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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A chunk of thesis, from about half way through the first chapter, soon to be followed by a chunk of Levinas-in-thesis… for your interest (or not!):

What does the reduction of suffering to disease allow in the cultural negotiation with it? What power relations are concealed in this reduction of suffering to the natural? How is ‘intactness’ produced as the nature of subjectivity such that particular experiences are experienced naturally as threat? In other words, what ‘material subjection’ is concealed in constitution of subjects who suffer, and in the reduction of suffering to the natural, neutral response to a wrong? What might it mean to, instead, to think suffering itself not simply as a natural response to either disease or oppression (as therefore naturally bad things), but rather as a technique of power?

To begin to explore these questions, we need to examine what kind of political significance suffering has. Given that I have, thus far, been engaging with suffering as it is understood in a medical setting, I now turn to Arthur Frank’s consideration of the medical treatment of suffering in the context of a capitalist, consumerist culture in his article, ‘Emily’s Scars: Surgical Shapings, Technoluxe and Bioethics.’ (2004) He is concerned less with what suffering itself is and how it is caused, and more with the status of demands for ‘cure’ articulated through suffering. As a result, he often problematically blurs the lines between pain and suffering; or rather more specifically, attempts to circumscribe his use of the word “suffering” to those experiences marked as, in some way, legitimate.

Frank observes that the ethical imperative to relieve suffering (or as he frames it, ‘”to alleviate pain,”‘) has historically formed medicine’s ‘original and still pre-dominant purpose.’ (Frank 2004, 22) It is this purpose that has functioned to legitimise (to varying degrees) a range of interventions, including the surgical ones Frank focuses on in this article-limb-lengthening surgery, cranio-facial reconstructive surgery, intersex “corrective” surgery and of course cosmetic surgeries. Using philosopher Alisdair McIntyre’s theory about the eighteenth century invention of the notion of selfhood, he observes that the marriage between this strong sense of a self which ought (morally speaking) to be fulfilled and the consumerism of current culture has a very specific effect. This has resulted in surgical methods being used for what Vogue magazine calls ‘”technoluxe,”‘ (cited in Frank 2004, 21); that is, medical expertise has become, he suggests, a commodity, consumed towards the fulfilment of self, a practice particularly evident in what is usually referred to as cosmetic surgery. This is far from a new complaint against cosmetic surgery: Sander Gilman demonstrates that the concern about authenticity, passing and the “unnatural” achievement of status otherwise unattainable (such as the position of Gentile through the modification of the “Jewish nose” (Gilman 1999, 124-137) or the “reproduction” of a foreskin (Gilman 1999, 137-144) has long troubled the industry. (Gilman 1999, 3-36) Indeed, the questionable position of cosmetic surgery has historically led much of the medical profession to distance themselves from the practice. But Frank’s concern is specific: it is not a concern, at least at first glance, about the authenticity, but rather that ‘technoluxe medicine distorts the allocation of medical services and distracts medicine from its original… purpose,’ (Frank 2004, 22) which is, of course, the relief of suffering. Cosmetic surgery, in other words, distracts medicine from its proper business.

He struggles, however, to make this argument, precisely because suffering is so often claimed in relation to cosmetic surgery. (see also Davis 1995 for a qualitative analysis and discussion of suffering in cosmetic surgery.) Frank interrogates an example of such suffering which is specifically drawn from the same Vogue article from which he draws the rather laden term ‘technoluxe.’ A woman had surgery performed on her feet, because she ‘”grew tired of burying [her] toes in the sand when [she] went to the beach. It was humiliating.”‘ (Frank 2004, 21) This humiliation (probably, to be fair, only one aspect of the experience that led her to have surgery performed on her feet) is not simply observed by Frank, but assessed:

Pain is not what it used to be, and here I return to the moral justification of the satisfied medical consumer who says going to the beach pre-treatment was “humiliating.” I react to this statement as an inflation in the language of pain: if having unfashionable toes counts as humiliating, in what words can we describe the lives of people living with massive facial deformities? (Frank 2004, 22)

This is a fascinating stand for Frank to take, as we shall see. The implicit understanding of language here is essentially equivalent to the Wittgensteinian notion we saw Edwards utilise: “humiliation” here is considered to be a term separate to the experience itself, which operates to pick it-a specific, known and knowable experience-out of the mass of other experience. Frank thus represents this woman’s claim to pain as being somewhat bogus; she has merely identified her experience wrongly, or failed to understand the language-game as it ought to be understood (a position I do not think that Wittgenstein would have much sympathy with).

He goes so far as to compare her suffering with that of someone with a form of suffering whose recognition has long been legitimised: that of a person with massive facial deformities. Part of Frank’s difficulty with accepting this woman’s pain to be real is that he sees terms such as “pain,” and “suffering,” and “humiliation” as referring to a single experience. He cannot recognise this woman as suffering, for to do so would be to claim that it is equivalent to other forms of suffering, such as someone with massive cranio-facial deformities. This equation may well be deeply troubling. However, it also adopts the medical framework Cassell critiques, in which a particular experience is reduced to its ‘truth’: there can be, it supposes, only one true experience of suffering, one in which all bodies partake, regardless of their differences. In this respect, he assesses her experience against what he has already identified as “real suffering.” In so doing, he seems to fall into precisely the trap he warns against:

Research places whatever cannot be operationalized, objectified, and rewritten within the stylistics of universality among “all the things [that] do not fit”. Whatever cannot be reinscribed as an instance of some extralocal category must be rejected and censored. (Frank 2001, 359)

Thus the problem lies not in the experience of suffering itself, but medicine’s (and ‘research’s’ as Frank identifies above) unwillingness and inability to respond to the specificity of different experiences of suffering. As we have already seen with Cassell, suffering is always different because subjects are differently consituted. It is important to acknowledge this difference, not simply in order to be ethical, but because it also shifts the focus back onto the cultural elements that contribute to different kinds of suffering. Frank’s response to this, however, is not to challenge medicine’s conception, but rather to eliminate certain claims to suffering. If we simply deny some forms, cultural constructions which play into the production of suffering go uninterrogated.
Yet perhaps this is not entirely fair: he does acknowledge that the woman’s experience is significant, just not as suffering. Rather, the woman’s claim to humiliation becomes not an expression of her suffering but simply an articulation of a social problem, ‘as troubling as I find the usage of humiliating in this instance, it is important to hear the very real problem that this woman is working to express.’ (Frank 2004, 22) On the one hand, this gives the woman’s claim some weight, but on the other, it strips her claim of its ethical imperative, the imperative which Frank has already suggested directs medicine. In the end, according to Frank, the problem that this woman is articulating is actually that suffering, within a Western capitalist culture, has been made into a kind of currency, such that many will (implicitly inauthentically) inflate their experience such that it becomes an exchange value which legitimises the use of medical resources on ‘technoluxe.’

Yet this is a dangerous claim to make, given, as we have seen, suffering is contextually defined. The problem the woman with ugly feet is working to express does not have to do with what kind of experience is regarded as legitimate for surgery by the medical profession: it is, rather, her suffering. It is this woman’s experience that needs to be heard, not merely the way or the fact that she expresses it. More than this, a subject’s experience of suffering does not occur in isolation from the culture in which he or she occurs. Suffering is not linearly felt, known and named in that order, as Frank seems to assume, but operates in the inescapable context of a subjectivity constructed in the entangling of representation and experience, of culture and embodiment. The construction of subjectivity here is not the creation of an ‘ideology’ overlaying a “true, free self,” for which Foucault critiques Marxism (although Frank may well agree with this). Rather, suffering is constructed, where construction takes the dual meaning of the building of a subject, and also the construal of them: suffering is not safely ensconced in a prior ‘taken-for-granted ontology,’ and as such, this construction is not something the subject can shake off. It is part of what makes them a subject in the first place. The point is, in the end, that because subjects are discursively constructed, the use of the words “pain” or “suffering” in the context of technoluxe surgeries ought not to be reduced or dismissed as merely an ‘inflation in the language of pain’ but as an inflation in suffering itself.

Alongside this, we need to consider the question of ethics, as Frank reveals. In the end – and despite his problematic dismissal of “inflated” pain – he claims that,

trying to compare forms of suffering – comparing the woman humiliated by her toes with a young person deformed by a facial hemangioma – is not useful. The attraction of such a comparison is that it promises apparently clear-cut medical guidelines for practice. Unfortunately, practice will have to confront a reality that is not clearly divisible into categories. The issue may be better thought of not in terms of what suffering we allow as legitimately in need of fixing, but rather, what form of decision-making we respect. (Frank 2004, 26)

In shifting the focus from suffering to forms of decision-making, Frank is attempting to introduce the ethical element into guidelines about who ought to be permitted to undergo surgery. His concern with ethics is admirable, and well-grounded: ‘the personal is communal,’ (Frank 2004, 26) he argues, and since norms about bodies are created communally, the personal choice to undergo surgery must be understood to contribute to those norms. He echoes Canguilhem here, who argues that ‘[t]he normal is then at once the extension and the exhibition of the norm. It increases the rule at the same time that it points it out.’ (Canguilhem 1991, 239) It is worth recalling, however, that his primary concern is the distribution of medical resources.
Frank suggests that by focusing on decision-making in a communal context-a Socratic, dialogical model is his favoured method-individuals may come to understand ‘how their particular trouble relates to others’ troubles, and how their proposed solutions might cause others more trouble.'(Frank 2004, 26) Frank’s turn to decision-making in place of suffering in order to assess which claims to surgery are to be legitimate is understandable but problematic: effectively, it is the attempt to shift from the subjective space of suffering to the supposedly objective (or objectively assessable) space of dialogue and decision-making. This assumes a number of things, but perhaps most problematically, it presumes that the decision about whether to have surgery can be understood purely and simply as a rational one. Yet if this were the case, given that all the surgeries he discusses are normalising and thus as the creation of the normal confirm the norms which in turn create problems for others, the rational, ethical (if selfless) response to them would probably be never to have surgery. However, I do not think that Frank sees this as ideal; rather, he does seem to perceive some surgeries as legitimate. The confirmation of some norms is, it would seem, rationally justifiable; it is norms related to the appearance of feet that are a particular problem.

The problem is rationality: here we return to the question of what can figure as truth. He has already demonstrated that, rationally speaking, the woman with ugly toes cannot truly be understood as suffering, but he fails to ask why. The attempt to shift the focus from suffering to the rational process of decision-making is problematic because it assumes that rationality gives us some way of transcending that experience, or rendering it irrelevant – a reiteration of the liberal humanist mind/body split and perhaps more significantly, existing systems of discursive truth. It assumes we respect and respond to rationality, because it exists beyond the influence of cultural norms, and permits an “outside” perspective from which to adjudicate. This is a deeply problematic stance, and fails to take into account the normative function of marking particular discourses as “rational,” a label which has all too readily been attributed to the systems developed out of the ways that white men have thought, historically. (Lloyd 1984) It also once again denies the importance of the body in the way that we exist-always as embodied subjects. The very norms he is concerned that surgery further legitimates do not simply float about outside subjects, but are part and parcel of the subject’s embodied construction within our culture. Knowing the ethical, rational response cannot unbind the subject from that culture. The choice to not have surgery does not mean that the subject’s experience of themselves (as suffering) is altered. To presume that this is, or could be, or even should be the case is once again to suppose that the mind can transcend the body, that the two are separable.

Returning to the woman who suffered because of her ugly feet, another more disturbing problem arises: it is difficult to see the ethics of Frank’s argument that we should move away from responding to suffering to responding to someone’s capacity for rationality. In the rational, dialogical assessment of forms of decision-making, suffering may be rendered irrelevant, precisely because it is subjective, and possibly irrational. This does not, however, make the suffering not true: the individual still experiences it. Yet this is precisely the problem: whilst the rational, dialogical debate is always public, suffering is made to be only ever individual. In this respect, responsibility for suffering is (rationally) made solely the responsibility of the individual who experiences it.

However, if subjects are culturally constructed, an individual’s suffering is an articulation of broader – and communal – constructions of normalcy, abnormalcy, deviancy and suffering. The experience of the woman with “ugly” feet may be read to reveal the increasing intolerance of corporeal difference, for example, if her suffering is taken to be actually experienced rather than merely mis-named. Thus the individualising on the grounds of suffering leaves uninterrogated the way that the experience of suffering functions to dovetail with occurrences of “deviancy;” that is, it ignores the way that suffering tends to function to enforce normalcy in subjects. The danger of individualising the experience of the woman with “ugly” feet is that it fails to place responsibility where it belongs – with the communal. As van Hooft puts it, ‘If neither the gods, the cosmos, providence, nor a faith in human progress rob suffering of its tragedy, then we are left just with the brute fact that we and others suffer. And in this there is community.’ (van Hooft 1998, 20) Here, we can recognise the biggest problem with Frank’s proposed ethics. It risks rendering the ethical imperative of responding to suffering irrelevant except that which it is rationally explicated, and thus leaves us with the question: why is it ethically necessary to respond to the suffering other, and how does that imperative come about? Is it ever going to be possible to develop a rational ethical framework that does justice to that imperative?

References available on request (what, I’m feeling lazy… oh, alright). The main ones are:

Canguilhem 1991 The Normal and the Pathological Zone Books

Frank 2004 ‘Emily’s Scars: Surgical Shapings, Technoluxe and Bioethics’ Hastings Center Report 34(2), pp. 18-29

Gilman 1999 Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery Princeton Uni Press

van Hooft 1998 ‘The Meanings of Suffering Hastings Center Report’ 28(5), pp. 13-19

If you want any others, let me know

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

Januaries has, in a series of provocative comments here, and a post, been attempting to find her way into the density of the theoretical approaches usually found on this blog. She also had some wonderings, some questions and some thoughts about cosmetic surgery… and it occurs to me that I haven’t stepped into this particular minefield, and perhaps it is time…

In general, I take the possibly somewhat uncharitable position that previous thought about cosmetic surgery, particularly that from feminists, has tended to leave us trapped in a corner. This isn’t their fault, or at least not directly, and it’s not a lack, precisely, that produces this. It’s more, I think, that they are too swiftly trying to find an answer, to take a stand, and tend to all too quickly cover over the ambiguities, uncertainties, the unresolvabilities of the question of cosmetic surgery, without dwelling with them a while. Indeed, I suspect that part of the problem is not enough theory, but then, I would think that, wouldn’t I? ;-P

To sketch the vague outlines of an impasse: the major figures in these kinds of questions tend to be Kathryn Pauly Morgan, infamous for suggesting the use of cosmetic surgery towards uglification – the production of wrinkles, the deliberate surgical sagging of breasts and so on; the perhaps equally infamous but far less rigorous Sheila Jeffries, who stands against all ‘beautification’ techniques, arguing them to be mutilations; Kathy Davis, whose qualitative research helped to get at the centrality (questionable, certainly, but intriguing nonetheless) of the experience of suffering to women’s seeking out of cosmetic surgery; and of course, Susan Bordo, whose work on physical appearance and its relation to feminism and women’s rights is thorough, considered and interesting. There are of course other contributors to this debate: some come from a non-mainstream bod mod perspective, like Karmen McKendrick, who argues that cosmetic surgery ought not to be done because it does not seduce and trouble the gaze of the other (which some might say is kinda the point for some people!) Others tend to approach it from a rampantly bioethical position, like Art Frank, who compares cosmetic surgery to other ‘proper’ surgeries such as limb-lengthening surgery, cranio-facial reconstructive surgery and so on, and decides that those who seek cosmetic surgery aren’t really suffering, but experiencing ‘an inflation in the language of pain.’ I go to town on this latter claim in the thesis, as you can probably guess..

But it is Susan Bordo and Kathy Davis who provide the best demonstration of the impasse at which feminism finds itself in relation to cosmetic surgery. Kathy Davis interviewed numerous Dutch women about their application for cosmetic surgery, and was present during their discussion with a government-paid doctor in which they argued their case for having the State pay for their surgery. Over and again, Davis was struck by the extent to which the word suffering arose. Some have suggested that the bureaucracy involved in the State’s financing meant that women had to claim to suffer. This, doubtless, is accurate to some degree. But I have questions about the implied lack of sincerity of these women; and more specifically, I have serious questions about the assumption that these bureaucracies do not come to inflect and (amongst other factors) construct the experience of women seeking cosmetic surgery. Indeed, there have been some analyses of cosmetic surgery brochures, which coach women in the ‘proper’ way of thinking about surgery in order that they are ‘good’ patients (that is, are satisfied with the outcome; ‘bad’ patients, interestingly, are never the fault of the surgeon, but the fault of unrealistic expectations) and can argue their case in ways that surgeons can accept. Of course, the language of these brochures circulates more broadly, and tends to emphasise ideas like individuality, freedom, and the famous and rather curious ‘becoming who I really am’ line. [This is the origin, I think, of my obsession with the Voxtrot lyric, ‘Maybe I want to be myself, but I am somebody else,’ which implies a rather more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of authenticity talk.]

So; Kathy Davis’ account invites us to follow her into the clinic, listen with her to the women she spoke to, and sympathise with their plight. She invites us to do as feminists ought: to honour women’s experiences. She claims to have been dubious about the ‘suffering’ that women could possibly experience prior to her interviews, but afterwards, she is utterly convinced. Indeed, she is so utterly convinced that she comes to see cosmetic surgery as perhaps the only resolution for these suffering women: this may be the only way to empower them to move beyond their suffering and be happy in their lives. And, surely, the argument runs, a real feminism seeks for women not to suffer? How could we suggest that these women ‘take the shot’ for a political position? Does this not expect women, again, to give up their own lives in the service of others?

And Susan Bordo responds with resounding force (no, seriously, there’s some grumping that goes on in these debates!): the real question is how on earth we wound up in a situation where the alteration of women’s bodies is made to be the source of their happiness? A Foucauldian to the bone, Bordo refuses to take these women’s experiences on as a neutral matter; they are, she argues, constructed, and as such, what we really need to be paying attention to is how and why women are constructed to experience their bodies as inadequate, are constructed to experience their bodies as fundamentally other to who they ‘really’ are. I suspect that Bordo is a little angry that Davis seems to imply that her position lacks sympathy; in fact her sympathy is to some extent more thorough-going—she sees the non-necessity of these women’s suffering, and seeks not simply to cure, but to cut it off at the root (even though she knows, really, the impossibility of that).

What I think would be an interesting line of analysis is to query how and why talk of ‘cures’ came to be so very convincing. Political language is more and more bound up with medical discourse, and this, I want to suggest, tends to imply particular things about the body and the suffering it experiences (amongst very many other things, but that’s a whole other post).

First of all, it implies that bodies simply do suffer, for natural reasons. This positions the suffering as beyond the scope of culture, and beyond politics: it is a natural and somehow implacable ‘truth’. Medicine habitually does this, suggesting all kinds of pathologies which delimit the suffering to this particular body, and to its nature. It closes down any possible conception of embodiment, of the deeply contextual production of our experiences of bodily being and selfhood (I don’t see these two as separable, although our Descartes-informed embodiment tends to divide up experience in this way).

Second, it implies that where there is suffering, there ought to be a cure. Not a revolution (actually, I don’t think I believe in revolution, though I’m happy for Marxist friends to try to convince me otherwise!), not political change, not social change. A cure. Individualised, such that no one ever guesses that the source of the suffering may, indeed, not lie purely and simply within this individual body.

Third, my research into disability studies has given me a peculiar sensitivity to language. Over and again, it is the disabled body which is evoked as the ‘truth’ of women’s surgically altered bodies. It is a ‘mutilation’, a ‘crippling with beauty,’ as Januaries’ quote would have it. This again supposes a neutral, normal and fundamentally able body as what would naturally occur, and that it is made deformed—and this is implicitly positioned as nothing other than a bad thing, once again reifying the able/disabled dichotomy—by the culture within which it occurs. Apparently disability is used to evoke that which is rejected, refused, and ought to be, by any right-thinking person. Ugh.

I do, to some extent, tend to agree with Susan Bordo, even when others accuse her of not respecting the autonomy that women do have. I suspect I have less faith in what we call ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’ than others do; I tend to see this as always occurring in a liberal vein, as always supposing that there is, deep down somewhere, a free essence to all of us which is being squashed out of shape by power (thereby conceived of as repressive, rather than my preferred Foucauldian dispersed network). This is, I think, what Ms Pepperell would call a negation: a stripped-back ‘truth’ which is full of content, and taken problematically as a foundation. Indeed, what I think that such a perspective forgets to pay attention to is the space that we do have for altering these constructions of femininity and women’s bodies. When we suppose ourselves to be radical individuals, we forget to pay attention to the ways that we affect one another. This is another of the challenges to Kathy Davis: she pays attention to the individual women, their suffering and its resolution, but not to the effect that each woman’s surgery might have on other women, on their experiences of their own bodies. She accepts, rather than challenging, the liberal humanism through which subjects are currently produced, and this means that she never even sees that women are not, fundamentally, alone. They are produced in and through their relations with one another (oh, and with men too; sorry boyz, I has left you out of this post a lot. Consider this a reflection of the obsessions of this area of study, less than my own interests!). And in response, I would suggest that Bordo emphasises perhaps a little too much the extent to which women are produced by power; they become little more than bits of power in conversation with other bits of power.

Contra both positions, I want to suggest that what is needed is a far more complex understanding of embodiment. This would, of course, mean that it might take a while to think it through, to fully consider it, to develop a political stance; given the impasse sketched above, I think it might be time. To suppose either that we are fundamentally individual essence or merely another line of power forgets that we are produced together. As Diprose describes, “There is a third term forgotten in this haste of liberate ourselves from the law. Identity is ambiguous and open to change, not just because of a deformity inherent in repetition over time [as Butler may be understood as claiming] but also because… between the body and the law is another.” (CG, 68) Indeed, it is this intercorporeality that I hope to show by the end of my thesis offers a deeply political but all too often forgotten space for newness, for change. The claim to individual sovereignty “not only den[ies] the corporeal generosity of intersubjective exisence, effectively stealing from the other and effacing the ambiguity of her or his difference… also cut[s] off my own potentialities for existence. For, as Irigaray puts it, “one does not move without the other.”” (CG, 71). In the end, I am not interested in whether cosmetic surgery in itself is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; I do not think it has to be either. Rather, I am interested in the way that our talk of it covers over the very space for political change we seem to seek. These spaces we forget, the spaces of intertwining of self and other, spaces which, if we listen carefully enough, with our ‘ear in our foot’ as Nietzsche would have it, offer numerous spaces for being drawn on to tap out a counter-rhythm, for being drawn on to dance other-wise.

[Forgive the lack of referencing in this post; most of these debates can be easily found via Google Scholar, and it would take me a while to assemble them all. Also, this post was not really proof-read, so… ahem… feel free to correct!]

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

Nate says:

Bologna wrote that

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

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

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

Nate goes on:

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

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

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

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

And again, out of order, Nate sez:

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

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

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

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

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

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