Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

All Hail the Mom-in-Chief: Michelle Obama, Feminist Icon

with one comment

Michelle Obama waves to the crowd at the Democratic National Convention

by Afrah

The reviews are in. Both liberal and conservative commentators agree: Michelle Obama gave a barnburner of a speech last night at the Democratic National Convention. She was pitch perfect: sincere and persuasive. And she looked great in her custom made Tracy Reese dress and J.Crew pumps. She earned high marks for performance and presentation. As I digest the speech content today and bask in the warm glow of the Obama’s increasingly solid reelection prospects, there is a thought that rests uncomfortably in my mind as I consider in the figure of Michelle Obama. As a good feminist, can I truly applaud a woman who subverts her own personal prowess in favor of a more palatable “aww shucks, I am a mom” public personality?

A partial explanation of Michelle Obama’s careful construction of her role as first lady rests with the public image that emerged during the 2008 presidential election. According to her most strident critics, she was the fist bumping, angry, and radical black woman who did not love America. Remember The New Yorker cover on July 21, 2008?  It was unfunny because it did not critique and merely replicated the extreme right wing caricature of Barack Obama as a secret Muslim and Michelle Obama as gun toting black revolutionary. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

September 5, 2012 at 21:23

Posted in feminism, politics, race

The Feminism of Dirty Dancing

with 4 comments

by David

I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time on Monday night. I know, the fact that it took me this long to see it is a real shanda (scandal).

I saw it on the big screen, with my wife and some friends and a few hundred screaming feminists (screaming with glee at the sight of a shirtless Patrick Swayze, that is). Prior to the film, one of the event organizers, my friend Irin, interviewed the movie’s screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein. The evening was organized by Jezebel, with proceeds going to benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund, an all-volunteer organization that helps provide funds to poor pregnant women who want abortions but cannot afford them.

Much has already been written about this showing, by Irin herself, by the Wall Street Journal‘s Sarah Seltzer, and by Esther Zuckerman of The Village Voice. Indeed, between these articles and Irin’s earlier piece arguing that Dirty Dancing is “the greatest movie of all time,” I’m not sure what I can really add to the conversation. Nevertheless, I’ll share my main take-aways from the evening [spoiler alert]:

1) I knew the movie was popular, a cult classic seen countless times by North American girls and women, but I had no idea how big it was internationally. In Australia, truck drivers watched it at repeatedly at rest stops. In Germany, the dubbers were so obsessed with having the mouth movement at least resemble German words that they translated Johnny Castle’s signature line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” to “My Baby belongs to me. Is this clear?” And apparently that’s the line they love and remember. Ah, the Germans: always thinking everything belongs to them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

August 11, 2011 at 07:19

Gay Paradise in Zion? A Commentary on The Enlightenment Project

with 2 comments

by Weiner

Several years ago, I was having dinner in Dupont Circle, a gay-friendly neighbourhood in Washington, D.C., with a gay Jewish friend and his boyfriend, also a Jew. My friend, who describes himself as both a “professional Jew” and a “professional gay,” brought up the topic of Israel. I don’t recall exactly what was said, but both he and his boyfriend expressed pride in the fact that Israel was rather tolerant towards gays and lesbians, much more so than its Arab neighbours. I agreed with the sentiment, but expressed some skepticism as to its value.

I remember saying that many right-wing, hawkish supporters of Israel, would proudly praise Israel’s record on gay rights, or women’s rights, or any other issue that showed that Israel was a modern, western, country, with a tolerant, progressive society, not unlike that of the United States or Canada. I remember thinking that these people didn’t give a rats ass about gay rights in America, or about feminism anywhere in the world, apart from trumpeting Israel’s superiority over its backward Muslim enemies. This was especially true for Israel’s Christian Zionist supporters, many of whom were actively hostile to gay rights and women’s rights.

This sort of analysis always made me a little uncomfortable, like comparing the Israeli military’s efforts to reduce civilian casualties with the goals of Hamas suicide bombers, who hoped to maximize them. Having the best human rights record in the Middle East is a little like being the best student in a remedial math class: not something you should really be boasting about. Sure, Israel is more tolerant of gays and lesbians, and more progressive on women’s issues than Syria, but so what? As a modern, western, democratic state, shouldn’t it aspire to play in the big leagues with the United States, Canada, western Europe and the like?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

July 11, 2011 at 16:00

Two Cops, DSK, and DNA: Evidence and Experience in the Courtroom

with 2 comments

Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, the two NY cops charged with raping a woman, after their acquittal.

by Luce

For a while the alleged rape of a New York hotel maid by the now ex-managing director of the IMF dissolved not into the expected narrative of “he said, she said,” but instead into a question of what France versus the US do with their women. Such a story line reduced an act of sexual violence to a question of gender relations, flirtation, or privacy by comparing the US’s ostensibly stellar record of bringing its politicians to task (Spitzer and Clinton) versus France’s bad habit of turning a blind eye. In an Al Jazeera piece, Mayanthi Fernando and Gil Anidjar seem to have been the first to question the application of a narrative of sexual scandal to a case of sexual violence:

By continuing to cast DSK’s case as one of sex… we obscure the fact that the case at hand is not about sex (discreet or otherwise) but about power and violence. Like a number of similar cases (for there are comparisons to be made), it has to do with the behaviour of powerful men in powerful positions. It has to do, in other words, with politics as full spectral dominance.

Four months ago, the NYTimes ran this headline: “Thousands of Rape Kits Sit Untested for Decades, but Change Would Be Costly.” Soon after they dealt with this controversy, “Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance.” And this was still going on when DSK happened:  “Jury to begin deliberating in New York police rape case.” Nonetheless, the NYTimes saw fit to ask a panel of experts this question: Are French Women More Tolerant?

It’s as difficult to know where to begin telling the narrative of the narrative as it’s obviously been to narrate the case itself. But I think we could begin by asking why DSK was more readily compared with Schwarzenegger and his love child than to the contemporaneous trial of two New York cops accused of rape (one for having actually raped and the other for having assisted). After all, both story lines involved men who wielded their power to commit sexual violence against women in vulnerable positions (one inebriated after a long night celebrating a job promotion, the other reportedly an African immigrant who was working as a maid in an NYC hotel). Again, Fernando and Anidjar’s article was the first I read to draw the comparison.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaving the Manhattan Criminal Court.

Rather than focus on DSK as a sex scandal or media trial, we should perhaps instead ask what questions the acquittal of the NY cops raises for DSK’s case. Because the French media [not to mention BHL -- were he American he'd be a shock jock] has indeed gotten one thing wrong: trial by media is not the same as trial by jury. The  public’s shocked reaction to the cops’ acquittal (including organized protests by various feminist groups) is testament to how divergent the media’s narrative was from that of the courtroom.

A few days ago the NYTimes finally did catch on that rape and sexual assault trials are notoriously difficult for the prosecution to win. Already DSK’s lawyers have indicated that they will argue that any sexual acts between him and the maid were consensual.  So let’s take a quick look back to why the jury decided not to convict in the NY cops case. Here’s what one juror said:

“I did think that they might have had sex, but that doesn’t mean that they did have sex,” he said. “There is nothing to substantiate this. There’s no DNA, there’s no proof in any way that they had sex.”

Even more revealing was a great interview with Women’s eNews given by Melinda Hernandez,  another juror who had initially voted to convict:

It all came down to the forensic evidence. There was none at all. No hair, no semen, no pubic hairs in the evidence collected from the apartment or in the rape kit collected at the hospital. There was a small red patch found on her cervix, but that could have been caused by several things. There was no solid proof from the evidence collected or the rape kit. Not even fingerprints. Not even fibers from police uniforms. Many pieces of material were taken from the apartment. But there were no fingerprints. There was nothing there.
All the evidence was collected by the NYPD internal affairs investigator and was taken to police crime lab. After it was examined there, then it was sent to the medical examiners lab.
Was there ever any question of police tampering of the evidence?

You can’t raise that kind of speculation. That’s why I think the system failed her big-time.

But why can’t you raise that kind of speculation at a trial? It’s the given duty of the jurors to judge the credibility of the plaintiff’s versus the defendant’s testimony. Why should the testimony of expert witnesses be exempt from similar considerations?

But more importantly, how does the assumption that corroborating medical evidence is necessary to convict (though–correct me if I’m wrong–I don’t think this is actually required by law) impact the prism through which other evidence is viewed and the way in which the narrative of sexual violence is itself constructed?

First it seems necessary to point out the obvious: DNA evidence does not an act of sexual violence make. Semen found on the maid’s shirt has been matched to DSK’s DNA, but “the defense is expected to pursue the issue of whether it is even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex,” reports the NYTimes. Which reminded me of something from Stephen Robertson’s historical article on the emergence of a medico-legal discourse in rape trials during the 19th century:

In 1823, in the first American treatise on medical jurisprudence, Theodoric Beck articulated what he identified as the general medical opinion on that issue: “I am strongly inclined to doubt the probability [that] a rape can be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength.”

In the 18th century, before doctors had established their competence to judge whether a woman had been raped, the body of the female victim was examined not by doctors but by a group of respectable, married women. As the medical profession began to develop and professionalize in the 19th century, doctors asserted their medical expertise in legal cases including rape trials. While judges throughout the 19th and 20th centuries frequently challenged the conclusions doctors drew from their medical evidence, juries — largely made up of middle-class men — increasingly placed their trust in doctors’ sworn testimony.

In Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, Giorgio Agamben writes, “experience is incompatible with certainty, and once an experience has become measurable and certain, it immediately loses its authority.” Scientific verification displaces experience away from the individual onto  instruments and numbers.

In her 1997 article evaluating the role that medical evidence has come to play in rape trials in Canada (which have many parallels to the United States), Georgina Feldberg wrote, “One clear force within the history of medico-legal reform was the goal of creating expert physicians who had the experience and skill to administer and interpret medical tests that would define the scientific fact of rape.”

The problem of course, is that while evidence might prove intimate contact or intercourse, there is no medical way to definitively prove consent or lack thereof. Historically, physical signs of violence have played better to juries (note the emphasis placed on the bruising of the victim’s cervix in the NY cops trial). But of course our definitions of both consensual sex and sexual violence have expanded: consensual sex can result in bruising, while the battering of a victim is not conditional for rape.

While lack of medical evidence casts doubt on the accuser’s claims and its presence may do little to lift the fog, Feldberg points out that the use of medical evidence opens up the pandora’s box of the victim’s sexual history, despite rape shield laws intended to place a victim’s sexual past off limits. Thus in the NY cops case, forensics didn’t find any traces of the accused cop’s DNA (despite the fact that he admitted to getting into bed with the woman, cuddling with her and kissing her shoulder). But forensics findings did open up questions about the DNA of three other men found on the woman’s sheets, while questions about the mechanics of penetration revealed the woman’s familiarity with various sexual positions. Of course ideally none of this would matter and courtroom reactions would not include “cringing, laughing or blushing like a fifth grader in reproductive health class.”

At the end, we’re left with a series of paradoxes. Testimony undermined by the absence of relevant medical evidence. Medical evidence that reveals decontextualized details from the accuser’s past. Medical evidence undermined by the question of experience itself: Was it consensual, was it not?

And so we come back to the question that DSK’s lawyers will want us to focus on: Is it physically possible for an older man of middling strength to force a woman to perform oral sex? At face value this seems to be a question of experience rather than medical evidence. Did the woman experience force?

Yet see how quickly a question of experience turns into a question of mechanics, of science, of experimentation and verification. Is it “even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex?” Can a rape “be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength?” Questions that expect experience to be generalizable rather than individual, and thus obfuscate issues of power, coercion, confusion, and fear.

Written by Kristen Loveland

June 9, 2011 at 05:57

There’s a Tooth in my Vagina: Horror, Sci-Fi, and Feminism

with 6 comments

by Weiner

A few nights ago, my wife and I had the distinct pleasure of watching Teeth, the 2007 comedy/horror by writer, director, and co-producer Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the famous artist Roy Lichtenstein. As some readers of this blog may know, I’m a big horror movie fan. But Teeth interested me for political reasons as well. Call it a horror film or a dark comedy, Teeth was in fact a brilliant political satire. And it was totally awesome.

The plot is simple enough: protagonist Dawn O’Keefe suffers from the mythological condition of vagina dentata: she has razor sharp teeth in her vagina. What gives the film its gravitas, and its humour, is the broader context. Dawn is the leader of an abstinence group in her high school, she dons a promise ring vowing to wait until marriage, and embraces traditional gender roles prizing women’s purity, all in a clearly over-the-top satirical manner. It seems as if nearly all the male characters are potential rapists, and several appendages meet their untimely demise beneath the sharp, interlocking teeth at Dawn’s crotch, and no, I’m not talking about her zipper.

Though I know many are turned off by gruesome horror (I’m thinking of you, Luce), this movie is really the ultimate in feminist schadenfreude. It’s a little scary, a little gory, but mostly funny, and with brilliant parodies of the Religious Right and the latent sexism and fear of women that lurks in the hearts of heterosexual men. This movie is truly great.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

May 27, 2011 at 21:05

The Subaltern of Your Dreams, and Mine: Egyptian Women in Tahrir Square

with 14 comments

I’m very pleased to introduce a guest post from Mircea, a history grad studying South Asia, first published at his blog, Just Speculations. I’m particularly glad that he’s coined the phrase “subaltern of my dreams.” I can only hope this will be the title of his first book. – Luce

by Mircea

Over on facebook, Leil Zahra-Mortada has collected an album of photographs of women protesting in Cairo over the past weeks. Here are a few particularly striking ones:

My first impulse, after I broke out in tears, was to think about theories of subjectivity and the challenge of Berkeley anthropologist Saba Mahmood to feminist notions of agency in her book Politics of Piety. Mahmood had studied women who participated in the Islamic revivalist mosque movement in Egypt and focused on how they ethically “trained” their bodies and sensibilities to meet the demands of Islamic norms. In so doing, and building on the work of Talal Asad, she questioned the understanding of “agency” as a reflection of a subject’s conscious will and desire. Instead, it was possible for women to express agency even in the very act of following norms that Western feminism would deem oppressive and patriarchal. This, of course, set her on a collision path with those feminists who allied themselves with neo-conservative imperialism in order to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan, Iran and the wider Middle East. In a 2008 essay entitled “Feminism, Democracy and Empire,” Mahmood refuses to allow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Azar Nafisi and Irshad Manji to serve as spokeswomen for all Muslim women. Why not listen, instead, to the myriad women’s movements and organisations, across the political and religious spectrum, in the Muslim world?

The Revolution in Egypt, and especially the photographs above, have shown to whoever cared to listen that Muslim women can make their voices heard alongside with men, demand those same political and social rights that supposedly belong to the Western “liberal” tradition, and scream, cry, bleed and die for them. Of course, Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t care to listen. In a recent op-ed, written while Mubarak’s security apparatus was still beating people to a pulp in the streets of Cairo, she worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s hypothetical takeover. Bemoaning the supposed weakness of the “secular democratic forces,” she paints a dark scenario based, it appears, on some turgid autobiographical stories from when she was 15. It is assumed throughout, based on her previous books, that one of the bad things about the coming reign of Sharia will be women’s oppression.

And then it hit me: what all these critics, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Glenn Beck to French legislators banning the veil, have done is to effectively de-humanise the majority of Muslim women. Any woman who wears a scarf and/or niqab, who bears the outward signs of the patriarchal oppression that lies beneath, cannot be heard in her own voice. Look again at those photos. Those women, caught in a snapshot of anger or passion, are not calculating their own future status under the Muslim Brotherhood, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali does for them while safely ensconced in the US. They are not theorizing how conservative or liberal they are, or how much agency they get. They stand side by side with women in jeans, T-shirts and fashionable scarves. Because what they’re wearing doesn’t matter, even their being women qua women ceases to matter for the moment. They are demanding Mubarak leave and the country see free elections. Subalterns do speak, and when they do they may not be the subaltern of your dreams, or mine. They don’t say, “Freedom, but as long as what comes next isn’t too Islamic, in which case we should just stay put.” They say, “Freedom. Now.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 14, 2011 at 06:50

Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture–And Ours

with 8 comments

by Nemo

What does Judith Butler have in common with Ronald Reagan? How about Jerry Falwell and John Rawls? Cornel West and Milton Friedman? In his sweeping history of American social thought during the last quarter of the twentieth century, Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers argues that these figures share more in common than one might think.

According to Rodgers fracture or what he (less poetically) calls “disaggregation” characterizes the main currents of intellectual life from the early 1970s to our own day. He argues that a mid-century focus on the social power of tradition and institutions, whether economic, political and religious, gave way to competing models of social life that stressed individual agency, historical contingency, and the amorphous power of culture. Early on in Age of Fracture, Rodgers sharply contrasts the social thought of the Cold War and the period that followed in terms of human nature. Rodgers writes,

Across the multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire. Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones. Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. (Rodgers, 3)

In economics, Rodgers argues, this transformation was especially acute and would have serious consequences for social policy and social thought more generally. As the repeated financial crises of the 1970s seemed to discredit the effectiveness of Keynesianism, a number of schools of economic thought stepped into the fill the vacuum (often with major funding from recently established conservative think tanks)—all with strong libertarian tendencies.

harbinger of fracture?

Proponents of monetarism, rational choice theory, and supply-side economics might have disagreed on certain principles, but all believed that the best economic outcomes were produced when individuals made their way into the open market without interference from labor unions and government regulators. Individualism ruled; deep notions of power waned. At the same time, social theorists started to blame the rise of an urban “underclass” on the very government agencies created to serve them (while downplaying years of de-industrialization, institutional racism, and declining tax revenues due to white flight).

One of the most striking contributions of Rodgers’ book, however, is to show that shrinking ideas of the “social” were not limited to free-market economists, but also characterized nearly every sphere of the period’s intellectual life.  Across the era’s social sciences, Rodgers notes an interest in thought experiments involving game theory, prisoners’ dilemmas, and “veils of ignorance” (in John Rawls’ famous Theory of Justice) that showed little concern for context, history, and power. Attention shifted toward abstraction and individual choice.  Legal originalists discounted centuries of jurisprudence and social context to uncover the “true” meaning of the constitution at its foundational moment. Meanwhile, leading economists believed they could ignore the legacy of the past and shepherd Eastern Europe into a capitalist future through “shock therapy.”

As the social movements of the 1960s moved forward into the 1970s and 1980s, Rodgers sees fragmentation across the board. Inspired by the New Left idea of participatory democracy, influential liberal thinkers embraced pluralism and communal participation, which served to downplay earlier visions of a national social contract and economic redistribution (on the right, many showed a similar concern for the well-being of “mediating institutions” supposedly threatened by an intrusive federal government).

Feminists who had once believed “sisterhood is powerful,” now debated the usefulness of the concept of “woman.” Did it risk further marginalizing the distinctive voices of black women, working-class women, and queer women? At the same time, influential black intellectuals in the United States and England such as Paul Gilroy, Cornell West, and Henry Louis Gates rejected one-dimensional understandings of a unified black experience—and instead called for an understanding of blackness that conformed to the complex legacies of life within the African Diaspora.

For all the commonalities Rodgers sees running through the period’s social thought, this is not a consensus history of the 1980s. Even with though he sees the pull of “disaggregation” leaving a mark across the period’s ideological spectrum, he remains sensitive to political conflict, for example, noting contentious battles over Central America, nuclear weapons, and social issues such as abortion.

Nor is Age of Fracture yet another declension narrative about irresponsible radicals and “identity politics” somehow bearing responsibility for the revival of the country’s political right. In fact, Rodgers sees a major difference between the social thought of the 1960s, which tended to focus more closely on the power of institutions and social forces such as the government, the military, and capital in shaping inequality, and the period that followed with its emphasis on fracture, agency, and culture. Rodgers also sees much to praise in social thought since the 1970s, particularly the way it has helped legitimize racial and sexual difference.

A rite-of-passage for many graduate students.

He does believe, however, that the era’s strong emphasis on culture, rupture, and agency has lead to a neglect of key questions about power and history. At the end of his chapter on race, Rodgers argues that the,

growth of more complex understandings of identity was also the retreat of history. A culture reshaped in the choices and present moment preoccupations of a market-saturated society had transposed the frame of argument. In a liberation that was also the age’s deficit, a certain loss of memory had occurred. (Rodgers, 143)

Is this really the case though? Is it true that thinkers such as Cornel West and Judith Butler really had less of a concern with institutions, history, and power than their predecessors? Or was it that they aimed to capture a more nuanced and sophisticated version of the way history unfolded, power functioned, and identities were created?  No one who has read Foucault for a graduate seminar would be unfamiliar with questions of power and institutions—even though the answers he encourages might not be as straightforward as a Marxian or even an “interest group pluralism” reading of the concept might provide. Does a focus on everyday performances of power really have to come into conflict with one attuned to the power of history and institutions?

In addition, is Rodgers correct to lump most of the period’s social thought under the concept of disaggregation? Can we really see any commonalities between the interpretive strategies of an influential anti-foundationalist literary critic like Stanley Fish and a biblical fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell? Rodgers acknowledges that the period’s conservative thinkers (and many self-proclaimed liberals) tended to obsess over combating the moral relativism and multicultural fragmentation that they saw characterizing intellectual life. Conservative Christians, in particular, proclaimed a universalistic understanding of human nature and longed for fixed gender binaries totally at odds with celebrations of gender trouble or the indeterminacy of texts.

Rodgers argues, however, that even among the religious right and cultural conservatives, one finds dissension on questions of gender, free speech, and foreign policy. While this is surely the case (when was any social movement wholly unified?), Rodgers might have done even more to explain how evangelicals fit into his broader theme of fracture.

While some readers may take issue with the book’s conceptual preference for lumping rather than splitting (though Rodgers always does an excellent job describing particular ideas), others might feel that the question of causality is left too open-ended. If fracture characterized the age, what exactly caused it to break out? Rodgers notes the value of works by David Harvey and Frederick Jameson, which examine the economic roots of the “post-modern condition,” but rejects what he sees as the determinism implicit in such models. Rodgers believes that ideas about fracture often preceded economic change and helped condition responses to it.  It’s hard to disagree with this point, but it’s not surprising that discussion has already begun over the question of causality and the book’s principal argument.

Whatever minor issues readers find with the book however, they are likely to be impressed by its scope, its analytical ambitions, and its sensitivity to nuance, not to mention its readability. For many years it will serve as a key reference point for scholars investigating particular questions about social thought since the 1970s. In addition, Rodgers implicit normative stance, which calls on scholars to engage deeply with history, institutions, and power—particularly when dealing with questions of inequality—rings very true today, as we continue to live through the legacy of the age of fracture that he describes so effectively.

Written by Julian Nemeth

January 31, 2011 at 20:56

How Octomom Became a Contagious Cyborg: A Reflection

with 3 comments

by Luce

In January 2009 the media midwifed a new hybrid species and dubbed it Octomom. Octomom was 33-year-old Nadya Suleman, a California woman who had an unknown number of eggs implanted using IVF and gave birth to octuplets on January 26, 2009, bringing her total brood to 14. Since then Octomom has never quite left us. Just last week she appeared on Oprah to talk financial difficulties.

Once it became known that Suleman’s octuplets, only the second set to be born alive in the United Sates, were no miracle but the result of an assisted reproductive technology [ART], that all her other children had also been born through IVF, and that Suleman herself was single and unemployed, a media storm blitzed its way through the nation. The public spiritedly lambasted Suleman as a selfish woman who had irresponsibly used ARTs to bring 14 children into a world in which she and 11.6 million other Americans were unemployed.

Yet just a decade earlier in December 1998 Nkem Chukwu became the first American woman to successfully give birth to octuplets. Chukwu also used IVF to achieve this feat, but the American public did not gnash its teeth at the announcement. Chukwu was portrayed as a tired woman in a wheelchair next to her husband, a woman who discussed how her faith in God had brought her through a hard pregnancy, and who explained that she had refused a selective reduction operation during her pregnancy because she “could not find such words in [her] Bible.” No one pointed out that neither could she have found “IVF” there. Chukwu sacralized the births: “I wanted to have as many babies as God would give me,” and in turn the media portrayed the pregnancy as miracle rather than monstrosity.

In contrast no mention was initially made of Suleman’s refusal to undergo the same selective reduction procedure. A bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania called the scandal an “ethical failure” and there were invocations only of Suleman’s obsessions, not God’s gifts. Of course Suleman embodied one of the media’s favorite objects of fascination and reproach: young, female, desirous, and with a body that performed feats unknown to natural woman. Like other media favorites, Suleman even got her own hybridized nickname, Octomom, but unlike Brangelina, the hybridity was maternal rather than romantic, interspecies rather than intra-; Octomom was part-mom, part-(marine)-beast, and implicitly part-machine.

Though at first the nickname Octomom seems to reduce Suleman to the sum of her eight kids, the focus on Suleman’s desire or “obsession” instead reduced her eight newborns to herself. The scorn heaped on Suleman’s actions carried the implication that the children should never have been born in the first place, a curious stance for a society obsessed with abortion, celebrity children, and big families like the conservative Christian Duggars and John & Kate Plus 8. But Suleman made no attempt to explain her extraordinary pregnancy outside her own personal desires, and she lacked the trappings—husband, comfortable income, religious belief—that might have normalized it socially.

As a result, Octomom became a symbol of selfish enhancement, artificial excess, and irresponsible motherhood, and a reproductive technology that has been used to conceive over 250,000 pregnancies in the United States since the early 1980s suddenly became the focus of intense public discussion, giving bioethicists a platform to point out that while IVF is widely regulated throughout Europe, the US federal government only demands that ART clinics track their success rates.

Was the reaction to Octomom merely symptomatic of society’s anxiety about the impact of new technologies on society, or was something deeper at work concerning our contemporary understanding of maternal agency? I think Carl Elliott’s Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream [2003] is an interesting place to start thinking about the relationship between society, agency, treatment, and enhancement. Elliott theorizes that Americans’ obsession with identity and authenticity helps explain why Americans appear uneasy with enhancement technologies yet seek them in droves:

We need to understand the complex relationship between self-fulfillment and authenticity, and the paradoxical way in which a person can see an enhancement technology as a way to achieve a more authentic self, even as the technology dramatically alters his or her identity.

This authenticity often depends on the assertion of deficiency. By turning a characteristic into a deficit, such as the lack of social ease in those prescribed Paxil, an enhancement becomes a treatment.

Of course this construction of deficient or disabling conditions is an ever-evolving social process with consequences for a person’s understanding of his or her authentic self. Today social phobia is the third most common mental disorder in the US, but 15 years ago it was a rare problem. Diseases are not just culturally symptomatic, they are causal and therein lies the risk. Ian Hacking’s looping effect suggests that the identification of a disease creates the conditions for the manifestation of that disease in others. For instance the emergence of the idea of gender identity disorder gave people a means to conceptualize and reinterpret their experiences around a single idea, in this case a disorder with a surgical solution.

Elliott calls this semantic contagion, and while it is a more complex idea than the gloss I give it here, its relation to the idea of copycatting may help explain the suspicion and fear with which certain diseases or disabilities are approached.

In general, Elliott is sympathetic to those who make use of the possibilities of biomedicine like pharmaceuticals or sex-reassignment surgery to achieve self-fulfillment because he sees bodies, technology, and identity as co-constructive entities. He is even sympathetic to voluntary amputees, who want to cut off their limbs as surgical treatment for what they claim is a psychological condition, asking which is worse: to amputate your leg or to live with an obsession that controls your life. Elliott provocatively suggests that voluntary amputation is fair game in a world where you can “pay a surgeon to suck fat from your thighs, lengthen your penis, augment your breasts, redesign your labia, implant silicone horns in your forehead or split your tongue like a lizard’s.” Thirty years after the first test-tube baby, is Octomom just what society should come to expect?

In an America that takes its individual responsibility seriously and its babies very seriously, how a gestating mother behaves and what she ingests has become increasingly socially and medically monitored. Authors who have explored the construction of fetal alcohol syndrome or tracked the impact of obstetric tools like ultrasound have argued that this has resulted in the objectification and erasure of the mother, and her individual needs, as she comes to embody the potential life within her.

In The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery [1998] Monica Casper traces the implications of what in the 1990s was the relatively new medical field of fetal surgery. In fetal surgery a woman’s fetus is partially taken out of the uterus, operated on, and, if it survives, placed back into her womb for further gestation. In 1998, fewer than 100 fetuses, all of which would otherwise have died in the womb, had been operated on. Only 35% of the fetuses survived the surgery.

Though the numbers suggest that most women will miscarry or choose to abort a fetus that is likely to die in the womb, Casper sees fetal surgery as contributing to the materialization of the fetal patient at the expense of the mother. The mother and fetus are first separated as subjects, and then one is given preference over the other. Pathologization in this case doesn’t result in the reorientation of an identity but instead in the creation of one subject and the erasure of another.

Casper obviously sees her book as a warning signal to women; they should be aware that in being made invisible, their agency risks obliteration. In becoming patients, fetuses problematically become persons. Casper surely uncovers a discursive realm, with very material consequences, that represents a serious threat to maternal agency. But does she overstate the extent to which the creation of a fetal patient necessarily erases the pregnant woman, or the extent to which such erasure necessarily threatens the woman’s agency?

If we take Carl Elliott’s biomedical world as our own, then bodies are frequently objectified and technologized for one’s own interests. Does the materialization of another subject through this technologization necessarily threaten those interests? I am not doing Casper, who recognizes that both fetal and maternal interests could be valued in fetal surgery and argues that the field is a ripe area for a women’s health intervention, full justice. But I do want to challenge the idea that invisibility, in the face of social and bioethical surveillance, is necessarily a handicap to a pregnant woman’s agency. In a world where increased biomedical capabilities has engendered a field of bioethicists, of which a substrata warn the public to value mystery in the face of mastery, do efforts to regulate maternal behavior in fact intensify when a pregnant woman’s own subjective desires and agency become visible? In other words, are pregnant women in fact more free because the gestating woman is absent from the sonogram?

The case of Octomom would seem to confirm the idea that unmediated maternal agency provokes surveillance and can even reverse a typically pro-life discourse (though not necessarily its anti-choice iteration). Obviously the media’s issue with Octomom was partly the abnormality of giving birth to eight children at once, combined with the perceived social disadvantage of the children as members of a 14-child family led by an unemployed, unmarried mother. I want to argue, however, that the intense media circus surrounding Octomom suggests that we, benefactors of the biomedical era, owners of our own bodies, who need merely pop a pill each day to prevent pregnancy and who can pull out a fetus and put it back in, whose obsession with identity grants us leave to do most of what we want with our bodies, have centered many of our anxieties surrounding the blurry divide between perfection and freakishness, human mastery and mystery, on the bugaboo of maternal hubris.

Yet how to explain the fact that most women who undergo IVF are not seen as hubristic cyborgs? In Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies [2005] Charis Thompson details the small everyday negotiations that are made to normalize ARTs in fertility clinics. She argues that not just babies but parenthood is constructed in the reproductive clinic, and that we exist in a new biomedical era which requires us to reconceptualize objectification, agency, and naturalness. Rather than seeing a sharp division between personhood and non-personhood, for either the fetus or mother, Thompson sees many forms of fetal personhood that operate in direct relation to the mother’s own expressions of agency:

The clinics deal on a daily basis with human gametes and embryos, which function in this clinical setting as questionable persons, potential persons, or elements in the creation of persons. Embryos, for example, can go from being a potential person (when they are part of the treatment process), to being in suspended animation (when they are frozen), to not being a potential person (when it has been decided that they will be discarded or donated to research), and even back again to being a potential person (when a couple has a change of heart and frozen embryos are defrosted for their own use or for embryo donation.

As in Casper’s narrative, the pregnant woman still comes to embody the potential life attributed to the embryos, but Thompson asserts that this ontological change contains not just objectification but agency and subject-formation—a dense choreography on whose merits Thompson makes no explicit judgments, though she herself used IVF to give birth to her daughter. Just as Elliott’s voluntary amputees objectify their own bodies to achieve a more authentic conception of themselves, women using ARTs allow the medical objectification of their bodies in order to assume the identity of motherhood.

Thompson traces how the work done in reproductive clinics naturalizes kinship and procreative intent, smokescreening patients’ exceptional agency in selecting gametes with certain characteristics or constructing non-normative, and previously impossible, bio-social family structures. Significantly, of course, IVF actually has a high failure rate, and many women often require three or four rounds before an embryo implants, though this fact doesn’t necessarily obscure the appearance of extraordinary control, as the ambivalent reactions to the NY Times story of the Twiblings recently demonstrated.

Because of the costs involved, many of those who use ARTs embody a certain socially desirable profile: white, heterosexual, partnered, middle to upper class. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, there was a shift in focus from childrens’ to parents’ reproductive rights, corresponding to a legal trend protecting privacy in the bedroom. Infertility has become pathologized so that some states now mandate that insurance companies cover a certain number of treatment cycles. What were once called artificial reproductive technologies, denoting enhancement, are now called assisted reproductive technologies, denoting aid and treatment. Finally, the language of genes has helped reconstruct kinship ties whose traditional linearity can sometimes be disrupted by ARTs. A mother who uses a daughter’s egg to give birth to her daughter’s sister can focus on genetic kinship rather than processual kinship. An Italian-American woman can invoke the idea that genes code for race and ethnicity to seek gametes that appear to represent a specific group identity.

All these factors contribute to the strategic naturalization of ARTs. When the biological facts of parenthood are underdetermined—for instance when a woman gestates a different woman’s egg—legal, medical, and familial conventions step in to naturalize kinship. In turn, biological entities, like genetics, are used to substantiate the social. In this biomedical process neither the natural nor the social is essentialized—elements of each work together and contribute to a recognizable process of “family building.”

The irony then is that a woman can achieve a great deal of agency by putting herself at the mercy of medicine so long as the desire and control that technology grants her to achieve an exceptional, nontraditional pregnancy in form or substance, is mediated, normalized, and  made invisible. And when other forces fail to naturalize an IVF procedure, abortion politics and its close companion, contemporary American religion, have a significant role to play in shaping public perception, as demonstrated by the Nkem Chukwu narrative.

Octomom incurred scathing public scorn and initiated a debate on the regulation of a reproductive technology that has been around for nearly three decades because Suleman made visible—literally embodied—the potential abnormality of ARTs and did nothing to mediate this abnormality through socio-naturalization or by deploying a supernatural discourse of God and miracles. Instead, Suleman’s story was told through the language of human “obsession,” “desire,” and “fixation.” As a result tabloids painted her as selfish and irresponsible, a drain on society’s resources, and the pregnancy as regrettable, the work of human hubris and misappropriated technology.

Ten years ago when Nkem Chukwu had her eight children there was no media storm; in fact the Chukwu octuplets were largely forgotten until Octomom. Nearly two years later, Octomom is still with us. An image of her very pregnant stomach photographed eight days before giving birth saturates the internet—in this photo both Suleman’s stomach and her face, which looks directly into the camera with a half-smile, are distinct and memorable. In October 2010 news sources began to report on the California trial of Suleman’s doctor for negligence. Paparazzi follow Suleman around and blogs speculate about post-pregnancy plastic surgery, the great symbol of American artificiality.

Childbearing in the US is tightly bound to narratives of self-sacrifice—whether it’s the mother who gives up drinking during pregnancy, her career to stay home, or her body to fetal surgery. And while we have reached a point where we endorse a normalized agency and right to parent that supports such sacrifices and naturalizes ARTs as treatments rather than enhancements, maternal self-interest must be mediated and muted, better off obscured than exposed.

Suleman was unusual in her use of reproductive technology to achieve an extraordinary birth, but she was also unusual because she made no effort to portray her pregnancy as natural, therapeutic, miraculous, or self-sacrificial. As a result she became an object of fascination, a much-photographed freakish symbol of hubristic enhancement. Yet the sudden public attention on the question of legal regulation of IVF thirty years after its American birth suggests that Suleman and her pathologized self-interest were also seen as potentially contagious. The border between extraordinary reproductive enhancement and typical treatment was a little too blurry. A fence had to be built, and the media have always been excellent fence-builders. They drew up plans and the easiest way to build it was to turn a woman into a cyborg.

Written by Kristen Loveland

January 25, 2011 at 11:06

Editing Ross Douthat

with 14 comments

by Luce

What is it about the New Year, or 2011, that reproduction is suddenly becoming the focus of such media scrutiny? Could it have anything to do with the coming into power of a militantly anti-choice Speaker?

Cultural sniffer Ross Douthat has also noticed this trend and decided to add his two cents in a recent Times column. Mostly it’s a yawn-fest whose point of view can be most quickly summed up by the fact that he refuses to call embryos and fetuses anything except the “unborn.” But he’s really doing his best to do a nuanced analysis of recent all the media representations of abortion ever and the adoption vs. surrogacy debate. I’ll hold back from line edits, but I thought I’d helpfully provide Douthat with some feedback on larger ideas that I think could use reworking.

1. The American entertainment industry has never been comfortable with the act of abortion.

Ross, the recent, sanitized, and mainstream American entertainment industry is not comfortable with abortion. But watch a Paul Mazursky film from the late ’70s, say the really wonderful An Unmarried Woman, and you’ll find the  15-year-old daughter casually talking to her mother about helping to pay for a classmate’s abortion while they set the dinner table together. Note that this is the only mention of abortion in the entire movie. There’s no hand-wringing, abortion just happens to be embedded in the everyday.

2. MTV being MTV, the special’s attitude was resolutely pro-choice. But it was a heartbreaking spectacle, whatever your perspective.

Is any media representation in the era of reality TV going to be anything but a “heartbreaking spectacle”? On the Real Housewives of New York being late for opening night at the Met is a “heartbreaking spectacle.” What network is going to air a woman self-assuredly and quietly going in for an abortion? In this case, and since you yourself say the American media is uncomfortable with abortion, should you really use a reality show as your only case study to show “how abortion can simultaneously seem like a moral wrong and the only possible solution”?

3. Last month there was Vanessa Grigoriadis’s provocative New York Magazine story “Waking Up From the Pill“…

Hang on, just a quick word choice suggestion even though I know I said I wouldn’t line edit, but “provocative” doesn’t seem to quite capture Grigoradis’s story. Let me know what you think of one of the following instead: sensationalistic, outlandish, insupportable.

4. In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason…Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom’s — which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless — have been cut short in utero instead.

Though you don’t cross all your t’s, I get your underlying contention that it’s a tragedy that all these young, poor, unmarried girls now have the option to terminate their pregnancies rather than gestate for 9 months so that a wealthier, older, better-positioned, married woman can take their baby off their hands, and that now these wealthier women are forced to actually pay those women who now have a legal choice to act as surrogates or supply eggs for their (re)productive labor. I don’t have any real suggestions on this one, I just thought you could make that more clear.

5. This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.

Wait, I’m confused. For something you want to find so concrete (“unborn life,” not “a mass of cells”), I’m surprised that you’re abstracting here so much. Which life? Whose life? Is this the unborn life of someone who desires a child, or the unborn life of someone who doesn’t? I think differentiating between the two might help resolve this paradox.

Written by Kristen Loveland

January 4, 2011 at 10:40

The Spirit of the Sixties?

leave a comment »

by Nemo

Over at the excellent U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Andrew Hartman has written a provocative post on the relationship between neo-liberalism and the “spirit of the 1960s.” Citing a number of recent theorists including Wendy Brown, Slavoj Žižek, and Walter Benn Michaels, Hartman argues that activists in the 1960s, with their demands for “public tolerance of things that were once intolerable, such as racial and sexual difference,” helped pave the way for “unfettered capitalism with a smiley face.”

The Spirit of the Sixties?

Through the cunning of history, Hartman argues, capital has learned to thrive off of movements that “many thought was formed as resistance to capitalism, or at least, as resistance to the symptoms of capitalism: imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.” From this perspective, it appears that one of the most significant–but historically neglected–legacies of the 1960s was the way it provided establishment institutions multicultural ploys to feign progressivism while reproducing inequality.

While I think there’s something to be said for this view, especially the way that corporations and universities undertook the bare minimum of action to address the many grievances launched against them, it also risks downplaying the period’s genuine radicalism.  As historian Jeremy Varon has observed, by the late 1960s activists tended to understand inequality as a total “system” perpetuated by the nation’s leading institutions: universities, corporations, and government each played a role in protecting the interests of patriarchy, racism, empire, and global capital.

Or is this the spirit of the Sixties? Or just an awesome hair day?

In this era, groups such as the Black Panthers, the New York Radical Women, and even Students for a Democratic Society (and its various offshoots) demanded much more than diversity programs and corporate restructuring. This explains why the United States government saw the period’s activists, particularly the Panthers, as a major threat, and did everything in its power to destroy them (often breaking the law in the process).

On his larger point, I think Hartman’s correct to highlight capitalism’s newfound love affair with a United Colors of Benetton style of “multiculturalism” in the post-1960s period. These corporate reforms came on the cheap and did nothing to address the intertwined tyrannies highlighted by the late New Left: economic inequity, male privilege, black ghettoization, and American militarism. Today, corporations and universities–key institutional reproducers of social inequality–make use of the language of diversity to present themselves as the protectors of egalitarianism and social mobility. The fact that they get away with doing so—I think—says much more about the power of the American establishment than it does with the goals of 1960s radicals like Martin Luther King Jr., Tom Hayden, or Shulamith Firestone.

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton: Harbingers of Neo-Liberalism?

While American institutions might have found ways to co-opt much of the period’s dissent, this should not detract from the real gains that the era’s activists have won, even when up against some of the most well-entrenched and well-funded opponents imaginable. In the face of massive hostility, sixties radicals played a major role in electing the first generation of black political officials since Reconstruction, transformed rape and abortion laws to give women more control over their own bodies, witnessed the rise of the gay liberation movement, and helped launch modern environmentalism. While never as successful as their conservative critics claimed, the era’s radicals also transformed the teaching of American history–making the stories of the poor, of people of color, and of women, for example, central to the discipline’s mission. If the period’s activists failed to stem the rising tide of economic inequality in this country, I think that says a lot less about them than it does with the power of their opponents.

Which brings me to the Tea Party.  Hartman concludes his post by asking whether he is “crazy” for sympathizing with Benn Michaels’ view that the Tea Party represents America’s only significant resistance to neo-liberalism (even if its members don’t realize it) because of its opposition to illegal immigration. Our own Wiz has already addressed many of Benn Michaels’ principal  arguments here.

As for me, I don’t think that Hartman’s crazy, but I do think that describing a movement largely composed of affluent and well-educated white people, who attack undocumented workers (one of neo-liberalism’s chief victims) and call for the elimination of an already pitiable welfare state somehow “anti-capitalist” wishful thinking at best. (Whether or not the Tea Party has some legitimate grievances is another point entirely.)

Resistance to neo-liberalism in action.

What does all this all mean for today? As Wiz noted in his critique of Benn Michaels,“one of the main effects of neoliberalism has been to create a global working class that is increasingly female and people of color. So any movement which seeks to empower this new working class has to take issues of gender, race, and sex seriously.” Creating alliances among opponents of neo-liberalism, while recognizing difference, it seems to me, remains crucial to any movement that aims to achieve social justice. This, perhaps, requires honoring the best of what the “spirit of the 1960s”–at least its radical side–has to offer.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 139 other followers