The body as the site of social justice

By Sasha White

Sasha White is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Boston University, where his research focuses on the biopolitics of race and gender.

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As the rapid pace of technological change and achievement raises new questions about the role of the corporeal self, especially in the fields of medicine and biology, we must critically examine which tools we have at our disposal to engage with the social justice questions that have and have yet to emerge at the forefront of modern bio and medical ethics. In this piece I hope to tease out several key questions to explore in future and explore how the theoretical frameworks around race theory can help to drive the discussion.

I was inspired to write this by an interview with Professor Ruha Benjamin regarding her new book,  Peoples Science by the Center for Genetics and Society. Her interview touched on these questions and explores many of these issues latent within the stem cell debate that has taken place over the last decade in California.

Professor Rosi Braidotti of the University of Utrecht is also publishing extensively on the theoretical implications of the augmented human and has recently published The Posthuman, a work that critically analyses the discourse surrounding the human in our current epoch, as both the site of identity but also as a being extended beyond the body, both geographically and temporally through second life, biological augmentation and social networking.

The body has always held a specific and vital role in the realm of critical race theory. Frantz Fanon, in his work Black Skin, White Masks, describes the painful colonial experience of racialization as epidermalization- the process of applying certain essential qualities to the racialised body on the basis of skin color, which carries with it pre-determined character traits and social value. Any decoupling of individual identity from the troubling social connotations of racialised bodies becomes all but impossible under such social paradigms. The nature of existence under such racialized schemas become coded to reflect the socially constructed racial norms of behaviour with which the racialized self must constantly contend. The liberating process of anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle is in many ways a fight to deconstruct the racialised self to assert the body not as a signifier of racial tropes and limitations but rather as an autonomous and self-directed person, free from pre-conceived notions of validity, aptitude or physical characteristics.

While the battles with racialization and racism are far from over, the areas of science and medicine are seeing and may soon witness a marked rise in corporeal subjectification that may well require the same tools employed by Fanon, Duboise, Wright, Biko, Gilroy and many others to articulate a space for social justice within the realm of new bio-medical research, gene therapy and medical testing. The questions raised by such innovations may often hinge on the relationship between the self and the social and physical determinations placed upon the body. The progress being made along these scientific lines raises many vital questions regarding life and biological processes as a chosen project rather than one dictated by unforeseen circumstance.

Our new understandings of genetics, genetic predisposition, variation, disease on an atomic level as well as humanity’s capacity to alter these components, are making the human form inessential to the self and rather a signifier of it. Racial and eugenic schemas have previously employed the body as the indicator of social and political worth.  Rather than within the racial schema in which biological and phenotypical signifiers exist to constrain the abilities of the self, the individual is moving towards an existence in which it is able to determine its own limits. The human body is becoming the site of existential orientation- the result of various projects chosen over the course of life. Is existence beginning to precede essence even down to our biological formation? If genetic determinants can be re-engineered, and altered, cloned and augmented, then humans may soon cease to be the result of heritage but the culmination of surgical and bio-medical choice. If the lived experience of death, dying and disease moves into the realm of existential choice, what will that mean for those without access to such opportunities? Who will receive the possibility of augmenting their biological experience and who will remain tethered to their physical pre-conditions? Such questions return to the schemas of race making and the physical and social limitations applied to historically oppressed peoples. How will the oppressed and neglected other be articulated within a genetically modified era, especially if the intellectual self now has the capacity to form the corpus to its own making?  Will bio-medical augmentation, treatments and therapies become another way for further entrenching systemic social inequalities by constraining access to the right to alter the biological state and destiny of the individual?

I clearly do not have the answer to these questions, but within the complex discourse on social justice, human rights and the boundaries and lived experience of the human body, the field of critical race theory, alongside queer, gender and sexuality theory may likely hold the tools for constructing a new language for discussing the human body in our rapidly changing times. These are the questions I hope to interrogate in further detail in the future.

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