October 2007

dot lettrine 2dot lettrine 2dot lettrine 2 It is impossible not to recall Merleau-Ponty’s lesson and what was for him was the essential, philosophical task. Never consent to be completely comfortable with your own certainties. Never let them sleep, but never believe either that a new fact will be enough to reverse them. Never imagine that one can change them like arbitrary axioms. Remember that, in order to give them an indispensable mobility, one must see far, but also close-up and right around oneself. One must clearly feel that everything perceived is only evident when surrounded by a familiar and poorly known horizon, that each certitude is only sure because of the support offered by unexplored ground. The most fragile instant has roots. There is here a whole ethics of tireless evidence that does not exclude a rigorous economy of the True and the False; but is not reduced to it, either.

– Michel Foucault, “For an Ethics of Discomfort” in The Politics of Truth, trans. Lys Hochroth


WHEN Bionic Woman was announced, I was kinda excited. I’m happy that the more… sci-fi-ish stuff is getting a better look-in these days. Makes me wonder whether Firefly could have had more of a chance now, a wondering that usually winds up in me being mildly depressed. So I grabbed myself a copy of the pilot, alongside The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Both were pretty good; they showed promise, I thought, even if they had their patchy patches. Then again, Katee Sackhoff gets to be all arch and knowing, not to mention smirky, and how could I possibly resist that?

But with Bionic Woman, one of the strongest parts, I thought, was that Jaime Sommers, aka the second bionic woman after Sackhoff’s Sarah Corvus, had a sister. Yeah, on the one hand it looked like an easy ‘things are gonna get tough coz she can’t tell and it eats her up inside’ line (currently playing out, for those not in the loop), but there was something different about this sister. She was Deaf. And totally sassy, which we love in a girl, but this was the bit that was really interesting.

It’s not just the depiction of disability on mainstream TV that I’m pushing for here. Sure, that’s important. But this was something more. The Bionic Woman has a Deaf sister; she’s enhanced whilst the sister is apparently ‘lacking’; Jaime is, in the rather uninspired discourse of the pop culture world, capable of so much more where ‘more’ is always understood as better, happier, more alive. This contrast, made explicit like this by setting the two characters side-by-side, offered a space for engaging with issues of how exactly disability comes to be disability. I dreamt, foolishly, of the way that the fights between the bionic women would enable the reconstruction of space and time. I mean, they move faster, further and can see and hear farther than anyone else. It reconfigures landscapes, secrecy, knowledge, absolutely and entirely: to hide, you need to be very far away—I think the deal is that they can see for 2 kilometres with the sharpness 20/20 vision allows for 200 metres—and extremely quiet. (Early on, Jaime’s boss gets the grumps because she overhears a conversation—he’s all about the concealing—and orders one of his underlings to sound proof the office). These responsive measures demonstrate the extent to which these ‘enhancements’ reconfigure our space. And with this challenge the bionic women pose to the particularity of the environment in which we live, it becomes clear that this world, apparently shaped entirely by the natural way of doing things, is entirely dependent upon a very specific sense of the norm. This in turn, I dreamt, would reveal that what is so easily labelled disability and so easily understood as a neutral, natural lack, is entirely reliant upon a world shaped around a restricted notion of those who are in it; around a ‘norm’ perpetually enforced on all fronts. In other words, once the bionic women showed us the extent to which our environment is shaped by our conception of the normal, Jaime’s sister’s ‘lack’ becomes understood as something not inherent but the result of the interaction between her ‘non-normal’ body (abnormal already understands it as lacking) and a specific environment. It’s not her body that gives out; it’s the context.

Why is this such a significant point? Well, for me, part of it is about the tendency to see these ‘non-normal’ bodies as inherently pathological, and that is, as the source of whatever sufferings those with disabilities may experience. I’m not at all denying that there are many extremely painful conditions that get grouped under the horribly homogenising title ‘disability,’ but I also think that much of the suffering that goes along with and often contributes to disability is, to use the loosest phrase, culturally constructed. Not untrue, not unreal, good god no, but constructed. Contingent. Fundamentally alterable; and alterable not by the usual supposition of ‘here’s a body with something wrong, make it better,’ which makes the suffering the responsibility of the sufferer(‘s body, to query the Cartesian-ness of all of this!), but by demonstrating that this alteration is more than an individual responsibility. It’s a communal one. (NB I tend towards critical engagements with ideas of community which suppose it to be about difference rather than sameness, whatever the current rhetoric.)

But beyond even these concerns is the looming question of biotech. The contrast between ‘therapeutic’ use of medical technologies and ‘enhancement’ is one that is mostly frantically maintained by bioethicists, ostensibly because to do otherwise would be to grant permission to all and sundry bodily alterations. (This is actually in the episode, discussed in rather pathetic terms by Jaime’s oh-so-bright academic boyfriend and the God/Frankenstein figure to her Eve/monster-fication.) Actually, my cynical heart can’t help but suggest, it’s because if the contingency of marking particular bodies as ‘disabled’ were actually made evident, the medical engagement with disability would be demonstrated to be pathologising, and thus playing a key role in the maintenance of the norm. They would become at least partially responsible. Those who support biotech advancement (those crazy kids, the transhumanists—I say this with a fair amount of fondness in amongst some serious questions) would also have their drive for more and better critiqued. Actually those who push for ‘higher IQs’ to be produced by genetic alteration or pharmaceutical intervention would be demonstrated to merely be pushing for a particular set of conceptual and (IQ tests are very odd) etiquette skills, those associated with whiteness, maleness and middle-classness. It raises questions about what we are striving for, and why, and to what extent these aims which shape so much of scientific endeavour are bound up with reiterating the privilege of that which already is privileged, and concealing it behind ‘common-sense’ naturalising (and pathologising) talk. (Memorialising, anyone?).

So then; the difference between the pilot and the first episode? The sweet punk of a Deaf sister was disappeared, and replaced with a doe-eyed young hacker (just wait for the ‘ahh, she hacked my bionics/sis saves the day because she counter-hacked them and helped Jaime survive’ storyline. It’s a-coming, I’ll betcha!) with perfect hearing and some conventional tendencies to TV non-sequiturs. I love the idea of the hacker, but I can’t help but be aware that in the contrast between the two characters, what we actually have is the assumption that disability is identity-defining. It wasn’t necessary to have an all-new sister to make her a hacker; in fact, I can’t help but notice that computer-based stuff is inordinately visual, and could have been an utterly utterly believeable part of a character who challenges authority at a whole series of turns. It also takes out at least part of the critique of the norm: the contrast between Deaf-normal-Bionic and hacker-normal-Bionic is palpable; the latter has no real engagement with the absolute contingency of the stratification evident in the first. Indeed, hacker+Bionic seems all about the better+better progress narrative our technologised context sells itself on. The critique gets removed because it’s too complicated, too much, too critically engaged with what the studio assumes we want to be able to continue to take for granted in order to be entertained. And sadly, this means that Bionic Woman loses much of its critical edge, the promise that makes me love sci-fi to pieces.

(Though not all of its edge, because Katee’s still sassy, strong and willing to kill, and who doesn’t like that in a girl? ;-))

tHE always-awesome Susan Stryker weighs into the ENDA ‘debate’. Personally, I’m just a wee bit taken with her refusal to bow to the ‘don’t use academic terms’ rule that seems to rule public debate these days:

Gender and sexuality are like two lines intersecting on a graph, and trying to make them parallel undoes the very notion of homo-, hetero- or bisexuality. Now here’s the rub — but it requires another of those fancy words my academic colleagues and I like to throw around: heteronormativity [<—–see? look! There it is!!], the idea that whatever straight people do is really what’s what, and that whatever anybody else does is deviant to some degree. To want to have sex with somebody of the same gender violates heteronormative expectations of gender behavior as much as it does heteronormative expectations of sexual behavior. Simply put: Real men don’t suck cock. Nor do they use the word “fabulous” when describing a pair of women’s shoes. Nor do they keep a picture of their husband pinned to the wall of their office cubicle. All of the above violates conventional or stereotypical expectations of proper masculine gender, and as Lambda Legal‘s preliminary analysis of ENDA makes clear, none would be protected under the rubric of sexual orientation alone. It’s OK to be gay, in other words, just so long as you don’t act like a fag.

I’m also impressed, counter to a whole lot of commenters, that she refused to ‘play nice.’ It would have been easy to write the nice, polite, reasonable defense but instead her response shows that the transphobia being articulated (by Aravois amongst others) is far from ‘nice’ and far from ‘reasonable, but can be figured as such because it’s so mainstream. Her delightfully sharp tone can only be configured as ‘snarkiness,’ whilst his is not, because the context is already transphobic.

… and all of that is quite aside from the headiness of reading her fierce, articulate and incisive defense of keeping the T in GLBT and refusing to cede ground to those who seek to slice and dice a movement that’s (perhaps not always, but often) been about protecting difference, on the grounds of them being just far too different. There’s something truly heinous about claiming similarity to and therefore legitimacy from the mainstream on the basis of not being as different (or abnormal, apparently, say some of the comments) as they are, because look at how weird and wacky they are. It’s the guilt and innocence logic at work again, this time to split a movement that never needed to be premised on sameness anyway. And it never ceases to horrify.

alettrine2.jpgND…. hiatus hereby ended! Well, fingers crossed. I’m about to hit a period of intensive writing. I can tell this because I really and truly have to. The whole annual review process is about to begin and [sigh] it always reminds me of just how far behind I am. I’ve decided that this is the perpetual condition of writing a PhD: you make plans, deadlines, knowing that they’re probably a little aspirational, but figuring it’s good to aim for something. And then the deadline passes, the chapter’s still not written, and then by the time it is the deadline for the next one is already passed and… so on, and so on, ad infinitum et nauseum et… I don’t know what ‘slow death by thesis’ is in Latin, but ad that too.

I’m conscious, too, that being outed has massively altered what I’m writing about, and in ways I dislike. So this is an attempt to get my thesis-y stuff up here again, hopefully without too many agonising caveats, addendums, apologia et… ugh! What is it about Latin infecting me today?

This post builds on others I’ve put up, and I’m sorry if this sends you on hyperlinked flight-lines throughout my blog; writing a thesis makes it incredibly difficult to contain… well, anything! So I’ve written a fair bit here about Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, particularly in relation to “The Child’s Relation with Others”, but also applying it to other things—race, for example. My work, actually, is primarily on technologies of bodily alteration, and concepts of normalcy. At this point, though, I want to introduce another element: that of the gift. The Australian philosopher Rosalyn Diprose and her book Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas has heavily influence my thinking here, although, as we’ll see, I have some concerns about it too.

In effect, what Diprose suggests is that the intertwining of self and other that Merleau-Ponty characterises as grounding subjectivity is in fact a process of corporeal generosity. The other gives me the ways of being which I adopt, adapt, recognise and misrecognise and embody. These gifts are never-ending; indeed, my being-in-the-world is perpetually in process, however much it might become sedimented through repetition. (I’m tempted to link to Fido the Yak here, in his semi-anxious musings on the impossibility of repetition and the resultant production of the absurd, but I fear I haven’t grasped it well enough to really engage it properly here. Nonetheless, the tango with the impossible sounds like a perfect way to spend an evening, and thus I can’t let the opportunity to point it all out to you pass by. I intend, Fido, to come back to these questions, if only because I can’t help but have misgivings about the dovetailing of Merleau-Ponty’s weighted term ‘sedimentation,’ and the difference-excising practice of recognising something as repetition. But to the gift.)

The generosity of these others is, importantly, not merely about giving me a pattern of behaviour to take on, but also a gift of difference. It is only in and through this gift of difference that I can come to recognise myself not only as a subject, but as a subject different from others. The corporeal generosity of others not only gives me ways of being-in-the-world (in echo of their comportments) but also gives me their difference, thus enabling my own, different ways of being-in-the-world. In this respect, Diprose argues, corporeal generosity is like differance (hm. If anyone knows how to acute ‘e’s in wordpress, please do let me know. I’ve been lazy up til now, but differance cries out for a touch of French figural difference!) It dwells between subject and other, providing their ‘spacing’: the space that both binds them together and separates them. Diprose’s version:

Contrary to Machan’s thesis, that only in a polity of sovereign property owners is generosity possible, Derrida’s analysis suggests that it is precisely this economy of contract and exchange between self-present individuals that makes generosity impossible. The gift is only possible if it goes unrecognised, if it is not commodified, if it is forgotten by the donor and the donee so that presence (the gift as (a) present and the presence of both the donor and donee) is deferred. (23-24)

This aporia of the gift would not matter much if it was not for the way Derrida, following Heidegger, ties the gift to the gift-event of Being: Being gives itself int he present on the condition that it is not (a) present (Derrida, 1990, 20, 27). In deference to this qualification read Derrida’s account of the gift as a version of his account of the constitution of self-identity and difference: like differance, generosity describes the operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists the full presence of meaning, identity, and Being, so that the self is dispersed into the other. Derrida defines difference as

the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive… production fothe intervals without which the ‘full’ terms would not signify, would not function. (Derrida 1981, 27)

Self-identity, a manner of being, cannot be constituted without a production of an interval or a difference between the self and the other. No self-present identity, no relation to Being, is generated without this relation to the other [for reasons I’ll go into soon, I’d like to note that I would have put ‘otherness’ here rather than the other…]. (Corporeal Generosity, pp. 6-7)

So we can see here that Diprose is emphasising Levinas over Heidegger here, in testifying to the primacy (or, better, the pre-originari-ness, or anarchic-ness) of the ethical relation (the one with the other). Okay, but here comes the edge by which Diprose will articulate her critique of Derrida:

As one’s identity and social values are produced through a differentiation between the self and the otehr then the idenitty of the self is dispersed into the other. Differance, like giving-itself, describes an operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists and disorganises the totalization or full presence of meaning, identity, or Being. It is the operation of differeance that insists on the gift: the ultimate dispersal of all identity within the event of its constitution. Giving is that which puts the circle of exchange in motion and that which exceeds and disrupts it (Derrida, 1992, 30). And this impossible structure of the gift is such that if self-present identity is claimed in being given to the other, a debt to the other is incurred. (Corp Gen, 7)

To mark my ‘debts’ here, I should point out to those who might recall it an exchange I had with FoucaultIsDead before he disappeared off the intertoobs (or into a new pseudonym, perhaps?). He suggested (if I recall correctly; I may not, so feel free, FiD, if you’re about, to correct me in comments/via the contact form), in response to my Private Law, that indebtedness is the key term by which our political and ethical investments occur. I responded that this wasn’t my understanding, and here I can finally say with sufficient context that the sense of indebtedness arises only in the recognition of the gift, and in the concommittant assertion of strict division between self and other. This is a hint towards a future post and the final discussion of my thesis, so I won’t go on about it now; I suspect that there are, actually ways of testifying to the gifts I have been given that don’t fall into the commodifying, individualising of traps of recognition. (Ms. Pepperell, this reminds me I really ought to address this with you! I have a sneaking suspicion that your distrust of Honneth and the rest of the recognition-obsessed crowd dovetails quite intriguingly with this point.)

Anyway, to return to Diprose’s critique of Derrida. The traditional conception of generosity is what she’s using Derrida to critique here, but it’s also what prompts her concerns with his theory:

Understanding generosity in terms of Derrida’s analysis of the impossibility of the gift helps locate the parsimony endorsed by other accounts such as Machan’s. Machan’s claim that individual sovereignty and property ownership come before gnerosity overlooks the possibility that in claiming freedom and property as one’s own, soemthing has already been taken from other. The generosity of the individual property owner who gives his or her acquisitions, which is the only generosity that Machan recognises, is built on the generosity of others that Machan would rather forget… (Corp Gen, 8)

Here we see the element of economic critique that threads through Diprose’s concerns. It is, of course, the observation that in order for a profit to be made, workers need to be paid less than their work is actually worth. Here we can see an echo of Brown’s pointing out of the tolerance embodied by many of those disadvantaged, who, willingly or not, give stability to the economy through the gift of their tolerance of their own exploitation. Diprose puts it this way, though:

In suggesting that generosity is infected with a selective forgetting, I have already added to Derrida’s analyses of the impossibility of the gift, at least by insisting on a different emphasis. By tying the gift to its radical forgetting and its operation to the deferral of self-present identity, Derrida’s account may help expose the individualism and parsimony of Machan’s and One Nation’s [that’s a ultra-racist, ultra-right-wing party that has managed to do some pretty nasty stuff to the political spectrum in Australia, for those who don’t know] positions, but it also invites interpretations of his work that are no more concerned with social justice than Machan or One Nation seem to be. Critiques of individualism and the metaphysics of presence can and have lead [sic] to (postmodern [I want to add, in the pejorative sense, here, given that I have issues some ungenerous definitions of postmodern]) claims, although not by Derrida, of the death of individual sovereignty in faor of the dispersal of identity and meaning. Emphasising the way that the gift does its work only by being forgotten and then throught he dispersal of presence overlooks how, in practice, the generosity and the gifts of some (property owner, men, wage earners, whites) tend to be recognised and remembered more often than the generosity and gifts of others (the landless, women, the unemployed, indigenous peoples, and immigrants).It is the systematic, asymmetrical forgetting of the gift, where only the generosity of the privileged is memorialized, that social inequities and injustice are based. In attending to the connection between generosity and social justie, which is the aim of all the analyses in this book, it is necessary to shift the emphasis away from, while keeping in mind the aporia of the gift to… address the question of the systematic but asymmetrical forgetting of the gift that allows the generosity of the forgotten and the parsimony of the memorialized to constitute hierarchical relations of domination within economies of contract and exchange. (Corp Gen, 8-9)

Okay, so here we have a sense of what memorialising and forgetting are: they are the economic, social and political engagements with the gift, the ways of making present that which cannot be made present without being utterly changed. This is the point that Levinasians the world over continually struggle with: how do the ethical and the political interact? If ethics always comes before politics, does this mean that ethics can only shape politics (as Levinas claims it should) whilst politics can never shape ethics? Obviously, Diprose takes Derrida’s (and others’, such as Bernasconi’s) position with regard this matter, and in a convincing way. There are particular ethical relations and gifts that are continually recognised, continually marked as generous, and thus function as a key part of the privilege attached to the donor (generosity becomes a mark of privilege, here.) On the other hand, there are gifts that are rarely, if ever, recognised as gifts. This might leave them being gifts, but it also means, for example, that the gifts traditionally been given by women in (say) the sustenance of the body politic through the maintenance of the home and thus the well-being of the worker, and in the (re)production of new workers of course (raised with good, generous work ethics) remains unrecognised, irrelevant. Although this ensures that these gifts remain gifts, challenging (however quietly) the self-presence of identity, it also means that these gifts can never figure in the economic or political sphere, and thus the privilege of being recognised as generous is denied women; after all, this generosity is merely who they are, naturally. (I’m actually (not quite) resisting the urge to poke Sinthome at this point, given his recent post on properties, by-products, individuals, naturalisation and (is this unfair?) essences). On the other hand, privilege attaches to recognised generosity: the philanthropist (to pick a banal and obvious example) who gives money to an institution has his/her generosity recognised, and the gift becomes a kind of commodity, offered (however much they may not seek return) in exchange for the increase in his/her privilege. Which of course enables the recognition of them as generous personages, and thus enables the recognition of whatever else they (or, significantly, other subjects identified as ‘the same as’ them) ‘give’. This is how the ethical and the political are intertwined: only some gifts are recognised, and this recognition in turn enables some subjects as generous contributors to the being of others… and thus are injustices produced and reproduced…

To come in this series: the forgetting required in order to memorialise, memorialising and forgetting in the flesh, body modification, my concerns about the consequences of Diprose’s position, responsible comportments and, hopefully, eventually, some consideration of the significance of why tolerance of others is irresponsible, where the tolerance of otherness is key… tantalising? Well, it is for me 😉 Maybe, one day, I’ll actually be able to make the point that I want to ‘finish’ my thesis on…. hey, I can dream!