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

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Prosthetic Sex/Gender and Healthcare Politics

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot, from an exchange with a long-time reader and frequent critic of mine, the "normal sex crusader" John Howard, this time provoked by the post Transhumanism Is Either A Vacuity or Crazytown: Either Way It Is A Fraud.

Howard dilates on a familiar theme:
OK, well which is allowing reproduction with someone of the same sex? Which is "overcoming the limits of fixed sex" and being able to be either sex. Is that medicine or crazyyown? I say it is Transhumanism and I don't see how you can claim it is just regular old healthcare, or a major enhancement of healthy human bodies into sooper-bodies?

My response:

Heaven only knows what you personally regard as the "fixed limits" of sexual morphology and gender practice, but the fact that you speak of "either sex" suggests that you have a rather bleakly reductive understanding assuming a foundational biological sexual dimorphism onto which comparably bleakly reductive gender roles are thereupon overlaid -- even though intersexed human bodies palpably complicate such a schema even without artifice entering the picture, stricto sensu, and even though presumably "second-order" cultural gender assumptions palpably organize and articulate the "first-order" biological realities that presumably function as foundational in this understanding, and even though far more complex sexed/gendered performances have been part of human multiculture throughout history and have been part of normative healthcare for over a century.

I will set to the side your radically impoverished understanding of sex/gender as vectors in the material and semiotic systems of signification and life-making in which we all make our way through the world. I will also set to the side what I know from other posts from you over the years the sexism and anti-gay bigotry that drives so much of your rage and fear. I will try instead to use your question as the occasion to say something useful in general about the relation of futurology and healthcare for a readership that includes but is thankfully not confined to you. Maybe this time even you will see some sense, or move your phobic circus act to some other venue.

You obviously don't have to join a Robot Cult to champion the rights of transpeople, intersex people, and queer folks. You obviously don't have to join a Robot Cult to champion the rights of the "disabled"/ differently enabled. You obviously don't have to join a Robot Cult to be pro choice and champion the rights of informed, nonduressed responsible people to make actually safe wanted choices about reproductive health and recreational sensoria and the bodily modification (tattoos, scars, piercings, and the like) through which to signal subcultural memberships and interpersonal expressivity. While some Robot Cultists may sympathize with or participate in some of these communities and struggles, queer, differently enabled, and Choice politics all long predate and vastly outsize the scope and memberships of the marginal sub(cult)ures of superlative futurology, and I can think of not a single theoretical insight or practical strategy originating uniquely in any futurological discourse to which these struggles are the least bit indebted.

Needless to say (one would think), neither do you have to join a Robot Cult to advocate universal access to safe, effective, affordable, or even free healthcare to everybody, including all these queer, differently enabled, diversely prostheticized people .

None of these people have "sooper-bodies." They have human bodies. None of these people are on the road to super-powers or immortality or virtuality as the result of their recourse to any of these technical practices. None of the actual political, social, cultural stakes of access to or application of any of these techniques (among which are the stakes you mention, how do we human beings ensure that all people are flourishing equitably in our diversity) is clarified by hyperbolizing them via futurological narratives of comic book superheros, immortals, clone armies, cyber-angels, bush robots, and the like.

Every human being is and always has been a "cyborg" in Donna Haraway's sense, an ineradicably acculturated being whose significance is historically situated and whose agency is expressed in social struggle. Clothes, language, bodily bearing are all already artifactual. All culture is prosthetic, all prostheses are cultural. The transhumanoids fetishize certain real and imaginary "technologies" and also naturalize others (everybody does this actually, it is a historical commonplace, but the transhumanoids idiotically try to make a virtue of being uncritical about it and then pretend this is somehow a critical or constructive practice), always the better to invest some artifacts with the status of sacred signifiers that bespeak inevitable progress toward techno-transcendental outcomes they identify with "The Future" at the cost of a profound dis-identification with the present in its lived diversity and profound precarity.

Transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, digi-utopians, and other superlative futurologists of the Robot Cult variety believe many outright nonsensical things, they talk about "technology" in ways that derange the terms of public deliberation to the harm of all, they are indulging in faith-based initiatives that seem in many of them to yield irrational passions and undercritical, defensive, dishonest, even authoritarian subcultural practices.

I have no deep problem with Robot Cultists who want to be enthusiasts about ridiculous techno-transcendental fancies of theirs (though I am not above ridiculing them for being ridiculous now and again, as you know), but I focus my critique on their efforts to pretend these fancies constitute scientific practice, scientific literacy, scientific policy-making, serious philosophy (including philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, technocultural theory, ethics or bioethics, STS, etc.), or contributions to progressive technodevelopmental deliberation, as well as focusing on the ways their discourse provides clarifying extreme illustrations of more prevailing pathologies in our unsustainable, corporate-militarist, white racist and patriarchal, scientistically reductive, techno-fetishizing, techno-triumphalist, mass-mediated, hyper-conformist, hyper-individuated, consumer society more generally.

As I said, I have been around the track with you John Howard many many times in the past. This is not the beginning but the end of this conversation. Your inevitable hysterical anti-queer follow-up screeds and declarations that I am the worst Robot Cultist of them all because I refuse to pre-emptively condemn the non-existing sexualized "technologies" that haunt your fever dreams will all be remorselessly deleted, so don't even go there.

1 comment:

Dale Carrico said...

The exchange continued one more round. John Howard said...

Intersexed people should certianly be allowed to use medicine to enable them to be fertile and have children, but only as the sex which their doctors believe is their most likely chance of success, without genetic engineering of their gametes to be the other sex. The sex which someone most likely would be able to conceive children using their own gametes is usually abundantly clear, even when there is ambiguous genitalia, and when it isn't, the lab can figure it out very quickly.

As for application of the law to intersexed people, we'd go by their public, legal sex for public legal recognition and marriage purposes, and the assumption would be that it matches the most likely to conceive sex so they would have the public approval to conceive offspring together (but not a guarantee, just like every other marriage). So some privately same-sex couples would wind up married. But a lab would notice after some preliminary lab work that they were both more likely to be fertile as the same sex, and thus it would be illegal to help them conceive offspring with each other. Their marriage would remain intact, because publicly they would still be a man and a woman, and the information about their true sexes would never leave the doctor's office. But the law is intended to stop unethical experiments in same-sex reproduction and genetic engineering, so of course it has to apply to the private actual sex, not the public sex.

It's health care to help an intersexed person reproduce as the sex most likely able to help them, not the sex they most desire to reproduce as, or as the other sex of the person they want to reproduce with. That is transhumanism.

I replied:

I don't know who the "we" is supposed to be who is trying to shoehorn intersex folks into what you think of as consummately happy heterosexual families. You aren't a movement, John Howard. You are a troubled and confused person alone in a room with your feverish queer obsessions.

You will be pleased to know I also disapprove of unethical medical experiments in which clinical trials involve unsafe unaccountable procedures or subjects who are uninformed or under duress in any way. I get the feeling you think anything that involves anyone but a heterosexual male reproducing with a heterosexual woman is always-already "unethical" "unhealthy" and "unsafe" and even if it is not unhealthy or unsafe and even if it involves responsible informed nonduressed consensual subjects -- obviously I cannot concede that unhelpful idiosyncratic characterization. This isn't something I am willing to waste hours of my life re-adjudicating with you yet again -- that is to say, I'm not willing to get you off for free.

There are actually existing people and organizations that identify as "transhumanist" and one can discern their customary assumptions, positions, conceits, tropes, and aspirations from the actual things they actually say. That's my preferred method for understanding and criticizing futurological discourses, sub(cult)ures and fandoms, not simply accepting your personal definition of the moment as a non-transhumanist identified personal largely indifferent to actual textual evidence.

Your effort to identify queer politics with Robot Cultism seems to me pretty much equal parts straightfoward anti-gay bigotry and bioconservative hysteria about non-existing medical techniques.

That's it. No more. Good luck to you, happy holidays, go away.