Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘techonology’ Category

Ph.D. Octopus versus Peer Review

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by David

The Ph.D Octopus (image by Parsiri Audcharevorakul)

Today we launched the official Ph.D. Octopus Facebook page. We’re finally entering the 21st century, I guess. Heck, we haven’t even really decided how we’re spelling Ph.D. But I guess it’s fitting that I contribute this post along with that piece of news, and the above image, which we’ve been hiding for far too long, crafted by the lovely and talented Parisi Audchaevorakul.

See, over the weekend I was having a conversation with my new friend Holger Syme, a professor of English at University of Toronto. Holger also has a wonderful academic blog called Dispositio. And so we discussed our blogs. Eventually, the conversation turned to the horrendous state of the academic job market (as it does) and then to the process of acquiring those disappearing jobs, and getting tenure, and to the process of peer review.

For those who don’t know, peer review is the process by which academic work is rendered legitimate. In practical terms, it means that when we submit articles to academic journals, the article is reviewed by two of our peers, that is to say, by two other academics in our field, two similar specialists, who might be able to speak the article’s accuracy, originality, and importance, and to the author’s general competence.

The goal of the system is for our peers to operate as gatekeepers. They are the ones who decide if the article is good enough to get in, and the number and quality of articles (and books) that we write determines the fellowships and jobs that we get, and whether we get tenure.

It’s not bad in principle. But there are problems. First, it’s never entirely clear that these two readers are actually experts in your field, or that their judgments are good. If your article is rejected by one journal, of course you can take it to another. But the reality is that two people may dislike your piece but a dozen other equally qualified “peers” might have loved it, and you have no way of knowing, because the peers are anonymous and the process is rather opaque.

Second, and perhaps more important, the process is painfully slow. Even if the two reviewers like your article, it might take weeks or even months for them to actually read it, then they send it back to you with the instruction “revise and resubmit,” and then the process repeats itself. Actually getting it to print can take even longer. Sometimes it takes years before the actual discovery or innovation that your work produces ever sees the light of the day, and that being the very dim light of an academic journal, which even at their most prestigious are read by very view people indeed.

What Holger did that so fascinated me was compare this peer review process to his own blogging. Because Holger has tenure, he can write (within reason) anything that he wants on his blog. He can share his academic work there. And so he does. And when he does, he gets responses in real time. If he provides a novel piece of research, say, a new analysis of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or even digital images of marginalia from the early 17th century, he can get comments, that is to say, peer reviews, immediately. Indeed, that is precisely what happened in the above post. Holger wrote it on December 21, 2011. Professor Martin Wiggins, of the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, offered comments and corrections on December 22, 2011, the very next day. Then Holger edited the post, and thanked and responded to Dr. Wiggins in the comments.

Now, if Holger didn’t have tenure, and Professor Wiggins wasn’t a nice person, he could have stolen Holger’s work and done published it with more correct information, or simply published it first in a more reputable setting, and Holger’s path to tenure might have been thwarted. After all, we don’t get credit for our blog posts on the tenure clock. So for someone like me, or any of my non-tenured (or unemployed) co-bloggers, it might be academic suicide to publish our original research out here in cyberspace, rather than in a peer-reviewed journal, or in a book printed by a university press.

On the other hand, I wonder if, in the future, blogs such as these will sort of play the role that Sean Parker’s Napster did for the music industry. If we could all publish our work, safely, in real time, and have legitimate critics respond to it in  real time, and edit it in real time, wouldn’t that be a more effective way of advancing scholarship?

This is not to say that peer review should be done away with entirely. But it seems like a community of academic bloggers should at least have some effect in speeding the process up, and ideally in making it more transparent and democratic as well. For example, suppose Dr. Martin Wiggins was simply Mr. Martin Wiggins, amateur Shakespeare buff, who knew enough to provide relevant criticism to Holger’s post. Theoretically, as long as the scholarship is sound, it shouldn’t really matter where it’s coming from.

That’s precisely the point of William James’ 1903 essay, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” that we should not fetishize degrees, like the Ph.D., but instead evaluate work, and academics, on their scholarly merit. We’re not quite there yet, and I’m not quite sure where there is. But I think I’d like to get there eventually.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 30, 2012 at 20:42

Romney, Bain, Letters, and Archives

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by David

Mitt in the middle, celebrating his first love, money, along with the boys of Bain capital

People in both parties are attacking GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for his time at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought companies, downsized them–that is, fired many employees–and then sold those companies at a profit. Even his rivals in the Republican primaries have taken something of an anti-capitalist line, in opposition to the free markets that Romney represents.

As readers of this blog can guess, I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Mitt Romney. The only office I’d ever elect him to would be the captaincy of team douchebag. Nonetheless, it’s important to know whether we’re asking the right questions about his time at Bain.

My free market friend Josh, now writing for Forbes, has identified the right questions. But first, he explains some basic but important economics.

Private equity firms like Bain often seek to fix firms that have failed to adjust to economic change. This can mean downsizing, increased automation, offshoring, and the like. These changes make enterprises more efficient, and in some cases save firms that would otherwise have gone bankrupt. These kinds of changes also produce broad-based gains that should not be discounted, particularly in the form of lower consumer prices. We could not, and should not, have stopped these changes in the economy.

As Josh notes, certain classes of workers have been hit especially hard. While capital has benefitted, workers have seen layoffs, pay-cuts, and long term unemployment, particularly those with skills that have become less valuable or even obsolete. Josh is right to argue that as a businessman, Romney was correctly concerned with making his company profits, not with the plight of his laid off workers. But Josh wisely adds, “while the human effects of these economic shifts are not properly the concern of business executives, they are the concern of government officials, and Romney wants to be president.” And so the right questions are:

What policy implications arise from the economic shifts of the last few decades, driven (in small part) by private equity. Does rising income inequality mean that fiscal policy should be more redistributive? Does a reduction in job security call for a stronger safety net? Do new workforce needs mean we need a shift in education and training policies?

Basically, the president is not a CEO, and it’s his or her job to care about all the workers, and the economy as a whole. And if you don’t want to take Josh’s word for it, take Paul Krugman’s, who said pretty much the same thing in his recent column. Josh reminds us that “as governor of Massachusetts, Romney’s signature policy achievement was a universal health care program—that is, a safety net program that reduces the cost of job loss or income loss.” Of course, Romney has said that Romneycare worked for Massachusetts, but the Affordable Care Act, patterned after Romney’s plan, is no good for nation. But that’s a whole other discussion.

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Written by David Weinfeld

January 14, 2012 at 14:19

The “Gay Girl in Damascus” Hoax: Some Reflections

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I’m pleased to once again be able to introduce a great guest post from friend-of-PhD-Octopus, Mircea, who takes on the case of the mythical Syrian lesbian blogger, Amina, and its personal and geopolitical fallout.  –Luce

by Mircea

It’s been not 24 hours since the mystery behind detained Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Abdallah Arraf Al-Omari has been solved. What began as an international outcry over the arrest of a popular blogger giving voice to the queer side of the “Arab Spring” quickly turned into a frenzy of Internet investigations, carried out by journalists and bloggers, that has reached a sad and predictable end – there was never an Amina in the first place. The blog, and even more disturbingly, an entire online identity going back almost four years, was the creation of a 40 year-old American man from Georgia now studying in Edinburgh, Tom MacMasters, and his wife Britta. In what follows I’ll quickly recount the story, from first suspicions to this morning’s denouement, then offer a few thoughts on what this might mean in the larger context of queer politics and the Middle East.

It all began with this post detailing Amina’s capture by Syrian security forces, ostensibly put up by Amina’s cousin Rania Ismail. The response was swift, with several newspaper reports and a flurry of “Free Amina” facebook groups, like this one and this one, mobilising concerned people around the world. But within a few days, as reporters and State Department officials in Syria attempted to contact Amina’s family, doubts began to emerge. No one, it seems, had ever met or spoken to Amina, not even her girlfriend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria (they had only communicated via e-mail). One of the first to publicly question the story was NPR’s Andy Carvin, who was sceptical yet cautious to declare that she didn’t exist. Maybe she was simply very good at concealing herself, as all activists living under repressive regimes must be. But then a Croatian woman living in London, Jelena Lecic, noticed that the photos of Amina being circulated were actually of her. There were hundreds, including all the photos on Amina’s personal facebook page, all apparently stolen from Jelena’s facebook. Troubled, she went on the BBC to prove her identity, and wonder how all this had come about. The evidence was increasingly pointing to an elaborate hoax.

I began following the controversy at Liz Henry’s blog, where commenters took to the Internet to uncover as many details about Amina as could be found. The mass of details was confusing, and involved an extensive cast of characters, some real and some fictional. Amina had stated she was born in Virginia and went to high school and college in Georgia. She had a previous blog where she declared her intention to mix fact and fiction; she had also been active in posting on alternate history Yahoo mailing lists, declaring her interest in medieval Byzantium. There were several online dating profiles, one in which she listed her language as Hebrew. Some used pictures of Jelena Lecic, some of another woman. Her cousin Rania Ismail’s facebook page turned out to be a likely fake; no one had been able to contact her either. Anything seemed possible. Was she the creation of Rania, a married Syrian woman looking for an escapist fantasy? Did Rania even exist? Was Amina a creation of Sandra Bagaria, the Canadian girlfriend? Or perhaps it was Jelena Lecic herself, whose first statement to the media was released through a suspicious P.R. agency? These theories may seem ridiculous in retrospect, but only through this kind of free-thinking exercise could all options be considered. The truth, when it came out, was perhaps stranger still.

Parallel to Liz Henry’s and Andy Carvin’s efforts, which later turned out to involve e-mail communications with someone likely to be the person behind the hoax, the website Electronic Intifada and the Washington Post were putting together a story based on two concrete leads. One came from Paula Brooks, an editor at the website LezGetReal (which was the first to introduce Amina’s blog to a wide readership). She provided two IP addresses used by Amina, both in Edinburgh. The other came from Scott Palter, a moderator on the alternate history boards, who had once gotten a mailing address from Amina in Stone Mountain, GA. This, it turned out, was Tom MacMaster’s home. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place: MacMaster was born in Virginia, had lived in Georgia, currently studies in Edinburgh, and plans to write a thesis on medieval Byzantium. He is a pro-Palestinian activist, and his wife Britta, a Quaker, was involved in organising events on Syria and Israel. Britta is a fellow at St. Andrews in the Centre for Syrian Studies, writing a thesis on the Syrian textile industry. She had posted pictures of her travels in Damascus, the same ones also used by Amina. The game was up.

MacMaster’s so-called apology on the blog, posted this morning, is a remarkable display of narcissism, self-delusion and self-righteousness. He declared, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” with the exception, of course, of all the key facts on the blog – that a gay woman, living in Damascus, was experiencing the revolution and had been detained by security forces. He had the gall to claim that, “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone.” Let me count the ways:

  1. Closest to home, it was Sandra, the Canadian girlfriend, who had been privately lied to for months. Reading her tweets from before the abduction story, one is struck by the sincerity and passion with which she speaks of Amina. She had to endure constant media questioning, when it became clear just how deep the deception went. Interestingly, the abduction story was posted only a few days after Sandra attempted to call Amina at home in Syria and got no answer. That day Amina wrote about security forces visiting her family and her subsequent need to go underground. It may be that this is the point at which Tom and Britta freaked out and looked for a way to take their character off the stage, at least temporarily.
  2. Everyone else who had an online relationship with Amina, and who has been affected by the investigation. The website LezGetReal, for example, was subjected to intense scrutiny because Paula Brooks and other editors, who have families working for the federal government and do not wish to be outed, write under pseudonyms; they, too, were suspected of being fake.
  3. Finally, most obviously and most importantly, this is a devastating blow to queer activism in Syria and everywhere else in the Middle East. These furious reactions from actual Syrian activists give a sense of the damage. Not only does the hoax make it more difficult for Syrian bloggers to be heard in the future without undue suspicion, but it puts LGBT activists currently in Syria under the spotlight of the authorities. In every way, MacMaster has done about as much harm to the Syrian revolution as could be imagined from a computer in Scotland.

It is, however, the following sentence that deserves the greatest outrage: “This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” Not only is MacMaster not apologising, he is in fact blaming everyone else for the very sin he has committed. In a sense, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was the perfect instantiation of liberal Orientalism, wherein Western audiences are enjoined to sympathise with a young, attractive, Westernised and courageous individual battling against the forces of dark, oppressive Islam. If Amina didn’t exist, one would have had to invent her. MacMaster’s twisted activist vision piled on all the desirable characteristics for what he thought the West should know of the Middle East, but didn’t bother because of the biased, Zionist media. The cruel irony is that in not finding a real Syrian who could represent some or all of these things, he confirms the very fantasies he set out to dismantle are just that, fantasies.

It is also troubling, it must be said, how those sceptical of Amina’s story from the start have slipped into the same traps of Orientalist fantasy. One of the earliest arguments for the hoax was that, “No one in Syria would ever kiss their girlfriend in public,” or speak so freely, etc. Though this may be in a very general sense accurate, it further adds to the erasure of the public presence of LGBT Syrians. Another argument from a commenter on one of the investigating blogs was that MacMaster had wished to show that being gay in Arab countries is not so bad, when in fact he had proved the opposite. There could be no one as free as Amina in Syria; but, the commenter added for good measure, there could be in Israel. It was MacMaster’s anti-Israel bias that made him paint such a rosy picture of an Arab country. Both Amina’s blog and the arguments of the sceptics are symptomatic of a wider set of highly debilitating discourses. In effect, it is becoming impossible to speak of what being queer in the Middle East is like without falling into one extreme or the other.

All of this brings to mind Jasbir Puar’s extraordinary theoretical work Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, in which she tracks the complex ways in which queer activism in the West has become implicated with imperialist projects and mindsets. One effect is the erasure of Muslim queer sexuality, and its converse — Israel’s propaganda efforts to brand itself as the only “gay-friendly” country in a homophobic region (known as “pinkwashing”). One of her tasks is to affirm the voices of queer Muslims and queer Arabs speaking out against state violence, against religious intolerance, and against US and Israeli colonialism all at once.

This is the kind of person whom MacMaster, no doubt familiar with this literature, wished to concoct. Two of Amina’s blog posts, for example, were on the phenomenon of “pinkwashing.” What this odious, despicable individual has managed to do instead is produce the perfect mockery of queer scholarship and activism, a farce that feeds right back into the very discourses he sought to resist, feeding them to the brim and sustaining them for years to come.

Written by Kristen Loveland

June 13, 2011 at 10:17

Thoughts on Egypt

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by Weiner

One can’t help but feel energized by recent events in Egypt. Though I’ve studied the Middle East a bit in my day, I’m by no means an expert and am wary of making any forecasts or even attempts at sophisticated analysis. While I’m optimistic, the cynic in me says that we must be cautious, aid and encourage the forces of democracy as best we can, but not declare victory just yet.

As a historian, I try to think of causes. Many are trying to credit Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, or G.W. Bush’s rhetoric of freedom and funding for election monitors, or the activism of labour unions, or the technologies like Facebook and Twitter, for fomenting, or causing, or aiding this revolution and speeding Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In truth, I think it’s probably fruitless to look for a monocausal explanation. I think all these factors were and are important, to a greater or lesser degree. But if I had to identify the most important element, using Occam’s razor and opting for the simplest explanation, I wouldn’t choose Bush or Obama or any of the others. I would go with Thomas Friedman’s take: “they did it.” Inspired by the example of Tunisia, having been clamoring for freedom for over a century if not more, the people of Egypt brought the autocratic regime down. These were people from all walks of life, young and old, religious and secular, Muslim and Christian, poor people and workers and elites and intellectuals and members of the middle class, soldiers and civilians, but Egyptians all (I apologize for being all hokey here).

The other significant thought I have is about non-violent resistance, especially in light of the recent shootings in Tucson. Many Americans worship the Constitution’s Second Amendment not just out of a principle of freedom, but out of genuine distrust of the government, of the notion that an armed citizenry provides some sort of “check” on government authority. I always thought this view rather fanciful. The millions of American gun-owners, however rowdy they may or may not be, do not really threaten government authority in the United States. The US military has tanks and planes and bombs that could easily overwhelm them. Instead, we need only look to the recent history of the Civil Rights movement to show that non-violent resistance can actually force the government’s hand and bend it to the people’s will far more effectively than the “barrel of a gun” that Mao claimed as the locus of power. A tweet from Keith Olbermann crystallized this thought in mind: “the right to bear arms (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter in overthrowing tyranny.”

I always suspected as much was true in a democratic context like that of modern America, but I never imagined it could also be true in authoritarian regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt. True, real power may reside with the Egyptian military, but what we often forget in these contexts is that institutions like the military are made up of real people. People who were once civilians, and may again be civilians in the future. People who have friends and relatives across the spectrum of society. People who are moved and inspired by the throngs of their compatriots crying out for freedom.

I am no pacifist. Armed struggle has its place in the arc of justice. But the lesson of Egypt is one all Americans should take to heart, even those who “cling to guns and religion.”

Written by David Weinfeld

February 13, 2011 at 15:28

Going Beyond “The Revolution Will (Not) Be Tweeted”

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by Luce

This blog has already broached the question of what causal role we ascribe to technology in historical events, particularly in recent revolutions and uprisings in Tunisia and now Egypt. Malcolm Gladwell recently asked whether the Egyptians need twitter to revolt (answer: No), reasserting his conviction from last fall that

‘high risk’ social activism requires deep roots and strong ties… surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.

I’m not sure if I’d go that far. But what has felicitously fallen into my lap during my qualifying exams prep? An entire book devoted to the question of Control and Freedom Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. While not explicitly focused on political uprisings, her opening paragraph goes:

We have lived, and still live in, exciting times, from the fall of the Berlin wall to the heady days of the dot-com era, from the events of September 11, 2001, to the ongoing turmoil in geopolitical relations. all these events have been linked to freedom: the triumph of the Free World, the free market, and the free circulation of information; threats to freedom from abroad, and the U.S. mission to spread democracy and freedom. All these events have also been linked to technology and networks: Eastern Europe’s collapse has been attributed to computer technology and broadcast/satellite television; terrorist networks turn everyday technologies like airplanes and cell phone into weapons; the U.S. military’s and intelligence agencies’ control and communications networks are without rival, if not without fault. But what does it mean to attribute such causality to technology and link freedom to what are essentially control technologies?

In my best grad student fashion, I’m going to pull two conclusions already from this paragraph: first that the idea of technology as politically transformative is an old story, a fact that itself makes the relationship between technology and political freedom quite interesting; and second that what may be uninteresting in all the recent analyses of the significance of the tweet is the superficiality of the analysis. “Did twitter cause the revolution?” is a silly question and provokes a yawn-fest of a debate. “What does it mean to attribute such causality to technology and link freedom to what are essentially control technologies?” That’s something to think about.

I’ll get back to you when I’ve read the book’s other 300 pages. Is it too much to hope that might happen in a few hours or so?

Written by Kristen Loveland

February 4, 2011 at 10:20

How Octomom Became a Contagious Cyborg: A Reflection

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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

The Tunisian Revolution on Facebook?

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by Weiner


I’m not sure if David Kirkpatrick, author of the pro-Mark Zuckerberg The Facebook Effect, and David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times journalist recently reporting from Tunisia, are the same person. I suspect not. Still, I thought it was a remarkable coincidence when David D. Kirpatrick cited the following as evidence for Tunisian strongman General Rachid Ammar’s growing popularity:

On Facebook, a staging ground of the street revolt, almost 1,700 people had clicked that they “like” a Web page named “General Rachid Ammar President” and emblazoned with his official photographs.

The coincidence proved especially powerful because the first few pages of David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect celebrated Facebook’s ability to organize popular netroots opposition to FARC in Colombia.

This in turn reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent New Yorker article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.” In response to those who praised the role of Twitter and Facebook in bolstering Iran’s recent and shortlived “Green Revolution,” Gladwell noted that real protest, like the 1960 lunchcounter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, takes place with tremendous effort, face-to-face organizing, and genuine sacrifice: putting jobs and school on hold so you can sit at a segregated lunchcounter for days on end. That kind of movement takes much more energy than simply clicking “like” on a Facebook page or retweeting a political tweet. Of course, people did actually take to the streets in Iran, but the point is that they were the real revolutionaries, not the ones who watched safely from their computer monitors.

I have no idea what’s about to happen in Tunisia, or Lebanon, or anywhere else where revolution is brewing. I hope that Facebook and Twitter can aid progressive and popular social movements. But with an eye to history, I, like Gladwell, suspect that real change comes only with real sacrifice, with solidarity forged through strong emotional ties rather than cyber-friendship.