January 2011

I alluded a few posts ago to ‘the new materialism’, and some of the responses that it had gathered. I’ve been casually reading a few of the responses to Sara Ahmed’s paper “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism'”, one by Noela Davis and another by Iris van der Tuin (both accessible via the European Journal of Women’s Studies, subject to [sigh] subscription). I’m intrigued by the whole space of this discussion — by Davis’ characterisation of Ahmed’s concerns as somehow angry, by van der Tuin’s attempt to rework the space as partly to do with feminist temporality (I’m not positive I’ve come to grips with all of her argument, but that’s okay for the moment), by some of the ways that some ‘new materialists’ characterise other feminists’s arguments, by the grumpiness on both sides…

What is fascinating to me is how biology and the biological get configured in the disagreement. I almost put both of those terms in scare quotes, but that’s half the issue here: do we put biology and the biological into question or not? Each ‘side’ seems to mischaracterise the other on precisely this question. On the one hand, some suggest that the ‘social constructivists’ (a problematic collapse of those who see sex/gender as distinct, and those who think, for e.g., that sex is gendered) treat any reference to biology as reductive, as essentialist and as determinist. Others suggest that this mischaracterises the complexity of ‘social constructivisms’. I want to just take a little sample to discuss:

The analyses that follow in this book are my attempt to slow down the speed with which renunciations of the biological can happen in feminist writing on the body. I have taken the nervous system as my test case. This preference for neurological analysis does not imply that cultural, social, linguistic, literary, or historical analyses are somehow secondary considerations. Rather, my point is that the cultural, social, linguistic, literary and historical analyses that now dominate the scene of feminist theory typically seek to seal themselves off from – or constitute themselves against – the domain of the biological. Curiously enough, feminist theories of the body are often exemplary in this regard. Despite the intensive scrutiny of the body in feminist theory and in the humanities in general over the past two decades, certain fundamental aspects of the body, biology, and materiality have been foreclosed. After all, how many feminist accounts of the anorexic body pay serious attention to the biological functions of the stomach, the mouth, or the digestive system? How many feminist analyses of the anxious body are informed and illuminated by neurological data? How many feminist discussions of the sexual body have been articulated through biochemistry? It is my argument that biology – the muscular capacities of the body, the function of the internal organs, the biophysics of cellular metabolism, the microphysiology of circulation, respiration, digestion, and excretion – needs to become a more significant contributor to feminist theories of the body. (Elizabeth Wilson, Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body, p. 10).

What strikes me as fascinating in this account is that Wilson situates herself as remedying  a problem in feminist theories of the body. Without getting into the question of whether Ahmed is right when she suggests that Wilson mischaracterises feminist theories of the body, I want to point out something interesting about the way that disciplinary lines are cast here. Wilson says that “cultural, social, linguistic, literary, or historical analyses are [not] somehow secondary considerations” in her work, but that she is trying to address the tendency she sees in feminism to ‘seal themselves off from – or constitute themselves against – the domain of the biological’. She is, thus trying to rework the lines between the long list of ‘cultural etc’ analyses and ‘the biological’, a line she suggests is the product of feminist accounts.

My first reaction to this is that ‘the biological’ has gotten off scot-free in this account (and I have to say, Wilson’s happy support of Freud, her generous reading of him as telling enabling stories about the body sits very peculiarly beside the lambasting of feminism for being ‘sealed off’ and the supposed . .  ‘Feminism’ here gets to be an area of study, with analyses, whilst ‘the biological’ is a category that contains more than knowledge: it is a ‘domain,’ and implicitly, then, this goes on to refer not just to the knowledge of biochemistry, but its ‘reality’ (I’m going to hang on to those scare quotes here, because I don’t actually think that the new materialism is realist in this way, but I want to discuss the rhetoric it’s drawing on here). The question of who drew the line between biology and culture, roughly, is answered, and somehow it’s feminism’s fault that that line has been so hermetic. And this, I think, means that the account of power/knowledge in the legitimation of discourses remains uninterrogated. Biology becomes feminism’s ‘bad object’, whilst feminism’s situation in the contemporary field of knowledge is treated as neutral; feminism made the body inert, apparently, whilst biological analyses didn’t? This reminds me of Foucault’s discussion of the concept of geneaology and the idea of the science of Marxism:

In more detailed terms, I would say that even before we can know the extent to which something such as Marxism or psychoanalysis can be compared to a scientific practice in its everyday functioning, its rules of construction, its working concepts, that even before we can pose the question of a formal and structural analogy between Marxist or psychoanalytic discourse, it is surely necessary to question ourselves about our aspirations to the kind of power that is presumed to accompany such a science. It is surely the following kinds of question that would need to be posed: What types of knowledge do you want to disqualify in the very instant of your demand: ‘It is a science’? Which speaking, discoursing subjects – which subjects of experience and knowledge – do you then want to ‘diminish’ when you say ‘I who conduct this discourse am conducting a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist’? Which theoretical-political avant garde do you want ot enthrone in order to isolate it from all the discontinuous forms of knowledge that circulate about it? When I see you straining to establish the scientificity of Marxism I do not really think that you are demonstrating one and for all that Marxism has a rational structure and that therefore its propositions are the outcome of verifiable procedures; for me you are doing something altogether different, you are investing Marxist discourses and those who uphold them with the effects of a power which the West since Medieval times has attributed to science and has reserved for those engaged in scientific discourse. By comparison, then, and in contrast to the various projects which aim to inscribe knowledges in the hierarchical order of power associated with science, a genealogy should be seen as a kind of attempt to emancipate historical knowledge from that subjection, to render them, that is, capable of opposition and of struggle again the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse. It is based on a reactivation of local knowledges—of minor knowledges, as Deleuze might call them – in opposition to the scientific hierarchisation of knowledge and the effects intrinsic to their power: this, then, is the project of these disordered and fragmentary genealogies.” Pp. 83-85 Foucault Power/Knowledge two lectures

This element of the whole question of the line between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ gets a bit covered over when we characterise feminism as the problem in drawing lines around biology. This is important, but not because I want to declare feminism innocent, and nor because I want feminism to work for its innocence by talking about biology. It’s important because I think that the question of ‘biology’ for those feminists Wilson is unhappy with is more vexed than she is making out. She ‘contends that feminism can be deeply and happily complicit with biological explanation; it argues that feminist accounts of the body could be more affectionately involved with neurobiological data.’ Psychosomatic, p. 13). This ‘complicity’, let’s be clear, is precisely what is at stake for lots of feminists: biology has been fundamentally bound up with some pretty problematic politics. Where Wilson seems to suggest that feminsts are responsible for relegating the body to inertia, there’s a fairly long history that suggests feminism hasn’t had nearly the level of discursive dissemination to do this. I actually think there are good, profoundly political reasons to resist Wilson’s suggestions that feminists ought to ‘pay serious attention to the biological functions of the stomach, the mouth, or the digestive system… neurological data [and] ….biochemistry?’ There’s something troubling about the presumption that in order to provide an adequate (adequate to what is precisely the question here) account of anorexia, for example, one must talk about biology in terms determined by biology, by a set of hyper-legitimised knowledges. What are we suggesting here, that scientific discourse has particular access to ‘the real’? Really? Because that is, after all, a core component of science’s popular significance at the moment: it has become that which can represent the ahistorical substrate, the solid ground that almost disappeared when God died, or when the grand narratives got blood all over their hands. Science, let’s be clear here, is given an astonishing level of faith in contemporary culture, and I think it’s particularly because it looks like it tells us true stories about the world. I can see why many many feminists might want to challenge those true stories, and the legitimacy of scientific stories about the world, to show that there are others. I’m not quite convinced, I think, that it is feminism that does the sealing off of itself from science, in this sense. I want to suggest that this might be about providing a proliferation of discourses to challenge the dominance of particular ones.

Now I don’t want to underestimate the political savvy of the new materialism here. I was at a conference once when Vicki Kirby laughed and said, ‘It’s all Nature!! Well, we call it Nature, but you could call it anything, really! Culture, if you wanted.’ It struck me then that the new materialism isn’t necessarily so different from that it imagines itself as critiquing. And that in many ways, there are really useful political effects of refusing to allow those problematic conceptions of science (as that which merely describes the world) to be the only uses made of scientific knowledge. Why leave Nature to be defined by a science that is so easily turned into a means for telling us the truth of the world? I can see that there are useful things about refusing to respect biology’s ownership of biology, to refuse precisely this distinction between epistemology and ontology. This isn’t antithetical, though, to the feminist theories of the body Wilson seems to be unhappy with, at least not in any straightforward way, which have challenged precisely that distinction between the epistemological and the ontological, perhaps especially where science has tried to instantiate it.

At the same time, though, claims like the following seem to me problematic:

It is the presumption of this book that sustained interest in biological detail will have a reorganising effect on feminist theories of the body – that exploring the entanglement of biochemistry, affectivity, and the physiology of the internal organs will provide us with new avenues into the body. Attention to neurological detail and a tolerance for reductive formulations will enable feminist research to move past its dependency on social constructionism and generate more vibrant, biologically attuned accounts of the body. (Psychosomatic, p. 14).

More vibrant accounts, more biologically attuned accounts, new avenues into the body? This seems to me to undermine the strength of the new materialism: that bodies are fundamentally tied up with knowledges about them. In fact, this seems to be a point of continuity between the earlier ‘constructivist’ accounts and new materialist accounts. So why do we want accounts of the body? Why don’t we want more vibrant bodies?

My point here is not to participate in the ‘gotcha’ game that seems to be the level at which these conversations seem to be happening at the moment (both sides legitimately claiming that quotes are being taken out of context). Wilson really isn’t referring to the ‘really real’ to which biological knowledge has especial knowledge. My point is more that these are difficult things to talk about. When I defended Butler against Kirby’s suggestion that she was a linguistic idealist or whatever the newest term is for the baddest of all social constructivists, I pointed out that English is a (phallogocentric) bastard, endlessly supposing both too much and too little difference: distinctions where we try to suggest otherwise, and collapsing distinctions we want to maintain difference.

For me, then, the question that I really want to pose about the new materialisms is this: why science? Why is scientific discourse being privileged here as the thing that feminists should really come to grips with? Why is it being accorded such importance? Are there not political questions to be asked here: do feminist scientific accounts of the body challenge the legitimising power of certain knowledges in contemporary culture, or do they simply accede to them? Are we proliferating discourses about embodiment in ways that might open out ways of being, or are we opening up feminist resistances to the potential delegitimising assessments of certain kinds of biology which are invested in an inert, knowable body?

I think back on my thesis, for example, and I think about how rare mention of biological terms of reference were. In some ways, some would say that I left aside ‘the body’ to biological accounts; I really wouldn’t, though — I’d say that I offered an alternative account of bodily being, one which let us explore the politics and vulnerabilities of embodiment. I could have spent my thesis talking about neurobiological accounts of pain receptors in the brain, about the ways that they get activated in pretty much the same way for ‘social’ as opposed, apparently, to ‘physical’ pain. But instead I focussed on the ways that bodily being is produced such that individuals have both deeply specific and carefully politicised vulnerabilities: to their own abnormalcy, for example. I talked about how there’s a political economy of bodies that produces those vulnerabilities, and the ways that the gift in that economy can enable the ethical. Part of the reason I didn’t is because I prefer reading Derrida to examining methodologies, charts and tables of results. But part of it is also because I refuse to let science’s (yes, often populist — I don’t necessarily hold individual scientists responsible for this) claim to simple correspondence truth shape how and why I do the work I do, even for other people. That is, given the proximity of correspondence truth to scientific discourse, if only in the popular imagining of science, producing a non-scientific account of embodiment (well, ‘producing’ might over-estimate my contribution to the conversation) enables me to challenge the idea that science Tells The Truth, as well as challenging the naturalising of bodily vulnerabilities that science is often used to produce, as well as offering an account of intercorporeality, politics, ethics, medicine, concepts of normalcy and abnormalcy, of race, of ability, of gender, of sex, of sexuality… I am not sure why this needs to be characterised as ‘dependency’ (Wilson, p. 14) on a non-vibrant constructionism.

No doubt there are lots of people who think that I don’t deal with the limits of the biological, but isn’t that precisely the point? Do all challenges to the conception of biology as limitation, as constraint, as inertia, have to occur through the same terms as those conceptions were first made in? And do we concede too much to ‘science’ when we do, let alone its tendency to claim to be the one true truth? If we can call ‘Nature’ ‘culture’, and the dominant narrative about ‘Nature’ is that it’s inert, and the dominant narrative about ‘culture’ is that it’s flexy as fuck, is there a problem with knowingly leveraging, of fucking with, of queering this distinction? Of taking moments at which the natural is supposed, according to certain accounts, to assert its singularity in no uncertain terms, and refusing–to believe it, to let it be so, to know it so, to live it so–even if, or perhaps mostly especially if (all we know about) the fantastical fixed substrate shouldn’t let us? Does that really lack vibrancy, my new materialist friends, does it?

Here, of course, I have my usual anxiety that I have been too clear, drawn lines too clearly, refused instead of engaged… so of course, I welcome everyone’s thoughts! Oh, and sincere apologies to Elizabeth Wilson, who had the unfortunate privilege of being my exemplar — a result of readyness-to-hand, I’m afraid!


(Apologies to those who tried to wrestle on through my typo-laden quotes. I get impatient with copying from one window to another!)

  • Bike riding is terrifying. It seemed like a good theory, but everyone looks so confident. It’s going to take me a while to adjust to that once I start riding (I’m giving myself a bit of time – besides, the bike in the house is too high, and I refuse to ride a too-high bike!)
  • I have to get a maintenance contract for the furnace. I didn’t even know I had a furnace. It turns out, though, that there’s a hotwater service with a booster that heats the water both for showers and stuff *and* for the all-through-the-house heater things. Nice, if apparently a little inefficient. I have to keep remembering to turn off the heating when I leave in the morning.
  • Those heated towel-rail things are the best ever. At first I was just in love with the warm towel when I got out of the shower, but I have also discovered they are a wonderful way to dry clothes… well, woolens at least – not sure about synthetics yet…
  • A bed that looks like a double bed may in fact be two single beds pushed together. Sighsigh.
  • The community created around New Years’ fireworks is kinda amazing – bunches of people gathered in the street, sending things up into the sky (mostly – I saw one go whizzing off down the street at foot level – eek!). It meant I was surrounded by things going off. I stood on my balcony for a short while, wrapped in my doona (I was sickly and couldn’t go out and play with the Dutch kids) and then started worrying about whether bits of fireworks come down… hot… clearly my Australian childhood didn’t prepare me. Didn’t prepare me for the fire in the street, either – apparently completely normal. So used to freaking out over fire! Also, there’s a limited amount of time that people can set off fireworks in (from 10 am on new year’s eve to 2 am on new year’s day). Anyone letting off fireworks outside that time is made to clean up the mess the fireworks leave on the streets on new year’s day.
  • Health insurance is compulsory and about 130 bucks a month – cheapest. Sigh.
  • Electricity will likely cost me about the same amount per month. Eep.
  • Tiny birds hanging around for winter are extremely cute.
  • There seems to be a thing about candles – they’re always lit in windows in the evening. Intriguing! And kinda pretty too!
  • It’s really odd walking down the street, passing windows without curtains in them and then thinking ‘oh my god, that’s someone’s loungeroom and they’re watching TV! I am such a voyeur!’. I’m so used to street-front windows only belonging to shops!
  • (Old) Dutch stairs are the steepest ever. I hit my knees if I try to go up too fast. Calling them ‘ladders’ would probably be less misleading. Seriously, my foot doesn’t fit on the step. Which is okay going up, but coming down is a bit scary.
  • There’s an extraordinary array of curry pastes and powders, and vegetarian not-meats at the supermarket. Like, extraordinary. Scary, even, one might say! I think I’m just overwhelmed with the variety and not being able to tell whether any of them are vegetarian!
  • Dutch cheese is squishy and comes with wax on the outside.
  • I really have *absolutely* no clue what people are saying to me in Dutch. As a result, I’m tuning out a lot of random conversation around me. I didn’t even realise until I was in the supermarket and suddenly realised the girl who had been pondering the cheese next to me was in fact speaking English…
  • There appear to be 10 TV channels which are mostly shopping channels, at least for some proportion of the day, and many of the ads are terribly American.
  • Dutch talk shows look a lot like they’re taking place in someone’s house…
  • You pay for *all* maps, including tourist maps with lots of ads in them, and bus route maps, which are apparently wrong anyway.
  • I haven’t yet discerned whether cafes are in fact coffeeshops, and eetcafes are cafes, or what. I’m poor just now, but I plan to find out soon. Also I have a coffee shop across the road from me – cutely called Ragamuffin, and done in Jamaican/Rasta colouring) which explains why everyone parks on the pavement and puts their hazards on, just outside my house!
  • Everyone parks on the pavement, almost everywhere. The streets are *very* narrow, and really not designed for cars at all.
  • There are some pretty people in this town… and some of them own some pretty awesome coats
  • The inner part of the town feels like it should be stress-free, with no cars around, but the bikes provide traffic instead!
  • Dutch lessons are expensive! Thank goodness work’s paying.
  • I am not a fan of being called an ‘ex-pat’. I get why I am, but I have associations with Singaporean ex-pat society (it was my first encounter with the term, I think, and with what it might look like) and they are ugly.
  • Lots of Dutch people work 4 days a week. This is completely acceptable. This I kind of love. It’s also part of this whole ‘you work your hours’ thing. Although my boss has made some suggestions about ‘coming in on the weekend,’ most people seem to stick fairly closely to their assigned hours. Nice.
  • For working 40 hours a week, I get…. 8 weeks of holidays a year. Although again my boss said something about how no body takes them all. I am dubious about this fact, though…
  • Everyone says that the Netherlands have ‘really high tax’. It’s about 30%. From what I remember, that’s pretty close to Australian taxation (though I don’t know if they have a tax-free threshhold thing).

It’s interesting, the disorientation of new spaces. Having just been re-reading Sara Ahmed talking about orientations (from Queer Phenomenology), I’m thinking about the ways that privilege lies in the ‘matching’ of a subject’s comportment and the space within which that subject operates. And thinking about how I feel about my work. Yes, mes amis, I’m afraid so: it’s going to be one of those posts!

I am, obviously, in a new space. I’ve left behind Sydneytown, and Canberratown, and Australia generally, for the low horizons, narrow streets, and streetside windows of a Dutch town. I expected all kinds of disorientation, reveled in much of them (see my Going Dutch post), and told myself not to worry about others (a friend wrote me today mentioning that she remembered moving into an office job and couldn’t work out the etiquette around whether one says goodbye to one’s colleagues at the end of a day. Yep, that one too!). And now, I’ve been in my workplace for about 3 and a half weeks…

I decided to kick-start my time here by reworking the paper I gave at the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association, a paper which I’d had positive feedback on, at the conference, and some positive feedback on from people here on the blog, and from a few other places. I like its argument, and I like bringing some larger questions of harm and suffering and law and medicine, to bear on a very specific case. I like, too, that I feel like I managed to suggest that there’s a way of arguing that we need to pay attention to the reception of new technologies, without alluding to the damage done to some ahistorical human nature, or biologically determined self, or whatever. I thought I’d said, fairly clearly, right, there’s nothing inherent to new tech that makes it problematic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problematic effects, and that’s usually because of how they get configured, given existing cultural logics, so let’s have a chat about them.

I like the argument; it’s been part of my approach to new tech for a long time, part of my orientation towards my work, towards the world, towards the new tech I’m talking about. It’s also grounded in some shared intellectual styles — feminism, critical race and whiteness theory, feminist theories of the body, feminist phenomenology, postconventional bioethics, queer theory — I can name them because I’ve had to, because part of what one writes when one is writing grant applications, is about these orientations, except they become ‘methodologies’, tools set ready-to-hand, not bodily styles that disappear in their perpetual use, that are soaked up like water in a sponge, that become part of me, to the extent that there is a ‘me’. It’s not that I’ve really had an intellectual home, in lots of ways — too feminist for one space, too philosophical for another, too critical for another, too, too, too to be at home in lots of spaces. But there have been home-ish-nesses, unexpected affirmations of my approach… But one of the largest disorientations in my new space has been around these intellectual styles.

In some ways, this isn’t that shocking, really. I knew in advance I’d probably be made anxious about my specific kind of interdisciplinarity, anxious about my work, anxious that for all that I didn’t conceal myself in my application, I would turn out to not be what they wanted, or expected, or…. uncertain about my legitimacy. It’s a pretty common experience for academics, especially women, so much so that they’ve ‘syndromised’ it: imposter syndrome. I had hoped that the affirmations of my orientations in academic spaces more generally — from my examiners’ comments on my thesis, through to the VC’s award, through to the smallest comments from peers or students — had given me a small space I could take with me, to keep my at-home-ness a little, if only to soothe me while I work out how my orientations can fit with the new space.

Part of the issue, of course, is that I don’t know this space. I can’t know the points at which I line up, or at which I am orthogonal, or at which I sit at the diagonal or even not on the field at all. They do, my colleagues (my lovely colleagues!): they know the space, know each other’s orientations, know where they line up and where they don’t. It’s part of the familiarity one gets from working together for a while, no doubt. I will one day have that settled-ness, I know. But at the moment, the disorientation is making me anxious. Two weeks ago, I wanted to share my work now, I wanted to let people get to know me and my work — felt open and cheerful and easy with it. Now, I feel profoundly uncertain, and I’m trying to articulate why. I know that my work will be read by lots of people as radical. I never quite feel it is, but there’s the at-home-ness again. The radical bit is okay; the potential for the overly interrogative space that arises from the perception of radical-ness is more troubling, however much it’s a catastrophising mirage.

Part of the complexity of new spaces, I think, is that the disorientation induced by the not-at-home-ness is rarely located in the space. I feel, in my attempt to settle, that it’s in me. I have an hour and a half next week to present the longer version of the AWGSA paper, and I’m anxious about how much I will have to justify. A colleague — one of my really wonderfully welcoming colleagues! — commented today that she felt she had to defend liberalism. I was asked why I referred to ‘the rape survivor’ as ‘she’. I was asked what other possible way there was for dealing with rape. I was asked what a judge is meant to do about the possibility that women regret sex and lie. I was asked why I held liberalism responsible when ‘it doesn’t rape people.’ The thing is, I have answers to all of these questions, to all of them. My approach was not carelessly or swiftly shaped; my orientations not simple matters of decision, but of a long period of pressing myself up against all different kinds of arguments and allowing them to shape me (in different ways: some I refuse), of living through them, of testing them over and again. I have responses to make, arguments to pose, yes. But providing lots of answers feels, first of all, defensive, and I really don’t want to be. It also reminds me of how much out of my space I am, that I have to make arguments, again, that in my slightly-more-at-home spaces are taken-for-granted. But it’s also that, in this disorienting space, these questions and their answers feel all too proximate. It feels like a test of whether I can line myself up (sufficiently) with the space. I should add, of course, that I have been told by various people, some my colleagues, that they know what my work is, and that’s why I was selected. And the anxieties still linger.

It’s strange to me, I think, because I knew disorientation was coming, and I knew that some of it would be hard, and I knew that some of it would be valuable and useful, and I knew that some would be fun. I suppose I hoped that my existing and persistent uncertainties about how I fit into academic spaces wouldn’t be such a strong site of vulnerability to disorientation. It feels, in some ways, like I’m sharing too much with my new colleagues, giving them too much of myself. And I want to be brave enough that I can feel like that and do it anyway…. which, of course, I will, because that’s my orientation towards disorientation… ;-P

Disorientation, yes, but probably lack of sleep too. Tonight, I’m going to aim for a kidlet’s bedtime! Apologies, my friends, if this post was too intimate or seekritly whingey behind the aca-talk. One of my aims with the move was to try to track some of how the move felt, and this is it…

I’m reading and re-reading a few things in aid of a paper that draws substantially on part of the thesis, predominantly feminist stuff about the body. There’s an interesting and rather odd characterisation of feminist approaches to the body that seems to be de rigeur in these kinds of texts. Sara Ahmed, in ‘Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the New Materialism’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 15: 23-39, explored a similar issue a little in relation to the ‘new materialism,’ a cluster of feminist discussions of, well, materiality (I could go on about the non-newness of the newness, but I will resist).

And this characterisation is? Well, generally it’s about saying that other feminists aren’t dealing with ‘real bodies’. The terms ‘flesh, blood, sweat’ tend to recur in this context, as if they are realer than all the other experiences of embodiment, or at least are the most disavowed. I might even agree with the latter point but there’s really something else going on here, I think. It’s often in response to postmodern or poststructuralist approaches to the body. Apparently these approaches are filled with discussions of the ‘fluidity’ of bodies, of their contingency, their ambiguity, their non-fixed-ness. And apparently, all of these kinds of discussions fail, utterly, to deal with the ‘real, solid’ body.  And in that failure, they fail to make space, to help, or, even worse, they fail to ‘overcome’ the mind/body split. An example, you say? Okay:

Western feminist attention to women’s bodily differences from men began with arguments that, contrary to long scientific and popular traditions, these differences do no by themselves determine women’s social and psychological gender (or the more limited ‘sex roles’ we used to talk about). These arguments still go on, especially amongst biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists; understandably, they have little or nothing to say about bodily suffering. But the view that gender is not biologically determined has taken a much more radical turn in feminist poststructuralists and postmodernist criticism, where the symbolic and cultural significance of women’s bodily differences from men are examined closesly. Here ‘the body’ is often discussed as a cultural construction, and the body or body parts are taken to be symbolic forms in a culture. In this latter development, experience of the body is at best left out of the discussion, and at worst precluded by the theory; here feminist theory is alienated from the body. As Carol Bigwood says, ‘A body and nature formed solely by social and politicial significations, discourses and inscriptions are cultural products, disemboweled of their full existential content. The poststructuralist body… is so fluid it can take on almost limitless embodiments. It has no real terrestrial weight” (Bigwood 1991, 59). A body experienced has both limitations and weight. I was particularly struck by the alienation from bodily experience of some recent forms of feminist theorizing about the body when I read Donna Haraway’s exciting and witty essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (Haraway 1990). The view she presents there, of the body as cultural and technological construct, seems to preclude the sort of experience I have had. When I became ill, I felt taken over and betrayed by a profound bodily vulnerability. I was forced by my body to reconceptualize my relationship to it. This experience was not the result of any chance of cultural ‘reading’ of the body or of technological incursions into the body. I was infected with a virus, with debilitating physical and psychological consequences. Of course, my illness occurred in a social and cultural context, which profoundly affected by experience of it, but a major aspect of my experience was precisely that of being forced to acknowledge and learn to live with bodily, not cultural limitation. In its radical movement away from the view that every facet of women’s lives is determined by biology, feminist theory is in danger of idealizing ‘the body’ and erasing mucho f the reality of lived bodies. As Susan Bordo says: “The deconstructionist erasure of the body is not effected, as in the Cartesian version, by a trip to ‘nowhere,’ but in a resistance to the recognition that one is always somewhere, and limited.” (Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability)

I find this fascinating, as well as frustrating. I’m often left wondering who, precisely these ‘postmodernist’ feminists are (Haraway is the affectionately-named ‘baddie’ in Wendell’s account). I want to know who it is who talks about the non-situatedness of the body, who denies the flesh-and-blood-y-ness of the body. There seems to be a supposition that if we call ‘limitations’ cultural, instead of biological, that they suddenly go away (really really not the case, and I don’t think any ‘postmodernist’ feminist has ever advocated this position) or, rather, become the individual’s responsibility to ‘overcome’ (a problematic but recurring theme in both feminist theory and politics). There seems to be this idea that talking about the fluidity of bodies — which I think is actually about pointing out that the biological story we’re told about bodies (not really the fault of contemporary biologists) is of it as immutable (I personally think this is part of science taking the place of religion, and giving us a nice solid substrate from which to work) — is the same as saying ‘you won’t suffer from that fluidity’. I’m not sure that any of these ‘postmodern’ feminists would suggest that. In fact, I suspect that they know that often the experience of fluidity is as disconcerting, or unsettling, or, yes, even suffering. I suspect that where they differ from Wendell is not in whether or not bodies suffer, but in why.

I’m intrigued by Wendell’s claim that there can be nothing cultural about bodily suffering. Disability scholars, along with feminist scholars, might suggest that the process she describes as  ‘ being forced to acknowledge and learn to live with bodily, not cultural limitation,’ might in fact be a thorough reworking of the (heavily cultural, and indeed, heavily Cartesian) way that she had, up until that point, been embodied. It might not be quite so simple as the brute reality of ‘bodily suffering’ needing to be re-negotiated. It might instead be a re-negotiation with ideals about the body (that it will disappear in use, for example, that it won’t be in the way, that it will be convenient, and never hinder exercise of the will, or the mind, or however else we want to characterise that fantastical subject).

The reason that stories about fluidity get told is because it’s a way of resisting the thoroughly Cartesian story that bodies are simply limitations . Limitations on what, after all? On a free and willful mind? A thoughtful, calculating, reflecting person, whose ‘real self’ isn’t messy with blood and sweat and such? In giving us other stories about how to think these moments when ‘the body’ resists its disappearance, such accounts help us to understand how our anxiety and unhappiness about these moments are bound up with the ideals about who we ought to be (and what our bodies ought to be like). They’re not about denying such experiences, so much as refusing to allow the lingering Cartesian culture to continue to be the only one configuring them. (Elizabeth Grosz (yep, I’m goin’ way back!) sez: “It is my claim throughout this book that these representations and cultural inscriptions quite literally constitute bodies and help to produce them as such.” (Volatile Bodies, x)  She doesn’t mean that they magick the body out of the air, but that these ways of talking about bodies shape them. When we think bodies are sexed, we behave in certain ways in relation to them, producing them as sexed, sometimes using medical tools to make sure they don’t trouble what we think sex should be. Not a radical claim, I’d have thought, but it does show *why* such feminists might be invested in rewriting those Cartesian stories).

I also suspect, though, that Wendell’s resistance is partly about the conception of the individual and of experience. I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I am sometimes frustrated by a tendency I observe in some American and Canadian scholars to offer really excellent critique, through-going, precise, nuanced and so on, only to end with some kind of assertion of the primacy of the individual and individual agency. As if unwilling to let the critique sit on its own, there’s the offer of something else — a way out: a ‘but don’t worry if you do this thing I have just said is problematic. You’re free to do whatever you want, really! It would be way worse if my critique impeded your freedom. Because individual agency, yeah! Freedom! The constitution, right?’ ;-P I understand this impulse, truly, but the centrality of the individual and his or her experience is thus situated as, bizarrely, kind of not situated. There’s a limit to critique, apparently, and that is experience. Now I understand some of this — I get that there’s a politics to whose experiences have been heard, and to particular explanations of those experiences. People can feel like their experience has been appropriated, or even as if their experience has been erased (which it sometimes is, particularly when one specific experience gets collapsed into another, or when one experience gets the ‘it’s just the same’ explanation as another e.g. BIID & GID, or racism and sexist etc etc). People don’t like to be told why they feel a particular way, why they have a particular experience of something. Refusing to leave experience as if it is a ‘just is’, like ‘biology’, like, ffs, ‘patriarchy’, is often treated as if it’s politically and personally problematic. I think some of that is because somehow ‘cultural’ has become equivalent with ‘fake’, but I also think that there’s an implication that  knowing ‘why’ one feels a particular way is the same as being responsible for feeling (and thus also for not feeling) like that. Thanks neoliberalism, you’re a doll.

But to return to this focus on the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ claim for just a moment, there’s something really troubling about this.  Why do we continue to allow the claim that there are more and less embodied ways of being? Okay, look, I’m not just being obtuse here. I understand that people feel more ’embodied’ when they do yoga regularly, or exercise a lot, or whatever. But my point here is that when we allow that claim to stand, we’re also implying that there really are people who leave their bodies behind, somehow. And just because I’m re-scanning through pages:

“Patriarchal oppression, in other words, justifies itself, at least in part, by connecting women much more closely than men to the body and, through this identification, restricting women’s social and economic roles to (pseudo) biological terms. Relying on essentialism, naturalism and biologism, misogynist thought confines women to the biological requriements of reproduction on the assumption that because of particular biological, physiological, and endocrinological transformations, women are somehow more biological, more corporeal, and more natural than men. The coding of femininity with corporeality in effect leaves men free to inhabit what they (falsely) believe is a purely conceptual order whilst at the same time enabling them to satisfy their (sometimes disavowed) need for corporeal contact through their access to women’s bodies and services.” (Volatile Bodies, p. 14).**

She goes on to explain that, obviously, given this, many feminists have decided the key is to “move beyond the constraints of the body” (p. 15). But this is problematic: it leaves in place the supposition that one can, in fact, rise above the devalued body, transcend it, leave it behind.  Rosalyn Diprose (Corporeal Generosity p. 132) argues that “our relation to ideas is not only mediated by our corporeal history, but is also affective” (Levinasian affect, ma peeps) and then goes on to say “To characterize our relation to ideas, elements, life in terms of prereflective sensibility, or enjoyment is to suggest that there is something that exceeds any act of living that propels the activity… For Levinas, ideas or concepts are not incorporeal expressions of events, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest; ideas are corporeal and affective, distinct from our substance but constituting it, contributing to our becoming and to the worth of our lives by moving us through sensibility…” (p. 132-33). She helps, or at least helped me, to understand that it’s really not enough to say that some emotions are ‘rational’ (I think I’m thinking of Marthua Nussbaum here), not least because, as Lloyd observes in Man of Reason, rationality is the codification of a particular kind of thought – white, upper-class, men’s thought. Rather, paying attention to the thoroughly corporeal investment that is attached to supposed ‘rationality’ helps to reveal how and why particular kinds of masculinity, and particular ideas, have continued as they have. Disembodied reason isn’t disembodied; it is simply embodied in ways which are invisibilised — and ways which rise very quickly to the surface if challenged, as I’ve found out time and again (sigh, I never learn) in tackling Rational Man.

It’s more useful, then, I’d suggest, to not allow certain kinds of embodiment to pass as if they were, in fact, disembodied, to open them out to a critical engagement with the particular styles of embodiment and their ‘incarnatory contexts’ (sorry, thesis ref, I’ll explain sometime in detail). How, exactly, do white middle class men get to be depicted as ‘rational’, and what structures are in place to ensure that their bodies appear as subdued (say, the auto-valorisation of boytalk which means that men don’t have to justify their positions, getting flustered as they do; and the carefully ironed shirt helps maintain this image of cool, collected and in charge. Also deodorant!)? In this way, I get uneasy when people talk about blood and sweat and tears and suffering as if they are somehow more bodily. They are experienced that way, sure, but that is is contrast to a style of embodiment shaped by the expectation that the body will be good, contained, ruled-over, (pregnant, bare-foot and in the kitchen). So I tend to think that thinking about ’embodiment’ needs to, on the one hand, acknowledge the different ways that bodies are situated and experienced, whilst refusing to concede that there are ‘disembodied’ experiences.

And now I’ve bored myself, and possibly you; time to go do some proper work! I’m considering going to the SPEP in the US this year, and they want a whole paper [sigh]. But they’re offering prizes too (although I tend to think I’m a bit sloppy for prize-winning, really) and I like the idea of not having to choose which one conference in the US I’m going to go to! (Because how to choose? Recommendations much appreciated, if I have American aca-folks reading!)

** Yeah, I know she took it all back. Sigh. If you ask me, she mischaracterised her own work in the way that Sara Ahmed warned about in that article up there. So annoying to watch!

I started writing this post, and it got rather unwieldy. So, part 1 in an unexpectedly ongoing series of random differences and surprises that arise when a not-very-representative Australian (me) encounters probably-not-representative aspects of the Netherlands, and becomes, generally, amused and musing:

  • Sugar is not in the baking section. After four shopping trips, I finally asked someone. In the coffee and tea section. Of course.
  • In the course of discovering the above, I found that the Dutch for flour is ‘bakmeel’ which just makes me grin.
  • Sliced coconut in syrup is a thing. And it isn’t spectacular as a replacement for coconut milk!
  • Over here, beer comes in aisles in a supermarket. This is very exciting.
  • Over here, squishy French cheese can be $1 for a round. I think I’ll just keep eating this one, so I don’t get spoiled and snooty and pay regular amounts for much better versions!
  • No one has yet been able to adequately explain where the name ‘Dutch’ came from. The country is called (The Kingdom of) the Netherlands (I really can’t believe I live in a Kingdom. Too hilarious for words, so long as I don’t think about it too much). The Dutch call their own language something like ‘Nederlandse’ (hey, I’m not taking classes yet!). The Netherlands includes, but is not reducible to ‘Holland’. It was also once called Deutschland (sp?). But apparently the Germans (come to think of it, where’d ‘Germany’ come from anyway??) now have dibs on that. Anyway, I gather the English name ‘Dutch’ is the result of some random nation-border-shifting anachronism. Maybe.
  • To my relief, ‘hallo’ and ‘sorry’ are pretty much the same over here. SORTED. ;-P
  • Snow is pretty. Also it makes: ice-skating on the park lakes, ice hockey on said lakes, and tobogganing down hills. Not just for kids, neither (well, maybe for some slightly more grown up kids, I should say!). Ice makes me walk like I’m wearing high heels and am hobbled. Sigh. I recently got my stride back, though! 😉
  • Bureaucracy, man! Or probably this is just the happy-happy-joy-joy process of me encountering full-on immigration-y processes for the first time. I couldn’t: get electricity, get the internet, get paid, get water, get a residence permit, without registering at the local City Hall. Guess what’s taking forever? [sigh]
  • Apparently the Dutch like to make plans way ahead of time. Like a month. My next social engagement, so far, is mid-February. I shall accustom myself to hermitage til then!
  • People are amused when you apologise for not speaking Dutch.
  • Playing pretend etymology/cognates with Dutch is very fun: I live near the Noorderplantsoen (the Northern Plant Zone, I call it in my head – which it basically is!); see above re: bakmeel; straatlichting is street lighting (with that thing of squishing words together into one that I only know from my random bits of German thanks to Heidegger in undergrad! ;-)); Kruisstraat is ‘cross street’ because it crosses the middle of the park (that’s my theory, anyway!); centrifugen is the spin cycle on the washing machine (though the rest are a bit of a mystery!); ‘skipperhuis’ is a captain’s house (I’m living in one of these old fashioned buildings); ‘dankjewel’ in my head becomes ‘Thank you well’. I’m not sure I want to play this game with ‘Mindervaliden’, though… I am interested, though, about how disability gets differently categorised in different contexts.
  • No one seems overly bothered about recycling. They do collect paper once a month, but there’s no sorting of glass or cans or plastic bottles, despite the little ‘recycle’ symbols on the bottom. Someone told me, slightly unconvinced, that they sort it all at the rubbish dump. Sounds… not very fun!

I’ve been thinking today about the relationship between liberalism and neoliberalism, specifically in relation to harm (this is as I’m filling-out the paper on rape below).

The Millsian (is that even a word?) version of liberalism says, basically, that we should let everyone do whatever they want to do (to maximise their chances of living the good life) so long as they don’t harm others. In this imagining of liberalism, then, the State’s legitimacy is (at least partly) the result of protecting the (ideal) subject of the State from (ideal) harms (Gatens, in Imaginary Bodies makes a nice version of this argument).This kinda screws anyone who falls away from that ideal in some way—as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is increasingly configuring any suffering experienced beyond those vulnerabilities legitimised by the State’s protection as pathological, or unnatural. Okay.

But in the shift to neoliberalism, the reasoning starts to be that we should determine the risks of harm to the (ideal) subject, and through increasing State control, minimise the chances of that risk coming about. But again the specificity of that ideal subject come to shape which risks count as risks the State ought to be responsible for, and which are the responsibility of the individual.

Neoliberalism, in the legitimising stories told about it, is more responsive, more attuned to the different vulnerabilities of different spaces, of different subjects, more methodical in tracking risk, through probabilities and norms. But of course this isn’t really the case. Rather, only certain risks can be tracked. Only certain normative risks can be carefully avoided through increasing control; and those risks are always about the protection of good, ideal individuals through the management of those populations which are deemed abnormal. This concept of risk itself does all the work—with statistics an’ everythin’!—of legitimising the deeming of certain populations to be risky.

It’s not surprising, then, that it is only in relation to certain populations that the continual gesturing towards harm that takes place under neoliberalism actually works as a corrective to the liberal requirement that someone suffer before the State will intervene. Correctiveschmorrective, in other words, I guess.

Apologies for a not very interesting post – just squooshing some thoughts together…

So it’s been a while since I’ve been back here to update you all on where things are at, and now here I am on the third day of my new postdoc, feeling guilty for letting you all be misled for all this time! I’m actually not in Austria. Around August or September last year, I applied for a postdoc in a Psychology department (I know, whut?) at a university in the Netherlands. After a far swifter process than I’ve encountered with any other postdoctoral position, I was offered a two year position, with a teensy bit of teaching, to work on the therapeutic forgetting project.

So here I am, having uprooted myself from the easy spaces of Sydney and, more lately, Canberra, and transplanted myself into a small Dutch town with an abundance of bikes and (comparatively) cold weather. I have a new house, with stairs so steep they barely deserve the name, and French doors which at the moment are mostly used for watching something fall from the sky while I try to decide if it’s snow or sleet or hail or rain. I have an office, which is ridiculously exciting for me, who didn’t even have a dedicated university computer during my PhD.  I have some new colleagues who, even if they think I’m a trifle odd for having the diverse interests I do, have been remarkably, and unusually, welcoming. We had a dinner in my honour. Everyone has lunch together each day. It’s collegiality gone wild! 😉

But I’m also hovering at the beginning of a new project, with all the future-taming that seems to entail (I love the way that futures hover, unmanageably big, beautiful and slightly out of reach, like a kite, but inevitably there’s the process of trying to catch at it, to tug down a string to let it become at least mildly real). Of course there’s the reading (I’m trying to work out whether my new colleagues will hold it against me if I do what I always did in my PhD years, which is go to a cafe and read for hours, instead of sitting in my office in front of a computer), and there’s the thinking about a new set of papers, but it always feels like there’s something more I should be doing to prepare myself for, y’know, actually doing it. This could be a delaying tactic (which has worked sadly too well for the book-of-the-thesis, which I’m still trying to grapple with, getting sadder as I go) or it could be the perfectly reasonable marinating stage. We’ll see.

So far, I’ve been copying files to my office computer, printing out things and signing myself into Dutch bureaucracy. I have printed out CFPs and stuck them on the wall, applied for the Feminist Theory Workshop at Duke (now that I have an institution to cover some of the funding, everything feels a lot more within reach, not to mention certain geographical proximities which seem to hold such promise just now) and I pulled out a notebook and pen to do my usual beginning-thing of handwriting a plan with numbers and cross-outs and lines that lead to ‘minor’ thoughts that scrawl into importance as they head for the margin. And then I thought of my fallow-lying blog, and thought I’d share some of this process with you…

So, would you like to see what I promised I’d try and do? This is an excerpt from the ‘Letter of Motivation’ (I’d never written one before and really had no idea what I was doing!) that I sent to my new colleagues…

My project is entitled ‘Therapeutic Forgetting: Happiness, Suffering and the Politics of Medical Innovation.’ It seeks to provide a critical engagement with the developing pharmaceutical practice of ‘memory dampening’, particularly the potentials of the betablocker propranolol. I will explore the issue of therapeutic forgetting in ways that intervene in or critique ‘common sense’ or dominant understandings of it, specifically by considering the often-neglected intersections between embodied subjectivity, memory, suffering and happiness. Using the methodological tools of feminist theories of the body, queer theory, critical race and whiteness studies, critical disability studies, phenomenology, bioethics and poststructuralism (which one can see at work in my doctoral thesis, attached), I will offer a postconventional analysis of the ethical and political issues around therapeutic forgetting, as well as consider the way that propranolol is likely to affect individual subjects, given contemporary structures of subjectivity and embodiment. I propose to analyse the following key issues:

  • the role of memory in the construction of the contemporary embodied subject, and the subject’s vulnerabilities to suffering;
  • the contemporary imagining of medical innovation in relation to the happiness/suffering distinction, and conceptions of ‘enhancement’;
  • the issue of how propranolol is both differentiated from and related to other ‘treatments’ for trauma, in terms of both the lived experience of them, and their ethical, social and legal significance;
  • the way that ‘memory dampening’ interacts with contemporary forms of subjectivity—such as the lived experience of a mind/body or brain/body split—and current constructions of suffering, for example as damaging, as enabling, or as useless;
  • the effect of ‘memory dampening’ on contemporary conceptions of ethics, politics and justice, given their reliance on the liberal humanist understanding of the subject, of trauma, and of memory.

Also, just as an aside, I’m thinking about using that paper (the one in the post below) as a way of kick-starting my thinking about this. And I think I want to spend a bit more time considering the likely military use of propranolol, and the way that it exacerbates the question of whose trauma can be forgotten, and for whom…

Oh, and I’ve been using the word ‘trauma’ because it’s used a lot in the stuff on propranolol, but I’m not sure I really want to go there. Does anyone have any thoughts about the use of the T word? It feels awfully freighted with the weight of the psy sciences, with that whole PTSD thing (which is a troubling enough ‘disorder’ in itself), and with the attempt, then, to make-expert the knowledge of suffering, to swipe it out of the everyday land of suffering and into, well, a whole grid of intelligibility more invested in knowing than in, well, ethics. Sorry, my psy-invested kids, is that mean??