I recently started writing for the arts blog Bad at Sports that’s based in Chicago. My first article, “Watching Touch,” looks at the Atlanta-based Full Radius Dance, which is a physically-integrated dance company, meaning the dancers have a range of abilities. This article coincides with my more recent growing commitment to dance and movement-based performance work. These interests have created profound shifts in my dissertation work – it’s looking different every single week…
Current reading: Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics by Jenny Reardon.
Pardon my absence from posting in the past couple weeks – classes have been crazy and I’m currently working on a conference paper for the “Visualizing Disability” Panel at the Southeastern College Art Conference at SCAD in November (more posts to follow soon about the conference) that has been taking up major time. So, this post may be a bit all over the place.
Reardon’s book discusses the history of one particular project, the Human Genome Diversity Project, as a way to illuminate the debates that occurred, and still are occurring, about the use of genetics research in studying humans, human populations, and races. She lays out the issues of how race has been studied scientifically and how it relates, or doesn’t, to social discourses and constructions of race. She asks us to consider how race is defined in society and in genetics, and which differences become the ones with meaning in each discourse.
We also watched a video featuring James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s double helix, called “Pandora’s Box” in the series on DNA by PBS. In the video Watson describes his interests in studying genetics and a “new eugenics.” He claims that “If we don’t play God, who will?” The stakes for Watson are high. Statements of his about the intelligence of African Americans caused major controversy; not to mention the oft-forgotten fact that his son has a mental illness. An article in The Independent from 2007, “Fury at DNA Pioneer’s Theory: Africans Are Less Intelligent Than Westerners” describes Watson’s theory and the ensuing response to it. It quotes from Watson’s new book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science:
There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.
This is where Reardon’s book becomes necessary in order to contextualize Watson’s work in the history of genetic research. It is easy to dismiss Watson here; his comments are brash, but we need to know where they come from. However, are we supposed to entirely dismiss genetics as well? How can we position Watson in the landscape of genetics and scientific research; in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of an “ecology of practices”? Reardon also claims that we can’t necessarily sanctify or condemn science; so what are we to think of this research? (Reardon 7) Many geneticists, on the other hand, who proposed and worked on the Human Genome Diversity Project were considered anti-racist, though they too were criticized for propagating further racism. The use of race in science and genetics has been fraught and tricky for us to get “past.” Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a leading scientist in the Project, was an anti-racist, and so therefore argued that studying human “populations” instead of human “races” would work to undermine racism in society. He, however, believed that race still did exist on the genetic level and there were certain differences between groups – this he was criticized for. How is our genetic make-up, our material, responsible for our social position, our race, and all other factors that make us who we are? Does our internal code really determine all aspects of how we will be?
Genetic testing is a contentious issue for disability proponents. Questions about who has the right to live become apparent here: if a fetus is found to have genetic disorders, should it be terminated? What are the qualifications for human-ness? What do we consider a “good” human? Though Reardon’s book mainly addresses the issue of race in genetics research, these other questions are there all the same. Questions about expertise and who has the authority/right to constitute the human emerge. Reardon brings Michel Foucault’s writing on “power-knowledge” to the issue, which can be important for thinking about new eugenics and reproductive technologies. Reardon asks: What kind of human diversities matter? And to this I ask, who decides what matters and how? What is the particular criteria to arrive at a judgment?
Critical Art Ensemble, Cult of the New Eve, image found at http://www.artnet.com
Art collective Critical Art Ensemble explores many of these questions in projects of theirs including Flesh Machine (1997-8), Intelligent Sperm Online (1999), The Society for Reproductive Anachronisms (1999-2000), and Cult of the New Eve (1999-2000). These projects all point to the utopian attitude conferred on new biotechnologies, and ask how to respond to this attitude and technologies at our disposal. The language of these projects mimics the language used by geneticists, eugenics and new eugenics practitioners, and arguably public health scholars as well. In the statement for Cult of the New Eve, CAE writes:
We are entering an age in which the secrets of creation are not in the hands of God, nor are they at the blind mercy of Nature. We control our own destinies… Once and for all, we shall know that humankind is not spiritual – it is material.
What separates this language from Watson’s claims that we need to take responsibility into our own hands for human progress, is that CAE is using the configuration of a cult to expose the underlying utopian project of eugenics and new eugenics. CAE is calling for us to be critically aware of these projects. In their position paper for the project, they talk about science’s position as new religion and that “its power lies only in the particulars of knowledge production.” However, as we have learned through Foucault, this knowledge production can’t be divorced from the production of power. How is the relationship between science and religion similar to the way the relationship between genetics and anthropology played out in the Human Genome Diversity Project – with genetics as hierarchically higher than anthropology? Who is really working for the “public good” and what does that really mean? What are the differences between us that actually matter?
Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine – image found at http://greenmuseum.org
This past weekend I went to the zoo for its yearly Halloween event. The animals outside were not available for viewing, only some of the indoor exhibits. I went into one – The Swamp – and looked around for a bit. There was a section of the habitat that was dark, no lights on at all. I pressed my face up to the glass to see what was in there and it was a crocodile, facing me. I was so startled, but then realized its eyes were closed and sleeping. Others around me pressed up to the glass. More gathered. It suddenly felt strange to be standing in a crowd pressed up against glass to stare at a sleeping animal. I wondered if it was going to wake up and notice us, notice me; I became embarrassed.
This experience made me think about the cable channel TLC and its programming. It highlights anomalous and “special” bodies, including, but this is not a full list, “The Mermaid Girl,” “Tree Man,” “The Little Couple,” and “Little People, Big World” along with shows highlighting mental illness like “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” It is important to question the function of shows like this. Are they operating with a similar ethos to zoos? Exhibit them and hope that people will learn and begin to accept these creatures/people?
The shows featured on TLC do not stray far from the history of world exhibitions and freak shows. Timothy Mitchell in his article “The World as Exhibition” talks about the 19th century phenomenon of the world exhibition and its problematics. He quotes a member of the Congress of Orientalists as saying that the Congress wanted to display “natives of Oriental countries as illustrations of a paper” (Mitchell 1989, 218). This attitude, Mitchell argues, is due to the Western desire to make the world a picture: “The effect of such spectacles was to set the world up as a picture. They arranged it before an audience as an object on display – to be viewed, investigated, and experienced” (Mitchell 1989, 220). Tony Bennett also argues in The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (1995) that the world exhibitions sought to render “the whole world metonymically present” (84).
However, these discussions of the world exhibitions exist in critiques of colonialism, being that those peoples put on display were generally those from countries travelled to an conquered. However, we can also see this kind of spectacle as played out in the parallel history of the freakshow, the circus tent that became excluded from world exhibitions. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson‘s edited volume Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (1996) presents and discusses this history to the reader.
I wonder: how do these shows on TLC relate to the world exhibition and the freak show? By making anomalous bodies a picture for us to watch on the screen, what does this do to our understanding of such bodies? TLC once meant “The Learning Channel,” so what are we learning in watching these shows? Many of the people who appear on the shows claim that they are glad to tell their story and let people know about them; that they are not freaks. However, does the spectacle of TLC allow these people and their bodies to be presented as anything other than pure spectacle for our entertainment pleasures? Can these shows properly educate? Or, do they solidify boundaries of difference, furthering enhancing ideas of the normative body?
I’ve found a few interesting lectures coming up as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival on art and the body in some form or another. One is on Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp – a painting that I have been interested in and have read on – to check this one out click here. Another is called “Beauty and Variation” and is about the body’s various manifestations and experiences because of them – to check this one out click here. Another is on the changing representations of the body in art, specifically focusing in this lecture on drawing – to check this one out click here.
There is also a panel discussion on Hollywood representations of disability – another area that I have been researching – to check this one out click here.
I’m also excited about the performance GIMP that brings together “a troupe of dancers with an array of bodies, abilities, and disabilities.” To check this one out click here.
Most of these events are either free (especially for students!) or have a small fee. Sign up for these great events!
painting by Riva Lehrer
an excerpt from Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance) by Stephane Mallarmé – to read the entire poem visit this link – it has Mallarmé’s introduction and English translations.
de la mémorable crise
où se fût
l’événement accompli en vue de tout résultat nul
N’AURA EU LIEU
une élévation ordinaire verse l’absence
QUE LE LIEU
inférieur clapotis quelconque comme pour disperser l’acte vide
abruptement qui sinon
par son mensonge
dans ces parages
en quoi toute réalité se dissout
aussi loin qu’un endroit fusionne avec au-delà
quant à lui signalé
selon telle obliquité par telle déclivité
ce doit être
le Septentrion aussi Nord
froide d’oubli et de désuétude
sur quelque surface vacante et supérieure
le heurt successif
d’un compte total en formation
brillant et méditant
avant de s’arrêter
à quelque point dernier qui le sacre
Toute pensée émet un Coup de Dés
in English – condensed:
NOTHING of the memorable crisis where the event matured, accomplished in sight of all non-existent human outcomes, WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE a commonplace elevation pours out absence BUT THE PLACE some lapping below, as if to scatter the empty act abruptly, that otherwise by its falsity would have plumbed perdition, in this region of waves, in which all reality dissolves
EXCEPT at the altitude PERHAPS, as far as a place fuses with, beyond, outside the interest signalled regarding it, in general, in accord with such obliquity, through such declination of fire, towards what must be the Wain also North A CONSTELLATION cold with neglect and desuetude, not so much though that it fails to enumerate, on some vacant and superior surface, the consecutive clash, sidereally, of a final account in formation, attending, doubting, rolling, shining and meditating before stopping at some last point that crowns it All Thought expresses a Throw of the Dice
I ask, how can we read this poem in light of the body and its vulnerability to chance? Disability can happen at any moment. Accidents happen. The body, because of an exposure to a virus, can turn on itself and produce autoantibodies – antibodies that attack the self rather than a pathogen. Are we ever in complete control of our own bodies, or are they, and we, just subjects to chance?