borders


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therapeutic Forgetting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics, Politics, and Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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!)

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

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

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

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

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

…[gulp]…

To suggest that suffering-or, rather, the desire to avoid it-lies at the heart of contemporary Western conceptions of politics, sociality and subjectivity may at first seem extreme or excessive. Yet political positions are frequently parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and when racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of minority exclusions and exploitations are marked as problematic, this is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, when those envisioning the modern democratic state turned to tales of origins, the state garnered its virtue, its raison d’etre, its superiority, from its capacity to shift lives from being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes 1998, 84). In this imagining, the natural state, against which the body politic defends those within it, is one of suffering.

The centrality of suffering to the conception of the state, albeit as disavowed, is not restricted to the past. If liberalism enshrined respect for the individual, transgression against him-and it was, all of Mill’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, a him (Mill 2006)-was conceived as suffering’s less subjective face, harm. The issue of harm has been carefully laid out-somewhat problematically, as theorists such as Wendy Brown have suggested (Brown 1995), for those “most vulnerable”-in and through the development of detailed systems of law and legislation designed to adjudicate and prevent harm. Indeed, central to the recurrent and politically powerful idea of a “failed state” is that state’s inability to “protect” its people from the allegedly natural state of suffering and chaos (according to this image, the two inevitably wedded), imagined as always pawing predatorily at the state’s borders.

This imagining of the body politic is not restricted specifically to politics. Rather, the liberal humanist vision of the strong but inevitably endangered state, standing against the chaos and suffering of nature, inflects the entirety of contemporary life. It shapes sociality and subjectivity, and the key institutions of economics, law and medicine. The subject is constructed as thoroughly, radically individual, arising out of some naturally occurring essence. This subject, as liberalism so often reminds us, is naturally free and sovereign, and this freedom and sovereignty ought to be given expansive range, and indeed sustained as far as is possible, limited only by the state’s prohibitions of transgression upon- the causing of harm to-another. It is this that is construed as an echo of the predatory nature against which the state is pitted. The subject may extend this sphere of freedom and protection to all his property. Property, here, marks all objects the subject possesses, and as such, Cartesian dualism, with its insistence on the status of the body as an object, raises its head. According to this logic, the sensible, passionate body is untrustworthy, bearing the traces of nature’s chaos within it, and must be divided off from the perfectly civilised, perfectly rational mind which is thus the site of freedom. The body becomes the mind’s ownmost property, according to Locke, inalienable but nonetheless fundamentally separate from who and what the subject really and essentially is-free (Locke 2003, 111).

The second element shaped by this liberal humanist conception of the body politic is sociality. Proper modes of sociality, as Hobbes reminds us, are those which strengthen the body politic-the covenants which bind the Leviathan into the image of man (Hobbes 1998, 19). These covenants, of course, must be democratic-they presume an equality between all members of a social world on the basis of an essential humanity. As Moira Gatens so incisively notes, however, this “humanity” upon which equality is premised is made in the image of the body politic itself, such that full membership of the body politic requires the subject’s body to be constructed in its image: as white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual body (Gatens Chapter 2, 1995). Contract is understood as free and unduressed on the presumption of this equality, and as such, this essentially civilising mode of being social requires two equal but fundamentally radically distinct parties exchanging property of equivalent value. This neat and contained image of economy as the core structure of social and political life, married with the hallowed image of the individual and the body politic as made in his image, informs and provides the strength of the liberal state’s battle against suffering.

Yet suffering does occur. The central and extraordinarily legitimised position of medicine, medical science and medical technology in contemporary culture constitutes the means by which the state may be understood as innocent of the suffering that occurs within its borders, without conceding failure: it allows medicine to position it as a natural wrong. Medicine, if all the stories told of it are true, seeks to relieve suffering. As we shall see in the first chapter, however, medical discourse configures this suffering as simply and utterly the product of the body-or more precisely, of a pathology within the body: the body’s order gone wrong. Thus the body-always treated as fundamentally separate from the subject who inhabits it, an individual also taken to be radically distinct from the setting within which he, or she, perhaps, is situated-is, according to medicine, the true site of suffering. The body politic remains, then, never responsible for this individualised suffering. Relief of suffering, according to this model of medicine, entails the ‘return’ of the body to equality with others-it must be modified to be made normal. The model of the body remains singular-the male, white, able-bodied image through which the state itself is structured-and normalcy, then, remains deeply specific.

Feminist theorists have long challenged the centrality of liberal humanist ideals to contemporary life. Contemporary feminist theorists of the body have focussed upon corporeal difference as a key provocation, and the grounds for troubling the apparently totalising tendencies of liberal humanism as they play through ideas of subjectivity, sociality, politics and ethics. This focus on embodiment has enabled the cross-pollination of this branch of feminist thought with other forms of theory: with critical race studies, critical whiteness studies, critical disability theory, queer theory and many others.
Situated in the context of such challenges to liberal humanist thought and politics, then, this thesis takes corporeal difference, and particularly the often normalising modification of the body as a technique for relieving suffering, as its central concern. Deliberately spanning an enormous variety of modificatory technologies, namely human growth hormone use, limb-lengthening surgery, cosmetic surgery, intersex “corrective” surgery, self-demand amputation and Modern Primitivism, and contrasting these with other bodily alterations constructed as neutral, I seek to demonstrate that the the increase in modifying bodies-with all the ambiguity that phrase evokes-(in)forms the ethical, political, social and economic domains of contemporary life. Suffering and the normalcy which is always thought to be its cure, I will argue, ought not to be presumed to be simply the uprising of the state of nature into our civilised, liberal and humanist world. Instead, I will demonstrate that suffering is precisely a product of it, a central element in the maintenance of the norm (and thus the body politic itself) and of the forms of embodiment, subjectivity, valuation, tolerance and sociality, that subtend and support it.

The first chapter, then, unpicks the medical engagement with suffering. Medicine regularly takes its treatment of suffering as a justification of its existence and operation. Yet I argue that it also regularly naturalises suffering, equating it simply with pathology: if one is suffering, it is because there is something wrong with one’s body, a wrongness over which medicine claims expertise and control. I suggest that this naturalisation has numerous problematic effects. First, as Eric Cassell demonstrates, it means that clinical engagement with the suffering body tends to actually miss suffering altogether in reducing it to pathology, and thus never actually treats it. Second, the reduction to pathology means that medicine often cannot engage with the specificity of the suffering subject, and with the way that their suffering is unique. I argue that this uniqueness arises not from some essence, but rather from the unique situation of each subject. Third, the naturalisation of suffering precludes the space of denaturalisation, thereby concealing the role that suffering plays in the production and reproduction of normalisation. As such, it conceals the function of suffering in normalisation (by which I mean to include the depiction of ‘deviance’ as a source of suffering), and particularly its role in the construction of (normalised) embodied subjects in contemporary culture.
In the second chapter, I turn to Merleau-Ponty’s work, whose phenomenological concerns have been taken up by feminists, critical race theorists and critical disability scholars. Their reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty helps us get at the production of embodied subjects in and through their context, and more particularly, through their adoption and adaptation of the styles of being-in-the-world by which they are surrounded. Merleau-Ponty argues that it is through syncretic sociability-the intercorporeal intertwining of the subject’s embodiment and the embodiment of others-that the subject is produced. Through the work of Gail Weiss and Linda Alcoff, I argue that particular styles of being-in-the-world carry tacit body knowledges given to them by the discursive, institutional, capitalist and embodied world around them. These tacit adoptions (and adaptations) of existing styles of being, I argue, produce, through sedimentation, what Rosalyn Diprose calls ‘bodily tolerances.’ In effect, the habituation of particular styles of being-in-the-world produces bodily tolerances which, if transgressed, may result in the subject experiencing suffering.

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

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

In the fifth chapter, I build on this analysis with a greater focus on what Derrida calls the impossibility of the gift, and the ethical (in contrast, though not necessarily opposition) to the political. The forgotten gift may be unrecognised, and thus not permitted to be part of the political domain, but it also escapes its ‘destruction,’ and more to the point, I argue that even in being forgotten, it still matters. Alcoff’s rearticulation of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of embodiment demonstrates that there is a tacit level of being-in-the-world, at which, I argue, the gift may be acknowledged, or more precisely, testified to without being subject to the cognitive processes required for recognition. Styles of being-in-the-world which are shaped by the tacit acknowledgement that they do not occur without others, are thus open to a similarly tacit acknowledgement of the gift of others in a way that permits their alteration. Fundamentally, the other’s gift troubles the sedimentation through which the subject is embodied and this is, in fact, the response to the other qua other rather that an intentional (agentic) act. This allows us to see that it is the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment which bring about the suffering supposedly ‘cured’ by the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies. The ethics of bodily change thus demonstrate two (always intertwined) forms: modifications seek to memorialise the subject’s self-presence, and thematise the corporeality of the other; alterations, on the other hand, are changes made to bodily being in responding to the other qua other. The ethics of a particular change lies not, as has been supposed by various ethical frameworks, in either its adherence to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in its challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing). Rather, the ethics of a particular bodily transformation (and this includes non-deliberate changes) lies in its responsiveness to the other. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being-in-the-world with others has political import; this lies not least in that corporeal generosity allows for ethics to be given corporeally, such that it resonates and amplifies through the incarnatory context and challenges the normative, sedimentary and normalised comportments through which power maintains the sovereign, self-present individual as the dominant mode of embodiment.

Young master Nate hath tagged (that’s tagg-ed) myself for this meme:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Given that I seem to be unable to finish a post at the mo (there’s one lingering about The Apology (as it seems to be thought in the Australian blogosphere) and another responding to the lovely Ms. Pepperell’s tag about teaching which I left to the wayside because of the crazy insanity that seemed to circulate rather moralistically around that meme (which amused me given that ‘meme’ is ‘same’ in French, and that seemed to be what was required)), I figure this is a good thing to do! To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure which is the nearest book. I got out my tape measure, but is the top of a pile closer or further away? Because we could have wound up with The Meaning of the Other in Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity, or Bodies of Women, or The Normal and the Pathological. Or possibly even The Gift of Death, Difference and Repetition… or Jane Eyre (my attempt to make myself read A Classic, which is about half-way through the experiment. They just hooked up. It’s about bloody time. The woman is worse than me: ‘oh, it must mean nothing that he took my hands, gazed soulfully into my eyes and got all awkward over calling me ‘my love,’ and left the ‘love’ bit off, or that he dressed up as a gypsy fortuneteller and told me I could have the love I wanted and blablahblah. Means Nothing.’ There’s something horribly stark about seeing self-deprecation rendered in black and white. I want to shake her; and so I wonder if people want to shake me! ;-)) Or possibly Merleau-Ponty and Derrida: On Seeing and Writing. But instead, I think what wins out is Otherwise than Being because it rests atop a pile with various writing implements marking pages that seemed relevant at the time. Ah, Levinas, Levinas, Levinas, what am I to do with you?

Find page 123, apparently, and the fifth sentence… and just my luck, he’s getting all divine on us:

 From the Good to me, there is assignation: a relation that survives the ‘death of God.’ The death of God perhaps signifies only the possibility to reduce every value arousing an impulse to an impulse arousing a value. The fact that in its goodness the Good declines the desire it arouses while inclining it toward responsibility for the neighbour preserves difference in the non-indifference of the Good, which chooses me before I welcome it.

I could attempt to explain, but this requires much translation work (and translation is probably always problematic here). My attempt, though? The Good here indicates exteriority, in some sense—the other qua other. This is alterity, irreducible, not a concept, not conceptualisable (thematisable), unable to be brought within the scope of the subject’s knowingness. And the point, I suppose, is that even if you take the death of God as those weird nihilists do—that is, as the abrupt removal of an anchor that gave the world meaning and ethics leaving the world floating free (rather than, as I would argue, that requiring a re-thinking of the whole anchoring phenomenon)—you simply cannot remove alterity (or exteriority more generally, alterity seeming to attach primarily (though not always) to people-ish others). This is precisely because alterity is  otherwise than being, constituted as exteriority (though never as binarily opposed to) to a world that we know, that is, the world of being. Thus even if you think God’s dead, you cannot do away with radical otherness because you cannot do away with being.

The ‘desire’ that he talks about here I think is the ambiguous desire aroused by the ‘height and destitution’ of the face (understood, loosely, as expressing the unique mortality of this other): the desire to kill the other. Killing here includes the reduction of alterity to (well, on my Irigaray-informed reading) the specular other (the other who reflects me back to myself but does not exceed my knowingness). This killing occurs in thematisation but extends all the way up to a point-blank shooting. In other words, I am drawn on to know the other absolutely, to destroy him/her as other. But the face also expresses the impossibility of such a killing (in my more silly moments, I imagine a ‘nya nya nya nya nya’ and a poked-out tongue), and as such is the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (aka Levinas goes Old Testament). This is the responsibility prior to which I am not—I am called by the other to responsibility, and as such I am brought into being as responsible, as a response to the other. In this respect, I am chosen before I welcome it, before there is an I that could perform such an act.

Phew. See, no wonder people struggle to read Levinas. Every sentence is dumb and dense. 😛 And now, for my five taggees:

Januaries of Scribblings with Green Chalk, Mike John Duff of Le Gai Savoir, Az of Going Somewhere…?, Had Enough of Fuck Politeness! and Dylan Trigg of Side Effects.

Being that I am lazy (or, come to think of it, busy writing up) I haven’t checked whether these individuals have already performed this three-ring trick, so if so, kids, please, feel free to ignore me. Or to do it again :-).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinthome over at Larval Subjects has been kicking around some ideas of scene, act and agency; there’s a response, too, at Rough Theory. His latest post, however, is the one that really felt like it was attempting to negotiate a question that I am working with and over at the moment in relation to the thesis. It’s something I’m adding to a chapter, so forgive me if these thoughts are blurry and underconceptualised; hopefully they will have that blissful moment of crystalisation soon.

Sinthome’s concern is slightly different to mine, and it means that my reading of his post is likely a little sideways of his intention (apologies to all; perhaps you should go and read his post first before reading my ‘version’ ;-)). Sinthome is asking questions about the possibility of agency: where does it arise from? how can it be understood? where, in the space between the ‘scene’ (what I would tend to call the ‘situation’) within which the individual is constituted, and their ability to act, does agency actually arise? In some sense, particularly towards the end of his post, I get the feeling that what Sinthome is actually interested in is not agency per se; he’s interested in where something that differs from and thereby challenges the scene can and does arise. This, to be clear, is likely to be my reading, given that agency is one of those words (up there with liberal, humanist, sovereign and self-present) that makes of my skin a jittery topography. With my cultural studies eyes, then, it is where and how difference occurs in such a way as to permit an agent to do otherwise (or, as I am more likely to phrase it, so as to engender a way of being that is otherwise) than the scene would require that is of central concern here.

So, to drag this thinking kicking and screaming into my usual phenomenological stuff, I want to consider the concept of ‘sedimentation’ as it occurs in Merleau-Ponty. Sedimentation, for Merleau-Ponty, is what enables me, in some sense, to properly ‘be’ a subject. Although (rather frustratingly) Merleau-Ponty resists a thorough discussion of this concept, it seems that sedimentation is the layering of experiences that permit a sense of cohesiveness—a sense of a subject—to be produced. In my thesis (sigh), I tend to think of this layering in a somewhat counter-intuitive way: it occurs, I’m suggesting, as the carving of a river into a landscape. The flow of water produces it, and reproduces it, and it grows deeper and deeper and more difficult to shift. Its banks are, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, bodily tolerances, which cannot be exceeded without discomfit and possibly even suffering. In other words, Merleau-Ponty argues that the sedimentation (or habituation, an alternative but perhaps no less interesting term) of a particular style of being in the world tends to produce that style of being in the world (with all its attendant comportments toward the world and others, and its specific forms of contextually defined perceptual practices) as the path of least resistance. We may not be able to ‘be’ (subjects) except as a river, but this means that the riverbed and its banks are key to our being. We must, in other words, have limits.

Enter my Levinasian/Derridean-inspired concern with alterity. In a move Levinas would probably disapprove of, I do not think that alterity is something that dwells in an elsewhere plane. Rather, because I want to think the subject as thoroughly embodied (that is, as an embodied subject, avoiding all kinds of Cartesian splittage), I also want to think otherness as a matter of bodily being. This is, to be clear, not a reduction of the other to their body, but to say that this reduction is precisely not possible: the other is embodied, too. (And yes, for you smartarses out there, even you are embodied for me. Your virtuality does not entail your reduction to ‘mind’!). But the problem with sedimentation, or, to take a particular line on it, the sedimentation of perception, is that this would seem to mean that that which is actually different, that which is unique about the other, remains imperceivable (wow, who knew that was a word? ;-)). Let me unpack that a little, coz it’s kinda dense and I feel bad dragging you guys into the theoretical labyrinth of the end of the thesis before I’ve really traced the most efficient way through it.

Perception (as I’ve also discussed here) is not neutral. It is bound up with the meaning-making techniques of the context within which I live. I recounted Nikki Sullivan’s story in which a Scottish lady mistook, at first sight, children for monkeys. This occurred because her perception was shaped by the context in which she had lived her life, a context within which children behaved in particular ways, and more specifically, a context which produced the racially different other as so proximate to animality that such a ‘mistake’ was easily made. (Mistake is in scare quotes there because in true poststructuralist style, I do not believe there to be ‘Truth’ against which her perception became an error.) In this sense, then, it’s fairly clear that really, what I can see is shaped by what I have already seen.

This is the depressing side of poststructural analyses, in lots of ways. Butler deploys Foucault to demonstrate that the repetition of particular acts produces a truth of the subject which in turn means that the subject experiences their adherence to, say, norms of gender or sexuality or liberal humanist subjectivity (to the concept of a free agent, I would say, too, with a friendly poke at Sinthome) as their own, personal truth. It’s a sweet system, and one finely tuned to its own reproduction. Butler does offer an element of a way out: the deformation of repetition, she argues, the fact that a subject cannot remain the same, and cannot always reproduce norms (particularly not given their ideality) offers a space within which to transgress them, to challenge them. But as Diprose argues (and I’ve cited her on this topic here) this remains a fairly individualised mode of challenge to the normative structures of power, and as such reproduces what is, perhaps, the key norm of contemporary power: the radical individualism of the subject. (This, in other words, is my concern about framing such a discussion as a matter of ‘agency’… )

Alrighty now, let’s return to sedimentation. One of the key points that I am making in my thesis (we hope) is that whilst numerous feminist and critical race scholars argue that Merleau-Ponty can be used to challenge the presumption of universal subjectivity—that is, they argue that MP can be used to account for embodied differences—in so doing, they implicitly constitute the structure of embodiment in a particular way. For a long time, this troubled me: it seemed that although such adoptions of Merleau-Ponty’s theory did enable some sense of subjects differently embodied, it seemed that this presumed an underlying and universal structuring of the body. In some sense, it was implied that the body was always constituted in and through these processes of sedimentation, but that what was sedimented was always different, and shaped by sex-gender, sexuality, race, whiteness, ability and so on. The form/content distinction implicit here troubled me: the sedimentation of embodiment was being treated as natural, even by those with the most invested in denaturalisation.

And as I thought about it more, and particularly in relation to a problematising of ideas of normalcy and the norm, I realised how key issues of the construction of time were to this analysis. Sedimentation, according to the river analogy I used earlier, would seem to suggest that who I am now is a kind of averaging-out of the experiences I’ve had in the past, each of which were conditioned by their pasts. In other words, sedimentation required that experience a and experience b were constructed as the same. Yet in order to understand these two experiences as the same, what was required was some means of stripping out the ways in which they were different, to leave a ‘core’ of the experience that enabled these two experiences to be identified with each other. This kind of ‘stripping out’ is not neutral, not at all. It requires a standard by which all else is measured; as Irigaray has suggested, woman is conceived as lacking only if you take as your ‘measuring-stick’ (pun very much intended) a morphology recognised as defined in particular by the cock. This is, indeed, what happens whenever science attempts to measure: it takes a particular concern, and all other facets must be stripped out. Ability is defined by the norm of the able-bodied, such that those we recognise as ‘disabled’ thereby become disabled. In other words, embodiment, according to Merleau-Ponty, is structured by sedimentation, and sedimentation requires the concept of the norm.

Phew. I’m skittering all over the place here. Sorry about that. The problem with conceptualising of subjectivity as a product of such sedimentation is that it creates little space for movement: if the only way that an experience is permitted to matter (to the embodied subject) is through the filter of what has already occurred, then difference as difference won’t be perceived. It can’t be, for we have no way to see what we have not already seen. The new other that I encounter thus remains comprehensible insofar as he or she is understood as ‘like’ what I have seen before. That which exceeds that graspability doesn’t, on this conception of the embodied subject, even figure for me.

In other words, we wind up with something totalising here, if we trust that the very nature of the body is one that shapes itself through sedimentation. I don’t think that this is the whole story: I think it is, in fact, possible to perceive the other as other. It’s harder, maybe, and occurs less frequently than what we might want, but it does occur. And what I want to suggest is that the perception of the other alters me, fundamentally. The gift of the other to me is, in fact, a means of perceiving differently. My response to the other begins, in other words, with the other’s troubling of the normative structure of sedimentation such that I am altered so that I might see him, her, hir, it… In this respect, perhaps, we return to Levinas’ conception of the anarchic as the time of the other: it is a time beyond, before, out-of-synchronicity with, the structuring of time in and through the norm of presence. And it is this anarchic gift of the other as other, not reducible, not reduced by sedimentary perceptual practices, that in troubling the normative structure of embodiment, offers me an elsewise, another way to be… a way of being in the world unlike what has been, and unlike any other…

Sorry, all, I have to go and read Merleau-Ponty on time and don’t have time (sigh, sigh) to make this more accessible, or even really… ahem… comprehensible in the first place. Perhaps next time around 🙂 Also, you should check out the discussion here for some seriously interesting kicking around of ideas!

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