LettrineI

S that it’s so big.

Quite aside from the horror I occasionally feel when I think about the total number of words I’m going to have written by the time I hand in, it also becomes quite difficult to explain to people. Even when I give a brief sketch of what each chapter is supposed to (WILL, goddammit, will!) be about, there’s often a look of bemusement in people’s eyes. And the response oscillates between things like the leap-to-safety of cosmetic surgery (about which everyone seems to be a minor expert these days) or the please-now-explain-the-weirdness of self-demand amptuation, or a vague look of dis-ease and a very swift turning away (that’s usually from the relatives, but occasionally a date will do the same). So having a blog is a bit odd and different, in this respect, because, well, you just keep writing… you’re not really silenced, and if people don’t want to think about it, they are the ones who just go away. Tis very different from sitting in the corner at a party ending your explanation and watching people seek a subject change.

But oddly, blogging about it brings its own set of questions. Where to begin is a big one that I raised before and am still grappling with. I’ve drafted posts discussing being touched, Levinas on suffering, Merleau-Ponty on bodily tolerances (only to decide, as if I’m tutoring a class or giving a conference paper, that really syncretic sociability needs to be discussed first for bodily tolerances to make sense, and then, shouldn’t I really link that to Alcoff’s racialisation stuff, in order to make clear the politics of it, and really that can’t be done without…). And these are all bits of my thesis, but they actually all are being used to play a part in what is, probably over all, a discussion of normalisation – what is it, how does it happen, what’s its association with suffering and so on. The ethics and the politics of it.

The reason this thesis has gone down this route was that when I started reading about body modification (my supervisor studies in this area, and the scholarship she gave me required that I stick reasonably close to what she was working on which given my interest in ‘the body’ was fine), I noticed that person after person after person referred to suffering. Suffering was the motivation and justification for medicine, clearly, even if the Hippocratic oath was occasionally in practice hypocritical. But then I started to see that liberalism claims suffering (or harm, or the prevention of both, really) is the reason for the body politic: institutions are taken to be things designed to protect the rights of citizens on the supposition that if these rights were not breached, suffering would not occur. And again, it was in order to relieve suffering that so many techniques of bodily alteration were used: Kathy Davis shows that cosmetic surgery is used to relieve suffering, those who perform limb-lengthening or craniofacial surgeries do so claiming to relieve suffering, even, in a terrible twist, intersex ‘corrective’ surgery is understood as relieving suffering. (On a side note, there are theorists who claim that the suffering that is supposedly relieved by intersex ‘corrective’ surgery is that of the parents, or the culture. This is a convincing claim in lots of ways, but assumes that the child in question, and their suffering (or not) can be detached from relationships with their parents or their culture, which I have serious questions about.) I gave a paper at Edmonton last year, and afterwards a woman from the audience said that she is an ethicist at a hospital, and over and over again, she has sat in as parents are given the results from their PGD (prenatal genetic diagnosis); and over and over again, once the potential and, importantly, assumed suffering of the child comes up, nothing nothing can counter it. Suffering, in the vast majority of cases, becomes the unstoppable, untoppable end-point to any conversation about the ‘fix’ in question. If it will relieve or prevent suffering, it cannot be denied.

I don’t disagree with much of this at all: suffering is something we must must must respond to. It’s an ethical imperative (more on that v soon). But as I read example after example after example, I realised that whilst many cultural and critical theorists respond to suffering by demonstrating that there are, say, institutional and social forms of behaviour which make people suffer, suffering itself never quite got the same interrogation. That is, the implication seemed to be that deconstructing the causes of suffering was great, but suffering itself was out of bounds, seemingly designated as outside culture’s sphere. Yet surely suffering had to be just as constructed as any other experience, I argued with myself. Surely. So how? why? in what circumstances? For example, why did some forms of pain cause suffering, and not others? Why do people seem to suffer from things now that they didn’t used to? Or one person suffered and another didn’t? How was suffering itself discursively shaped? And perhaps most importantly, why – oh why – did happiness and normalisation seem to keep going together, and suffering and (corporeal, especially) deviance seem to keep dovetailing?

Okay, that’ll do for now: I keep starting to write and ending up almost writing the entire thesis all over again, so let’s leave it here, for now… more to suffer through later!

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