O I’ve actually been back in Sydney for a while now, without no updating of blog, which is bad; but, my friends, I have had big news, big head-spinning news…

I’m going to be a doctor. A Doctor? A PhD.

My examiners’ reports (for those of you not from Oz, you might not know that we don’t get a viva, or a defense or anything; we’re too geographically isolated for that. We get three reports from different examiners) arrived a little while ago. The HDRU (Higher Degree Research Unit) people wrote to me, making me panic by saying that they’d been forwarded to my supervisor, who would write a report about them, and then the committee would meet and come to some kind of a conclusion. I was sure that this meant that there had been massive discrepancies between the reports, but as it turns out, the answer to that worry is ‘No.’

I hadn’t written about this anxiety here, but I’m going to describe it now, because I know a few people round the place are waiting on results, and everyone who’d come before me told me stories that just didn’t match with how I felt. I didn’t want my reports. I sincerely didn’t. I wanted having handed the goddamn thing in to be the end of it. I wanted that to have been enough. Enough of an achievement, to just get it in. I wanted no criticism, not even constructive criticism. I know this is childish and stupid, but it felt like any tiny piece of criticism would be enormously devastating; would erase the whole goddamn thing. I’m like this at the best of times (insane, I know, and unsustainable, I know that too; we’re working on it, ‘kay?). My supervisor had completely lost any capacity to convince me of the worth of my work by the end of the thesis. I fell for the probably stupid and untrusting belief that she would say anything positive to get me to hurry the fuck up and hand it in (ooh, she deserves more than that, my friends! I am a terrible person!) I have a general tendency to believe every negative thing to the nth degree, and to disbelieve anything positive (generally by the bad bit of me telling me that people have investments in making me feel good. This is silly, I know; most people can’t be bothered having those kinds of investments.)

But really: I had worked so hard, but I was so so so horribly aware of its flaws: of stilted patches, of argumentation I remained unconvinced by (even as I was convinced enough to write it), of examples that didn’t match the argument. Quite possibly lots of this happened in imagination; I haven’t dared to pick the thing up again since I submitted it. When I received the letter that told me my supervisor had my reports, and that I would get a copy of them soon, my heart pounded and I (did I mention childish?) called my mama and said all of the things I’ve just said. She told me I didn’t mean all of them, and I assured her I did. And she ran out of comforting things to say, as is inevitable when someone has already decided the situation will be devastating with a tiny drop of negativity.

And then the reports came in. I am a wimp. I called my mama again, and made her sit on the phone with me; the first reading of my reports, then, was out loud. If I’d thought about it properly, this is dumb: words get weighty in the air.

But these reports, my friends, these reports?

Glowing, i believe is the term. I have had to carry around a copy of the reports with me, for when the bad bit of me starts to think I must have made up the positives. Pinching doesn’t work, even though it (my present state, not the pinching so much) feels dreamy. These reports have gone a fair distance to restoring some of my faith in academia (!), not because I like people who like my work (though I do), but because there is no point-scoring in them, no ego, massive amounts of encouragement, of a recognition of what they see as valuable and a real generosity in both the reading and articulation of why they call it (and they do) “a remarkable achievement”.

I could boast by pulling out ‘the best bits’ (as my sister wanted me to do) but I’m not going to. I’m just going to say: I didn’t want my reports; but the affirmation they’ve given me is… well, let’s just hope that this brief moment out from the ever-present imposter syndrome lasts; because it is astonishingly gorgeous. And that’s despite the numerous typos I have to fix!

[raises champagne glass] Cheers! (and be sure to meet my eyes; no seven years of bad sex for me, thanks!)


owdy to all those loyal enough to have me feeded. 😉 I’ve been gone for such a long time now, I’ll be surprised if anyone remembers I exist. This hiatus extended on into something more like a never-blog! I’m trying not to feel guilty for that.

So the lovely Nate prodded me a while back, wondering what post-PhD life was like. And this strange kind of limbo-land I’m in… well, for the moment, it’s pretty pleasant. Apart from the occasionally breath-taking bout of anxiety that strikes me whenever I think about the thesis, life is feeling pretty sunny. I have more time for my friends, more space for being someone other than a thesis-writer, which is kinda nice, and I’m convening a course I adore. And the students in said course seem brighter than your average bear, which makes for a nice change to the endless frustration of people last semester (Student: ‘But… well, I just think it’s wrong.’ Me: ‘What’s wrong?’ Student: ‘Homosexuality.’ Me: ‘[gape, thinking but we’re 6 weeks in, this is a queer theory course, we’ve talked all about this for weeks on end, and that’s all you got?] Ooookay, well, perhaps we might try thinking about why you think it’s wrong…’ [in head: again]). The other day, in a tutorial about donation of bodily tissues, I had the following (approximate) conversation take place:

Me: So what do you think of current ways of thinking about donation? Are they fair? Are they exploitative?

Student 1: Well, they’re pretty exploitative, a lot of them. And unfair.

Student 2: But that’s because of the commodification of bodily tissues.

Me: Okay, so are there alternatives you can imagine?

Student 3: Well, I can’t really see any, but commodification does seem to be the main problem. But it’s hard to imagine any other ways of doing things.

Student 2: That’s because of capitalism. Capitalism is the real problem.

Me: And my work here is done.

So yes, I am enjoying my students. It’s nice, first of all, to be doing both lectures and tutes, because it means that whatever it is that I teach them, that’s what they are meant to be learning. There’s less uncertainty for me, in that regard: it means that I’m not second-guessing my grasp of someone else’s explanations/theorisations/positions. But second, it’s really really fun to be running the course. I added in a week on the concept of ‘choice’: what counts as choice and what doesn’t, and how this works to naturalise particular kinds of interventions into the body, and raise others as political (or ethical, or social…) issues. It’s hard work, too. Even though the woman who is employing me gave me all of her lectures, this week (week 6) is the first week that I’ve really used them. I’m trying to take this opportunity to build up a bit of a backlog of lecture materials, slides and so on. So it’s all very useful, but hard work too.

I’m also having to think about The Future. Which I dislike and try to de-capitalise as much as possible. I need to publish, and am just heading into starting to feel guilt about that, so I think I should really just start writing. I have a few things arising from the thesis which need to be written shortly, and a few papers up-coming: a chapter for a book, a review essay on Judith Butler (has anyone else noticed the simply nutty number of books ‘on’ her that have just come out? Craziness!), and two planned articles for two special issues due early next year. I need to publish more than that, of course, but it’ll be good (hard) work to just do that, methinks. I’m helping to organise a conference, too… And somewhere in the midst of all of that, I want to apply for various fellowships at various places, and write a book proposal for the thesis (or, y’know, the book of the thesis… like the film of the book, y’know… ). In amongst all of that is the awareness that I desperately need to organise employment for over the summer. It’s easy to forget that it’s about four months potentially without money. I might wind up doing data entry, but I’m crossing fingers for something more exciting. Cross them with me?

In general, my currently post-grad friends, post-thesis life is much funner, at least for me. I keep trying to explain it to people, but most don’t get it: I felt like I was procrastinating all the time at the end of the PhD. Even when I was teaching. Even when I was doing other work. Hell, even when I was working on the thesis I was convinced there was something else more important, more signficant, more urgent about the thesis that I should be working on. This is a strange and stupid frame of mind, I am aware (and was aware at the time), but it is sincerely how I felt. Not feeling like my entire life is one big, lazy procrastination is extraordinarily liberating. Yes, I am much happier. It’s good! And as much as I panic about examiners’ reports, and the potential culture clash of American academics marking my work, and the potential GAPING HOLES in my argument… I am, for the most part, able to set it aside. We’ll see how I go when I get closer to when the reports come back, but yeah…

So yes, I am hoping to start blogging again. I am writing a fair bit at the moment, what with lectures and (ahem) fiction (shh, don’t tell anyone) and with the articles that I’m meant to be doing. But I’ve been hanging around posting long comments on various blogs (mostly grumping at anti-trans*, trans*phobic radfems) which is probably a good sign that I should be doing more writing back at home.

And yeah, I’ve totally missed you lot. 🙂

If there is one thing that this thesis has clearly demonstrated to me, it is the impossibility of recognising the various gifts that have gone into this thesis (not to mention the questionable ethics of attempting to do so). Nonetheless, there are some whose generosity has so altered me that I know without them, this thesis could not have been:

My supervisor, Nikki Sullivan, for her warm support, generous intellect and her unwavering belief that this thesis was worth writing.

My friends, who put up with me when I could think of nothing but the thesis, and who sustained me with cups of coffee and tea, red wine at Madame Fling Flong’s, ludicrous numbers of hours spent cheering Buffy and other superheroes on, chatting, laughing, frowning and furious at the world, and of course eating good, good food; and with their demonstration of the belief that there was, all evidence to the contrary, more to me than the thesis! And so especially: Sophie, David, Obelia, Beth, Kirstin, Matthew, Marita, Nicole, Elaine, Sam, Holly, Craig, Patrick, Hilary, and the little Holly; much loving gratitude.

My online interlocutors, for their ideas, patience and willingness to interact, but most of all for their difference; especially to Nate, Az, Fido and, again, the ever-astonishing Nicole (especially her knees).

My family: my siblings, Myf, Dan and Demelza; our gorgeous-in-every-way-possible and dearly missed dog, Megan; and especially my parents, Alan and Robyn; who gave me a curiosity about the tapestry of the world, the desire to tug on threads, weave, unravel, knot and splice, and a sense of wonder at the possibilities of patterns new, old and other.

Special extra thanks go to those who read bits and pieces for me, offered feedback and spotted flaws: to Elaine, to Nikki, to Nicole, whose generosity in this matter still makes my jaw drop; and to my parents, whose readings were warm and incisive, and opened my work back out in ways I’d forgotten it could.

And always, and still, Greg, whose gifts continue to resonate and alter, even after he is gone.

So I sit here in the postgrad room at uni (that’s right, no offices for us scum… and rarely working computers too… and then a fair whack of whingeing about how postgrads don’t use this space… [sigh]) waiting… in about 4.5 hours, I get to pick up my prettily soft-bound thesis, all four copies of it, and carry them with insufficient ceremony, doubtless (it’s rainy out, and muddy to boot, so I’ll be aiming mostly not to slip; this tends to make my steps ridiculously short) to the Dean’s office. The Dean is not in today, but I’m hoping his assistant, the lovely Ashley, will have prepared balloons and streamers to fall from the ceiling. Maybe that will be the moment the exhiliaration will kick in…

Yesterday, when I made the final change to my thesis (which, amusingly enough, was adding ‘Mysterious Skin’ to my bibliography… am totally proving my academic thoroughness there!), I sent a copy to my supervisor, with a message that ended ‘I feel very strange…!’ Yes, I could have read over it once more. Yes, this could have been a moment to say ‘but it’s still not done!’ and gone into re-read mode. But at some point all of those good and virtuous concerns, I think, would have simply supposed that the thesis could be done, could be complete, wrapped up, tied neatly with string and packed away in an archive box; that that perfecting, that closing up was possible, and even a good thing. (I’m hoping that my examiners agree with the balance I’ve made, then, between tying off and fraying ends).

Now I am not suggesting that there’s not a mound of relief flushing through me. There is. And when it’s all done and handed in, I’ll likely be ecstatic (and drunk). But it’s a strange space, this one, because it feels like a false end. In undergrad, I always paused before letting my essay drop into the collection box. I paused because it marked an end. A stepping away from a neatly curtailed bit of knowledge, one which I didn’t need to pursue. But this is different, because in the end, this is what I have chosen – without will, often – to do with me, and my future, at least for a while. And so this thesis is a mark, a cairn on the path, certainly, and yay! for that. But it doesn’t feel like an end, strictly… and that’s not only because, as my supervisor keeps telling me, I really need to get this stuff out there. It’s more that this is a venture forward, a career not in the sense of the careful teleology of a working life but rather in the wild and uncontrolled movement (downhill?). Whatever I do next – and yes, I have thoughts, scary and intimidating as they are to entertain – will inevitably be shoots grown from this wordy, inelegant, heavy-handed and densely theoretical patch of moss. And even this patch of moss will be worked over, and worked over (especially, as everyone keeps promising me, ‘for the book’ – such adorably naive faith!).

It’s also hard, I have to say, to compass that four years of work can come down to these 95,000 words, to this print-out, to this moment of photocopying, this handing over to the printery, this waiting. It makes everything feel weirdly laden, dense with a seriously hard four years of work. I find myself worrying about whether the double-siding worked perfectly on every page, in every print-out, about whether I’ve left someone off the acknowledgements, about the dire consequences of missing the typo ‘hiearchisation’. I suppose when there’s no major theoretical moves to make, stances to adopt, or practices to prise open, this is where you wind up. Stressy space.

But oh! An end to formulating sentences as I go to sleep! An end to worrying about how clear I am! An end to worrying that I’m being less than generous in my critique of Merleau-Ponty, or worse, in my adoption and adaptation of those scholars I admire, whose work I want to keep alive and moving and working with. An end to disliking my bluntness, to dreaming of when the points I was making were so clear and easy to me I could prettify them. I get to move into new ways of writing now. It’s kinda a relief.

And it’s a relief to be able to let myself do some other things. The idea of actually juggling my time between a range of things without feeling like every single one of them is procrastination… yay! Such relief! And I’m looking forward to being able to socialise properly again, to get drunk without guilt, to be properly present to these things, rather than having half a brain still turning over thesis thoughts. It’s a relief, my friends, to be back in the blogosphere, to feel able to venture into new thoughts, play at virtual promiscuity, and not feel like I’m risking investing time badly. Actual fun! 🙂


So I want you all to imagine that this blog is temporarily your favourite pub, and we’re all drinking together, talking shit and profundity all at once, griping and laughing. [raises glass of beer] And please remember to meet my eyes when we glass-clink. I’m not risking 7 years of bad sex… Cheers!

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 LĂ©vinas 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.

gain, again, I apologise for the lack of updates (and for the long ones when they do come!). But herewith the final section of Chapter 1, plus, as an added bonus, the conclusion.  In some sense, Robert, this may to towards answering your questions about Levinas, and about my work. My concern is that, no, I don’t think we do ‘share’ the things that you list in the sense that we could then know the other’s suffering. Hopefully the critique of Frank here will help to make this point clearer. The writing-up, if anyone is interested, is inevitably slower than I would like. If I didn’t have to move house in the middle of all of this, I would probably be doing substantially better than I am! But, nonetheless…

The ethical response, for Levinas, is quite clear: it is com-passion. Compassion may sound deeply problematic: a number of those involved in discussions of best healthcare practice have discussed the similarities and differences between empathy and sympathy (see, for example, Hojat et al 2001). I want to set aside existing discussions of these two for the moment, and instead discuss the distinction we might derive from a Levinasian ethics, between empathy and compassion, based on their etymologies. The word ‘empathy’ comes from the Greek, and is taken from em, which means ‘in’ and pathos, which means ‘suffering’ (or sometimes more loosely ‘feeling’). This evokes, I want to suggest, a subject placing him or herself in the shoes of the suffering other. This is thematising response to the other, which is thus no response at all, because it supposes a form of feeling that involves the subject supposing that he or she knows what the other is experiencing. This suffering-in-the-other, then, involves the subject’s construction of the other as knowable. The response given in such a situation responds, then, not to the radical difference of the other, but rather to the subject’s supposition of what the other is, or, more dangerously still, what the subject supposes the other ought to be.

This is, I want to suggest, precisely the grounds for the limited response that Frank has towards the woman with ugly feet: he can, perhaps, understand the benefits of her surgical modification, but he refuses to sincerely believe her when she claims to be suffering. This claim to know the other is, precisely, the presumptive gesture of unethical empathy. Alterity remains beyond representation, and beyond knowledge; and this, in order to be ethical, is what the subject must respect. Yet although Frank is all too willing to recognise some forms of suffering, which fit within his understanding, others are denied. Worse, the suffering of the woman who believes she has ugly feet is reduced to nothing more than a social indicator, a means to the end of critiquing a particular cultural configuration (technoluxe). For Frank, it is precisely the otherness of this woman’s suffering that is so difficult to understand. This difficulty in understanding is, in some sense, precisely the response the subject must always have to the other, who remains never-fully-graspable. Yet in presuming that there is some underlying commonality between them, or that there ought to be (a position doomed to failure precisely because she is an other) he does violence to her suffering, and indeed, to her.  It is not that Frank is intentionally unethical; far from it, it is, indeed, his awareness of broader political concerns which produces this effect. In his haste to find a guideline for who should be given surgery, he effaces the otherness of the other by forcing a thematisation of suffering.

The danger of responding in this way lies partially in the unethical presumption to know the other, and partially in the danger of engaging in theodicy, in all its dramatic secular forms. Levinas offers the following as expressions of theodicy which regularly go unnoticed as such. He argues that suffering is regularly made to carry a variety of meanings:

the meaning of pain that wins merit and hopes for a reward… Is it not meaningful as a means with an end in view, when it makes itself felt in the effort that goes into the preparation of a work, or in the fatigue resulting from it? [Or playing] the role of an alarm signal manifesting itself for the preservation of life against the cunning dangers that threaten it in illness… [Or again,] suffering appears at the very least as the price of reason and spiritual refinement. It is also thought to temper the individual’s character. It is said to be necessary to the teleology of community life, when social discontent awakens useful attention to the health of the collective body. Perhaps there is a social utility in the suffering necessary to the pedagogic function… [S]uffering, undergone as punishment, regenerates the enemies of society and humankind? This political teleology is founded, to be sure, on the value of existence, on the perseverance in being of society and of the individual, on their health, taken as the supreme and ultimate end (Levinas 1998, 95).

What is held in common between these various forms of theodicy is the attempt to make suffering somehow meaningful. Yet every meaning thus offered is the beginning of a justification, Levinas argues, because in making ‘pain henceforth meaningful, [it is] subordinated in one way or another to the metaphysical finality glimpsed by faith or belief in progress’ (Levinas 1998, 96).  It is precisely such a subordination that permitted the Holocaust to occur; this was ‘the exasperation of a reason become political and detached from all ethics’ (Levinas 1998, 97). It is theodicy which permitted the subordination of the suffering of Jewish people, homosexuals, people with disabilities and many others, to the sought-after ends of Nazism: a pure race.

It may, indeed, seem laughable or offensive (or even both!) to set the suffering of individuals during the Holocaust alongside the suffering of the woman with ugly feet; in many respects, this is ludicrous, if we suppose that suffering is always and everywhere the same, that the two experiences are always straight-forwardly comparable.  Yet suffering is always unique, as Levinas has demonstrated, and the ethical responsibility to the suffering other always absolute. To begin to draw distinctions between “worthy” and “unworthy” suffering is not only to thematise it, but to enter once more into theodicy and the justification of suffering. Levinas argues:

But does not this end of theodicy, which imposes itself in the face of this century’s inordinate trial, at the same time and in a more general way reveal the unjustifiable character of suffering in the other, the outrage it would be for me to justify my neighbour’s suffering?… [T]he justification of the neighbour’s pain is certainly the source of all immorality (Levinas 1998, 99).

What I take Levinas to be indicating here is that entertaining theodicy, in the form of justification for suffering at any point is problematic. The very supposition that suffering can be permissible in any circumstances produces and reproduces suffering as something that can be justified; further, it produces a political setting within which justifications for suffering may be offered. This in turn allows politics and reason to be ‘detached from all ethics,’ rather than being the means by which ethics is sustained and indeed, made possible.

This is the risk of Frank’s positioning of rational, ‘Socratic,’ dialogical ‘form of decision-making we respect’ (Frank 2004, 26) as the sole means by which someone may achieve relief from suffering. Quite aside from the homogenising implication that there is only one form of decision-making which it is possible to respect, the Levinasian question is, what does Frank’s suggestion allow to be justified? The way is opened for two problematic outcomes: on the one hand, such a method may suggest that certain people who claim to be suffering ought not to do so, and thus that their suffering does not deserve the response they seek, clearly contravening the imperative of ethical responsibility that Levinas describes. Second, it does indeed allow a means by which suffering is made justifiable. I have much sympathy with Frank’s concern to ensure the justice of the distribution of medical resources. However, to engage in secular theodicy in order to ensure this justice creates a political imperative which recognises some people not just as undeserving of medical treatment, but as suffering in the first place.  In this respect, politics actively undermines ethics.

Frank’s attempt, here, to provide a framework by which the relief of suffering may be assessed retains, I want to suggest, an implicit allegiance with medicine. Indeed, Frank’s rhetorical question is quite telling: ‘if having unfashionable toes counts as humiliation, in what words can we describe the lives of people living with massive facial deformities?’ (Frank 2004, 22) What Frank is relying upon here is the reader’s implicit agreement that suffering must necessarily follow upon massive facial deformity. I will discuss this issue in some detail in chapter three; however, at this stage, I want to point out that Frank is here deploying a hierarchy of bodies, in which the most normal is expected to suffer least, and the most abnormal is expected to suffer most; when such expectations are foiled, this can result in a denial of suffering. This is because the implicit hierarchy of bodies is constituted, then, in relation to the norm; a norm supposed to have been “discovered” through the objective sciences of statistics and medicine. Thus we are returned us to the issue of subjectivity and objectivity: Frank’s ability to claim that the woman’s humiliation over her ugly feet is merely ‘an inflation in the language of pain’ suggests that there is an objective assessment of her body that counters her claim to subjective suffering.

Medicine thus provides the model by which this woman’s suffering may be diminished or even dismissed. Indeed, this reveals that the subjective/objective distinction in medical techniques of diagnosis is bound up with an unethical presumption to know the other’s suffering. In an echo of Canguilhem and Cassell, then, Levinas provides the means for a critique of medicine from medicine’s supposed origins: ‘[The call constitutes an o]riginal opening toward merciful care, the point at which… the anthropological category of the medical, a category that is primordial, irreducible and ethical, imposes itself’ (Levinas 1998, 93).  In this respect, medicine’s attempt to treat pathology rather than suffering functions not only against its own legitimating claims, but against its own nature. Medicine, then, plays a key and problematic part in the secular theodicy of allowing only the suffering understood “objectively,” or, more accurately, understood common-sensically, to be recognised. It should be noted, however, that some forms of medicine are more willing to take suffering such as that articulated by the woman with ugly toes seriously; after all, she did have surgery. Yet even such forms of medicine attempt to maintain the subjective/objective distinction; as will be discussed in chapter three, this may even involve the “discovery” of a new pathology in order to ‘justify’ suffering. Maintaining the subjective/objective distinction ensures secular theodicy precisely because there is always a means by which suffering and the response it demands may be refused; for example, as Cassell puts it, ‘if no disease is found, physicians may suggest that the patient is “imagining” the pain, that it is “psychological” (in the sense that it is not real), or that he or she is “faking”‘ (Cassell 2004, 35). (Recollect Frank’s ‘inflation in the language of pain’ as an example of this logic at work in lay discussion, too.)

Frank’s framework, however, owes something more than the hierarchy of bodies to medicine: he presumes that medical “cure” as the sole means by which we can ethically respond to suffering. The ethical response is a necessity, but what Frank presumes without even considering it is that medical cure is the only possible answer. The centrality of medicine to this discussion is remarkable, and indicative, I would suggest, of a far more sinister logic. It takes the individual’s suffering as a starting-point, presuming that the individual who suffers simply does so neutrally, naturally, or precisely because of some ‘ontological perversion’ (Levinas 1998, 95) that must be righted. Here is the danger of medicine’s equivalence of suffering with pathology, and of the attempt to making objectively knowable what is not simply subjective but alterity (and thus ungraspable). It leaves uninterrogated the dovetailing between suffering and abnormalcy, which is implicitly what allows Frank’s (against implicit) distinction between suffering worthy of “cure” and suffering that ought not to seek resolution in the first place-that ought not to exist. In all of this, the extraordinary sway that normalcy has in the forms of ethical and political (not to mention medical!) responses made to suffering remains uncritiqued. This will be discussed in more detail throughout this thesis, but at the moment, I simply want to mark that the various forms of medical treatment Frank considers are all normalising. His focus on the suffering individual echoes the position of science in that he treats them, somewhat paradoxically, given his analysis of Bourdieuian “field” and his awareness of the effect one person’s surgery may have on another, as if they occurred ex nihilio. The situatedness of the subject may in fact play into their experience of suffering escapes attention; a situatedness, I would suggest, which is fundamentally bound up with the politics of normalcy. Frank’s conception of justice, then, may be aware of the effect of one person’s modification of their body on those around them, but does not consider either that their suffering may be part of their construction within a context; nor does he explore the possibility of intervening in, rather than simply reiterating or refusing to reiterate, conceptions of normalcy. It becomes ethically questionable, in such a context, to hold an individual responsible for his or her own suffering.

Empathy, then, creates a dangerous assumption that the other is knowable, and even that she or he is like me, which can wind up in theodicy and the problematic of a political system which permits the justification of suffering. Levinas’ counter to such a position is compassion (derived from the Latin com, or “with” and pati “to suffer”) is a suffering-with, rather than a suffering-in. It is a suffering-for-the-suffering-of-the-other.  Levinas describes it thus:

the suffering of suffering, the suffering for the useless suffering of the other, the just suffering in me for the unjustifiable suffering of the other, opens suffering to the ethical perspective of the inter-human. In this perspective there is a radical difference between the suffering in the other, where it is unforgivable to me, solicits me and calls me, and suffering in me, my own experience of suffering, whose constitutional or congenital uselessness can take on a meaning, the only one of which suffering is capable, in becoming a suffering for the suffering… of someone else (Levinas 1998, 94).

In this then, Levinas demonstrates that the ethical response to suffering is suffering. But rather than a suffering which is turned inward and thus causes meaning to drain away, this suffering has a meaning; the pre-originary meaning of being-for-the-other. Compassion is ethical because it does not presume to know the other’s suffering, but responds, affectively, to the call of the other. That is, it must not deny the other’s alterity by attempting to fully know or thematise suffering, particularly by attempting to make it useful. Rather, ‘for pure suffering, which is intrinsically meaningless and condemned to itself with no way out, a beyond appears in the form of the interhuman’ (Levinas 1998, 93); that is, a ‘beyond’ in the relation engendered through the subject’s response. This allows the ethical relation to be opened once more, and thereby sapping suffering of its meaning-destroying power. Indeed, in recommending the form of response to a suffering person, Cassell reiterates Levinas, writing that, ‘the first step in restoring intactness is… to reach out to the suffering person to bring him or her back’ (Cassell 2004, 287). This ‘bringing back’ is the institution of the ethical relation such that the world becomes an assemblage of meaningful, useful data for the other once more. Suffering-with, then, is ‘compassion, not explanation’ (van Hooft 2004, 17): it neither intends nor functions to render the other’s suffering knowable, but simply to suffer alongside the other, in response to him or her, and thereby prise open the isolated passivity of his or her suffering. The subject’s response (arising from responsibility) then, is a suffering-with; to recall, the response to the other is the foundation of their very subjectivity. In compassion, a distance between subject and other is permitted by the ethical non-thematisation of the other such that the ethical relation which allows the other to be other is engendered; in contrast, empathy presumes that this spacing does not exist, and thus closes down the possibility of response, and in turn the possibility of opening the suffering other out to the meaningfulness of the ethical relation is lost.


Suffering, it is clear, holds a deeply contentious place in contemporary society. It demands a response, a response often thought to be provided by medicine and politics. Yet Levinas’ ethics demonstrates that suffering demands a response from the subject before there is any possibility of negotiating, thinking, reasoning our way around, in or out of that responsibility. It is in responsibility that I am brought into the possibility of meaning, even as the other exceeds my capacity to know and to name. In light of this, medicine’s scientific desire to render suffering back up as an objective matter is already unethical, already in denial of the unique experience of the other.  Indeed, this gesture echoed by van Hooft and Edwards, in a perfect demonstration of the extent to which medicine has insinuated itself so thoroughly as the best form of response to suffering: to such a point that the bioethical examination of suffering is performed almost entirely in order to supplement medical intervention, presupposed to offer the best cure. Yet as Cassell points out, the refusal to critique the subjective/objective distinction is what produces medicine as unable to negotiate with the complex weave of different elements at play in suffering (as well as in ‘personhood’), such that medicine fails its stated and legitimising goal: the alleviation of suffering.

Yet as my discussion of Arthur Frank has made clear, there is another problematic aspect of assuming that the other’s suffering can be made knowable. This can be the grounds for what Levinas names as a secular form of theodicy, when some forms of suffering are made justifiable, even politically positive. These forms are presumed to somehow escape the ethical imperative of response, because they are subordinated to political ends. Frank’s response to the woman with ugly toes who claims her humiliation was sufficiently painful that it required cure remains ambivalent: he either believes that she suffers but that she ought not, or that she is indulging in an ‘inflation in the language of pain.’ Either constitutes an attempt to set aside her suffering as a form that need not be responded to, and indeed, ought not to be responded to, because the medical cure (which, it is implied, is the only possible response) might detract from other, worthier forms of suffering. This is a politics which, according to Levinas’ formulation, has lost its way: the inevitable violence of comparing the incomparable has given way to a politics which requires that some suffering remain unrecognised or at any rate not cured, in order that some greater purpose-in Frank’s case, the just distribution of medical resources-may be achieved.

The contextual specificity of suffering has been gestured to by this account, but I have also suggested that Frank fails to fully engage with the thoroughly contextual experience of the subject. I have begun to suggest that making sense of this contextually-derived experience, we need to examine the hierarchisation of bodies through the concept of normalcy, and the effects of this on an individual subject. Indeed, whilst medicine supposes itself most often to be treating the body, a thorough engagement with bodily being has been perhaps somewhat paradoxically absent from the discussions of suffering explored in this chapter. Even granted Cassell’s willingness to challenge the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, and its homologue in the dichotomy between mind and body (Cassell 2004, 31), he nonetheless fails to fully engage with embodiment. And whilst I do not think that Levinas intends to invoke a disembodied subject, it is nonetheless clear that suffering poses a distinct problem for consciousness, in his discussion, and specifically for consciousness’ meaning-making capacity. Bodily being remains underconsidered; and specifically, the relation between bodily experience and the context within which the subject occurs has not yet been sufficiently considered. In the next chapter, I will begin the task of elaborating a theory of suffering which engages with the subject as embodied, thereby challenging the Cartesian dualism of mind/body, as well as the dichotomy of self/other. Thus, through a consideration of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, I will explore how and why the embodied subject and his or her experience of suffering is produced in and through being with others, and within a context.

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