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!


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

BEING as behind as I am, I’d had the lovely Fido‘s posts sitting in my feed reader promising goodness that I held out for later, later, ever later. I suspect it’s because I’ve been thinking about habits, habituation and habitation quite a bit of late and didn’t want to be too terribly distracted. Fortunately (because I’m so very far behind and I hate clicking the ‘Mark as Read’ button) and unfortunately (because I actually love doing a long reading session of Fido’s posts, tracking threads of thoughts), all at once, Fido has been less like his enviable post-daily self of late (perhaps a counter to NaNoWriMo, which has had Nate writing practically a thesis-worth of words in a month!) But the richness of what he has put up…!: his post ‘Habitation in the Open,’ engaging with Nancy (I won’t excerpt it, because you should go and read it), recalled for me the key passage from a book I’m re-reading at the moment from the wonderful, rather intimidating Rosalyn Diprose. This excerpt, when I first read it, wove together disparate ideas I already had in a way that gave me that heady half-gasping moment of consolidation, perhaps even the moment of the sublime, where it feels like the world falls into abrupt immediacy, even as the impossibility of compassing its entirety strikes… and so I share it:

Even if we grant that ethics is about moral principles and moral judgement, it is also about location, position and place. It is about being positioned by, and taking up a position in relation to, others. Being positioned and locating others requires embodiment and some assumption about the nature of the place from which one moves towards others. It should not be surprising then that ‘ethics’ is derived from the Greek word ethos, meaning character and dwelling, or habitat. Dwelling is both a noun (the place to which one returns) and a verb (the practice of dwelling) [Levinas so loves these nominal and verbal forms too…]; my dwelling is both my habitat and my habitual way of life. My habitual way of life, ethos or set of habits determines my character (my specificity or what is properly my own). These habits are not given: they are constituted through the repetition of bodily acts the character of which are governed by the habitat I occupy. From this understanding of ethos, ethics can be defined as the study and practice of that which constitutes one’s habitat, or as a problematic of the constitution of one’s embodied place in the world.

The discrepancy between this approach to ethics and that based on universal principles is not simply a question of etymology. Related to this are different, and usually unacknowledged, understandings of the components which go to make up our spatio-temporal being-in-the-world. The difference pertains to whether we think our ‘being’ is composed primarily of mind or matter; to what we understand by the relation between mind and matter; and to whether we think the world we inhabit is homogenous or fragmented. Underlying all these questions is some assumption about the meaning of ‘in’. An ethics based on universal rational principles assumes that our being’ is a discrete entity separate from the ‘world’ such that we are ‘in’ the world after the advent of both. An ethics based on the problematic of place, on the other hand, claims that our ‘being’ and the ‘world’ are constituted by the relation ‘in’. In other words, the understanding of ethics I am evoking recognises a constitutive relation between one’s world (habitat) and one’s embodied character (ethos).

I have also suggested that, besides an understanding of the constitution of embodiment, it is also necessary to consider the effect our relation to another may have upon the constitution of our ethos (and vice versa). This is necessary because to belong to and project out from a ethos is to take p a position in relation to others. This invovles comparison, relation to what is different and to what passes before us. Taking up a position, presenting oneself, therefore requires a non-thematic awareness of temporality and location. And the intrinsic reference point for temporality, spatial orientation and therefore difference is one’s own body. Taking a position in relation to others again involves some reference to embodiment, the significance and specificity of which comes together with ethics by virtue of our spatio-temporal being-in-the-world. But if ethics is about taking a position in relation to others then it is also about the constitution of identity and difference.

(The Bodies of Women: Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Difference. (also available as a Kindle book for you speedy tech uptake people) p. 18-19)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I REMEMBER the day I typed ‘privilege’ into etymonline like it was yesterday. I don’t know why I love etymologies so much, but I think it’s because they’re so very telling sometimes: the origins of the word seem so often to reveal a function of the word usually covered over by current definitions and usages; a kind of que(e)r(y)ing. Privilege, as it turns out, means ‘law applying to one person,’ or, more clearly, ‘individual law.’ This had me incredibly excited, because this is, in lots of ways, the way that privilege actually works. Or, better, how it feels: it’s pretty clear that privilege doesn’t simply apply to a single person—institutions, discourse, customs, interpersonal relations, language and even, I would argue, embodiment, all function together (though rarely fully coherently, as Foucault is at pains to demonstrate) to maintain the privilege of particular groups. But one of the strongest fantasies that mark privilege is the illusion that the subject is wholly self-sufficient. The law of the individual.

The claim of self-sufficient individuality is incredibly powerful, in a huge variety of ways. As Butler, following Foucault and Derrida, demonstrates that in claiming that the subject is ‘before the law,’ the law itself maintains a two-fold fantasy: that all subjects are equal before the law, and that the law is only the product of the people—and is certainly not that which produces the subjects it addresses (give Althusser a wave, kids!) By repeatedly (and repetitively, it has to be said!) claiming the primacy of the individual, the law (in the most general as well as specific senses) retains its unquestionable status, its authority. But it goes further than this, and here I’m going to be drawing on Rosalyn Diprose’s work in Corporeal Generosity a fair bit, though not explicitly.

This kind of radical individuality permits the denial of the fact that I only am because there are others (though this isn’t just a Levinasian point). The possibility of being able to say ‘I,’ of being (even capable of it) is premised on the peculiar culture we live in. (I think I remember Deleuze saying somewhere that we always assume that the ‘edge’ of ‘my’ ‘body’ marks my individuality, but that this is merely a function of the culture (he doesn’t say culture) in which we are currently living. It gave me that heady, fevered sensation I always get when reading Deleuze; a little like too much wasabi for the mind :-)). But more than this, ‘I’ doesn’t make sense except in a context. And this context, of course, is filled with others. As numerous scholars have pointed out (from the obscure texts of Lacan (I’m sorry, but that’s how I remember him!) to Levinas to Merleau-Ponty to Irigaray), it is only because others are different from me that I ever get a sense of myself, that I ever become a subject, that I ever say ‘I’. This isn’t just a cognitive belief, but something we embody; it informs all the ways that we are in the world (at least lots of the time, however shaky my ‘I’ might be).

In this way, it is the generous gift of difference that enables me to be. (See also the Merleau-Ponty post.) And this is not just a thing that happens at some point early in life, after which all is settled (take that, psychoanalysis!) Rather, it is perpetually in process, and must remain so. In addition, the distinction between me and other(s) is the basis upon which language can be and happen, that all meaning is built. It is the basis upon which community—which might appear and often functions as if it is all about sameness (commonness, unity)—can exist.

Privilege, then, this private law, this law of the individual, enables and indeed necessitates the denial of these gifts, the forgetting of them, as Diprose puts it. It is only in refusing to accept that I am who I am only because others are other, in denying this relation, that I can claim self-sufficient individuality, that site of privilege shaped by privilege. This, Diprose says, is theft. This theft, in the end, is privilege: the ability to claim that I am who I am alone, without others: that I am white all on my own (as if I didn’t need racialised others for ‘white’ to make sense), that I am male all on my own (as if I didn’t need women to be my mirror), that I am normal (as if this did not rely upon others being deemed abnormal), that I am able-bodied (as if this were not a claim made possible only because others are not), that I am unambiguously sexed (as if that didn’t depend on intersexed and trans people to mean anything at all), that I am straight all on my own (without the defining queerness)…

I am only because of others, a huge variety of generous others. *This,* in response to FiD’s question over at the lovely Thinking Girl’s blog on a Kevin aka Thin Black Duke of Slant Truth post, is why *I* am personally interested and yes, invested, in ‘battles’ that may not be my ‘own’. Privilege doesn’t just affect an individual; it squashes and reduces others and their difference into being nothing more than a mirror that reproduces that privilege (which in the end gives all of us fewer ways to be not to mention lots more paranoia and hurt). We see the nasty effects of that kind of thinking happening in Oz right now. So I know how white privilege squashes difference and causes sufferng; just like I know more how male privilege does the same; alongside the privilege of being unambiguously sexed, (temporarily) able-bodied, normal, middle-class, straight… the list goes on (and of course, I’m not even getting into the ‘intersections’ of these marks (though Ian Barnard’s piece ‘Queer Race’ troubles some traditions of intersectionality on this point. (Sorry, can’t seem to find ref! It might be from his book of that title, but I was almost sure it was a 1999 article…)). Some of these privileges are ones I hold, and I know that the continuation of that privilege and the attendant disadvantage to a whole mass of other people which is the condition of its possibility, is dependent upon (amongst lotsa other things) the privileged not being aware of their privilege; i.e., not being aware of difference. Forgetting the generosity of others, not least the difference that allows them to be. Assuming that they are, actually, simply self-sufficient individuals naturally accorded the benefits they bear which they don’t recognise as such, because they’re supposedly just the result of the natural way for individuals to be: if you’re white, you naturally get money and recognition and acceptance; if you’re straight, you naturally get the protection of the state for your relationships and kids. And so on. You get the idea.

So I try to be aware of the privilege I bear, as white, able-bodied, unambiguously sexed (most days ;-)) middle-class and vaugely normal, because I know that it regularly functions to reproduce hegemonic formations of subjectivity—both my own, those of others like me, and worst of all, those not. I try to remember that it is only because of the generosity of others that I can be, speak, write, shower, love, read, laugh, walk down the street, feel, touch, cry, blog. Others are, therefore I am… Therein lies my ‘personal reasons’ for wanting to be politically ‘involved’ in working against homogenisation—against racialisation, for example, and for the ‘rights’ (for want of a way way better, less liberal, term) of POC, amongst very very many others. I am only because others are generous. My denial of that fact is not just theft, not just ungenerous; that is privilege.

JUMPING from the last post to here is a little… abrupt for me, so bear with me. I may not be able to manage a whole lot more than a series of quotes I marked with ma widdle pencil. But I’ll figure that’s better than nuttin. All from Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money by Jacques Derrida with Peggy Kamuf translating.

“The King takes all my time; I give the rest to Saint-Cyr, to whom I would like to give all.”

So saith the epigraph, which forms the lynchpin around which the whole discussion turns. It comes from Madame de Maintenon (I think he likes that ‘Maintenon’ is close to ‘maintenant’ = now; D mentions it sometime later), the mistress and morganatic wife to the Sun King Louis XIV. I had no idea what ‘morganatic’ means, and the footnote was only a little helpful on this matter. As it turns out, morganatic marriages were ones in which the lower class/rank member got nada out of the whole deal except (at least originally) the ‘morning gift’ the husband gave the wife the morning after they were married (and yes, it would seem that, unsurprisingly, the wife was almost always the lower class/rank member of the marriage). More about the question of gifts and asymmetries later.

First, Derrida begins to prise open the relation between time and the gift. He spends quite a bit of time playing on the double (triple, actually, probably) meaning of present (as gift, and as here, and as now). So he asks questions about “my time,” what could this mean?

“The king takes all my time,” she says, a time that belongs to her therefore. But how can a time belong? What is it to have time? If a time belongs, it is because the word time designates metonymically less time itself than the things with which one fills it, with which one fills the form of time, time as form. It is a matter, then, of the things one does in the meantime [cependant] or the things one has at one’s disposal during [pendant] this time. Therefore, as time doe snot belong to anyone as such, one can no more take it, itself, that give it. Time already beings to appear as that which undoes this distinction between taking and giving, therefore also between receiving and giving, perhaps between receptivity and activity, or even between the being-affected and the affecting of any affection. Apparently and ccordig to common logic or economics, one can only exchange, one can only take or give, by way of metonymy, what is in time. (p. 3)

Saint-Cyr, by the way, is a charity for down-and-out but well-bred girls. Then D spends quite a bit of time pointing out the sense of the remainder in Madame de Maintenon’s words: the king takes all her time, yet that which is left over is given to Saint-Cyr. And then, the play on ‘present’:

Her desire would be there where she would like, in the conditional, to give what she cannot give, the all, that rest of the rest of which she cannot make a present. Nobody takes it all from her, neither the King nor Saint-Cyr. This rest of the rest of time of which she cannot make a present, that is what Madame de Maintenant… desires, that is in truth what she would desire, not for herself but so as to be able to given it [pour le pouvoir donner]—for the power of giving [pour le pouvoir de donner], perhaps so as to give herself this power of giving. She lack no lacking time, she lacks not giving enough. She lacks this leftover time that is left to her and that she cannot given—that she doesn’t know what to do with. But this rest of the rest of time, of a time that morevoer is nothing and that belongs properly to no one, this rest of the rest of time, that is the whole of her desire. Desire and the desire to give would be the same thing, a sort of tautology. But maybe as ell the tautological designation of the impossible. Maybe the impossible. The impossible may be—if giving and taking are also the same—the same, the same thing, which would certainly not be a thing.(p. 4)

We begin to see, here, what he goes on to elaborate on throughout the chapter: the gift as entirely bound to the impossible. The impossibility of giving is the focus, because, as we shall see, any gift recognised as gift by donor or donee entails return (in some form) and thus is an exchange, not a gift; and this means that the present can never be present if it is, indeed, to be (a) present. In this complex way, the essence of the gift lies in its impossibility. And so we will look at Being, time (and Being and Time) , and presents, presence, gifts, given things and economies.

Just because I promised up above: Rosalyn Diprose’s critique of this Derridean take on the logic of the gift is that while recognition of the gift may be impossible, it does nonetheless occur, and has deeply political effects. She points out that the recognition of gifts occurs asymmetrically: the gifts of those already recognised as generous (the privileged, in a variety of ways) tend to be ‘memorialised’ while the gifts of those who are not privileged, and thus not generous, tend to be forgotten. More on this in a separate post later, but for now: what does it mean for Madame de Maintenon to recognise her own gift-giving as a gift? For Derrida it would mean it is no longer a gift; yet in some ways, the gift-giving of women to the relationships they are in is so often un(der)recognised that her claim to be giving, rather than the fantasy of her merely kind of naturally exuding all the things she does (which is what the naturalisation of women as nurturers permits) could then come to be read as a political act. But is this act then trapped back within the logic of exchange? Ah, tangled webs!

PS I liked my ‘j’ today: that’s why it so big! 🙂