Friday, June 1, 2007

Just some thoughts on breaching & bodies

One of my favourite academic journals is Body & Society, which gives great coverage to feminist concerns around biotechnology, supports my longstanding intellectual fascination with inter-sexuality and trans-sexuality, and generally keeps me questioning the boundaries of the flesh and how we treat bodies.

So when I read CASPIAN's "anti-chipping bill," a.k.a. Bodily Integrity Act, I was immediately impressed by their desire to take what is normally presented as a (purely, simply) technological issue and reframe it as a matter of breaching bodily boundaries and threatening our very wholeness and virtue as people, as human-beings.

How exciting! This question of bodily integrity provides some of the most creatively and critically engaged class discussions I experience with students each year. Normally I shy away from the claim that Art acts as a (superior?) boundary object in collaborative research projects, but it does seem to act as some sort of prosthetic in a pedagogical setting. When I've had students from more than a dozen disciplines across the arts and sciences, it's been critical art projects by the likes of Stelarc, the Biojewellery folks, Creative Art Ensemble and SymbioticA that have provided us with anchors and pivots. I think that our very best learning moments have been a lot like how Canetti describes feasts in Crowds and Power:

"There is more of everything than everyone together can consume and, in order to consume it, more and more people come streaming in. As long as there is anything there they partake of it, it looks as though there would be no end to it [...] There is no common identical goal which people have to try and attain together. The feast is the goal and they are there [...] People move to and fro, not in one direction only. The things which are piled up, and of which everyone partakes, are a very important part of the density; they are its core. They were gathered together first, and only when they were all there did people gather round them..." (Canetti 1998 [1960]:62).

We gather 'round art projects (and government policies, technological devices, etc.) and debate if and how the body is sacred, what it means to be alive or dead, at what point humans become machines and vice versa, how much tinkering with 'nature' is too much, etc. And then students actually go out and do/say/think something differently. It's quite good.

Anyway, back to CASPIAN and their protests against implanting people with RFID tags. Notice how they support existing markers like Medic Alert bracelets, and accept the tagging of pets precisely because they're not people. They clearly accept that information should be bound to certain humans and non-humans, but they want to be clear that these markers or tags should not breach the flesh. More specifically, they want to make sure that RFID tags can't be implanted in someone without their informed and written consent. In other words, No Forced Chipping! (Apparently there were some US politicians suggesting that prisoners could be exempt from this right, but that didn't really go over well.)

Now, I've often wondered why RFID manufacturers don't simply avoid this whole issue by keeping their implantable tags for livestock and domestic animals and making attachable/removable RFID for people. I mean, I highly doubt that they're interested in challenging the widely-held belief that people are special (different from animals, more important than animals even) so why don't they just make special RFID for people? Then we can all get on to the pressing matter of which people should and should not be tracked and why or why not.

I mean, until I know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night with my child or senile parent having disappeared, I won't say that it's always a bad idea to keep track of people. What I want to talk about is all the different ways we can keep track, and what they mean more broadly. For example, what if it does become "much cheaper to dump a lot of old people in a large hospital, where they could be cared for by machines"? Is this just a slippery slope argument? And even if it is does that mean we ought to ignore it?

But this matter of breaching is even more interesting to me because I think it has incredibly far-reaching consequences. It shows us where boundaries have been and it helps us define new ones. I also know that the actual act of breaching is highly contingent upon who does the breaching. For example, I'm pretty amazed that, for legal purposes, the body is differentiated by region and the crime depends on whether or not the bodily violation is surface-related or penetrative. And when there is penetration it gets ranked; some orifices score higher than others, and creating new orifices is another category of violation entirely. All of this is further complicated by the matter of consent; some breaches are acceptable if both the breach-er and breach-ee agree, others don't require mutual consent and in some cases the act is prohibited even if people consent. And just to make things even more complex, there's the issue of different cultures and different people having different boundaries. Just think "circumcision ritual" versus "genital mutilation." Or consider the aesthetics of this awarding-winning PS2 print advert, "Scars" :

Their "Plugs" and "Moulds" ads also reconfigure human bodies in interesting ways that question not just the integrity of our flesh but also of our selves :

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems that the contemporary discussion on the use of RFID's is generally relegated to the 'politically-challenged', and chattle.


Anonymous Phil said...

until I know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night with my child or senile parent having disappeared, I won't say that it's always a bad idea to keep track of people

I know this is precisely what you don't want to talk about, but I really hate this kind of reductio ad panic. I know what it's like to be responsible for children and elderly relatives, and yes, in that vanishingly-rare situation a God's eye view of where they are right now is precisely what you'd want. But it is a vanishingly rare situation, thankfully - and having my dependants 'tracked' for the other 99.99% of the time is beyond overkill. I believe in the right to walk out of your door and be nowhere, disappear off the map; when some categories of people exercise that right it can lead to inconvenience or danger, but that's not sufficient reason to withdraw the right from them.

Anonymous anne said...

kevin - chattle, i see for sure but can you explain the "politically-challenged" bit?

phil - i also believe in "the right to walk out of your door and be nowhere, disappear off the map" but my whole point was that if RFID isn't implanted then it can be more easily removed and therefore preserve some of these mobility rights... but, just as i'm not willing to say that tracking is absolutely wrong, neither am i willing to say that these rights are absolute. what's curious, i think, is how we automatically jump to 100% surveillance. isn't is possible to consider some of these "vanishingly rare" situations as reasons for temporary or situated tracking? why assume that in order to track something or someone some of the time means that we necessarily have to track everyone all of the time?

Anonymous anne said...

isn't *it* possible

(should really learn to proofread ;))

Anonymous Anonymous said...

RFID's are being used to protect the "politically challenged" from themselves, it is a form of prosthesis. It's a prosthetic memory, safety harness, a prosthetic voice which can cry out "Where are you?". When we discuss RFID's being applied to the world at large the idea is rejected as overkill and Big Brother. But by applying it to the "politically challenged" there is an attempt to legitimate this technology which otherwise would be outright rejected. Prisoner's, children, the elderly, all of these "politically challenged" individuals are viable targets for chip implantation.

It is wanderlust cirumcision.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was scanning the web for news headlines when an ad shun brightly at the top of the page "Think positive, think circumcision". What does positive thinking have to do with it I wonder? was the site being advertised. I'm quite curious now, but being at work it might be an inappropriate time to investigate.


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