January 2008

clettrine1.jpgAVARERO (significant, I think, for Eric, particularly?):

the you comes before the we, before the plural you and before the they. Symptomatically, the you is a term that is not at home in modern and contemporary developments of ethics and politics. The “you” is ignored by the individualistic doctrines, which are too preoccupied with praising the rights of the I, and the “you” is masked by a Kantian form of ethics that is only capable of staging an I that addresses itself as a familiar “you.” Neither does the “you” find a home in the schools of thought to which individualism is opposed-these schools reveal themselves for the most part to be affected by a moralistic vice, which, in order to avoid falling into the decadence of the I, avoids the contiguity of the you, and privileges collective, plural pronouns. Indeed, many “revolutionary” movements (which range from traditional communism to the feminism of sisterhood) seem to share a curious linguistic code based on the intrinsic morality of pronouns. The we is always positive, the plural you is a possible ally, the they has the face of an antagonist, the I is unseemly, and the you is, of course, superfluous.

(Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, 90-91 via Butler’s ‘Giving an Account of Oneself,’ Diacritics 30(4), pp. 22-40, who links Cavarero explicitly to Levinas…)

The you is superfluous because allegedly reducible to what I have already known: a type, a kind, an already-seen, already-recognised, a they, anatagonist or ally, a yes or a no. Such a reduction refuses to grapple with that which cannot be known, that which cannot be seen, that which escapes recognition; and as such, this reduction is the technique of an I which pretends that the world is already his, already hers, already theirs if only in a style of being (such that if it is not, then it ought to be, dammit!). Refuses to see that the unknown conditions the known. This presumption of knowability—oh, the rhythms it forgets, the richness it dismisses, the challenge it refuses to face and be made otherwise by! It finds only limitation in difference, and never possibility, never the dance… and therein lies its tragedy…

Januaries has, in a series of provocative comments here, and a post, been attempting to find her way into the density of the theoretical approaches usually found on this blog. She also had some wonderings, some questions and some thoughts about cosmetic surgery… and it occurs to me that I haven’t stepped into this particular minefield, and perhaps it is time…

In general, I take the possibly somewhat uncharitable position that previous thought about cosmetic surgery, particularly that from feminists, has tended to leave us trapped in a corner. This isn’t their fault, or at least not directly, and it’s not a lack, precisely, that produces this. It’s more, I think, that they are too swiftly trying to find an answer, to take a stand, and tend to all too quickly cover over the ambiguities, uncertainties, the unresolvabilities of the question of cosmetic surgery, without dwelling with them a while. Indeed, I suspect that part of the problem is not enough theory, but then, I would think that, wouldn’t I? ;-P

To sketch the vague outlines of an impasse: the major figures in these kinds of questions tend to be Kathryn Pauly Morgan, infamous for suggesting the use of cosmetic surgery towards uglification – the production of wrinkles, the deliberate surgical sagging of breasts and so on; the perhaps equally infamous but far less rigorous Sheila Jeffries, who stands against all ‘beautification’ techniques, arguing them to be mutilations; Kathy Davis, whose qualitative research helped to get at the centrality (questionable, certainly, but intriguing nonetheless) of the experience of suffering to women’s seeking out of cosmetic surgery; and of course, Susan Bordo, whose work on physical appearance and its relation to feminism and women’s rights is thorough, considered and interesting. There are of course other contributors to this debate: some come from a non-mainstream bod mod perspective, like Karmen McKendrick, who argues that cosmetic surgery ought not to be done because it does not seduce and trouble the gaze of the other (which some might say is kinda the point for some people!) Others tend to approach it from a rampantly bioethical position, like Art Frank, who compares cosmetic surgery to other ‘proper’ surgeries such as limb-lengthening surgery, cranio-facial reconstructive surgery and so on, and decides that those who seek cosmetic surgery aren’t really suffering, but experiencing ‘an inflation in the language of pain.’ I go to town on this latter claim in the thesis, as you can probably guess..

But it is Susan Bordo and Kathy Davis who provide the best demonstration of the impasse at which feminism finds itself in relation to cosmetic surgery. Kathy Davis interviewed numerous Dutch women about their application for cosmetic surgery, and was present during their discussion with a government-paid doctor in which they argued their case for having the State pay for their surgery. Over and again, Davis was struck by the extent to which the word suffering arose. Some have suggested that the bureaucracy involved in the State’s financing meant that women had to claim to suffer. This, doubtless, is accurate to some degree. But I have questions about the implied lack of sincerity of these women; and more specifically, I have serious questions about the assumption that these bureaucracies do not come to inflect and (amongst other factors) construct the experience of women seeking cosmetic surgery. Indeed, there have been some analyses of cosmetic surgery brochures, which coach women in the ‘proper’ way of thinking about surgery in order that they are ‘good’ patients (that is, are satisfied with the outcome; ‘bad’ patients, interestingly, are never the fault of the surgeon, but the fault of unrealistic expectations) and can argue their case in ways that surgeons can accept. Of course, the language of these brochures circulates more broadly, and tends to emphasise ideas like individuality, freedom, and the famous and rather curious ‘becoming who I really am’ line. [This is the origin, I think, of my obsession with the Voxtrot lyric, ‘Maybe I want to be myself, but I am somebody else,’ which implies a rather more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of authenticity talk.]

So; Kathy Davis’ account invites us to follow her into the clinic, listen with her to the women she spoke to, and sympathise with their plight. She invites us to do as feminists ought: to honour women’s experiences. She claims to have been dubious about the ‘suffering’ that women could possibly experience prior to her interviews, but afterwards, she is utterly convinced. Indeed, she is so utterly convinced that she comes to see cosmetic surgery as perhaps the only resolution for these suffering women: this may be the only way to empower them to move beyond their suffering and be happy in their lives. And, surely, the argument runs, a real feminism seeks for women not to suffer? How could we suggest that these women ‘take the shot’ for a political position? Does this not expect women, again, to give up their own lives in the service of others?

And Susan Bordo responds with resounding force (no, seriously, there’s some grumping that goes on in these debates!): the real question is how on earth we wound up in a situation where the alteration of women’s bodies is made to be the source of their happiness? A Foucauldian to the bone, Bordo refuses to take these women’s experiences on as a neutral matter; they are, she argues, constructed, and as such, what we really need to be paying attention to is how and why women are constructed to experience their bodies as inadequate, are constructed to experience their bodies as fundamentally other to who they ‘really’ are. I suspect that Bordo is a little angry that Davis seems to imply that her position lacks sympathy; in fact her sympathy is to some extent more thorough-going—she sees the non-necessity of these women’s suffering, and seeks not simply to cure, but to cut it off at the root (even though she knows, really, the impossibility of that).

What I think would be an interesting line of analysis is to query how and why talk of ‘cures’ came to be so very convincing. Political language is more and more bound up with medical discourse, and this, I want to suggest, tends to imply particular things about the body and the suffering it experiences (amongst very many other things, but that’s a whole other post).

First of all, it implies that bodies simply do suffer, for natural reasons. This positions the suffering as beyond the scope of culture, and beyond politics: it is a natural and somehow implacable ‘truth’. Medicine habitually does this, suggesting all kinds of pathologies which delimit the suffering to this particular body, and to its nature. It closes down any possible conception of embodiment, of the deeply contextual production of our experiences of bodily being and selfhood (I don’t see these two as separable, although our Descartes-informed embodiment tends to divide up experience in this way).

Second, it implies that where there is suffering, there ought to be a cure. Not a revolution (actually, I don’t think I believe in revolution, though I’m happy for Marxist friends to try to convince me otherwise!), not political change, not social change. A cure. Individualised, such that no one ever guesses that the source of the suffering may, indeed, not lie purely and simply within this individual body.

Third, my research into disability studies has given me a peculiar sensitivity to language. Over and again, it is the disabled body which is evoked as the ‘truth’ of women’s surgically altered bodies. It is a ‘mutilation’, a ‘crippling with beauty,’ as Januaries’ quote would have it. This again supposes a neutral, normal and fundamentally able body as what would naturally occur, and that it is made deformed—and this is implicitly positioned as nothing other than a bad thing, once again reifying the able/disabled dichotomy—by the culture within which it occurs. Apparently disability is used to evoke that which is rejected, refused, and ought to be, by any right-thinking person. Ugh.

I do, to some extent, tend to agree with Susan Bordo, even when others accuse her of not respecting the autonomy that women do have. I suspect I have less faith in what we call ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’ than others do; I tend to see this as always occurring in a liberal vein, as always supposing that there is, deep down somewhere, a free essence to all of us which is being squashed out of shape by power (thereby conceived of as repressive, rather than my preferred Foucauldian dispersed network). This is, I think, what Ms Pepperell would call a negation: a stripped-back ‘truth’ which is full of content, and taken problematically as a foundation. Indeed, what I think that such a perspective forgets to pay attention to is the space that we do have for altering these constructions of femininity and women’s bodies. When we suppose ourselves to be radical individuals, we forget to pay attention to the ways that we affect one another. This is another of the challenges to Kathy Davis: she pays attention to the individual women, their suffering and its resolution, but not to the effect that each woman’s surgery might have on other women, on their experiences of their own bodies. She accepts, rather than challenging, the liberal humanism through which subjects are currently produced, and this means that she never even sees that women are not, fundamentally, alone. They are produced in and through their relations with one another (oh, and with men too; sorry boyz, I has left you out of this post a lot. Consider this a reflection of the obsessions of this area of study, less than my own interests!). And in response, I would suggest that Bordo emphasises perhaps a little too much the extent to which women are produced by power; they become little more than bits of power in conversation with other bits of power.

Contra both positions, I want to suggest that what is needed is a far more complex understanding of embodiment. This would, of course, mean that it might take a while to think it through, to fully consider it, to develop a political stance; given the impasse sketched above, I think it might be time. To suppose either that we are fundamentally individual essence or merely another line of power forgets that we are produced together. As Diprose describes, “There is a third term forgotten in this haste of liberate ourselves from the law. Identity is ambiguous and open to change, not just because of a deformity inherent in repetition over time [as Butler may be understood as claiming] but also because… between the body and the law is another.” (CG, 68) Indeed, it is this intercorporeality that I hope to show by the end of my thesis offers a deeply political but all too often forgotten space for newness, for change. The claim to individual sovereignty “not only den[ies] the corporeal generosity of intersubjective exisence, effectively stealing from the other and effacing the ambiguity of her or his difference… also cut[s] off my own potentialities for existence. For, as Irigaray puts it, “one does not move without the other.”” (CG, 71). In the end, I am not interested in whether cosmetic surgery in itself is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; I do not think it has to be either. Rather, I am interested in the way that our talk of it covers over the very space for political change we seem to seek. These spaces we forget, the spaces of intertwining of self and other, spaces which, if we listen carefully enough, with our ‘ear in our foot’ as Nietzsche would have it, offer numerous spaces for being drawn on to tap out a counter-rhythm, for being drawn on to dance other-wise.

[Forgive the lack of referencing in this post; most of these debates can be easily found via Google Scholar, and it would take me a while to assemble them all. Also, this post was not really proof-read, so… ahem… feel free to correct!]

hat is me, that is my being. [It’s okay, I have a tendency to self-mocking melodrama at moments like this.] I can only hope it is a temporary matter. But it occurs to me, again, how disruptive sickness is, not just to ‘my body’ as if it were a machine badly oiled, that still works but is a little slower than usual, but to the entire context of my life. My head hurts and fuzzes out when I try to think clearly, a sincere problem when it comes to thesis-writing. My eyes water and sting and my nose tickles, and occasionally I sneeze loudly. These are not things that I want to share with a general public (nor, really, even with those nearest and dearest). It keeps me inside, sleeping late, not so much anti-social and just non-social. It makes me tired when I try to do the cleaning I’m perpetually behind on. And of course, it will not take long for the consequent slow-down in my work to become a serious issue… and thus do we see how the small troubles of tickling noses, sore throats and watering eyes take their place in the larger context of my life, and how and why it might be that sickness becomes not just a bodily state like any other, with space created within my life for it, but always a source of wrongness, a source of suffering. The flexible weave that creates the meaning that is my life is revealed to be less flexible in certain situations!

I recall a conversation with my supervisor, early on in my PhD, when I said something like this to her. And she had a small ‘aha!’ moment in which she said, “Yes, you know, being sick wouldn’t be nearly so traumatic if we knew that space would be made for it: that work wouldn’t simply build up, both at home and at work and at play. If we knew that we weren’t needing to get over it right now, because otherwise we’ll be behind for weeks or months… If we could just give ourselves space to ‘be sick’.”

This recalled for me a kids’ book I read as a pre-teen: it was either Juniper or Wise Child. In it there is a witch, who is the village healer. And one of the first lessons this witch teaches our heroine is that sometimes, when people are sick, it is because they need to be sick. They need to lie quiet in a room, alone for most of the day, and be taken care of. If this were, really, how sickness were thought of now, I can’t help but think it would be far less disruptive, far less a source of suffering. It would mean far less breakage of the tapestry of meaning that constitutes my world.

Which of course makes me wonder if they—the medical and educational bureaucracies—give sickleave for the common cold… which is never simply common, but always deeply specific to the context.

(Excuse the potentially monstrous levels of self-pity in this post… ;-))

THIS post actually began as a comment over at Nate’s, in response to his very… evocative piece, [What in the hell] do things look like if we start with the body? and Ms Pepperell‘s contribution. As such, it’s a little engaged with that piece… I’ll cite a few bits and pieces from Nate, but I’d point you over to see the whole thing, as it’s intriguing for me. (Oh, and Nate? Email soon, I promise! I blame you, of course, for putting up exciting things for me to respond to 😉 Actually, the conversation between you and NP made me bounce in excitement.)

Nate says:

Bologna wrote that

“our analysis of these structural factors will be ineffective unless we can combine it with an analysis of the huge transformation taking place in the sphere of “personal life”. This obviously starts from the breakdown of sexual relations brought on by feminism. It then widens to involve all the problems of controlling one’s own body and the structures of perceptions, emotions and desires. This is not just a problem of “youth culture”. It has working-class antecedents in the cycle of struggles of 1968-69. The defence of one’s own physical integrity against being slaughtered by line-speeds and machinery, against being poisoned by the environment etc, on the one hand is a way of resisting the depreciation of the exchange value of one’s labour-power and the deterioration of its use value, but at the same time it is a way of re-appropriating one’s own body, for the free enjoyment of bodily needs. Here too there is a homogeneity, not a separation, between the behaviour of the young people, the women and the workers.

The question of drugs now arises. Control of drug usage is being re-appropriated by the institutions of the political cycle. No sooner have young people had a taste of soft drugs, giving them a first-hand taste of how much this society has robbed them of their perceptive potential, than the heroin multinational decides to step in and impose hard drugs. A space of political confrontation opens up, between use value (self-managed, within certain limits) and exchange value of drugs, and this involves organisation and instances of armed self-defence. Nor is the mechanism of the production of new needs the exclusive prerogative of the “liberation movements”… it has its roots in the “We Want Everything” of the Mirafiori workers in the Summer of 1969. The “Italian Utopia” has a solid working-class stamp, which no theorists of an American-style “movement” – ghettoised and self-sufficient – will be able to erase.

My response? (Aside from querying the ‘breakdown of sexual relations due to feminism’: I mean, really, this does seem to echo a problematic past golden era when men ‘knew who they were’ which seems to me to be nothing but a somewhat misogynist not to mention inaccurate nostalgia.) With the doubtless too-oft-repeated caveat that I still don’t really know my Marx [gulps at making such a statement in such august company ;-)] there’s a couple of things that strike me here. All of these have to do with the way that bodies figure in political discourse. The Cartesian dualism, I suspect, has a lot to do with this. It is the distinction between mind and body which allows us to talk about ‘the body’ as an object, and is thus heavily implicated in the creation of the body as property (Descartes does actually figure the body as property, and of course Locke gets in on the game to). Interestingly, I think this is part of what struck me about the Bologna quote: the implication becomes that we need to ‘take back’ the body’s powers ‘for ourselves’. I don’t straightforwardly disagree with this. But…

Nate goes on:

While I think there’s a lot of value in – and I would be loathe to attack those who engage in – practices of autonomous self-management in the present, I think it’s not at all clear that these practices help any but their practitioners, which is to say, I’m not sure that practices of autonomy from prevailing hierarchies (evasion, exodus, etc) help undermine those hierarchies. I think conflict against those the mechanisms that create those hierarchies is needed as well (more, to be honest) and that the space for autonomy is created by organized conflict. To put this differently, I think there’s a limit on the degree to which politics can be prefigurative and still be effective with regard to changing prevailing power relations. (I still believe in political transition.)

….There’s continual conflict around whether or not labor power – the body – will be sold and under what conditions, after its sale around whether or not it will be put to use and under what conditions, and outside of the direct sale over the degree to which that particular set of uses of the body (those bound up with valorization) will rule over other uses of the body (that is, the degree to which other practices will be made functional for those involved with valorization, and the degree to and manner in which other practices – those which are less useful for or which inhibit the capitalist use of bodies – continue to exist).

This echoes the difficulty that Bologna’s talk of ‘reappropriating’ the body evokes. The problem with the ‘autonomous self-management’ kinds of things that Nate points to is that they tend to rely, again, on a characterisation of the subject as made up of mind inserted into body-property. This has, historically, been bad for women, positioned as not able to take up a properly proprietary relationship with their bodies (coz they get preggers, you know). (For more on women and the market, check out Irigaray’s ‘Women on the Market’, in This Sex Which Is Not One which also, interestingly, helps to configure psychoanalysis as identifying developments in cultural conceptions of the subject which are associated with capital). In this respect, to borrow Nikki Sullivan’s argument in ‘Tattooed Bodies,’ when, say, subcultural groups use tattoos to mark their resistance, and discursively (and experientially) construct that resistance as an individual (even if that individual is articulating their ‘belonging’ to a group) attempt to reappropriate the body, they retain the very conception of the subject—as individual, cognition-and-intention-based, and as holding property in the body—that capitalism requires. In this sense, their resistance, supposing itself to be based on an ‘outside’ (look at the negation of the self, Nicole; and look at me actually getting your terminology 😉 I hope!) winds up reiterating precisely what … well, Foucault would call it power… would require of it. In resisting, such resistance is co-opted back into (bio)power: this is why Foucault argues that relying on the ‘truth’ of the subject is so problematic, and why he suggests that the subject’s production is extending far beyond what we would usually understand as work, and into the production of truths (power/knowledge) which permit the reproduction of labour…

And Foucault’s recommendation, which winds up being caricatured as ‘gay sadomasochism,’ has far more to do with reconfiguring the body. If our embodiment is shaped by assuming the body to be an object with, as he suggests, particular erogenous zones which are the sole sites of a kind of sexualised pleasure (he uses a different term, which is translated as ‘desire,’ but it’s not the same)—a sexualised pleasure bound up, sorry, queer kids, (re)production—then reconfiguring where and how pleasures occur and the subjectivity that is bound up with them, becomes an internal challenge to the intimate networks of power. The embodied subject here produces, bodily (and this is significant for reasons I won’t go into here), not truth, but precisely a challenge to what is permitted to count as truth. And who said Foucault wasn’t a Marxist? (Shush, shush, I know :-)) But this is where Foucault’s ethics of pleasure comes into play: it is an ethical challenge to the capitalist/biopower system. I have some questions about this, which I’m planning to write some more about at some stage (building from this post) but, basically, my concern is that the bodily tolerances engendered through contemporary anatamopolitical structures may be far too tight to allow such a reconfiguration of the body and embodiment to occur: what happens when the possibilities of pleasure are reproduced as sources of suffering? But anyway, that’s way off track, and besides, Foucault would probably disagree with my concern, primarily because he (somewhat ambivalently) positions the body as a negation (see, again!) whose essence is a flurry of pleasures, all squeezed down to become productive; in this respect, he doesn’t take his own challenge to the repressive hypothesis anywhere near seriously enough, if you ask me.

And again, out of order, Nate sez:

Second, it seems to me that the frame Bologna offers could be used for other eras as well, like the time during which workers’ comp was passed in the US, a time (depending on how one periodizes) also involved protests against the destruction of bodies in war, protests and strikes against the destruction of bodies at work, claims to support for bodies via welfare and protective legislation on and off the job, as well as (I believe) experiments with sexuality and drugs like those which Bologna notes in a later era.

I’m not positive that I’ve fully understood Bologna’s frame, and so, I’m not sure if this actually works for Nate’s suggestion, but nonetheless. Coming from a disability studies perspective, we need to ask some questions about what constitutes ‘destruction’ of the body. The very concept of the destruction of the body is not a straightforward matter. Disability studies would suggest that disability is produced only because the world does not ‘match’ the embodiment of the particular individual; and that the construction of disability requires that the world in this case is taken as a naturally given thing, such that some bodies are just naturally disabled. This fails to interrogate the concept of the norm at work here.

(Lennard Davis, a disability scholar, echoes the claims made by Canguilhem, Foucault’s old advisor: the norm is not a neutral description of reality, as we always suppose it to be. Indeed, the idea of the norm really came to prominence in and through statistics, and it wasn’t long before Francis Galton shifted into using it as part of the development of eugenics (which, contrary to popular trust, was not the sole purview of Nazi Germany—in fact, there’s a fair amount of evidence to show that Germany adopted its eugenicist policies almost wholesale from the US…).)

What makes a body ‘destroyed,’ then? To what extent is this judgement bound up with the productiveness of the body? Systems of production increasingly required the interchangeability of workers, and thus the idea of the norm was particularly useful to them; but this of course meant that those who could no longer perform in the workplace were positioned as disabled. Intriguing, though, to put my poststructuralist two cents into this kind of question, disabled bodies were, indeed, required, in order to produce other bodies as able: the hierarchy was, in this sense, productive. And I could now rabbit on about the construction of the disabled body as a site of suffering in relation to the loss of productivity, and the simultaneous construction of the normal body as a site of happiness which thereby produced working ways of being-in-the-world as tolerant to systems of exploitation… but I’ll save that for another day, I think!

Thanks, Nate; you’ve offered me a way into ideas that my hesitation over interacting with Marxist stuff due to my ignorance wouldn’t really have permitted me, otherwise. In saying that, though, I apologise if my engagement or critiques are misplaced as a result, or if I’m merely repeating ideas which are old hat in an area I just don’t know enough about yet!

SO now for censorship. Woo. I am not happy. I’m also not happy to be saying a phrase that really ought only apply to Howard: Not Happy, Kev. Remember that bit where dissent is an important part of any community? Mmm.

LOOK at that: it’s the new year and that goddamn chapter is still not finished. Well. This week, my dears. This week. (Promises, promises!) Due to having much work to do I’m taking the lazy way out and giving you kids a sneak peek at the paper I presented at the CSAA conference (bitchy diatribe about that one below; though putting that together made me realise how much the good stuff had been, actually, really good. It’s just that it was kinda few and far between. But I appreciate them! It did take the bitchy edge off my report. I’m not sure how I feel about that!). The ACRAWSA report is on its way!

So about this paper: this would be the one in which I tried to take out my usual technique, which is to edjacate people in the theory I’m trying to use, in order that they will be equipped (as many of them are not, before hand, being different people with different interests) to understand what I might possibly mean by ‘memorialising the gifts of generous others in the flesh, and forgetting the gifts of othered others, and thus rendering them not only without property, but without value, thereby reiterating the asymmetries which ensure that privilege remains privileged.’ Ahem. So in order to do that, I took something that had troubled me for a while, which was the apparent lack of critical awareness that seems to exist in some though not all forms of transhumanism and its alleged other, bioconservatism. It arose out of attending conference run by the Institute for Ethics and Enhancement Technologies (IEET), the Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference (HETHR, coz I think they like their acronyms). My paper there was basically an attempt to get at why suffering, for all that it calls (in a Levinasian fashion) for ethical response, is problematic when taken as a straightforward legitimation of the alteration of bodies, without some attendant critical interrogation.

This paper (the CSAA one) took a bit of a backwards step: it simplifies, and oversimplifies (to some extent) the transhumanist movement. It is, of course, not the monolith I present it to be in the paper, and there is nuance and caution and critical engagement within it. (I am less concerned about bioconservatism, which tends towards essentialism which is just so entirely problematic in a context where essentialism is regularly being ground to bits in the critical mortar!). Whilst I apologise to my tech-savvy transhumanist interlocutors for these injustices, it is simply to make clear my overall anxiety, which is that the kinds of alterations that they are working towards are occurring in the context of a non-critically-engaged science (for the most part, though again, not a monolith) and a normalising society. As a result, the ability to change one’s body is shaped not by neutral desires, but by desires engendered within that context. This isn’t all bad, not at all (I do not think that ‘natural’ desires are pure, either; that is, there is no ‘outside’ to the context which might engender desires that would be okay); but to the extent that normal and normaller (I know, I know) bodies, even ideal bodies, are what is sought, this problematically reiterates existing hierarchies of race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, intelligence, worthiness and so on. And to this end, this citation from Judith Butler seems to me to take on an even more striking resonance (a resonance, it must be said, to which my entire project, my entire politics seems to vibrate):

Hence, it will be important to think about how and to what end bodies are constructed as is it will be to think about how and to what end bodies are not constructed and, further, to ask after how bodies which fail to materialize provide the necessary ‘outside,’ if not the necessary support, for the bodies which, in materializing the norm, qualify as bodies that matter.

How, then, can one think through the matter of bodies as a kind of materialization governed by regulatory norms in order to ascertain the workings of heterosexual hegemony in the formation of what qualifies as a viable body? How does this materialization of the norm in bodily formation produce a domain of abjected bodies, a field of deformation, which, in failing to qualify as the fully human, fortifies those regulatory norms? What challenge does that excluded and abjected realm produce to a symbolic hegemony that might force a radical rearticulation of what qualifies as bodies that matter, ways of living that count as ‘life,’ lives worth protecting, lives worth saving, lives worth grieving?’ (Bodies That Matter, p. 16)

And so: [clears throat]

The television show Heroes has been an enormous success both in the United States and here in Australia. Building on a not-particularly-innovative concept, there’s a number of reasons that one could offer for the triumph of yet another story of people with extraordinary abilities. But I want to suggest that rather than being something peculiar about this text (as contrasted with others of its ilk, say, X-men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jake 2.0 and so on), there’s something peculiar about this cultural moment. The envisaging of extra ‘abilities’ in Heroes–Claire’s regenerative skills, Nathan’s flying, Micah’s talking to machines, DL’s walking through walls, Hiro’s playing with time–sits alongside the increasing visibility of biotechnology and the promises it holds out. The future is invoked as justification for investment in it.

This investment is not simply financial. Medical science has been a major part of the formation of contemporary culture. As Foucault observed, it took centre stage in the development of biopower, permitting the disciplining of individual bodies–anatamopolitics–and the management of the body of the population–biopolitics. Scientific and medical developments have led to longer and longer lives, which in turn have led to therapeutic techniques for improving and sustaining health in the face of aging. Yet the framework which allows medicine to be understood as therapy has also lent itself to the continual redefining of the healthy, normal human body. Indeed, in many cases forms of bodily being which would not once have been a problem have now become disabilities in need of therapeutic intervention: the creation of ‘idiopathic short stature,’ that is, shortness that arises without a cause (and here the genes from short parents are not considered a medical cause), which requires and permits human growth hormone treatment. What we see here is that therapeutic techniques have blurred into what are called ‘enhancement’ technologies. It is not just extraordinary amounts of funding that have been poured into biotechnological and medical research. Hope and optimism, both at the personal and state level, are increasingly being pinned on the capacity of science. Science is the primary, if not the only, site of progress. It will save us, if all the stories are to be believed, from epidemics and climate change, from bad memories and disability. It isn’t just science fiction that sketches what science might bring us, but increasingly television dramatises the promise of improved health in hospital shoes, the assurance of objective, forensic truth in crime shows, the guarantee of new and exciting cars, gadgets, tools in explicitly future-based programs. This doesn’t even touch on the incredible profusion of pop science content across a variety of media, which is marked by its astonishingly powerful appeal to its public, made through the tracing of potential benefits. These potential benefits engage, in a point I’ll return to, with our contemporary values. Science has developed some fairly astonishing PR, and a major part of this discourse is the continual imagining of an appealing future.

Transhumanism is a key part of this extraordinary PR campaign, even when there is a distance between the two. Tranhumanism is, as Bostrom describes, “a grassroots movement that advocates the voluntary use of technology to enhance human capacities and extend our health-span,” a neologism that attempts to get at the regular non-coincidence of extended life-spans with continued good health. The term ‘transhumanism’ was probably first used by Julian Huxley (Aldous’ brother), when he stated: “The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself – not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way – but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” I’m leaving the exclusive language in place because, as it will become clear, it does indicate something key about how transhuamnism operates. But in the end, transhumanists, being concerned for the transition between the human and the posthuman, advocate massive investment, both public and private, in biotechnology and especially genetic engineering. This grounds dream dizzying science fiction dreams not only of of dramatically extended lives, of continual perfect health, free from disability and illness, eradication of disease the world over, but of of perfected memory, of inescapable virtue, increased intelligence, of animals ‘uplifted’ to be just as intelligent as us. As Bostrom waxes lyrical about these

“extremely valuable ways of living, feeling, thinking and relating[:}… We can conceive, in the abstract at least, of crackling sensual pleasures more blissful and thrilling than any in human history; aesthetic contemplation more rapturously sublime or more perfectly Apollonian [they do so love their Nietzsche, these transhumanists!]; nonpareil levels of personal development and maturity allowing for the first time that precious inner core of each one of us to suffuse and fill out our whole personas; a vastly richer understanding of the human condition, derived from having savored life more fully and reflected more deeply; a keener intelligence and a quicker wit, grasping the whole of science better than any current expert understand her own speciality; philosophical thinking more profound and disillusioned; and love so passionate, ever-fresh and secure that its reality surpasses our maddest moonstruck longings. We can also conceive of some of the secondary effects of such capacities–wonderful new art forms, truer science, more enlightened philosophy, and closer unions between lovers.” (Bostrom, “Transhumanist Ethics,” [pdf], 11)

They offer ideas of a society made entirely equal, of no child, to put a futuristic spin on President Bush’s education agenda, left behind. They dream of better and better humans, as they put it, humans able to enjoy more and longer, and at greater leisure. All these are concerete possibilities hovering on the horizon, and their promise is such that, whatever our concerns about misuse, we have a responsibility to invest as much as we can in the scientific research that will bring us these futures.

There is, of course, a variety of voices attempting to put the brakes both on the financial investment in biotechnology and the cultural investment in science as the source of progressive hope. These voices are dubbed ‘bioconservative’ by the transhumanists (that is, they rarely actually name themselves in this way, even though they may feel this name is accurate, and I suspect they avoid adopting this title because they want to retain the sense that their perspective is mainstream). This loose affiliation of people, from Fukuyama to Habermas to Kass, tend to argue against such things as stem cell research, genetic testing and manipulation, as well as more explicitly articulating concerns about the possibilities transhumanists push for. As Fukuyama states, transhumanism is “the world’s most dangerous idea.” (“Transhumanism” in Foreign Policy, 2004) There is, for this group, an underlying anxiety that in our swift embrace of these imagined futures, we forget to hold onto something fundamental. In general, the concern is not about the potential deaths resulting form insufficiently tested scientific innovation, although numerous transhumanists argue that with proper forms of testing the majority of their concerns could be allayed. Rather, bioconservatism worries that humanity will lose its way, its nature, its humanity, even, sometimes, its nature as made-in-the-image-of-God. The transhumanist desire for progress forgets to pay attention to what would be lost in such a future, although there is at least some diversity in what they assume would be lost.

There are a variety of things that different bioconservative thinkers fear we would lose. Some appeal to the ‘rightness’ of the natural body, and this appears to be a similar argument to the anti-cosmetic surgery perspective held by some, though by no means all, feminists. Kass, for example, argues that human morphology is bound up for us with our respect for the divinely-given but still biological human essence. In this respect, the discourse of the religious right which has come to dominate the North American political sphere is married to biological essentialism, permitting the often implicit invocation of God as the Author of the human body and the nature it contains. Thus our deviation from our naturally given bodies becomes a straying from God. Yet even when the word ‘God’ is not mentioned, bioconservatives are very clear about what and who we ought to be, and this essence takes on an almost divine dimension–it becomes a source of moral judgement. Fukuyama, for example, avoids overt religiosity but replaces it with an incredible faith in liberalism: “The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality… [A fact, I might add, that is regularly taken as not needing to be established] Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence … This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?” (Fukuyama, Our PostHuman Future, 2002, p. 9) This is, of course, the traditional naturalisation fallacy: that what already is is what ought always to be, that anything that deviates from what has already been is a perversion of an essence, a truth of our nature. Cultural studies, amongst other disciplines, has long been suspicious of ideas of truth, nature and essence. Such concepts are all too regularly married to the maintenance of asymmetries of what is valued, and what is permitted. The liberal claim to equality that Fukuyama relies upon is thoroughly critiqued–feminists, queer theorists, race and critical whiteness scholars and of course critical disability theorists have long demonstrated that the assumption of ‘equality’ is a false universalisation of what is already privileged: the white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied norm. Against this norm, it has become possible for Plato to claim that woman is nothing more than a deformed man, for heteronormativity to read the divine rejection of homosexuality from the ‘naturally interlocking’ form of male and female genitals, and for eugenicists to see the natural superiority of whites indicated in their high foreheads and strong chins. When bioconservatives invoke ideas of essence, then, they reify very particular forms of being-in-the-world, avoiding an interrogation of how and why those forms of being have become privileged. Even the secular liberal essence that Fukuyama has invoked suggests that there is a level at which all humans are the same, and this is the basis on which they should be treated as equivalent. Yet as feminists such as Susan Moller Okin have demonstrated, liberalism was designed by and for men, deeming white maleness to be the essence upon which liberalism is built; and this ensures that women’s rights are rarely considered. There is a little doubt, then, that the bioconservative reliance on ideas of nature, human nature, truth and essence is conservative and requires interrogation. The flexibility of transhumanism is progressive by comparison–or so it appears.

In its advocacy of such things as the right to morphological self-determnation or the uplifting of animals, transhumanism seems the epitome of progressiveness, a movement that refuses to be bound by the past. And indeed, in many ways this is true; yet spectre-like, I want to suggest that conservatism–of a far more insidious kind than that manifested by bioconservatism, which at least confesses it–lies at the very heart of tranhumanism.There is the obvious kind, which assumes that there is an unalterable human essence, or human culture, which would underlie every alteration that transhumanism could make. This was implicit in the Huxley quote I cited earlier: “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.“ (from Religion without Revelation). This assumption that no matter what changes occurs, the same underlying ‘man’ would exist. There are some who also, countering Fukuyama’s (and other’s) concern about the formation of an ‘unenhanced underclass,’ argue that there is a fundamental human essence whose moral worth would ensure that this underclass would never form. They would do well to listen to the plight of those whose moral worth is always already conceived of as lacking–the disabled, the racialised, women, and so on– who always lose out to the supposedly universal norm of the white, straight, middle-class able-bodied man.

Yet there’s a more insidious form of essentialism at work in transhumanism. The attributes transhumanism suggests we ought to aim to enhance, or new attributes that would be unequivocal goods are not neutral. The cries of higher IQs, for increased rationality, for less disability, for chemically-induced virtue appear neutral in some sense, but only because they cover over existing class, race, sexual, ability and other hierarchies. Let’s take the suggestion of ‘increased rationality.’ This would appear to be a simple, straight-forward good. More rational citizens, as James Hughes argues, would be able to make more and better political decisions. Another speaker at 2005’s Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights conference argued that increasingly rational citizens would be more able to achieve consensus. Implicit in both arguments is the idea that rationality is a knowable, singular trait that we can assess people according to. And more problematically still, it assumes that rationality is ahistorical and acultural. It is, simply, naturally and of itself a good thing. Rationality, in fact, as Genevieve Lloyd so eloquently argued in ‘Man of Reason’ is the name given to the way a particularly elite group of European men have thought, a way of thinking that has developed rules and names and systems as techniques of maintaining the privilege of particular positions, perspectives and people. Quite aside from the problematic mind/body split it requires, it has, of course, been historically formed in and through the deeming of other ways of thinking to be ‘irrational’; ways of thought, not-so-conincidentally, that have tended to be manifested by women and racialised others. Thus the increase in rationality that is advocated by transhumanists takes this attribute as a neutral, ahistorical good, and fails to see that its formation is implicated in a continuing privilege of male thought, and the continuing marking of female thought as irrational, foolish, and fundamentally against the best interests of humanity, politically and otherwise. The essentialism may not attach to ideas of what it means to be human, but this is only because it detaches the valorisation of particular attributes from the privileged identities which have constituted those attributes as valuable. The apparent inherent goodness of rationality, then, its essential positivity, naturalises a historically and contextually specific process.

What is fundamentally forgotten in both transhumanism and bioconservatism is that the various forms of essentialism that they each deploy require an other for their constitution. That other isn’t just conceptual, but an embodied, living person: the racialised, women, those with disabilities and so on. Indeed, the contributions that these ‘others’ make, not just to the construction of straight white able-bodied male privilege, but to community as a whole is continually forgotten, even as this difference is key to its formation. These are the others who lose out in and through the enhancing of ‘good’ attributes: it requires that they either assimilate, in and through developing or adopting these attributes, or alternatively, they, at least insofaras they display their irrationality, their disability, their racialised difference, and so on, all of which are marked as different kinds of lacks, are denied recognition of their essential role in the public and political sphere. In this respect, then, the continued privileging of these already-privileged attributes only makes more hegemonic the forgetting of the unmarked generosity of these others. Bioconservatism is clearly not the answer, with its appeal to essentialism which always forgets the difference required to constitute that essence. Yet whilst the possibilities of transhumanism may be heady and exciting, in so far as it continues to valorise sameness, and value what has already been valued, it operates in and through the unethical denial of difference. As such, it functions to perpetuate and even strengthen the hegemonic privileging of a homogenous, normalised form of subjectivity.

So there you go: WildlyParenthetical attempts non-theoretical (and shush! I know it’s still theory-ish, but did you notice the distinct lack of ‘being-in-the-world’s and ‘power/knowledge’s and ‘alterity’s in there??). [nods] Enjoy 2008!