Friday, 27 September 2013

Articulated Bodies

And what if you could have genetic perfection? Would you change who you are if you could?
Figure 1. Actual footage of me at my computer.
As I sit here tapping away at my keyboard (see fig. 1) it occurs to me that I've barely ever actually done any real blogging. I run a blog, nominally, but I've always treated it like my own academic journal, the peer reviewer being myself. It's casual in content and style, but ultimately I'm plotting out what I want to say fairly carefully and composing my pieces with conclusions in mind.

I find myself freezing up now that I'm writing an actual web log. Organizing my thoughts live is an unsettling experience, in part because suddenly the certainty of purpose and argument that I've grown to depend upon is gone.

That's kinda what the reading this week is about, though, so luckily I can make this seem like a real slick, premeditated transition between my neurotic rambling and the actual content.

The main thing that's overshadowing these proceedings is Bruno Latour's essay "How to Talk About the Body? The Normative Dimension of Social Science," and unfortunately I'm finding the essay's arguments slipping through my grasp no matter how many times I creepily subdivide my cyborg fingers.

Let me try, for my sake as well as yours Dear Reader, to sum up what I think he's driving at.

For goodness sake, though, don't quote me on any of this.

Latour's big criticism of science seems to be that it's not interested research. Part of the argument, which I'm not sure I buy--it seems like a misapplication of formal logic--is that scientific research is structured in such a way as to elicit binary responses from human and nonhuman subjects of study. You either get a result that maps onto your theory (the theory statement is true), in which case all you've got is a tautology, or you get a result that doesn't, in which case your statement is false and is discarded. Latour proposes an alternate system that uses propositions determined to be articulate or inarticulate--articulate meaning that they can encompass a wider array of values and possibilities, and inarticulate meaning that an array of possible stimuli elicits the same response and results in, effectively, a dead end. He's in favor, in other words, of an embodied science that accepts a multiplicity of possible results, like the fingers splitting and branching out to achieve greater articulation of movement. (Alright, I admit it, that image isn't actual footage of me, it's from the anime Ghost in the Shell. I had you fooled for a minute there, didn't I?)

The deeper point behind all of this is actually pretty significant. Latour is trying to pull apart Science's institutional ability to claim access to the absolute truth and a right to reshape society accordingly. The problem with the Institution of Science in modern society is that it invisibly urges us to accept its definitions and methodologies. Inevitably, those definitions and methodologies result in a normalization of certain types of bodies--ways of feeling, ways of responding to stimuli, ways of taking in and processing sensation, &c. Here, he's drawing on Michael Foucault (because honestly, it was only a matter of time before he crept into the proceedings) who describes a process where Power creates discourses that, as we engage in them, result in our incorporation into the system that Power uses to support itself.

Now, the problem with Latour is that, so far as I can tell, he doesn't really explain in any sort of methodological detail how to go about setting up an "interested and interesting" experiment. In fact, he's deliberately shying away from setting up a methodology, which is all well and good for him but sort of leaves the rest of us in the lurch. He wants us to set up a methodology that will result in resistance, but I'm not sure he makes it clear just what that resistance would look like.

This meant that my post-reading conversation with my girlfriend ended up being more baffling than anything else.

Let me give some background information to make sense of what's to follow. So, I'm a big fan of cyberization. If someone told me tomorrow that they could replace my body with a cybernetic shell that had the capacity for the sensation of touch and hearing and sight (and maybe smell and taste but I can be haggled down on this count. It's not like my nose works that well to begin with), I'd gladly sign in blood and politely avoid staring much at the bargainer's goat hooves and forked tongue.

My girlfriend Sara, on the other hand, is highly suspicious of the notion of cyberization. She's a dancer, and very passionate about physicality. She would be rather upset if I suddenly became a cyborg (and not just because of the whole literal-deal-with-the-devil thing).

There's an interesting semi-complication here, though, in that she's the beneficiary of cosmetic surgery (which is the actual topic this week, although I wouldn't blame you for not realizing it considering how long it's taken to get there). Her lower jaw grew out more than normal, causing issue with chewing and swallowing that she had surgically corrected a few years back. So, one component of her experience was medical. However, they also implanted thin implants in her cheeks to bring her cheekbones to slightly higher prominence.

Now, already I think her case goes some way towards unsettling the discourse on cosmetic surgery. While it would be nice to differentiate smoothly between cosmetic and corrective surgeries, the blended nature of her surgery makes strict categorization difficult (which is part of why the insurance company waited until a few hours before the surgery took place to finally inform her that they would, in fact, be accepting her claim, the money-grubbing capitalist bastards). One of the recurring themes in the reading for this week was the idea that women (and men) receive plastic surgery in order to correct what they perceive as a deficiency with their bodies. For them, the surgery is not elective but necessary to live a full life.

So, the first way in which Sara positioned herself as resistant to my questions was simply in having this experience that I don't think easily fits into some criticisms of the beauty industry. Her surgery was corrective in the strict sense that it was necessary for her to eat in a comfortable way... but it also involved a measure of aesthetic reorganization as well. When Sara says that she loves her smile now, and feels both happy and empowered by the greater normalcy of her smile as compared to before her surgery, should we read her experience as being a product of a beauty industry that has self-generated a "problem" that demands their presence and authority to effect a solution, or should we read it as a reaction to the actual pain and discomfort she felt and no longer has to deal with? Does the fact that the place where her jaw was broken cause her pain sometimes alter our reading of her case?

I honestly don't know.

To return to my utopian cyborg nonsense, though, I think her resistance to cyberization despite her own surgery experiences sheds some interesting light on Kathy Davis's analysis of cosmetic surgery in the face (ahaha) of the artist Orlan. Her basic argument is that Orlan's utopian view of cosmetic surgery as a vehicle for self expression is out of sync with the lived reality of other women and men that receive cosmetic surgery. Sara feels largely the same way about her own surgical experience compared to my airy-fairy cyberutopianism--there's a gap between the lived-in reality of her biological and psychological needs, and the science fiction desire to augment and adapt and become something Other. Whereas I'm fascinated by people like Genesis P-orridge, and love the idea of treating my body like an impermanent, metamorphic canvas, she isn't so much. Which one of us is the more caught up in a particular system of conditioned belief, I wonder?

The final idea I want to toy with here, then, is the notion common in transhumanist circles that the body is an error-ridden system, a vast problem, that we must transcend.

I suspect Latour would say that our glorious vision is another scientific system of biopower--maybe even the most advanced and obsessive form of biopower, since we've managed to pathologize the whole of being.

Confronting my beliefs with this system is more than a little unsettling, since it suggests that rather than opening us up to a vast range of expressive possibilities, we're simply asserting a new normalized body and way of interacting the world... with us, the transhumanists, being the ones in control of the new order. And if technology continues advancing at its current rate (we are getting closer and closer to fully functional neurally-linked prosthetics) the question that Sara's case raises, of what is "elective" and what is "corrective" and who is in charge of pathologizing the body in order to make these determinations will become more and more important, which is why I'm tenuously jumping from contemporary cosmetic surgery to this sci fi nonsense.

And really, the whole thing is pretty unsettling to me. There's nothing quite like realizing that you've been potentially arguing for the political economy of Repo! The Genetic Opera.

This is Cyborg Maria, the 21st Century Cure.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Am I A Freak For Dancing 'Round? (The Politics of Touch vs Janelle Monae)

I get a little suspicious of some theory-heavy political manifestos, in part because I think it's always a temptation to get completely lost in the pleasures of theorizing while eschewing concrete plans of action. Erin Manning's Politics of Touch seems to surrender to those pleasures, at least to judge from the chapter "Engenderings." Manning seems preoccupied with a continuous state of transformation of which touch is representative, a reaching toward a solidified state that never seems to materialize. Frustratingly, the structure of her text kind of takes that metaphor and runs with it. It's hard to tell from one moment to another whether she's discussing "touch" in a literal, scientific sense, or in a metaphorical sense, or in a political sense.

This approach bugs me because it seems to dwell in a space of unbridled academic optimism (which might just be on my mind because of reading Judy Wajcman's "From Women and Technology to Gendered Technoscience," which is very critical of the tendency among cyberfeminists* to assume that the mindbending possibilities of cybertechnology would, in and of itself, act as Liberator, despite the lack of a concrete methodology for how we could carry that liberation out). It's hard to jump from her politics of reaching out toward individuations (which, if I'm understanding correctly**, is an entity in the process of transformation, as we all are, rather than a discrete individual with an assumed definite boundary and form) to politics that can be used deliberately to effect change.

*While "Feminists with Mirrorshades" is nowhere near an accurate definition of this word, it's definitely the most rad definition. Feminists with anachronistic katanas? Motoko Kusanagi? MAYBE.

**A big if indeed.

That said, she has this great metaphor (which anyone in the class knows but which I'll go over for anyone who hasn't read the text): dance. For Manning, dance (particularly tango) involves the exact kind of perpetual reaching out that she uses metaphorically elsewhere, because the forms of movement that seem extremely definite actually emerge out of the tug and pull of two people. There's a constant negotiation taking place from movement to movement, and you can't really stay still and renegotiate, you've got to constantly be reaching out and adjusting. What's more, the dominant-seeming member of a pair can, in fact, become subordinate***. This hit home for me, because I'm really into the idea of dance as something that has ascribed gender roles but, through the actual experience of dancing, can actually manage to break down and queer those roles.

***Sorta like in BDSM. Don't look at me like that, it's Foucault's idea!

It hit me particularly strongly partly because of my own experience contra dancing and seeing how complex the gender interactions can get (especially when you start switching roles, or dancing in same-sex pairs). The balance between changing masses is a huge deal in contra, at least according to the folks who taught me, just as in Manning it's the contentious, developing interaction between individuations that can potentially revolutionize society.

But this metaphor also stuck with me because of my late obsession with Janelle Monae. Wait, here, have some context:

Someday I hope to be able to rock a suit and hairstyle half as cool as Janelle Monae.

The thing I'm hitting on here, which I got tipped off to via a David Brothers article (he also does a good job of introducing the cyberpunk themes of Monae's work, so the article is worth checking out), is the notion of dance as a revolutionary act of disobedience. Which, alright, normally that would've made me raise my eyebrows a bit, since Dance isn't exactly a taboo art form... except that now, between Brothers and Manning****, I'm picking out the fact that for Monae dancing is an act of defiance against roles, even when the roles are inherent in the dance style itself. The suit, in particular, helps underscore the queer nature of this defiance, actually.

****"Brothers" and "Manning." Huh. Weird male-oriented names I'm calling on here. What an odd coincidence.

So, sorting through Manning's odd prose by way of Janelle Monae songs about dancing androids, I'm starting to see how really she's working with a pretty tried and true theme of Theory, which is that upsetting and disrupting gendered categories can help to upset rigid and inflexible political institutions as well. That's clicking for me a little bit more even now as I type it, even though I don't dare claim that's her actual point. The essay is still very dense, and very disorienting, probably by design. But regardless, I think I'm starting to see a potential way forward from the abstract bliss of Theory. Part of reaching out might involve consciously entering a dance of gender with people, where we can pull even those that think they're acting out definite roles into a mutual bargaining of power in which identities are replaced by amorphous becomings and fluid performances. We're the solvent to the chemical borders here.

And it only took watching a bunch of music videos to get me to suss that out.

Hello and welcome to Cyborg Maria.