ELL, my supervisor has asked me to write an abstract of my thesis. Which makes me kinda breathless and not in a good way… but I thought I’d try writing some of it out here to see if anyone had any thoughts for lack of clarity, or similar, and because you know, I expect the world to be fascinated by my horribly dense work. Ah yes 😉 Actually, this isn’t going to be the final abstract, which apparently needs to be 300 words long. But it’s an attempt to lay out the argument of the thesis so that my supervisor can (ahem) find me examiners… Apologies for the weighty formal language—you can tell it means I’m anxious!
This thesis takes as its first provocation the centrality of the concept and the term ‘suffering’ in contemporary discourse, and most particularly in relation to technologies that are used to change the appearance or function of the body. Suffering has, in many ways, become a defining part of contemporary life. Political positions are regularly parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and it is used regularly to prompt ‘proper’ ethical engagement with difficulties faced by a particular group or individual. Liberalism deploys the term ‘harm’ to get at some sense of suffering that is to be avoided, whilst ‘exploitation’ is a favoured term of Marxists. When racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of exclusions are marked as problematic, it is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, one could be excused for thinking that injustice simply is equivalent to suffering, for this equation is regularly made, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, such that these two are intriguingly constructed together: suffering is taken to indicate an injustice, and injustice is to be avoided because it causes suffering. In the contemporary Western context, however, and there is a regime of power/knowledge deeply concerned with suffering, in ways that are, supposedly, not primarily about politics, or injustice, or even ethics (though this last is more swiftly brought into play in its defence). This regime is medicine.
The first chapter, then, unpicks the medical engagement with suffering. Medicine regularly takes its treatment of suffering as a justification of its existence and operation. Yet I argue that it also regularly naturalises suffering, equating it simply with pathology: if one is suffering, it is because there is something wrong with one’s body, a wrongness over which medicine claims expertise and control. I suggest that this naturalisation has numerous problematic effects. First, as Eric Cassell demonstrates, it means that clinical engagement with the suffering body tends to actually miss suffering altogether in reducing it to pathology, and thus never actually treats it. Second, the reduction to pathology means that medicine often cannot engage with the specificity of the suffering subject, and with the way that their suffering is unique. I argue that this uniqueness arises not from some essence, but rather from the unique situation of each subject. Third, the naturalisation of suffering precludes the space of denaturalisation, thereby concealing the role that suffering plays in the production and reproduction of normalisation. As such, it conceals the function of suffering in normalisation (by which I mean to include the depiction of ‘deviance’ as a source of suffering), and particularly its role in the construction of (normalised) embodied subjects in contemporary culture.
In the second chapter, then, I turn to Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenological concerns have been taken up by feminists, critical race theorists and critical disability scholars. Their reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty helps us get at the production of embodied subjects in and through their context, and more particularly, through their adoption and adaptation of the styles of being in the world with which they are surrounded. Merleau-Ponty argues that it is through syncretic sociability—the intercorporeal intertwining of the subject’s embodiment and the embodiment of others—that the subject is produced. Through the work of Gail Weiss and Linda Alcoff, I argue the particular styles of being in the world carry tacit body knowledges given to them by the discursive, institutional, capitalist and embodied world around them. These tacit adoptions (and adaptations) of existing styles of being, I argue, produce, through sedimentation, what Rosalyn Diprose calls ‘bodily tolerances.’ In effect, the habituation of particular styles of being in the world produces bodily tolerances which, if transgressed, may result in the subject experiencing suffering.
The third chapter argues that normalcy has become a, or perhaps the, dominant logic embodied in this way. In this way, the subject comes to experience their ‘normalcy’ as their ‘essence’ or inner ‘truth’, and the body’s recalcitrance in ‘matching,’ or more accurately projecting this truth can thus become a source of suffering. I examine this dynamic in some detail, particularly demonstrating the effect that the possibility of normalisation (through surgery or through pharmaceutical use, for example) has on the constitution of an intolerance to the ab/normal, both a subject’s own abnormalcy and the abnormalcy of those thereby marked as other. I focus on the way that a world constructed in and through normalcy, as critical disability studies especially demonstrates, tends to reiterate and confirm the experience of marked corporeal difference as a source of suffering. The naturalness of the body marked as normal is thereby protected from critique. In this respect, then, I turn to a more thorough-going and reflexive question: what role does the concept of the norm play in the construction of embodiment, according to Merleau-Ponty? I argue that even when his work has been taken up with a cautionary eye for the constitution of difference, the notion of ‘sedimentation’ as a core structure of embodiment (even as the ‘content’ that is sedimented is acknowledged to vary and thus produce difference) thereby naturalises a particular construction of embodiment (and time). As a result, the role that the norm plays in the concept of ‘sedimentation’ is not interrogated. I argue that embodiment in the contemporary context may, to a large degree, be produced through sedimentation, but that acknowledging the contextual specificity of this production is significant because it allows recognition of when and how this it is challenged (a point that will be raised again in more detail in chapter 5).
The fourth chapter explores the political significance of corporeal difference and the technologies related to their normalisation (or otherwise). It deploys Diprose’s concept of corporeal generosity, a critical appropriation of Derrida’s ‘gift,’ to demonstrate the asymmetries of ‘memorialisng’ and ‘forgetting’ of the gifts of others functions to reproduce privilege and disadvantage. It is through the generosity of various others that the embodied subject is formed, yet in the context of contemporary bodi I argue that in contemporary body projects, the body is constructed as a site of memorialising and forgetting. The embodied subject may be a produced as a palimpsest of gifts, yet only some of these are memorialised in their flesh. I argue that modifications of the body and embodiment gain their significance in this context, such that the normalisation of bodies marked as abnormal is a memorialising of the gifts of normal others—gifts which already work to inform the subject’s style of being in the world. Memorialising is thus always bound up with forgetting, such that the normalisation of the subject forgets, viscerally, the generosity of othered others. What becomes clear in such an analysis is the extent to which the embodiment of the individual subject is shaped and in turn shapes the political constitution of and engagement with corporeal generosity.
In the fifth chapter, I build on this analysis with a greater focus on what Derrida calls the impossibility of the gift, and the ethical (in contrast, though not necessarily opposition) to the political. The forgotten gift may be unrecognised, and thus not permitted to be part of the political domain, but it also escapes its ‘destruction,’ and more to the point, I argue that even in being forgotten, it still matters. Alcoff’s rearticulation of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of embodiment, which suggests that there is a tacit level at which the gift may be acknowledged, or more precisely, testified to without being subject to the cognitive processes required for recognition. Styles of being in the world which are shaped by the tacit acknowledgement that they do not occur without others, are thus open to a similarly tacit acknowledgement of the gift of others in a way that permits their alteration. Indeed, such bodies are not bound by the sedimentation of the personal history of their being in the world; rather the other’s gift affects troubles the sedimentation and offers a responsible comportment a way to respond to the other as other. In this way, we can see that the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies through particular technologies as a resolution to suffering is fundamentally bound up with the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment. The ethics of bodily change thus demonstrate two (always intertwined) forms: modifications seek to memorialise the subject’s self-presence, and thematise the corporeality of the other; alterations, on the other hand, are changes made to bodily being in responding to the other qua other. Thus it becomes clear that the ethics of a particular change lies not naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in the challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing), as so many ethical frameworks of body modification have supposed; but rather in responsibility. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being in the world with others, sketched here, has political import; this lies not least in that corporeal generosity allows for ethics to be given corporeally, such that it resonates and amplifies through the incarnatory context and challenges the normative, sedimentary and normalised comportments through which power maintains the sovereign, self-present individual.
Apologies for the tail end of that one; it’s 3 am and at this time yesterday, I was drunk. Any suggestions for examiners gratefully received (we’re trying to formulate a list at the moment). I’m also trying to work out a title for this little baby; apparently I need to officially rename it well before I submit, which means I’m running out of time (for everything, really). I’m thinking perhaps Suffering Difference with the usual colon and explanatory phrase/list of three keywords to follow. Any thoughts much appreciated. I’d run a competition to win an island holiday or something for the title I wind up using, but I’m so pov I can’t even make it (sob!) to TransSomatechnics. So my undying gratitude is about the most I can afford, but hey, it’s something, right? ;-P