Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Cutting It Off: Bodily Integrity, Identity Disorders, and the Sovereign Stakes of Corporeal Desire in U.S. Law

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Cutting It Off: Bodily Integrity, Identity Disorders, and the Sovereign Stakes of Corporeal Desire in U.S. Law

Article excerpt

DESCARTES THE WANNABE: AMPUTATION AND LIBERAL PHILOSOPHY

In the Discourse on Method and Meditations Concerning First Philosophy, Descartes prefaces his much-famed cogito with a curious series of physical acts. Before announcing that he thinks, and therefore he is, Descartes first dismembers himself, asking what of his "I" would remain were he to amputate his ears, his arms, his eyes (Dayan 1995). Descartes concludes: "Although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, I recognize that if a foot or arm or any other part of the body is cut off, nothing has thereby been taken away from the mind" (Descartes 1986, 59). Even as Descartes degrades, discards, and dismisses physical experience in relation to human subjectivity, his "discovery" of a first principle ofthat humanity nonetheless depends on his traversement and modification of a corporeality that he calls his own. Invoking a prior "whole" body that properly belongs to or lies under the domain of his "I," Descartes arrives at his enlightenment through a fantasy of his ability to discorporate, take apart that supposed prior whole. His sovereignty of self follows from a sovereignty of corpus. Or, if a regime of sovereignty might bleed into a regime of property, his self becomes his own (Best 2004).

In considering the political and inherited stakes of what makes a body one's own or sovereign, of what makes a body count as whole, and of the privileges that counting as whole might bring, I am writing this essay squarely on the backs of many infinite others. I do so in the hope of building an intellectual practice that responds to the exploitative, violent connections between the juridical sovereignty of the U.S. state and the enforcement of corporeal "wholeness" or "integrity." For example, Nikki Sullivan and Susan Stryker have an important forthcoming article on this very subject. Focusing on self-demand amputation and transsexual surgery, Sullivan and Stryker trace the concept of bodily integrity through histories of the sovereign in order to show how urgendy we have been missing a critique of "integrity" as an enabling fiction that works to legitimize all-too-material distributions of capital, property, and freedom in a contemporary sphere.

In the end, Descartes, stripped of his limbs and eyes and ears at his own volition, triumphandy proclaims that he has become what he has always truly been, "a thinking thing" (Descartes 1986). The "thinking" aspect aside, I am struck by the ease with which Descartes elides into reification, into a thing rather than subject "I" with which he began. For Descartes, the assertion and imagining of agency that allows him to become an individuated subject also allows him to throw it all away, to become not a subject but a thing. In this sense, his self-amputation, his musculation into thing-ness marks the apotheosis and exemplary state of his newly minted subjecthood.

How to read this moment, then, knowing full well that in the United States, the making of people-as-things was the juridical prerogative of hundreds of years of African chattel slavery, of laws that guaranteed that wives would function as the property of husbands and girls as the property of fathers (Best 2004; Farley 2004; Johnson 2003; Pateman 1988)? It seems easy to say that the problem here might be a notion of liberal consent, or agency - that what matters is whether "you" or "I" make me into a thing (Johnson 2003). Rather than attempt to scale the philosophical peak of Mount Agency direcdy, however, in this essay I will attempt to make a series of small cuts and observations into the sexed and gendered politics of bodily integrity in contemporary U.S. law. In doing so, I am leaving aside much work on the particularly raced character of U.S. state sovereignty, and on how the connections between bodily integrity and U.S. state sovereignty continue to organize around white supremacy. Here I am mindful of Timothy Mitchell's writing on the process by which writers fetishize, reify, and unify state effects and processes through the repetition of "the state" as a literary and substantive conceit. …

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