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

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Technoprogressive ARTs

"ART" is an acronym that stands for assisted reproductive technology, a designation that refers to various artificial methods that are sometimes used to achieve wanted pregnancies. ARTs can include medications that induce ovulation, intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization, eventually, very probably, reproductive cloning, among a proliferating number of other techniques.

In more everyday parlance I have sometimes heard that "A" in ARTs fleshed out into the phrase artificial or alternative reproductive technologies instead, and I do think it is interesting to contemplate the force of such terminological substitutions on the ARTificial imaginary.

I personally prefer to think of ARTs as alternate reproductive technologies, because the term alternative better bespeaks for me the connection of ARTs to the progressive politics of choice as well as to what seems to me most radical and appealling in the politics of choice: its palpable emancipatory queerness.

I have written elsewhere about how the politics of choice should be construed in a broad way that encompasses more than the right of women to end unwanted pregnancies taking place in their own bodies, but to facilitate wanted pregnancies, to make informed medical decisions more generally -- from consensual drug use to end-of-life issues -- to embrace the diversity of loving "families we choose," and onward toward a technoprogressive politics of morphological freedom.

Bioconservative efforts to convince the general public to repudiate or lawmakers to ban ARTs have so far altogether failed to gain traction in the American political imagination.

I would argue in fact that these bioconservative efforts have represented a spectacular failure. As far as I can tell, they have had as their most conspicuous effect their contribution to a compensatory contemporary reconnection of the politics of the mainstream American left to a vigorous renewed championing of technological development regulated in the service of the common good.

As a technoprogressive this development is welcome to me indeed after many long decades of frustration with a left largely paralyzed in technophobic despair over the dehumanizing and environmentally catastrophic prevailing corporate-militarist models of development together with a cynically apolitical pastoral luddite romanticism in an anti-science left-wing New Age.

Today, instead, I see promising connections emerging in the widespread mainstream support across the left for stem-cell research, medical research more generally, support for the development of renewable energy (as with the technoprogressive Apollo Alliance), a reconnection to the venerable left ideal of a "reality-based" rather than "faith-based" address of shared problems, a renewed respect and hunger for higher education, and a defense of the fragile protocols on which consensus science depends for its good works (the excellent technoprogressive Chris Mooney has come to represent for the moment the most visible iceberg tip of this dimension of a more technoprogressive mainstream left political culture).

Bioconservative panic over ARTs and shrill bioconservative paeans to the special "dignity" and "meaning" to be found in avoidable illness and suffering seem surreally out of step with a society devoted to the collaborative redress of human suffering and the personal pursuit of human happiness in its incomparable diversity of forms.

Bioconservative and more conventional social conservative resistance to ARTs are conspicuously driven by the fear that these ARTs will be more than assistive and open up instead disruptive, emancipatory possibilities for alternative forms of social and personal reproduction that threaten the assumptions and customs with which these conservatives parochially identify and on which they imagine they depend to maintain their hold on power. Nowhere is this more clear than in the recent effort of some Republican lawmakers who have drafted new legislation that would make marriage a requirement for any kind of motherhood in the state of Indiana. This legislation included specific criminal penalties for unmarried women who do become pregnant by means other than "sexual intercourse."

Part of what is most interesting about this mean, obscene, and breathtakingly repressive conservative effort is that it functions not only to criminalize the prostheticization of reproduction for single mothers, lesbians, and other "inappropriate mothers" and "inappropriable others," but it simultaneously functions to re-naturalize and re-normalize the prostheticization of reproduction whenever reprotechs allign within certain valorized normative heterosexual frames. What is assisted in "assisted" as opposed to "alternative" reproductive technologies is precisely always only normal and naturalized heterosexual reproduction yoked inextricably to the delusively "normative" nuclear family.

Notice that "sexual intercourse" in the proposed Indiana legislation is actually rearticulated through prostheticization but still framed by normative assumptions. If ARTs are deployed always only to facilitate legible heterosexual reproduction and the social reproduction of the nuclear familial norm, then it is a buttress to "natural" reproduction even when this "natural" reproduction is in fact radically and ineradicably prosthetic.

This underlines what seems to me the crucial but usually overlooked insight that "technology" is never essentially and rarely even interestingly a matter of whichever toys happen to preoccupy the attention of technophiles and technophobes from moment to moment. It is significantly, rather, a matter of the technocentric discourses and practices through which various subjects, objects, and abjects are rendered more or less "familiar" or "unfamiliar," more or less "natural" or "contestable" through the lens of technologization. The more superficial question of whichever real or anticipated tools enrapture the attention of the technophiles and technophobes in their glossy mags and airbrushed tv-spots and breathless conference talks will typically be little more than symptoms of the working of these deeper discursive machineries.

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