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.


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.

Over at New APPS, Catarina links to and comments on a New Scientist article about fMRIs and female sexuality. When my comment grew to be so unwieldy (sigh), I decided to post it over here instead…

Mmm, interesting post – thanks Catarina! And Mark, you’re entirely right… but I think this point has more to say in this context…

Whilst I understand and also reject the Freudian model of understanding ‘mature’ female sexual pleasure (a thesis shocking in its persistent) as lying in being a ‘lodging place for the penis’ (as Irigaray puts it), I’m also hesitant about suggesting that female sexual pleasure arises primarily from the clitoris and that this is unsurprising because it is the homologue with the penis. Again this seems to centre a very particular masculine imagining of sexual pleasure (one, I might add, not necessarily experienced by all men), with feminine versions then imagined as a mirror image. I understand not wanting to buy into a Freudian model, but as Irigaray points out, challenging Freud lies not just in saying ‘my sex is not nothing’, nor ‘my sex is one’, but in elaborating a feminine experience of multiple sites of pleasure, sites which are both distinct and unable to be fully distinguished. The acknowledgement that nipples might also activate ‘genital regions’ (it wasn’t clear to me whether this meant the apparently clearly distinct vaginal or clitoral areas) seems to me to appeal interestingly to such ideas.

Part of the reason I find Irigaray’s focus on the multiple interesting is because it also helps do justice to the voices of other women, who are often treated as if they – like all those immature women out there failing to have vaginal orgasms! – must be, as Mark put it in comments on Catarina’s post, lying. One example is those women who have experienced some form of genital cutting, as Catarina alludes to in the post linked to above. There are a thousand different elements to the debate about female genital cutting, but voices claiming sexual pleasure, like those of the women in this study,  are often dismissed (see also Njambi’s assessment of the how and why these debates often play out this way). There are lots of ways of considering how sexual pleasure can occur in these situations – and the authors focus on the way that, as Catarina pointed out, clitoral tissue is ‘iceberg-like’, spread far further below the surface than most acknowledge. This is legitimate and even expected from scientific types, but it is also probably worth analysing how the experience of erogenousness might be modified by changes to the body.  ( I’ll note that ‘activation’ in the fMRI linked to above can’t really, as far as I understand, be equated with ‘being turned on’ except through the subjective experience of the individual woman – the ones whose accounts, it would seem, may not be able to be fully trusted unlike the Truthiness of the colourful scans – but this is an ongoing issue with fMRI studies, as far as I can tell).

But I also think that the experiences of those with spinal cord injuries have something to contribute here. There’s some evidence [pdf] that orgasmic stimulation does not necessarily, in all cases, require direct contact with the genitals: other parts of the body, such as the skin above the site of spinal cord injury may become intensely erogenous, even to the point of producing orgasm; and in certain cases, women can experience ‘thought orgasms’ with no physical stimulation whatever. Such orgasms are only sometimes experienced as ‘connected’ to genitalia (in much the same way as the nipple example above, I think?) but the fMRI, despite the initial dubiousness of the neuroscientists – because let’s not just actually believe people when they tell you what they experience, amirite? – demonstrates very few differences between those experiencing orgasm through direct vaginal/clitoral contact (they squoosh these two in together, which is clearly a problem) and those having ‘thought-orgasms’.

The point of this is that many of those theorising accounts of sexuality and eroticism which don’t match ‘common sense’ – such as those of BDSM practitioners, trans people and people with spinal cord injury – via contemporary theories of the body talk about ‘remapping’ erogenous zones.  Often, though not always, they’re building on Foucault’s argument about pleasure in relation to sadomasochism, which que(e)ries the ‘virilisation’ of pleasure, that is, questioning the account of sexuality not just the focussed on the genitals, although this is part of it, but focussed on the penis-king. In this sense, Foucault’s account shares some terrain with Irigaray’s, undermining Freud’s focus on the penis and its speculuum-sheath, but also helping to make eroticism and pleasure flexible and multiple, that is, understanding pleasure as capable of modification. He particularly discusses fisting and the role/power-play aspects of sadomasochism, but his point is really: there are pleasures to be produced that exceed heteronormative common sense.

As far as I can see, the accounts offered by these studies of fMRI (well, and their popular representations, which are probably the real site of the problem) would do well to maintain a level of complexity in negotiating with the Truthiness of their studies. Not only do they need to be circumspect in the claims they make about the relationship between the brain and experience (the key difficulty with this kind of neuroscience, I think) but they also need to be more thoroughly aware of the specific embodiment of sexuality of those they are ‘testing,’ and the role that this is playing in a supposedly generalisable ‘neuroscience of sexuality’ (and – sigh – we’re back to Ogg and Gaddam territory). In taking a particular cohort as potentially universalisable, not only are alternative experiences of sexuality excluded or rendered derivative or ‘unnatural’, but the contingency of those dominant, ‘common-sense’-compatible experiences of sexuality are obscured – for example, perhaps the connection between the activation of nipples and genitals is related to the sexualisation of breasts and genitals in contemporary Western culture; and perhaps the continued activation of ‘genital’ areas of the brain in people with SCIs says more about the lingering effects of genitocentric sexuality than about a necessary nerve connection to the genitals (the Vagus nerve really came into its own in the Komisaruk and Whipple paper!) . And, as Foucault seemed profoundly concerned to elaborate, the denial of this contingency, when it becomes truth, also works to deny everyone the proliferating possiblities of pleasures (and the political challenge that that brings – but that’s another chapter in this story, to be told another day).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve been thinking a lot about disability of late, which won’t surprise those of you who have been sharing a particular corner of the blogosphere, in which awesome and fail appear to coexist in some kind of proportion in which the latter sadly sometimes seems to be winning out. In this analysis of the “Harmonisation of Disability Parking Permit Schemes in Australia”, I argue that the shift that is being proposed is from the social model of disability, to the medical model.

The medical model suggests that there is a way that the body ought to be, and any permanent ‘loss’ of such ‘normal’ capacities constitutes disability (and that this is a natural, neutral state of affairs that is no one’s fault—except the individual body, of course). This approach is the most mainstream, and it’s constitutive of much of the discrimination that disabled people (or people with disabilities, both terminologies having a different but important political point to make) experience.

The social model, which is offered as a counter to the medical model, suggests instead that the ‘loss’ of capacity occurs not because of the impairment itself, but because of the impairment in combination with a world built for the temporarily able-bodied. (And this doesn’t only refer to the built environment, of course: models of sociality, for example, are very strongly ableist).

There’s actually another step in this little spectrum, one which doesn’t get much screen time in activism (understandably, because it’s so far from the medical model, and such a challenge to it as to appear incomprehensible or nonsensical to those committed to the medical model). This suggests that even understanding particular bodies as impaired is the result of a presumption about the body. That is, it argues that disability begins at the moment when you understand some bodies as naturally unimpaired, and others as naturally impaired: the drawing of that line is not a neutral, naturally-given one, as we like to pretend. It is a political distinction that is, in itself, is invested with the ability system, which, as Lennard Davis argues, is what constitutes particular bodies as disabled, and thus as the problem. Davis recommends that whenever we see such a problem, we ought to ask how it is that this ‘problem’ is constituted as a problem, and be careful to observe the privilege that attends that which is not considered a problem. What makes disabled bodies into ‘those bodies with problems’? The presumption, essentially, that they ought to be otherwise: normal. And this in turn maintains the privilege of the able body.

The group who potentially loses out most dramatically in the proposed parking permit scheme is those with invisible disabilities, as Lauredhel demonstrates so clearly here. In response, I began thinking about what it meant to have an invisible disability. On the one hand, it might be that we could think of those with invisible disabilities as those who can ‘pass’ as able-bodied. And sometimes this is true, at least some of the time, and there’s little doubt that this ability to pass can lead to privilege as well as the problems associate with invisibility. For example, people approaching someone in a wheelchair will often talk to their assistant pushing the chair, as if the person with a disability is incapable of thought, conversation etc, and this kind of discrimination is something those who can walk are unlikely to confront. On the other hand, we can think more carefully, and see that those who have ‘invisible’ disabilities  are those whose differences simply don’t fit into someone’s expectation of what disability ought to be. And this means that legislation is likely to discriminate against those with ‘invisible’ disabilities because it is employing the medical model of disability. What does this mean? Well, hopefully this little story of mine might help.

Years ago, now, I was stepping out (sorry, I find that phrase hilarious and had to use it) with a young man who had a visual impairment. As he was doing a PhD, this meant that he couldn’t read at quite the rate he might have liked, and sometimes working on the computer was too much. I encouraged him to make use of whatever assistance the disability office at uni could offer him, even though I understood his fairly intense ambivalence about it. They were singularly unhelpful. He felt that they treated him as if he was ‘faking it’, on the one hand, and expecting too much of them on the other. The extension of his scholarship that he was hoping to get was, they told him, simply not going to be possible. I suggested that perhaps he should look to Centrelink’s Disability Allowance to help him fund the completion of his PhD. He picked up the forms, still unhappy about this prospect, even as he knew it was probably necessary, and brought them home.

I looked over his shoulder at the forms he was trying to fill out. He had ticked the box marked ‘visual impairment’, and been sent to another section. In this section, the form asked him for some proof from an opthalmologist. He hesitated. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve seen opthalmologists,” he explained. “But the issue isn’t in my eyes. It’s in my brain.”

His visual impairment, you see, wasn’t a loss of vision due to some problem in the eye, as the form assumed. He had been prone to migraines as a kid, and at some point (I think the age of 11, but this was a while ago), he had had an incredibly severe migraine. He recounted looking downwards, and having his entire left leg disappear in his blindspot. The auras had hung around—a permanent fixture, as it turned out. He saw multiple copies of everything, more or less depending on how good a day it was. Sometimes things looked like a badly tuned TV set, sometimes there were lines, sometimes… you get the idea. But although this interfered with his vision, it didn’t fit the form’s idea of what a visual impairment was. It didn’t seem to fit into any of the other categories either, as far as either of us could tell, although he might have argued a case under ‘having suffered a stroke’ except that that category seemed to think that difficulty speaking and walking would be the primary problems he’d have then. Frustrated and embarrassed, he stepped away from the idea, away from the forms. His impairment wasn’t real, couldn’t be argued for, proven, justified. Everyone would think he was faking it. I couldn’t think of what to say.

This is part of the problem with the medical model. It has a particular image of disability, generally involving the assumption of some level of dependence on others (because of course the temporarily able-bodied are so independent[snort!]), and it institutes this, medically, legislatively. And in so doing, it requires that people with disabilities be people with particular, recognisable kinds of disabilities. Instead of testing for how one is disabled by a particular thing—by inaccessible parking, by stairs, by having to stand to be served, by the university’s expectations of a student’s reading speed—that is, instead of testing for a real problem with the way the world works, it instead requires that you fit an existing imagining of disability. And this existing imagining of disability is very limited, and thoroughly bound up with able-bodied fantasies (nightmares) about disabled bodies: as people in wheelchairs, people who are blind, people who are deaf. And indeed, it assumes that it already knows the effects of each of these impairments, a point which the Deaf community knows and battles, arguing against the idea that Deafness is a lack, or a loss, or an impairment at all. The medical model homogenises disability unnecessarily, and more than this, it renders numerous disabilities invisible because they do not match up to this fantasy of what constitutes disability.

When we legislate according to the medical model, we legislate what disability ought to be, what disability ought to look like. We legislate the visibility of disability, and we do it by rendering a whole mass of heterogeneous bodies imperceptible, invisible, ignore their capacity to be disabled by an able-bodied world. We imagine visual impairments after a singular model where vision is only located in the eye. We imagine mobility restrictions only through difficulty with walking. We imagine that the solution to PWD (and it is a solution to, not a solution for) is compensating for their recalcitrant  body, a body we assume to know all about. We reject the idea that the world might need to be reworked, rethought, rebuilt, and instead maintain disability by maintaining the world as a place which expects certain ‘normal’ things of bodies, and which privileges those bodies which can live up to this ideal as a result. When we legislate according to the medial model of disability, we maintain the disabilities of those who don’t adhere to our nightmare visions of disability, because we’re busy pretending they don’t exist, erasing them from our construction of the world. We ensure that some people remain disabled because we don’t have the imagination to allow the category of ‘disability’ to be shaped by the heterogeneity of real bodies, the heterogeneity of real needs, the heterogeneity of the real ways that people live their lives. We refuse to produce legislation which tests not for ‘the impairment itself’, but for disability, because that might implicate the able-bodied, our standards of normalcy, might trouble the extraordinary privilege maintained only at the disadvantage of those who don’t live up to our standards. We render bodies which might trouble our limited imagining of difference invisible, and then shrug, and raise our hands in the air, and ask how we could possibly have known that such people even existed, and how we could possibly be expected to ‘cater to’ such exorbitant, excessive difference. The perceptibility of bodies is a key stake in the politics of disability, because disabilities aren’t invisible. They’re invisibilised.

P.S We’ve done a whole lot of the work of being active for you! Beppie, Lauredhel and I have given you some quick and easy ways to respond to the supposed “Harmonisation Scheme”: a form letter, and a letter encouraging organisations to submit a response.

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