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!

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