February 2011

And again, strangely, and from afar…

… distance and time make it feel so far, but so bone-deep familiar as well.

I’m currently trying to get my head around the very minimal teaching that I will be doing this semester. In the Dutch system, at least where I am located, all students finish their studies with a ‘bachelortheses’. It might look a little like an Australian honours thesis, but I’m gathering it’s quite different. For one thing, everyone writes them. They’re a maximum of 6,000 words long. And you get six months in which to write it. And it’s not in a one-to-one supervisory relationship, but is supervised in groups of 5 students to one supervisor. Of which I am one.

The vast majority of these students will never have written a full academic essay. Most courses here are short, lecture-based and culminate in a multiple-choice exam. So I am suddenly realising that the key element of this project is the writing. In some ways, I’m really looking forward to this because I get to work with them over around 16 weeks. I’m thinking of suggesting that we make our meetings a little longer (they’re flexible, based on my choices, really) and include a specific, weekly session on various writing skills. Given also that many of these students will be German, this will probably be useful for ironing out some hiccups as they occur.

It’s also complicated for me, in that this is the first teaching that I’m doing, and I’m discovering that these students may not be, well, equipped to handle my comparatively random take on things. I can’t assume, for example, a critical approach to, well, knowledge. This makes me gulp a little. It makes me gulp a little more to find out that the English language program here is run mostly by Americans and that this has meant that it’s… sigh… more scientistic than other bits. Won’t that be fun? The dense normativity of such sites is a little frightening, but also exciting as a space in which to make an intervention (right?! ;-))

But my bachelortheses group topic should select somewhat:

The concept of the normal has had a profound influence on contemporary science and thus on contemporary styles of life. This group will explore both the history and the more recent function of ideas of the normal, normalcy (normality) and normalisation, particularly as they have guided medicine, psychology and the human sciences more generally, in their interaction with those categorised as ‘abnormal’. Those who are interested in the philosophical and theoretical interrogation of the concept and category of ‘normal’, and its effects on people’s lives, will enjoy participating in this group. Whereas ‘abnormality’ in a psychiatric sense is hotly debate elsewhere, I would especially encourage those students who are interested in the normalisation of those with bodies deemed to be ‘abnormal’.

So at the moment I’m trying to work out what kinds of readings I’m going to give them to get them thinking about this topic. I mentioned Ian Hacking to another staff member, who thought he would be too complicated. I’m not sure what to think about that, because I tend to think that Hacking is a very approachable writer! But so far, here’s my ‘theory’ background that I’m kicking around as I try to think this through. For the record, I’ve also got a list of different ‘normalisation’ therapies which will constitute the ‘case studies’ for the contemporary function of the normal for them; in the first session we’ll pick whichever ones they’re most interested in. So far this list includes: human growth hormone use, cosmetic surgery, circumcision (for boyfolk and girlfolk), intersex ‘corrective’ surgery, limb-lengthening surgery, pre-natal genetic diagnosis, self-demand amputation and cochlear implants. I may include trans ‘reassignment’ surgeries, but I’m a little uncertain about replicating the sense that surgery is The Trans Thing To Do, so we’ll see. I am, though, interested in the ‘wrong body’ story which seems to shape many of these practices, and also shapes the ways that trans is medicalised. Mm.

But in terms of theoretical background, I’m trying for things that will ease them into the critical approach to ideas of normality. So far I’m thinking about:

Lennard Davis’ second chapter from Enforcing Normalcy, which gives a potted history of the rise of the idea of the average, its influence on modern ideas of democracy, industry, grammar and most of all, on ideas of disability. I like this because it’s accessible, it’s fairly broad, and it raises the question of how disability is contextually situated (which students both often struggle with, and get really excited by).

Ian Hacking’s “Making Up People”, specifically the London Review of Books version. It’s useful because it discusses the ‘looping effect’ of particular normalising technologies: i.e., that we usually underestimate the effects on people of how we think, categorise, and treat them.

Ian Hacking’s Taming of Chance, chapter 1. I actually want his “Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers” but apparently this is too big an ask of the university library (?!) and has not been reprinted (sadface) since its publication in 1982 in a journal that is no longer on major subscription lists (Humanities in Society Number 5, she says, in the vain hope some kind person might have an e-copy they’re willing to bounce my way). The latter, I seem to recall, is a really neat historical and political unpacking of the development of stats, in the context of Foucault’s idea of biopower. The former is a bit drier, with all the detail of the history and fewer of the broad brush strokes that make Hacking kinda useful!

Next we hit the Foucaults: I’m thinking the final lecture from Society Must be Defended, which unpacks the way that racism (taken as the division of the social world into the subrace and superrace) fits with the development of medical concepts of health, of normalcy and of course the introduction of the biopolitical (the management of the population).

Foucault, History of Sexuality Volume 1, the bit on the Repressive Hypothesis. I want to give the students a sense of how intimately bound up together ideas of normality and the concept of an inner self needing expression are. After all, the idea of ‘becoming who I really am’ appears so neutral, but is so often enacted in normalising ways.

I’m also thinking of a bit from Discipline and Punish, because there’s some stuff on normality in there. But I have to go back to it, because it’s been a while. Also surveillance might be useful (obviously is heavily implicated in Hacking’s ‘looping effects’).

Canguilhem is probably a bit unavoidable, although I’m going to try to be selective on this one: probably the section from the end of the revised version of The Normal and the Pathological, where he explicitly tries to tie his history of medicine to politics. But I’d quite like some of his earlier points about suffering tending to produce medical consideration of the state of the patient, and thus the deeming of particular styles of being as pathological, which in turn has more to do with the mismatch between the patient and their world than about anything necessarily inherently bad (as he says a lot in that book, nature doesn’t side with humans against, say, colds and flu)

I’m considering putting in a section of Lisa Blackman’s book The Body because there’s a section that does the ‘outside-in’ thing of exploring the idea of bodies as signifying and social, and works back into the production of selves through embodiment. I don’t want to overload them with too many ideas, but this seems to be key for talking about modifying bodies like we are…

And finally I’m thinking of Nikolas Rose’s “Normality and Pathology in the Genetic Age” for a little updating of this stuff. There’s a newer ‘version’ of this paper, called “Normality and Pathology in the Neurobiological Age” but while I think there are useful things about the ‘we’re all a bit pathological!’ argument, I think it tends to efface that the hierarchies of normality and abnormality remain shockingly material in their effects.

The lovely NP of Rough Theory suggested Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, for ease of access into these ideas. I’m still thinking about it: in some ways it’s useful way in, though perhaps less pithy than it might be (I get it, pop sci and all that). But it’s a bit hard to tell whether I’ll need to start from that point, and I do kind of like to avoid both ‘but the Real World!’ talk and ‘bias and objectivity’ kind of talk, because often students cling to these far more familiar ideas and use them to refuse to consider, say, the idea that objectivity is problematic, or that we need to put a question mark over the idea of the Real World, or at least over our access to it. So we’ll see!!

Any thoughts welcome, obviously! It’s hard to plan too thoroughly at this stage, because I have really no clue of the educational background of my group. Some may be ‘honours’ students (who take higher level classes all through); others may have done the science studies stuff here, and be a little familiar with some of these ideas; and of course, they may all be happily drifting along with the scientism of the English speaking program…

I’ve just been reading a paper called “The Problem of Suffering and the Sociological Task of Theodicy,” written by David Morgan and Iain Wilkinson, at the same time as re-reading Levinas’ “Useless Suffering“, mostly to find juicy quotes (Levinas has to be one of the least quotable philosophers I know of – well, that’ s not quite right. He’s very quotable, but only at length. It’s an issue). I guess I’m back to thinking about suffering. I suspect I’ll never escape it!

But the paper from Morgan and Wilkinson I found a bit troubling. First of all, there’s a bit of a lack of clarity in the way that they differentiate ‘theodicy’ and ‘sociodicy’ and ‘inverted sociodicies’ (?). They claim that the first is, as we might be familiar with already, the justification for the belief in god despite the existence of suffering. The second, they suggest, is kind of like the same, only it’s about the belief in, y’know, progress. As Levinas puts it in “Useless Suffering,” this is mostly about the faith in a ‘kingdom of transcendent ends’, which of course for me evokes the Nietzschean critique of the ‘two worlds’ in Platonic Christianity. And the final, ‘inverted sociodicies’, is “brings from obscurity the ‘hidden hurts, fears and desperate cravings’ without which the ‘real story’ of the twentieth century cannot be told (Graubard)”. (Morgan and Wilkinson, p. 205). This would be the one that Morgan and Wilkinson see their own project as part of. I have a lot of sympathy with their position on this, really I do, although there’s a bit of carrying-on about how no one else (except a select inner circle) has been doing these ‘inverted sociodicies’ before which I think is indicative of a real failure to grasp what precisely is going on here. I am not convinced that no one else in academia has, at the centre of the drive for their work, a desire to name sufferings that have not been named, or a desire to alleviate those sufferings in some way. Maybe I’m just hopeful, but I honestly find it very difficult to believe. I think that one of the things that’s interesting about a lot of academic work is the various manifestations of that ethical impulse, and the ways that institutions so commonly fail to sustain it. Anyway.

What’s interesting to me, though, about their desire to participate in these ‘inverted sociodicies’ (which, to be upfront here, I’m going to argue are less ‘inverted’ as failing to grasp how thorough-going theodicy/sociodicy are in the commitment to the grand narratives) is that it hangs on a very particular conception of knowledge and language.

Despite numerous well-respected claims to the contrary – from Levinas, from Elaine Scarry, from Schopenhauer, amongst others – they argue that suffering can and should be articulated, be made meaningful, be made, specifically, the object of knowledge. Not knowledge of where and how suffering occurs, but knowledge of what suffering is like. The experience of it. In one of the bits that made me particularly indignant, they suggest first that suffering ‘lies in our “capacity for knowledge”, and then declare that “there is a paradox here, for whilst suffering appears to depend on the need to impose meaning on our lives, suffering is often at its most unbearable when meaning is the very thing it negates.’ (Morgan and Wilkinson, p. 203).  They then refer to Levinas, whose description of the phenomenology of suffering contains this (as I’ll show) erroneous quote:  “Taken as an experienced content, the denial and refusal of meaning which is imposed as a sensible quality is the way in which the unbearable is precisely borne by consciosuness, the way this not-being-borne is, paradoxically, itself a sensation or a given.” In this quote, they leave out a key word: “the way in which the unbearable is precisely not borne.” This is not about stocism, and nor is it about an underlying subject who is capable of bearing the unbearable sensation, who will always persist. This is about the sensation of the complete decimation of the subject. This is, as I’ve described it elsewhere, about the breaking apart of a world (which is meaningful, though not in the way that Wilkinson and Morgan argue it is (rationalish) but in the way that Levinas describes – a world opened to the other).

But Levinas also makes a distinction between suffering-in-me-for-the-suffering-other (which has as its meaning compassion, according to him: ethics, in some sense), whilst the suffering other is an outrage, a useless, meaningless evil which cannot be given meaning without doing (more) violence.  But Wilkinson and Morgan go on to suggest that the problem is that we just haven’t yet come up with the proper, adequate language yet. And when we do, we will be able to really progress forward, according to them. This, I think, is a complete failure to grasp what’s going on, but more than this, it subjects suffering to precisely the same modernist endeavour that has shaped the ideals of progress that they are apparently so wary of. KNOW EVERYTHING.

Suffering hasn’t arisen as the dark-but-expungable underside of modernist progressive drives. In fact, most of those modernist progressive drives take as their justification the relief of suffering. Look at Lyotard’s two grand narratives: the March to Freedom (thanks Marx!) and the Progress of the Spirit (shout out to (not) my boy, Hegel!). These are not motivated by a selfish desire to ‘enhance’ the world, not really. They are motivated, at least in part, precisely by the desire to alleviate suffering. Let’s make no mistake: the reason that Nazism, source of such suffering, became comprehensible to everyday Germans wasn’t through simple irrationality, through a straightforward failure to be concerned with suffering. It was precisely because it was made rational. As Foucault put it, what we saw in the 19th and 20th centuries was the development of a very particular kind of racism, supported by the ‘avalanche of numbers’ (Hacking). This racism divided the world into the subracial and the superracial. We can see where this is going. But the point here is that the genocide of the subracial was precisely justified as a strengthening  of the population, as a future-focussed, utopian drive towards a world in which no one suffered, in which everyone was strong, and able-bodied, and strong of mind, and fertile, and strong. A world in which none would have to suffer, and indeed, in which one may be maximally free. Foucault has some really nice ways of describing it in Society Must Be Defended – something about how the ‘vital principle’ was sustained through the excision of the subracial. And these stories, which were never delimited to Nazi Germany anyway, Western Nurembergian protests notwithstanding,  go on and on and on, now! The story we tell now is that you wouldn’t suffer if you’d just be whiter, more masculine, more able-bodied, more neurotypical, more more more ideal, more normal.

The point here is that I really do sympathise with Morgan and Wilkinson’s attempt to try and shed some light on the mucky and often-obscured underside of the shiny story of progress. But to do this in the name of that progress, to claim that progress and suffering are here simply in “an irreconcilable and destabilizing tension between the civilizing ideals of reason and the record of exploitation, violence and suffering which has been inflicted upon nations, ethinic communities and globally vulnerable groups” (p. 210), well, that seems to me to be a complete failure to grasp precisely what is at stake here. This shiny story of progress is earned on the backs of that suffering, because the shiny story of progress has no time, nor space, for difference, as Lyotard was so at pains to point out. It plays a key role in producing, manifesting, concealing and, yes, justifying, that suffering.

I don’t have the answers here. These are not simple matters. Part of why they are not simple is because it is so very easy to get so caught up in the commitment to the ethical alleviation of suffering that one puts faith in whatever brings that alleviation closer quicker, without really engaging fully with the genealogy of the complex structures within which we’re operating.  But the seductive ease of the equation of knowing more with progress in negotiating suffering… we need, desparately, to remain critical about that. Because theodicy structures our cultural logics, promising utopias (if we could all just become one, become equal, become same) and sustaining anguish and suffering in the here and now…

I’ve recently been reading an article by one of my colleagues (this one here, “Taking care of one’s brain: how manipulating the brain changes people’s selves” by Jonna Brenninkmeijer). She’s done some, as we call it in the biz, qualitative work with people participating in some of the edgiest of brain treatments (you know, the ones that have little or no scientific proof – sometimes because of little research – and supposedly magical results). Mostly neurofeedback machines. Her concern in the paper is not with ‘whether it works’ so much as with how it works; what effects these new technologies have on how people conceive of themselves; indeed, who they think is doing the conceiving of the self.

This is something that I’ve been intrigued by for a long time. We tend, I think, to use phrases like ‘I have depression’ or ‘I have bipolar’ rather than ‘I am depressed’ or ‘I am bipolar’. This configuration intrigues me: it suggests ownership of the mental illness, but it also makes clear a differentiation between the self and the illness. The self itself is not ill, it has an illness. Disability activists have been aware of this issue for a long time, of course. It tends to manifest along an Anglo/USAian split (though obviously not in any absolute way) where the Brits angle for ‘I’m disabled,’ as a claim of the difference of the self, and a refusal to see disability as irrelevant to the real self, whilst the USAians tend to prefer ‘having’ a disability because it’s ‘person-focused,’ not letting the subject be obscured by the disability. This in turn is the manifestation of some very different commitments, familiar from other sites of activism, to do with the (predominantly liberal) assertion of similarity and the (predominantly radical) assertion of difference. But this configuration of illness and disability, of course, has an older manifestation. Our dear old friend John Locke explicitly situated the body as property. Inalienable property — unable to be given away or sold (though this is of course coming into question with some of the new biotech… and that’s a story for another day, a nice long story!) — but property nonetheless.

This long history, of course, is part of what is challenged by certain kinds of phenomenologists, and the feminist theorists of the body that I talk about all the time. Merleau-Ponty, for example, explicitly tells us that we do not have our body, and nor are we ‘in it’, but we are it. Elizabeth Grosz focuses on the gendering of the mind/body split, saying some interesting things about how bodyliness gets allocated:

The male/female opposition has been closely allied with the mind/body opposition. Typically, femininity is represented (either explicitly or implicitly) in one of two ways in this cross-pairing of oppositions: either mind is rendered equivalent to the masculine and body equivalent to the feminine (thus ruling out women a priori as possible subjects of knowledge, or philosophers) or each sex is attributed its own form of corporeality. However, instead of granting women an autonomous and active form of corporeal specificity, at best women’s bodies are judged in terms of a ‘natural inequality,’ as if tehre were a standard or measure for the value of bodies independent of sex…. By implication, women’s bodies are presumed to be incapable of men’s achievements, being weaker, more prone to (hormonal) irregularities, intrusions, and unpredictabilities. 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. Volatile Bodies, p. 14.

In exploring the inadequacies of this account, the problematic politics involved, and some of the shape of an alternative account,she goes on to say

corporeality must no longer be associated with one sex (or race) which then takes on the burden of the other’s corporeality for it. Women can no longer take on the function of being the body for men while men are left free to soar to the heights of theoretical reflection and cultural production. Blacks, slaves, immigrants, indigenous peoples can no longer function as the working body for white ‘citizens,’ leaving them free to create values, morality, knowledges. Volatile Bodies, p. 22.

It is unsurprising, then, that the mind/body split continues to so inflect these supposedly new ways of talking about ourselves. Jonna’s paper is especially nice because she’s interested in how those who take part in neurofeedback understand the connection between self (mind) and brain (body). As always seems to happen when people attempt to maintain this distinction, there are (what get coded as, given the Cartesian split) confusions, incoherencies, fuzzinesses, and willfulness attributed to both brain and self in certain ways, in certain dimensions.

The self/brain split, of course, is not quite the mind/body split: the self/brain split leaves the rest of the body irrelevant, the dramatic influence of other aspects of corporeality notwithstanding (Elizabeth Wilson’s Psychosomatic does a good job of considering the influence of, for e.g, the gut on aspects of the brain). The brain gets configured, then, as slightly less bodily, slightly more modifiable, slightly closer to the mind than the body proper, fuzzing out the mind/body split into something that looks slightly less splitty but isn’t really. It’s still about the capacity for control.

There are a few consequences of this way of talking about the mind and brain and body that I want to discuss briefly. One is that turning a mental illness into a possession probably makes therapy a lot easier, in a few ways: first, it creates a self separate or separable from the illness, that can then negotiate with the illnes; second, it makes that self ‘innocent’ of the ‘badness’ or ‘wrongness’ or ‘pathology’ of the illness; third, it reorients authenticity, situating the depression-less-self as the really true self, and thus undermining the sense that one is depressed because one is realistic, and that any modification of that idea makes one inauthentic or fake. Peter Kramer, in Listening to Prozac, gives an example of a woman who feels like Prozac lets her ‘be who she really is’: socially easy, great in negotiations at work, a good manager, a cheerful daughter…. isn’t it interesting what counts as a true self, now? (My copy of the Promise of Happiness by Sara Ahmed has not yet arrived, or doubtless I’d be citing her just here!).

There are a few questions to be asked about this, of course. One is the question of responsibility: the separation of the self from the illness can be used to suggest that one cannot be held responsible for the effects of that illness on others. Again, therapeutically this can be useful in that guilt can hinder therapy, and politically, because the question of whether or not one can ‘help’ one’s illness (strange turn of phrase, that one, isn’t it?) is bound up with our ideas about the immutability of the natural being grounds for the social sphere to actually deal with difference, although with the increases in our ability to change ourselves, this is getting less strong. But it also shapes relationships in ways that can be problematic, especially in contexts of abuse, because it can make drawing lines around what one will and won’t accept difficult (why no, I’m not speaking from experience, however could you tell). After all, oughtn’t one to care for, rather than punish or reject, those who are sick? And if they aren’t their sickness, and you love who they really are, then can you stop loving/caring (etcthanksfemininityyoutellakillertale). Another, more extreme, example of this might be the inclusion of Paraphilic Coercion Disorder in the new DSM, which situates rape as not a crime but a symptom of a sickness. (My superpower (ambivalence) goes into overdrive over that one; if nothing else, it certainly makes especially clear Foucault’s argument that the psy sciences are slurping up judicial power).

Another is the way that it configures the self. The expansion of psychological abnormality–such as through the Paraphilic Coercion Disorder referred to above, or through the increasing talk about how ‘we’re all on the (autism) spectrum,’ or through questionnaires such as those for Sex Addiction (be warned that I suspect the box you tick at the top of the survey modifies your results substantially) which implicitly pathologise a range of very common, if unwanted behaviours (obviously my concern is not what is ‘real’ sex addiction or autism or anything, so much as why we want (psychology) to draw the line)–this expansion of pathology coincides with the push of the “normalizing society” (Foucault, Society Must be Defended, somewhere I can’t find just now because fuck googlebooks/the publisher/my books are still on the seas etc). This push isn’t just towards a statistical norm, it’s towards an ideal. The splitting of the self through situating all ‘abnormality’ as not-really-me functions in really fascinating ways, enabling an ideal self to become the real self, even if that self is never manifested. Which on the one hand might make some space for difference, in that I-am-really-x-but-can’t-quite-manifest-it-oh-well. On the other, though this configures the difficulty in achieving the realisation of the ideal self unfair rather than just-the-way-life-goes (an external impediment rather than, well, me) especially given that the world offers so very many means to achieve that self.

And all of this feeds into the modification of individuals (ha! ‘in-divid-ual’ indeed!) through therapeutic, pharmaceutical and other means. My concern about this (and I hope that this is obvious by now on this blog) is less to do with the number of pills people take, or the amount of therapy, or the idea that people might be changing away from some naturally-given ideal. I really couldn’t give a fuck about all of that. My concern is more with how rigorously intimate the refusal of difference is becoming through this kind of discourse. My concern is that this intimacy–it’s playing out within the self now– means that the extent to which ideas of the normal, sustained by these ‘innocuous’ phrases about having rather than being, become so thoroughly a part of our selves that they seem neutral, seem natural, seem to be about the way that things really are. Not only does this problematically continue to situate those deemed to be ‘more bodily’ than some ideal as still problems, as Elizabeth Grosz sketches above. The intimacy of these issues–this is about how I situate me, myself, I, my brain, my mind, my body, when I’m not even thinking about them/me–preclude examination of the terms by which suffering is produced and sustained by them. Or so I’m thinkin’ just now. Thoughts welcome, as ever, mes amis!