May 2007

LettrineI wasn’t going to post this til I’d thought about it a bit more, but Emily’s post made me think about the legibility of bodies, and I’d kinda like this post to sit on da tubes in dialogue with hers, so…

If this post title sounds a tad familiar, it probably is. But part of the technique that Eva Kittay uses in her article, “The Desire for Normalcy,” from Erik Parens’ book Surgicially Shaping Children: Technology, Ethics, and the Pursuit of Normality is precisely to engender some sense of how that familiarity might work, and how, exactly, those kinds of familiarity or community might be used to challenge normalcy, which so often passes itself off as monolithic and unchallengeable. (In lots of ways, I’d want to use this discussion to complicate Foucault’s conceptualisation of biopower as operating through biopolitics and anatamopolitics, because he claims that these twin poles are connected precisely through ‘the norm’. But I’ve already written about that (elsewhere), so I’ll have to come back to it later. So for now, I want to pretend to be able to get away with not talking explicitly about Foucault, and a bit unfairly characterising him as monolithic-ising ‘The Norm’. Later. I promise.)

The context of the book this article is in, actually, demonstrates precisely how powerful ideas of normalcy are. Kittay isn’t about to challenge this; in fact, she binds normalcy to desirability, seemingly grounding the subject’s desire in the desire to be desired, dependent, if mainstream discourse is to be believed, on to what extent we achieve normalcy. Rather, what Kittay is trying to do is show exactly how much space there is to challenge and resist normalcy in and through normalcy itself. On the one hand, this seems like fairly standard Foucauldian fare—of course, power has to produce resistance. On the other hand, Kittay’s position is unique in that she makes this resistance not just comprehensible in a ‘I-can-see-how-that-might-work-for-some-people’ kind of way, but in a very familiar sense.

“I have a daughter, now grown, who meets few of the standard norms of 34-year-old women. She is profoundly dependent, having very significant cognitive impairments, seizure disorders, and cerebral palsy. When she was first born, many well-meaning persons urged us to put her in an institution so that my husband and I could live “normal lives.” But we had immediately fallen deeply in love with our sweet, beautiful Sesha and I felt very much like a normal mother—one who would not consider giving up her child, discarding a child because she didn’t meet someone’s expectations of what a child should be. In this, my normality as a mother normalised my child.” p. 92

Thus the first move that Kittay makes is to set one kind of normalcy against another. Yet even this is significant, because in doing so, she makes normalcy explicit. That is, instead of only leaving the abnormalcy of Sesha to mark normalcy (by its absence), Kittay draws attention to what might usually be left as unmarked, as unthought, as naturalised: the normal love of a mother for her child. Normalcy, far from being dense and unalterable—monolithic—is shown to be a tapestry of threads of norms, and more importantly, threads of different senses of normal: one is never simply normal, but always normal with regard to certain traits, or sets of behaviours, or appearance, or lifestyle or something else entirely. As she shows, however much her life might have changed around Sesha, the quotidien normalcy of her love for her child grounded all else. She localised the sense of the normal through which she lived.

Yet such a position does pose a challenge to some norms, and as such is difficult to sustain, not least because any given subject does not and cannot exist in a vacuum:

“Yet even as my spouse and I rejected the social imposition of what a normal family was like, we didn’t entirely reject normality. In wanting a child, we desired a family and we never could nor would we want to entirely reinvent the concept. Families exist within a habitus [very loosely understood as cultural context]. Such a habitus gives rise to expectations that need to be met if confirmation and approval by and inclusion into the community are sought. There are expectations of parents and parenting that are inescapable and not undesirable. For example, that a parent tries to do the best for her child is part of the norm…When parents of a disabled child insist on the normalcy of their special position as parents, they affirm the desirability of normalcy.” p.102

“That is what my spouse and I did as a family. We created our own sense of normality. We found those friends who accepted our family as a family. We worked through the larger familial discomfort with our child and our situation. We figured out what was normal for our daughter, in terms of her health, well-being, and development. We learned to appreciate the small steps in development she did make. We refused the pity of those who could not understand, and we refused the attempts of others to sanctify us, to call us ‘remarkable’ or ‘saintly,’ insisting instead that we were only doing what we assumed parents normally would do—care for, love, protect, and foster the growth of their child. We tried to extend the sense of normality to our other child, and he likewise found his way to normalizing his family by his choice of friends, his understanding of his role in the family, and his understanding of what a sister can be.” P. 104

“The new norms are generated out of a newly constituted habitus—one that emerges under changed conditions of existence and through the formation of a different community. The new community is not distinct from the old, and nor are its conditions of existence entirely different. There are continuities and discontinuities. Again, the analogy with language is useful. A language will be modified as conditions of existence alter and as the community of speakers changes. It need not become a new language, but novel words, unfamiliar meanings, and different grammatical forms are generated. Values and norms are subject to these sorts of alterations as well and while we cannot have a private language we can have many dialects and variations on an established language. Furthermore, new dialects can, although they do not necessarily, reform the dominant language. What was first comprehensible only to a few becomes recognizable and intelligible to many. Similarly, what is normal for a few only can challenge dominant conceptions of what is viewed as normal for the larger group. The new understandings can open a space for political change, for challenges and struggles over the meaning of normal.” p. 102-3

“But they will be successful only if there is enough of a community that can recognise the new normal as normal.” P. 104

By localising their particular sense of the normal, then, through a community which would affirm their ‘dialect,’ the Kittays managed a family life of sustained resistance to the norm. Changes can and are made to the norm, then, but these require confirmation by others if they are not to be understood as merely bizarre, or possibly deranged (and pathological). And this is not something that is easy to stand against:

“Our sense of normality falls apart when we view our child through the stranger’s gaze—if only for a moment—and it needs to be recovered. It is worth noting what exactly falls apart at these times. What falls apart is the vision of your child as the individual he or she is and not as just someone with the impairment he or she has. What falls apart is seeing yourself first as a parent and not first as a parent of a disabled child. It is holding on to the connection you have with this singular person and not allowing the hateful attitudes of others to stand between you and the love you have for your child.” p.104

These kinds of small alterations maintain much of our sense of the familiar—for here, after all, is a family with a mummy, a daddy and a baby who love each other very much—and this family retains much of their respectability, acceptability and authority. Grounded upon the normal, they take their almost-but-not-quite-paradoxical stand against normalcy.

Yet for all that my post-structuralist heart warms to the description she offers, I cannot help but feel a small prick of unease. I think this arises because in the end, this model of social change makes the acceptability of difference (marked as abnormal) completely dependent upon (some form of) the normal, as it already exists. And as such, it precisely affirms the normal and thus implicitly the abnormal (as a legitimised category for what might otherwise be difference). Some might, for example, want to ask questions about the selflessness of the love the Kittays live. Not only this, but the affirmation of the normal also involves its binary opposite: the abnormal, legitimised as a category for what might otherwise have been (‘merely’) different. This might mean that rather than reconfiguring the ways that we can think difference (ie, perhaps as something other than abnormal), this kind of model merely replicates it. This is fine for Sesha, whose family is normal enough and willing to contain the threat of her difference. But what about those whose family is not? Or those whose difference is radical enough that it troubles everyone, countering any attempt at love or familiarity; those whose language is foreign to my own, not merely a dialect? How ethical is it to only be open to those who don’t trouble our own normalcy? In the end, perhaps the challenge operates too much within existing structure, altering content but not form: including more kinds of people in the community thus conceived does not make that community less exclusive, but merely exclusive of fewer people.


LettrineFrom Erik Parens’ edited book, Surgically Shaping Children: Technology, Ethics, and the Pursuit of Normality, comes a piece entitled “Concepts of Technology and Their Role in Moral Reflection” by James C. Edwards. The first section of the essay is spent explaining the key concepts from Heidegger’s “The Question Concern Technology,” useful for me as a reminder, since it’s been a while since I’ve read that text. All of this is in aid of making explicit Heidegger’s claim that however much we might not be aware of it, technology is not merely technology in the common-sense sense, but a way of thinking and approaching the world (I’m ‘translating,’ however problematically that might be, from Heideggerese, for simplicity’s sake). And this particular way of thinking and approaching the world, peculiar to the modern world according to Heidegger, casts all the world as Bestand, that is, as ‘standing reserve:’ as that which we can take hold of and use. Edward’s point, of course, is that techniques of (what I, not he, calls) bodily alteration, from anti-depressants to intersex surgery, all behave as if we—our bodies, minds, lives—are Bestand too.

“But, as I say, most of us do not share Heidegger’s nostalgia for the premodern world, just as we do not share his philosophical anguish at our eagerness to reinvent ourselves in every generation. And so if his critique of technology is to have any resonance or us, it can’t be because of its filiations to a larger project of turning back the clock. At least one feature of modernity has sedimented itself so deeply into out ethical consciousness that we cannot easily imagine ourselves without it: when Judith Shklar said that to be a liberal means to believe that “cruelty is the worst thing we do,” she was speaking not just for liberalism but for what we have come to regard as common decency itself. That human suffering is the final touchstone of evil, and that nothing is worse than to cause or collude in such suffering, strikes us as incontrovertible, especially when that suffering entails not only physical pain but humiliation. And is it not humiliation, or at least the threat of it, that most affects us when we think of the child with the cleft palate, or whose body is in some remediable way significantly different from the ‘norm’? How, we may exclaim, is it possible not to think that surgery is appropriate—assuming that the risks are fully understood and are acceptable to all the parties? Anyone who distrusts or opposes this sort of surgical technology, frankly call it ‘enhancement technology’ if you like, can seem—notice I say “can seem”—a sort of monster.” p. 58

I’ve been wondering something like this myself for a while now (even aloud, occasionally, though with sufficient defensive caveats that people seem unwilling to give me the ‘monster’ title, at least as he means it!). Liberalism and a kind of liberal sensibility seem to come together over suffering and (its supposedly more objective counterpart) harm. Suffering comes to play a key role in so many of the conversations that happen about bodily alteration. Indeed, almost anything can be made justifiable, whatever its insult to mainstream norms, so long as it is claimed as a cure to suffering (though this is often a temporary and uncertain justification, as those seeking medical amputation of healthy limbs have found!) Yet it’s a peculiar notion of suffering that is at play; almost used as a kind of currency, offered up to authority in order to receive the hormone, the pill, the surgery, whatever, in exchange. And here, I think, comes my divergence from Edward’s approach; or perhaps from Heidegger’s. But first:

“And of course Heidegger seems exactly —and quite happily—that sort of monster, not because he would sadistically deny corrective surgery to a child (I have no idea what he’d do in the particular case of, say, achondroplasia), but because he truly doesn’t take human suffering as the final court of appeal for our ethical practice: there is something worse for him than cruelty. It’s nothing something for which he has a transparent name—he usually calls it Seinsvergessenheit (“the forgetfulness of Being”)—but it’s clear that it holds for him a kind of transcendent significance. In his devotion to something larger than our liberal humanism, he resembles the religious believer who says “Human happiness is all very well, of course, but what really matters is the greater glory of God.” And what can one say to that? Here one has reached a kind of impasse; one is making, and responding to, first-order ethical claims that cannot be finessed.” p. 59

To place Levinas in contrast to Heidegger is almost laughable in its obviousness, but on this topic of suffering, I think it could be important. And the hint comes in the idea of suffering as a kind of currency that I raised before. In “Useless Suffering” (found in Entre Nous, if you’re curious), Levinas argues strenuously for understanding suffering as precisely that: useless. To give suffering a use, he claims, is to justify it. This is the case whether this use lies in the proving or disproving of the existence of God, or (perhaps more relevant for this discussion) in the ‘personal growth’ sense of suffering making someone a better/stronger/more resilient person. (Granted, Levinas is in no way talking about the kinds of suffering Edwards is talking about, and I’ll half-promise a post on that later). In this sense, then, Levinas is challenging precisely the technologised idea of suffering, and thus it is the ethical (in Levinas’ fairly specific sense) of the subject’s responsibility for the other that comes to take the position of ‘transcendent significance’ that Edwards feels so uneasy about.

“In hard choices like those [about the surgical shaping of children], the ethical questions aren’t settled merely by fitting the cases into a Heideggerian template of the “essence of technology”… We expect too much of our philosophical ideas, if we expect them to settle first-order ethical quandaries. No parents would be satisfied if, faced with the possibility of limb-lengthening surgery for their child, we ethicists argued against that surgery on grounds that it treats the child as Bestand. In fact, I couldn’t offer them such an argument with a straight face, much as I enjoy kicking these ideas around in class. At a certain point I realise that philosophy, no matter how compelling, can’t be appealed to itself as Bestand, as raw material standing by for us to use in solving ethical problems. We don’t get firm answers to such problems by kicking them upstairs into the airy realm of metaphysics.” p. 60

Parents would of course be unsatisfied with such a refusal of surgery, but I think that this is for two reasons: it offends the liberal sensibility we talked about earlier, but perhaps more tellingly, it also appears to take the child’s body as Bestand for an argument against technology. And it’s deeply questionable whether anyone should be made to suffer in order to further some kind of social education program. What this shows is that the kinds of bioethical arguments that Edwards is trying to make needs to start with asking questions about how we understand suffering. After all, technology for Heidegger is not just machines, but thought and comportment towards the world. In taking Levinas as a way of thinking-otherwise about suffering, perhaps non-technological or even ethical approaches to the use of technologies of bodily alteration might become possible, without the problematic normative ethics of an airy realm of metaphysics.

And more to come… of course…

SLettrineO I’ve written what are probably the obligatory first few posts, and they’re sitting in draft format looking bald and unsubtle and somewhat unpostable. I mean, they probably are bald and unsubtle, but still! I keep looking at them and thinking “so which of you are my very first post on my brand new blog?” And each of them keep replying “I’m a bit too theoretical, aren’t I? And besides, I look a bit clunky all on my own!” and occassionally “You sound very sure about me… are you sure you’re that sure about me?” And it’s true, really. I can’t think any of the work I’m doing outside of the context of… well, the rest of the work I’m doing. Which is going to make finishing the thesis hell, I’m sure! But at the moment it feels a bit like if I talk about any one bit of what I’m working on, it just appears to be… well, isolated. Lacking nuance. Or something.

I was going to give a sketch of what my big, thesis-size project is, but I’m realising that the reason I want to do that is I want the work I’ve done to look balanced – not too much about Levinasian ethics, not too much about Foucauldian biopower, not too much about the kinds of suffering you find in amongst Western and often white privilege, not too much about the normalisation of bodies… not too theoretical, not too practical.

It’s an interesting little paradox. I start a blog so I can be, apparently, wildly parenthetical, writing about the bits and pieces that so often get left out around the edges, and then want to offer up everything I’ve ever thought out of a misplaced defensiveness. Yet the way that I think and write is totally about parentheses. So maybe a few thoughts about my blog name…

First the name comes from a tendency in my writing – I use emdashes, parentheses, commas, semicolons, even footnotes a lot. My sentences tend to be long – not Foucault long, thank god, but long enough. I never want to leave out the bits that aren’t quite key to the rest of my work, but seem important. Given the work I’m doing, that’s probably not entirely surprising: any good poststructuralist is looking for the apparently absent bits that hem in what is present. Oftentimes I think about the modern obsession with sameness, unity, completeness and so on as produced by a kind of carving away what seems not important; and yet of course I know that it’s exactly that ‘unimportant’ stuff that’s key. And so those parts of texts which are marginalised through footnoting or brackets – those are the parts where the argument really seems to happen, really seems to take hold.

Oddly, this makes me think of studying Husserl in undergrad. I hated him then (and I’m not really sure how I feel about him now) precisely because he wanted to bracket off the world. Maybe it’s the Nietzschean in me (I almost wrote Nietzsche, but having Nietzsche in me seems a bit obscene!) but I had issues with precisely that move. I found it hard to go along with anything Husserl tried to argue because over and over again, I just kept thinking “But no, wait, this is ridiculous. You can’t just pretend the world doesn’t exist, as if thought were all that truly existed! It’s just craziness! And bad, patriarchal, white, able-bodied Cartesian craziness.” I guess this is where it started. All too often the bits that were bracketed out were the realm of those othered, sent away so philosophy could be Philosophy, so theory could be Theory. Othered in very different ways, excluded and included in very different ways, but nonetheless…

Yet theses, argument, even language can only really operate through what it disavows. So I guess that this blog isn’t just for me to write bits and pieces from my thesis, or to write my crazy nerdy analyses of Joss Whedon’s amazing work that I can’t let myself procrastinate with while chapters await… I hope, anyway, that this blog will let me write the bits that don’t fit elsewhere, the bits that are permanently in brackets; but most of all, I hope that this blog will give me the chance to ponder and consider and mull over and most of all hear about the parentheses already in my work, the ones I can’t see because of the argument I’m making (arguments that are – cross fingers – at least a little bit significant; enough that they’re worth making).

Well… anyway, she says, speaking into the silence… that’s what I’d like…