Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, March 28, 2005

Morphological Freedom and the Conservatism of "Recovery"

Why does it so often seem that those who would "err on the side of life" in so doing are impelled to denigrate consciousness and violate consent? It sometimes seems as if the advocates of "choice" are the only real defenders of personal lives.

People live lives different from the lives of snails. Personal lives are uniquely lived in the webs of meaning and thought and conversation woven by public beings, lives that reverberate with choices, with desires, with injuries, with deeds.

All the while the dread armies of the conservative so-called "culture of life" seem to defend life in some more vegetable or mineral mode, always best exemplified by organisms who have not yet arrived among the community of poets and peers, or of those who have already departed from the scene.

Technoprogressives maintain that technological development has become a revolutionary force, that it undercuts the normative weight of claims made in the name of the "natural," and that consensual genetic and cognitive modification are prosthetic practices of self-creation that are likely to be this generation's contribution to the ongoing conversation of humankind.

I use the term "morphological freedom" to describe the ways in which consensual prosthetic practices are enlarging the scope of freedom, even while they derange our expectations, demand new responsibilties, and introduce unprecedented possibilties as well of injustice, violation, and harm.

There is quite alot in the ongoing hysteria provoked by the long-dead but occasionally still-agile body of Terri Schiavo that troubles me (apart from the obvious disgust with conservative hypocrisies it has mobilized, worries about American anti-scientific benightedness, concerns about greedy politicians usurping the rule of law, et cetera), but I want to think out loud a bit more about how the prejudices being aired so passionately at the moment are occasioned by the sense of an emerging technoconstituted morphological freedom weaving its way into our cultural life, making new demands, holding out new hopes, and altogether confusing our sense of what we properly have a right to expect from human experience.

It is well-known that many bioconservatives claim to fear that new technologies will "rob" us of our humanity. But it has always seemed to me that the "essence" of our humanity, such as it is, is simply our capacity to explore together what it means to be human in the first place. Surely no sect, no tribe, no system of belief owns what it means to be human. Humanity can be denied by violence, degraded by poverty, diminished by tyranny, but it cannot be robbed because nobody owns it.

Since I believe that consensual prosthetic practices of self-creation are indispensable contributions to the conversation we are having about what humanity is capable of, it can come as no surprise to discover that I likewise believe it is the ones who would freeze that conversation in the image of their pet platitudes who look the most like thieves today.

Similarly, I share the concerns of many "disability" activists that there is something quite pernicious in the liberal discourse that claims that if Terri Schiavo had a real "chance at recovery" they, too, would demand her "life" be preserved. These activists are rightly suspicious that the idea of "recovery" in such arguments mobilizes what is in fact a highly restrictive normative concept of the sort of lives that are "lives worth living" -- a concept that denigrates many differently-enabled people who, whatever their struggles or sorrows, have lives with dignity, joy, and value worth affirming and supporting the same as anyone else.

I strongly agree with the clinicians whose thorough examination of the evidence locates Schiavo's body with the dead rather than the disabled, and in any case I affirm the necessity to respect her own decisions as these have been best ascertained by a number of courts where matters of the care of her own body are concerned. But it is clear nevertheless that the figure of disability is circulating here in ways that would have to matter to disability activists as well as to advocates and scholars of morphological freedom.

There are many disabled people who will seem superficially similar to Schiavo to an untrained eye, after all, and whose lives are routinely dismissed as "not worth living" in consequence. Disability activists fight fraught heartbreaking battles to champion the rights and standing of such people every single day. As I have written before, it is especially interesting for me to note the extent to which so many of the differently-enabled depend on ongoing cyborgization and prosthetic practices to find their ways to more enriching lives on their own terms: communicating through computer interfaces, locomoting in motorized conveyances, and engaged in sometimes lifelong bioremedial procedures of extraordinary intimacy and profundity.

From the perspective of morphological freedom it seems to me the standard of "recovery" is always worrisomely conservative, naturalizing some contingent standard of proper health as more desirable than indefinitely many alternate possibilities. Morphological freedom is precisely never a matter of any coercive imposition of a normative body in the name of a moral standard of "health," but is an embrace of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification practices in the name of a proliferation of ways of being properly and meaningfully in the world.

What it must mean to respect the differently-enabled as the actually fully-real people they are is to respect them and support them in their differences whenever they affirm the value of these differences on their own terms, just as it must likewise require the best provision of prosthetic avenues for rewriting their bodies and lives in the image of their own desires, also on their own terms.

To take up a different example that concerns some radical technophiles, even from the standpoint of resuscitating vitrified wards awaiting advanced medical treatments the issue may not usefully be thought of best in terms of a "recovery" of information, memory, or function, but as the constitution to the contrary of adequate (in both the subjective and objective senses) narrative continuity in a subject to support her ongoing personal practices of informed, competent, intelligibile, self-determinative consent as well as the public scene on which those practices depend.

The process of "life" in bioremedial technocultures is one of ongoing practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification in pursuit of personal meanings, responsibilties, and pleasures that are quite as likely to strain against the imposition of a normative conceptions of "wellness" as anything else.

To the extent that the rhetoric of "recovery" impels us to misrecognize some manifestations of diversity as disability technoprogressives would seem well rid of it. And to the extent that technoprogressives will sometimes affirm the desirability of "better than well" healthcare provision this would seem to encourage a repudiation of the discourse of "recovery" as well. The distinction of therapy from enhancement on which so much contemporary bioethical discourse depends, is rendered either altogether obsolete or at any rate radically historically contingent in such technoprogressive bioethics.

This is not a recommendation of morphological relativism, since for one thing one can still prefer one's own path of self-determination for communicable reasons. And to an important extent the public provision of the resources that enable prosthetic practices of self-creation also demands the maintenance of intelligible standards to ensure democratic accountability, fairness, security, and meaningful deliberation in that provision.

The key for me is a shift in the focus for such standards from a moral(istic) concern with health/beauty/righteousness into an ethical concern with the meaningful consent of peers with whom one may or may not identify morally in the slightest.

Morphological freedom prevails to the extent to which discernible differences among peers arise from consensual prosthetic practices of self-determination or self-creation, rather than being imposed or unduly durressed by conditions of exploitation, violence, or ignorance (any of which might broadly mobilize responsible intervention).

Medicine is taking us on a path from recovery to creation, with all its pleasure and danger, but our language has not yet managed to keep up. The heartbreaking and hysterical public spectacle of the dead prostheticized body of Terri Schiavo attests to our perplexity and our present distress. There are many such spectacles to come.

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