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This was presented at the Sydney Democracy Network’s Power and Accountability workshop in early November 2015. They are really only speaking notes, but I wanted to make sure this was out there somewhere.

Who counts? I ask this question with all its senses of resonance: who is significant, and who is doing the counting. And of course: What counts? When it comes to people with disability and violence, this question is particularly loaded.

Violence against people with disability is rife in Australia. It’s also excused, dismissed, not reported, and frequently not considered a crime. Advocacy bodies know this, because we see the pointy end. We see the people who are locked in cages in their family’s house; we see the people who are raped by support workers; we see the people who are forced to continue living with someone who assaults them everyday. But accountability in this context is difficult.

This is partly because some of the usual mechanisms for some kind of “accountability”, especially the justice system, often just don’t work. Beyond Justice, a study undertaken in Victoria tracked the way that police often refused to take reports, failed to investigate, failed to recommend for prosecution, and so on, when people with disability are victims of crime.

But I want to focus on the broader issues of accountability in this space. We are talking about systemic violence against people with disability, yet government refuse to act. Much of this violence occurs while people are receiving services, services which the government frequently funds and audits. Yet it is difficult to achieve responses to this violence. There are lots of reasons for this, which I’m happy to discuss in question time, but the issues I’d like to highlight here today have to do with data. Who counts? Who do they count? And what are they actually counting?

The ABS introduced the Women’s Safety Survey under pressure from feminists concerned about violence against women. It quickly changed its name to the Personal Safety Survey, partly thanks to Men’s Right Activists, and partly because of a claim that the Survey ought to compare violence by gender. It is now broadly recognised as Australia’s measure of violence in the community. It looks, then, like this Survey should reveal whether there are more specific groups – like people with disability – who experience higher incident rates of violence.

And it does, kind of. It recognises that, for example, of the women who experienced violence in 2011-2012, 36% had disability or a long term health condition. That means that women with disability experience a higher level of violence, right there. But when we delve into the methodology, we discover that actually who counts – in the sense of who is in the sample – is an important question.

The PSS only counts people in private dwellings. This leaves out some of the settings in which people with disability are over represented: in group homes, in large residential facilities, in psychiatric facilities, in aged care facilities, in prisons and so on. And if there’s one thing we know about these settings, it’s that they lend themselves to higher levels of violence and abuse.

The PSS also will only run interviews with individuals, meaning that anyone who requires any support with communication (like Deaf people, or people with communication needs) is automatically excluded. Again, we know that those people who are less able to independently communicate are less likely to disclose violence, and thus are more likely to be targeted by perpetrators…

The PSS also understands violence in fairly limited ways. People with disability experience what Linda Steele identifies as ‘lawful violence,’ violence which against any other person would constitute a serious crime, but against people with disability is ‘treatment’. This violence includes solitary confinement or imprisonment – called ‘seclusion’ when it’s against people with disability – and forced medication – called ‘chemical restraint’ when we’re talking about people with disability – or assault – called ‘physical restraint’ when we’re talking about people with disability.

All of these questions about ‘who counts and what counts’ means that it’s very difficult to find quantitative data that truly gives incidence. Crimes data just doesn’t count violence against people with disability. At best, it reflects the barriers that people with disability face when reporting crimes. Similarly, the PSS reflects only a small slice of the violence that people with disability experience, and does not reflect anything about incidence or prevalence. And it’s important that while we can easily show that people with disability don’t really count for the survey, it’s also important to note who is doing the counting: the ABS is funded specifically by government. I noticed the other day that they measure softdrink intake in Australia, yet measuring violence against people with disability seems beyond its capacity…

So what does this mean for accountability? Well, thus far, it means that the Australian Government, and the state and territory Governments, don’t recognise violence against people with disability as an urgent issue. Without solid data, it becomes very difficult to argue that these forms of violence, which are often occurring far away from community oversight, concealed within specialist institutions.

One approach that disability advocacy takes it to bring in counter-frameworks.  Some advocates have fought hard to have forms of ‘treatment’ or lawful violence, recognised by the Committee on Torture, which they have been. Dinesh Wadiwel has talked about these institutions as ‘black sites.’ That of course does not mean that any Australian Government accept that perspective.

Another has been to call for, and then respond to, a Senate Inquiry into Violence, Abuse and Neglect against People with Disability. One of thekey points made there was about data, and about administrative data being used more meaningfully. Earlier this year, I coordinated disability studies researchers to make a submission to the Senate Inquiry about the problems with data on violence. Another was that we want a Royal Commission who can more literally hold institutions to account than a Senate Inquiry.

Another is to evoke public outrage as a way of putting pressure on politicians to take these concerns seriously. There has been work to increase media coverage of violence – and some of that has been successful – 4 Corners, kids in schools, etc. This has worked well in Victoria, where 3 separate inquiries into this issue have occurred this year. PWDA have also run an End the Violence campaign, inviting people to send letters about this issue to politicians both at the state and federal level. The hope is that this will help support the reception of the final report of the Senate Inquiry.

But in the end, who counts, and what counts, and who they are counting, strictly circumscribes the Government’s commitment – and we are talking primarily financial commitment – to the safety of people with disability. And the difficulty that we confront is that the power to define – define violence, define disability, define methodologies – and the power to say that people with disability don’t count, can’t be counted, that violence against them doesn’t count as violence – that power remains, at least in its funded, authoritative forms, with Government. And that power to define, and to count, and interpellate, effectively also enables them to define the limits of their own account.

With grey and distance to keep the edge sharp.

And again, strangely, and from afar…

… distance and time make it feel so far, but so bone-deep familiar as well.

I’m currently trying to get my head around the very minimal teaching that I will be doing this semester. In the Dutch system, at least where I am located, all students finish their studies with a ‘bachelortheses’. It might look a little like an Australian honours thesis, but I’m gathering it’s quite different. For one thing, everyone writes them. They’re a maximum of 6,000 words long. And you get six months in which to write it. And it’s not in a one-to-one supervisory relationship, but is supervised in groups of 5 students to one supervisor. Of which I am one.

The vast majority of these students will never have written a full academic essay. Most courses here are short, lecture-based and culminate in a multiple-choice exam. So I am suddenly realising that the key element of this project is the writing. In some ways, I’m really looking forward to this because I get to work with them over around 16 weeks. I’m thinking of suggesting that we make our meetings a little longer (they’re flexible, based on my choices, really) and include a specific, weekly session on various writing skills. Given also that many of these students will be German, this will probably be useful for ironing out some hiccups as they occur.

It’s also complicated for me, in that this is the first teaching that I’m doing, and I’m discovering that these students may not be, well, equipped to handle my comparatively random take on things. I can’t assume, for example, a critical approach to, well, knowledge. This makes me gulp a little. It makes me gulp a little more to find out that the English language program here is run mostly by Americans and that this has meant that it’s… sigh… more scientistic than other bits. Won’t that be fun? The dense normativity of such sites is a little frightening, but also exciting as a space in which to make an intervention (right?! ;-))

But my bachelortheses group topic should select somewhat:

The concept of the normal has had a profound influence on contemporary science and thus on contemporary styles of life. This group will explore both the history and the more recent function of ideas of the normal, normalcy (normality) and normalisation, particularly as they have guided medicine, psychology and the human sciences more generally, in their interaction with those categorised as ‘abnormal’. Those who are interested in the philosophical and theoretical interrogation of the concept and category of ‘normal’, and its effects on people’s lives, will enjoy participating in this group. Whereas ‘abnormality’ in a psychiatric sense is hotly debate elsewhere, I would especially encourage those students who are interested in the normalisation of those with bodies deemed to be ‘abnormal’.

So at the moment I’m trying to work out what kinds of readings I’m going to give them to get them thinking about this topic. I mentioned Ian Hacking to another staff member, who thought he would be too complicated. I’m not sure what to think about that, because I tend to think that Hacking is a very approachable writer! But so far, here’s my ‘theory’ background that I’m kicking around as I try to think this through. For the record, I’ve also got a list of different ‘normalisation’ therapies which will constitute the ‘case studies’ for the contemporary function of the normal for them; in the first session we’ll pick whichever ones they’re most interested in. So far this list includes: human growth hormone use, cosmetic surgery, circumcision (for boyfolk and girlfolk), intersex ‘corrective’ surgery, limb-lengthening surgery, pre-natal genetic diagnosis, self-demand amputation and cochlear implants. I may include trans ‘reassignment’ surgeries, but I’m a little uncertain about replicating the sense that surgery is The Trans Thing To Do, so we’ll see. I am, though, interested in the ‘wrong body’ story which seems to shape many of these practices, and also shapes the ways that trans is medicalised. Mm.

But in terms of theoretical background, I’m trying for things that will ease them into the critical approach to ideas of normality. So far I’m thinking about:

Lennard Davis’ second chapter from Enforcing Normalcy, which gives a potted history of the rise of the idea of the average, its influence on modern ideas of democracy, industry, grammar and most of all, on ideas of disability. I like this because it’s accessible, it’s fairly broad, and it raises the question of how disability is contextually situated (which students both often struggle with, and get really excited by).

Ian Hacking’s “Making Up People”, specifically the London Review of Books version. It’s useful because it discusses the ‘looping effect’ of particular normalising technologies: i.e., that we usually underestimate the effects on people of how we think, categorise, and treat them.

Ian Hacking’s Taming of Chance, chapter 1. I actually want his “Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers” but apparently this is too big an ask of the university library (?!) and has not been reprinted (sadface) since its publication in 1982 in a journal that is no longer on major subscription lists (Humanities in Society Number 5, she says, in the vain hope some kind person might have an e-copy they’re willing to bounce my way). The latter, I seem to recall, is a really neat historical and political unpacking of the development of stats, in the context of Foucault’s idea of biopower. The former is a bit drier, with all the detail of the history and fewer of the broad brush strokes that make Hacking kinda useful!

Next we hit the Foucaults: I’m thinking the final lecture from Society Must be Defended, which unpacks the way that racism (taken as the division of the social world into the subrace and superrace) fits with the development of medical concepts of health, of normalcy and of course the introduction of the biopolitical (the management of the population).

Foucault, History of Sexuality Volume 1, the bit on the Repressive Hypothesis. I want to give the students a sense of how intimately bound up together ideas of normality and the concept of an inner self needing expression are. After all, the idea of ‘becoming who I really am’ appears so neutral, but is so often enacted in normalising ways.

I’m also thinking of a bit from Discipline and Punish, because there’s some stuff on normality in there. But I have to go back to it, because it’s been a while. Also surveillance might be useful (obviously is heavily implicated in Hacking’s ‘looping effects’).

Canguilhem is probably a bit unavoidable, although I’m going to try to be selective on this one: probably the section from the end of the revised version of The Normal and the Pathological, where he explicitly tries to tie his history of medicine to politics. But I’d quite like some of his earlier points about suffering tending to produce medical consideration of the state of the patient, and thus the deeming of particular styles of being as pathological, which in turn has more to do with the mismatch between the patient and their world than about anything necessarily inherently bad (as he says a lot in that book, nature doesn’t side with humans against, say, colds and flu)

I’m considering putting in a section of Lisa Blackman’s book The Body because there’s a section that does the ‘outside-in’ thing of exploring the idea of bodies as signifying and social, and works back into the production of selves through embodiment. I don’t want to overload them with too many ideas, but this seems to be key for talking about modifying bodies like we are…

And finally I’m thinking of Nikolas Rose’s “Normality and Pathology in the Genetic Age” for a little updating of this stuff. There’s a newer ‘version’ of this paper, called “Normality and Pathology in the Neurobiological Age” but while I think there are useful things about the ‘we’re all a bit pathological!’ argument, I think it tends to efface that the hierarchies of normality and abnormality remain shockingly material in their effects.

The lovely NP of Rough Theory suggested Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, for ease of access into these ideas. I’m still thinking about it: in some ways it’s useful way in, though perhaps less pithy than it might be (I get it, pop sci and all that). But it’s a bit hard to tell whether I’ll need to start from that point, and I do kind of like to avoid both ‘but the Real World!’ talk and ‘bias and objectivity’ kind of talk, because often students cling to these far more familiar ideas and use them to refuse to consider, say, the idea that objectivity is problematic, or that we need to put a question mark over the idea of the Real World, or at least over our access to it. So we’ll see!!

Any thoughts welcome, obviously! It’s hard to plan too thoroughly at this stage, because I have really no clue of the educational background of my group. Some may be ‘honours’ students (who take higher level classes all through); others may have done the science studies stuff here, and be a little familiar with some of these ideas; and of course, they may all be happily drifting along with the scientism of the English speaking program…

I’ve just been reading a paper called “The Problem of Suffering and the Sociological Task of Theodicy,” written by David Morgan and Iain Wilkinson, at the same time as re-reading Levinas’ “Useless Suffering“, mostly to find juicy quotes (Levinas has to be one of the least quotable philosophers I know of – well, that’ s not quite right. He’s very quotable, but only at length. It’s an issue). I guess I’m back to thinking about suffering. I suspect I’ll never escape it!

But the paper from Morgan and Wilkinson I found a bit troubling. First of all, there’s a bit of a lack of clarity in the way that they differentiate ‘theodicy’ and ‘sociodicy’ and ‘inverted sociodicies’ (?). They claim that the first is, as we might be familiar with already, the justification for the belief in god despite the existence of suffering. The second, they suggest, is kind of like the same, only it’s about the belief in, y’know, progress. As Levinas puts it in “Useless Suffering,” this is mostly about the faith in a ‘kingdom of transcendent ends’, which of course for me evokes the Nietzschean critique of the ‘two worlds’ in Platonic Christianity. And the final, ‘inverted sociodicies’, is “brings from obscurity the ‘hidden hurts, fears and desperate cravings’ without which the ‘real story’ of the twentieth century cannot be told (Graubard)”. (Morgan and Wilkinson, p. 205). This would be the one that Morgan and Wilkinson see their own project as part of. I have a lot of sympathy with their position on this, really I do, although there’s a bit of carrying-on about how no one else (except a select inner circle) has been doing these ‘inverted sociodicies’ before which I think is indicative of a real failure to grasp what precisely is going on here. I am not convinced that no one else in academia has, at the centre of the drive for their work, a desire to name sufferings that have not been named, or a desire to alleviate those sufferings in some way. Maybe I’m just hopeful, but I honestly find it very difficult to believe. I think that one of the things that’s interesting about a lot of academic work is the various manifestations of that ethical impulse, and the ways that institutions so commonly fail to sustain it. Anyway.

What’s interesting to me, though, about their desire to participate in these ‘inverted sociodicies’ (which, to be upfront here, I’m going to argue are less ‘inverted’ as failing to grasp how thorough-going theodicy/sociodicy are in the commitment to the grand narratives) is that it hangs on a very particular conception of knowledge and language.

Despite numerous well-respected claims to the contrary – from Levinas, from Elaine Scarry, from Schopenhauer, amongst others – they argue that suffering can and should be articulated, be made meaningful, be made, specifically, the object of knowledge. Not knowledge of where and how suffering occurs, but knowledge of what suffering is like. The experience of it. In one of the bits that made me particularly indignant, they suggest first that suffering ‘lies in our “capacity for knowledge”, and then declare that “there is a paradox here, for whilst suffering appears to depend on the need to impose meaning on our lives, suffering is often at its most unbearable when meaning is the very thing it negates.’ (Morgan and Wilkinson, p. 203).  They then refer to Levinas, whose description of the phenomenology of suffering contains this (as I’ll show) erroneous quote:  “Taken as an experienced content, the denial and refusal of meaning which is imposed as a sensible quality is the way in which the unbearable is precisely borne by consciosuness, the way this not-being-borne is, paradoxically, itself a sensation or a given.” In this quote, they leave out a key word: “the way in which the unbearable is precisely not borne.” This is not about stocism, and nor is it about an underlying subject who is capable of bearing the unbearable sensation, who will always persist. This is about the sensation of the complete decimation of the subject. This is, as I’ve described it elsewhere, about the breaking apart of a world (which is meaningful, though not in the way that Wilkinson and Morgan argue it is (rationalish) but in the way that Levinas describes – a world opened to the other).

But Levinas also makes a distinction between suffering-in-me-for-the-suffering-other (which has as its meaning compassion, according to him: ethics, in some sense), whilst the suffering other is an outrage, a useless, meaningless evil which cannot be given meaning without doing (more) violence.  But Wilkinson and Morgan go on to suggest that the problem is that we just haven’t yet come up with the proper, adequate language yet. And when we do, we will be able to really progress forward, according to them. This, I think, is a complete failure to grasp what’s going on, but more than this, it subjects suffering to precisely the same modernist endeavour that has shaped the ideals of progress that they are apparently so wary of. KNOW EVERYTHING.

Suffering hasn’t arisen as the dark-but-expungable underside of modernist progressive drives. In fact, most of those modernist progressive drives take as their justification the relief of suffering. Look at Lyotard’s two grand narratives: the March to Freedom (thanks Marx!) and the Progress of the Spirit (shout out to (not) my boy, Hegel!). These are not motivated by a selfish desire to ‘enhance’ the world, not really. They are motivated, at least in part, precisely by the desire to alleviate suffering. Let’s make no mistake: the reason that Nazism, source of such suffering, became comprehensible to everyday Germans wasn’t through simple irrationality, through a straightforward failure to be concerned with suffering. It was precisely because it was made rational. As Foucault put it, what we saw in the 19th and 20th centuries was the development of a very particular kind of racism, supported by the ‘avalanche of numbers’ (Hacking). This racism divided the world into the subracial and the superracial. We can see where this is going. But the point here is that the genocide of the subracial was precisely justified as a strengthening  of the population, as a future-focussed, utopian drive towards a world in which no one suffered, in which everyone was strong, and able-bodied, and strong of mind, and fertile, and strong. A world in which none would have to suffer, and indeed, in which one may be maximally free. Foucault has some really nice ways of describing it in Society Must Be Defended – something about how the ‘vital principle’ was sustained through the excision of the subracial. And these stories, which were never delimited to Nazi Germany anyway, Western Nurembergian protests notwithstanding,  go on and on and on, now! The story we tell now is that you wouldn’t suffer if you’d just be whiter, more masculine, more able-bodied, more neurotypical, more more more ideal, more normal.

The point here is that I really do sympathise with Morgan and Wilkinson’s attempt to try and shed some light on the mucky and often-obscured underside of the shiny story of progress. But to do this in the name of that progress, to claim that progress and suffering are here simply in “an irreconcilable and destabilizing tension between the civilizing ideals of reason and the record of exploitation, violence and suffering which has been inflicted upon nations, ethinic communities and globally vulnerable groups” (p. 210), well, that seems to me to be a complete failure to grasp precisely what is at stake here. This shiny story of progress is earned on the backs of that suffering, because the shiny story of progress has no time, nor space, for difference, as Lyotard was so at pains to point out. It plays a key role in producing, manifesting, concealing and, yes, justifying, that suffering.

I don’t have the answers here. These are not simple matters. Part of why they are not simple is because it is so very easy to get so caught up in the commitment to the ethical alleviation of suffering that one puts faith in whatever brings that alleviation closer quicker, without really engaging fully with the genealogy of the complex structures within which we’re operating.  But the seductive ease of the equation of knowing more with progress in negotiating suffering… we need, desparately, to remain critical about that. Because theodicy structures our cultural logics, promising utopias (if we could all just become one, become equal, become same) and sustaining anguish and suffering in the here and now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I started writing this post, and it got rather unwieldy. So, part 1 in an unexpectedly ongoing series of random differences and surprises that arise when a not-very-representative Australian (me) encounters probably-not-representative aspects of the Netherlands, and becomes, generally, amused and musing:

  • Sugar is not in the baking section. After four shopping trips, I finally asked someone. In the coffee and tea section. Of course.
  • In the course of discovering the above, I found that the Dutch for flour is ‘bakmeel’ which just makes me grin.
  • Sliced coconut in syrup is a thing. And it isn’t spectacular as a replacement for coconut milk!
  • Over here, beer comes in aisles in a supermarket. This is very exciting.
  • Over here, squishy French cheese can be $1 for a round. I think I’ll just keep eating this one, so I don’t get spoiled and snooty and pay regular amounts for much better versions!
  • No one has yet been able to adequately explain where the name ‘Dutch’ came from. The country is called (The Kingdom of) the Netherlands (I really can’t believe I live in a Kingdom. Too hilarious for words, so long as I don’t think about it too much). The Dutch call their own language something like ‘Nederlandse’ (hey, I’m not taking classes yet!). The Netherlands includes, but is not reducible to ‘Holland’. It was also once called Deutschland (sp?). But apparently the Germans (come to think of it, where’d ‘Germany’ come from anyway??) now have dibs on that. Anyway, I gather the English name ‘Dutch’ is the result of some random nation-border-shifting anachronism. Maybe.
  • To my relief, ‘hallo’ and ‘sorry’ are pretty much the same over here. SORTED. ;-P
  • Snow is pretty. Also it makes: ice-skating on the park lakes, ice hockey on said lakes, and tobogganing down hills. Not just for kids, neither (well, maybe for some slightly more grown up kids, I should say!). Ice makes me walk like I’m wearing high heels and am hobbled. Sigh. I recently got my stride back, though! 😉
  • Bureaucracy, man! Or probably this is just the happy-happy-joy-joy process of me encountering full-on immigration-y processes for the first time. I couldn’t: get electricity, get the internet, get paid, get water, get a residence permit, without registering at the local City Hall. Guess what’s taking forever? [sigh]
  • Apparently the Dutch like to make plans way ahead of time. Like a month. My next social engagement, so far, is mid-February. I shall accustom myself to hermitage til then!
  • People are amused when you apologise for not speaking Dutch.
  • Playing pretend etymology/cognates with Dutch is very fun: I live near the Noorderplantsoen (the Northern Plant Zone, I call it in my head – which it basically is!); see above re: bakmeel; straatlichting is street lighting (with that thing of squishing words together into one that I only know from my random bits of German thanks to Heidegger in undergrad! ;-)); Kruisstraat is ‘cross street’ because it crosses the middle of the park (that’s my theory, anyway!); centrifugen is the spin cycle on the washing machine (though the rest are a bit of a mystery!); ‘skipperhuis’ is a captain’s house (I’m living in one of these old fashioned buildings); ‘dankjewel’ in my head becomes ‘Thank you well’. I’m not sure I want to play this game with ‘Mindervaliden’, though… I am interested, though, about how disability gets differently categorised in different contexts.
  • No one seems overly bothered about recycling. They do collect paper once a month, but there’s no sorting of glass or cans or plastic bottles, despite the little ‘recycle’ symbols on the bottom. Someone told me, slightly unconvinced, that they sort it all at the rubbish dump. Sounds… not very fun!

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