[Books & Culture, January/February, 1997]
One night after dinner, while Gary and the boys and I were still sitting around the kitchen table, Megan called from college. After the phone had been passed around and everyone had done some chatting, it came back to me. Megan hesitated, then said:
“Mom, I have something to tell you, and you’re going to be mad.”
“Okay,” I replied, prepared, after nearly nineteen years, for anything. “Go ahead.”
“I had my nose pierced,” she said in a small voice.
“You had your nose pierced,” I repeated, evenly.
Across the table I could see Gary ’s face, always ruddy, rise up in flames. “She *what*? She *what*?” he demanded. It wasn’t that he hadn’t heard me.
“I just want to keep it in a few months,” Megan was hastening to add. “The guy at the shop who put it in said I have up to a year, and it will still heal up. It didn’t hurt or anything. It was only $14. I’m taking real good care of it. I just want to wear it for awhile.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, non-committally. Across the table, Gary was getting his wall-of-stone face on. “She’s not coming into the house with that thing in. She can’t come home with that. I won’t allow it,” he was saying. “You tell her she can’t come in the house like that.” Despite his I’m-the-Dad-here voice, there was a measure of uncertainty in his expression. Gary is quick with an ultimatum, then quick to wonder if he made the right decision, and an episode like this precedes several roller-coaster days for him. There’s a reason why Megan chose to tell me first.
“Honey, you know I’m disappointed,” I said. “You know that most of the time I let you kids make your own decisions about how you look, but I think this crosses a line. I’m going to have to think about this.”
“She’s not coming home,” Gary muttered.
“Do you think the college will allow you to keep it?” I asked, suddenly hopeful. It’s a small Christian college, and fairly conservative. Students aren’t allowed to wear blue jeans to class. Surely a nose ring isn’t in the dress code.
“Everybody seems so accepting,” Megan said. “I’m sure it will be okay.”
I didn’t know what else to say, so I said, “Hmmm.”
Everyone has a favorite C.S. Lewis line; mine is, “The fact that we have bodies is the oldest joke there is.” It seems unfair, even embarassing, that our noble, pure, bright spirits are tangled up with clumsy flesh. The ornery, useful, inescapable beast St. Francis called “Brother Ass” accompanies us everywhere, simultaneously imprisoning and expressing us. Some things we cannot change: height, eye color, the genetic alarm clock blaring wake up, it’s time to go bald. But some changes lie in our power: clothing, hair style, whether there’s a ring in our nose.
Megan wanted a nose ring, she said, because she thought it was attractive. Though there is no disputing taste, I am powerfully provoked to start in disputing. But the underlying presumption is a common one: we can squeeze or fluff our bodies, even stud them with gold, to manage the way it expresses us. Our bodies are bare canvases, awaiting interpretative daubs. Furless and featherless, we must clothe it for protection, and this invites us to choose adornments that we hope demonstrate the ideal self within. Megan wanted a nose ring in order to appear more attractive, a common motivation in a teenage girl; others change their bodies to conceal the unnattractive, a common motivation as the years draw on.
Long ago I took a college course taught by a Famous Poet, a daring, hip figure whose figure, nonetheless, was spreading. (“Are you a literary groupie?” he asked me with a hopeful leer. No such luck.) He parted his hair just above one ear and pulled a hank over the top in a thin wash, a valiant bid for youth. During the course of our seminars it would sometimes escape and float back over the top, there to seesaw gently up and down like a feathery brown wing.
My guess is that this professor felt betrayed by his baldness: It’s not who I am, I’m a cool dude, not some old bald guy. The pink dome probably struck him as an absurd magnet for attention (though it was nothing compared to that wing). Youth was becoming a diminishing dot in his rear-view mirror, and he was stuck with a body that no longer fit right. I saw a photo of him in a magazine not long ago. He had lost this battle, as we are all destined to lose all our body-battles in time.
If current titles are any indication, lots of professors are discovering they have bodies. Academic reflections on the nature of bodiedness are emerging like cellulite. I imagine this discovery to be something like the old greasy-spoon joke: the waitress asks, “How did you find your steak, sir?” and the diner responds, “I moved the potato and there it was.” How did you discover that your soaring brilliance is hemmed by mundane flesh, professor? I moved the potato and there it was.
But the diner knows what to do with a steak. These books suggest some people have discovered that they have bodies, but aren’t yet sure what to do about it.
If the cover is a book’s body-shell, “Posthuman Bodies”(Indiana University Press, 1995), edited by Judith Halberstram and Ira Livingston, wins the prize for ugly. A dull-orange field displays a color-pencil sketch by co-editor Livingston, which shows merging and overlapping limbs, arms, and torsos festooned with something reminiscent of intestines. No matter how fetchingly drawn, intestines are never attractive. That’s why God put them on the inside.
Posthumanism, the editors argue, is the outcome of a battle already won, and “nostalgia for a humanist philosophy of self and other, human and alien, normal and queer” is futile. Such categories are too limiting, “rendering unintelligible much of what matters to us.” Who “us” is varies from page to page, but us seems united in a consistent bias toward liberation from whatever advice the normal functioning body would give.
Homosexuality, for example, occupies an enthusiastic fourth of the book (a section titled “Queering”). While it’s a practice that indisputably exists, it has no biological logic; a zoologist from Mars could, from a casual glance, make a swift and accurate guess how human reproductive organs were designed to interact. But “Biology is not destiny!” is the defiant cry that runs through the book, a “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” for our time.
Put into practice this means, for example, some ambivalent consideration of pregnancy for male transsexuals. As Susan M. Squier writes in her essay, “Reproducing the Posthuman Body,” women have in rare cases conceived children and carried them to term outside the uterus, in the abdominal cavity. Perhaps men whose gender has been “reassigned” (the word snaps into mind a picture of an Army sergeant with a clipboard) could do the same, surgically receiving an embryo in a pocket of the peritoneum. Wouldn’t that be a positive way for a transsexual to achieve ultimate validation of his newfound feminity? It’s a matter of reproductive rights: like heterosexuals, “the transsexual male should be able to make an autonomous choice to engage in identity-affirming reproductive behavior.”
This may sound like the dizzying far outpost of posthuman reasoning, but there’s yet a farther point on the horizon. No, Squier says, such a concept fails to “interrogate” the concept that female body equals female identity. The residue of destiny-thinking lies under this proposal, assuming as it does that pregnancy be considered “an inscriber of feminine identity.” Part of the problem, she says, is with the whole concept of autonomy, of identity as an individual construct. Gender roles are socially constructed, so the decision to reproduce should also be a matter for the “collectivity,” with its decision based on available resources and ethical evaluation of the “appeal to a technological imperative.”
The tension between community and individual rights is no better resolved among the posthuman gang than anywhere else. While claiming the right to define the body individually according to “what matters to us” (maybe even choosing to maintain multiple personalities, author Allucquere Rosanne Stone suggests—who’s to decree the occupancy limit of a body?), there’s a conflicting and uncertain affirmation of community. But making reproductive decisions a community matter, as above, would seem to grant communities the right to restrict abortion, a notion that would be anathema to this crowd. We can already see reproduction governed by the “collectivity” in China, where forced abortion ensures the one-child norm.
But such concerns do not detain the contributors, who romp through this volume enjoying themselves at great volume, examining B-movies and sci-fi novels, advertisements and automatic teller machines, in search of oppressors to defy. The dominant mood is spunky bad-boy rebellion, “perversity…enacted through diagonal resistances,” say the editors. It has not yet over-ripened to it’s natural conclusion, the rotting decadence of Huysman’s Au Rebours. (Gee, is it the fin-de-siecle again already?)
Readers unused to fashionable academic discourse may well find themselves looking around for a machete, as aggressive vines of profspeak twine about their ankles (see helpful sidebar, below). The volume assumes familiarity with “feminist psycho-semiotic film theory” and “dialectical biology.” Camilla Griggers spreads it on thick from a great big heaping Tub o’ Jargon: “I apply the term ‘machinic’ in reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) notion of a posthuman machinic phylum in which abstract expressionism machines channel turbulent and self-organizing behavior in social systems that include matter-flow as well as sign-flow in the social process of subjectivization.” (Woody Allen in “Love and Death,” with a sigh: “Yes, I’ve said that many times.”)
Anne Balsamo gets a nicer cover for “Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women” (Duke University Press, 1996). A detail of a 1989 Life magazine illustration of a body wholly composed of prosthetic parts has been softened into gray on black, with title-text creeping around curves that look feminine.
Balsamo uses this image as a starting point for consideration of new body technologies that seem limitless, almost promising immortality, technologies which contribute to the fantasy of the android, replicant, or, in Donna Haraway’s fashionable term, cyborg. However, these also require intense scrutiny of the body, or of isolated body parts and functions, especially in an age when food, air, water, and sex are all charged with danger. Balsamo is capable of graceful, well-packed sentences: “Nowhere to hide from our bodies ourselves, we have no other choice but to comply and live cleanly; docile creatures practice safe sex or self-destruct.”
The specific question Balsamo pursues is: how are these cyborg bodies gendered? In the world of Brave New Bodies, what will it mean to be female?
It should come as no surprise that Balsamo, an academic feminist, believes it will be real bad. Start with that cover picture. The original magazine illustration, “Replaceable You,” is reproduced in the book’s introduction, and shows a shadowy outline decorated with glass eyes, false teeth, artificial voice box, on down to replacement toe joints. About half-way down, Balsamo points out, there are penile implants and a false testicle. While the Life article’s text referred to an imaginary future “Sears catalog of replacement parts,” what the image omits is the only replacement part actually available in the Sears catalog: post-mastectomy breast forms. This figure, Balsamo decrees, is male. (Her book’s cover treatment has rounded the outline of the Life illustration to give the impression of a breast, a rare instance of reassigning the gender of a cyborg.)
One might demur that perhaps no slight was intended; unlike the pictured prosthetics, a breast form is cosmetic and no more an integral part of the body than a hat. But for Balsamo the message is that body of the future is male. The only female-specific reference in the Life article is to the possible development of an artificial womb, which Balsamo says reinforces the “definition of the female body as primarily a reproductive body.” She’s got the Life folks in a double-bind: shared features, like toe joints, she reads as male; exclusively female items, like wombs, show that the patriarchy only want us for breeding. If you were waiting for the O-word, here it comes: “such significations offer an ominous warning about the imaginary place of women in the technological future.”
The inherent problem in this argument is the presumption that any discussion of gender differences leads immediately to issues of, in Balsamo’s words, “power and authority.” For large segments of the world, gender differences are pleasant, appealing, and enjoyable, and practical application of theory—reproduction itself—is hardly a chore. (The subtitle of a Dave Barry book put it winningly: “How to make a tiny person in only nine months, with tools you probably have around the home.”) Yes, most cultures note and highlight gender differences, because most people find them delightful, as well as useful in producing the next generation. This doesn’t have to be a matter of oppression. In academia the pregnant body is read in a number of inconsistent ways: colonized by a parasite, passive, threatening, exploited. It isn’t seen in it’s most readily-apparent terms: strong, earthy, lovingly symbiotic, charged with life. Balsamo shares with many of her feminist colleagues an a priori insistence on victimhood, and a resultant sourness of mood.
In “Troubled Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Postmodernism, Medical Ethics, and the Body” (Duke University Press, 1995), editor Paul A. Komesaroff presents an profile more tentative than sour; his introduction is titled “Postmodern Medical Ethics?” The collection of essays differs from conventional writing on ethics, he says, in that it does not anticipate discovering clear answers, but attempts “to raise issues and problems…and thereby, it is hoped, to help establish a ground for proliferation of new approaches to these ancient problems.”
A central problem raised immediately is that there is no expectation that final truth exists. Postmodernism, Komesaroff explains, abolishes the “grand narratives” of humanity, truth, beauty, and so on. There is no “central subject” to distribute knowlege, and even reason itself is tottering. Instead we entertain multiple “discourses,” simultaneously-held personal notions that may or may not be in harmony with each other, like a dozen poodles on a multiple leash. The “decentered subject” considering ethical questions is enmeshed in, and formed by, this tumult, unable to stand apart from it weighing absolute truth. If this is the case, and the project is writing about life-and-death matters of medical ethics, you can understand why Komesaroff is worried.
As might be expected, many of the essays concern reproduction, and the conflicting values various discourses would demand. Is a surrogate mother a figure of autonomous power, exercising her reproductive freedom of choice? Or is she a reupholstered prostitute, renting alternative regions of her body? Is the woman seeking infertility treatments expanding her field of choices, or slavishly submitting to macho-techno manipulation, or perpetuating the disabling anti-feminist myth that “Without a child, I’m nothing”? Well, who’s to say? There’s no center, remember?
The essay on “Abortion and Entitlement,” by Catriona MacKenzie, spins this out further. In it MacKenzie considers arguments in favor of abortion that deal with the fetus’s claims by asserting that it is less than a person, and therefore rates less than a person’s rights. It’s like a fish, some have argued, or a comatose violinist, or an acorn; having an abortion is like getting your hair cut. But MacKenzie dislikes these arguments based on belittling fetal value, because (among other things) they guarantee only the woman’s right to an emptied uterus. MacKenzie believes, rather, that she has the right to a dead baby, the right of “choosing that there be no being at all” for which she might feel lingering responsibility (even adoption can’t erase such feelings). Why should she have such a right? Because it’s what she wants. MacKenzie’s tautology is that women should be autonomous, so whatever they want is right. Does the same apply to men?
The question is more serious than flippant. A centerless ethic is ultimately futile; it’s your word against mine. If women may dismember fetuses because they’re small, or weak, or dependent, why can’t men rape and batter women for the same reasons? If “Because I want to” suffices to excuse the taking of unborn life, whose life is safe? Things fall apart when the center cannot hold.
These last thoughts bring us full circle. The body is construct, vehicle, story, canvas, but it is most intimately our point of vulnerability. The body is where we can get hurt, and most of us do, sooner or later. Losses may be accidental or intentional, or merely attritional, as age takes its toll, but we lose all our body-battles in time.
The initial impression that we stand critically apart from our bodies was our first mistake. We aren’t merely passengers riding around in skintight racecars, sometimes pleased and sometimes grumpy; we are our bodies. They embody us. If there is a center, it is God; if there is a Creator, he created us in bodies. Further, he created each body unique, specially crafted for each person. Our bodies are classrooms made-to-order, designed to be our primary place of wrestling and learning in this life. The first lesson is humility; a second, related one is vulnerability.
The balding poet-professor exhibited both. His vanity demanded a fuzzy scalp, and denial of this prize dealt vanity a blow every day. But balding is also a sign of aging, the advancing, inevitable process of physical weakening and loss of power. Most of us don’t go dramatically, but gradually, day by day as age creeps on. Each strand of hair lost can teach a man to acknowlege his foolishness and laugh at his vanity; but each fallling strand also whispers the impermanence of our bodies. God who orderered the bloom of our bodies in youth has also ordered their decline, the chronology in which each part will fail. Each loss is a rope cast off from a great ship as it is freed from the moorings; we are designed, after all, not for the harbor but for seas beyond the reach of mortal eye. And where we’re going, we won’t need hair.
We lose all our body-battles in time, to regain bodies made for regions beyond time. God took a body and invaded time, seeking to rescue all manner of lost and confused folks. This body broken on a cross opens for us the way to the land where there is no dying, and new bodies spring from old like wheat from seeds of grain. This body broken in the Eucharist, reformed as wheat and wine, gives us a taste of eternal life now. Jesus embodied in “the form of a servant” doesn’t reach us through high-flown gnosis and spiritual glitter, but through this embarassingly humble process: take and eat, chew and digest. In John’s gospel, Jesus says that his hearers will not have life within them unless they eat his flesh. But he doesn’t use the polite term for eating, phago; he uses the earthy trogo, the word for a cow munching grain. Many of his hearers were so offended at this speech that they would no longer follow him. In ways more humble than we’d like, he reaches us, through humble things like our bodies.
What To Do About The Nose Ring loomed large around our house for a few days, and I was genuinely perplexed. With teens you never know how hard to push. Though a nose ring was loathsome to me, I was torn between letting her have a few months with it, and demanding immediate removal. Permanent nose decor was not under consideration. But for the present term, I was unsure.
Then we were rescued by a deus ex machina device: the college decreed she must remove it. A pierced nose was not contemplated in the dress code. Megan would have to return to the piercing shop on Tuesday and have the spike removed. I was relieved to escape the problem so neatly.
The Friday before Removal Day I was up at her college, participating in a career seminar. I phoned her from the lobby, but she grumped that she couldn’t come right over; she was expecting a long-distance call from her boyfriend. In the middle of my spiel about the joy of journalism, Megan walked in. She wore her dad’s old Navy pea jacket and a sour expression. I suspected Michael had just gotten his ear bent. She stood far in the back of the room with her hands in her pockets. I could see the nose, but not the ring.
As the workshop wound up I hastened back to see her. She was pouting, but on her pouting looks cute, a low-wattage version of “You’re beautiful when you’re angry.” Yes, there was a big gold knot on the outside of her nose.
“It looks like a zit,” I said. This is what one of my friends had suggested.
“No, it doesn’t,” she said. “Zits are red.”
I looked at her closer. It didn’t look like a zit, it just looked like something in the wrong place, like a false eyelash worn across the chin. The part I didn’t expect was the oversized gold clip on the inside, fixing the ornament in place. It protruded a little, unattractively.
“That clip looks like a golden booger,” I said tactfully.
Megan made a face. “That’s only because you’re short. Nobody else can see it. Everybody else looks at my nose from the top.”
I know when it’s time to change the subject. We grazed the tables of cheese and crackers, and talked about Michael till it was time for me to go. A few weeks later she was home for the weekend with a nose nearly restored, only a pink dot where the site of the recent attraction was still healing.
Having children multiplies the numbers of bodies that concern you, and multiplies your sense of vulnerability. The nose ring episode was successfully concluded, and there’s little to do to prepare for whatever might come next. A few days later Megan’s little brother, Stephen, told me he’d had a dream. “I dreamed I was sitting with Megan and talking,” he said, “and she said, ‘Guess what. I got a tatoo.’ I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”
“Biff’s such a hunk, plus he understands semiotics!”
Yes, that was the girl-talk on the beach last summer. But you weren’t so lucky. Instead, 200-pound intellectuals kicked sand in your face, and made fun of your pronunciation of “hysterizing.” But a simple program of mindbuilding exercises can turn that around. Just follow the guide below, and next summer you’ll hear the girls whispering, “Wow! He sounds like an assistant professor of cultural and gender studies!”
Transgendering Trans-Am tinkering
Dialectical biology Dialect jokes
Construction of identities Construction of highways
Interrogate (concepts) Interrogate (“Cops”)
Performativity Not used in reference to gasoline
Truth effects Special effects
Posthuman angst Post-kegger angst
Reading cyborg women Scoping out cyborg women
Ambivalence about Michael Foucault Ambivalence about Vanna White
Lusting after Madonna (Camille Paglia only) Lusting after Camille Paglia