To suggest that suffering-or, rather, the desire to avoid it-lies at the heart of contemporary Western conceptions of politics, sociality and subjectivity may at first seem extreme or excessive. Yet political positions are frequently parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and when racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of minority exclusions and exploitations are marked as problematic, this is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, when those envisioning the modern democratic state turned to tales of origins, the state garnered its virtue, its raison d’etre, its superiority, from its capacity to shift lives from being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes 1998, 84). In this imagining, the natural state, against which the body politic defends those within it, is one of suffering.
The centrality of suffering to the conception of the state, albeit as disavowed, is not restricted to the past. If liberalism enshrined respect for the individual, transgression against him-and it was, all of Mill’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, a him (Mill 2006)-was conceived as suffering’s less subjective face, harm. The issue of harm has been carefully laid out-somewhat problematically, as theorists such as Wendy Brown have suggested (Brown 1995), for those “most vulnerable”-in and through the development of detailed systems of law and legislation designed to adjudicate and prevent harm. Indeed, central to the recurrent and politically powerful idea of a “failed state” is that state’s inability to “protect” its people from the allegedly natural state of suffering and chaos (according to this image, the two inevitably wedded), imagined as always pawing predatorily at the state’s borders.
This imagining of the body politic is not restricted specifically to politics. Rather, the liberal humanist vision of the strong but inevitably endangered state, standing against the chaos and suffering of nature, inflects the entirety of contemporary life. It shapes sociality and subjectivity, and the key institutions of economics, law and medicine. The subject is constructed as thoroughly, radically individual, arising out of some naturally occurring essence. This subject, as liberalism so often reminds us, is naturally free and sovereign, and this freedom and sovereignty ought to be given expansive range, and indeed sustained as far as is possible, limited only by the state’s prohibitions of transgression upon- the causing of harm to-another. It is this that is construed as an echo of the predatory nature against which the state is pitted. The subject may extend this sphere of freedom and protection to all his property. Property, here, marks all objects the subject possesses, and as such, Cartesian dualism, with its insistence on the status of the body as an object, raises its head. According to this logic, the sensible, passionate body is untrustworthy, bearing the traces of nature’s chaos within it, and must be divided off from the perfectly civilised, perfectly rational mind which is thus the site of freedom. The body becomes the mind’s ownmost property, according to Locke, inalienable but nonetheless fundamentally separate from who and what the subject really and essentially is-free (Locke 2003, 111).
The second element shaped by this liberal humanist conception of the body politic is sociality. Proper modes of sociality, as Hobbes reminds us, are those which strengthen the body politic-the covenants which bind the Leviathan into the image of man (Hobbes 1998, 19). These covenants, of course, must be democratic-they presume an equality between all members of a social world on the basis of an essential humanity. As Moira Gatens so incisively notes, however, this “humanity” upon which equality is premised is made in the image of the body politic itself, such that full membership of the body politic requires the subject’s body to be constructed in its image: as white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual body (Gatens Chapter 2, 1995). Contract is understood as free and unduressed on the presumption of this equality, and as such, this essentially civilising mode of being social requires two equal but fundamentally radically distinct parties exchanging property of equivalent value. This neat and contained image of economy as the core structure of social and political life, married with the hallowed image of the individual and the body politic as made in his image, informs and provides the strength of the liberal state’s battle against suffering.
Yet suffering does occur. The central and extraordinarily legitimised position of medicine, medical science and medical technology in contemporary culture constitutes the means by which the state may be understood as innocent of the suffering that occurs within its borders, without conceding failure: it allows medicine to position it as a natural wrong. Medicine, if all the stories told of it are true, seeks to relieve suffering. As we shall see in the first chapter, however, medical discourse configures this suffering as simply and utterly the product of the body-or more precisely, of a pathology within the body: the body’s order gone wrong. Thus the body-always treated as fundamentally separate from the subject who inhabits it, an individual also taken to be radically distinct from the setting within which he, or she, perhaps, is situated-is, according to medicine, the true site of suffering. The body politic remains, then, never responsible for this individualised suffering. Relief of suffering, according to this model of medicine, entails the ‘return’ of the body to equality with others-it must be modified to be made normal. The model of the body remains singular-the male, white, able-bodied image through which the state itself is structured-and normalcy, then, remains deeply specific.
Feminist theorists have long challenged the centrality of liberal humanist ideals to contemporary life. Contemporary feminist theorists of the body have focussed upon corporeal difference as a key provocation, and the grounds for troubling the apparently totalising tendencies of liberal humanism as they play through ideas of subjectivity, sociality, politics and ethics. This focus on embodiment has enabled the cross-pollination of this branch of feminist thought with other forms of theory: with critical race studies, critical whiteness studies, critical disability theory, queer theory and many others.
Situated in the context of such challenges to liberal humanist thought and politics, then, this thesis takes corporeal difference, and particularly the often normalising modification of the body as a technique for relieving suffering, as its central concern. Deliberately spanning an enormous variety of modificatory technologies, namely human growth hormone use, limb-lengthening surgery, cosmetic surgery, intersex “corrective” surgery, self-demand amputation and Modern Primitivism, and contrasting these with other bodily alterations constructed as neutral, I seek to demonstrate that the the increase in modifying bodies-with all the ambiguity that phrase evokes-(in)forms the ethical, political, social and economic domains of contemporary life. Suffering and the normalcy which is always thought to be its cure, I will argue, ought not to be presumed to be simply the uprising of the state of nature into our civilised, liberal and humanist world. Instead, I will demonstrate that suffering is precisely a product of it, a central element in the maintenance of the norm (and thus the body politic itself) and of the forms of embodiment, subjectivity, valuation, tolerance and sociality, that subtend and support it.
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, I turn to Merleau-Ponty’s work, 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 by 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 that 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. The embodied subject thereby produced 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 bodily being (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 is challenged (a point that will be raised again in more detail in Chapter Five).
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 in the ‘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 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-recognised-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 corporeality 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 demonstrates that there is a tacit level of being-in-the-world, at which, I argue, 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. Fundamentally, the other’s gift troubles the sedimentation through which the subject is embodied and this is, in fact, the response to the other qua other rather that an intentional (agentic) act. This allows us to see that it is the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment which bring about the suffering supposedly ‘cured’ by the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies. 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. The ethics of a particular change lies not, as has been supposed by various ethical frameworks, in either its adherence to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in its challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing). Rather, the ethics of a particular bodily transformation (and this includes non-deliberate changes) lies in its responsiveness to the other. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being-in-the-world with others 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 as the dominant mode of embodiment.