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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Friday, March 9, 2007

Biotechnologies, bodies and boundaries

These days when not writing about the politics of touch, my efforts are going towards teaching. We only have three classes left (the final one is a poster session, yay!) and I already know I'll miss our weekly get-togethers. They're an unusually good bunch who just submitted major research papers on topics like the biopolitical implications of assigning life and death, social and political boundaries for biometrics use, transexuality and the construction of otherness, mobile technologies and perceptions of space and time, genetically engineered crops and uncommon ground, public debates on stem cell research, domestic appliances, gender and everyday life, and pharmaceutical regulation of human sexuality. Totally amazing.

The last two classes have focussed on technoscience and bodies. Last week put the beginnings and ends of life up for debate, and we talked about reproductive technologies, tissue culturing, selfhood, markets, property and regulation.

For example, the case of Amillia Taylor offers intriguing insights into the practice of neonatal medicine and the regulation of bodies, as well as public concerns around the practice of abortion and the constitution of life itself. Interestingly, there's quite a bit of ambivalence in this Daily Mail story. The hospital environment is clearly understood to be more controlled/controllable than the "outside" world, but no less risky if we consider the litany of medical problems the premature baby has already experienced within its walls. According to the story, "Amillia was conceived in vitro and has been in an incubator since birth." Born at 22 weeks, this means that the majority of her life--and the very status of her life--has been almost entirely regulated by biotechnology. At the same time her survival is most often described in terms of surprise or the miraculous. Her mother is quoted as saying "now she is beginning to look like a real baby," which suggests it was difficult to recognise her as such before then. And the article concludes by invoking the abortion debate and challenging the reader to ask when but not how life actually begins: "Babies can still be aborted for non-medical reasons at up to 24 weeks. Recent evidence shows that, of those born at 25 weeks, half of them manage to live."

On a more personal note, the pictures of the child startled me. I still have a hard time recognising this creature as something bound for this world no matter how much we try to bind her to it. The medical intervention initially struck me as artifice in the sense of mechanical art, and thus wholly unnatural. But I find all sorts of 'unnatural' things to be beautiful and good and I'm having a hard time explaining why I can't seem to recognise 'life' here. Maybe it's the implication in that final quote that if we can keep a baby alive at 25 weeks then we shouldn't be allowed to abort it at 24 weeks. The problem I'm having, maybe, is that I don't think either creature is a 'baby' or 'child' at all. In fact, it discomforts me that she has a name because it insinuates her into a social world I share and I have a hard time attributing selfhood to bodies kept alive. Plus, it totally disturbs me that Latour's collectives of humans and non-humans could constitute nothing but people, or rather that we assign different people to different sides of the human/nonhuman 'divide'. Biopower and biopolitics indeed.

Yesterday's class focussed on monsters, hybrids and the sexing of bodies. One of my favourite topics because it focusses almost exclusively on what happens between categories, we talked about everything from Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, to freaks, museums and reality tv to conjoined and parasitic twins, intersexuality, body modification, disability, circumcision, cosmetic surgery (including vaginal rejuvenation and designer vaginoplasty), commodities, markets, consumerism and the ever-present matter of taste. Generally a proponent of the 'three-sex' (female, male and both/neither) model, I also keep thinking about the idea that there is only one sex and it exists on a continuum from male to female and different people occupy different positions, like if you view sexuality as a continuum from homosexuality to heterosexuality and people occupy many positions along it over a lifetime.

Anyway, now I'm preparing for the final classes on technology and everyday life. Next week we take a look at domestication and technology, which includes domestication of and by technology, as well as domestic technologies. This means reading some really interesting work by Shelley Nickles on the history of refrigeration in terms of material culture and gender construction, and introducing students to Elizabeth Shove's work on material culture, consumption and practice-oriented design, as well as the larger Designing and Consuming: Objects, Practices and Processes research project and their forthcoming book on The Design of Everyday Life. The final lecture and discussion will focus on pervasive technologies from mobile phones to biometrics, and further investigate the fluid boundaries between public and private in our technologised everyday.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job?

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