomic consumers, within a growing, globalized bioeconomy, actually further consolidate a Deleuzian understanding of the body as a fluid assemblage of openings and closing. One whose body, as a shifting terrain of pathologies, is positioned as constantly available for a re-making?

     It is for these reasons that, when re-reading Myle’s Epic for You, I am inclined to re-call a different set of lines:

eating you endlessly . . .

feels like playdough 

In a world built to be a medical complex to support a community of biocitizens — held up by the ravenous appetite of a formidable pharmaceutical industry constantly promising cures, enhancements and supplements for the always, already, prosthetic body — can we even be surprised by evocations of flexibility and universal plasticity? As such, the dilemma seems to reside less in grasping and grappling with the playdough. And more in the inevitable impulse to mold it.


Agar, Nicholas. Liberal eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Ansell-Pearson, Keith. Germinal life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze. Routledge, 2012.

Bashford, Alison, and Philippa Levine, Eds. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Braun, Bruce. “Biopolitics and the Molecularization of Life.” Cultural Geographies 14.1 (2007): 6-28.

Burdett, Carolyn. “Introduction: Eugenics Old and New.” New Formations 60 (2007): 7-11.

Crosby, Christina. A Body, Undone: Living on After Great Pain. New York University Press, 2017.

Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics. Routledge, 2004.

Herzog, Dagmar. Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2018.

Mitchell, David T and Sharon Snyder. The biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment. University of Michigan Press, 2015.

Myles, Eileen. “Epic for You.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 44.3 (2016): 264-269.

Rose, Nikolas. The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Turda, Marius, Ed. Crafting humans: From Genesis to Eugenics and Beyond. National Taiwan University Press, 2013.


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