The Sociology of the Body: Mapping the Abstraction of Embodiment


Kate Cregan

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    Dr Kate Cregan is an Australian Research Council postdoctoral research fellow in the Globalism Institute, RMIT University. She has also been an Honorary Research Associate of the Department of Politics, Monash University during the writing of this book.

    She is currently completing a three-year research project on the social impact – from the local to the global – of embryonic stem cell technology at the Globalism Institute. All her research is concerned with social ethics and embodiment, most particularly in relation to the history and philosophy of medicine. Her writing ranges from studies of anatomy and criminality in seventeenth-century London, to the bio-medical trade in human tissues, to the commemoration of non-combatants killed in violent conflict. She is particularly interested in the variation in understandings of embodiment across time, space and culture.


    First I would like to acknowledge and thank Chris Rojek, both for commissioning this book and for his ongoing support of its publication. I would also like to thank Sage assistant editors, Kay Bridger and Mila Steele, and assistant rights manager Huw Alexander, whose efficiency and helpfulness have been greatly appreciated, and the anonymous reader whose kind words and expert criticism I accept with gratitude.

    Next I should like to express my gratitude for the institutional support I received. I must thank Monash University, where I was working on a postdoctoral fellowship when I began writing this book. In particular I would like to thank Dennis Woodward of the Department of Politics, for his thorough-going decency and generosity of spirit, and Denise Cuthbert, for her encouragement and friendship over many years. Second, my thanks must go to the Australian Research Council for granting me the research fellowship during which most of this book was written. More importantly, I would like to thank my friends and colleagues at the Globalism Institute – Damian Grenfell, Paul James, Martin Mulligan, Yaso Nadarajah, Tom Nairn, Peter Phipps, Leanne Reinke, Chris Scanlon and Christopher Ziguras – for creating the most collegially supportive and intellectually stimulating working environment I have known. I thank them particularly for their support in the difficult final stages of writing this book. I also extend my sincere thanks to Helen Hickey and Anna Trembath for providing invaluable administrative support and expert research assistance as the final manuscript took shape.

    At a more personal level, I would like to thank Christopher Scanlon for his irrepressible sense of humour and for proofing the final manuscript at short notice. I also thank Alan Roberts for his moral support and a kindly ear on many a dog-walk. I am always thankful for my son, Camille Robinson, but in this case I thank him most of all for his appreciation of the fine line between tragedy and farce, and his keen sense of the absurd. During the writing of this book I turned on my computer one morning … and it didn't. Forty thousand words of this book and as many again of other writing were lost. And we laughed.

    Finally, my sincerest thanks go to Paul James, Stephanie Trigg and Joel Trigg for their kindness, their generosity, their love of music, and for lending me a quiet space when I needed it most. My deepest thanks go to Paul, without whose sustained friendship and support this book would not have been written.

  • Conclusion

    I began this book by outlining the argument that the abstraction of embodiment is part of a wider complex of abstraction that operates at multiple levels within and across social formations. Embodiment is experienced differently across history, across social formations and across cultures. As the dominance of a social formation shifts over time, the quality and understanding of embodiment shift as well, though never evenly or uniformly. Through the close reading of the arguments of the authors dealt with in this book, we can see in their work the plotting of some of those shifts. We can also see evidence of how the body has been viewed within given cultures and how those views correspond with four types of social formation: tribal, traditional, modern and postmodern. Further, by taking a range of theorists whose personal chronologies span the twentieth century – and the shift from modernity to postmodernity – we can also discern in the ways they express their arguments and formulate their theories the effects of the social formations in which these writers are themselves immersed.

    Traditional to Modern Bodies

    Most of the writers of Part I deal with the body within the history of Western European culture and thereby show us how embodiment has shifted in meaning between traditional and modern social formations across a group of historically interrelated cultures. Dualism – an intensification in the abstraction of the body – is the fulcrum upon which that shift turns. To expand, as we saw in Chapter 1, Elias plots a shift in the perception and construction of embodiment over a period spanning approximately 600 years, through the evolution in social techniques of bodily control (manners). Using the writings of Erasmus as empirical evidence, Elias describes the abstraction of embodiment through behaviour and manners – outwardly stated, pedagogically purveyed rules on social management and self-control. In doing so, he shows the effects on the body of the slow and uneven movement from traditional to modern societies in Western Europe. Elias's preoccupation with manners is in some measure at least shaped by a close knowledge of the social impact of the Great War and the subsequent social unease that forced him to flee to England, which is barely implicit in his long discursion on the formalisation of ideas of culture and civilisation in his homeland.

    Ariès writes of a similar period and uncovers the same shift but through a different medium of bodily understanding. He describes another process of the abstraction of embodiment, through the gradual partition of the progress through life into a series of increasingly demarcated lifestages, and in particular the invention of childhood as a separate category of embodied being. In different ways, both Elias and Ariès showed in their later work that the fundamentally embodied experience of death, and the way both individuals and societies mark it, has also become increasingly abstracted across time, from traditional to modern to late-modern societies. Foucault describes in detail the abstraction of embodiment consequent to the slow acceptance of dualism – a quintessentially ‘modern’ concept – and shows in detail the multiple ways in which that took effect across time and across epistemes (Chapter 2). He too looks to bodily self-control as the mechanism by which this is effected through a range of ‘authorised’ mechanisms – medical, judicial, religious, psychological, etc. – that cut across classes. These mechanisms of diffuse power, unlike Elias's courtesy manuals and Aries's educational tracts, don't work through stated rules but via slow-moving, implicit acceptance of the validity of knowledge systems and the internalistion of their regimens. In this, even though what he describes so effectively is the shift to modernity, like Elias's implicit preoccupation with the rise of fascism, Foucault's approach is shaped by the effects of the late modernity of which he was a part, and the general rejection of ‘the Establishment’ that exploded in the academies in which he worked in the 1960s.

    Tribal and Modern Bodies

    Bourdieu, by contrast, does not deal with history. He writes in a present moment, even if we can now look to his work and see detailed snapshots that capture tribal and late-modern societies in all their messy ‘reality’.

    He describes the abstraction of embodiment through the detailed tracking of social facts and the social regulation of selves, using his theorisations of habitus, hexis and ‘fields of play’ (Chapter 3). Amongst the Kabyle he shows the complex embodied relations in a tribal community, and in his study of the residents of 1960s Paris he gives us a ‘slice’ of the experience of embodiment across social classes in a particular expression of modernity. In doing so, he doesn't uncover a shift, but he does give us a comparison of two social formations that elucidate different levels of embodied abstraction between the tribal and the modern.

    Similarly, Mary Douglas (Chapter 4) shows how a range of tribal groups experience their bodies, their bodily fluids and their bodily habits. Further, she gives many examples that in their expression differ from Western bodily norms, and yet finds in both tribal and modern societies correspondences in the power vested in bodies that cross borders and boundaries. The bodily preoccupations of a range of tribal peoples is explicitly contrasted with experiences of the kinship groups in 1960s London (the Bog Irish), who still retain vestiges of traditional social customs even though they live in the thick of modern industrialised urban communities. We have seen that Douglas conflates the very important differences between these groups herself, but her work shows how bodily boundary-crossing can be understood as another pivotal point upon which embodied abstraction turns, whether in tribal or modern (and by extension traditional or postmodern) social formations.

    Modern to Postmodern Bodies

    The remaining writers I have dealt with in detail either experienced the influx of poststructuralism, or had it as their formational experience, within their academic careers. As such, we can see in their work a rejection of modernist assumptions about and stereotypes of embodiment, and an embracing of indeterminacy, plurality and difference. When we come to the writers who were the concern of Chapters 5, 6 and 7, we enter into a ‘history of the present’. Each of them has learned from Foucault and each in their way is trying to explain a shift – from modernity to late- or postmodernity – from the inside. As I noted towards the end of Chapter 7, whether this is in fact an epistemic shift only the benefit of hindsight will show. However, what is clear is that in foregrounding their allegiance to, or distance from, postmodern theory, they are in fact active participants in the ‘invention’ of postmodern embodiment. In Chapters 5, 6 and 7 the connection between the social formation and the level of abstract theorisation is much more explicit and I spent a good deal of time detailing the poststructuralist and postmodern theorisations of embodiment therein. Consequently there is less need to rehearse the fractured and in some cases intensely abstracted postmodern embodiment that results: from the work of Butler, in her writing on performa-tivity; from Kristeva, in her evocation of abjection; from Haraway, in her formulation of transcendent cyborgs; and, from Bordo's finely textured studies of the social construction of gender.

    I have been using each of the moments of abstraction from these writers to build an idea of the history of bodily abstraction, not just in sociology and anthropology but in theory in general to the moment. I want to use that as a platform to argue that as a group they do open the way to understanding the changing nature of embodiment across time and space, that each of the theorists has something to offer, but what each of them offers us is not enough on its own. I want to conclude the book by taking a brief case study to both ‘flesh out’ and challenge the theories we have looked at, through the effect on embodiment of embryonic stem cell technology. It offers a complex case for future directions on understanding embodiment. I shall use these writers' work as a departure point for looking at embodiment in all its temporal and spatial complexity. I would argue that it is imperative we find ways to accommodate instead of flattening out what already exists, even if in tension: different understandings of embodiment within and across social formations.

    Abstracted Embodiment in Global Context

    In Chapter 6 we saw that several writers see great potential in reproductive technologies for the future of embodiment and the future of social formations. For them, it variously offers a more open notion of kinship, that escapes middle-class, heterosexist norms; a way out of being confined to ideas of womanhood that are ingrained with ideas of stereotypical associations with feminine nature and inevitable motherhood; and, a productive metaphor for re-imagining embodiment. Even if we accept the defence that this is not meant to imply a total transcendence of the limits of embodied matter – if not embodiment itself – I have already stated my reservations with regard to the cultural specificity of such arguments. I want to use the following case study to bring out how that construction of modern/postmodern embodiment takes part in a broader globalisation of that (technoscientific) understanding of embodiment, which is in active tension with and in the process of overlaying those of other social formations. Further, in the face of this intense abstraction of social relations and the technologies of human embodiment, the writings of the authors canvassed throughout this book either become empirically descriptive or are left behind. For example, Bourdieu's approach, with its emphasis on ‘interest’, no longer has sufficient purchase on the radical restructuring of the whole nature of bodily hexis, even if we can clearly see that some of the scientists are involved in processes of cultural capital accumulation. And while they could do so accurately, the approaches of Elias and Ariès are rendered impotent, able only to account for these processes by describing how they are yet another step in the medical rationalisation of life and death.

    In the developed world, seemingly daily there is a new medical proposal that pushes these technologies past their initial application – a means to enable infertile women to conceive in an era when adoption was becoming increasingly rare – and further into the realms of ‘choice’. The benign appellation ‘assisted reproduction’ makes claims to a benevolence and altruism that is frequently constrained (and devoid of reciprocity) in the application of these technologies. This is particularly so when feel-good terminology masks the prevention of bringing into being certain ‘classes’ of humans (through pre-implantation diagnostic screening), or the exploitation of certain groups of women. However, I want to take the last of the three positive claims outlined above – that reproductive technologies offer a way of reconceiving embodiment as a whole – and look a little more closely at how one reproductive technology, embryonic stem cell technology, is both affecting understandings of embodiment and how that may play out in practice beyond the cultures of the developed (Western) world.

    Recent events at the United Nations in New York suggest that ethicist Donna Dickenson's (2002) concerns were well-founded, that women in undeveloped countries are in danger of exploitation as ‘egg-farms’ to supply therapeutic cloning research for the treatment of the diseases of the developed world. There is a strong possibility that embryonic stem cell technology will create a global and potentially lucrative market in human ova. Even without addressing either the basic ethics of the technology or the overstated claims of its prospective benefits (Cregan and James 2002), this is an unpalatable prospect. As Elias and Ariès would recognise, it entails the rationalisation and commodification of embodiment, in both the developed and the undeveloped world.

    On 2 June 2004 scientists and lobbyists from around the world organised a ‘conference’ in New York on ‘Human Cloning Issues in All Its Aspects for the United Nations’ and made representations to delegates at the General Assembly defending therapeutic cloning. They did so because on 9 December 2003 the Sixth (Legal) Committee of the UN deliberated on what has become known as the ‘Costa Rican Proposal’. This proposal sought to ban all forms of cloning. Further debate and voting were deferred until October 2004, when deliberations were again deferred until 18 February 2005, at which time the Committee voted to recommend a worldwide ban of both reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The vote was 71 in favour of the ban, 35 against, with 43 abstentions. The majority of the abstentions were from Muslim countries who made it clear through their spokesperson (the Turkish delegate) that they would not vote on a motion for which there was no broad consensus. This was after strong lobbying of Muslim states, at a conference in Cairo hosted by the WHO and supported by UNESCO, to endorse therapeutic cloning. A series of delegates, all of whom represented countries that have substantial research and development underway in the technology – including the UK, South Korea, China, Belgium, Singapore and Japan – rounded out the session by affirming their vote in the negative, insisting on the non-binding nature of the declaration (A/C.6/59/L.27) and stating their intention to pursue therapeutic cloning research under the guidance of the ethics bodies and laws of each of their sovereign states. They did so on the grounds of plurality: cultural, ethical and religious difference.

    We can see in the statements made by the delegates the conscious deployment of arguments from cultural relativism that poststructuralist, postcolonial and postmodern theorists like Butler and Haraway (quite rightly) propound. However, there is something slightly odd in arguing from cultural relativism – a strategy usually employed to support the claims of marginalised groups – to support what is a dominant mode of production: technoscience. Our purpose here, however, is to look at the material affects of those countries' pursuit of this technology on embodiment across social formations. To that end I will first explain in some detail the issues at stake in the declaration before offering a broader analysis of the impact on embodiment. While much of the reporting of the debate has cast it in terms of an opposition between science and religion – reason and faith – I shall concentrate instead on the potential social effects that are based in a cross-cultural and social ethical critique.

    This ‘conference’ on human cloning had been organised in an attempt to sway opinion amongst UN delegates to ban reproductive cloning but allow therapeutic cloning. To take three examples of the current practice in regard to therapeutic cloning, the UK allows therapeutic cloning under licence within their laws and under local ethical guidelines; in Australia there was a two-year moratorium after which donated ‘excess’ IVF embryos could be used for research; and, in the USA lucrative federal funding cannot be expended on it but private funding can be used to support it wherever state law allows. Why then should these scientists and lobbyists be so concerned about the UN's deliberations, when most of them come from countries that one would think could easily decline to abide by such a declaration? Indeed, as they formalised their dissenting votes and expressed their ‘regret’ at the vote against therapeutic cloning, those with the most to lose made clear that in a pluralistic world where each country should be able to pursue such research as they see fit, they would continue with their research. Certainly, had the declaration been a treaty, as originally proposed, a ban would have complicated privately funded research if the US had been a signatory – a highly likely outcome under President Bush – but then that research could simply have gone ‘offshore’ as much contentious research already does. The most likely answer appears (ironically) to be twinned: funding and access to eggs. A brief explanation of the processes involved helps to clarify why neither one of these answers can be taken on its own.

    Undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells were successfully isolated in 1998, taking the first step in the control of life-formation. For the following two years, researchers were busily employed trying to culture significant banks of the cells and to control the restarting of the developmental process. This is part of the second step necessary for therapeutic practice: being able to control the forming of specific cell types (nerve, muscle, blood). Mary Douglas could indeed describe embryonic stem cells as boundary-crossing human matter – both sacred and dangerous – for they are the basic building blocks of the human body, which at this early stage of development have the potential to differentiate into any cell type. Some of the embryonic stem cell researchers around the world have had a measure of success in differentiating cells in some of their lines. However, despite repeated positive claims in the media that often conflate the outcomes of adult and embryonic stem cell research, there are many steps before this biotechnology could even possibly be applicable in practice, and many question marks over whether any of it will ever be useful in direct therapeutic applications.

    Having been grown on mouse tissue, virtually all the current cell lines in the world are unsuitable for implantation. Their potential for rejection in a person's body is no different from a whole organ xenotransplant (animal-to-human transplant). This also implies the further concerns of any xenotransplant: namely, that it may introduce cross-species diseases into recipients. Further, even if embryonic stem cells are successfully mass grown on human foetal or fallopian tissue – as has been claimed to have been done in Singapore (Far Eastern Economic Review, 15 November 2001) – they would induce rejection, even with close tissue-typing, like any human-to-human transplant.

    One possible further leap that is currently proposed as a way of overcoming that particular hurdle is therapeutic cloning. Despite the humanitarian reclassification of its name and purpose, this is human cloning, pure and simple – a fact that has led many researchers to now prefer to call the process ‘somatic cell nuclear transfer’ to avoid any association with cloning. However, the only difference is that it does not progress to implanting the cells into the uterus of a human female, and therefore stops short of forming a cloned foetus. Therapeutic cloning involves removing the nucleus of an egg, fusing the nucleus of a somatic (body) cell from a person requiring treatment with the enucleated egg, and restarting the resulting embryo along its developmental process. Once the cloned embryo has developed to a stage at which stem cells could be removed, embryonic stem cells would be ‘harvested’ from it and differentiated to form the specific tissue required: supposedly, pancreatic cells for diabetes, nerve cells for Parkinson's, heart cells for cardiac disease. The problems inherent, even in medical theory, are serious – the possibility of the implanted cells spontaneously mutating and forming tumours being just one issue – and as debate around the world has shown, the ethics are fraught. Indeed, the debates polarise around religious and utilitarian arguments, at both ends of which we can see Kristeva's notion of the abject – human matter that is revered and reviled.

    To be used as a direct therapy, therapeutic cloning would require massive harvesting of human eggs, raising the question of who would be most likely to donate and why. Poor women, quite possibly from countries with less stringent (or no) legal prohibition against such exploitation, would be the most likely candidates (Dickenson 2002). As even Haraway would recognise (as she did in relation to the bottle-feeding of infants in undeveloped countries), on an immediate, pragmatic level therapeutic cloning could lead to the rank commercialisation and exploitation of women, most probably poor women from undeveloped countries, to provide the raw materials for the treatment of diseases of the developed world. It could lead to a global trade in human eggs. This was one of the strongest arguments used in favour of banning in the debates at the UN.

    Indeed, these processes are already subject to international interests and globalising influences. Researchers around the world want access to American dollars from the lucrative National Institute of Health funds, and to enhance their chances of doing so, they tailor their research to the standards that the NIH has set. International research partnerships can motivate researchers to lend their support in lobbying each other's governments when regulatory legislation is proposed – or in this case the UN. There is the impetus of ensuring that research is not hindered, and (seemingly) contradictorily concerns, expressed as feigned nationalism, that if this technology is not allowed to proceed unfettered, we will somehow lose our ‘competitive edge’ or ‘market advantage’, and that research will go offshore. Complex patent licensing agreements between international research partners rule the distribution of the financial outcomes of this research far more than regional legislation. This biotechnology is thus part of a global-economic rationalising of life.

    Partly in reaction to the unpalatable nature of these possibilities, and to the practical problem of ‘harvesting’ what would have to amount to millions of eggs to treat the most commonly invoked diseases like Parkinson's, a further possibility has been raised: fusing the nucleus of an adult cell with an enucleated undifferentiated embryonic stem cell (The Australian, 8 June 2002, p. 3). That is, reversing the adult cell from its stable state of development and restarting it again as a stem cell of the tissue that the client desired. This, supposedly, overcomes the ethical and practical problems of using donor eggs, and coincidentally would not be covered by any legislation banning therapeutic cloning. Here we run up against a problem that is inherent in all the possibilities we have outlined so far. Whether in an enucleated embryonic stem cell or an enucleated donor egg, not all the DNA in the cell is removed. Mitochondria, the ‘energy packs’ in every cell, carry DNA. Even if the DNA from the cell of the person who is ill is compatible, as has been pointed out,1 the mito-chondrial DNA of the embryonic stem cells, or the donor egg into which it is introduced, will most likely produce a rejection problem in itself. Finally, it seems that fusion technology would still be dependent at least to some degree on research into the molecular biology of therapeutic cloning to be successful.

    And we know very well, with the pressure to recoup research and development funding, those in the poorer sections of the developed world and the vast majority of those in the undeveloped world will not have access to any of this technology, if it ever finds a viable application. A long history of pharmaceutical conglomerates withholding generic therapies and dumping unsafe drugs on third world markets has taught us that much.

    So who were the lobbyists assembled in New York to ensure the banning of reproductive cloning and avert a worldwide ban on therapeutic cloning? The leading scientists included the creator of Dolly, Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute, the now disgraced Dr Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University who claimed he had ‘created’ the first documented therapeutic clone, and Prof. Alan Trounson of Monash University, who derived one of the earliest embryonic stem cell lines with colleagues at the National University of Singapore, including Prof. Ariff Bongso. This ‘conference’ was co-sponsored by the UN Asian Group of Legal Experts Meeting and organised by the Genetics Policy Institute. According to their press release, the Genetics Policy Institute is

    a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing human reproductive cloning and advocating the responsible use of therapeutic cloning research. We encourage funding and support for stem cell research and sponsor international projects and educational programs relating to the law and regulation of reproductive cloning, therapeutic cloning (SCNT) and stem cell research. GPI serves as a gateway to the public, media and key decision-makers regarding those issues. GPI is a sponsored project of the National Heritage Foundation, a federally recognized 501(c)(3) non-profit, tax-exempt organization. (

    In other words, it is a lobby group in favour of embyronic stem cell technology research. Further, this conference was ‘endorsed’ by medical research institutes with vested interests and well-known individuals hoping to have their personal suffering relieved by the products of such research, including the late Christopher Reeve. Not so much a ‘grassroots’ initiative as Astroturf. Not surprisingly these same lobbyists, using just the kinds of publicity and marketing tactics that Bordo has shown are at work in the cultural production of body image, have been prominent in debates on embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning in the UK, Australia and the USA, with variable success.

    One can begin to see why the possibility of global sanctions on therapeutic cloning becomes important. Research is global. It currently flourishes in the gaps between national legislation. Any international ban that might attract sanctions would threaten that. With respect to access to eggs, even if countries decline to observe the declaration, their ability to work within those legal gaps and access the eggs from women in undeveloped countries could be severely restricted if the USA chose to use the power of its trade and aid. Which is why I say that Donna Dickenson's concerns were well-founded: this round of lobbying at the UN was at least in part motivated by a desire to leave open the possibility of researchers gaining access to women's ova across and around the world. Evidence from interviews suggests that there is a history of researchers carrying embryonic material across national borders and through customs in their suitcases. In other words, human material extracted and developed under one legal regime was being transferred to the West, where the legal restrictions were clearer. What we are seeing now is a coming out, as it were, a direct argument for globalising the movement of abstracted human body parts.

    To go ahead with therapeutic cloning for direct clinical applications a massive pool of eggs would be required. Many developed countries that are inclined to ban human cloning, but leave open the possibility of therapeutic cloning, would be highly unlikely to be able to service the need for eggs from those that are surplus to IVF treatments in their own countries. Which leaves us with the question, where would the eggs come from? People already sell their eggs in the US for surrogacy or IVF. Though this may not be the means which Butler may herself favour, these are the conditions of possibility by which a rewriting of the normative nuclear family are already underway. However, these are not the eggs that scientists will want to buy, they would be far too costly for the numbers required. Therapeutic cloning, even if only to facilitate further research into ‘fusion’, would need a steady supply of cheap eggs. Women in developing countries well-provided with IVF clinics and trained staff – China and Romania spring to mind – seem a logical source of ‘donors’. The prospective practical effects on those women would appear to be little different from those on the poor of the developing world who are drawn into selling their kidneys. There are comparable health risks, that poor people are far less likely to be able to cope with – after-effects that in a well-nourished, healthy woman are bad enough but would be massively stressful on an undernourished poor woman. It involves intrusive procedures to ‘harvest’ the eggs and having to be injected daily in order to hyper-ovulate for that purpose. Given that the AIDS crises in both Africa and China have shown there is little hope of ensuring the nonreuse of needles in situations of poverty, it seems inevitable that there could also be a whole raft of possible flow-on problems. Women would be likely to undergo procedures they do not need, that are of transient benefit to them at best, to satisfy the desires and diseases of the developed world.

    Within this brief discussion of the potential effects of one reproductive technology that may or may not become a major therapy in time, we begin to see ways of applying each of the theories or approaches canvassed in this book. Between the postmodern medical epistemic approach to embodiment and in religious arguments against cloning from the ‘sanctity of life’ – a highly contentious source of opposition that informed the UN debates – we see a view of embodiment that is still informed by the vestiges of a traditional understanding of being, one informed by religious dogma that have shifted only marginally since early modern times. This is the same kind of tension we saw in Mary Douglas's work on the Bog Irish – where the symbolic meaning of eating fish on Friday persists, even when the Church no longer insists on it. We see an extension of the kinds of power dynamics that Emily Martin found in obstetrics wards. In the whole narrative we see the practical effects at a global level of the technologies in which Donna Haraway finds such transcendent possibilities. If we look to the historical and cultural antecedents to the medico-technical approach to the human body implicit in this narrative, in the spirit of our first three authors – Elias, Ariès but most appropriately Foucault – we will see both the culmination of a long, slow series of shifts in medical theory and also a tension between understandings of embodiment informed by different social formations. In the concentration on the particularised human matter at stake, we can see a bearing out of Elias's concerns in his later work on the dying, that bodily organs are increasingly seen as capable of functioning autonomously, or at least as replaceable, interchangeable items. Foucault could give a detailed description of the institutionalised control of the discursive construction of embryonic stem cells within the rhetoric of the scientists who work upon them. I want to take things a little further, however, and set this understanding of embodiment within a global, temporal and spatial matrix of abstracted embodiment.

    The process of medically abstracting the body is not a new phenomenon, and in a crucial sense it was a logical correlate of developing what we now call ‘medical knowledge’. Even going back to period of Hippocrates and to the ancient Egyptians, it is possible to generalise that this involved three intersecting processes: first, recording and later systematising patterns of symptoms and responses (codifying the body); second, cutting into, dismembering and later mechanically peering into actual bodies (anatomising the body); and third, rendering images of body parts and body systems in a way that made social and technical sense of them (imaging the body). However, it was not until late modernity that the processes of codifying, anatomising and imaging the body came together as a rationalised system that completely dominated medical knowledge.

    Across history it is possible to identify a number of shifts in this threefold process. The rationalising systems of ‘medical knowledge’ have metamorphosed from traditional natural philosophies, into the early-modern natural sciences, into the late-modern technologies of the body. Visual perception and representation, whether trusted or reviled, have been central to each of these paradigms of enquiry. Natural philosophies prioritised philosophical heritage over the evidence of the ‘fallible senses’; natural sciences reversed that balance with empirical observation and deductive reasoning taking precedence over ‘disputable dogma’. With the rise of technoscience the empirical observations of the scientist are rapidly losing ground to a reliance on technological infallibility. Machines that observe more perfectly in ghostly images are replacing the ‘ghost in the machine’. Technological developments in the twentieth century, beginning with the x-ray, created diagnostic images of internal structures and processes from the living body. These examples culminate and converge in the technology of cyber-surgery, bringing together our threefold and intersecting process of medical abstraction. The cyber-surgeon, trained in codified knowledge, sits cocooned within a video console reminiscent of a flight simulator, physically separated from the anatomised patient-body that is surrounded by robotic arms fed by human assistants. The surgeon armed with the imaged foreknowledge afforded him or her by ultrasound or MRI, concentrates on magnified digitalised representations of the patient-body relayed from a video-microscope as s/he operates by remote control. The creation of embryonic stem cells is similarly abstracted. We lose sight of the woman undergoing IVF, the repeated intrusion into her body – see Susan Bordo on the eliding of women's personhood – and also of the wider social consequences.

    As technological systems become more sophisticated, physical systems become devalued and distrusted. With the increasing technologisation of medicine, doctors have been overriding the learning and honing of their powers of deduction in favour of the diagnostic capacities of machines. Take pregnancy and childbirth as an example: in the eighteenth century pregnancy ‘was a period of uncertainty that would not become a fact until the woman had given birth to a child’.2 The physical experience of ‘quickening’, at around five months, was the predominant marker of ‘being with child’. And the possibility that neither would survive the ‘grim lottery of the child-bed’ was an acknowledged fact. Today, amnio-centesis, ultrasound, induction, caesarian section, epidural anaesthesia, forceps delivery, episiotomy, foetal monitoring – which were until relatively recently emergency interventions – have all become, more or less, part of the ‘normal’ pregnancy and birthing experience in the West. Foetal paediatrics, and its partner discipline, foetal surgery, have emerged as new specialities. Drug-free or low-dose labour, midwife controlled and/or home-births are considered ‘dangerous’ by most doctors or, at best, lifestyle options. The natural and biological have become pathological. At its most extreme, IVF, the bulk of which is performed on and in the female body, can be proposed as the best remedy to male infertility; or the ultimate in reproductive empowerment for women.

    But which women, and what does it mean for reconstituting the nature of human embodiment? Therapeutic cloning – treating human embryos as abstracted disembodied matter – is inextricable from the processes of IVF. It has arisen as a direct result of the research into assisted reproduction and it will depend on exactly the same techniques of hyper-ovulation, egg extraction and in vitro fertilisation. In this medical technology we can see the shift that Butler and Haraway argue for, a postmodern body that is capable of being re-visioned outside and beyond earlier forms of embodiment. But more importantly, in a spirit more in sympathy with Bordo, we see in its reliance on a global trade in body matter a concrete example of the inapplicability of such arguments outside the culture with the power of signification. The needs, wants and desires of postmodern social formations are satisfied: and it is the tribal, traditional or modern body that is the most likely to supply the raw materials.

    In taking so much on trust in technoscience, theorists of the postmodern body like Donna Haraway may not lose sight of, but radically underestimate the social consequences and the speed of, technoscientific advances. In doing so, they may minimise the potential social effects of technologies for those who are not members of the dominant social formations who hold controlling interests in them. The cyborg has much to say that is valid in relation to dominant Western cultures, but it is a universalising creature that has the potential to embed social exclusion and intercultural exploitation. If, instead, we take what is useful from each of the writers covered throughout this book and appreciate how they deal with specific instances of what is a much greater interplay of ways of understanding embodied being, we have a way of beginning to appreciate the body in all its social complexities, across time, across space and across social formations.3


    1 Dr Perry Bartlett, Head of Development and Neurobiology, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research confirmed this was most likely the case when asked by Nicolas Tonti-Filippini in question time at ‘Cloning and Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Does Australia need a Moratorium?’, Dean's Lecture Series, University of Melbourne, 26 July 2002.

    2 Barbara Duden (1999: 16).

    3 This will be the subject of my next book, to be co-authored with Paul James.


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