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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therapeutic Forgetting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics, Politics, and Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

O I’ve mentioned already that I’m adoring my students this term, and for the most part, this is true. There’s a couple of points, though, at which I’m banging my head up against a brick wall with a couple of them. Now before this sounds like a straightforward bitch about students, I want to say that that’s not quite it. It’s actually that the whole experience is making me reflect on how tenacious a particular conception of ontology and epistemology is. It manifests itself in these particular students as a complete resistance to the idea that there might not really be such a thing as ‘the natural body’; or rather, that ‘the natural body’ is just as much a construction as anything else. It echoes through the week on disability (‘some people just are disabled’) and fatness (‘but some things just will make you fat, and fat is bad!’) and so on. But all of this is premised on a really particular understanding of the world: of the world as something out there, something at a distance. Something static, immoveable, unchangeable. Something which has been there, just less well comprehended, for those who came ‘before’ us in history. Something firm; something foundational; something to anchor the world.

This isn’t rare, not at all. And it’s a hard conception to shift. Our commonsense sense of representation works this way too: there’s the thing itself, and then there’s the word for the thing. It’s echoed by truth: truth is thought as the adequation of knowledge to the thing itself. The thing itself, though, is ‘out there,’ existing all by its lonesome, unchanging and forever just the way it is.

What’s intriguing, I think, is the hard work it takes to sustain an alternative conception, at least for a while. I have seen students grasp the complexity of, say, the idea that the body doesn’t exist prior to culture and then enter into it, but only becomes a ‘body’ within a given cultural context. Then, the next week, they’re back to arguing that this conception doesn’t make sense. Most often, these claims are premised on the assumption that in order for what I’m teaching to be ‘true’ (and it needs to be true, for them; some even stick with calling what we’re learning ‘objective’) it needs to cohere with what ‘science’ (and this, I think, has less to do with science itself, which is often much more circumspect about such claims, and more to do with the authorisation of what has become commonsense).

There’s also some funny stuff that happens about not just the idea of truth, but the comfort of the idea of truth. I’ve watched a few students get wider and wider of eye, and I can see what’s happening. They’re falling for what I call ‘dumb existentialism’ (which by the by the mainstream media seems to think postmodernism is all about) in which the moment we lose a big-t Truth, the world slowly starts to dwindle into chaos. Meaning is gone. The world is everything and nothing. It’s all very deep, and I remember those conversations over beer when I was an undergrad.

(Hilarious side point: I remember talking to one particular guy. He was hot, he knew it (but unfortunately the hot faded, potentially because of this conversation). We talked cultural studies and I was taken that he was taken with it. Then I suggested that ‘who I really am’ isn’t so much given by some essence, but by the people around me (my attempt at a less depersonalised sense of ‘context’). He suggested that this was because I felt the demands that other people made on me too much, and that what I needed to do was go off to a Buddhist retreat like he did. Coz he found himself. He really did; he found some core, deep deep down, you know, just himself, his real self… and I thought of Foucault… and I thought of Butler… and I thought…OMG. Pretty or not, it was so hard to hold my tongue, coz man it was going to be biting.)

But back to my existential crisising students. What they usually forget, of course, is that ‘discovering’ there’s no big-t Truth is not the same as losing big-t Truth. When they freak out, they freak out as if now there’s no meaning. But the same significances still exist for them, just as they always did, because they never did depend on a big outside Truth. All it shows is that truth is given within a context, by a set of shared discourses; not that it’s any less true. But you know, that’s kinda less sexy than the artistic soul’s pit of despair on discovering that nothing means anything.

In other words, there’s a semi-willingness to challenge ideas of Truth. But there’s a less sustained attention to how and why particular things are made to count as truth, or why we might live as if they are, and so on. It’s like the stories about postmodernism the mainstream media likes to tell: it just destroys everything. They miss the construct in deconstruct; and they miss that deconstruction is not about making things false, it’s about highlighting their contingency. This issue comes up a lot: it’s like deconstruction has to be set back within a world view in which it is possible for things to be true or false, and deconstruction will tell us which is which. Strange, but it happens a lot. In conversation with someone online a while ago, I suggested that there were strategic ways that one could attempt to tell big-t-style Truths as a way of negotiating with the political efficacy of big-t Truth, whilst at the same time critiquing and deconstructing both the ‘truth’ and what let it count as truth, and the fact that it was politically effective. My interlocutor commented that this was disingenuous: to claim things were true because it was politically efficacious, but not thinking them actually true was to be, in essence, false. This line has been kicking around in my head with all this other stuff for a while now, and it just intrigues me how notions of authenticity and truth seem to remain throughout a critical approach. My interlocutor was very far from foolish, and grasped much of poststructuralist theory. But nonetheless, this theory was implicitly, it seems, set back within an ontology and an epistemology: in which there was a world out there that we couldn’t really touch but could use words that were adequate to it, represent it, and that that adequation bore with it a political and moral responsibility.

I don’t have much of great profundity to say about this. It does, though, seem to point out how thoroughly our habitual styles of being-in-the-world are inflected by these ontologies. My students come to class, and for some of them at least, their perception is shaken up. Yet they leave, and go and order coffee, and sit with friends, and chat and read and catch the bus and sleep and cook and work… and when they come back to class, their perception has settled again. There are those, of course, for whom the shaking up is too exciting to leave alone. They prod the ideas, turn them over, return to them; maybe even do what I as an undergrad used to do, which is talk endlessly about them to my friends. For them, poking and prodding and turning their own assumptions, their own habits around in their hands becomes… fun, addictive, exciting, terrifying… There’s nothing quite like discovering that the world is not out there. It’s in always already here, intimate of intimates; and you’re out there, too, distant and dreamt-of.

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.


To suggest that suffering-or, rather, the desire to avoid it-lies at the heart of contemporary Western conceptions of politics, sociality and subjectivity may at first seem extreme or excessive. Yet political positions are frequently parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and when racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of minority exclusions and exploitations are marked as problematic, this is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, when those envisioning the modern democratic state turned to tales of origins, the state garnered its virtue, its raison d’etre, its superiority, from its capacity to shift lives from being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes 1998, 84). In this imagining, the natural state, against which the body politic defends those within it, is one of suffering.

The centrality of suffering to the conception of the state, albeit as disavowed, is not restricted to the past. If liberalism enshrined respect for the individual, transgression against him-and it was, all of Mill’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, a him (Mill 2006)-was conceived as suffering’s less subjective face, harm. The issue of harm has been carefully laid out-somewhat problematically, as theorists such as Wendy Brown have suggested (Brown 1995), for those “most vulnerable”-in and through the development of detailed systems of law and legislation designed to adjudicate and prevent harm. Indeed, central to the recurrent and politically powerful idea of a “failed state” is that state’s inability to “protect” its people from the allegedly natural state of suffering and chaos (according to this image, the two inevitably wedded), imagined as always pawing predatorily at the state’s borders.

This imagining of the body politic is not restricted specifically to politics. Rather, the liberal humanist vision of the strong but inevitably endangered state, standing against the chaos and suffering of nature, inflects the entirety of contemporary life. It shapes sociality and subjectivity, and the key institutions of economics, law and medicine. The subject is constructed as thoroughly, radically individual, arising out of some naturally occurring essence. This subject, as liberalism so often reminds us, is naturally free and sovereign, and this freedom and sovereignty ought to be given expansive range, and indeed sustained as far as is possible, limited only by the state’s prohibitions of transgression upon- the causing of harm to-another. It is this that is construed as an echo of the predatory nature against which the state is pitted. The subject may extend this sphere of freedom and protection to all his property. Property, here, marks all objects the subject possesses, and as such, Cartesian dualism, with its insistence on the status of the body as an object, raises its head. According to this logic, the sensible, passionate body is untrustworthy, bearing the traces of nature’s chaos within it, and must be divided off from the perfectly civilised, perfectly rational mind which is thus the site of freedom. The body becomes the mind’s ownmost property, according to Locke, inalienable but nonetheless fundamentally separate from who and what the subject really and essentially is-free (Locke 2003, 111).

The second element shaped by this liberal humanist conception of the body politic is sociality. Proper modes of sociality, as Hobbes reminds us, are those which strengthen the body politic-the covenants which bind the Leviathan into the image of man (Hobbes 1998, 19). These covenants, of course, must be democratic-they presume an equality between all members of a social world on the basis of an essential humanity. As Moira Gatens so incisively notes, however, this “humanity” upon which equality is premised is made in the image of the body politic itself, such that full membership of the body politic requires the subject’s body to be constructed in its image: as white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual body (Gatens Chapter 2, 1995). Contract is understood as free and unduressed on the presumption of this equality, and as such, this essentially civilising mode of being social requires two equal but fundamentally radically distinct parties exchanging property of equivalent value. This neat and contained image of economy as the core structure of social and political life, married with the hallowed image of the individual and the body politic as made in his image, informs and provides the strength of the liberal state’s battle against suffering.

Yet suffering does occur. The central and extraordinarily legitimised position of medicine, medical science and medical technology in contemporary culture constitutes the means by which the state may be understood as innocent of the suffering that occurs within its borders, without conceding failure: it allows medicine to position it as a natural wrong. Medicine, if all the stories told of it are true, seeks to relieve suffering. As we shall see in the first chapter, however, medical discourse configures this suffering as simply and utterly the product of the body-or more precisely, of a pathology within the body: the body’s order gone wrong. Thus the body-always treated as fundamentally separate from the subject who inhabits it, an individual also taken to be radically distinct from the setting within which he, or she, perhaps, is situated-is, according to medicine, the true site of suffering. The body politic remains, then, never responsible for this individualised suffering. Relief of suffering, according to this model of medicine, entails the ‘return’ of the body to equality with others-it must be modified to be made normal. The model of the body remains singular-the male, white, able-bodied image through which the state itself is structured-and normalcy, then, remains deeply specific.

Feminist theorists have long challenged the centrality of liberal humanist ideals to contemporary life. Contemporary feminist theorists of the body have focussed upon corporeal difference as a key provocation, and the grounds for troubling the apparently totalising tendencies of liberal humanism as they play through ideas of subjectivity, sociality, politics and ethics. This focus on embodiment has enabled the cross-pollination of this branch of feminist thought with other forms of theory: with critical race studies, critical whiteness studies, critical disability theory, queer theory and many others.
Situated in the context of such challenges to liberal humanist thought and politics, then, this thesis takes corporeal difference, and particularly the often normalising modification of the body as a technique for relieving suffering, as its central concern. Deliberately spanning an enormous variety of modificatory technologies, namely human growth hormone use, limb-lengthening surgery, cosmetic surgery, intersex “corrective” surgery, self-demand amputation and Modern Primitivism, and contrasting these with other bodily alterations constructed as neutral, I seek to demonstrate that the the increase in modifying bodies-with all the ambiguity that phrase evokes-(in)forms the ethical, political, social and economic domains of contemporary life. Suffering and the normalcy which is always thought to be its cure, I will argue, ought not to be presumed to be simply the uprising of the state of nature into our civilised, liberal and humanist world. Instead, I will demonstrate that suffering is precisely a product of it, a central element in the maintenance of the norm (and thus the body politic itself) and of the forms of embodiment, subjectivity, valuation, tolerance and sociality, that subtend and support it.

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, I turn to Merleau-Ponty’s work, 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 by 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 that 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. The embodied subject thereby produced 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 bodily being (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 is challenged (a point that will be raised again in more detail in Chapter Five).

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 in the ‘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 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-recognised-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 corporeality 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 demonstrates that there is a tacit level of being-in-the-world, at which, I argue, 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. Fundamentally, the other’s gift troubles the sedimentation through which the subject is embodied and this is, in fact, the response to the other qua other rather that an intentional (agentic) act. This allows us to see that it is the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment which bring about the suffering supposedly ‘cured’ by the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies. 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. The ethics of a particular change lies not, as has been supposed by various ethical frameworks, in either its adherence to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in its challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing). Rather, the ethics of a particular bodily transformation (and this includes non-deliberate changes) lies in its responsiveness to the other. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being-in-the-world with others 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 as the dominant mode of embodiment.

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

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

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

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

SO now for censorship. Woo. I am not happy. I’m also not happy to be saying a phrase that really ought only apply to Howard: Not Happy, Kev. Remember that bit where dissent is an important part of any community? Mmm.

I go away for a few weeks, managing not even the lightest of light blogging as I had actually promised, and what happens? The rather lovely (yes, I’m easily persuaded by flattery, but that’s not all it is, I swear!) Joe Kugelmass listed me as up there with the intimidating likes of Now-Times and Perverse Egalitarianism as being amongst the best new blogs. Many congrats, hearty nods of agreement and suchlike to Mikhail, Paco, Lou, Shahar and Alexei; nice work, guys. This all weirds me out considerably—and not just because it kicks my stats into territory they’ve not known in a while—but because I definitely feel like a satellite to the main blogospherical carry-on (good carry-on, really! I loves you guys!). That’s not bad, mind you, it’s just… well. I am taken aback. “You love me, you really love me.” Heh. Always wondered if I’d have a chance to quote that line. But enough about me.

There were two conferences I was at down South (not that South, but Adelaide, South Australia) and they were almost polar opposites in my experience. The Cultural Studies Association of Australasia has never felt like the home I’ve assumed it ought to feel like; I always figured that since I come from one of the few cultural studies departments in Australia, it would be a good fit for me. Not so, as I’ve discovered year after year. It used to be that I was incredulous that the academics from my department tend to avoid it; now I think they’re very wise. I’ve presented theory at these conferences previously, and received stunned-mullet gazes in response. I’ve watched the presentation of work that seems less like work and more like straight-up description; x is like y theorising, if there’s any at all; people thrown by someone asking about the politics of the subculture they’re studing (!) and so on. This year was both better and worse. I weary of being told that science will save us all: I don’t doubt that it is, indeed, an incredible resource, and much of interest can be done with it; but calling it the new avant-garde forgets the massive machine of legitimacy it already functions within, and the thorough-going effects of injustice and essentialism it has and still tends to reproduce. I know that there is interesting stuff in science, and this is a very good thing, and can be an excellent part of good critique. But there’s also science—especially in its ‘practical’ form, medicine—which reproduces hierarchies, privilege, disadvantage. Donna Haraway was a scientist, for goodness’ sake; and she left to become a cultural critic because she could see how science concealed its own constructions and reconstructions of hegemony, and knew that the way to make science critical was to be critical of it. Do let’s try not to simply run wholehearted towards being swallowed by the science machine. I seem to recall Foucault telling Marxism off for wanting to become a science. I felt like we had gone back in time. Speaking of Marxism, apparently all you anti-capitalists out there need to get over it: the mining companies need you! need you! need you! Forget indigenous sovereignty, environmental degradation or whatever other foolish concerns you have… it’s the mining companies that need to be brought into the fold, being the backbone of the country as they are. [grizzles]

Now I’m sounding all anti-science-y: I’m not, truly. But the suggestion seemed to be that our critical impulses were getting in the way of engaging with the next big thing; and this is an old, tired refrain which is thoroughly depoliticising. Which, in fact, seems to be the drive of CSAA a lot of the time. There was some interesting stuff, I’ll own, and the occasional theoretically-engaged paper slipped in there. The opening keynote was given by Julian Agyeman, and was entitled ‘Toward ‘Just’ Sustainabilities’. This paper was pragmatic in orientation, but no less politically engaged for that: it functioned as a critique of the environmental sustainabilities movements which have so recently become mainstream concerns, arguing that often the focus on the environment means that there is little or no engagement with the results of environmental degradation for human communities. The argument was, effectively, that ‘the environment’ is often taken as being captured by a dreadfully old-fashioned conception of nature: wild, unblemished and separate from us. Instead, Julian (can I call you Julian? ;-)) argued that environment cannot be fully thought without some consideration of how we interact with it, and as such we don’t just need sustainability, we need just sustainability. Social justice doesn’t just go out the window because sustainability came in; indeed, when looking at the changes in the environment, it’s kinda important to mark that it’s regularly those who have suffered the most injustice who are going to suffer (again) the worst under environmental change/degradation. Climate change refugees were one example that kept coming up. I liked this paper; it also demonstrated to me that sophisticated engagement with politics is really what I miss at CSAA, not just theory…

I have to confess I played faster and looser with attendance this year than I have in previous years. The next plenary I attended was also great, but I had skipped quite a number (the days were incredibly full, and incredibly ‘all-stars’ focused: there were two keynotes every day, and the days went until 6.30 or 7 which is just too long for me. I need beer before that.) Steve Hemming and Daryle Rigney together gave a presentation called ‘Unsettling Sustainability: Ngarrindjeri political literacies, strategies of engagement and transformation.’ The Ngarrindjeri nation has country south of Adelaide, around the Murray ‘mouth’ and Lake Alexandrina (I can’t recall the Aboriginal words for these spots). This area is severely degraded: the mouth of the river is no longer open because of the lack of water flowing down the river (irrigation is the major culprit here). The two speakers sketched the variety of techniques that they have been developing for negotiating with and countering the obsessions of governmental policies in this area. It was fascinating stuff, involving both deeply local action and transnational allegiances.

I was quite taken with the panel ‘Message Me: Cultural Studies of Online Cultures and Communities’ where Jason Wilson, Melissa Gregg, Gerard Goggin and Jean Burgess each presented (fairly casually) and then were involved in conversation with each other and the audience. Mel Gregg demonstrated that the ‘innovative’ edges of online cultures doesn’t necessarily extend to its assumptions about gender, class and race. She was particularly interested in the temporalities the internet was engendering for the ways people live their lives, and the questions of how ethnography could work in this context. You can find more in this vein here. Jason Wilson discussed youdecide2007, which he was key in making happen, and the idea of citizen journalism. It was interesting, primarily because he demonstrated the way that assumptions about age (everyone’s a teenager on the internet) don’t actually play out a lot of the time. Jean Burgess took us to the web trend map, and discussed Youtube’s apparent inability to understand its own success (‘Come, Oprah, broadcast with us, lend us legitimacy!’). Gerard Goggin (I was wilting by this point, so if I’m absolutely off the mark, someone let me know, will ya?) suggested that online stuff still does need to be interrogated in terms of established concepts—cultures, bodies and power—even as we are aware that they pose a challenge to those theoretical structures. I wanted to hear a bit more about his work on disability, but that, my friends, is probably something *I* should run away and research. Later. Post-thesis. Sigh. An interesting panel, even if I felt a little like I’d been introduced to a range of stuff I’ll have to go off and read up on. Again. Later. 🙂 Afterwards I was thinking how hard it must be to present to an audience whose net literacy may be limited (and even if it’s not, there’s piles of stuff on the web map that I have never heard of… yes, I, participant in blogosphere!); that’s probably part of the cause of the introductory feel some of the papers had.

Cate Thill’s “Sustaining Indigenous Futures: Welfare Reform and Responsibility for the Other,” and Hannah Stark’s “‘But we always make love with worlds’: Deleuze (and Guattari) and love” gave me some of my theory fix. Cate discussed sustaining indigenous alterity, and the threat posed to it by protectionist, individualising legislation which puts in place the responsibility of welfare recipients (with, as she archly pointed out, absolutely no consideration of what characterises the ‘neglect’ of children that necessitates it being put in place, and its whiteness). Hannah’s paper bore with it the heady fervour that always attends Deleuze for me, but complete with girlish, rather than froggish, presentation, which gentled it a little. She argued that whilst desire has been the site taken up by theorists in the challenge to subjectivity by Deleuze, love may gesture towards a space in which guarantees and separates difference from difference, permitting the mutual expression of difference. Thus it may be considered to be an act of differentiation. I liked this paper… although I was a little thrown by Hannah’s apparent unwillingness to consider the critiques of becoming-woman in the context of love, not least because the labours of love (and thus a supposed love of labour) have, for a long time, fallen heavily on women.

Hamish Morgan gave a gorgeously evocative presentation, complete with an audio track that didn’t only give us only the interaction of the interview, but with the car, the ground, the openeing door, considering the event of community in the middle of Western Australia, threaded through with Nancy’s gently-worded theory. And Eva Lewkowicz and Georgina Isbister gave us analyses of the gender dynamics that inform two forms of pop culture: the Mexican telenovella, and the chick lit novel. Eva’s paper considered the configuration of femininity in and through the telenovella, demonstrating the strictures placed on it; this was given a creepy cast in the closing minutes with her reference to the extraordinary rates of murder of women in Mexico of late and questions of how viewers function as citizens. Georgina engaged critically with the postfeminist fairytale. I missed the horrors of Michelle Grobel’s “‘The Taming of the Screw’: Feminist research and practice and the interruption of postmodern theory to an exploratin of contemporary sex advice literature” which to all reports has decided that third wave feminism and queer theory is just far too detached from ordinary (read, straight, white) women’s sexuality and is thus to blame for women getting a rough deal sexually, and in sex education (understood, it seems, as those terrible sealed sections in women’s mags). I’m almost sorry I missed it, actually: a serious point of contention!

Elaine Kelly’s consideration of “Sovereignty and climate change: white discourses of environmental responsibility” offered a critical appropriation of Agamben’s homo sacer, theorised through the case study of the apparent irrelevance of indigenous rights and sovereignty to the opening of a mine in the Northern Territory (or was it Queensland?). Awesome theory bound to political, practical stuff. Breath of fresh air, really… Shannon Burns gave one of those enormously slippery, enormously evocative, heavily engaged literary papers which critiqued the tendency of sustainability talk (of all kinds, but particularly academic-self-protectionism) to occur through producing homogeneity: it is the perpetuation of what already exists that is of concern, rather than an openness towards otherness. This paper felt like an excellent critique of the whole conference (rather amusing, since Shannon was in hospital for most of it! Thanks for making it out to present, Shannon!) I was very sorry to have missed Charlotte Craw’s paper, “The Ecology of Emblem Eating: Environmentalism, Nationalism, and Kangaroo Consumption,” but she generously gave me a copy. Keep an eye out for her published papers, people: very nice work.

My own paper? It was deeply ordinary, but I think I’ve succeeded in presenting a paper almost entirely stripped of references to theory (though of course driven by it). Interestingly, I had the same dissatisfaction afterwards that I usually attribute to having presented a paper few people have understood, but I’ve proven to myself that I can do it, so I think I’ll just not apologise for being theoretical from hereon out. It considered transhumanism and bioconservatism, and basically argued that, whilst the problems of bioconservatism are reasonably obvious (essentialism etc), the apparent progressiveness of the transhumanist position conceals the inequities that inform this envisaging of the future. Perhaps I’ll put it up here sometime soon…

And the overall vibe? CSAA feels very…. careerist, to me. I can’t tell if this is partly because of the … well, deeply ordinary postgrad development day that happened the day before and involved numerous CSAA presenters. But there’s a sense of needing to present gloss and shine and professionalism, and very little consideration of the political or the ethical, whatever we might take those to mean. (Hello! The fact you’re even at this conference is an indicator of your privilege; please demonstrate some vague awareness of it!) It wearies me. The priority seems to be on impressing certain people, and that I don’t like. It did feel very much like the All Stars of CSAA were being given their chance to shine, glitter and generally display themselves as stars; in order to make room for the two keynotes per day and the ‘plenary panel’, there were only two 1.5 hour sessions per day for general presentations. That meant that there were eight parallel sessions at any one time: EIGHT! If you’re wondering why I saw so little, that’s why. I had to give up going to other potentially interesting papers numerous times. EIGHT parallel sessions! CSAA! Not exactly the way to make your non-keynotes feel like they’re making a valuable contribution to the cultural studies community; I mean, I knew half the eight or nine people who came and saw my paper. Add to this the general sense of people being concerned to meet the right people, to network, network, network, and it becomes something of an unfriendly setting. Fortunately, there were those around who were sufficiently critically engaged, amusing and friendly that I wasn’t entirely disheartened. Thanks to those people: you know who you are! I’m very very glad to have met you! And later… the wonder that was ACRAWSA this year, complete with details of my latest academic crush… 😉

* This is vaguely tongue-in-cheek. Vaguely. There were, in fact, zombies and vampires present. I wanted Dex to make an appearance, but twas not to be….

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