biopolitics


This is a small, rough something I put together while I was at BIOS (LSE) during June. It’s really half a paper, kind of – and quite rough along with it – and part of where I want to go next is to ask about the, well, unhappy recipients of US military violence, and why, exactly, they don’t quite show up on the radars of those writing articles about therapeutic forgetting. And about the role propranolol could play in exacerbating the asymmetry of trauma produced in wars with Western countries who have easy access to pharmaceuticals.

The rise of happiness discourse in the last few decades has been remarkable. Although the Declaration of Independence codified the pursuit of happiness as a key element of freedom for US politics, happiness talk has spread far and wide. There are mildly critical public and popular discourses – such as Alain de Botton’s Affluenza – but these mostly critique assumptions about what it is that will make us happy. The goal of happiness remains a pervasive influence, especially on contemporary understandings of freedom. Indeed, as more and more is ‘discovered’ about happiness, it has become less a lucky accident, as Sara Ahmed points out the word’s etymological root in ‘hap’ might suggest, and more something earned through labour, something worked towards, a telos which shapes lives.

As Carl Elliott has shown, however, happiness is increasingly both over-determined and difficult to know: a Wittgensteinian beetle-in-the-box, he claims. Wittgenstein writes “Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’… No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is by looking only at his beetle” (Wittgenstein, cited in Elliott, 2004, p. 301). Elliott suggests that it is this radical internality to happiness which makes it so susceptible to the production of anxiety and uncertainty which is leveraged by pharmaceutical companies, particularly in the US’s context of aggressive marketing. Elliott writes:

Wittgenstein’s beetle box game makes an important point about the words we use to describe our inner lives – words such as ‘pain,’ ‘depression,’ ‘anxiety,’ ‘fulfilment,’ and so on… Because nobody can look into the box of another player, nobody has any way to compare his or her ‘beetle’ to that of another player…. So they begin to worry. How does my ‘beetle’ measure up. Is my ‘beetle’ healthy? Would I be happier with a different ‘beetle’…. And this is precisely the reason it is possible to market successfully so many ways of improving psychic well-being, from psychoactive drugs and cosmetic surgery to self-help books and advice columns. If I never know for certain whether the quality of my experience matches up to yours, I am always susceptible to the suggestion that it could be improved (Elliott, 2004, pp. 301-302).

Of course, this idea of the radical internality of psychic states is already suspect from a Foucauldian perspective. This sense of a concealed inner self is, for him, a fiction produced by the recurrence of the repressive hypothesis. It grants legitimising truth effects to individuality and individualism, in turn concealing processes of subjectivation, and the implication of those radically internal experiences in much larger political structures. Although Foucault’s distrust of existential and phenomenological concepts of subjectivity led him to avoid discussion of ‘how people feel,’ numerous scholars working with even a partially Foucauldian frame are concerned with precisely this: the politics of how individuals feel.

The subjectivating technology of being ‘obliged to be free,’ (Rose, 1999, p. 87) as Nikolas Rose calls it, which brings with it both biopolitical (population administration) and anatomopolitical (individual discipline) effects, is modulated through ideas, ideals, and experiences of happiness. Elliott cites a French surrealist painter, Phillipe Soupault, who claimed, ‘one is always in danger of entrapment by what appears on the surface to be a happy civilisation. There is a sort of obligation to be happy’ (Soupault, cited in Elliott, 2004, p. 303). Even as happiness is not straightforwardly equivalent with freedom – the persistence of ideas of ‘false consciousness,’ ‘happy slaves,’ and perhaps even ‘happy housewives,’ demonstrates this – freedom is predominantly oriented toward, and justified by, happiness. As Lauren Berlant argues, commenting on contemporary American political culture, the shared fantasy about politics is that ‘[t]he object of the nation and the law… is to eradicate systemic social pain, the absence of which becomes the definition of freedom’ (Berlant, 2000, p. 35). In eradicating social pain, freedom is achieved, and the pursuit of happiness made possible. Foucault’s account of the ‘normalizing society’ (Foucault, 2003, p. 252)  where freedom is a key dimension of power, cannot be unbound from the experiences of happiness and suffering in contemporary neoliberalism. Where Foucault argued that ‘there is one element that will circulate between the disciplinary and the regulatory… [:] the norm’ (Foucault, 2003, pp. 252-253), Sara Ahmed’s account in The Promise of Happiness manages both to share his concern to demonstrate the relation between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ technologies of power, yet demonstrate the normative significance of feelings:

[H]appiness involves a way of being aligned with others, of facing the right way. The points of alignment become points of happiness. The family, for example, is a happy object, one that binds and is binding. We hear the term ‘happy families’ and we register the connection of these words in the familiarity of their affective resonance. Happy families: a card game, a title of a children’s book, a government discourse; a promise, a hope, a dream, an aspiration. The happy family is both a myth of happiness, of where and how happiness takes place, and a powerful legislative device, a way of distributing time, energy and resources. The family is also an inheritance. To inherit the family can be to acquire an orientation toward some things and not others as the cause of happiness. In other words, it is not just that groups cohere around happy objects; we are asked to reproduce what we inherit by being affected in the right way by the right things (Ahmed, 2010, p. 45).

The pursuit of happiness, then, for all that it is fantasised by liberalism as the site of free, individual creativity, is profoundly political. The teleological orientation towards happiness is not simply about achieving the right emotional state, but also about feeling the right feelings in relation to the correct objects: a form of individual, communal, national and international alignment through which the alignment is maintained.

Therapeutic Forgetting

It is in this context, then, that I want to think through the politics of recent developments in the use of propranolol in terms of happiness and suffering. Propranolol is a remarkably efficient drug. It is used to reduce anxiety, to regularise heartbeats, to reduce the tissue damage in burn victims, amongst a range of other uses and the many new ones in development (including as an aid to quitting smoking, and perhaps even for enhancing cosmetic surgery patient’s satisfaction with the results of their surgery). Recently, however, it has been found that propranolol has an unusual effect on memories of trauma. In reducing the release of stress hormones in response to trauma, propranolol modulates three elements of memory, according to Elise Donovan:

[the] formation, acquisition, and encoding of the memory; emotional response to and consolidation of the memory; and reconsolidation, reinstatement, and retrieval of the memory, which includes recall and the emotional responses triggered by later stimuli. (Elise Donovan, 2010, p. 63)

Much of the discussion of propranolol as a tool for ‘therapeutic forgetting’ has been about its effect on the second element, the consolidation of the memory (). If administered within 6 hours after a traumatic incident, propranolol affects the consolidation of the memory. Rather than being ‘overconsolidated,’ as some commentators describe the ‘pathological’ memories that produce PTSD, the memories are consolidated in a ‘normal’ fashion (Bell, 2007; Henry, Fishman, & Youngner, 2007). There is, however, probably currently more scientific research on the effect of propranolol on the final element of memory, in the recall and reconsolidation, because, if as effective as it is hoped, this will enable the treatment of those already living with PTSD. In both cases, however, the benefit here is meant to be that the ‘emotional’ or ‘affective’ part of the memory is stripped out, whilst the ‘facts’ remain, although there is some uncertainty about whether stress hormones also assist in producing particularly clear or detailed ‘factual’ memory (Kolber, 2006).

The usefulness of the capacity of propranolol in ‘therapeutic forgetting’ was already explicitly tied to questions of happiness in one of the earliest sources of commentary on it, the US President’s Council on Bioethics’ report, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, released in 2003. This may, in fact, be where the somewhat misleading name ‘therapeutic forgetting’ arose. Although numerous anxieties about the effects of therapeutic forgetting were given in this report (which was widely acknowledged to be quite conservative!), the majority of the concerns expressed had to do with ‘authentic’ personhood, with the (especially moral) value of diverse experiences of happiness and suffering, and, somewhat awkwardly, the social and political importance of memories of suffering. They end with this claim about a propranolol-using future:

Nothing would trouble us, but we would probably be shallow people, never falling to the depths of despair because we have little interest in the heights of human happiness or in the complicated lives of those around us. In the end, to have only happy memories is not to be happy in a truly human way. It is simply to be free of misery—an understandable desire given the many troubles of life, but a low aspiration for those who seek a truly human happiness. (President’s Council on Bioethics, 2003, p. 264)

The resistance expressed in this report is grounded fairly clearly in a commitment to ideas about normal human being, ideas which those from the ‘transhumanist’ side of the tracks suggest indulge in a naturalistic fallacy, assuming that what (already) is is all that ought to be. However, whilst much academic and bioethical commentary in the aftermath of the report resisted this conservatism (especially in the American Journal of Bioethics target article and set of responses published in 2007), I want to suggest that there remains an implicit commitment to particular ‘alignments’ towards suffering and happiness. It is this commitment to the apparent dovetailing of happiness, an absence of pain, and individual freedom which has produced both the numerous positive arguments for propranolol, and a neglect of larger concerns.

Ethics, Politics, and Suffering

Propranolol is hard to argue against. The reduction of suffering is an important ethical imperative, one which crosses, I would suggest, both the rigorously systematised conceptions of ethics that bioethics is committed to, and other more critical frameworks such as those offered by Emmanuel Levinas, or Jacques Derrida. The reduction of suffering is imagined as core not only to political structures, as the Berlant quote I cited above indicates, but also to medicine; even if and where we might critique that image of such institutions, at least some aspect of their legitimacy and significance may be said to arise from it. Liberating individuals from their suffering so that they may pursue happiness is such a simple good.

Yet the consequences of liberating individuals through the use of propranolol also reveals that suffering plays a key motivating role in producing normal, happy, free people: people oriented correctly towards their own optimisation, towards a happiness that is not merely their own end, but also others. There is an example given by Elise Donovan of a case in which she believes propranolol could not and should not be denied:

Take… the case of a 30-year-old veteran who has completed a tour in Kosovo in addition to three tours in Iraq. Upon walking past a cemetery on the way to a 4th of July BBQ, he is overtaken by grief at the sight of veterans’ graves decorated for the holiday. The grief, guilt, and memories triggered by this sight result in his spending over an hour sobbing uncontrollably in the cemetery on the grave of a deceased veteran, while sounds of civilians enjoying their holiday can be heard in the distance (Elise Donovan, 2010, p. 72).

Without minimising one iota the suffering experienced by this young veteran, it is also interesting that Donovan selects an event – Independence Day – which is meant to be taken as a site of happiness. The decorations, the promise of the BBQ and the sounds of civilians, are all proper alignments to happiness: they render Independence Day and the creation of the United States as happy objects, sites around which happiness is supposed to coalesce.

I have suggested that happiness is attributed to certain objects that circulate as social goods. When we feel pleasure from such objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. We become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good. The gap between the affective value of an object and how we experience an object can involve a range of affects, which are directed by the modes of explanation we offer to fill this gap (Ahmed, 2010, p. 41).

The weeping veteran’s suffering, then, is explicitly situated as a misalignment: a failure to be made happy by what ought to make one happy, and thus a failure to participate in recreating the object of the nation as a happy one. Ahmed elsewhere discusses the ways that alienated subjects, such as unhappy migrants, can become ‘bad objects’ for social projects, such as multiculturalism, because the alienated subject’s unhappiness is supposed to result from an individual misalignment with the happy social project, rather than from, for example, the implicit racism that can characterise much multiculturalism. Yet the case of the unhappy veteran produces a more complex and troubling dynamic for this politics of happiness than the unhappy migrant. In this case, PTSD becomes the unhappy object, not the individual, partly because the willingness to fight ‘for one’s country’ is so clearly a happy orientation towards a happy object. The suffering is thus understood as an injustice, because it is assumed that the veteran would and will be happily aligned, given that this suffering is the result of his or her commitment to the military protection of the happiness of this happy object of the nation. The happiness of the military veteran – who is the go-to example throughout many of the papers on propranolol – appears as good, and right, and properly aligned: a straightforward good thing.

There is, of course, a continual problem with suffering veterans in this politics of happiness. The evidence of his or her participation in the happy alignment to the happy object of the nation is given by suffering, a paradox in this fantasy about good political institutions. This is where the politics of propranolol becomes particularly problematic. “Treating trauma” like this inevitably produces it as a pathology. Arguably the creation of PTSD already did this but as sociologists such as Peter Conrad has underlined, the capacity to treat is part of what produces a particular state of being as pathological (Conrad, 2005). It renders the problem of PTSD a medical problem, and, more than this, a medical problem experienced by the survivor. This narrows the clinical and societal focus to the survivor, and the aftermath, responsibilising her or him as an individual. As with other examples of neoliberal responsibilisation, this functions to obscure the situation that produced the suffering that is now being ameliorated (Kelly, 2010). Whilst this tendency may be slightly less in the case of veterans because in such robust evidence of their “happy alignments,” holding them entirely responsible for their suffering is clearly problematic, the approach to their ‘PTSD’ means it is, nonetheless, present.

The problem here is that the veteran’s PTSD is one of the few sites of trouble for the happy object of the nation. The suffering of those on “the other side” of whatever conflict the veteran was involved in not only does not trouble the state, but affirms it: these people who suffer suffer because they are/were incorrectly aligned (they were terrorists, is perhaps one of the more familiar examples) and thus their suffering works only to affirm the happiness of the happy object. Thus, the problem in the case of propranolol is that what is being obscured is what Ahmed calls the ‘scene of wounding’ (Ahmed, 2004, p. 33), a scene and a wounding in which the happy object of the nation is implicated. After all, it is the nation that sends soldiers off into combat, knowing they will probably experience trauma. The nation, this happy object, supposed to guarantee freedom, sends soldiers to kill others. In fact, in military training, the capacity to resist the trauma attached to killing is bound to achievement, such that succumbing to it is coded as failure. Similarly, military training encourages the development of incredibly close ties between soldiers, which both enhance safety in combat zones, and increase the likelihood of trauma arising from watching friends die.

In this sense, the suffering of veterans is testimony to the failures of the happy object of the nation. In this context, then, the politics of propranolol is intensely problematic: it covers over the scenes of wounding, enabling realignment. That realignment might be a happy one, for the individual – indeed, according to Ahmed’s argument, it is no accident that that alignment toward the happy object is happy – but it is happy, too, for the legitimating fantasies of those political structures which are meant to guarantee happiness. Given that the vast majority of major political changes have arisen in and through the insistent testifying to suffering – whether that suffering arises from colonisation, racism, war, sexism, homophobia, ableism or any one of a range of responses to ‘bad objects’ – the forgetting of that suffering, even when it does not obscure the ‘facts’ of the memory, has ramifications for progressive social change.

Conclusion

In this context, I think that it is premature to jump to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about propranolol, despite the number of academics willing to do so. I would suggest, instead, that this kind of critical appraisal of the politics of propranolol underscores that such biomedical developments have a politics which arises not straightforwardly from the drug itself, nor from the solution it offers to a particular form of suffering. Rather, the politics of propranolol arises from the political significance of memory, suffering, happiness and freedom, such that attending solely to the veteran suffering from PTSD can obscure far larger problems, problems which are implicated in the reproduction of suffering. The extreme antagonism between the ethical imperative to reduce this individual person’s suffering, and the political means to address the occurrence of suffering in the first place, indicates a profound problem with contemporary political structures that requires thorough consideration. As Erik Parens puts it,

[w]ork on our bodies instead of our environments may incline us to ignore the complex social roots of the suffering of individuals. And the easier it is to change our bodies to relieve our suffering, the less inclined we may be to try to change the complex social conditions that produce that suffering (Parens, 1998, S7).

Without such a negotiation, the ethical imperative to relieve suffering becomes part of biopower in a way that continues to conceal the violence that lies in the gap between legitimating fiction and experiential reality, a gap that biopower produces and sustains.

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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??

In opening this thesis, I situated suffering in relation to the imagining of the body politic. Suffering, I suggested there, is positioned as the uprising of the chaotic ‘state of nature’ into the rational, civilised calm of the structure of the state. As we have seen, however, it is, in fact, that suffering is constitutive of the state: it plays a key role in the techniques of biopower, ensuring that contemporary forms of subjectivity are invested, viscerally, in the reproduction of normalcy, and thus in both the reproduction of both a “proper” individual body, and the reiteration of the particular image of the body politic. Suffering, I have argued, is not a natural occurrence but bound up with the subject’s production as subject. It is thoroughly contextual, a result of the bodily tolerances engendered by contemporary styles of being-in-the-world, and the tacit knowledges—knowledges particularly about the value of different bodies—they bear with them. These bodily tolerances are never merely individual. They shape and are shaped not only by what I have called the incarnatory context, but by one of the key ways that this context is imagined: in, through and as the body politic.

Moira Gatens’ discussion of Hobbes’ Leviathan, which I alluded to in the introduction, suggests that the imagining of the body politic as a literal body is not an innocent metaphor (Gatens , 21-28). Rather, she suggests that it is in and through the metonymic and metaphorical construction of the body politic as male that the worth of women is so undermined. I would add to this that in fact Hobbes’ imagining of the body politic is far more specific than this: it is white, male and thoroughly able-bodied; more, it is envisaged as a sovereign, rational individual. It is maintained through the echoes of this model of subjectivity and sovereignty in the individuals which makes it up: the body politic’s sinews, according to Hobbes, are the contracts binding (male) citizen to (male) citizen. In imagining sociality in the image of the contract, and in the maintenance of the ideal body (politic), the devaluation of particular bodies is both essential and concealed. It is, as Diprose has so eloquently drawn to our attention, the memorialising of the generosity of some, and the forgetting of others that structures this body, what is valuable to it, what can count as property, proper bodies and proper subjectivities. The memorialising of the value ascribed to particular bodies thus functions to reiterate the privilege—the standard, the norm-ideal—of the white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied male. It is also, as Gatens suggests, what enables the forgotten incorporation—the ‘swallowing’—of the gifts and generosity of all those whose ‘corporeal specificity marks them as inapprorpriate analogues to the political body’: women, immigrants, those racialised as other than white, those of classes other than middle class, and of course, those whose bodies are considered not ‘able’ (Gatens , 23).

The meaningfulness of these bodies—these “too-specific” bodies—is produced through the extraordinary discursive strength of medicine, also equipped to render them less specific, better ‘analogues’. The body that Hobbes envisaged did, indeed, risk sickness: civil war was the disease he sought to inoculate Leviathan against (Hobbes 1998, 19), the breaking of the social contract. But in fact our discussion here has shown us that this body politic, for all its apparent impermeability, all its apparent invulnerability, is a dream wispy and frail, threatened by the inevitable presence of all that it must constitute as disavowed: bodies ‘disabled’, of colour, female, transitioning, intersexed, ‘disfigured’, working class and so on. Medicine, a technique of biopower, as Foucault has noted, plays its part in this economy of bodies in the reproduction of normal citizens; thereby also maintaining (the value of) the white, able-bodied body politic, in whose image all value is medically, legally and economically calculated. Medicine is not, of course, a monolith, and nor is it to be thought of as an evil: it offers us the means for recovery when we sick, heals us when we have accidents, gives us capacities we might never have had, and gives us a way of understanding all these transformations, the world, and ourselves. Yet the extraordinary legitimacy of science means that truth-effects attach to these constructions, be they the constructions in the appearance and experience of flesh as made by knife, needle and thread, or pharmaceuticals; or in those less recognised but no less significant ways: in the construction of perception, comportment and styles of being-in-the-world more generally. Thoroughly imbricated in the liberal humanist individualism which grounds Hobbes’ imagining of the Leviathan, medical science plays a, perhaps even the, key role in the modification and (re)production of proper subjects, proper desires, proper bodies: it constructs and reconstructs normalcy as natural so that these bodies—and the body politic in whose image they are made—may remain unremarked and unremarkable. Suffering, then, has a dual effect: anatamopolitically, it produces subjects who suffer their “abnormalcy,” experiencing the (medically assisted) achievement of normalcy as a home-coming, as an achievement of who they “really” are; and biopolitically, it reproduces the normal body of the population, the ideal of the body (politic) as free from suffering.

It is, as we have seen, in the (im)possibility of aneconomic generosity that this unjust and economic imagining of the body politic is troubled, shaken and undone. Hobbes’ imagining of the bodies’ sinews as lying in the various ‘pacts and covenants’ (Hobbes 1998, 19) of its citizens—of some kind of social contract—is laughably simplistic in the context of the complex and unpredictable generosity of embodied, intercorporeal and intersubjective subjectivity and sociality. These gifts, the gifts that constitute us as inevitably intertwined with others are bonds that we cannot recognise without simply appropriating these gifts, thieving them into a careful re-membering of the Leviathan, its articulation as a body whose ties lie only within: joints, ligaments, nerves, muscles.

Yet even this destruction of the gift can never be total: the giftness can never be completely swallowed into the calculation of economy. The gift may always be foreign to the circle of economics, but it is nonetheless essential to it. And as I have described in the final chapter of this thesis, the embodied subject is always more than the perfect citizen: she is both rational and irrational, cognitive and corporeal, calculating and responsible. This means that whilst the subject cannot recognise the gift (for to do so is to render it not a gift), responsibility is nonetheless possible: there are means of engagement with the gift which allow it to remain aneconomic. In this responsibility, I have suggested, lies the possibility of a tacit, corporeal acknowledgement of the generosity of others—of the intertwining of the subject with the generous other, an intertwining that always exceeds the contractual, the rational, the calculated. This ‘acknowledgement’ means that the very tolerances that constitute not only “individual” subjects, but the body politic itself, are troubled, shifted, the sediment of entire histories stirred, altered and recast. Thus Leviathan is revealed to be not singular and contained, made impermeable as if by the selvage edge of a piece of fabric, where the weft binds it only back to itself. Rather, responsible styles of being-in-the-world not only testify to the gifts of others but also to the knotty mass that Leviathan already is—a Leviathan indeed, made not in the reductive image of a man, but as something unimaginable—monstrous, unfinished, messy, uncontainable and never entirely present. It is this that bears out the promise of another time, one never simply present, and the promise of that which Lévinas dreamt of: an anarchic moment of ethical justice. A justice born in those alterations to come.

…[gulp]…

wlettrine3.jpgELL, my supervisor has asked me to write an abstract of my thesis. Which makes me kinda breathless and not in a good way… but I thought I’d try writing some of it out here to see if anyone had any thoughts for lack of clarity, or similar, and because you know, I expect the world to be fascinated by my horribly dense work. Ah yes 😉 Actually, this isn’t going to be the final abstract, which apparently needs to be 300 words long. But it’s an attempt to lay out the argument of the thesis so that my supervisor can (ahem) find me examiners… Apologies for the weighty formal language—you can tell it means I’m anxious!

This thesis takes as its first provocation the centrality of the concept and the term ‘suffering’ in contemporary discourse, and most particularly in relation to technologies that are used to change the appearance or function of the body. Suffering has, in many ways, become a defining part of contemporary life. Political positions are regularly parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and it is used regularly to prompt ‘proper’ ethical engagement with difficulties faced by a particular group or individual. Liberalism deploys the term ‘harm’ to get at some sense of suffering that is to be avoided, whilst ‘exploitation’ is a favoured term of Marxists. When racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of exclusions are marked as problematic, it is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, one could be excused for thinking that injustice simply is equivalent to suffering, for this equation is regularly made, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, such that these two are intriguingly constructed together: suffering is taken to indicate an injustice, and injustice is to be avoided because it causes suffering. In the contemporary Western context, however, and there is a regime of power/knowledge deeply concerned with suffering, in ways that are, supposedly, not primarily about politics, or injustice, or even ethics (though this last is more swiftly brought into play in its defence). This regime is medicine.

The first chapter, then, unpicks the medical engagement with suffering. Medicine regularly takes its treatment of suffering as a justification of its existence and operation. Yet I argue that it also regularly naturalises suffering, equating it simply with pathology: if one is suffering, it is because there is something wrong with one’s body, a wrongness over which medicine claims expertise and control. I suggest that this naturalisation has numerous problematic effects. First, as Eric Cassell demonstrates, it means that clinical engagement with the suffering body tends to actually miss suffering altogether in reducing it to pathology, and thus never actually treats it. Second, the reduction to pathology means that medicine often cannot engage with the specificity of the suffering subject, and with the way that their suffering is unique. I argue that this uniqueness arises not from some essence, but rather from the unique situation of each subject. Third, the naturalisation of suffering precludes the space of denaturalisation, thereby concealing the role that suffering plays in the production and reproduction of normalisation. As such, it conceals the function of suffering in normalisation (by which I mean to include the depiction of ‘deviance’ as a source of suffering), and particularly its role in the construction of (normalised) embodied subjects in contemporary culture.

In the second chapter, then, I turn to Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenological concerns have been taken up by feminists, critical race theorists and critical disability scholars. Their reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty helps us get at the production of embodied subjects in and through their context, and more particularly, through their adoption and adaptation of the styles of being in the world with which they are surrounded. Merleau-Ponty argues that it is through syncretic sociability—the intercorporeal intertwining of the subject’s embodiment and the embodiment of others—that the subject is produced. Through the work of Gail Weiss and Linda Alcoff, I argue the particular styles of being in the world carry tacit body knowledges given to them by the discursive, institutional, capitalist and embodied world around them. These tacit adoptions (and adaptations) of existing styles of being, I argue, produce, through sedimentation, what Rosalyn Diprose calls ‘bodily tolerances.’ In effect, the habituation of particular styles of being in the world produces bodily tolerances which, if transgressed, may result in the subject experiencing suffering.

The third chapter argues that normalcy has become a, or perhaps the, dominant logic embodied in this way. In this way, the subject comes to experience their ‘normalcy’ as their ‘essence’ or inner ‘truth’, and the body’s recalcitrance in ‘matching,’ or more accurately projecting this truth can thus become a source of suffering. I examine this dynamic in some detail, particularly demonstrating the effect that the possibility of normalisation (through surgery or through pharmaceutical use, for example) has on the constitution of an intolerance to the ab/normal, both a subject’s own abnormalcy and the abnormalcy of those thereby marked as other. I focus on the way that a world constructed in and through normalcy, as critical disability studies especially demonstrates, tends to reiterate and confirm the experience of marked corporeal difference as a source of suffering. The naturalness of the body marked as normal is thereby protected from critique. In this respect, then, I turn to a more thorough-going and reflexive question: what role does the concept of the norm play in the construction of embodiment, according to Merleau-Ponty? I argue that even when his work has been taken up with a cautionary eye for the constitution of difference, the notion of ‘sedimentation’ as a core structure of embodiment (even as the ‘content’ that is sedimented is acknowledged to vary and thus produce difference) thereby naturalises a particular construction of embodiment (and time). As a result, the role that the norm plays in the concept of ‘sedimentation’ is not interrogated. I argue that embodiment in the contemporary context may, to a large degree, be produced through sedimentation, but that acknowledging the contextual specificity of this production is significant because it allows recognition of when and how this it is challenged (a point that will be raised again in more detail in chapter 5).

The fourth chapter explores the political significance of corporeal difference and the technologies related to their normalisation (or otherwise). It deploys Diprose’s concept of corporeal generosity, a critical appropriation of Derrida’s ‘gift,’ to demonstrate the asymmetries of ‘memorialisng’ and ‘forgetting’ of the gifts of others functions to reproduce privilege and disadvantage. It is through the generosity of various others that the embodied subject is formed, yet in the context of contemporary bodi I argue that in contemporary body projects, the body is constructed as a site of memorialising and forgetting. The embodied subject may be a produced as a palimpsest of gifts, yet only some of these are memorialised in their flesh. I argue that modifications of the body and embodiment gain their significance in this context, such that the normalisation of bodies marked as abnormal is a memorialising of the gifts of normal others—gifts which already work to inform the subject’s style of being in the world. Memorialising is thus always bound up with forgetting, such that the normalisation of the subject forgets, viscerally, the generosity of othered others. What becomes clear in such an analysis is the extent to which the embodiment of the individual subject is shaped and in turn shapes the political constitution of and engagement with corporeal generosity.

In the fifth chapter, I build on this analysis with a greater focus on what Derrida calls the impossibility of the gift, and the ethical (in contrast, though not necessarily opposition) to the political. The forgotten gift may be unrecognised, and thus not permitted to be part of the political domain, but it also escapes its ‘destruction,’ and more to the point, I argue that even in being forgotten, it still matters. Alcoff’s rearticulation of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of embodiment, which suggests that there is a tacit level at which the gift may be acknowledged, or more precisely, testified to without being subject to the cognitive processes required for recognition. Styles of being in the world which are shaped by the tacit acknowledgement that they do not occur without others, are thus open to a similarly tacit acknowledgement of the gift of others in a way that permits their alteration. Indeed, such bodies are not bound by the sedimentation of the personal history of their being in the world; rather the other’s gift affects troubles the sedimentation and offers a responsible comportment a way to respond to the other as other. In this way, we can see that the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies through particular technologies as a resolution to suffering is fundamentally bound up with the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment. The ethics of bodily change thus demonstrate two (always intertwined) forms: modifications seek to memorialise the subject’s self-presence, and thematise the corporeality of the other; alterations, on the other hand, are changes made to bodily being in responding to the other qua other. Thus it becomes clear that the ethics of a particular change lies not naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in the challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing), as so many ethical frameworks of body modification have supposed; but rather in responsibility. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being in the world with others, sketched here, has political import; this lies not least in that corporeal generosity allows for ethics to be given corporeally, such that it resonates and amplifies through the incarnatory context and challenges the normative, sedimentary and normalised comportments through which power maintains the sovereign, self-present individual.

Apologies for the tail end of that one; it’s 3 am and at this time yesterday, I was drunk. Any suggestions for examiners gratefully received (we’re trying to formulate a list at the moment). I’m also trying to work out a title for this little baby; apparently I need to officially rename it well before I submit, which means I’m running out of time (for everything, really). I’m thinking perhaps Suffering Difference with the usual colon and explanatory phrase/list of three keywords to follow. Any thoughts much appreciated. I’d run a competition to win an island holiday or something for the title I wind up using, but I’m so pov I can’t even make it (sob!) to TransSomatechnics. So my undying gratitude is about the most I can afford, but hey, it’s something, right? ;-P

klettrine.jpgAFKA: inscribing bodies

It’s a peculiar apparatus,” said the Officer to the Traveller, gazing with a certain admiration at the device, with which he was, of course, thoroughly familiar. It appeared that the Traveller had responded to the invitation of the Commandant only out of politeness, when he had been asked to attend the execution of a soldier condemned for disobeying and insulting his superior. Of course, interest in the execution was not very high even in the penal colony itself. At least, here in the small, deep, sandy valley, closed in on all sides by barren slopes, apart from the Officer and the Traveller there were present only the Condemned, a vacant-looking man with a broad mouth and dilapidated hair and face, and the Soldier, who held the heavy chain to which were connected the small chains which bound the Condemned Man by his feet and wrist bones, as well as by his neck, and which were also linked to each other by connecting chains. The Condemned Man, incidentally, had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to return.

The Traveller had little interest in the apparatus and walked back and forth behind the Condemned Man, almost visibly indifferent, while the Officer took care of the final preparations. Sometimes he crawled under the apparatus, which was built deep into the earth, and sometimes he climbed up a ladder to inspect the upper parts. These were really jobs which could have been left to a mechanic, but the Officer carried them out with great enthusiasm, maybe because he was particularly fond of this apparatus or maybe because there was some other reason why one could not trust the work to anyone else. “It’s all ready now!” he finally cried and climbed back down the ladder. He was unusually tired, breathing with his mouth wide open, and he had pushed two fine lady’s handkerchiefs under the collar of his uniform.

“These uniforms are really too heavy for the tropics,” the Traveller said, instead of asking some questions about the apparatus, as the Officer had expected. “That’s true,” said the Officer. He washed the oil and grease from his dirty hands in a bucket of water standing ready, “but they mean home, and we don’t want to lose our homeland.” “Now, have a look at this apparatus,” he added immediately, drying his hands with a towel and pointing to the device. “Up to this point I had to do some work by hand, but from now on the apparatus should work entirely on its own.” The Traveller nodded and followed the Officer. The latter tried to protect himself against all eventualities by saying, “Of course, breakdowns do happen. I really hope none will occur today, but we must be prepared for it. The apparatus is supposed to keep going for twelve hours without interruption. But if any breakdowns do occur, they’ll only be very minor, and we’ll deal with them right away.”

“Don’t you want to sit down?” he asked finally, as he pulled out a chair from a pile of cane chairs and offered it to the Traveller. The latter could not refuse. He sat on the edge of the pit, into which he cast a fleeting glance. It was not very deep. On one side of the hole the piled earth was heaped up into a wall; on the other side stood the apparatus. “I don’t know,” the Officer said, “whether the Commandant has already explained the apparatus to you.” The Traveller made an vague gesture with his hand. That was good enough for the Officer, for now he could explain the apparatus himself.

“This apparatus,” he said, grasping a connecting rod and leaning against it, “is our previous Commandant’s invention. I also worked with him on the very first tests and took part in all the work right up to its completion. However, the credit for the invention belongs to him alone. Have you heard of our previous Commandant? No? Well, I’m not claiming too much when I say that the organization of the entire penal colony is his work. We, his friends, already knew at the time of his death that the administration of the colony was so self-contained that even if his successor had a thousand new plans in mind, he would not be able to alter anything of the old plan, at least not for several years. And our prediction has held. The New Commandant has had to recognize that. It’s a shame that you didn’t know the previous Commandant!”

“However,” the Officer said, interrupting himself, “I’m chattering, and his apparatus stands here in front of us. As you see, it consists of three parts. With the passage of time certain popular names have been developed for each of these parts. The one underneath is called the Bed, the upper one is called the Inscriber, and here in the middle, this moving part is called the Harrow.” “The Harrow?” the Traveller asked. He had not been listening with full attention. The sun was excessively strong, trapped in the shadowless valley, and one could hardly collect one’s thoughts. So the Officer appeared to him all the more admirable in his tight tunic weighed down with epaulettes and festooned with braid, ready to go on parade, as he explained the matter so eagerly and, while he was talking, adjusted screws here and there with a screwdriver.

The Soldier appeared to be in a state similar to the Traveller. He had wound the Condemned Man’s chain around both his wrists and was supporting himself with his hand on his weapon, letting his head hang backward, not bothering about anything. The Traveller was not surprised at that, for the Officer spoke French, and clearly neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man understood the language. So it was all the more striking that the Condemned Man, in spite of that, did what he could to follow the Officer’s explanation. With a sort of sleepy persistence he kept directing his gaze to the place where the Officer had just pointed, and when a question from the Traveller interrupted the Officer, the Condemned Man looked at the Traveller, too, just as the Officer was doing.

“Yes, the Harrow,” said the Officer. “The name fits. The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic. You’ll understand in a moment. The condemned is laid out here on the Bed. First, I’ll describe the apparatus and only then let the procedure go to work. That way you’ll be able to follow it better. Also a sprocket in the Inscriber is excessively worn. It really squeaks. When it’s in motion one can hardly make oneself understood. Unfortunately replacement parts are difficult to come by in this place. So, here is the Bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on the cotton wool-naked, of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head of the Bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth-otherwise the straps around his throat would break his neck.” “That’s cotton wool?” asked the Traveller and bent down. “Yes, it is,” said the Officer smiling, “feel it for yourself.”

He took the Traveller’s hand and led him over to the Bed. “It’s a specially prepared cotton wool. That’s why it looks so unrecognizable. I’ll get around to mentioning its purpose in a moment.” The Traveller was already being won over a little to the apparatus. With his hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun, he looked up at the height of the apparatus. It was a massive construction. The Bed and the Inscriber were the same size and looked like two dark chests. The Inscriber was set about two metres above the Bed, and the two were joined together at the corners by four brass rods, which almost reflected the sun. The Harrow hung between the chests on a band of steel.

The Officer had hardly noticed the earlier indifference of the Traveller, but he did have a sense now of how the latter’s interest was being aroused for the first time. So he paused in his explanation in order to allow the Traveller time to observe the apparatus undisturbed. The Condemned Man imitated the Traveller, but since he could not put his hand over his eyes, he blinked upward with his eyes uncovered.

“So now the man is lying down,” said the Traveller. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.

“Yes,” said the Officer, pushing his cap back a little and running his hand over his hot face. “Now, listen. Both the Bed and the Inscriber have their own electric batteries. The Bed needs them for itself, and the Inscriber for the Harrow. As soon as the man is strapped in securely, the Bed is set in motion. It quivers with tiny, very rapid oscillations from side to side and up and down simultaneously. You will have seen similar devices in mental hospitals. Only with our Bed all movements are precisely calibrated, for they must be meticulously coordinated with the movements of the Harrow. But it’s the Harrow which has the job of actually carrying out the sentence.”

“What is the sentence?” the Traveller asked. “You don’t even know that?” asked the Officer in astonishment and bit his lip. “Forgive me if my explanations are perhaps confused. I really do beg your pardon. Previously it was the Commandant’s habit to provide such explanations. But the New Commandant has excused himself from this honourable duty. The fact that with such an eminent visitor”-the Traveller tried to deflect the honour with both hands, but the Officer insisted on the expression-“that with such an eminent visitor he didn’t even once make him aware of the form of our sentencing is yet again something new, which . . . .” He had a curse on his lips, but controlled himself and said merely: “I was not informed about it. It’s not my fault. In any case, I am certainly the person best able to explain our style of sentencing, for here I am carrying”-he patted his breast pocket-“the relevant diagrams drawn by the previous Commandant.”

“Diagrams made by the Commandant himself?” asked the Traveller. “Then was he in his own person a combination of everything? Was he soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, and draftsman?”

“He was indeed,” said the Officer, nodding his head with a fixed and thoughtful expression. Then he looked at his hands, examining them. They didn’t seem to him clean enough to handle the diagrams. So he went to the bucket and washed them again. Then he pulled out a small leather folder and said, “Our sentence does not sound severe. The law which a condemned man has violated is inscribed on his body with the Harrow. This Condemned Man, for example,” and the Officer pointed to the man, “will have inscribed on his body, ‘Honour your superiors.'”

The Traveller had a quick look at the man. When the Officer was pointing at him, the man kept his head down and appeared to be directing all his energy into listening in order to learn something. But the movements of his thick pouting lips showed clearly that he was incapable of understanding anything. The Traveller wanted to raise various questions, but after looking at the Condemned Man he merely asked, “Does he know his sentence?” “No,” said the Officer. He wished to get on with his explanation right away, but the Traveller interrupted him: “He doesn’t know his own sentence?” “No,” said the Officer once more. He then paused for a moment, as if he was asking the Traveller for a more detailed reason for his question, and said, “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it on his own body.” The Traveller really wanted to keep quiet at this point, but he felt how the Condemned Man was gazing at him-he seemed to be asking whether he could approve of the process the Officer had described. So the Traveller, who had up to this point been leaning back, bent forward again and kept up his questions, “But does he nonetheless have some general idea that he’s been condemned?” “Not that either,” said the Officer, and he smiled at the Traveller, as if he was still waiting for some strange revelations from him. “No?” said the Traveller, wiping his forehead, “Then does the man also not yet know how his defence was received?” “He has had no opportunity to defend himself,” said the Officer and looked away, as if he was talking to himself and wished not to embarrass the Traveller with an explanation of matters so self-evident to him. “But he must have had a chance to defend himself,” said the Traveller and stood up from his chair.

The Officer recognized that he was in danger of having his explanation of the apparatus held up for a long time. So he went to the Traveller, took him by the arm, pointed with his hand at the Condemned Man, who stood there stiffly now that the attention was so clearly directed at him-the Soldier was also pulling on his chain-and said, “The matter stands like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our Old Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here, or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant. It’s true the New Commandant has already shown a desire to get mixed up in my court, but I’ve succeeded so far in fending him off. And I’ll continue to be successful. You want this case explained. It’s simple-just like all of them. This morning a captain laid a charge that this man, who is assigned to him as a servant and who sleeps before his door, had been sleeping on duty. For his task is to stand up every time the clock strikes the hour and salute in front of the captain’s door. That’s certainly not a difficult duty-and it’s necessary, since he is supposed to remain fresh both for guarding and for service. Yesterday night the captain wanted to check whether his servant was fulfilling his duty. He opened the door on the stroke of two and found him curled up asleep. He got his horsewhip and hit him across the face. Now, instead of standing up and begging for forgiveness, the man grabbed his master by the legs, shook him, and cried out, ‘Throw away that whip or I’ll eat you up.’ Those are the facts. The captain came to me an hour ago. I wrote up his statement and right after that the sentence. Then I had the man chained up. It was all very simple. If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so forth. But now I have him, and I won’t release him again. Now, does that clarify everything? But time is passing. We should be starting the execution, and I haven’t finished explaining the apparatus yet.”

He urged the Traveller to sit down in his chair, moved to the apparatus again, and started, “As you see, the shape of the Harrow corresponds to the shape of a man. This is the harrow for the upper body, and here are the harrows for the legs. This small cutter is the only one designated for the head. Is that clear to you?” He leaned forward to the Traveller in a friendly way, ready to give the most comprehensive explanation.

The Traveller looked at the Harrow with a wrinkled frown. The information about the judicial procedures had not satisfied him. However, he had to tell himself that here it was a matter of a penal colony, that in this place special regulations were necessary, and that one had to give precedence to military measures right down to the last detail. Beyond that, however, he had some hopes in the New Commandant, who obviously, although slowly, was intending to introduce a new procedure which the limited understanding of this Officer could not cope with.

Following this train of thought, the Traveller asked, “Will the Commandant be present at the execution?” “That is not certain,” said the Officer, embarrassingly affected by the sudden question, and his friendly expression made a grimace. “That’s why we need to hurry up. As much as I regret the fact, I’ll have to make my explanation even shorter. But tomorrow, once the apparatus is clean again-the fact that it gets so very dirty is its only fault-I could add a detailed explanation. So now, only the most important things. When the man is lying on the Bed and it starts quivering, the Harrow sinks onto the body. It positions itself automatically in such a way that it touches the body only lightly with the needle tips. Once the machine is set in this position, this steel cable tightens up into a rod. And now the performance begins. Someone who is not an initiate sees no external difference among the punishments. The Harrow seems to do its work uniformly. As it quivers, it sticks the tips of its needles into the body, which is also vibrating from the movement of the bed. Now, to enable someone to check on how the sentence is being carried out, the Harrow is made of glass. That gave rise to certain technical difficulties with fastening the needles securely, but after several attempts we were successful. We didn’t spare any efforts. And now, as the inscription is made on the body, everyone can see through the glass. Don’t you want to come closer and see the needles for yourself.”

The Traveller stood slowly, moved up, and bent over the Harrow. “You see,” the Officer said, “two sorts of needles in a multiple arrangement. Each long needle has a short one next to it. The long one inscribes, and the short one squirts water out to wash away the blood and keep the inscription always clear. The bloody water is then channeled here in small grooves and finally flows into these main gutters, and the outlet pipe takes it to the pit.” The Officer pointed with his finger to the exact path which the bloody water had to take. As he began to demonstrate with both hands at the mouth of the outlet pipe, in order to make his account as clear as possible, the Traveller raised his head and, feeling behind him with his hand, wanted to return to his chair. Then he saw to his horror that the Condemned Man had also, like him, accepted the Officer’s invitation to inspect the arrangement of the Harrow up close. He had pulled the sleeping Soldier holding the chain a little forward and was also bending over the glass. One could see how with a confused gaze he also was looking for what the two gentlemen had just observed, but how he didn’t succeed because he lacked the explanation. He leaned forward this way and that. He kept running his eyes over the glass again and again. The Traveller wanted to push him back, for what he was doing was probably punishable. But the Officer held the Traveller firmly with one hand, and with the other he took a lump of earth from the wall and threw it at the Soldier. The latter opened his eyes with a start, saw what the Condemned Man had dared to do, let his weapon fall, braced his heels in the earth, and pulled the Condemned Man back, so that he immediately collapsed. The Soldier looked down at him, as he writhed around, making his chain clink. “Stand him up,” cried the Officer, for he noticed that the Condemned Man was distracting the Traveller too much. The latter was even leaning out away from the Harrow, without paying any attention to it, wanting to find out what was happening to the Condemned Man. “Handle him carefully,” the Officer yelled again. He ran around the apparatus, personally grabbed the Condemned Man under the armpits and, with the help of the Soldier, stood the man, whose feet kept slipping, upright.

“Now I know all about it,” said the Traveller, as the Officer turned back to him again. “Except the most important thing,” said the latter, grabbing the Traveller by the arm and pointing up high. “There in the Inscriber is the mechanism which determines the movement of the Harrow, and this mechanism is arranged according to the diagram on which the sentence is set down. I still use the diagrams of the previous Commandant. Here they are.” He pulled some pages out of the leather folder. “Unfortunately I can’t hand them to you. They are the most cherished thing I possess. Sit down, and I’ll show you them from this distance. Then you’ll be able to see it all well.” He showed the first sheet. The Traveller would have been happy to say something appreciative, but all he saw was a labyrinthine series of lines, criss-crossing each other in all sort of ways. These covered the paper so thickly that only with difficulty could one make out the white spaces in between. “Read it,” said the Officer. “I can’t,” said the Traveller. “But it’s clear,” said the Officer.” “It’s very elaborate,” said the Traveller evasively, “but I can’t decipher it.”

“Yes,” said the Officer, smiling and putting the folder back again, “it’s not calligraphy for school children. One has to read it a long time. You too will finally understand it clearly. Of course, it has to be a script that isn’t simple. You see, it’s not supposed to kill right away, but on average over a period of twelve hours. The turning point is set for the sixth hour. There must also be many, many embellishments surrounding the basic script. The essential script moves around the body only in a narrow belt. The rest of the body is reserved for decoration. Can you now appreciate the work of the Harrow and the whole apparatus? Just look at it!” He jumped up the ladder, turned a wheel, and called down, “Watch out-move to the side!” Everything started moving. If the wheel had not squeaked, it would have been marvelous. The Officer threatened the wheel with his fist, as if he was surprised by the disturbance it created. Then he spread his arms, apologizing to the Traveller, and quickly clambered down, in order to observe the operation of the apparatus from below.

Something was still not working properly, something only he noticed. He clambered up again and reached with both hands into the inside of the Inscriber. Then, in order to descend more quickly, instead of using the ladder, he slid down on one of the poles and, to make himself understandable through the noise, strained his voice to the limit as he yelled in the Traveller’s ear, “Do you understand the process? The Harrow is starting to write. When it’s finished with the first part of the script on the man’s back, the layer of cotton wool rolls and turns the body slowly onto its side to give the Harrow a new area. Meanwhile those parts lacerated by the inscription are lying on the cotton wool which, because it has been specially treated, immediately stops the bleeding and prepares the script for a further deepening. Here, as the body continues to rotate, prongs on the edge of the Harrow then pull the cotton wool from the wounds, throw it into the pit, and the Harrow goes to work again. In this way it keeps making the inscription deeper for twelve hours. For the first six hours the condemned man goes on living almost as before. He suffers nothing but pain. After two hours, the felt is removed, for at that point the man has no more energy for screaming. Here at the head of the Bed warm rice pudding is put in this electrically heated bowl. From this the man, if he feels like it, can help himself to what he can lap up with his tongue. No one passes up this opportunity. I don’t know of a single one, and I have had a lot of experience. He first loses his pleasure in eating around the sixth hour. I usually kneel down at this point and observe the phenomenon. The man rarely swallows the last bit. He turns it around in his mouth and spits it into the pit. When he does that, I have to lean aside or else he’ll get me in the face. But how quiet the man becomes around the sixth hour! The most stupid of them begin to understand. It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription. He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it’s not easy to figure out the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds. True, it takes a lot of work. It requires six hours to complete. But then the Harrow spits him right out and throws him into the pit, where he splashes down into the bloody water and cotton wool. Then the judgment is over, and we, the Soldier and I, quickly bury him.”

The Traveller had leaned his ear towards the Officer and, with his hands in his coat pockets, was observing the machine at work. The Condemned Man was also watching, but without understanding. He bent forward a little and followed the moving needles, as the Soldier, after a signal from the Officer, cut through his shirt and trousers with a knife from the back, so that they fell off the Condemned Man. He wanted to grab the falling garments to cover his bare flesh, but the Soldier held him up and shook the last rags from him. The Officer turned the machine off, and in the silence which then ensued the Condemned Man was laid out under the Harrow. The chains were taken off and the straps fastened in their place. For the Condemned Man it seemed at first glance to signify almost a relief. And now the Harrow sunk down a stage lower, for the Condemned was a thin man. As the needle tips touched him, a shudder went over his skin. While the Soldier was busy with the right hand, the Condemned Man stretched out his left, with no sense of its direction. But it was pointing to where the Traveller was standing. The Officer kept looking at the Traveller from the side, without taking his eyes off him, as if he was trying to read from his face the impression he was getting of the execution, which he had now explained to him, at least superficially.

The strap meant to hold the wrist ripped off. The Soldier probably had pulled on it too hard. The Soldier showed the Officer the torn-off piece of strap, wanting him to help. So the Officer went over to him and said, with his face turned towards the Traveller, “The machine is very complicated. Now and then something has to tear or break. One shouldn’t let that detract from one’s overall opinion. Anyway, we have an immediate replacement for the strap. I’ll use a chain-even though that will affect the sensitivity of the movements for the right arm.” And while he put the chain in place, he kept talking, “Our resources for maintaining the machine are very limited at the moment. Under the previous Commandant, I had free access to a cash box specially set aside for this purpose. There was a store room here in which all possible replacement parts were kept. I admit I made almost extravagant use of it. I mean earlier, not now, as the New Commandant claims. For him everything serves only as a pretext to fight against the old arrangements. Now he keeps the cash box for machinery under his own control, and if I ask him for a new strap, he demands the torn one as a piece of evidence, the new one doesn’t arrive for ten days, and it’s an inferior brand, of not much use to me. But how I am supposed to get the machine to work in the meantime without a strap-no one’s concerned about that.”

The Traveller was thinking: it is always questionable to intervene decisively in strange circumstances. He was neither a citizen of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged. If he wanted to condemn the execution or even hinder it, people could say to him: You are a foreigner-keep quiet. He would have nothing in response to that, but could only add that he did not understand what he was doing on this occasion, for the purpose of his traveling was merely to observe and not to alter other people’s judicial systems in any way. True, at this point the way things were turning out it was very tempting. The injustice of the process and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond doubt. No one could assume that the Traveller was acting out of any sense of his own self-interest, for the Condemned Man was a stranger to him, not a countryman and not someone who invited sympathy in any way. The Traveller himself had letters of reference from high officials and had been welcomed here with great courtesy. The fact that he had been invited to this execution even seemed to indicate that people were asking for his judgment of this trial. This was all the more likely since the Commandant, as he had now heard only too clearly, was no supporter of this process and maintained an almost hostile relationship with the Officer.

Then the Traveller heard a cry of rage from the Officer. He had just shoved the stub of felt in the Condemned Man’s mouth, not without difficulty, when the Condemned Man, overcome by an irresistible nausea, shut his eyes and threw up. The Officer quickly yanked him up off the stump and wanted to turn his head aside toward the pit. But it was too late. The vomit was already flowing down onto the machine. “This is all the Commandant’s fault!” cried the Officer and mindlessly rattled the brass rods at the front. “My machine’s as filthy as a pigsty.” With trembling hands he showed the Traveller what had happened. “Haven’t I spent hours trying to make the Commandant understand that a day before the execution there should be no more food served. But the new lenient administration has a different opinion. Before the man is led away, the Commandant’s women cram sugary things down his throat. His whole life he’s fed himself on stinking fish, and now he has to eat sweets! But that would be all right-I’d have no objections-but why don’t they get a new felt, the way I’ve been asking him for three months now? How can anyone take this felt into his mouth without feeling disgusted-something that a hundred man have sucked and bitten on it as they were dying?”

The Condemned Man had laid his head down and appeared peaceful. The Soldier was busy cleaning up the machine with the Condemned Man’s shirt. The Officer went up to the Traveller, who, feeling some premonition, took a step backwards. But the Officer grasped him by the hand and pulled him aside. “I want to speak a few words to you in confidence,” he said. “May I do that?” “Of course,” said the Traveller and listened with his eyes lowered.

“This process and execution, which you now have an opportunity to admire, have no more open supporters in our colony. I am its only defender, just as I am the single advocate for the legacy of the Old Commandant. I can no longer think about a more extensive organization of the process-I’m using all my powers to maintain what there is at present. When the Old Commandant was alive, the colony was full of his supporters. I have something of the Old Commandant’s persuasiveness, but I completely lack his power, and as a result the supporters have gone into hiding. There are still a lot of them, but no one admits to it. If you go into a tea house today-that is to say, on a day of execution-and keep your ears open, perhaps you’ll hear nothing but ambiguous remarks. They are all supporters, but under the present Commandant, considering his present views, they are totally useless to me. And now I’m asking you: Should such a life’s work,” he pointed to the machine, “come to nothing because of this Commandant and the women influencing him? Should people let that happen? Even if one is a foreigner and on our island only for a couple of days? But there’s no time to lose. People are already preparing something against my judicial proceedings. Discussions are already taking place in the Commandant’s headquarters, to which I am not invited. Even your visit today seems to me typical of the whole situation. People are cowards and send you out-a foreigner. You should have seen the executions in earlier days! The entire valley was overflowing with people, even a day before the execution. They all came merely to watch. Early in the morning the Commandant appeared with his women. Fanfares woke up the entire campsite. I delivered the news that everything was ready. The whole society-and every high official had to attend-arranged itself around the machine. This pile of cane chairs is a sorry left over from that time. The machine was freshly cleaned and glowed. For almost every execution I had new replacement parts. In front of hundreds of eyes-all the spectators stood on tip toe right up to the hills there-the condemned man was laid down under the Harrow by the Commandant himself. What nowadays has to be done by a common soldier was then my work as the senior judge, and it was an honour for me. And then the execution began! No discordant note disturbed the work of the machine. Many people did not look any more at all, but lay down with closed eyes in the sand. They all knew: now justice was being carried out. In the silence people heard nothing but the groans of the condemned man, muffled by the felt. These days the machine no longer manages to squeeze a strong groan out of the condemned man-something the felt is not capable of smothering. But back then the needles which made the inscription dripped a caustic liquid which we are not permitted to use any more today. Well, then came the sixth hour. It was impossible to grant all the requests people made to be allowed to watch from up close. The Commandant, in his wisdom, arranged that the children should be taken care of before all the rest. Naturally, I was always allowed to stand close by, because of my official position. Often I crouched down there with two small children in my arms, on my right and left. How we all took in the expression of transfiguration on the martyred face! How we held our cheeks in the glow of this justice, finally attained and already passing away! What times we had, my friend!”

… and of course there’s more…

THIS post actually began as a comment over at Nate’s, in response to his very… evocative piece, [What in the hell] do things look like if we start with the body? and Ms Pepperell‘s contribution. As such, it’s a little engaged with that piece… I’ll cite a few bits and pieces from Nate, but I’d point you over to see the whole thing, as it’s intriguing for me. (Oh, and Nate? Email soon, I promise! I blame you, of course, for putting up exciting things for me to respond to 😉 Actually, the conversation between you and NP made me bounce in excitement.)

Nate says:

Bologna wrote that

“our analysis of these structural factors will be ineffective unless we can combine it with an analysis of the huge transformation taking place in the sphere of “personal life”. This obviously starts from the breakdown of sexual relations brought on by feminism. It then widens to involve all the problems of controlling one’s own body and the structures of perceptions, emotions and desires. This is not just a problem of “youth culture”. It has working-class antecedents in the cycle of struggles of 1968-69. The defence of one’s own physical integrity against being slaughtered by line-speeds and machinery, against being poisoned by the environment etc, on the one hand is a way of resisting the depreciation of the exchange value of one’s labour-power and the deterioration of its use value, but at the same time it is a way of re-appropriating one’s own body, for the free enjoyment of bodily needs. Here too there is a homogeneity, not a separation, between the behaviour of the young people, the women and the workers.

The question of drugs now arises. Control of drug usage is being re-appropriated by the institutions of the political cycle. No sooner have young people had a taste of soft drugs, giving them a first-hand taste of how much this society has robbed them of their perceptive potential, than the heroin multinational decides to step in and impose hard drugs. A space of political confrontation opens up, between use value (self-managed, within certain limits) and exchange value of drugs, and this involves organisation and instances of armed self-defence. Nor is the mechanism of the production of new needs the exclusive prerogative of the “liberation movements”… it has its roots in the “We Want Everything” of the Mirafiori workers in the Summer of 1969. The “Italian Utopia” has a solid working-class stamp, which no theorists of an American-style “movement” – ghettoised and self-sufficient – will be able to erase.

My response? (Aside from querying the ‘breakdown of sexual relations due to feminism’: I mean, really, this does seem to echo a problematic past golden era when men ‘knew who they were’ which seems to me to be nothing but a somewhat misogynist not to mention inaccurate nostalgia.) With the doubtless too-oft-repeated caveat that I still don’t really know my Marx [gulps at making such a statement in such august company ;-)] there’s a couple of things that strike me here. All of these have to do with the way that bodies figure in political discourse. The Cartesian dualism, I suspect, has a lot to do with this. It is the distinction between mind and body which allows us to talk about ‘the body’ as an object, and is thus heavily implicated in the creation of the body as property (Descartes does actually figure the body as property, and of course Locke gets in on the game to). Interestingly, I think this is part of what struck me about the Bologna quote: the implication becomes that we need to ‘take back’ the body’s powers ‘for ourselves’. I don’t straightforwardly disagree with this. But…

Nate goes on:

While I think there’s a lot of value in – and I would be loathe to attack those who engage in – practices of autonomous self-management in the present, I think it’s not at all clear that these practices help any but their practitioners, which is to say, I’m not sure that practices of autonomy from prevailing hierarchies (evasion, exodus, etc) help undermine those hierarchies. I think conflict against those the mechanisms that create those hierarchies is needed as well (more, to be honest) and that the space for autonomy is created by organized conflict. To put this differently, I think there’s a limit on the degree to which politics can be prefigurative and still be effective with regard to changing prevailing power relations. (I still believe in political transition.)

….There’s continual conflict around whether or not labor power – the body – will be sold and under what conditions, after its sale around whether or not it will be put to use and under what conditions, and outside of the direct sale over the degree to which that particular set of uses of the body (those bound up with valorization) will rule over other uses of the body (that is, the degree to which other practices will be made functional for those involved with valorization, and the degree to and manner in which other practices – those which are less useful for or which inhibit the capitalist use of bodies – continue to exist).

This echoes the difficulty that Bologna’s talk of ‘reappropriating’ the body evokes. The problem with the ‘autonomous self-management’ kinds of things that Nate points to is that they tend to rely, again, on a characterisation of the subject as made up of mind inserted into body-property. This has, historically, been bad for women, positioned as not able to take up a properly proprietary relationship with their bodies (coz they get preggers, you know). (For more on women and the market, check out Irigaray’s ‘Women on the Market’, in This Sex Which Is Not One which also, interestingly, helps to configure psychoanalysis as identifying developments in cultural conceptions of the subject which are associated with capital). In this respect, to borrow Nikki Sullivan’s argument in ‘Tattooed Bodies,’ when, say, subcultural groups use tattoos to mark their resistance, and discursively (and experientially) construct that resistance as an individual (even if that individual is articulating their ‘belonging’ to a group) attempt to reappropriate the body, they retain the very conception of the subject—as individual, cognition-and-intention-based, and as holding property in the body—that capitalism requires. In this sense, their resistance, supposing itself to be based on an ‘outside’ (look at the negation of the self, Nicole; and look at me actually getting your terminology 😉 I hope!) winds up reiterating precisely what … well, Foucault would call it power… would require of it. In resisting, such resistance is co-opted back into (bio)power: this is why Foucault argues that relying on the ‘truth’ of the subject is so problematic, and why he suggests that the subject’s production is extending far beyond what we would usually understand as work, and into the production of truths (power/knowledge) which permit the reproduction of labour…

And Foucault’s recommendation, which winds up being caricatured as ‘gay sadomasochism,’ has far more to do with reconfiguring the body. If our embodiment is shaped by assuming the body to be an object with, as he suggests, particular erogenous zones which are the sole sites of a kind of sexualised pleasure (he uses a different term, which is translated as ‘desire,’ but it’s not the same)—a sexualised pleasure bound up, sorry, queer kids, (re)production—then reconfiguring where and how pleasures occur and the subjectivity that is bound up with them, becomes an internal challenge to the intimate networks of power. The embodied subject here produces, bodily (and this is significant for reasons I won’t go into here), not truth, but precisely a challenge to what is permitted to count as truth. And who said Foucault wasn’t a Marxist? (Shush, shush, I know :-)) But this is where Foucault’s ethics of pleasure comes into play: it is an ethical challenge to the capitalist/biopower system. I have some questions about this, which I’m planning to write some more about at some stage (building from this post) but, basically, my concern is that the bodily tolerances engendered through contemporary anatamopolitical structures may be far too tight to allow such a reconfiguration of the body and embodiment to occur: what happens when the possibilities of pleasure are reproduced as sources of suffering? But anyway, that’s way off track, and besides, Foucault would probably disagree with my concern, primarily because he (somewhat ambivalently) positions the body as a negation (see, again!) whose essence is a flurry of pleasures, all squeezed down to become productive; in this respect, he doesn’t take his own challenge to the repressive hypothesis anywhere near seriously enough, if you ask me.

And again, out of order, Nate sez:

Second, it seems to me that the frame Bologna offers could be used for other eras as well, like the time during which workers’ comp was passed in the US, a time (depending on how one periodizes) also involved protests against the destruction of bodies in war, protests and strikes against the destruction of bodies at work, claims to support for bodies via welfare and protective legislation on and off the job, as well as (I believe) experiments with sexuality and drugs like those which Bologna notes in a later era.

I’m not positive that I’ve fully understood Bologna’s frame, and so, I’m not sure if this actually works for Nate’s suggestion, but nonetheless. Coming from a disability studies perspective, we need to ask some questions about what constitutes ‘destruction’ of the body. The very concept of the destruction of the body is not a straightforward matter. Disability studies would suggest that disability is produced only because the world does not ‘match’ the embodiment of the particular individual; and that the construction of disability requires that the world in this case is taken as a naturally given thing, such that some bodies are just naturally disabled. This fails to interrogate the concept of the norm at work here.

(Lennard Davis, a disability scholar, echoes the claims made by Canguilhem, Foucault’s old advisor: the norm is not a neutral description of reality, as we always suppose it to be. Indeed, the idea of the norm really came to prominence in and through statistics, and it wasn’t long before Francis Galton shifted into using it as part of the development of eugenics (which, contrary to popular trust, was not the sole purview of Nazi Germany—in fact, there’s a fair amount of evidence to show that Germany adopted its eugenicist policies almost wholesale from the US…).)

What makes a body ‘destroyed,’ then? To what extent is this judgement bound up with the productiveness of the body? Systems of production increasingly required the interchangeability of workers, and thus the idea of the norm was particularly useful to them; but this of course meant that those who could no longer perform in the workplace were positioned as disabled. Intriguing, though, to put my poststructuralist two cents into this kind of question, disabled bodies were, indeed, required, in order to produce other bodies as able: the hierarchy was, in this sense, productive. And I could now rabbit on about the construction of the disabled body as a site of suffering in relation to the loss of productivity, and the simultaneous construction of the normal body as a site of happiness which thereby produced working ways of being-in-the-world as tolerant to systems of exploitation… but I’ll save that for another day, I think!

Thanks, Nate; you’ve offered me a way into ideas that my hesitation over interacting with Marxist stuff due to my ignorance wouldn’t really have permitted me, otherwise. In saying that, though, I apologise if my engagement or critiques are misplaced as a result, or if I’m merely repeating ideas which are old hat in an area I just don’t know enough about yet!

LOOK at that: it’s the new year and that goddamn chapter is still not finished. Well. This week, my dears. This week. (Promises, promises!) Due to having much work to do I’m taking the lazy way out and giving you kids a sneak peek at the paper I presented at the CSAA conference (bitchy diatribe about that one below; though putting that together made me realise how much the good stuff had been, actually, really good. It’s just that it was kinda few and far between. But I appreciate them! It did take the bitchy edge off my report. I’m not sure how I feel about that!). The ACRAWSA report is on its way!

So about this paper: this would be the one in which I tried to take out my usual technique, which is to edjacate people in the theory I’m trying to use, in order that they will be equipped (as many of them are not, before hand, being different people with different interests) to understand what I might possibly mean by ‘memorialising the gifts of generous others in the flesh, and forgetting the gifts of othered others, and thus rendering them not only without property, but without value, thereby reiterating the asymmetries which ensure that privilege remains privileged.’ Ahem. So in order to do that, I took something that had troubled me for a while, which was the apparent lack of critical awareness that seems to exist in some though not all forms of transhumanism and its alleged other, bioconservatism. It arose out of attending conference run by the Institute for Ethics and Enhancement Technologies (IEET), the Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference (HETHR, coz I think they like their acronyms). My paper there was basically an attempt to get at why suffering, for all that it calls (in a Levinasian fashion) for ethical response, is problematic when taken as a straightforward legitimation of the alteration of bodies, without some attendant critical interrogation.

This paper (the CSAA one) took a bit of a backwards step: it simplifies, and oversimplifies (to some extent) the transhumanist movement. It is, of course, not the monolith I present it to be in the paper, and there is nuance and caution and critical engagement within it. (I am less concerned about bioconservatism, which tends towards essentialism which is just so entirely problematic in a context where essentialism is regularly being ground to bits in the critical mortar!). Whilst I apologise to my tech-savvy transhumanist interlocutors for these injustices, it is simply to make clear my overall anxiety, which is that the kinds of alterations that they are working towards are occurring in the context of a non-critically-engaged science (for the most part, though again, not a monolith) and a normalising society. As a result, the ability to change one’s body is shaped not by neutral desires, but by desires engendered within that context. This isn’t all bad, not at all (I do not think that ‘natural’ desires are pure, either; that is, there is no ‘outside’ to the context which might engender desires that would be okay); but to the extent that normal and normaller (I know, I know) bodies, even ideal bodies, are what is sought, this problematically reiterates existing hierarchies of race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, intelligence, worthiness and so on. And to this end, this citation from Judith Butler seems to me to take on an even more striking resonance (a resonance, it must be said, to which my entire project, my entire politics seems to vibrate):

Hence, it will be important to think about how and to what end bodies are constructed as is it will be to think about how and to what end bodies are not constructed and, further, to ask after how bodies which fail to materialize provide the necessary ‘outside,’ if not the necessary support, for the bodies which, in materializing the norm, qualify as bodies that matter.

How, then, can one think through the matter of bodies as a kind of materialization governed by regulatory norms in order to ascertain the workings of heterosexual hegemony in the formation of what qualifies as a viable body? How does this materialization of the norm in bodily formation produce a domain of abjected bodies, a field of deformation, which, in failing to qualify as the fully human, fortifies those regulatory norms? What challenge does that excluded and abjected realm produce to a symbolic hegemony that might force a radical rearticulation of what qualifies as bodies that matter, ways of living that count as ‘life,’ lives worth protecting, lives worth saving, lives worth grieving?’ (Bodies That Matter, p. 16)

And so: [clears throat]

The television show Heroes has been an enormous success both in the United States and here in Australia. Building on a not-particularly-innovative concept, there’s a number of reasons that one could offer for the triumph of yet another story of people with extraordinary abilities. But I want to suggest that rather than being something peculiar about this text (as contrasted with others of its ilk, say, X-men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jake 2.0 and so on), there’s something peculiar about this cultural moment. The envisaging of extra ‘abilities’ in Heroes–Claire’s regenerative skills, Nathan’s flying, Micah’s talking to machines, DL’s walking through walls, Hiro’s playing with time–sits alongside the increasing visibility of biotechnology and the promises it holds out. The future is invoked as justification for investment in it.

This investment is not simply financial. Medical science has been a major part of the formation of contemporary culture. As Foucault observed, it took centre stage in the development of biopower, permitting the disciplining of individual bodies–anatamopolitics–and the management of the body of the population–biopolitics. Scientific and medical developments have led to longer and longer lives, which in turn have led to therapeutic techniques for improving and sustaining health in the face of aging. Yet the framework which allows medicine to be understood as therapy has also lent itself to the continual redefining of the healthy, normal human body. Indeed, in many cases forms of bodily being which would not once have been a problem have now become disabilities in need of therapeutic intervention: the creation of ‘idiopathic short stature,’ that is, shortness that arises without a cause (and here the genes from short parents are not considered a medical cause), which requires and permits human growth hormone treatment. What we see here is that therapeutic techniques have blurred into what are called ‘enhancement’ technologies. It is not just extraordinary amounts of funding that have been poured into biotechnological and medical research. Hope and optimism, both at the personal and state level, are increasingly being pinned on the capacity of science. Science is the primary, if not the only, site of progress. It will save us, if all the stories are to be believed, from epidemics and climate change, from bad memories and disability. It isn’t just science fiction that sketches what science might bring us, but increasingly television dramatises the promise of improved health in hospital shoes, the assurance of objective, forensic truth in crime shows, the guarantee of new and exciting cars, gadgets, tools in explicitly future-based programs. This doesn’t even touch on the incredible profusion of pop science content across a variety of media, which is marked by its astonishingly powerful appeal to its public, made through the tracing of potential benefits. These potential benefits engage, in a point I’ll return to, with our contemporary values. Science has developed some fairly astonishing PR, and a major part of this discourse is the continual imagining of an appealing future.

Transhumanism is a key part of this extraordinary PR campaign, even when there is a distance between the two. Tranhumanism is, as Bostrom describes, “a grassroots movement that advocates the voluntary use of technology to enhance human capacities and extend our health-span,” a neologism that attempts to get at the regular non-coincidence of extended life-spans with continued good health. The term ‘transhumanism’ was probably first used by Julian Huxley (Aldous’ brother), when he stated: “The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself – not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way – but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” I’m leaving the exclusive language in place because, as it will become clear, it does indicate something key about how transhuamnism operates. But in the end, transhumanists, being concerned for the transition between the human and the posthuman, advocate massive investment, both public and private, in biotechnology and especially genetic engineering. This grounds dream dizzying science fiction dreams not only of of dramatically extended lives, of continual perfect health, free from disability and illness, eradication of disease the world over, but of of perfected memory, of inescapable virtue, increased intelligence, of animals ‘uplifted’ to be just as intelligent as us. As Bostrom waxes lyrical about these

“extremely valuable ways of living, feeling, thinking and relating[:}… We can conceive, in the abstract at least, of crackling sensual pleasures more blissful and thrilling than any in human history; aesthetic contemplation more rapturously sublime or more perfectly Apollonian [they do so love their Nietzsche, these transhumanists!]; nonpareil levels of personal development and maturity allowing for the first time that precious inner core of each one of us to suffuse and fill out our whole personas; a vastly richer understanding of the human condition, derived from having savored life more fully and reflected more deeply; a keener intelligence and a quicker wit, grasping the whole of science better than any current expert understand her own speciality; philosophical thinking more profound and disillusioned; and love so passionate, ever-fresh and secure that its reality surpasses our maddest moonstruck longings. We can also conceive of some of the secondary effects of such capacities–wonderful new art forms, truer science, more enlightened philosophy, and closer unions between lovers.” (Bostrom, “Transhumanist Ethics,” [pdf], 11)

They offer ideas of a society made entirely equal, of no child, to put a futuristic spin on President Bush’s education agenda, left behind. They dream of better and better humans, as they put it, humans able to enjoy more and longer, and at greater leisure. All these are concerete possibilities hovering on the horizon, and their promise is such that, whatever our concerns about misuse, we have a responsibility to invest as much as we can in the scientific research that will bring us these futures.

There is, of course, a variety of voices attempting to put the brakes both on the financial investment in biotechnology and the cultural investment in science as the source of progressive hope. These voices are dubbed ‘bioconservative’ by the transhumanists (that is, they rarely actually name themselves in this way, even though they may feel this name is accurate, and I suspect they avoid adopting this title because they want to retain the sense that their perspective is mainstream). This loose affiliation of people, from Fukuyama to Habermas to Kass, tend to argue against such things as stem cell research, genetic testing and manipulation, as well as more explicitly articulating concerns about the possibilities transhumanists push for. As Fukuyama states, transhumanism is “the world’s most dangerous idea.” (“Transhumanism” in Foreign Policy, 2004) There is, for this group, an underlying anxiety that in our swift embrace of these imagined futures, we forget to hold onto something fundamental. In general, the concern is not about the potential deaths resulting form insufficiently tested scientific innovation, although numerous transhumanists argue that with proper forms of testing the majority of their concerns could be allayed. Rather, bioconservatism worries that humanity will lose its way, its nature, its humanity, even, sometimes, its nature as made-in-the-image-of-God. The transhumanist desire for progress forgets to pay attention to what would be lost in such a future, although there is at least some diversity in what they assume would be lost.

There are a variety of things that different bioconservative thinkers fear we would lose. Some appeal to the ‘rightness’ of the natural body, and this appears to be a similar argument to the anti-cosmetic surgery perspective held by some, though by no means all, feminists. Kass, for example, argues that human morphology is bound up for us with our respect for the divinely-given but still biological human essence. In this respect, the discourse of the religious right which has come to dominate the North American political sphere is married to biological essentialism, permitting the often implicit invocation of God as the Author of the human body and the nature it contains. Thus our deviation from our naturally given bodies becomes a straying from God. Yet even when the word ‘God’ is not mentioned, bioconservatives are very clear about what and who we ought to be, and this essence takes on an almost divine dimension–it becomes a source of moral judgement. Fukuyama, for example, avoids overt religiosity but replaces it with an incredible faith in liberalism: “The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality… [A fact, I might add, that is regularly taken as not needing to be established] Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence … This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?” (Fukuyama, Our PostHuman Future, 2002, p. 9) This is, of course, the traditional naturalisation fallacy: that what already is is what ought always to be, that anything that deviates from what has already been is a perversion of an essence, a truth of our nature. Cultural studies, amongst other disciplines, has long been suspicious of ideas of truth, nature and essence. Such concepts are all too regularly married to the maintenance of asymmetries of what is valued, and what is permitted. The liberal claim to equality that Fukuyama relies upon is thoroughly critiqued–feminists, queer theorists, race and critical whiteness scholars and of course critical disability theorists have long demonstrated that the assumption of ‘equality’ is a false universalisation of what is already privileged: the white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied norm. Against this norm, it has become possible for Plato to claim that woman is nothing more than a deformed man, for heteronormativity to read the divine rejection of homosexuality from the ‘naturally interlocking’ form of male and female genitals, and for eugenicists to see the natural superiority of whites indicated in their high foreheads and strong chins. When bioconservatives invoke ideas of essence, then, they reify very particular forms of being-in-the-world, avoiding an interrogation of how and why those forms of being have become privileged. Even the secular liberal essence that Fukuyama has invoked suggests that there is a level at which all humans are the same, and this is the basis on which they should be treated as equivalent. Yet as feminists such as Susan Moller Okin have demonstrated, liberalism was designed by and for men, deeming white maleness to be the essence upon which liberalism is built; and this ensures that women’s rights are rarely considered. There is a little doubt, then, that the bioconservative reliance on ideas of nature, human nature, truth and essence is conservative and requires interrogation. The flexibility of transhumanism is progressive by comparison–or so it appears.

In its advocacy of such things as the right to morphological self-determnation or the uplifting of animals, transhumanism seems the epitome of progressiveness, a movement that refuses to be bound by the past. And indeed, in many ways this is true; yet spectre-like, I want to suggest that conservatism–of a far more insidious kind than that manifested by bioconservatism, which at least confesses it–lies at the very heart of tranhumanism.There is the obvious kind, which assumes that there is an unalterable human essence, or human culture, which would underlie every alteration that transhumanism could make. This was implicit in the Huxley quote I cited earlier: “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.“ (from Religion without Revelation). This assumption that no matter what changes occurs, the same underlying ‘man’ would exist. There are some who also, countering Fukuyama’s (and other’s) concern about the formation of an ‘unenhanced underclass,’ argue that there is a fundamental human essence whose moral worth would ensure that this underclass would never form. They would do well to listen to the plight of those whose moral worth is always already conceived of as lacking–the disabled, the racialised, women, and so on– who always lose out to the supposedly universal norm of the white, straight, middle-class able-bodied man.

Yet there’s a more insidious form of essentialism at work in transhumanism. The attributes transhumanism suggests we ought to aim to enhance, or new attributes that would be unequivocal goods are not neutral. The cries of higher IQs, for increased rationality, for less disability, for chemically-induced virtue appear neutral in some sense, but only because they cover over existing class, race, sexual, ability and other hierarchies. Let’s take the suggestion of ‘increased rationality.’ This would appear to be a simple, straight-forward good. More rational citizens, as James Hughes argues, would be able to make more and better political decisions. Another speaker at 2005’s Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights conference argued that increasingly rational citizens would be more able to achieve consensus. Implicit in both arguments is the idea that rationality is a knowable, singular trait that we can assess people according to. And more problematically still, it assumes that rationality is ahistorical and acultural. It is, simply, naturally and of itself a good thing. Rationality, in fact, as Genevieve Lloyd so eloquently argued in ‘Man of Reason’ is the name given to the way a particularly elite group of European men have thought, a way of thinking that has developed rules and names and systems as techniques of maintaining the privilege of particular positions, perspectives and people. Quite aside from the problematic mind/body split it requires, it has, of course, been historically formed in and through the deeming of other ways of thinking to be ‘irrational’; ways of thought, not-so-conincidentally, that have tended to be manifested by women and racialised others. Thus the increase in rationality that is advocated by transhumanists takes this attribute as a neutral, ahistorical good, and fails to see that its formation is implicated in a continuing privilege of male thought, and the continuing marking of female thought as irrational, foolish, and fundamentally against the best interests of humanity, politically and otherwise. The essentialism may not attach to ideas of what it means to be human, but this is only because it detaches the valorisation of particular attributes from the privileged identities which have constituted those attributes as valuable. The apparent inherent goodness of rationality, then, its essential positivity, naturalises a historically and contextually specific process.

What is fundamentally forgotten in both transhumanism and bioconservatism is that the various forms of essentialism that they each deploy require an other for their constitution. That other isn’t just conceptual, but an embodied, living person: the racialised, women, those with disabilities and so on. Indeed, the contributions that these ‘others’ make, not just to the construction of straight white able-bodied male privilege, but to community as a whole is continually forgotten, even as this difference is key to its formation. These are the others who lose out in and through the enhancing of ‘good’ attributes: it requires that they either assimilate, in and through developing or adopting these attributes, or alternatively, they, at least insofaras they display their irrationality, their disability, their racialised difference, and so on, all of which are marked as different kinds of lacks, are denied recognition of their essential role in the public and political sphere. In this respect, then, the continued privileging of these already-privileged attributes only makes more hegemonic the forgetting of the unmarked generosity of these others. Bioconservatism is clearly not the answer, with its appeal to essentialism which always forgets the difference required to constitute that essence. Yet whilst the possibilities of transhumanism may be heady and exciting, in so far as it continues to valorise sameness, and value what has already been valued, it operates in and through the unethical denial of difference. As such, it functions to perpetuate and even strengthen the hegemonic privileging of a homogenous, normalised form of subjectivity.

So there you go: WildlyParenthetical attempts non-theoretical (and shush! I know it’s still theory-ish, but did you notice the distinct lack of ‘being-in-the-world’s and ‘power/knowledge’s and ‘alterity’s in there??). [nods] Enjoy 2008!

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