Ph.D. Octopus

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

Archive for the ‘abortion’ Category

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

In Praise of Objective Scholarship

with 13 comments

by Weiner

Taking a little study break yesterday, I leafed through a discarded edition of the New York Post, sifting through stories about The Jersey Shore castmembers going “back” to Italy and Donald Trump potentially buying Tavern on the Green when I stumbled upon this headline: “‘Anti-Israel’ prof canned.” The editors should probably have put quotation marks around the word “prof” as well, since, as the story notes, the teacher in question, Kristofer Petersen-Overton (pictured here), is not a professor but a doctoral student at CUNY Graduate Center. He was fired from a course he was teaching at Brooklyn College on Middle East politics.

Exactly who made the decision to fire him, or why he was fired, remains unclear. CUNY spokesman Jeremy Thompson says it’s because Peterson-Overton was not “sufficiently qualified” as he still has a long way to go in his PhD program. That may be true. But Peterson-Overton claims the motivation was political, and points to the involvelement of Democratic assemblyman Dov Hikind, who apparently contacted Brooklyn College president, Dr. Karen Gold, and complained of Peterson-Overton’s anti-Israel bias in the classroom. This may also be true.

Frankly, with the limited information I’ve looked through on the case, I can’t really form an opinion. The examples Hikind cites in his letter do not seem particularly egregious, and are par for the course among academic critics of Israel. Explaining suicide bombing is the task of the academic. Whether one condones it or not is irrelevant. Hikind seems incredibly hyperbolic, and Petersen-Overton’s work seems uncontroversial. Here’s Hikind:

Of great concern to me is one of Mr. Petersen-Overton’s papers entitled Inventing the Martyr: Martyrdom as Palestinian National Signifier, which endeavors to justify and condone Palestinian suicide bombings as a means of “struggle and sacrifice” (p. 3) against “Israeli occupation” (p. 2). Mr. Peterson-Overton writes, “Although the martyr has come to define not only innocent non-participants killed in the crossfire, but also those who die voluntarily [emphasis his] for the nation as a human bomb, both are equally honored by virtue of their death alone-a phenomenon that speaks volumes about the symbolic importance of martyrdom in Palestine” (p. 19).

He further states, “I believe the act of martyrdom has become an incredibly powerful national signifier. . . .I argue in this final section that martyrdom in Palestine is viewed as yet another conscious and unequivocal form of sacrifice for the nation” (p. 19). In short, Mr. Peterson-Overton romanticizes the notion of suicide bombings and the bombers themselves, and undermines the only democracy in the Middle East.

Putting quotation marks around “occupation” is just silly, and it doesn’t seem like Peterson-Overton “romanticizes” anything, at least not in the examples displayed here. Of course, I haven’t read the whole work and can’t speak to its quality. Still, Hikind may be crying wolf here.

Nonetheless, this story underscores the importance of the much-maligned notion of objective scholarship. It’s something I still proudly believe in. And, coincidentally, there’s no better example of this than Benny Morris, scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (I recognize people think Morris is biased; I think they’re wrong).

File:Benny morris.jpgMorris (pictured right), an Israeli national and IDF veteran, was a leader of the New Historians who uncovered the records of Israeli atrocities committed upon Palestinians in the 1948 War of Independence. He did this on the 1980s, where he placed himself squarely on the political Left. Since 2000 and the collapse of the Camp David talks, however, he has moved to the right, and made extremely politically incorrect (to put it mildly) statements about the desirability of Palestinian expulsion back in 1948.

And yet, his history works are still used, frequently, by anti-Zionist scholars and activists to undermine and criticize the Israeli state. His scholarship is well-regarded (though not without its detractors, Left and Right) precisely because it does not conform to his political views.

Indeed, if you read the late Tony Judt‘s scholarship, especially his magisterial Postwar, you’ll be struck at how moderate he sounds, especially compared to his more polemical and explicitly political articles in the New York Review of Books.

And that’s how teaching and scholarship at the university level should be. I remember reading Leslie J. Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime, an excellent book until the last section, when Reagan outlined her reason for why legalized abortion is a good thing.

Which it is. Of course I agree with her political views on abortion. But those views are not relevant to the history of abortion law in the United States. My ideal history book on any topic is one in which the author’s views remain a mystery. When making decisions about policy, we should be informed by history. But that history should be as unbiased, as objective as possible. In the same vein, the best teacher on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one whose political views on the topic remain unknown.

I had such a professor as an undergraduate. Political scientist Eva Bellin taught a lecture course I took on “Comparative Politics of the Middle East” and a seminar I took on “The Struggle for Israel/Palestine.” Interestingly, she’s now a professor at Hunter College, which of course is part of the CUNY system. I wonder what she thinks about Brookyln College’s recent controversy.

All this led me to think about the recently deceased Daniel Bell, a child of Jewish immigrants and Trotskyite at City College and one of the leading “New York Intellectuals.” In the New York Times obituary for Bell (pictured below), the author quoted from his famous work, The End of Ideology, and his distinction between “scholars” and “intellectuals.”

As both a public intellectual and an academic, Mr. Bell saw a distinction between those breeds. In one of his typical yeasty digressions in “The End of Ideology,” he wrote: “The scholar has a bounded field of knowledge, a tradition, and seeks to find his place in it, adding to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past as to a mosaic. The scholar, qua scholar, is less involved with his ‘self.’

“The intellectual,” he went on, “begins with his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.”

In some measure Mr. Bell may well have been referring to himself in that passage — his intellectual persona self-consciously winking at its detached scholarly twin with whom it conspired in a lifetime of work and experience.

As many have noted, the term “public intellectual” is redundant. By definition, intellectuals are supposed to engage the public, emerge from the Ivory Tower and comment on the issues of the day. When Emile Zola and other popularized the term intellectuel in France surrounding the Dreyfus Affair, it was supposed to imply a detached figure, unencumbered by official ties to government, military, or church, dedicated only to Truth and Justice and other lofty universal (French) ideals.

As Bell would have it, and I think rightly, it is in fact the scholar who is supposed to be “detached,” his only loyalty to the university’s mission of objective scholarship. The intellectual is a political figure, staking out a moral decision. The scholar only presents data and evidence, and lets intellectuals and policy makers decide what to do with it.

Like Bell, and Tony Judt, we can wear different hats. As Weiner, the blogger, I take political and moral positions all the time. As a doctoral candidate attempting to produce scholarship, and as teaching assistant attempting to instruct students, I try to be unbiased and objective, at least in my presentation. To both aspects of my personality inform each other? Sure. But I still try to keep them distinct as much as I can.

Of course, some people believe “objective” scholarship is illusory. Peter Novick wrote an entire book, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, dedicated to showing that objectivity in academia is like “nailing jelly to the wall”, at best a fanciful dream, and perhaps not even a noble one.

Well gosh darn it I still believe in that noble dream. Is absolute, unbiased objectivity impossible? Probably. We all have our biases and it’s hard to put them aside completely. But we should still strive for that goal, like the concept of the limit in calculus (which as a humanities person, I admittedly don’t understand all too well), endlessly approaching our destination without getting to it. Maybe the project is Sisyphean, but I’m gonna give that boulder a few more runs up the hill.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 28, 2011 at 10:19

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 selffulfillment 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

Internets and Identities

with 2 comments

by Luce

We’ve pretty much gotten past the point where cultural commentators decry the internet for dumbing down ideas and have entered an era of where we ask more complex questions about what sort of cultural, political, and social work the Internet, particularly its intellectual and literary production [blogs, onlines mags, newspapers] and social networking features, does. Note that the two actually overlap quite a bit: fodder for thought is exchanged via facebook walls (the undoubtedly apocryphal story of the founding of this blog claims such exchanges as inspiration) while blogs foment social connections (I can count a number of friendships that have directly or indirectly resulted from my writing here).

Weiner’s recent post on Facebook and Tunisia and the discussion that ensued is an example of how we’ve begun to conceive of the Internet as at least Janus-faced. The attempt to historicize the internet by claiming forebears, such as Robert Darnton’s 18th century French scandal sheets, what he calls “pre-modern blogs,” signals that historians are ready to look at the internet as a text, a point of power exchange, a site of identity construction, and so on.

It’s been interesting reading through some historical literature on recent technologies and social movements to see how historians have conceptualized a technology that is still very much in the making. Then again, so is the book. The question is not when should you write a history of something that appears “new,” but how you can write it so that its newness doesn’t drive your narrative. One way to remain cautious yet still attentive to the significance of the technology might be to think of it in terms of Foucauldian beginnings, which imply historical difference, rather than of origins, which presume causation.

A failed attempt to think about the historical significance of new communications technologies, like the cell phone or the internet, in a nuanced way is found in the otherwise good book by Mikael Hard and Andrew Jamison Hubris and Hybrids: A Cultural History of Technology and Science [2005]. I won’t even get into the problem of the authors’ underlying premise that modern technology has engendered cyborg hybridity [it might be interesting to think about why we think about it like that, but not to actually appropriate the concept as your own analytical tool. After all, wasn’t the first time a human picked up a hammer an instance of techno-human hybridity?]

The following description of cell phones from Hubris and Hybridity rehearses simplistic themes of technological alienation and superficiality completely detached from concurrent phenomena:

The irony seems to be that as we communicate more with more people, the content of this communication becomes ever more superficial. Cell phones definitely allow greater flexibility and the appropriation of new spaces, but do they really guarantee closer contacts and more intimate relations?

These seem silly questions, and my use of Skype this summer to stay connected with family and friends is an easy anecdotal counter.Which perhaps points to a another thing to be aware of when writing histories of things that your readers will consider contemporary to them: everyone has a countering anecdote.

The other, and for me more interesting, example of a historian looking at the effect of the internet was in Ilse Lenz’s Die Neue Frauenbewegung in Deutschland [The New Women’s Movement in Germany] where she briefly discusses how the internet in the late 1990s helped to demonstrate the constructiveness of gender, as men and women were able to moonlight as various, multiple sexual and gender identities online in ways they were typically unable to in their public lives.

If we follow Judith Butler and see gender as a performance, an identity that is constituted through repetitive stylized acts, a repetition that both fortifies and undercuts identity as small but potentially significant changes are introduced in the performance, then what has the internet contributed to our conceptualization of gender identities? Some might say that the internet’s wide distribution of hard core porn has re-awoken a primal violent male sexuality [I’ll get to that in a different post]. Carl Elliott’s Better than Well describes how the internet allows marginalized queer (in a broad sense) identities to form biosocial communities, thus strengthening such identities against a normalizing world.

I think though that Lenz is describing something different. Elliott’s queer communities conceive of themselves as embodying stabilized, if socially unacceptable, identities. The internet is a tool that allows these identities to be more easily expressed and supported, though it may also help construct such identities as individuals reinterpret their experiences into ossified identities as a result of the “semantic contagion” facilitated by the internet. Still there is no theorizing on how the internet contributes to the subtle shifting of such identities.

So what role does the internet play in the performance of gender? Does an individual’s gender identity change as a result of one’s internet performance in line with Butler’s miniscule but potentially consequential shifts? And is it only those who take on extravagantly different online identities that contribute to these shifts, or do we all?

Let’s take me for an example. Though only briefly. Both because I haven’t actually  self-analyzed my gendered blogging experience too much and because I lack a certain desire to publicly plumb my gender identity online — undoubtedly this has something to do with the way I was socialized as a heterosexual female within the cultural milieu in which I was raised. I give you all leave to totally over-analyze the ambivalence, skittishness, and swift ducking behind theory all contained in this last paragraph at will.

When I began to blog over at my old, short-lived personal blog this summer, Something Pending, I made a deliberate effort that lasted perhaps a week, to obscure my gender. Though perhaps I was wrong, I thought the pseudonym Luce could go either way on the binary: perhaps it was short for Lucy (it’s not), perhaps it referred to Henry Luce, the American publisher (it didn’t). My blog design was chosen for its grayness, its ugliness, and what I thought was a sort of gender-neutral tech-iness. I described myself as doing “Criss-crossed thinking on reproduction, technology, and the law. With some historian speak. And maybe a few stray thoughts about my research and travels…” Was “reproduction” a dead give-away? Maybe, depending on my readers’ biases. But as someone who is quite aware of her audience, the lack of obvious gender added another layer of anonymity. I’ve wondered whether it was this gender neutrality or the general anonymity that allowed me to take on what felt like an atypically aggressive tone early on. Of course, that tone has now just become part of my identity as a blogger.

So here are some questions: was I erasing myself or was I passing? In being ‘gender neutral’ was I by default perceived, or did I perceive myself as, masculine? That is, on the internet: if not feminine, then masculine?

Secondly, does the internet mean the death of the subject, and relatedly, the author? Given the cloak of anonymity, do we take the opportunity to masquerade through a number of guises, or do we assume a stabilized one? Do we even construct an even more strongly subjective identity than we do in other spheres of life because we have more control over whom we interact with, more time to consider our written responses, more agency in determining which topics we will and will not engage with?

Robert Darnton made a passing “death of the author” argument about contemporary blogs at a talk I went to recently. But I’m unconvinced that this is the case. Blogs are most often about pseudonymity rather than anonymity after all. And those pseudonyms develop their own voices, often tied to their “real” world identity. My gender neutrality didn’t last that long because I really wanted to talk about abortion and reproduction from an obviously gendered (female) perspective. Maybe I could have challenged notions of femininity and masculinity if I had engaged passionately with these topics while “passing” as male. But at the end of the day, I’ve never been a very good actor.

Written by Kristen Loveland

January 20, 2011 at 00:53

Posted in abortion, blog, gender

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

A Review of Absurdistan for Your Holiday Pleasure

leave a comment »

by Luce

Oh wait, actually it’s a review of Bush Junior’s Decision Points from Eliot Weinberg over at the London Review of Books. Thanks to Mircea, always on the look out for the absurd, for sending my way. For those of you who are not regular readers of the London Review of Books or my facebook wall I am providing some key moments. Consider it a holiday treat [question: does my use of the term “holiday treat” constitute a Battle on Christmas?]. I would provide extensive commentary except that really, at this time of year, all we want is  to get to the good stuff:

I will note that the review, presumably reflecting the book, plays as a tragicomedy — the further you go in it the sicker you feel. Apply Foucault to Bush! Clever! But keep going on and the fictionality of the text and the vagueness of the author makes your stomach do a few flips. “Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality?” are all fine things to ask about J. M. Coetzee, but they’re not ones you want to have to ask constantly about the actions and words of a president who ran your country for eight years:

‘Damn it, we can do more than one thing at a time,’ I told the national security team.

As I told my advisers, ‘I didn’t take this job to play small ball.’

‘This is a good start, but it’s not enough,’ I told him. ‘Go back to the drawing board and think even bigger.’

‘We don’t have 24 hours,’ I snapped. ‘We’ve waited too long already.’

‘What the hell is going on?’ I asked Hank. ‘I thought we were going to get a deal.’

‘That’s it?’ I snapped.

As Foucault says, ‘The author’s name serves to characterise a certain mode of being of discourse.’

This is a chronicle of the Bush Era with no colour-coded Terror Alerts; no Freedom Fries; no Halliburton; no Healthy Forests Initiative (which opened up wilderness areas to logging); no Clear Skies Act (which reduced air pollution standards); no New Freedom Initiative (which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren, for mental illness); no pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood; no research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer (‘imperative’, because poor people have limited access to healthcare); no cover-up of the death of football star Pat Tillman by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan; no ‘Total Information Awareness’ from the Information Awareness Office; no Project for the New American Century; no invented heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch; no Fox News; no hundreds of millions spent on ‘abstinence education’. It does not deal with the Cheney theory of the ‘unitary executive’ – essentially that neither the Congress nor the courts can tell the president what to do – or Bush’s frequent use of ‘signing statements’ to indicate that he would completely ignore a bill that the Congress had just passed.


I never know whether to admire or detest Barbara Bush. I admire her brute strength and the fact that she whips George Junior into shape, but Margaret Thatcher had some of the same qualities. I like that she called her son out for fabricating or at least falsifying the fetus-in-a-jar story. But at the end of the day all one can say is that she might be the best of a very bad lot:

Mother – she’s never Mom – pops up frequently with a withering remark. As middle-aged Junior runs a marathon, Mother and Dad are, of course, coming out of church. Standing on the steps, Dad cheers ‘That’s my boy!’ and Mother shouts ‘Keep moving, George! There are some fat people ahead of you!’ When Junior decides to run for governor, Mother’s reaction is simply: ‘George, you can’t win.’ Not cited is Mother’s indelible comment on the Iraq War: ‘Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?’ But the single newsworthy item in this entire book is the get-this-boy-to-therapy scene where Mother has a miscarriage at home, asks teenaged Junior to drive her to the hospital, and shows him the foetus of his sibling, which for some reason she has put in a jar.

Bush claims this was the moment when he became ‘pro-life’, unalterably opposed to abortion and, later, embryonic stem-cell research. (The thought would not have occurred to Mother. At the time, patrician Republicans like the Bushes were birth-control advocates; like Margaret Sanger, they didn’t want the unwashed masses wildly reproducing. Dad was even on the board of the Texas branch of Planned Parenthood. )

Decision Points flaunts its postmodernity by blurring the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. That is to say, the parts that are not outright lies – particularly the accounts of Hurricane Katrina and the lead-up to the Iraq War – are the sunnier halves of half-truths. The legions of amateur investigative journalists on the internet – as usual, doing the job the major media no longer perform – are busily compiling lists of those lies. Gerhard Schroeder has already stated that the passage in which he appears is completely false. And even Mother has weighed in. Interviewed recently on television, she said she never showed Junior that jar, but maybe ‘Paula’ did. (It was assumed we would know that Paula was the maid.)

And finally the infamous claim that the worst moment of his presidency was Kanye West, which I’m surprised was actually let in by whatever crowd of advisers/consultants/focus groups vetted/wrote the thing

The book states that, for him, the worst moment of his presidency was, not 9/11, or the hundreds of thousands he killed or maimed, or the millions he made homeless in Iraq and jobless in the United States, but when the rapper Kanye West said, in a fundraiser for Katrina victims, that Bush didn’t care about black people.

West was only half right. Bush is not particularly racist. He never portrayed Hispanics as hordes of scary invaders; Condi was his workout buddy and virtually his second wife; he was in awe of Colin Powell; and he was most comfortable in the two most integrated sectors of American society, the military and professional sports. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about black people. Outside of his family, he didn’t care about people, and Billy Graham taught him that ‘we cannot earn God’s love through good deeds’ – only through His grace, which Bush knew he had already received.

And that’s where the devastation really hits. Because who would want a president who lacks empathy, and why would such a man ever become president except for the most noxious of reasons.


Written by Kristen Loveland

December 24, 2010 at 21:13

Friday Night Abortions

with 2 comments

by Weiner

My favourite television drama right now is Friday Night Lights. Through four seasons, the series has been uneven. The first season was a work of art, perhaps the greatest season of televised drama of all time. The second season, due largely to massive plot inconsistencies (the characters appeared to switch years in high school), the threat of cancellation and a not uncommon sophomore slump, was rather lackluster. The third season picked up a bit, and this fourth season, while not quite as good as the first, has been excellent overall.

One reason is the writers’ willingness to tackle big issues, as they did in Season 1. Most recently, their episode on abortion garnered coverage in the New York Times. I admire the producers and writers for going where so few shows had gone before. I remember in Beverly Hills 90210 Val faked a pregnancy and took a trip or two to the abortion clinic, but I had never seen a major character actually go through an abortion on prime time television. According to the NYT article, unlike other pop culture representations of the pro-life position–from Juno to Sex and the City to Bristol Palin’s appearance on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager–the episode of FNL offered a relatively unambiguous pro-choice message.

The writers of Friday Night Lights had something altogether different in mind. Becky’s pregnancy had been the result of a one-time sexual encounter with Luke Cafferty, a well-intentioned football star and the son of struggling, religious cattle ranchers who have not always held his best interests at heart. When Luke’s mother learns what has happened, her response is to say that Mary and Joseph thought they were in a tough spot too, at first. Luke bluntly corrects her: “Becky and me are not Mary and Joseph.”

I was impressed that the show really kept the decision in female hands: Becky, the pregnant teen, ultimately makes the decision, with encouragement from her mother and moral support from high school principal Tammi Taylor. This was not a radically feminist message, but the writers still placed women at the center.

Still, I’m not sure the episode was as unambiguously pro-choice as the NY Times article indicates. I think the show’s writers made the decision for a poor high school student who got pregnant from a one-night stand to abort appear be a difficult one, rather than the obvious one that those on the pro-choice left believed it to be.

But then I thought: should pop culture/artistic representations have a message? Doesn’t that make them propaganda? I tend to favour scholarship that attempts to be objective. I think I like my art-including prime time TV dramas–the same way.

All I know is that I can’t wait for the next episode.

Written by David Weinfeld

July 17, 2010 at 10:04