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Notes on Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology

“The promise of interdisciplinary scholarship is that the failure to return texts to their histories will do something. . . . We must remember that to ‘not return’ still requires the act of following, we have to go with something if we are to depart from that thing. The following takes us in a different direction, as we keep noticing other points” (pp 22-23).

Phenomenology  says “consciousness is intentional: it is directed toward something” (p. 27).

On one’s orientation toward the writing table: “For some, having time for writing, which means time to face the objects upon which writing happens becomes an orientation that is not available given the ongoing labor of other attachments, which literally pull you away. So whether we can sustain our orientation toward the writing table depends on other orientations, which affect what we can face at any given moment in time” (p. 32).

To appear–to be apparent–requires an arrival. “An arrival takes time, and the time that it takes shapes ‘what’ it is that arrives. The object could even be described as the transformation of time into form, which iteself could be redefined as the ‘direction’ of matter. What arrives not only depends on time, but is shaped by the conditions of its arrival, by how it came to get here. Think of a sticky object; what it picks up on its surface ‘shows’ where it has traveled and what it has come into contact with” (p. 40).

“Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space” — Merleau-Ponty . . . “The language here implies that bodies provide us with a tool, as that through which we ‘hold’ or ‘grasp’ onto things, but elsehwere Merleau-Ponty suggests that the body is not itself an instrument but a form of expression, a making visible of our intentions. What makes bodies different is how they inhabit space: space is not a container for the body; it does not contain the body as if the body were ‘in it.’ Rather bodies are submerged, such that they become the space they inhabit; in taking up space, bodies move through space and are affected by the ‘where’ of that movement. It is through this movement that the surface of spaces as well as bodies takes shape.” (p. 53).

Phenomenological models of female embodiment emphasize orientation … drawing on Young, Ahmed says that women may see their bodies as objects. Objects throw us and can be thrown; “we acquire the shape of how we throw, as well as what we do” (p. 60).

“The very idea that bodies ‘have’ a natural orientation is exposed as fantasy in the necessity of the enforcement of that orientation, or its maintenance as a social requirement for intelligible subjectivity” (p. 85).

On the term homosexual, Ahmed says “women desiring women does not mean that they desire the same . . . The very idea of women desiring women because of ‘sameness’ relies on a fantasy that women are ‘the same'” (p. 96).

“Queer orientations might be those that don’t line up, which by seeing the world ‘slantwise’ allow other objects to come into view. A queer orientation imgth be one that does not overcome what is ‘off line,’ and hence acts out of line with others. It is no accident that queer orientations have been described by Foucault and others as orientations that follow a diagonal line, which cut ‘slantwise’ the vertical and horizontal lines of conventional genealogy” (p. 107).

“Acts of domestication are not private; they involve the shaping of collective bodies, which allows some objects and not others to be within reach” (p. 117).

“The institutionalization of whiteness involves work: the institutions comes to have  body as an effect of this work. It is important that we do not reify institutions by presuming they are simply given and that they decide what we do. Rather, institutions become given as an effect of the repetition of decisions made over time, which shapes the surface of institutional spaces. Institutions involved lines, which are the accumulation of past decisions about ‘how’ to allocate resources, as well as ‘who’ to recruit. Recruitment functions as a technology for the reproduction of whiteness” (p. 133).

Notes on Isaac West’s Transforming Citizenships, NYUP, 2014.

West offers several case studies of how transgender articulations of law can change our perspectives. He also offers “performative repertoire” as a concept to get beyond acontextual legal rhetorics (see more below). Following are selected quotations and contextualizing notes.

“Academic critique that is limited to official state texts, including legislative debates, statutes, and court opinions, embraces an impoverished sense of the rhetoricity of citizenship and its corresponding agencies” (p. 17)

“an exclusive focus on litigation does not provide an accurate picture of legal subjectivities” (p. 20)

“contextualized critiques of articulations of citizenship are necessary correctives for conceptualizing the law not as an external force acting on culture, but rather as an actually existing set of cultural effectivities” (p. 21)

“agency must be understood as a ‘performative repertoire,’ or as embodied practices enabled by and negotiated through the logics of subjective recognition” (p. 39)

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Notes on Wendy Mitchinson’s Body Failure: Medical Views of Women, 1900-1950. University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Mitchinson chronicles the history of how the male body was understood as normal and the female body was understood as abnormal, weak, prone to breakdown in the first half of the twentieth century in Canada. What follows are selected quotations and some contextualizing notes.

The first chapter on “Woman’s Place” takes up historical arguments based in medicine and health (and, implicitly, reproductive capacity and fertility) about women’s employment, eating habits, exercise, fashion. The author points out that female sexual organs are naturally better protected than male sexual organs, and yet physicians only seemed to express concern over female fertility in most of these areas.

“I see medicine as a bedrock of societal norms, sometimes in their creation and more often in their maintenance” (p. 8).

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Notes on Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Duke University Press, 2012.

This book “ draws upon recent debates about sexuality, race, environment, and affect to consider how matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly or otherwise “wrong” animates cultural life in important ways” (p. 2). In the context of the course on embodiment that I’m currently teaching, this book has helped me to think about expectations of bodies (both human and non-human) and how these expectations shape what is possible for particular kinds of bodies.

Chen begins with a discussion of linguistic’s uptake of this term: “animacy most generally refers to the grammatical effects of the sentience or liveness of nouns” (p. 2). “The hikers that rocks crush” is a phrase that gives us trouble because we expect rocks to be lower on the animacy hierarchy than hikers.

“[S]uch an animating principles avowedly refused a priori divisions between mind and body, the philosophical legacy of Descartes which today remains cumbrous to scholars of material agency” (p. 4). Much of the work in the embodiment class had come back to ways of resisting or subverting the mind-body division.

I also like that Chen allows for multiple ways to take up the key term animacy, and considers it broadly: “It is a generative asset that the word animacy, much like other critical terms, bears no single standard definition” (p. 2).

Finally, the following is from a useful view in Reviews in Cultural Theory, by Melissa Haynes:

“Leaden is a synonym for inert, spiritless, and lifeless, and yet in the third section of Animacies Chen shows us how lead, from the bottom of the animacy hierarchy, came to circulate as a lively figure in the imagination of the American public. In 2007, the United States was gripped by panic that the paint on Chinese-manufactured toys posed a threat of lead poisoning to (mostly white) American children. Chen argues that in this scare, “a new material-semiotic form of lead emerged” (166) that was racialized as Chinese, and animated by anxieties about the porosity of bodily and national borders. This new lead threatened to contaminate the upper echelons of the animacy hierarchy via its associations with ideas about black violence, queer orality, and cognitive disability; Chen contends that lead provoked such intense anxiety because it destabilized race, class, sexuality and ability, performing the vulnerability of these categories of privilege. Lead, having become animate itself, threatened to drag other bodies down on the animacy hierarchy.”

Computers and Writing!

I’m SO excited for the 2015 Computers and Writing Conference. I’m presenting with some super-smart women (Angela Haas, Kristin Arola, Michelle Eble), and I’ll be talking about how aesthetics bridge cognition and sense perception (look u Anne Wysocki’s recent work for more on that) in medical contexts. Some questions I hope to raise include:

  • How do computer-based artifacts such as patient-accessible records or the sonogram image function aesthetically?
  • How does this process influence access to and understanding of  treatments?
  • How do such objects influence diagnoses and/or doctor-patient relationships? 
  • How might we intervene in these perceptions and invent new uses of computerized data to more effectively bridge the cognition and sensory work done by our bodies?