Merleau-Ponty


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

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

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

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

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

…[gulp]…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i‘M currently writing a paper for a seminar about disability. Actually I’ve currently got four papers on the go – they’re all for presentation, but it’s making my life a tad hectic. This chapter also desperately needs to be finished; I’ve promised myself the end of this month as an absolute, absolute dead end kind of deadline, but we’ll see how it goes. Interestingly, writing a thesis seems to be all about the flexing of deadlines; it’s rather disconcerting!

Anyhow, this seminar has the loosest of titles: something about ‘beyond the social model,’ or ‘in critique of the social model.’ It’s proving a bit difficult to write for: it’s going to be a fairly mixed audience, and I tend toward the theoretical, even for my own discipline. But it’s not just this: my work is on suffering, and suffering, as Wendy Brown has shown, is something that people tend to be pretty invested in, particularly when they’re working in political spheres to remedy the injustices that cause the suffering in the first place. The risk, which would mostly arise from the assumption that I’m much closer to the social model of disability than I actually am, is that I may be uncharitably understood as suggesting that suffering a) doesn’t exist; b) is so utterly contingent as to make the sufferer responsible for their own suffering; or c) that I am equating forms of suffering which are quite clearly very different. I am suggesting none of these things, but suffering playing the role it does, I’m headed into a little anxious about it. So I thought I’d explain a bit of my thoughts on this matter here, and see if practicing writing about these issues might help. Also, my slow upkeep on this blog is making me feel bad, even as I miss it!

The social model of disability can be understood—a little shabbily, but just for now—as what social constructionism did when it came head-to-head with the idea of disability. Just like with the sex/gender distinction that it instituted in relation to feminism, disability was divided into the impairment/disability paradigm. The impairment, it was suggested, is neutral, even natural, whilst society disables those who are impaired. I have a number of issues with this perspective, however much sympathy I have for its intentions, beginning with the problematic conception of the individual subject and what we might loosely call ‘the social,’ and the relationship between them.

The subject in this model is Cartesian; this is one of the key points of social constructionism, and the reason that Moira Gatens could rip the sex/gender distinction to shreds in 1986 (though she likely wasn’t alone, and perhaps wasn’t the first. I just like this book a lot.) It presumes that the body is predominantly, if not entirely, a blank slate. Sure men and women might have different physical sexes, it was suggested; this has nothing at all to do with whether they act feminine or masculine. Similarly, the social model of disability suggests that impairments are neutral but naturally occurring. The issue here, of course, is that it is only in and through the social that we can conceive of two sexes, and only in and through the social that ideas like ‘impaired’ and ‘unimpaired’ make sense. It is, in the end, the social investment in the body—what Judith Butler called the ‘materialisation of’ the body—which produces bodies male, female, intersex, impaired, unimpaired, normal and abnormal. Indeed, as Gatens points out in that 1986 essay, it is ludicrous to suppose that masculinity is socially read in the same way whether it is lived out by a male body or a female body. The body has a significant role to play in the formation of the subject; but it is not in and through providing the biological essence from which the subject will arise, and it is not just in how we understand the body (for that would reinstitute the Cartesian dualism we’re claiming is problematic), but how we experience it.

But there’s something else going on in social constructionism which is somewhat problematic. It presumes that the mind is fully in control. After all, the argument was made by some feminists (note how rare it is to see the phrase ‘some feminists’; most people are all-too-willing to lump the whole diverse bunch in together) that what was needed was education. Education, my friends, would change the world. And I wouldn’t like to say that this is entirely untrue. But the assumption seemed to be that whoever was teaching the next generation could cheerfully shed their belief in the two sexes. This might have been true, but as politically active people have long known (and regularly denied), our wants, needs and desires are not quite so thoroughly within our control. In lots of ways, the assumption that any sexism or racism that existed within a person was entirely conscious has been nothing more than a handy way for those who were aware of the problems to declare themselves free of these terrible prejudices. The most sexism-aware person, male or female, can be misogynist and not even realise it. And as Alcoff showed us, all that time ago, racism occurs not just at the level of intention, but at the level of perception. It lies not in what we plan to do, but in how we see the world. It is not, then, something that we can merely think our way out of. If we were all purely conscious creatures, perhaps social constructionism might get us somewhere. But we’re not. Thank whatever deity you wanna invoke!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know what my take is, by now. The social doesn’t just affect what we can explicitly see, what we consciously think. It affects the every way that we dwell in the world, the very way that we are oriented towards or away from others, the ways we see, breathe, laugh, desire, hurt, smile, sleep, touch, read, speak… We are embodied subjects who are embodied in and through the context in which we live.

What this means is that suffering is much more than we are accustomed to thinking of it as. This is not to deny that bodies hurt. They do. I broke my tooth earlier this year, people, and smooshed my mouth into crazy Angelina-parody lips. I knows da hurt. But the hurt is never, can never be just natural, like we always assume; we make the distinction between pain and suffering as if one were purely physical and the other something more. We need to learn to pay attention to the specificity of our own experiences, and not automatically universalise from them:

This particular devotee is part of a religious procession. He is walking… impaled within what could be described as a type of elaborate metal scaffolding. The infrastructural support for these constructions is the devotee’s own body. Myriad metal spokes are driven into the skin and organs. The hands may also be pierced and even the tongue immobilized by long spikes thrust through the face, lips and neck. To be skewered by any one of these metal prongs would prove at least painful for most of us, and conceivably lethal. Bleeding, scarring, and internal injury would be the inevitable results of what, in a different context, could be read as abuse. Yet for the serious thaipusam devotee, none of these effects is realised. This man does not bleed, nor does he scar. Indeed, whatever the weltanschauung, structural frame, or cultural text – call it what you will – through which this man’s body is ciphered and allocated as “being in the world,” one can only presume that this information also informs the very matter of his body’s material constitution. (Telling Flesh, p. 3)

Vicki Kirby is here describing the Hindu ritual festival of thaipusam. This isn’t science fiction, it’s not a lie, it’s just different to the Western experience of embodiment. It’s telling, though, that it is so very hard for a Western audience to conceive of; indeed, the usual response is disbelief. The assumption that needs to be in place to doubt that veracity of this account is that there is a body that pre-exists the social.

Anyway, the point of this is to demonstrate that pain and suffering are bound up with the way that the body is constituted, with my way of being in the world. Merleau-Ponty says

it has been perceptively remarked that pain and fatigue can never be regarded as causes which ‘act’ upon my liberty, and that, in so far as I may experience either at any given moment, they do not have their origin outside me, but always have a significance and express my attitude to the world. (POP, p. 512)

This ‘attitude to the world’ might sound deeply intentional; but Merleau-Ponty is pretty clear that much of these ways of being comported towards the world are not conscious in the sense we might usually think of them. This means that suffering is always bound up with a whole mass of things about our lives; always bound up with its significance in and to our lives. This significance is produced not just neutrally, but nor is it just as ‘society’ as a whole defines it; rather, it occurs in relation to the unique but nonetheless culturally shaped habitual ways that we are in the world; not just the sometimes ephemeral, hard-to-spot habits of perception, but the very every day ways that we live.

Unsurprisingly, these habits are often informed by normalcy, as it is thought (not just by me), embodied by others and experienced by myself. When I say this, I don’t mean that we wander around thinking we’re normal, normal, normal. Rather, our own personal way of being in the world is built in reflection of the normalcy of our world: I drive a car without problems, can reach all the shelves in the supermarket, can hear conversations without needing to piece together the meaning, read with my eyes and drink a coffee at the same time and so on, and so forth… Yet the interruption of any one of these tiny elements isn’t just the interruption of that strand, but the shaking up of my whole way of being in the world. Some of these we tolerate. They just shake us a little, like almost running into a stobie pole (oops; showing my Adelaideanness there! I was only there for five years, people! ;-)) or perhaps not at all, when I don’t care whether I can hear the conversation or not. But when I suddenly can’t drive my car, can’t walk easily, or swiftly, or at all, or slowly lose my sight…. well, these trouble the entirety of my way of being in the world in ways that I cannot, physically or mentally (as if these two were separated) make sense of. Because they counter my usual ways of making sense. My attunement to the world, and its to me, is demonstrated to be off, out of kilter. And this troubles not just the individual act I’m trying to do, but my whole self, past, present and future. This, my friends, is suffering; and I cannot even get my head around it. All my ways of making meaning are gone. My world as I know it, gone. My self as I know it, gone.

Suffering, then, definitely does exist. It isn’t quite so contingent that we could ever ‘talk ourselves out of it,’ or pretend that ‘education’ as it’s usually conceived of, would be an adequate response. It’s also always different, because every way of being-in-the-world is unique. But what this all means is that the social model of disability never goes far enough: it pretends that the individual subject (not to mention their body) is always removed from society. Culture is bound up, at the most intimate of levels, with who we are, and how we are who we are. This means that even those who are congentially disabled (that is, born with a disability) can experience suffering: they too, through the binding together of syncretic sociability, through the adoption and adaptation of the comportments of others, are likely to embody normalcy. And thus the mismatch of their bodies to their comportments may cause a great deal of suffering; suffering we all too often attribute to the bodies themselves, and seek to fix. We naturalise suffering, make it of-the-body, make it essentially, none of our business, and all of medicine’s. The suffering of those with disabilities, then, will not merely be ‘treated’ by putting in accessible entrances to buildings, or offering TTY services (though these are important steps), as if all disabilities were equivalent anyway. The suffering of those with disabilities is a call to all of us, a call to us to pay attention to how and why and in what ways we embody normalcy, and reinforce it in our worlds. Why is it that this particular, extraordinarily diverse form of physical difference is set aside as something other, something separate, something I need not engage with? Why is this difference one I need not respond to? Perhaps in answering this question, we will return to the question of the gift: if I am given myself by those with disabilities, why the theft of declaring myself normal, declaring myself separate from them? These questions are ethical and political; and they are increasingly urgent as the field of normalcy narrows, and the number of those who suffer their own differences increases.

Forgive the fuzz; I don’t have time to proof-read this properly right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I AM half-tempted to offer apologies for the lack of posting this week, but I’m going to resist and just post instead. ‘I owe nothing!’ Hmm. Feeling as lazy as I am, I’m tempted to just stick up the promised conference paper about the body politic and bodily tolerances, but given that I tend to run to the incomprehensibly theoretically dense in papers (it’s not my fault; they’re too too short!!) I think that would be mean. So let’s see what happens if I stick bits of said paper in and occasionally comment on it. I actually was really unhappy with this paper, though I’m not entirely sure why. But let’s just say that having finally got around to reading s0metim3’s “Under the Beach, the Barbed Wire”. I think that you should all go spend your time reading that. Fly, my pretties, be free!

That said (to those of you who are left) I think that the ideas I’m about to outline to actually speak in interesting ways to “Under the Beach,” and not just because both papers draw on social contract theory (though mine with considerably more ignorance/borrowed knowledge). Rather the fundamental connection between the creation of the contract and the maintenance of the border comes to prominence in both as a way of getting at some of the ways racism occurs (taking the Cronulla riots as the example—if you don’t know what they were, check out the link above, because s0metim3s offers a good analysis of the horrible event itself).; my focus, however, is on the role that the body politic plays in the production of a particular kind of phenomenological experience which then contributes to the production and perpetuation of politics. Before we start, one small… point (not caveat, not addendum. Point). We’re accustomed to thinking that intent counts for a lot; this is unsurprising, because it’s a key part of the liberal humanist kinds of subjectivity we all (to differing degrees) embody. This is one of the difficulties that harrassment law circumvents by (well, theoretically, anyway) saying ‘what you intended doesn’t matter’ when a harrasser (harrassor? harrasserator?) claims that they ‘never intended to be sexist/racist/ableist/homophobic/pick your other form of discrimination and insert here’. In lots of ways I agree with this approach; this isn’t because intent doesn’t matter, but I honestly think that people are a lot less self-transparent than ‘intent’ talk tends to imply, and really it’s a key part of the way that privilege operates: privilege means never having to say you’re sorry, because you can’t see that you did anything wrong anyway, so therefore you didn’t. And as we saw in the Phenomenology of Racialisation post, this privilege doesn’t only articulate itself in the intention-ful acts one does. Rather, it comes out in the ‘preconscious’ (this is the term people tend to use to designate something that isn’t fully conscious (as in, you won’t think to yourself ‘I thought that’). As Alcoff told us earlier, “Our experience of habitual perceptions is so attenuated as to skip the stage of conscious interpretation and intent. Indeed, interpretation is the wrong word here: we are simply perceiving.” Same with behaviours; they’re habituated, not conscious. If we had to consciously think about all and everything we did, to consciously intend it, we’d never do anything. Except think. (Odd sci-fi world, that one). This does not, however, make the things that we do without intention all okay. Because I think that certain acts are attributed intent, whilst others… well, intent just doesn’t quite adhere to them precisely because of the way that privilege works. This is, I suppose, kind of like what feminist law reform tried to do to rape: make it understood not just as something that would always happen anyway, the wild male urge that ‘civilisation’ sometimes stood in the way of, or gave ‘proper’ outlets to, but as an intention-ful act. See how naturalisation and acts which are understood as unintentional intended dovetail? Don’t we make nature a lovely beast? More on that (sigh, this is becoming a refrain) later… But the point is, intent may be important in some ways, but it cannot be used to define absolutely and forever an act; and a lack of intent thus cannot be used to claim innocence. Acts have consequences, not all of which we can foresee, but we are, nonetheless, responsible for them (though this responsibility is not simple. See Levinas or Derrida for more on this).

So: to the paper (finally). To introduce:

Australia has seen frightening levels of intolerance on display of late, most recognisably, perhaps, in the riots at Cronulla, but more insidiously, as I’ll go on to suggest, in the deployment of a specific set of discourses which operate to delineate a white Australian-ness and its attendant white generosity. The interplay between the larger scale of politics and the minutiae of ‘individual’ – and the reason for the scare quotes will become clear as I go on’ – forms of embodiment has been tragically demonstrated. By drawing threads from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, as well as the work of Moira Gatens [Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality], Fiona Jenkins [“Gestures Beyond Tolerance: Generosity, Tolerance and the Fatality of the State” in Angelaki 2002 7(3)]and Linda Alcoff [“Towards a Phenomenology of Racialisation” in Bernasconi’s edited book, Race, I will consider the production of white Australian embodiment through the imaginary body of the always invisibly white Australian body politic. My focus throughout this discussion will be on the way that ‘tolerance’ comes to operate, especially focusing on the relationship between what we might call political tolerance and the concept of the bodily tolerance in the work of French theorist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

I should mention here that Moira Gatens and Fiona Jenkins are Australian philosophers. Moira Gatens is one of the group of strong feminist philosophers Australia produced during the 80s and 90s which has produced some really rigorous and challenging theory. Me like. So in the paper I then explain syncretic sociability, about which you can find a post here. (I won’t repeat it coz it’s long and a bit involved). But in the end:

The child’s recognition of the other’s difference marks the differentiation between self and other that is the seed of subjectivity, and thus the subject remains indebted to the otherness of the other. Yet syncretic sociability, or the blurred boundaries between self and other, doesn’t disappear in this recognition; rather intercorporeality remains a key structure within the subject. It is in adoption and adaptation of the styles of being-in-the-world around me that I develop my own way of being-in-the-world, a unique amalgam of those styles around me. These styles or comportments, as we shall see, both shape and are shaped by epistemological, perceptual and discursive regimes, always already affected by the politics of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and so on.

Through repetition, these styles of being-in-the-world become sedimented or habituated, and acquire, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, ‘favoured status’ for us. Imagine that a particular style of being-in-the-world is water flowing across the ground; now imagine the flow repeated. Gradually a river with banks is formed and water tends to continue to flow along it. The banks of this river are what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘bodily tolerances,’ limitations placed on our ways of being-in-the-world which if transgressed can cause discomfit, disgust or sometimes (if radical enough) suffering.

For more detail on these, check out this post. (Is it bad form to link yourself so much? I do, however, seem to think rhizomatically at least some of the time, so tis unsurprising, I guess!)

Racialisation is part of …[this comportment or] ‘attitude toward the world.’ Linda Alcoff describes the ways that the entirety of one’s comportment is revelatory of race and racial awareness […]Thus racialisation imbues all that we do, and so the way that we recognise someone or ourselves as raced or white, usually doesn’t occur rationally, at the level of thought. Rather,

our experience of habitual perceptions is so attenuated as to skip the stage of conscious interpretation and intent. Indeed, interpretation is the wrong word here: we are simply perceiving… A modernist account… would explain… that for one to be racist one must be able to access in their consciousness some racist belief, and that if introspection fails to produce such a belief then one is simply not racist. [In contrast, this approach shows that a] fear of Africa-Americans or a condescension towards Latinos is seen as a simple perception of the real, justified by the nature of things in themselves without need of an interpretive intermediary of historico-cultural schemas of meaning.

Thus the tolerances and intolerances produced by these habits of perception are “almost immune from critical reflection” precisely because, as Merleau-Ponty says, “…perception is, not presumed true, but defined as access to truth.” As a result, the (in)tolerances that white, habituated ways of being-in-the-world produce for white people remain predominantly pre-conscious, until they are challenged. The response to transgression of the bodily tolerances engendered by white embodiment is likely to be bodily, pre-conscious: discomfit of some kind, possibly followed by anger. This is particularly the case if the naming of such (in)tolerances appears a challenge to dearly held beliefs about ourselves or our nation. If we continue to think of racism as a belief discoverable in the depths of the psyche, the claim “I’m not racist but…” [which circulates with scary frequency in Australian discourse] remains possible. Unpacking the whiteness of the comportments that produce and perpetuate racist perceptions and thus the bodily tolerances they engender offers the possibility of addressing the locations of these bodily tolerances and what it is that allows their reproduction.

Okay, nothing new here, really.

I should note here that I’m definitely critical of the notion of tolerance – as Ghassan Hage amongst others has shown, patterns of privilege and disadvantage are already built into the concept. However, I want to suggest that individual white bodily (in)tolerances are engendered through a specific discourse about tolerance inherited from liberalism, and in Australia these ideas seem to be fundamentally linked to how we (as a nation) imagine multiculturalism.

What I’m trying to get at here is that whilst the very notion of tolerance is problematic and bound up with the sustaining of privilege, it nonetheless informs not only liberalism at the level of politics, but comes to inform embodiment. This is important to know if we are to problematise it at all. (It might be worth pointing out for my US readers that I am indeed critical of liberalism. No beating about the bush here; I hold the tenets of liberalism as deeply problematic. Hopefully this post might go some way to explaining why.)

As Fiona Jenkins points out [in liberalism],

the attitude of tolerance for others’ differences, is conjoined with a defence of people’s privacy, the right to follow one’s own conscience or conception of the good, in so far as this does not interfere with the equal freedom of others to do the same.

Thus the grounding of liberalism relies upon tolerance, which relies in turn upon an assumption of self-containment or what I’m going to call radical individuality. This is the idea, made much of in current party politics [in Oz anyway], if the appeal to interest rates at the last election is anything to judge by, that one subject will be necessarily and naturally detached from, isolated from others, and thus that each subject’s freedom to pursue whatever it is that they want is absolute to the extent that it remains private, to the extent that it does not affect others. We’ve already seen, via Merleau-Ponty and Alcoff, this fantasy of the radically individual subject with a life operating in parallel but never intersecting with others except in ways sanctioned by the state is deeply questionable, yet it remains an important part of how we imagine ourselves. As Gatens shows, the ways that we imagine bodies to work – bodies of knowledge, bodies politic and fleshly bodies – affect each other. They coalesce and circulate as what she calls ‘imaginary bodies.’ These imaginary bodies, with all their attendant assumptions circulate culturally through syncretic sociability (or intersubjectivity, if you prefer), and so part of what we end up embodying are precisely (our relationships to) these imaginary bodies.

When Gatens turns to a discussion of the body politic, then, we begin to see the ways that the imaginary body of the body politic relates to the bodies of those within (or, as we shall see, without) the nation. Gatens traces the history of these imaginings to the mid 17th century, when political theorists, for example, Hobbes, offered imagined histories for the origins of mankind – and it was mankind – and the social and political body men formed: the creation of “that great leviathan called a commonwealth or state… which is but an artificial man,” an image I would argue is still with us. Premised on a semi-divine, if implicit “let us make man,” this body politic is produced by the ‘pacts and covenants’ of the men within it, in their image.

This is a moment to dwell with (I couldn’t in the paper, but it’s actually kinda interesting). When I said that the body politic was made ‘in man’s image,’ for Hobbes, he envisages this quite literally:

“For by art is created that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth, to State, in Latin Civitas, which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates, and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment, by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty every joint and member is moved to perform his duty, are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the strength; salus populi, the people’s safety, its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were first made, set together, and unified, resemble that fiat, or the let us make man, pronounced by God in the creation. (Leviathan, p. 16)

Can anyone see what’s missing in this visioning of the body politic? It’s no mistake that he sees it as a ‘let us make man’.

For Gatens, the outcome of this is that women cannot be represented: their bodies are not represented in the metaphor of the body politic, and neither are they granted representation within it, except as insets – in add-on bits of legislation, and so on – to the main picture of the body politic.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the sexual specificity of the body politic, because I move pretty quickly on to the racial specificity, but I do just want to add this: Gatens suggests that these ‘added-on’ bits of legislation etc are like looking at an anatomy book: most anatomy books have one body – a male body – and then arranged around the edges of the image are insets depicting a womb, a breast, and so on. Women’s bodies occur as a kind of fragmented afterthought.

Women’s labour is incorporated, swallowed into this male body politic, in ways that conceal the contribution this labour makes to the continuance of the body politic. [You need babies, right?] It is the preconscious but no less powerful ‘match’ between the maleness of the body politic and the maleness of their bodies that ensures that it is men’s concerns that are represented. Recall that this occurs not at the level of thought, much of the time, but at the level of embodied perception: thus housework and raising children remain unrecognised because it cannot seen as real work. But when it comes to the Australian body politic, not only is this body politic imagined male, it is also imagined white. Without wanting to elide the differences between the functions of race and gender, I want to suggest that, as Gatens demonstrates with women, the many and various contributions made to the Australian body politic by indigenous Australians, refugees, illegal (and some legal) immigrants, asylum-seekers and others are swallowed up within the state, placed under erasure. Those deemed not white are not represented in the metaphor of the body politic, and neither are they granted representation within it, except as insets – in add-on bits of legislation, and so on – to the main picture. It is the preconscious but not less powerful ‘match’ between the whiteness of the body politic and the whiteness of white bodies that ensures it is white concerns that are represented.

This white male body, if we listen to the talk of politicians who are one of the few sources of public discourse about the body politic, is one which is perpetually under threat. This is particularly clear in the kinds of discourse circulating around asylum seekers and refugees. Rather than turn to the contributions to this imagining made by John Howard, with their fairly obvious expressions of tolerance in its most limited and perhaps even contradictory sense [“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”], I want to draw on Jenkins’ discussion of a comment of Kim Beazley’s [then Opposition leader and about to lose an election], made during the Tampa crisis, because he attempts to imagine the body politic as generous, as more than merely tolerant – a description which looks progressive and positive. ‘“We are a generous nation,” [he said] His idea of generosity allowed him to specify a figure of some 2,000 people for whom Australia might reasonably assume responsibility without threatening its own well-being. This consideration of numbers, moreover, was couched in the rhetoric of concern for the asylum seekers themselves.’ (Jenkins, p. 119)

The form of tolerance that is being attributed to the Australian body politic in Kim Beazley’s characterisation is one with limits placed on it, limits which cannot and will not be transgressed. These limits are the ‘well-being’ of the country, and implicitly, as Jenkins argues, this characterisation allows only the gifting of what is already in excess, and reinforces the position of dominance of the Australian nation with respect to these desperate but foreign bodies. For Beazley, we can only give to the extent that we do not disturb our body politic’s habits of being-in-the-world; it can only tolerate so much giving. Yet this threat is posed because the bodies seeking entry do not ‘match’ the body politic, and its whiteness – race constitutes the supposed threat. Let’s not forget that those from countries who share a white body politic who overstay working holiday visas often remain unpursued.

In an important sense, then, what is being articulated in delimiting the extent to which we as a nation are willing to be generous, is actually a refusal to allow the white male body politic to be altered—[a refusal] to give such that it be made other than what it is by the difference of others. It is a refusal to allow the ‘pacts and covenants’ of raced bodies to contribute to the body politic, a refusal to allow other bodies to represent, be represented by and represented in the body politic. The declaration of generosity seeks to preserve the discreteness of the imaginary body, creating a bodily (in)tolerance to being altered. It is the body politic as it has supposedly always been imagined that is brought into question by the possibility of it being altered, made other to its imagined history, made other to those bodies whose privileged being-in-the-world is thus threatened. The difficulty is that these particular ways of thinking are not merely occurring in – let’s be generous – rational discussions in public between politicians, but in the way that especially [but not only] white Australians are embodied, in the ways that they perceive, behave, interact and react preconsciously. For those whose bodies are represented in and by this white body politic, those who ‘match,’ the embodied sense of privilege produces a particular bodily tolerance, an echo of the declaration of ‘generosity’, an echo which physically cannot tolerate the change produced in them by the transgression of bodies perceived other into that which is declared white space – be it the beach, Cronulla, Mosman or [not even just white] women’s bodies. The racist response is a bodily reaction, a sense of discomfit which all too readily is projected violently out.

What I’m trying to get at here is that the image of the body politic—the one held by the supposed alternative to the conservative Liberal Party in Australia—actually contributes to the production of a racist population. And this racist population isn’t necessarily one that would intend to be racist (though some do) but rather, one made up of bodies whose ways of being-in-the-world and their attendant (in)tolerances are at least partially defined by the image of the body politic.

It is the white liberal fantasy of radical individuality, rationality and tolerance that is shored up by the refusal to allow other ways of being to affect ‘our’ own. In addition to challenging policies which perpetuate racism, then, we need to find ways to testify to the fundamentally interdependent ways that we all come into being. It is only in and through others, and more specifically, in and through their being different to me that I – not to mention my community – can come to be. As Rosalyn Diprose argues, ‘it is because the body is constituted in relation to others that it is ambiguous, opened to the world and to others, and [it is only as a result of this that] we can act at all… I cannot exist otherwise than by risking my body integrity in all projects, and freedom is nothing more or less than this.’ [Erm… okay, so when I write papers I tend to stick any quotes I want in without references. Bear with me on this one. I’ll find it! Oh, okay, Rosalyn Diprose Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas p. 90] Two points arise from this, with which I’ll conclude. First, my freedom resides in risking an alteration to my bodily integrity through my relation with others, so if the imaginary body politic my government is giving me makes me intolerant to this alteration, then the bodily being and projects – the freedom – of all Australians and those who come into contact with them is under threat. Second, and more hopefully, my style of being-in-the-world, with its attendant bodily tolerances, is continually in process, developing and changing, altered by the different, we might say, drawn on by alterity. Possibilities open up here: in spite of the limited and limiting ways that the white Australian imaginary body contributes to our embodiment, it is not all. New and critical habits are possible, and can be created even through simple awareness of the preconscious operation of our already-existing habits. And finally, in testifying to our intertwining with others, our dependence upon those who are different, we begin to shift our own embodiments, and tolerances. In so doing, we can also begin shift the body politic from being produced by the ‘pacts and covenants’ among white men, to being always already premised upon the generosity of othered others; another, no longer ‘tolerant’ but properly generous body politic.

I actually think (I didn’t have enough space to put this all in here) that part of what is required is, in fact, the ‘decapitation of the sovereign’ (That’s Foucault, can’t for the life of me remember where; if you need to know, I can try and find it. Use the hand Contact Form!). That is, I think that one of the major ways this body politic needs altering is in the presumption that it itself is discrete from the rest of the world; that is, not only do we need an acknowledgement of the gifts of ‘othered’ others within what’s recognised as the nation, but an acknowledgement of the gifts of ‘othered’ nations. Such a position would require that the envisaging of one nation as a body separate from all others is critically engaged with, and its dependence upon others for its existence begins to be acknowledge, and made part of how it works. I think this might be an important part of the revisioning of community beyond national borders that I hinted at in response to Catherine’s talk. Sorry if that’s a little oblique. I’ll try for something a tad more cogent later!

PS If anyone feels like helping a noob out, I’m still trying to get my head around the whole ‘trackback’ thing, and I have to say that the net at large, containing multitudes as it does, is tres bad at telling me what’s good and bad etiquette. Should one avoid them? Should one not avoid them? Should one only put them in if it’s a direct link to something someone else was talking about (like a comment that got too long) or is it okay to play linkety-link when things ‘speak well’ to each other? Please, make free and easy use of the ‘Contact’ page.

blettrine

LESS Steven Moffat’s cotton socks! Quite aside from his past work, his scripts for Doctor Who are exemplary, and usually stand out as the best of the season. ‘Blink’ I think is up there. Scary funereal angels with the most perfect defense system ever! What more could you want?

But to the theory… The posts thus far are only partially indicative of the work towards my thesis. It actually has no Heidegger in it—at least not yet!—but Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault make some major appearances, alongside the thinker probably most key to my work, the Australian feminist philosopher, Rosalyn Diprose.

The idea of the bodily tolerance I actually first encountered in her work. (She uses it to help get at how and why ‘safe sex’ discourse might be problematic (not so much in the strict please-use-protection sense, but in the sex-must-always-be-and-appear-to-be-entirely-equal), and while I find that work really interesting, that’s not quite what I’m going to write about today.) So having been exposed to this idea, I quickly read up (or rather, quite slowly, for Phenomenology of Perception is a long book with thrilling bits, lyrical bits, confusing bits and bits of only occasionally relenting tedium. Also, being mostly familiar with Merleau-Ponty as he’s used by critical race and feminist scholars—like Alcoff, as we saw—I would find myself thinking “Really? I wouldn’t have thought that he’d be saying that,” only to turn the next few pages and think “ooooh… I see. He doesn’t.”). Anyway. Already interested with the way that suffering circulates discursively and experientially around techniques and technologies of bodily alteration, I was intrigued. And more than that, I wanted some ‘body’ to add to Levinas’ subject; bloodlessness in Irigaray’s sense (This Sex Which Is Not One) is not what I wanted to produce in my work. Bringing Merleau-Ponty’s thorough critique of and counter to the left-overs of Descartes in his argument for the thorough intertwining of body and mind, self and other and self and world really helps. Stage set: intertwining of body and mind. Context. Suffering.

The main section in POP that discusses bodily tolerances is, interestingly, in the last chapter which is concerned with freedom (and to my untutored eyes appears to be an intervention of sorts into Sartrean existentialism with some sympathy for de Beauvoir’s (or is it Beauvoir’s… I never know!) approach thrown in). As we’ve already seen, Merleau-Ponty argues that any given subject cannot be separated out from their context. Alcoff gave us examples of how race and whiteness operate in and through specific styles of bodily being-in-the-world, and how they inform not merely the ways we occupy space, but the ways we think, talk, speak, move, laugh, engage with others and so on. And we saw, albeit briefly, that these styles are repeated and thereby sedimented, such that alteration of them becomes more complicated than a mere changing of a mind. The image water carving its way into the landscape to form a river was what I used (that’s not a Merleau-Ponty thing).

The concept of bodily tolerances enters here. Basically, Merleau-Ponty argues that a particular style of being-in-the-world, in becoming sedimented, will tend to be that which we wish to continue. And so we come to a peculiar and complex notion of freedom. He writes (bear with me, it’s long but dense):

It has been perceptively remarked that pain and fatigue can never be regarded as causes which ‘act’ upon my liberty, and that, in so far as I may experience either at any given moment, they do not have their origin outside me, but always have a significance and express my attitude to the world. Pain makes me give way and say what I ought to have kept to myself, fatigue makes me break my journey. We all know the moment at which we decide no longer to endure pain or fatigue, and when, simultaneously, they become intolerable in fact. Tiredness does not halt my companion, because he likes the clamminess of his body, the heat of the road and sun, in short, because he likes to feel himself in the midst of things, to feel their rays converging upon him, to be the cynosure of all this light, and an object of touch for the earth’s crust. My own fatigue brings me to a halt because I dislike it, because I have chosen differently my manner of being the in the world, because, for instance, I endeavour, not to be in nature, but rather to win the recognition of others. I am free in relation to fatigue to precisely the extent that I am free in relation to my being in the world, free to make my way by transforming it. But here once more we must recognise a sort of sedimentation of our life: an attitude towards the world, when it has received frequent confirmation, acquires a favoured status for us. Yet since freedom does not tolerate any motive in its path, my habitual being in the world is at each moment equally precarious, and the complexes which I have allowed to develop over the years always remain equally soothing, and the free act can with no difficulty blow them sky-high. However, having built our life upon an inferiority complex which has been operative for twenty years, it is not probable that we shall change… [he discusses statistics, psychology and probability for a lil bit, then:] ‘It is improbable’ that I should at this moment destroy an inferiority complex in which I have been content to live for twenty years. That means that I have committed myself to inferiority, that I have made it my abode [dwelling? ethos?], that this past, though not a fate, has at least a specific weight and is not a set of events over there, at a distance from me, but the atmostphere of my present. The rationalist’s dilemma: either the free act is possible, or it is not—either the event originates in me or is imposed on me from outside, does not apply to our relations with the world and with our past. Our freedom does not destroy our situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open, which implies that it calls up specially favoured modes of resolution, and also that it is powerless to bring one into being by itself. (pp. 512-514)

The habituation of my particular manner of being in the world is like the flow of water across the ground: the ‘confirmation’ of water continuing to flow slowly produces banks on either side of the river which both limit and allow the flow of the river. The edges of this habitual mode of being in the world are marked by bodily tolerances which can cause suffering if exceeded: a ‘tolerance allowed by the bodily and institutional data of our lives.’ (p. 528)

Merleau-Ponty then goes on to discuss how these tolerances are related to question of revolution, particularly in relation to freedom. I won’t go into these just now, but:

What then is freedom? To be born is both to be born of the world and to be born into the world. the world is already constituted, but also never completely constituted; in the first case we are acted upon, in the second we are open to an infinite number of possibilities. But this analysis is still abstract, for we exist in both ways at one. There is, therefore, never determinism and never absolute choice, I am never a thing and never bare consciousness. (p. 527)

This concept of the bodily tolerance has proven deeply useful to me, primarily because it helps us get at the specificity of any given case of suffering, being the product of a particular subject’s institutional, social and cultural embodied ‘data’ and helps us give some content to Levinas’ idea that suffering breaks apart the subject and their habits of meaning-making, engaging with others and being in the world. Soon (as I keep promising, soon!) I will demonstrate the ways that ideas about normalcy come to inform the very ways we are in the world, and thus how our bodily (in)tolerance for what is not normal might mean that if and when we suffer because we do not adhere to the normal, this might not merely be a neutral, natural response to a neutral, natural wrong; rather it may be a political technology that seeks normalisation.

Forgive the fuzziness today—I’m still (even though it’s half-past ten in the evening) suffering a little from a hangover. Just in case anyone ever thought that it could be a good idea, trust me, following white wine with alcoholic punch, port and finally fake Malibu with pineapple juice ends in badness. And fuzzle-headedness. To be avoided.

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