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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therapeutic Forgetting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics, Politics, and Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


I just finished reading Lisa Guenther’s really lovely article, “Shame and the temporality of social life” Conteingental Philosophy Review 2011. She explores the phenomenology of shame, starting with Sartre’s famous (and I like to think, true!) story about being caught peering into someone else’s room through a keyhole which grounds his account of shame as ontological, considering Levinas’ ethical account which situates shame as the pivotal moment that can enable murder or responsibility, then exploring Beauvoir’s account of gendered and colonialist shame as both oppressive and opening the way to solidarity. Given that my superpower is ambivalence, I love the way her account weaves together an image of the experience of shame as teetering, promising and refusing, offering and closing-down. I don’t want to discuss it in detail here, because it’s still marinating, but at the risk of spoiling you, I’ll just quote a paragraph or two from the end:

My aim in bringing these thinkers together has been to articulate the ontological, ethical and political ambivalence of shame as the feeling that most eloquently expresses our embodied entanglement with others, its its potential for both violence and solidarity, and to connect this ambivalent potential to the temporality of social life. In a world where social power is unevenly distributed along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and so many other ways of cutting up identity, there may be no social position free from the stickiness of shame. For manyo f us, these axes intersect in ways that privilege us in some respect and oppress us in others, entangling us in multiple and conflicting forms of shame. There may be no clean way to resolve teh ambivalent dynamics of shame, but this does not mean that we are doomed to remain stuck in the repetition of the same. Rather, it suggests that the politics of solidarity and collective responsibility is more than just our ethical and political obligation; it is our future. We only have a future, both personally and collectively, if we respond to the ontological, ethical and political provocations of shame in a way that shifts the focal point from preserving our own self-relation – our place in the world, what Levinas might call ‘ my place in the sun’ – towards a responsibility relation with others. This is not to say that everyone must advocate for everything at all times, but thereis not time – no future for the struggle against oppression – without an investment of our freedom and our vulnerability in collective responsibility and political solidarity with others.

The ambivalence of shame attests to the irreducibility of our exposure to others, both as the site of relationality and ethical responsibility, and as the site of its exploitation through oppression. The opening of ethics is not simple, but dangerous; the same exposure that makes responsibility possible also makes murder possible. But this also means that the impulse to murder and oppress – to deny the other an open future – remains bound to the very ethical command that it violates. I can murder the other, but I cannot silence the ethical command of the other; I can be complicit in the political exploitation of myself or others, but I cannot foreclose the possibility of solidarity. And as Beauvoir’s own political action shows, even when I do commit myself in solidarity to responsibility for others, I cannot guarantee that my own motives will be pure of self-interest. This ambivalence does not foreclose the provocations that open and re-open my own actions to critical interrogation; it presupposes them. Shame would not be possible if others did not matter to us; and because others matter, oppression is not the last word on shame but only one of its ambivalent possibilities. (np)

So it’s been a while since I’ve been back here to update you all on where things are at, and now here I am on the third day of my new postdoc, feeling guilty for letting you all be misled for all this time! I’m actually not in Austria. Around August or September last year, I applied for a postdoc in a Psychology department (I know, whut?) at a university in the Netherlands. After a far swifter process than I’ve encountered with any other postdoctoral position, I was offered a two year position, with a teensy bit of teaching, to work on the therapeutic forgetting project.

So here I am, having uprooted myself from the easy spaces of Sydney and, more lately, Canberra, and transplanted myself into a small Dutch town with an abundance of bikes and (comparatively) cold weather. I have a new house, with stairs so steep they barely deserve the name, and French doors which at the moment are mostly used for watching something fall from the sky while I try to decide if it’s snow or sleet or hail or rain. I have an office, which is ridiculously exciting for me, who didn’t even have a dedicated university computer during my PhD.  I have some new colleagues who, even if they think I’m a trifle odd for having the diverse interests I do, have been remarkably, and unusually, welcoming. We had a dinner in my honour. Everyone has lunch together each day. It’s collegiality gone wild! 😉

But I’m also hovering at the beginning of a new project, with all the future-taming that seems to entail (I love the way that futures hover, unmanageably big, beautiful and slightly out of reach, like a kite, but inevitably there’s the process of trying to catch at it, to tug down a string to let it become at least mildly real). Of course there’s the reading (I’m trying to work out whether my new colleagues will hold it against me if I do what I always did in my PhD years, which is go to a cafe and read for hours, instead of sitting in my office in front of a computer), and there’s the thinking about a new set of papers, but it always feels like there’s something more I should be doing to prepare myself for, y’know, actually doing it. This could be a delaying tactic (which has worked sadly too well for the book-of-the-thesis, which I’m still trying to grapple with, getting sadder as I go) or it could be the perfectly reasonable marinating stage. We’ll see.

So far, I’ve been copying files to my office computer, printing out things and signing myself into Dutch bureaucracy. I have printed out CFPs and stuck them on the wall, applied for the Feminist Theory Workshop at Duke (now that I have an institution to cover some of the funding, everything feels a lot more within reach, not to mention certain geographical proximities which seem to hold such promise just now) and I pulled out a notebook and pen to do my usual beginning-thing of handwriting a plan with numbers and cross-outs and lines that lead to ‘minor’ thoughts that scrawl into importance as they head for the margin. And then I thought of my fallow-lying blog, and thought I’d share some of this process with you…

So, would you like to see what I promised I’d try and do? This is an excerpt from the ‘Letter of Motivation’ (I’d never written one before and really had no idea what I was doing!) that I sent to my new colleagues…

My project is entitled ‘Therapeutic Forgetting: Happiness, Suffering and the Politics of Medical Innovation.’ It seeks to provide a critical engagement with the developing pharmaceutical practice of ‘memory dampening’, particularly the potentials of the betablocker propranolol. I will explore the issue of therapeutic forgetting in ways that intervene in or critique ‘common sense’ or dominant understandings of it, specifically by considering the often-neglected intersections between embodied subjectivity, memory, suffering and happiness. Using the methodological tools of feminist theories of the body, queer theory, critical race and whiteness studies, critical disability studies, phenomenology, bioethics and poststructuralism (which one can see at work in my doctoral thesis, attached), I will offer a postconventional analysis of the ethical and political issues around therapeutic forgetting, as well as consider the way that propranolol is likely to affect individual subjects, given contemporary structures of subjectivity and embodiment. I propose to analyse the following key issues:

  • the role of memory in the construction of the contemporary embodied subject, and the subject’s vulnerabilities to suffering;
  • the contemporary imagining of medical innovation in relation to the happiness/suffering distinction, and conceptions of ‘enhancement’;
  • the issue of how propranolol is both differentiated from and related to other ‘treatments’ for trauma, in terms of both the lived experience of them, and their ethical, social and legal significance;
  • the way that ‘memory dampening’ interacts with contemporary forms of subjectivity—such as the lived experience of a mind/body or brain/body split—and current constructions of suffering, for example as damaging, as enabling, or as useless;
  • the effect of ‘memory dampening’ on contemporary conceptions of ethics, politics and justice, given their reliance on the liberal humanist understanding of the subject, of trauma, and of memory.

Also, just as an aside, I’m thinking about using that paper (the one in the post below) as a way of kick-starting my thinking about this. And I think I want to spend a bit more time considering the likely military use of propranolol, and the way that it exacerbates the question of whose trauma can be forgotten, and for whom…

Oh, and I’ve been using the word ‘trauma’ because it’s used a lot in the stuff on propranolol, but I’m not sure I really want to go there. Does anyone have any thoughts about the use of the T word? It feels awfully freighted with the weight of the psy sciences, with that whole PTSD thing (which is a troubling enough ‘disorder’ in itself), and with the attempt, then, to make-expert the knowledge of suffering, to swipe it out of the everyday land of suffering and into, well, a whole grid of intelligibility more invested in knowing than in, well, ethics. Sorry, my psy-invested kids, is that mean??

To begin, I want to tell you a story of a medical emergency.

Zippora, a 41-year-old Israeli, has given birth to an intersexed child. Sociologist Meira Weiss happens to be in the delivery room; she is researching parental reactions to diseased and deformed babies. When the nurse shows Zippora her baby, Weiss reports that the new mother turns pale, trembles, and bursts into tears: “What will I do? What will I tell people on the street when they ask me what I had, a girl or a boy? What will I tell them? [crying]… Can you operate? Maybe you can do an operation or … several operations, and then everything will be O.K. … and then people will know whether it is a boy or a girl… Oh, how disgusting” (Morland 2001, 527).

I’ve told this story several times to open a discussion of intersex, and the reactions are always quite diverse. Some people ‘tsk’ audibly during conference presentations. Some people’s eyes widen, whether because they have never imagined this scene occurring, or because they are astonished at the vehemence of Zippora’s reaction, I’m not sure. But most people look vaguely uncomfortable, caught imagining themselves in Zippora’s situation, perhaps, feeling that even as the words she uttered at a moment of great distress sound harsh, unfair, too stark and cruel, that they could not guarantee that they themselves would not react in the same way, confronted with the body of a longed-for child, which has abruptly become something other than they had imagined. There is, perhaps, a kind of comfort in knowing that medicine will not downplay the distress and anxiety expressed at such a moment. Such a situation is treated as a medical emergency. Most NICUs (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at most hospitals have a team ready to jump into action, to offer, supposedly, answers and solutions to the medical emergency of an infant with genitalia which doesn’t meet expectations.

Before I go on, I want to offer just a brief rundown of what intersex is, for those who have not encountered this phenomenon before. Intersex is the term that replaced ‘hermaphrodism’ in designating those bodies which did not fall neatly within those categories of ‘male’ bodies and ‘female’ bodies. The occurrence of intersex has been variously reported, but about 1.7 % of all live births seems to be the most accurate number so far. There are so many forms of intersex that sometimes talking about them collectively can be a bit misleading. There are some forms of genetic or chromosomal anomalies that will never manifest in variant genitalia or hormones at all, so that such people may never know that they are intersex in some sense. There are some which are the result of an insensitivity to a particular hormone, which can result in bodies which have testes and a vagina, because the ‘virilizing’ effect of that hormone never alters the body as it does in ‘males’. Or there can be micropenis, where the penis winds up shorter than expected in men. Or hypospadias, in which final part of the development of a ‘male’ feotus, the movement of the peehole from the base of the penis to the tip never quite completes. These are just a few examples of intersex, not an exhaustive list, but the majority result in what intersex advocates call ‘variant’ genitalia. As you can hear, every description I offer can only be fully understood in relation to those bodies taken as the measure of normalcy: male and female bodies. This is the standard from which intersex bodies are thought to vary. I’ll come back to this point. Some intersex advocates have recently adopted the term ‘DSD’ or ‘Disorders of Sexual Development’ as a better term than intersex (see I resist this for a number of reasons, which I hope will become clear as the discussion progresses; but briefly: the adoption of medical language in this case works to reinforce that there is a proper order of sexual development, an order which intersex bodies fail to follow properly. This minimises the challenge that intersex poses to our assumptions about sexual dimorphism, as we shall see.

So, having discussed one form of authority over intersex bodies—that of medicine—I want to briefly mention another: the law. In NSW, there are criminal laws (Section 45 of the Crimes Act) which are designed to prevent “female genital mutilation”. They set down that any person who “excises, infibulates or otherwise mutilates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person” should be imprisoned for 7 years. There are numerous recountings from intersexed people which use terms such as ‘excision’ and ‘mutilation’ to refer to the procedures performed upon their genitalia, and indeed, it is hard to see how the shortening of the clitoris, a fairly regular ‘treatment’ for intersexed infants, falls outside this part of the section. And indeed, some have suggested that cases should be brought against those who have performed ‘intersex corrective surgery’ under these laws. But the Act also contains an exception for those modifications deemed “necessary for the health of the person on whom it is performed.” And health is neatly described: “In determining whether an operation is necessary for the health of a person only matters relevant to the medical welfare of the person are to be taken into account.“ It’s pretty clear what’s at stake here: the Act is trying to outlaw one form of genital modification–that form known in the West as ‘female genital mutilation’, whilst ensuring that there are ways to argue in favour of others—and not only intersex, but ‘cosmetic’ genital procedures, which do not always differ significantly from those which are deemed ‘mutilation’. In order to ensure that this distinction is made and maintained, the law relies upon medical expertise as to what “medical welfare” actually means. A side note here is that this assumes that a special form of objectivity adheres to Western medical science’s understanding of healthy, normal genitalia, and so law relies upon Western medicine’s supposedly self-evident legitimacy to specifically preclude any non-Western ideas about what ‘normal’ genitalia look like. In other words, legitimising Western medical authority in this way ensures that genitalia which might be ‘normal’ in Kenya or Sudan can never be considered ‘healthy’.

So what does constitute ‘medical welfare’ in the context of intersex? Well, clearly the medical community agrees that there is something of a medical problem with intersexed bodies, or it would not have developed so many techniques for dealing with them. But while some of these techniques are designed to avoid serious medical problems, such as genital formations which divert urine back into the uterus, the majority of surgeries performed on infants with variant genitalia are designed to alter the appearance of that genitalia. Indeed, it has been argued that such surgeries aren’t for the health or medical welfare of the individual child, but is designed primarily to treat parental distress, as we saw in the case of Zippora. She cries out for someone to normalise her child’s genitalia, and in most if not all cases, this cry is answered, the suffering resolved. Through the surgical ‘normalisation’ of the child’s genitalia.

The ‘normalisation’ of the child’s genitalia is, in contemporary times, taken to be a resolution of the child’s ‘sex’. I want to draw attention now to the specificities of the assumption that genitalia which adheres to some sense of normal ‘male’ or ‘female’ genitalia is ‘healthy’ genitalia. We think we know what sex is—know it so well and easily that it doesn’t need specific description, or discussion is superfluous. But people have always felt this way, even in the eighteenth century, and our contemporary understanding of what constitutes a healthy sexed body is quite different from historical knowledges. Intersex advocate Alice Dreger draws attention to the specificity of our own take on sex by examining eighteenth century understandings, in which sex was considered to be given by the gonads. There’s a case of a woman who is having difficulty having sex due to a short vagina. She goes to the doctor who examines her, and upon discovery of an undescended testicle, exclaims ‘But, my good woman! You are a man!’. This woman was then expected to dissolve her marriage and begin living and working as a man. The economy of sex at this time was entirely given by the gonadal tissue they found: if you had testes, you were a man; if you had ovaries, you were a woman. Nothing else decided your sex (Dreger 2003, esp. the prologue).

Obviously, we have accounts of sex which, by comparison, are very sophisticated. If the eighteenth century was the age of the gonads, the twentieth and twenty-first might be considered the Age of the Genes, Chromosomes, Hormones, Gonadal Tissues, Primary and Secondary sex characteristics. Amongst other things. It might be tempting to say that we simply know more about what makes sex sex, now. But it’s not quite that simple. Knowing ‘more’ about what makes sex sex has changed what sex is: it has changed what counts as deeming someone of a particular sex. Sex was once defined by the presence of testicular tissue. No longer is this the case. Sex is now defined by an array of different aspects, any one of which could diverge from ‘normal’ sex. In other words, our knowledge of sex has changed, and as a result disciplines sex differently. A different economy of sexual difference—one premised on more than just testicular tissue—is now at work.

Yet for all that contemporary understandings of sex, even in popular discourse, are more complex than they once were, there’s another shift that has occurred in our economies of sex. What produces Zippora’s anxiety, her pallor, her trembling is, as Iain Morland observes, the visible unknowability of her child’s sex:

What kind of disgust does Zippora feel? She articulates an anxiety about language and knowledge: what will she tell people? How will they know her child’s sex? For Zippora, the relationship between telling and knowing has been fractured because she knows something about her child that she cannot tell: her new baby is intersexed. Its genitals are a mixture of male and female characteristics. The baby’s body has not differentiated as clearly male or female – for instance, it may appear to have both a clitoris and testes (Morland 2001, 527).

The ‘anatomical referents’ at work here, then, are more complicated than they were in the eighteenth century, and more clearly about appearance. In contemporary understandings of sex, there tends to be some familiarity with the complex scientific knowledge of sex, but the really defining part of sex is genitalia: a penis and testes makes a man, whilst a vagina and clitoris (the ovaries not being visible) make a woman. And this is evident in some of the ways that people articulate anxieties about variant genitalia: one of the most familiar is a fear of teasing or even bullying at school based on the appearance of a child’s genitals. The ‘locker room’ is regularly raised as a site in which visibility might produce problems, especially in American high schools (where cultures of nakedness would seem to differ substantially from my own experience in Australian schools). Yet as Alice Dreger points out, ‘Yes, what about the locker room? If so many people feel trepidation around it, why don’t we fix the locker room? There are ways to signal to children that they are not the problem, and normalization technologies are not the way.’ (Preeves 2003, 44)

And it is in reaction to these strict requirements of appearance that surgical intervention is made into the bodies of those who are intersexed. Lest we think that the insistence on a clear visual distinction between masculine and feminine genitalia is not properly legitimated, not properly “scientific,” I want to read a few different ways that doctors frame the decision to intervene in intersexed bodies, as collected by Susan Kessler:

Feelings about larger-than-typical clitorises are illustrated by these representative quotations:
The excision of a hypertrophied clitoris is to be preferred over allowing a disfiguring and embarrassing phallic structure to remain.
The anatomic derangements [were] surgically corrected… Surgical techniques… remedy the deformed external genitals… [E]ven patients who suffered from major clitoral overgrowth have responded well… [P]atients born with obtrusive clitoromegaly have been encountered. [N]ine females had persistent phallic enlargement that was embarrassing or offensive and incompatible with satisfactory presentation or adjustement. [After] surgery no prepubertal girl… described troublesome or painful erections.
Female babies born with an ungainly masculine enlargement of the clitoris evoke grave concern in the parents… [The new clitoroplasty technique] allow[s] erection without cosmetic offense.
Failure to [reduce the glans and shaft] will leave a button of unsightly tissue
[Another surgeon] has suggested… total elimination of the offending shaft of the clitoris.
[A particular surgical technique] can be included as part of the procedure when the size of the glans is challenging to a feminine cosmetic result. (Kessler 1998, 36)

Susan Kessler’s research demonstrates that most clitorises longer than .9 centimetres are considered ‘offensive’ in this way, and prompt surgical intervention of some kind, disciplining the body that might challenge the easy visual distinction between male and female bodies. And on the other side of the coin, infants whose ‘phallus’ contains a urethral opening (the urethral opening within the penis being apparently the defining difference between a penis and a clitoris) but which fall below about 2.5 centimetres are thought to have penises which are ‘too small’. Such children have often been ‘reassigned’ to being female, and given surgery to reflect this decision. The economies of visual difference between men and women, then, are quite specific, and the bodies of those who are intersexed are altered to adhere to such these economies. I’ll return to this point shortly.

But there’s a little more to the question of the economies of sexual difference in contemporary culture. We’ve seen already that they require the visual distinctiveness of male and female bodies to be maintained, even when that involves the reduction, excision and sometimes irreparable damage done to the bodies concerned. But this leads into another aspect of the requirements of sexual dimorphism: all bodies, it would seem, need to be made as capable as possible of heterosexual reproduction. Thus, fertility is often a consideration in whether to deem a body male or female, and the form of surgery performed. Further, hypospadic penises, that is, those penises in which the urethral opening occurs somewhere on the underside of the penis, and is sometimes not simply a ‘hole’, must be remedied, in order not only that boys be able to compete in pissing contests (yes, according to some doctors, this rite of passage is key to male identity development), but also to ensure that heterosexual reproductive sex is perfectly facilitated. In some cases, ‘repairing’ a hypospadic penis can take multiple surgeries, requiring long hospital visits throughout childhood. According to Robert Crouch, surgeries are shaped by the requirement that one have ‘a sufficiently large penis so that one can look like and “perform” as a male in childhood, and so that one can satisfy one’s partner later on even if that means having a scarred and desensitised penis’ (Crouch 1999, 34). The heterosexual functionality of the penis—its capacity to get hard and ejaculate ‘properly’ is more important, it would seem, than pleasure or any other considerations. Similarly, short vaginas are lengthened to ensure that the vagina offers a proper ‘sheath’ to the penis during heterosexual intercourse. In fact, according to some surgeons,

The clitoris is not essential for adequate sexual function and sexual gratification… but its preservation would seem to be desirable if achieved while maintaining satisfactory appearance and function… [So long as clitoral] presence does not interfere with cosmetic, psychological, social and sexual adjustment (Kessler 1998, 37).

Yet what, precisely is adequate sexual function? Intersex advocate Cheryl Chase (also known as ‘Bo Laurent’) describes a telling experience: when a doctor found that clitoral tissue had withered as a result of invasive surgeries, he said ‘you’ll find someone to hold you nice and you’ll be okay’ (Kessler 1998, 57). As Crouch observes, ‘looming in the background of all of this is a moralistic and gendered cultural script that views women as passive recipients during sex, simply there to please their partners, and not themselves agents of sexual desire or feeling’ (Crouch 1999, 33). Both these cases demonstrate how key heteronormativity—the presumed normalcy and naturalness of a particular kind of reproductive heterosexuality—is to contemporary economies of sex.

So now we have begun to unpick what, precisely, it is that constitutes the ‘medical welfare’ of the intersexed infant. Medicine participates in deeming particular kinds of bodies good and healthy, and others as problematic and unhealthy. It would be easy to say, and medical professionals sometimes offer this as a defence, that altering the body of an intersexed infant offers that child the chance to ‘grow up normal’. On the one hand, yes, maybe they do. Yet on the other, it cannot be denied that the stories of intersexed people are shaped by shame, stigma, the secrecy and the mysterious sense of something being wrong. Max Beck, once Judy before transitioning, describes having been told she was an ‘unfinished girl’, yet feeling like a ‘sexual Frankenstein’s monster,’ a sense that led her to have to deny her desire for other women and marry a man who was ‘non-plussed about [her] man-made parts’ (“My Life as an Intersexual”). But as well as the often devastating effects of surgery on intersexed infants, the normalisation of these bodies has another, significant effect on our economies of sex. Intersexed bodies are covered over, the challenge that they pose to traditional economies of sex are forcibly effaced. In disciplining these unruly bodies, we replicate and reiterate a narrow normative understanding of what sex can be. As Canguilhem observes, ‘[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). When our heteronormative visual economies of sex are such that bodies which challenge the limitations of those economies are altered to reiterate those limited economies, we effectively silence the corporeal challenge to our contemporary economies of sex, refusing to hear or negotiate with bodies, people and experiences which are different, unexpected, and which challenge our assumptions about the world.

In this respect, I want to suggest that it is not simply the lives of intersex people which are at stake, although it is certainly at the expense of intersex people’s happiness that these sexual economies are maintained. I mentioned, briefly, earlier, Max Beck. Max was raised as Judy, and his current partner, Tamara Alexander wrote about Max/Jude’s experiences in a piece called “Silence = Death”. Alexander recollects Max’s story of her college affair with a woman and the six words she said in bed that altered the entire course of Max’s life:

“Boy, Jude, you sure are weird.” Max told me she knew then that she was a lesbian but she could not be with women because they would know how her body was different. She married Harold because men were just less sensitive to the subtleties of women’s anatomy (Alexander 1999, 105).

This might seem insignificant, such a comment, but as surely as Zippora’s pallor, trembling and her tumble of distressed words and pleas, what is articulated is an inability to see beyond extremely limited economies of sex, an inability to perceive an intersexed person as anything other than weird or lacking, an inability to see anything but the failure to achieve the unambiguous genitalia of ‘normalcy’. There is little doubt that intersexed people are made to pay the majority of the cost for this need to discipline sex, in shame and secrecy and self-hatred and self-doubt, in bodies which they may never feel at home in; but it also shapes the limitations of experiences for non-intersexed people. Zippora misses the opportunity to welcome her child into the world with joy. Jude’s sexual partner misses the opportunity to experience Jude as Jude. But this is not an inevitability: Tamara Alexander gives us another way of encountering the intersexed other, describing their first sexual encounter:

She [Judy, as Max was then] was terrified, and I was aware of her fear and the cost of offering herself up to me in that moment… I have never wanted to pleasure someone, never wanted to offer my hands and fingers to heal and to love and to delight… I have never been so awed by the feeling of touching as I was that night. I wanted to stroke and explore and learn and know every inch of her, her large and proud clit, the lines and crevasses from scars and healing, the tight cavern of her cunt that held my fingers so tightly. She pulled me down on top of her and wrapped her arms around me and came, calling my name, sobbing against my shoulder. And I wept with her. I wept for the loss of what she hadn’t had and the lovers who hadn’t revelled in the wonder of her body, wept for what I hadn’t had before I held her in love, and I am weeping as I write this now (Alexander 1999, 106).

The response of Alexander to Jude is to Jude, not to Jude as she is described by categories, or her position in relation to normalcy (‘her’ “weird”ness). Alexander’s sense of wonder and delight in Jude’s body is not dependent upon the achievement or non-achievement of proper, unambiguous sex. Rather, she demonstrates that the imagination and openness that doctors and parents fear is too much to ask of the world is in fact possible; she opens up the possibility that what constitutes ‘medical welfare’ or ‘health’ might be better thought of as that which allows and encourages this kind of openness to those born intersexed, rather than deeming their bodies, from the very beginning, to be “emergencies” of ‘anatomic derangements’ in need of discipline.

What we can see here is that legal, medical and social regulation are bound up with each other, reinforcing not only authority, but also ensuring the reiteration of a singular economy of sex. This economy requires the disciplining of those bodies which fall outside its circumscription of legitimate categories: male and female. It deems worthless, or worse, threatening, those bodies which cannot be recognised as valuable according to its requirements. This economy not only disadvantages those who are different and thus cannot be recognised as valuable, but disadvantages all of us in ways that many of us have the privilege to not even be aware of. We forget—we have to forget—the gifts offered by those not recognized by existing economies of sex. Indeed, our forgetting occurs at their expense: in the disciplining wielding of the scalpel, in the requirement that traditional dichotomies of sex be maintained, in the supposed necessity that they understand themselves as disordered. And this is my response to those medical professionals who say that their techniques are ‘improving’ – what you mean by this is that your techniques are approximating heteronormative imaginaries better and better, replicating the very dichotomy that these bodies demonstrate the falsity and restrictiveness of. This is not to say that there are easy solutions, for there are not. And when those, like Zippora, are distressed, the impulse to help is important and ethical. But the response needs to take account of and negotiate with the diversity of bodies, rather than concealing the challenges that these various variant bodies pose to knowledge, to regulation, to discipline, and perhaps most intimately, most tellingly, to our very everyday lived experiences of sex.

Alexander, Tamara (1999) “Silence=Death” in Alice Dorumat Dreger (ed) Intersex in the Age of Ethics
Beck, Max “My Life as an Intersexual” accessed 2/5/09
Canguilhem, Georges (1991) The normal and the pathological. C. Fawcett & R. Cohen (Trans.) Zone Books
Crouch, Robert (1999) ”Betwixst and Between: The Past and Future of Intersexuality” in Alice Dorumat Dreger (ed) Intersex in the Age of Ethics
Dreger, Alice Dorumat (2003) Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex Harvard University Press
Kessler, Suzanne (1998) Lessons From the Intersexed Rutgers University Press
Morland, Iain (2001) “Is Intersexuality Real?” Textual Practice 15(3) 527-547
Preeves, Sharon (2003) Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self Rutgers University Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

clettrine1.jpgAVARERO (significant, I think, for Eric, particularly?):

the you comes before the we, before the plural you and before the they. Symptomatically, the you is a term that is not at home in modern and contemporary developments of ethics and politics. The “you” is ignored by the individualistic doctrines, which are too preoccupied with praising the rights of the I, and the “you” is masked by a Kantian form of ethics that is only capable of staging an I that addresses itself as a familiar “you.” Neither does the “you” find a home in the schools of thought to which individualism is opposed-these schools reveal themselves for the most part to be affected by a moralistic vice, which, in order to avoid falling into the decadence of the I, avoids the contiguity of the you, and privileges collective, plural pronouns. Indeed, many “revolutionary” movements (which range from traditional communism to the feminism of sisterhood) seem to share a curious linguistic code based on the intrinsic morality of pronouns. The we is always positive, the plural you is a possible ally, the they has the face of an antagonist, the I is unseemly, and the you is, of course, superfluous.

(Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, 90-91 via Butler’s ‘Giving an Account of Oneself,’ Diacritics 30(4), pp. 22-40, who links Cavarero explicitly to Levinas…)

The you is superfluous because allegedly reducible to what I have already known: a type, a kind, an already-seen, already-recognised, a they, anatagonist or ally, a yes or a no. Such a reduction refuses to grapple with that which cannot be known, that which cannot be seen, that which escapes recognition; and as such, this reduction is the technique of an I which pretends that the world is already his, already hers, already theirs if only in a style of being (such that if it is not, then it ought to be, dammit!). Refuses to see that the unknown conditions the known. This presumption of knowability—oh, the rhythms it forgets, the richness it dismisses, the challenge it refuses to face and be made otherwise by! It finds only limitation in difference, and never possibility, never the dance… and therein lies its tragedy…

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