body politic


i‘M currently writing a paper for a seminar about disability. Actually I’ve currently got four papers on the go – they’re all for presentation, but it’s making my life a tad hectic. This chapter also desperately needs to be finished; I’ve promised myself the end of this month as an absolute, absolute dead end kind of deadline, but we’ll see how it goes. Interestingly, writing a thesis seems to be all about the flexing of deadlines; it’s rather disconcerting!

Anyhow, this seminar has the loosest of titles: something about ‘beyond the social model,’ or ‘in critique of the social model.’ It’s proving a bit difficult to write for: it’s going to be a fairly mixed audience, and I tend toward the theoretical, even for my own discipline. But it’s not just this: my work is on suffering, and suffering, as Wendy Brown has shown, is something that people tend to be pretty invested in, particularly when they’re working in political spheres to remedy the injustices that cause the suffering in the first place. The risk, which would mostly arise from the assumption that I’m much closer to the social model of disability than I actually am, is that I may be uncharitably understood as suggesting that suffering a) doesn’t exist; b) is so utterly contingent as to make the sufferer responsible for their own suffering; or c) that I am equating forms of suffering which are quite clearly very different. I am suggesting none of these things, but suffering playing the role it does, I’m headed into a little anxious about it. So I thought I’d explain a bit of my thoughts on this matter here, and see if practicing writing about these issues might help. Also, my slow upkeep on this blog is making me feel bad, even as I miss it!

The social model of disability can be understood—a little shabbily, but just for now—as what social constructionism did when it came head-to-head with the idea of disability. Just like with the sex/gender distinction that it instituted in relation to feminism, disability was divided into the impairment/disability paradigm. The impairment, it was suggested, is neutral, even natural, whilst society disables those who are impaired. I have a number of issues with this perspective, however much sympathy I have for its intentions, beginning with the problematic conception of the individual subject and what we might loosely call ‘the social,’ and the relationship between them.

The subject in this model is Cartesian; this is one of the key points of social constructionism, and the reason that Moira Gatens could rip the sex/gender distinction to shreds in 1986 (though she likely wasn’t alone, and perhaps wasn’t the first. I just like this book a lot.) It presumes that the body is predominantly, if not entirely, a blank slate. Sure men and women might have different physical sexes, it was suggested; this has nothing at all to do with whether they act feminine or masculine. Similarly, the social model of disability suggests that impairments are neutral but naturally occurring. The issue here, of course, is that it is only in and through the social that we can conceive of two sexes, and only in and through the social that ideas like ‘impaired’ and ‘unimpaired’ make sense. It is, in the end, the social investment in the body—what Judith Butler called the ‘materialisation of’ the body—which produces bodies male, female, intersex, impaired, unimpaired, normal and abnormal. Indeed, as Gatens points out in that 1986 essay, it is ludicrous to suppose that masculinity is socially read in the same way whether it is lived out by a male body or a female body. The body has a significant role to play in the formation of the subject; but it is not in and through providing the biological essence from which the subject will arise, and it is not just in how we understand the body (for that would reinstitute the Cartesian dualism we’re claiming is problematic), but how we experience it.

But there’s something else going on in social constructionism which is somewhat problematic. It presumes that the mind is fully in control. After all, the argument was made by some feminists (note how rare it is to see the phrase ‘some feminists’; most people are all-too-willing to lump the whole diverse bunch in together) that what was needed was education. Education, my friends, would change the world. And I wouldn’t like to say that this is entirely untrue. But the assumption seemed to be that whoever was teaching the next generation could cheerfully shed their belief in the two sexes. This might have been true, but as politically active people have long known (and regularly denied), our wants, needs and desires are not quite so thoroughly within our control. In lots of ways, the assumption that any sexism or racism that existed within a person was entirely conscious has been nothing more than a handy way for those who were aware of the problems to declare themselves free of these terrible prejudices. The most sexism-aware person, male or female, can be misogynist and not even realise it. And as Alcoff showed us, all that time ago, racism occurs not just at the level of intention, but at the level of perception. It lies not in what we plan to do, but in how we see the world. It is not, then, something that we can merely think our way out of. If we were all purely conscious creatures, perhaps social constructionism might get us somewhere. But we’re not. Thank whatever deity you wanna invoke!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know what my take is, by now. The social doesn’t just affect what we can explicitly see, what we consciously think. It affects the every way that we dwell in the world, the very way that we are oriented towards or away from others, the ways we see, breathe, laugh, desire, hurt, smile, sleep, touch, read, speak… We are embodied subjects who are embodied in and through the context in which we live.

What this means is that suffering is much more than we are accustomed to thinking of it as. This is not to deny that bodies hurt. They do. I broke my tooth earlier this year, people, and smooshed my mouth into crazy Angelina-parody lips. I knows da hurt. But the hurt is never, can never be just natural, like we always assume; we make the distinction between pain and suffering as if one were purely physical and the other something more. We need to learn to pay attention to the specificity of our own experiences, and not automatically universalise from them:

This particular devotee is part of a religious procession. He is walking… impaled within what could be described as a type of elaborate metal scaffolding. The infrastructural support for these constructions is the devotee’s own body. Myriad metal spokes are driven into the skin and organs. The hands may also be pierced and even the tongue immobilized by long spikes thrust through the face, lips and neck. To be skewered by any one of these metal prongs would prove at least painful for most of us, and conceivably lethal. Bleeding, scarring, and internal injury would be the inevitable results of what, in a different context, could be read as abuse. Yet for the serious thaipusam devotee, none of these effects is realised. This man does not bleed, nor does he scar. Indeed, whatever the weltanschauung, structural frame, or cultural text – call it what you will – through which this man’s body is ciphered and allocated as “being in the world,” one can only presume that this information also informs the very matter of his body’s material constitution. (Telling Flesh, p. 3)

Vicki Kirby is here describing the Hindu ritual festival of thaipusam. This isn’t science fiction, it’s not a lie, it’s just different to the Western experience of embodiment. It’s telling, though, that it is so very hard for a Western audience to conceive of; indeed, the usual response is disbelief. The assumption that needs to be in place to doubt that veracity of this account is that there is a body that pre-exists the social.

Anyway, the point of this is to demonstrate that pain and suffering are bound up with the way that the body is constituted, with my way of being in the world. Merleau-Ponty says

it has been perceptively remarked that pain and fatigue can never be regarded as causes which ‘act’ upon my liberty, and that, in so far as I may experience either at any given moment, they do not have their origin outside me, but always have a significance and express my attitude to the world. (POP, p. 512)

This ‘attitude to the world’ might sound deeply intentional; but Merleau-Ponty is pretty clear that much of these ways of being comported towards the world are not conscious in the sense we might usually think of them. This means that suffering is always bound up with a whole mass of things about our lives; always bound up with its significance in and to our lives. This significance is produced not just neutrally, but nor is it just as ‘society’ as a whole defines it; rather, it occurs in relation to the unique but nonetheless culturally shaped habitual ways that we are in the world; not just the sometimes ephemeral, hard-to-spot habits of perception, but the very every day ways that we live.

Unsurprisingly, these habits are often informed by normalcy, as it is thought (not just by me), embodied by others and experienced by myself. When I say this, I don’t mean that we wander around thinking we’re normal, normal, normal. Rather, our own personal way of being in the world is built in reflection of the normalcy of our world: I drive a car without problems, can reach all the shelves in the supermarket, can hear conversations without needing to piece together the meaning, read with my eyes and drink a coffee at the same time and so on, and so forth… Yet the interruption of any one of these tiny elements isn’t just the interruption of that strand, but the shaking up of my whole way of being in the world. Some of these we tolerate. They just shake us a little, like almost running into a stobie pole (oops; showing my Adelaideanness there! I was only there for five years, people! ;-)) or perhaps not at all, when I don’t care whether I can hear the conversation or not. But when I suddenly can’t drive my car, can’t walk easily, or swiftly, or at all, or slowly lose my sight…. well, these trouble the entirety of my way of being in the world in ways that I cannot, physically or mentally (as if these two were separated) make sense of. Because they counter my usual ways of making sense. My attunement to the world, and its to me, is demonstrated to be off, out of kilter. And this troubles not just the individual act I’m trying to do, but my whole self, past, present and future. This, my friends, is suffering; and I cannot even get my head around it. All my ways of making meaning are gone. My world as I know it, gone. My self as I know it, gone.

Suffering, then, definitely does exist. It isn’t quite so contingent that we could ever ‘talk ourselves out of it,’ or pretend that ‘education’ as it’s usually conceived of, would be an adequate response. It’s also always different, because every way of being-in-the-world is unique. But what this all means is that the social model of disability never goes far enough: it pretends that the individual subject (not to mention their body) is always removed from society. Culture is bound up, at the most intimate of levels, with who we are, and how we are who we are. This means that even those who are congentially disabled (that is, born with a disability) can experience suffering: they too, through the binding together of syncretic sociability, through the adoption and adaptation of the comportments of others, are likely to embody normalcy. And thus the mismatch of their bodies to their comportments may cause a great deal of suffering; suffering we all too often attribute to the bodies themselves, and seek to fix. We naturalise suffering, make it of-the-body, make it essentially, none of our business, and all of medicine’s. The suffering of those with disabilities, then, will not merely be ‘treated’ by putting in accessible entrances to buildings, or offering TTY services (though these are important steps), as if all disabilities were equivalent anyway. The suffering of those with disabilities is a call to all of us, a call to us to pay attention to how and why and in what ways we embody normalcy, and reinforce it in our worlds. Why is it that this particular, extraordinarily diverse form of physical difference is set aside as something other, something separate, something I need not engage with? Why is this difference one I need not respond to? Perhaps in answering this question, we will return to the question of the gift: if I am given myself by those with disabilities, why the theft of declaring myself normal, declaring myself separate from them? These questions are ethical and political; and they are increasingly urgent as the field of normalcy narrows, and the number of those who suffer their own differences increases.

Forgive the fuzz; I don’t have time to proof-read this properly right now.

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alettrine2.jpgND…. hiatus hereby ended! Well, fingers crossed. I’m about to hit a period of intensive writing. I can tell this because I really and truly have to. The whole annual review process is about to begin and [sigh] it always reminds me of just how far behind I am. I’ve decided that this is the perpetual condition of writing a PhD: you make plans, deadlines, knowing that they’re probably a little aspirational, but figuring it’s good to aim for something. And then the deadline passes, the chapter’s still not written, and then by the time it is the deadline for the next one is already passed and… so on, and so on, ad infinitum et nauseum et… I don’t know what ‘slow death by thesis’ is in Latin, but ad that too.

I’m conscious, too, that being outed has massively altered what I’m writing about, and in ways I dislike. So this is an attempt to get my thesis-y stuff up here again, hopefully without too many agonising caveats, addendums, apologia et… ugh! What is it about Latin infecting me today?

This post builds on others I’ve put up, and I’m sorry if this sends you on hyperlinked flight-lines throughout my blog; writing a thesis makes it incredibly difficult to contain… well, anything! So I’ve written a fair bit here about Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, particularly in relation to “The Child’s Relation with Others”, but also applying it to other things—race, for example. My work, actually, is primarily on technologies of bodily alteration, and concepts of normalcy. At this point, though, I want to introduce another element: that of the gift. The Australian philosopher Rosalyn Diprose and her book Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas has heavily influence my thinking here, although, as we’ll see, I have some concerns about it too.

In effect, what Diprose suggests is that the intertwining of self and other that Merleau-Ponty characterises as grounding subjectivity is in fact a process of corporeal generosity. The other gives me the ways of being which I adopt, adapt, recognise and misrecognise and embody. These gifts are never-ending; indeed, my being-in-the-world is perpetually in process, however much it might become sedimented through repetition. (I’m tempted to link to Fido the Yak here, in his semi-anxious musings on the impossibility of repetition and the resultant production of the absurd, but I fear I haven’t grasped it well enough to really engage it properly here. Nonetheless, the tango with the impossible sounds like a perfect way to spend an evening, and thus I can’t let the opportunity to point it all out to you pass by. I intend, Fido, to come back to these questions, if only because I can’t help but have misgivings about the dovetailing of Merleau-Ponty’s weighted term ‘sedimentation,’ and the difference-excising practice of recognising something as repetition. But to the gift.)

The generosity of these others is, importantly, not merely about giving me a pattern of behaviour to take on, but also a gift of difference. It is only in and through this gift of difference that I can come to recognise myself not only as a subject, but as a subject different from others. The corporeal generosity of others not only gives me ways of being-in-the-world (in echo of their comportments) but also gives me their difference, thus enabling my own, different ways of being-in-the-world. In this respect, Diprose argues, corporeal generosity is like differance (hm. If anyone knows how to acute ‘e’s in wordpress, please do let me know. I’ve been lazy up til now, but differance cries out for a touch of French figural difference!) It dwells between subject and other, providing their ‘spacing’: the space that both binds them together and separates them. Diprose’s version:

Contrary to Machan’s thesis, that only in a polity of sovereign property owners is generosity possible, Derrida’s analysis suggests that it is precisely this economy of contract and exchange between self-present individuals that makes generosity impossible. The gift is only possible if it goes unrecognised, if it is not commodified, if it is forgotten by the donor and the donee so that presence (the gift as (a) present and the presence of both the donor and donee) is deferred. (23-24)

This aporia of the gift would not matter much if it was not for the way Derrida, following Heidegger, ties the gift to the gift-event of Being: Being gives itself int he present on the condition that it is not (a) present (Derrida, 1990, 20, 27). In deference to this qualification read Derrida’s account of the gift as a version of his account of the constitution of self-identity and difference: like differance, generosity describes the operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists the full presence of meaning, identity, and Being, so that the self is dispersed into the other. Derrida defines difference as

the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive… production fothe intervals without which the ‘full’ terms would not signify, would not function. (Derrida 1981, 27)

Self-identity, a manner of being, cannot be constituted without a production of an interval or a difference between the self and the other. No self-present identity, no relation to Being, is generated without this relation to the other [for reasons I’ll go into soon, I’d like to note that I would have put ‘otherness’ here rather than the other…]. (Corporeal Generosity, pp. 6-7)

So we can see here that Diprose is emphasising Levinas over Heidegger here, in testifying to the primacy (or, better, the pre-originari-ness, or anarchic-ness) of the ethical relation (the one with the other). Okay, but here comes the edge by which Diprose will articulate her critique of Derrida:

As one’s identity and social values are produced through a differentiation between the self and the otehr then the idenitty of the self is dispersed into the other. Differance, like giving-itself, describes an operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists and disorganises the totalization or full presence of meaning, identity, or Being. It is the operation of differeance that insists on the gift: the ultimate dispersal of all identity within the event of its constitution. Giving is that which puts the circle of exchange in motion and that which exceeds and disrupts it (Derrida, 1992, 30). And this impossible structure of the gift is such that if self-present identity is claimed in being given to the other, a debt to the other is incurred. (Corp Gen, 7)

To mark my ‘debts’ here, I should point out to those who might recall it an exchange I had with FoucaultIsDead before he disappeared off the intertoobs (or into a new pseudonym, perhaps?). He suggested (if I recall correctly; I may not, so feel free, FiD, if you’re about, to correct me in comments/via the contact form), in response to my Private Law, that indebtedness is the key term by which our political and ethical investments occur. I responded that this wasn’t my understanding, and here I can finally say with sufficient context that the sense of indebtedness arises only in the recognition of the gift, and in the concommittant assertion of strict division between self and other. This is a hint towards a future post and the final discussion of my thesis, so I won’t go on about it now; I suspect that there are, actually ways of testifying to the gifts I have been given that don’t fall into the commodifying, individualising of traps of recognition. (Ms. Pepperell, this reminds me I really ought to address this with you! I have a sneaking suspicion that your distrust of Honneth and the rest of the recognition-obsessed crowd dovetails quite intriguingly with this point.)

Anyway, to return to Diprose’s critique of Derrida. The traditional conception of generosity is what she’s using Derrida to critique here, but it’s also what prompts her concerns with his theory:

Understanding generosity in terms of Derrida’s analysis of the impossibility of the gift helps locate the parsimony endorsed by other accounts such as Machan’s. Machan’s claim that individual sovereignty and property ownership come before gnerosity overlooks the possibility that in claiming freedom and property as one’s own, soemthing has already been taken from other. The generosity of the individual property owner who gives his or her acquisitions, which is the only generosity that Machan recognises, is built on the generosity of others that Machan would rather forget… (Corp Gen, 8)

Here we see the element of economic critique that threads through Diprose’s concerns. It is, of course, the observation that in order for a profit to be made, workers need to be paid less than their work is actually worth. Here we can see an echo of Brown’s pointing out of the tolerance embodied by many of those disadvantaged, who, willingly or not, give stability to the economy through the gift of their tolerance of their own exploitation. Diprose puts it this way, though:

In suggesting that generosity is infected with a selective forgetting, I have already added to Derrida’s analyses of the impossibility of the gift, at least by insisting on a different emphasis. By tying the gift to its radical forgetting and its operation to the deferral of self-present identity, Derrida’s account may help expose the individualism and parsimony of Machan’s and One Nation’s [that’s a ultra-racist, ultra-right-wing party that has managed to do some pretty nasty stuff to the political spectrum in Australia, for those who don’t know] positions, but it also invites interpretations of his work that are no more concerned with social justice than Machan or One Nation seem to be. Critiques of individualism and the metaphysics of presence can and have lead [sic] to (postmodern [I want to add, in the pejorative sense, here, given that I have issues some ungenerous definitions of postmodern]) claims, although not by Derrida, of the death of individual sovereignty in faor of the dispersal of identity and meaning. Emphasising the way that the gift does its work only by being forgotten and then throught he dispersal of presence overlooks how, in practice, the generosity and the gifts of some (property owner, men, wage earners, whites) tend to be recognised and remembered more often than the generosity and gifts of others (the landless, women, the unemployed, indigenous peoples, and immigrants).It is the systematic, asymmetrical forgetting of the gift, where only the generosity of the privileged is memorialized, that social inequities and injustice are based. In attending to the connection between generosity and social justie, which is the aim of all the analyses in this book, it is necessary to shift the emphasis away from, while keeping in mind the aporia of the gift to… address the question of the systematic but asymmetrical forgetting of the gift that allows the generosity of the forgotten and the parsimony of the memorialized to constitute hierarchical relations of domination within economies of contract and exchange. (Corp Gen, 8-9)

Okay, so here we have a sense of what memorialising and forgetting are: they are the economic, social and political engagements with the gift, the ways of making present that which cannot be made present without being utterly changed. This is the point that Levinasians the world over continually struggle with: how do the ethical and the political interact? If ethics always comes before politics, does this mean that ethics can only shape politics (as Levinas claims it should) whilst politics can never shape ethics? Obviously, Diprose takes Derrida’s (and others’, such as Bernasconi’s) position with regard this matter, and in a convincing way. There are particular ethical relations and gifts that are continually recognised, continually marked as generous, and thus function as a key part of the privilege attached to the donor (generosity becomes a mark of privilege, here.) On the other hand, there are gifts that are rarely, if ever, recognised as gifts. This might leave them being gifts, but it also means, for example, that the gifts traditionally been given by women in (say) the sustenance of the body politic through the maintenance of the home and thus the well-being of the worker, and in the (re)production of new workers of course (raised with good, generous work ethics) remains unrecognised, irrelevant. Although this ensures that these gifts remain gifts, challenging (however quietly) the self-presence of identity, it also means that these gifts can never figure in the economic or political sphere, and thus the privilege of being recognised as generous is denied women; after all, this generosity is merely who they are, naturally. (I’m actually (not quite) resisting the urge to poke Sinthome at this point, given his recent post on properties, by-products, individuals, naturalisation and (is this unfair?) essences). On the other hand, privilege attaches to recognised generosity: the philanthropist (to pick a banal and obvious example) who gives money to an institution has his/her generosity recognised, and the gift becomes a kind of commodity, offered (however much they may not seek return) in exchange for the increase in his/her privilege. Which of course enables the recognition of them as generous personages, and thus enables the recognition of whatever else they (or, significantly, other subjects identified as ‘the same as’ them) ‘give’. This is how the ethical and the political are intertwined: only some gifts are recognised, and this recognition in turn enables some subjects as generous contributors to the being of others… and thus are injustices produced and reproduced…

To come in this series: the forgetting required in order to memorialise, memorialising and forgetting in the flesh, body modification, my concerns about the consequences of Diprose’s position, responsible comportments and, hopefully, eventually, some consideration of the significance of why tolerance of others is irresponsible, where the tolerance of otherness is key… tantalising? Well, it is for me 😉 Maybe, one day, I’ll actually be able to make the point that I want to ‘finish’ my thesis on…. hey, I can dream!

HOW much would he hate that, huh?? Well, no, not really, but I think the idea of applying a vaguely Derridean concept to the Grond Moister of Genealogy might be somewhat insulting. Still… if Hacking’s happy to do it, then me too! me too! (not that I claim any originality in this move.)

I’m in the midst of writing a paper, and this is bad procrastination before I get back into it. Nonetheless, I feel badly for a) no posting and b) no posting of anything actually… actual. You kids deserve more that frou-frouha. And thus: some of my minor conclusions for this paper. Nothing new, really, if you know my work, but nonetheless, I figure most of you don’t (what with my… what’s the opposite of stellar?… extraordinarily earthy publications record!).

Between biopolitics and anatamopolitics (the management of the population and the disciplining of individual bodies), Foucault’s biopower provides a rich analytical framework for denaturalising the function of medicine and locating its role in the political sphere of a normalising society. Yet for all of his understanding of how bodies are disciplined, he fails to interrogate in any detail the political and fundamentally normalising structure of contemporary phenomenological experience. Alcoff’s work has permitted us an understanding of the way that racism—so key to contemporary power/knowledge (I’ve discussed this earlier; Foucault positions racism as a technique for fragmenting the population into superrace and subrace, and thus as not simply attaching to what we might otherwise, in more everyday use, call ‘race’ but I think to a range of other ‘attributes’ including homosexuality and disability)—functions not only at the level of institutions, managing a fragmented population, or the attempt to discipline bodies to the sustaining of the ‘supperace’ and through the whittling away of (sometimes the attributes of) the ‘subrace’. It occurs and is reiterated through racialised ways of being in the world, which shape not only the interraction between people, but embodied perceptions which gain their veracity by appearing to be neutral observations of what really is.

These perceptions, then, are actually whole body experiences of the world, making it clear that the bodily reactions that may accompany racist (in Foucault’s broad sense) ‘observations’, on the part of those (un)marked as ‘super-racial’ (read white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, male)—reactions which may include anxiety, nausea, fear and anger—are not reactions that ‘come after’ the perception, but are bound up with and constitutive of it. This demonstrates that phenomenological experience, however slippery and uncertain it is, provides a rich source for analysis of the function of power. Given the centrality of suffering to medicine’s legitimacy and function in our normalising society, the place of this phenomenological experience within the techniques of biopower needs to be considered.

Actually this isn’t the conclusion so much as the argument that gets us to considering suffering as (deep breath, potential further loss of anonymity) a somatechnic—a technique of biopower that invests embodied experience (which, no, I don’t take as separate from ‘cognitive’ experience*) alongside the well-established techniques of population-management and individual bodily discipline. If you’re all very good (or careful, or good at it) I might post some of my stuff trying to explicate the role of suffering in the circulation of power and the normalising of the ‘subracial’.

PS Do any of my (critical race, especially) readers have a response to Foucault’s configuration of racism as something that attaches more generally to the fragmenting of the population (into, I think, the normal ‘superrace’ and the abnormal ‘subrace’)? I don’t think he’s claiming that these all function in the same way, and thus that he’s trying to ‘flatten-out’ different forms of discrimination, and besides, I think there’s something significant to the fact that Nazism (which he takes as an example) wasn’t just about positioning Jews as ‘subrace’ but a whole range of other forms of ‘difference,’ including other minority races, those with disabilities and homosexuals, a configuration I think we continue to live with. I also think that characterising the fragmentation of the population that biopower enacts as racism helps us to see that race (in the narrower, more contemporary-usage sense) isn’t a neutral and naturally occurring ‘observation of the fact’. Nonetheless, I occasionally have anxieties that I’m reproducing a problematic conflation… thoughts?

*actually I suspect that I should write something soon on why I think the distinction between ‘cognitive’ or ‘rational’ or ‘conscious’ and ‘bodily’ is, well, a problematic, Cartesian-left-over piece o’ crap (which, I should add with a nod to NP, doesn’t make it any less efficacious in contemporary self-perception (and beyond.))

READ it. Where lies the guilt again, and how does it adhere? How to compass this kind of taking advantage of the APEC laws…?

Forgive brevity/superficiality. Mind-grapples wearied by teaching and slow-burned horror (these domestic ones, and the wondrously rendered brutal ones of Dead Europe.) I hope for sharpness again soon.

So if you’ve actually stuck with reading your way through some of my posts, you’ll know that a reasonably major aspect of my concern is tolerance-more specifically, the capacity of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of bodily tolerances to help think through the intertwining of ethics and politics with phenomenological experience. In other words, MP’s approach allows one to demonstrate how and why it might be that visceral experiences of intolerance-often articulated as disgust, revulsion, stomach-turning, nauseating and so on-exist, and their dependence upon particular configurations of political, ethical and gift and/or exchange economies. Not only this, but I’m interested by the way that the word ‘tolerance’ functions politically to legitimate, reinforce and deem ‘rational’ certain forms of these visceral experiences, and on the other hand to reject, delegitimate, undermine and deem ‘irrational’ other of these experiences which may, for example, be otherwise understood as the visceral intolerance of injustice and the unethical, for example…

I’ve already posted a little about one way in which I think that these bodily tolerances are engendered and play out, in relation to race and politics in Australia. It’s as a kind of follow-up to think that I’m turning to Wendy Brown’s book, entitled Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. The first chapter has been available here [pdf] for some time, but I’m going to put up some notes on it here, in my usual quote+response style. I should mention here that whilst the concerns Brown covers (in the chapters I’ve read so far, anyway) aren’t entirely new-that is, I spend more of my time going ‘yes that’s right,’ rather than ‘oh my god! I’d never thought of that’-approaching questions of liberalism, imperialism, bigotry, racism, civilisation, barbarism, inclusion, exclusion, difference and identity (amongst other things) through a tracking of the conceptualisation of tolerance is quite telling, and does help to demonstrate the significant role it has come to play in the contemporary climate. One point which I have to say it’s kind of a relief to find an American actually exploring is the relation between tolerance, individualism and depoliticisation. While I am, clearly, interested in what some might call ‘personal experience,’ my interest is in its contingency, in why it functions the way it does and the degree to which that effects (no, goddammit, grammar checker, I mean ‘effects’!) particular political agendas. Sometimes I think that elements of the blogosphere (in a reflection of the rest of the ‘real’ world, of course!) are so keen to get to political action/activism of whatever kind that they not only don’t stop to think it through in sufficient detail, they actively reject the idea that such critical engagement might be important; and often this winds up in a kind of reification of ideas like ‘choice’, ‘individuality’ and ‘rationality’ in ways that suppose these things to be somehow beyond the function of politics, or, more clearly, beyond the effects of ‘repression’ or ‘oppression.’ I share the concern about needing to act (absolutely!!! and I do understand the worry about ‘theory’ being impractical) but at the same moment, I think we need to find ways of acting without giving up the perpetual critical engagement with the very terms by which we act. I have a number of reasons for this stance, but one of them is that one of the biggest problems with the way that politics is currently run is that the position taken today must be true forever and ever; it’s far too totalising, and resists critical engagement. So I think it’s a significant move for activism to resist this totalising tendency of politics more broadly; this is, of course, an extremely difficult line to maintain, especially in the current context. Nonetheless. My concerns still stand, even if I understand the position that motivates ‘strategic’ investments in, say, inadequate concepts like ‘human rights.’ Mmm. I’m resisting the temptation to go on and on in the usual style of the paranoid vaguely theoretical academic-y sort in order to express my sympathy with and investment in activist politics; but I think I’ll leave it stand for now!

Aaaanyway. Back to actual topic. So, given that this afternoon (wow, actually, it’s taken me a lil while to formulate this post, so it was a while ago, really!) I picked up the book after ordering it a few weeks ago, with no further ado, here are notes on chapter 1.

There’s an epigram here that I kinda like, even as I’m not sure it engages the detail of tolerance, it does at least shift the question of tolerance away from the rational:

“Tolerance is not a product of politics, religion or culture. Liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and atheists, whites, Latinos, Asians, and blacks… are equally capable of tolerance and intolerance… [T]olerance has much less to do with our opinions than with what we feel and how we live.” -Sarah Bullard, Teaching Tolerance.

I’m not really convinced that this is accurate, in the sense that tolerance as it is understood currently seems to rely upon very particular configurations of difference and identity, arising out of a white Western framework (which I actually think tends to produce a lack of tolerance, but we’ll get into that in a sec). At the same time, the constructionist/contextualist (Alcoff’s preferred term) streak in me tends to think that phrases like ‘equally capable’ wind up meaning very little-equally capable given what context? Is this some kind of attempt to counter the naturalisation of (especially current) Western attributions of differing tolerance capacities, often down race and political lines? I’m also unconvinced that political ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ doesn’t affect the capacity for tolerance (at least if ‘liberalism’ (my god it’s so American to set conservative vs liberal as the only real political distinction, and I’m not sure it’s quite so applicable in other contexts) is taken to mean left-leaning or progressive positions). Actually, I think what I mean is that liberal and conservative people may well come out equal in the tolerance stakes, I’m not convinced that there aren’t other political positions which enable other ways of thinking tolerance; perhaps even beyond the conservative tendencies of tolerance (my god; is it possible?!).

(Just as an aside, do you think it’s significant that every time I’ve gone to type ‘my god’ in the past few days I’ve typed ‘my dog’? I’d like to think it is, though why exactly I’m not sure.)

And Brown begins:

“How did tolerance become a beacon of multicultural justice and civic peace at the turn of the twenty-first century? A mere generation ago, tolerance was widely recognized in the United States as a code word for mannered racialism. Early in the civil rights era, many white northerners staked their superiority to their southern brethren on a contrast between northern tolerance and southern bigotry. But racial tolerance was soon exposed as a subtle form of Jim Crow, one that did not resort to routine violence, formal segregation, or other overt tactics of superordination but reproduced white supremacy all the same.” (p.1)

I can’t help it; I immediately begin to wonder about the way that radical individualism which seems to characterise so much of (particularly US) politicised discourse (see the Eugenics or choice? post) permitted the forgetting of this kind of awareness of racism as not merely government controlled. That is, I would tend to think that it is as individualism became more thoroughly entrenched that this awareness of collective, ‘mannered’ racism was lost. Individualism permits incredible levels of conservatism, really, and of course the concealment of such.

Anyway, so Brown suggests that it was as a result of this awareness of the perpetuation of white supremacy that

“[f]reedom and equality, rather than tolerance, became the watchwords of justice projects on behalf of the excluded, subordinated, or marginalised.” (p. 1-2)

Although at this point it would seem she suggests that these ‘justice projects’ premised on freedom and equality countered the concealed racism of ‘tolerance,’ she’s not naively assuming that freedom and equality remained pure of the problems of tolerance…

“Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been something of a global renaissance in tolerance talk. Tolerance surged back into use in the late twentieth century as multiculturalism became a central problematic of liberal democractic citizenship; as Third World immigration threatened the ethnicized identities of Europe, North America, and Australia; [woot! Check it out, we made the ‘West’ list. Am I alone in thinking that this is pretty rare in US books?] as indigenous peoples pursued claims of preparation, belonging and entitlement; as ethnically coded civil conflict became a critical site of international disorder; and as Islamic religious identity intensified and expanded into a transnational political force. Tolerance talk also became prominent as domestic norms of integration and assimilation gave way to concerns with identity and difference on the lefta nd as the rights claims of various minorities were spurned as ‘special’ rather than universal on the right.” (p. 2)

She then goes on to demonstrate the breadth of application of the word ‘tolerance,’ from the UN (practically everywhere) to European attempts to negotiate immigration, to US attempts to tackle racialised segregation and community violence, the premise of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ solution to homophobia in the military, and even the “rubric under which George W Bush, upon taking office in his first term, declared that appointees in his administration would not have their sexual orientations scrutinized… or revealed.” (p. 2) It’s also a defining feature of education, and religious and secular discourse. I find this interesting, that tolerance is the feature of education in the US. Friends of mine who did bachelors in Early Childhood Education (that’s from preschool/childcare all the way through to year 3 or 4 at school, I think) which, granted, is a fairly innovative degree, didn’t learn how to teach tolerance, but rather had a unit called ‘anti-bias,’ a configuration which wasn’t merely about non-discriminatory practice within educational institutions, but enabled considerations of teaching things like ‘critical literacy.’ (See, I always knew critical strategies weren’t dependent on second-year uni readings!) These friends make me hopeful for education!!

Ah, and here we come to the role tolerance plays in the crossover between conservatives and liberals:

“Moreover, even as certain contemporary conservatives identify tolerance as a codeword for endorsing homosexuality, tolerance knows no political party: it is what liberals and leftists reproach a religious, xenophobic, and homophobic right for lacking, but also what evangelical Christians claim that secular liberals refuse them and what conservative foreign policy ideologues claim America cherishes and ‘radical Islamicists’ abhor. Combined with this bewildering array of sites and calls for tolerance is an impressive range of potential objects of tolerance, including cultures, races, ethnicities, sexualities, ideologies, lifestyle and fashion choices, political positions, religions, and even regimes.” (p. 2-3)

I’d just like to point out that many of these objects of tolerance gain their weight through a claim to individualism. Interestingly, though, as she goes on to point out, each of these objects do not demand the same kinds of tolerance, but a whole range of ‘modalities’ of tolerance. Her examples here are intriguing:

“That is, modalities of tolerance talk that have issued from postcolonial encounters with indigenous peoples in settler colonies do not follow the same logics as those that have issued from European encounters with immigrants from its former colonies or those that are centred on patriarchal religious anxieties about insubordinate gender and sexual practices. Similarly, an Islamic state seeking to develop codes of tolerance inflects the term differently than does a Euro-Atlantic political imaginary within which the nation-states of the West are presumed always already tolerant.” (p. 3)

These distinctions are important to make, I do not doubt. Nonetheless, I do have a sneaking suspicion that part of the homogenisation of difference that seems to characterise the West is enabled through the refusal to accept that these modes of tolerance are different. That is, the usual traps associated with deploying ‘equality’ (that of the reduction to sameness) have come to shape tolerance practice as well, such that it becomes possible to talk about the claims of ‘minority groups’ (as they’re usually characterised, at least in Australia) to tolerance as equivalent claims, even where they are really very different (especially in practical terms). In the midst of the dominant logic of scarce resources, this means that each claim to tolerance is subject to the same kinds of distrust and suspicion, the same kinds of intolerance. Mmm. A kind of intolerance to tolerance. This reminds me of the issues of generosity raised here. And Brown seems to agree:

“Given this proliferation of and variation in agents, objects, and political cadences of tolerance, it may be tempting to conclude that it is too polymorphous and unstable to analyze as a political or moral discourse. I pursue another hypothesis here: that the semiotically polyvalent, politically promiscuous, and sometimes incoherent use of tolerance in contemporary American life, closely considered and critically theorized, can be made to reveal important features of our political time and condition. The central question of this study is… What kind of political discourse, with what social and political effects, is contemporary tolerance talk in the United States? What readings of the discourses of liberalism, colonialism, and imperialism circulating through Western democracies can analytical scrutiny of this talk provide? The following chapters aim to track the social and political work of tolerance discourse by comprehending how this discourse constructions and positions liberal and nonliberal subjects, cultures, and regimes; how it figures conflict, stratification, and difference; how it operate normatively; and how its normativity is rendered oblique almost to the point of invisibility.” (pp. 3-4)

This last bit, as you can imagine, kinda makes me cheer. A consideration of the normative configuration of difference through tolerance by Brown might let me get away without having to argue this at huge lengths in the thesis. It also is useful because all too often tolerance is deployed as responding to an ahistorical truth, and the political efficacy of it remains unconsidered: that is, tolerance itself does things to the political realm, affecting the operation and responses to difference. Because tolerance is treated as an ahistorical good, we miss this too often. (I use ‘we’ pretty loosely here, so don’t feel too interpellated!

At this point, she explicitly refuses to understand tolerance as ahistorical and universal, and introduces governmentality as key (and here I kinda wish I’d read this before my very first article (about to be released… or… are articles released? published? whatever) was due) aspect of the function of tolerance, saying:

“As a consortium of para-legal and para-statist practices in modern constitutional liberalism-practices that are associated with the liberal state and liberal legalism but are not precisely codified by it-tolerance is exemplary of Foucault’s account of governmentality as that which organizes ‘the conduct of conduct’ at a variety of sites and through rationalities not limited to those formally countenanced as political. Absent the precise dictates, articulations, and prohibitions associated with the force of law, tolerance nevertheless produces and positions subjects, orchestrates meanings and practices of identity, marks bodies, and conditions political subjectivities. This production, positioning, orchestration, and conditioning is achieved not through a rule or a concentration of power, but rather through the dissemination of tolerance discourse across state institutions; civic venues such as schools, churches, and neighborhood associations; ad hoc social groups and political events; and international institutions or forums.” (p. 4)

I can’t help feeling like Brown is conscious of needing to address political theorists here, ones who might be less than open to her arguments about say the historicity of notions of tolerance. It is around this point that I want (her!) to evoke Alcoff and Merleau-Ponty, to demonstrate that tolerance also conditions bodies phenomenologically to reflect a particular set of inclusions and exclusions. In the end, I would suggest, the ‘rationalities not limited to those formally countenanced as political’ is really important to pay attention to, because I think that the characterisation of particular ways of being in the world (and attendant tolerances, of course) as rational is part of the function of the discursive construction of tolerance (this is a fairly obvious Foucauldian point, but one that I think is forgotten, sometimes!) What I mean is that I don’t really think that rationality exists ahistorically, aculturally; rather, rationality demonstrates which forms of being are to be considered as cultured (rather than (brute-ishly) natural), as cognitive (rather than bodily/emotional) and justifiable (rather than incoherent and nutty). This is a bit of a complex point, I guess, but the point I’m trying to make is that I tend towards a thoroughly anti-Cartesian conception of subjectivity, but with an awareness that the attributions of particular experiences to the ‘mind’ and the ‘body’ has important political weight. This is a feminist observation as well, because as Genevieve Lloyd has observed, rationality has tended to the codification of the ways that men have tended to think. In relation to tolerance, what I think this allows us to understand is that some forms of intolerance are marked as irrational, and others as rational; yet such distinctions lie not in how ‘cognitive’ some intolerance is, as if the irrationally intolerant were just permitting their emotional/bodily reactions to ‘rule’ them. Rather, the rationality of an in/tolerance is actually about how much that in/tolerance falls in with existing truth-discourses. Bleah. I’m not sure how significant that point was, now that I’ve worked so hard to make it articulate! Sorry about that!

Brown then observes that tolerance has shifted from a means of protection from persecution to a way of conceiving of a good society. This I think is interesting, given her earlier point about ‘freedom and equality’ being the response to the mannered racialism of tolerance in the 70s. In this respect, it’s been increasingly taken up across the political spectrum, to defend extremely different positions. The logic of ‘white liberal decline,’ (eep! whose concept is this again? I’ll try to find it!) or the ‘we are victims too, even though we’re white etc’ position both suppose that white values are under attack and at risk of being completely undermined by various, usually racialised groups, regularly deploys the need to make these others ‘tolerate’ white ‘values’ (what others would call ‘intolerance’). As Brown describes,

“the enemy of tolerance is now the weaponized radical Islamicist state or terror cell rather than the neighborhood bigot… While some of these changes [in the deployment of ‘tolerance’ talk] have simply brought to the surface long-present subterranean norms in liberal tolerance discourse, others have articulated tolerance for genuinely new purposes. These include the legitimation of a new form of imperial state action in the twenty-first century, a legitimation tethered to a constructed opposition between a cosmopolitan West and its putatively fundamentalist Other. Tolerance thus emerges as part of a civilizational discourse that identifies both tolerance and the tolerable with the West, marking nonliberal societies and practices as candidates for a intolerable barbarism that is itself signalled by the putative intolerance ruling these societies. In the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries, the West imagines itself as standing for civilization against primitivism, an din the cold war years for freedom against tyranny; now these two recent histories are merged in the warring figures of the free, the tolerant and the civilised on one said, and the fundamentalist, the intolerant, and the barbaric on the other… ” (p. 6)

She then turns to acknowledging the racial specificity of this question:

“If tolerance is a political principle used to mark an opposition between liberal and fundamentalist order, how might liberal tolerance discourse function not only to anoint Western superiority but also to legitimate a Western cultural and political imperialism? That is, how might this discourse actually promote Western supremacy and aggression even as it veils them in the modest dress of tolerance? How might tolerance, the very virtue that Samuel Huntington advocates for pre-empting a worldwide clash of civilizations, operate as a key element in a civilizational discourse that codifies the superiority and legimitates the superordination of the West? What is the work of tolerance idscourse in a contemporary imperial liberal governmentality? What kind of subject is thought to be capable of tolerance? What sort of rationality and sociality is tolerance imagined to require and what sorts are thought to inhibit it-in order words, what anthropological presuppositions does liberal tolerance entail and circulate?” (pp. 6-7)

“The conceit of secularism undergirding the promulgation of tolerance within multicultural liberal democracies not only legitimates their intolerance of and aggression toward non-liberal states or transnational formations but also glosses the ways in which certain cultures and religious are marked in advance as ineligible for tolerance while others are so hegemonic as to not even register as cultures or religious; they are instead labelled ‘mainstream’ or simply ‘American… [Tolerance[ operates from a conceit of neutrality that is actually thick with bourgeois Protestant norms.'” (p. 7)

If these hegemonic ‘cultures’ labelled at all; in fact, I think probably the most hegemonic position is that which doesn’t even need to be modified by an adjective like this. And as Brown points out, the distinction between the public and private spheres is key here in delineating the tolerable and the intolerable, and in enabling a kind of moralism to attend both individual behaviour and the reflection of it in the global political sphere.

“…[T]olerance as a mode of late modern governmentality that iterates the normalcy of the powerful and the deviance of the marginal responds to, links, and tames both unruly domestic identities or affinities and nonliberal transnational forces that tacitly or explicitly challenge the universal standing of liberal precepts. Tolerance regulates the presence of the Other both inside and outside the liberal democratic nation-state, and often it forms a circuit between them that legitimates the most illiberal actions of the state by means of a term consummately associated with liberalism.” (p. 8 )

One of the clearest domains in which this ‘circuiting’ of domestic and global politics occurs is that of immigration. The suspicion towards asylum seekers is both produced by and productive of a particular, imperialist mode of engaging in global politics. In Australia, this ‘circuiting’ lies even in the ways that certain groups are described: somehow particular groups of kids are labelled ‘Lebanese gangs,’ and the ‘of Middle-Eastern appearance’ epithet so regularly a part of designating suspects in the media. It ensures that all the weight of suspicion that already is cast over the Middle East comes to enforce particular ways of negotiating domestic politics; and, I think, it also shapes the social. The locking-together of these ‘levels’ via the concept of tolerance means that each is extraordinarily powerful. The ‘Children Overboard’ incident, for example, in which John Howard lied and claimed that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard, enabled him to claim that his domestic ‘border security’ policy was clearly what was required, because ‘those people’ had values ‘obviously’ had values so different from ours that ‘we’ wouldn’t want them here anyway. This evocation of differing cultural values drew upon the racism and xenophobia that already characterised the post-911 Western international politics, in order to reinforce domestic policy. The fact that Howard was re-elected pretty much off the back of this travesty demonstrates that individual Australians were solidly invested in this particular construction of selves, domestic and international politics. (Again, this post tracks some of this kind of logic.) Let’s not forget, in amongst all this, that the universal doctrine of human rights focused fairly squarely on enabling and producing tolerance, so it’s a term with strong history and investment (Brown goes further in this respect, but I’ll get to that later…)

More to follow soon!

YES, that’s right, I’m wading into this one… however unwise that feels (especially since I’m still feeling a little raw!) Nonetheless. Courage, mes amis!

Ezra and his commenters have been tossing around the question of whether Ross Douthart is ‘fair’ when he uses the word ‘eugenics’ to describe the dramatic increase in pregnancy terminations in the presence of a ‘negative’ prenatal genetic diagnosis (PGD). I’ll be honest from the beginning and state that I haven’t read all the comments; there’s lots and from what I’ve seen, they’re tending towards the repetitive and liberal-American approach to this question, which I’ve seen elsewhere, specifically (well, recently-ish, anyway) on Feministe and Pandagon in response to Michael Berube’s article (ugh, if I’d known they’d paywall it, I’d have kept a copy! Sorry, kids!) I find the kinds of discussion that tend to circulate around this question of eugenics quite frustrating, for reasons I’ll sketch here.

Before I do that, I want to point out that I am solidly pro-choice, and the anti-eugenics argument is often used, as Amanda Marcotte points out, to try to catch liberals out (ooh, look, you say anyone can abort, but you’re killing off disabled people! Haha, you hypocrites!). At the same time, my pro-choice-ness doesn’t by any stretch mean I want to pretend that that means that terminations are thereby ethically and politically neutral (hey, I’m a cultural studies kid; nothing’s ethically and politically neutral!) I understand why this kind of rhetoric is often deployed: these choices are regularly demonised, and it’s often simplest to respond with an argument-ending ‘well, it’s up to the woman,’ not least given that the context within which these questions are raised tends to be hostile and frame the debate. (I mean, really, just as an aside, abortion still isn’t actually legal in NSW; the women who do have abortions slip in through the loophole of the (future) child posing a threat to their mental health. There are many problems with this: it keeps abortion illegal except where a particular condition is met so there’s always the possibility any given abortion could abruptly be ‘made’ illegal through a demonstrated failure to comply with the conditions, and it ensures that the condition upon which legality is conferred is self-pathologisation—the pathology of not ‘being able to be a mother’ which as we all know tends to be equated with successful womanhood. But I have no doubt that my students are correct and ‘we’re all just equal now.’ No doubt whatsoever. (Fuck!))

Okay, but on to the eugenics question. The argument seems to be that eugenics as it was deployed in earlier times (the Nazis are an easy—and absolutely justified, of course—target here, often raised; the fact that their massacre of people with disabilities (amongst very many other groups) was so intensely awful because they were attempting to play catch up to the USA’s longer-standing policies is usually forgotten) was state-based, an institutionalised set of attempts to improve the national stock through very basic genetic manipulations (based, interestingly, on animal husbandry which I gather got big around about the time of enclosure at least in the UK, which preceded and arguable contributed to the Industrial Revolution there.) Because the state doesn’t have a policy which requires termination in aid of eugenics, and because this intention to improve national stock is not the conscious intent of parents who decide to terminate fetuses diagnosed with (I’ll fall in with the bugbear) say, Down Syndrome, the claim is made that the use of the word ‘eugenics’ is ‘very unfair’. These are individual choices, the logic seems to go, the choices of individual parents that are made because really, raising a child with disabilities just is so very difficult as to be impossible. As such, the implication seems to be, the individuality of the choice ensures that it’s neutral, and thus that the individual (and no one else) can only be held responsible for their own choice, whatever the larger consequences may be. The fact that a tiny minority of parents of fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome refuse termination is irrelevant; all these choices are individual, and neutral, and apparently grapple with the again politically neutral ‘simple reality’. That seems to be the position.

This is part of why individualism is so very dangerous. It conceals the fact that whatever your position on abortion and the selective termination of fetuses diagnosed with disabilities, these choices are not neutral. They don’t occur in a vacuum. They occur in a context within which a child born with a disability is a ‘tragedy.’ They occur in a context, it would seem from the comments on Pandagon and Feministe, where individuals believe they have the right to the kind of child they want (seriously, the parenting style such an approach is going to engender worries me deeply, quite aside from these concerns!). The number of comments that say something along the lines of ‘well, it’s fine if someone wants to raise a kid with Down Syndrome, but for me, personally, there’s just no way I could do that.” (One of the most beautiful rejoinders to this style of individiaulising argument came from a person with a disability (I can’t find the comment, now, sorry!) who supposed that his/her parents probably assumed that they couldn’t raise him/her either, but had ended up doing a ‘fine job’.) The decision to terminate a pregnancy because the fetus will probably be disabled occurs in a context within which difference, always read as abnormalcy, of all kinds is increasingly rejected. This is partially, I would suggest, precisely because normalcy is becoming so much easier to achieve, so much easier to control via technologies just like this.

It astonishes me that people can read comment after comment of people arguing that they, personally, couldn’t raise a child with disabilities and not, finally, wonder why it is that almost everyone is expressing the same desire. Somehow the repetitive claim to individual choice demonstrates that this desire is neutral. The implication seems to be either that this is the only normal way to respond to this particular reality (which assumes a whole lot of things, as we’ll see) or that it’s a coincidence that almost everyone wants the same thing. Ah yes, the pure freedom of the unique individual is expressed in their absolutely free choice which just so happens to be the same as everyone else’s. Uh huh.

I don’t think it is. I think that the context which understands disability as tragedy, abnormalcy as requiring ‘fixing,’ difference as needing a cure is precisely responsible for the production of these kinds of desires. I hate to say it, but even basic Foucault allows us to see that power operates differently now: it no longer needs to be simply instituted by statewide policies that kill people off (though that too, of course, happens.) The discursive space within which subjects are produced as individuals is so heavily medicalised, heavily informed by the binary normal/abnormal (matched to worthy/not worthy of life) that our desires, our choices, our ‘unique’ individuality cannot help but be shaped by them. And of course, a context shaped by such discourses ensures that only the claims of all these individual commenters who talk about the disaster of disability make sense; the expressed incomprehensibility and censure of Deaf parents deliberately seeking a Deaf child, for example, demonstrate that the discursive space will only permit one kind of desire. The ‘normal’ desire, so different from the different ‘abnormal’ desire for a child with disabilities.

What all of this means is that although the obvious forms of state-based institutionalised eugenics may be gone (or less obvious, given the documented pressure placed by medical practitioners on mothers to abort in the presence of a fetal abnormality), this doesn’t mean that the desires of individuals are somehow power-free and neutral. It just means that power has become more diffuse, circulating, as Foucault showed, in and through exactly those things we come to see as most neutral: science, discourse, institutions and most telling of all, through individual subjects. Instead of forcible terminations, which would be dangerously (for power) experienced as a restriction of freedom, it produces subjects who simply cannot imagine raising a child with a disability, and believe that the only right and true decision (“for me, personally”) is termination. It’s a more effective approach, not least because power doesn’t look oppressive; medical technology is merely offering the fulfillment of individual desires. The homogeneity of these desires, and the difficulty of actualising any other desires, is ensured by the refusal to offer sufficient support (social, financial, practical…) to those with disabilities and those who support them; there is little doubt that it is a socially and economically difficult situation, raising a child with disability, but this is represented as simply a neutral reality, rather than the result of a set of policies, procedures, funding and discursive and conceptual frameworks that could be (and occasionally are) done otherwise.

I am not by any stretch seeking to demonise women for their choices to terminate pregnancies; as I said before, I don’t think there is a ‘neutral’ decision to be made and I’m certainly not seeking to moralise. Nonetheless, to say ‘it’s not eugenics, it’s choice’ pretends that the mostly-just-asserted ‘individuality’ of choice somehow ensures that each decision has neither ethical or political consequences nor ethical and political antecedents; this is ludicrous, and incredibly damaging. It conceals the diffuse and complex techniques and technologies of normalising power behind the neutrality of the individualised subject, making them really hard to tackle. It suggests that because it’s not eugenics-like-in-the-good-old-days, it’s not systemic, or premised on the exclusion of people with disabilities (often from life). Quite aside from my concern about how difference is constituted in this context (namely as necessarily pathological), it becomes almost impossible to see how these kinds of decisions both produce and are produced through the increasingly slavish (but don’t worry, it’s individual! it’s neutral! no worries!) adherence to an increasingly narrow conception of the normal. And that has consequences for a whole variety of forms of difference, from Down Syndrome (ooh, so scary!) through to ‘bad’ accents (see Elliott’s Better than Well) through to the straightness of one’s nose. Reinforcing this normal/abnormal, happy/suffering, worth/unworthy set of binaries has really significant consequences for everyone: it shapes how we continue to think about and experience disability for example. But for me, personally, the most troubling one is perpetuation of a conceptual system shaped by the inability to imagine difference as something other than pathology, other than a tragedy, other than suffering, other than a drag to deal with. And that’s not just some differences, but, increasingly, all of them.

QUITE often these last couple of days (weeks, months, years!), I am feeling like the world shifted and got ugly while I wasn’t looking. It’s not at all true, of course, just a mark of the ways privilege inflects my life. But I can’t seem to shake the despondency that shudders up a gear into anger occasionally. Well, I’m going to try writing some of it out, and see how that goes. And then I’ll follow it (hopefully) with some notes on ‘The Time of the King’ so my hopefully not too horrible self-indulgence doesn’t sit at the top of the blog.

One of the worst things, actually, about the wake of the announced ‘national emergency’ is the demonstration of how very big the world is. I think WOC Blog is one of the only non-Australian blogs I read that mentioned anything about Howard’s sudden concern for childhood innocence (yeah, I know, it might just be the stuff I read, I get that); the rest of the blogosphere seems to not have recognised that this is happening, or perhaps it’s just not close enough to home to really matter. But the cheerfulness of some of the blogs I read has felt grating the last two days. It’s a bit like grief (and that’s probably not a coincidence): can’t everyone see the world has changed?

And of course it hasn’t, not precisely. To suggest that is to suggest that the plans being put into place for the Northern Territory had no precedent, when probably the scariest thing about them is that they are merely the extension of existing logics. Normalising logics. Assimilatory logics. White logics. The logic of guilt and innocence. The extraordinary thing is that the Liberal government has managed, in the midst of all this, to claim their own innocence. And not least over the latest death in custody horror: the erasure of the death of Mulrunji Doomadjee in this new plan for the NT ensures the acquittal of Hurley (and the government, really) remains uninterrogated; the declaration of innocence gets to stand because those indigenous people are just so guilty. Really. I mean, how long have they been in power? I don’t think I’ve voted in an election where Labour won (altogether too depressing a thought). But the point is, they’ve had more than ten years in which to actually begin (or, you know, not just undermine every single move towards) the amelioration of the sources of justified white Australian guilt. But without a ‘sorry,’ they move cheerfully on, marginalising entire communities of people until they find a space/Cause terrible enough for them to be able to declare their innocence (an innocence that they thereby make to extend back in time), a space which will allow them to deploy race yet again in service of the ‘tough on x’ election spin. All the better when what they’re doing can be ‘tough on Aboriginals’ at the same moment as being ‘tough on child sex abuse.’ You can catch the racists and the little-l liberals that way (and of course the pretty overlap between those two groups); and it’s the perfect way to crack the Labour lead (though given that… what, two? of the recommendations of 96 in the Little Children are Sacred are actually being taken up, you’d think that Labour would be able to suggest something other than manky ‘bipartisanship’! (I can’t remember where I read this, so I’m sorry; if you know/remember/wrote it(!), let me know, and I’ll edit it in.)) Not that I’m recommending those recommendations; just pointing out that there is, actually, an already-legitimised political platform they could use to stand on and perhaps even (gasp!) vaguely against Howard.

But it’s in the sweet dovetail the government has managed between small-l liberals and racists that the real pinch lies, I think. The introduction of draconian* measures which are apparently (though without real causation, as s0metim3s pointed out in the comments on the last post) in aid of ‘obvious’ liberal goods: no child sex abuse (huh! see dot-point 2 for a hint on the fact that we might want a national initiative on this front; can you imagine what that would look like? Rather different, I suspect!), kids attending school, sobriety and ‘proper’ sexuality means that a discussion of and disagreement with the means (let alone the assimilative tendencies of the ends) becomes a querying of that which the ends seek to ‘fix’. That is, it’s all too clear a risk to start asking too many questions. In the current climate, we’ve seen how this works: questions about the why of ‘terrorism’ are cast as disrespectful to the dead; questions about the why and why like this here get cast as a failure to act at best, and an approval of child sex abuse, alcohol and substance abuse, house ‘disrespecting,’ porn use and so on at worst. Or they will do.

In this context, there’s no space for responding the specificity of the situation: there’s no space to wonder about how unambiguous are the goods of education (especially after a Western liberal framework), for example. There’s no space to think critically about the ends we’re implicitly aiming to engender (it’s really not just about child sex abuse now, is it?), about how and why we can’t conceive of subjectivity let alone community done differently. Now, I know there’s complexities here that I’m treading all over with very big boots, but these are just the pained turning over of ideas: why is it so impossible to find spaces and ways to think the intersections of cultures? I know it’s very complicated, truly, and I’m not anywhere near well-versed enough in critical race studies to know if there are answers already (fill my parentheses in the comments, please!), but in amongst the discussions I am reading, I can’t help but wonder: are there really no ways to think through and negotiate the relations between cultures and communities (and I don’t just mean the ‘white’ and the ‘indigenous’ because they are already too homogenising and leave out a rather large chunk of the population besides (kinda my point)) in ways that don’t simply become assimilative, that don’t merely attempt through differently violent means (is that too strong?) to attempt to produce the same, the Same, the Same? Is it so impossible to enable (and I mean big-p politically, I’m not so naive as to imagine it’s not already happening) the envisaging of indigeneity, whiteness and community in ways that neither erase difference nor reify or romanticise it? In the end, I get the need to move forward; I’m just worried the PM is up to his usual tricks of leading us into the past in the name of a future comforting only because it’s familiar, because it’s already envisaged on the fantasies of that past, one we (well, some of us) know too well was and is a problem. We can only move forward from here, and I get that the intentions of some—perhaps even most, though I don’t really feel that generous—arise from the concern to make a viable future; but I think that to forget the past that brought us here can mean that we forget the specificity of the future we continue to envisage; and worse, to forget that what is actually needed is to find other (non-assimilative? hey, I can dream!) ways to think, dream, live, be other (and maybe unknown) futures.

Sigh. And my heart hurts.

*(y’know, I really like that word, but the context it’s used in means it almost always has bad associations. But dragons, really, on the whole, I suspect would do a better job)

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