feminism


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).

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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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, this is a copy of the paper I gave at the AWGSA conference just a couple of weeks ago. It’s not spectacular – it was primarily written late at night and early that morning, due to a somewhat ridiculous schedule – but I’m hoping it will give a sense of where, at least, I’m starting out in thinking about law and therapeutic forgetting. I didn’t get into much theory, really, because this was really a sketch of a research area, rather than a fully rigorous paper. Bah, caveating aside, here’s the goods:

Medical innovation is something that we are all becoming, more and less, accustomed to dealing with. Whilst the effects of such technologies for the individual–not only straightforward safety, but the risks of potential side-effects and pharmaceutical interactions, for example–are considered a key part of the research required in advance of permitting sale of a product, or allowing a surgical technique to become standard procedure, the effects which extend beyond the individual concerned remain, for the most part, irrelevant. Bioethics, for example, which one would be forgiven for assuming considers the ethics of medical and biological research, turns out to be primarily concerned with enumerating the rights and responsibilities of the liberal humanist individual in relation to medicine. But as scholars such as Margrit Shildrick have pointed out, such bioethical analyses tend to presume the very subject that these medical and pharmaceutical developments query, or change, or throw into question. Obviously, however, it is not only bioethics that presumes a liberal, humanist subject, the conception of which is shaped by a history of the subordination of women, by colonisation and racism, by rampant and continuing ableism and eugenics, and by class asymmetries. This subject lies at the heart of numerous social and political institutions; of central concern today is our legal system.

If we turn to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we can see the central ideals of liberalism which are so key to understanding such institutions, perhaps summed up as follows:

‘The only freedom which deserve the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.’

The deprivation of freedom has been configured as a ‘harm.’ At least theoretically, then, according to liberalism, whenever harm occurs, some kind of intervention is warranted. This is thought to be the place for the law, and, perhaps more importantly, the justification of it: it is meant to intervene where someone transgresses on another’s capacity to be free, to ensure that justice is done, say through prevention, compensation, punishment and/or deterrence. Yet, of course, what counts as harm has never been entirely clarified, even though there are many liberal philosophers who have attempted to describe it. I would add that the selectivity of what counts as harm is one of the key ways in which the white, straight masculinity of the liberal humanist subject is both privileged and protected. That is, only certain forms of harm are subject to legislation or court decisions.

The very use of the word ‘harm’ in liberalism is, I think, telling: where we could use words like ‘suffering’ or ‘hurt’, we use ‘harm’, an apparently objectively given standard. And this objectively given standard is adjudicated, often, by law, before which we are all, allegedly, equal… or perhaps ‘the same’ is a better description. Thus, looking closely at what the legal system protects helps us to understand what kind of a subject the law seeks to protect, or more specifically, what vulnerabilities the law assumes its subjects have, that must be protected to ensure that justice is done, helps us to understand how and why social asymmetries are reiterated through law. As Moira Gatens points out, the legal system is produced to protect those whose bodies match the body politic, whilst laws relevant to minorities such as women are fragments, set around the edges. This discussion might seem a little distant from medical innovation, but the key point is that our legal systems function with a particular model of subjectivity in mind. Whilst that subject may have always been something of a fantasy, nonetheless the issue of what happens when contemporary subjects change through medical intervention requires some analysis. The question I am interested in asking, then, is how medicine and law intersect in the context of existing oppressions and social assymetries, given first that they tend to bow to each other’s expertise, and second that they share a mutually reinforcing conception of the subject. In this particular case, I want to talk about therapeutic forgetting, or, as it is also known, memory dampening.

The pharmaceutical at the heart of this set of questions is a beta-blocker, one of a set of drugs which help to stop the visible manifestation of anxiety. They are mostly used by performers, to keep them from perspiring excessively, and to steady their hands. Propranolol, however, has been discovered to have another, rather astonishing effect: if taken in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, it can, it would seem, reduce the ‘traumatic weight’ of the memory of the event. This practice is called ‘therapeutic forgetting’ or ‘memory dampening’, and although it isn’t yet a common part of the treatment of trauma, it seems likely that, if the initial tests go forward into proper clinical trials, it could become part of the toolkit used to negotiate with trauma, alongside, say, anti-depressants, counselling, anti-anxiety medications and debriefing. There are many questions still outstanding about the use of propranolol in the prevention of trauma–for example, it’s not clear from the tests which have taken place so far whether the reduction of trauma also affects the clarity of the memory of the events– but in the end, the promise of being able to contain trauma to the immediate aftermath of an event, rather than something that takes months, years, perhaps decades to deal with, is probably going to be too sweet a possibility to refuse.

What does it mean, to be able to reduce the traumatic significance of a memory? Those closely involved in its testing see only what they call a positive outcome: the prevention of PTSD. Yet our memories are not simply the ‘content’ added to the ‘container’ of who we are: they are part of us; in fact, there are those who suggest that we are nothing more than the narrativisation of our memories, that our subjectivity is shaped that profoundly by our experiences. In terms of traumatic memory, it is not only the memory of the traumatic event that reshapes a subject, but the memory of the memory, the practices of remembering that develop over time, as we ‘deal with’ or ‘fail to deal with’ whatever trauma we have experienced.

The memory of rape can and often is, precisely that significant in someone’s life, a memory that for a long time can produce suffering, in the recollection of suffering. Suffering is, obviously, understood as a prima facie bad thing, claims about post-traumatic growth notwithstanding. On the one hand, this might mean that we cheerfully hand over propranolol to all those who might be traumatised, as medicine would seem to recommend. And it is incredibly difficult to imagine how it could be ethical to refuse a rape survivor access to a drug that might reduce her suffering, a suffering which is part of the reiteration of women’s oppression, a suffering which, lest it need to be repeated, she did not deserve, or earn.* Surely the relief or reduction of suffering can only be an ethical aim?

On the other hand, what effect might this have on the law? If law is shaped, ideally, by the trauma experienced by liberal individuals, then what happens to legal understandings of crimes when trauma is reduced? If a woman is raped, for example, and takes propranolol, thereby reducing the longevity of her trauma, or the ‘traumatic weight’ of her memories, does that reduce the significance of the crime? Or, more to the point, if propranolol became standard ‘treatment’ for the trauma of rape, might it, over time, reduce or at least reconfigure the significance of rape, not only for the individuals involved–as the drug is intended to do–but for the legal system and for society more generally? And would this be a bad thing, in any simple sense?

For the individual concerned, perhaps not. But if this pharmaceutical reduction in trauma became that widely used, which would seem quite likely if the adoption of, for example, anti-depressants is any indicator, what happens to the individual woman who might choose to not take propranolol after someone rapes her? Our society has a plethora of discursive techniques for holding women responsible for rape–from having had sex once, to wearing skinny jeans, to getting drunk–and in this context, it seems likely that such a discursive construction would shape social responses to the use of propranolol. For a woman to choose to not take propranolol in the aftermath of rape thus risks becomes freighted with the language of responsibility for trauma. What precisely might it mean to ‘choose your own trauma’ in this way?

Preventing ‘bad’ experiences from shaping who we are–perhaps this is a simple straightforward good thing. We often assume it is. But it also places us in the position of making decisions about who we want to be. Obviously we already make these negotiations, but the question of whether we, both individually and as a society, have the wherewithal to make more and more and more decisions about who we want to be, remains a live one. The alleged equation of more choice = more freedom has clearly been a seductive one, but there are increasing numbers of questions being asked about whether those choices are liberating, or risk becoming another facet of oppression or even trauma. For rape survivors, the effects of propranolol in terms of the pathologisation of bad memories and the potential to erase trauma have just this potential.

Similarly, some commentators such as Bell, Chatterjee and Lindberg and Siao,  have pointed out that propranolol risks pathologising bad memories; making memories that are difficult appear as disease, in the limited lexicon of medical science. It is a well-established problem for medical innovation that having the capacity to ‘treat’ something situates that ‘something’ as pathological. Memories of rape are already socially coded as sites of shame, partly because they tap back into existing and conservative ideas about gender dynamics which render women allegedly ‘unrapeable’. To expand this investment in memories of rape into the pathological would seem to add a problematic discursive weight to the aftermath of rape, making negotiating the entire experience far more complicated. I have already suggested that our practices of remembering–how we remember what we do, and how those rememberings reshape the memory itself–are particularly at stake here, and it seems that propranolol may produce a peculiar new way of remembering memories, one which risks carrying the extra weight of pathologisation. The effect of propranolol on our socially shared styles of memory and remembering, then, bears with it the potential to undo its own positive effects. Between the question of who becomes responsible for the trauma arising from rape when ‘she could have just taken a pill’, and the issue of further stigmatisation of rape survivors and rape memories through the pathologisation of such memories, this drug, which has so much potential, may simply become another complicated and contradictory space that a rape survivor must negotiate.

It also opens up the question of the significance of the memory of rape beyond the individual. Contemporary Western culture is extremely good at erasing the memory of rape from public knowledge. Whether the erasure takes place when survivors are shamed into silence, or when police officers refuse to take reports, when physical examinations are not done, or are inconclusive, or when prosecutors decide a case is too hard to win, or when judges lead or affirm juries in thinking that rape is not rape because of drunkenness or skinny jeans or whatever, the point is that rape is too easily rendered solely a private matter. A memory delimited to a single embodied subject. One of the only spaces for publicly marking and remembering the trauma of rape is the legal system, and the effect of propranolol on this role is thus a key part of the questions I want to ask. Reducing the trauma of rape could either reduce or increase the number of rape survivors prepared to testify: perhaps, with the reduction of the trauma attached to the memory, testifying in court might become a less re-traumatising experience and thus become a process that survivors are more willing to go through; or again, reducing the trauma may mean that whatever psychological ‘closure’ is offered by testifying, and the promise of conviction, becomes an unnecessary part of negotiating with trauma. Both possibilities are fairly damning about the contemporary system of justice, however, suggesting that the contemporary legal system is inadequate to deal with the trauma of rape, and that the liberal promise of this institution is never fully borne out. More than this, they require that harm, suffering and trauma be experienced somewhere, and by someone, before intervention of any kind if warranted. Someone needs to be traumatised in order for the legal system to step in.

This is why, I would suggest, that the philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Levinas, is so damning of the question of justice. He argues that ethics–our responsibility to an other who is always unknowable and unknown–must be acknowledged as coming ‘before’ justice. Ethics is about responding to the suffering of the unique other before me, whilst justice always sets the ethical demands of two others in competition with each other, even as their demands are incomprable. For Levinas, any attempt to talk about the ‘positive outcomes’ of suffering is intensely unethical, and in fact winds up being a justification of the unjustifiable, a defense of the indefensible, a form of what he calls secular theodicy. In these discourses, he includes three claims that are raised in the literature about therapeutic forgetting: first, the claim that suffering is character-building, or second, that it is a natural part of life, or third, that it acts as an indicator for society about where injustice is occurring. He argues that this turns suffering, which is fundamentally useless, fundamentally meaningless, into something that is useful, and in so doing establishes grounds upon which suffering becomes justified. Justifying suffering seeks to delimit that which cannot be ethically constrained: our infinite responsibility to the other.

It is worth attending to where and how these examples of ‘secular theodicy’ occur. Problematically, of course, this is precisely how liberalism works. Liberalism can only respond to injustices such as rape. Harm, trauma or suffering must occur first, must indicate where society has ‘gone wrong’. Suffering must occur first before the correction to social structures is even perceived as necessary. Someone must bear the physical and traumatic memory of injustice before justice may–and it may not!–be done. This style of justice is, according to Levinas, profoundly unethical, yet it is predominantly minorities of various kinds whose vulnerabilities become the site at which these issues with liberalism’s ethical inadequacy is played out.

Therapeutic forgetting, then, is not simply about forgetting harm, suffering, or trauma, about the individual’s experiences of these. Rather, in dampening trauma, it functions to forget this inadequacy, to forget the injustice of a liberalism that claims to protect freedoms from harm. It functions to obscure that liberalism cannot deal with ‘vulnerable others’. In a system of law and politics that is clearly so troublingly unresponsive to the vulnerabilities of its subjects, then, medicine is offering a stop-gap, a means of reducing those vulnerabilities, or rather, a means of producing ideal subjects whose vulnerabilities to trauma lie only in those spaces that liberalism protects. In this context, the question of whether a rape survivor is actually the subject of therapeutic forgetting or not, remains a live question. If, as I suggested at the beginning, medical innovation is transforming embodied subjects as we know them, the question I want to ask is what is it turning them into, and why? Medicine might seek to prevent suffering, but it does so by transforming the other into something less vulnerable, something more isomorphic, as Moira Gatens suggested, with the body politic. In this sense, medical innovation needs to be carefully analysed, perhaps especially where it reduces suffering, because it can too easily forget that suffering is not a naturally occurring experience, but the result of a very particular social and cultural context; and because that forgetting is often weighted with the forgetting of difference.

* I refer to ‘women’ throughout not because I think that men are not raped, because they are, though at far, far lesser rates than women, but because I go on to discuss the specificities attached to women-as-survivors-of-rape, particularly the discourses used to discredit them.

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 http://www.isna.org). 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.
References

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 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/beck.html
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

I started this post an age ago, but I need to post it before I post the others I have drafted. So forgive the oscillation between only-knowing-ep-1 and knowing-entire-season-so-far, would you please? 🙂 This is, of course, always in dialogue with what Fuck Politeness has written, given that we’re watching and discussing them together each week. More to come!

As you may already be aware, Joss Whedon has produced a new concept and a new series: Dollhouse. It stars Eliza Dushku as a young woman, once known as Caroline and now, within the Dollhouse, as Echo, one of a number of ‘Dolls’. The dolls have had their memories and personalities wiped away, and these can be replaced at any point with any imprint the technician wants. They are, in some sense, the ultimate in contemporary personhood; perfectly flexible to every context, able to learn anything with the flick of a switch (Matrix-like). It seems that even muscle memory is erasable and re-code-able by Topher, the ‘science nerd’ character of the series. Topher is a young man with a flexible set of morals, and in the first episode, he voices a number of justifications for the questionable ethics of erasing people’s memories. We’ll come back to that. The Dollhouse is run by Adele, terse and tightly-wound, but not entirely cold. She’s mostly efficient, it would seem, but in the opening of the series as a whole, it is she who is ‘convincing’ Caroline to give herself over to the Dollhouse. Caroline, it would seem, feels she has no choice; the implication seems to be that Caroline could either give herself to the Dollhouse or go to prison (but I am way reading into this…). Echo’s handler, Boyd Langton, is less certain about the morals of the Dollhouse, and it is his discomfort that helps to draw attention to the problematic nature of the Dollhouse.

Scene set.

For me, there’s much to be excited about in even this minimal scene-setting. I want to talk about a couple of things in particular: the creation of the perfect object, the question of consent, coercion and choice, and finally the troubling of an essentialist model of subjectivity. Today I’ll talk about the first of these.

So: the first. In the conversation over at Hoyden About Town, some concern was expressed about the objectification of Echo in the first episode. She rides a motorbike and dances around looking ecstatically happy, in a teensy tiny dress that just promises to flick up a lil to reveal her knickers (but, sadly for some, never quite does. Who doesn’t love a tease?). The camera dwells on Echo. This particular section is topped off by a young man saying something about how much fun he’s had with her that weekend, giving her a lil heart pendant, and then, as she walks off into the middle of the night, tell his buddy that the clock had struck 12 and she had had to leave. The evocation of the fairytale is self-conscious, here:  it’s pretty clear he’s pretty taken with her, and not least because she’s pretty taken with him. She’s not reduced, simply and utterly, to the object of her body, as we might be accustomed to identifying objectification. She’s the princess the prince wants, and when the clock strikes twelve, that’s what she’ll cease being. Indeed, this is the complexity that the series allows us to access: the complexity of what Luce Irigaray calls ‘specularity’.

Specularity, as Irigaray (one of the ‘French feminists’, who isn’t actually French) describes it, is related to objectification. Objectification is the process where women are reduced to mere objects of male use and desire; not people at all. Historically, this has been associated with forms of feminism which are invested in a mind/body split, and thus objectification is often thought to be the reduction of a thinking, emoting woman to her body; all else is made irrelevant. The conceptual violence done here is the refusal to acknowledge that women think and feel ‘just like men’. Specularity does something slightly more deconstructive: it observes that man and woman are categories defined in relation to each other. More specifically, man is taken as the yardstick by which woman is defined, and inevitably found wanting: they are less rational, less strong, less able to control themselves and so on and so on and oh god so on. Indeed, it is precisely because woman is defined as derivative, as lesser, that man is recognisable as the norm, as the yardstick itself (and yes, that would be Irigaray’s slightly naughty  but pointed sense of humour, indicating the phallomorphism of language, which sees ‘erect’ and ‘yardsticks’ as positive things). Woman is specular: she plays the mirror that reflects man’s image of himself (as strong, rational etc) back to himself, made to be a mirror that affirms his superiority.

Echo’s name is no accident. Echo is specularity made impossibly spectacular: she is a woman who can be made into whatever is desired of her. She can be moulded, refit, reshaped, to become whoever it is that the ‘client’ wants of her. Indeed, this is perhaps most evident in the interchange she has with the ‘client’ early in the episode. He wins the motorbike race, probably because she let him. And she accuses him of cheating, all sass and fire. This is intriguing, because she’s clearly not a mere object at this moment: she’s more than a passive body for his use. But she reflects back to him precisely what he wants to believe of himself: that a smart, sassy, gorgeous woman will teasingly fight with him, maintaining the illusion that he won straight up, partly to raise the heat between the two of them. She is a mirror, spectacularly.

But to just return to Irigaray for a moment: along with this particular branch of third wave feminism, Irigaray isn’t interested in simply proclaiming the inaccuracy of these truths, and pointing out that women are ‘just not like that’. For this, of course, would presume that women already are something beyond who they are in the social. Rather, she draws a constructionist bow: men and women are constructed through precisely this logic of what she calls sexual indifference (indifference because women are not permitted to be actually different, just derivative, just lesser). In other words, men and women are produced through the social figuring of them in relation to each other. Through (in)difference, woman becomes specular, only ever what man needs of her to remain man, to remain superior.

In this sense, Echo’s position within the Dollhouse becomes a literalisation of the situation of women within patriarchy: specularised even when they are not straight-forwardly objectified. But this, of course, is not the end of the story, as both Irigaray and Whedon know. What is fascinating, already, about Dollhouse is that even when Echo is made precisely what is ‘required’, she always exceeds. She exceeds her specularity, even if she remains within the ‘parameters’ of her job. This happens over and over: it happens when she refuses to simply be the fuck-prey of the hunter in episode 2. To be clear, it’s not that some of the ‘real’ Echo shows through; that, I think, is too simplistic a model of subjectivity for what’s going on. It’s that the woman that she is ‘imprinted’ to become shifts and changes with the situations she is confronted with. She might be specularised, but she is never just that.

And this, too, is Irigaray’s point. Women will always exceed the specular economy, always exceed their definition as not-man, as the inversion, the mirror of men. This isn’t because there’s an underlying ‘truth’ to women that is not done justice to in the specular economy. Rather, it’s because the specular economy itself is shaped through disavowals: disavowals of women’s strength, of women’s capacity for rationality as well as irrationality, of women as other than what the specular economy would have them be. This is the hidden underside of the specular economy. And this is why the Dollhouse-rs are so concerned about Echo’s continual exceeding of their expectations: it testifies to the uncertainty of their control, of their capacity to decide who she is. They think they make her what she is, and she remains static, a mirror. But Echo takes their mirror, shifts it, turns it a little sideways, becomes more and other than what they expect, demonstrates that their control is never complete; and it’s not incomplete because she is someone else ‘underneath’, because each of the women she is produced to be inevitably finds the holes, the gaps, the spaces in which to become more than the Dollhouse ever thought she could be. For Irigaray, this is the unique attribute of what she calls the ‘feminine’, the disavowed underside of the specular economy. Specular woman might be the mere reflection of man, but women are always more than this, because in order to produce them as specular, the economy of specularity must also produce the feminine, an uncertain, deconstructive excess to itself. And this is why women constitute such a threat to phallocentric logics: women are never merely specular, but always more, and that ‘always more’ reveals the inconsistencies, the foolish fantasies, that which must be disavowed in the constitution of such logics.

This is why I’m describing Echo as an ‘everywoman’ figure, and why I think she’s such an important figure in current TV. Every week, she is made a mirror, a reflection to get the job done. And every week (if not with every imprint), she exceeds her mandate. Every week she testifies to their lack of control over who she can be, simply by living out the imprint given her. She refuses to be the hunted; she refuses to accede to a fundamentalist logic which would see death as the only good end; she refuses to allow the patriarchy to retain its grasp on her sisters… Each of these refusals does not take place outside the imprint created for her, but within it. This demonstrates that within every woman, produced as she may be as the specular mirror to reinforce male privilege, she always exceeds this, and the simple living out of this excess—which often occurs unconsciously, and often occurs because of her bonds to others (such as the Rihanna-stand-in, or Boyd, or the other cultists)—has the capacity to upend the phallocentric system. The real threat to patriarchy, then, doesn’t come from without, it comes from within. In other words, yes, Dollhouse does depict objectification. It depicts specularity. But in so doing, it demonstrates that these never do and never can contain women; that there is always resistance possible by turning the system back in against itself. And women have unique access to the excess that can do this (well, women plus Victor, perhaps, in the Dollhouse universe!). When women are more than mirrors, they trouble not only the supposition that they are only the reflection of men, but that men’s superiority is anything more than a illusion.

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