Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Stefanie Fishel's current project

My research lies at the intersection of political science and the life sciences. I use interpretive methodologies and science studies to open debates about life and its definition, regulation, vulnerabilities, and safekeeping in an international context.

The metaphor of the “body politic” has long been a part of political discourse even as attention to its metaphoricity has been slight. To add to this the role of (human and nonhuman) bodies as material actants (to use Bruno Latour’s term) has also been under-theorized, especially in International Relations (IR). Recent advances in medicine, biotechnology, and the natural sciences supply frameworks for examining more closely how the body, both as a metaphor and an actant, shapes our understanding of international conflict and cooperation.

I begin by investigating how body metaphors have worked in International Relations to justify or excuse acts of state violence. Simplistic metaphors likening illegal immigrants to viruses, by way of example, invite violent responses: is not the polity’s “immune system” merely defending the health of the collective? I then suggest that the traditional figure of the human body--as a self-contained and self-regulating organism--is at odds with the body made possible by new technologies. Today, organs and genomic information flow across borders and bacterial and viral communities, both symbiotic and pathogenic, clearly affect our bodies and through them our politics. The H1N1 pandemic scare with its vaccine scarcity and distribution complications are case in point. We can no longer uphold the fiction of autonomous selfhood, or the figure of the human body as a Newtonian entity with boundaries; what must that mean for institutions we “create in out own image?” Consider that the DNA of other life forms in our body outnumber us 10 to 1. What ethics and responsibilities will these discoveries complicating our definition of the human require?

The dissertation examines three developments in the physical sciences that can help social sciences revise some of their key concepts. Each of these examples reveal the extent to which human bodies are not fixed and closed systems, but “lively” containers that reflect interactions with other humans and nonhuman forms of life. In the first case, the emerging science of metagenomics--genetic analysis applied to entire communities of microbes and studied in a way analogous to a single genome--can help us re-imagine what counts as community. From this perspective it is impossible not see the similarities between relationships in the internal relations between members of microbiotic communities in the human gut and the relations between members of a political society. Just as human individuals are embedded in our environment, our bodies are home to our own communities of micro flora and fauna.

In the second case, I turn to changes in understanding human immunology to evaluate current IR theory based on negative biopolitics and exceptionalism stemming from Agamben and Schmitt. Whereas IR reproduces an image that recalls the cell membranes, it is conceivable that from my perspective that ostensibly “foreign” bodies are productive and vital to the health of the community. Just as people with a mix of microbes and eukaryotic parasites in their alimentary canal appear to suffer less intestinal disease and autoimmune disorders, so too does the health of the polis rely on flow and diversity of people. This argument overlaps with Derrida and his writings on auto-immunity. In this case, human skin is used metaphorically to depict the border as a liminal zone, or porous and “fuzzy,” rather than a barrier or obstruction between outside and inside to supply the framework for a critique of current immigration policies and border politics between the United States and Mexico.

The last example uses organ transplantation and transfer to illustrate radical forms of body politics and how they might affect ideas of what it means to be human. Medical science has made it possible to take the body apart and redistribute bodily materials. Shot through with socioeconomic and capitalist assumptions, the literature on the subject rarely asks what it might mean politically and ethically now that the human body can be disaggregated into fragments that are derived from a particular person, but are no longer constitutive of human identity. I identify these silences to add subtleties to a debate often trapped between commodification and state control.

In my work, I find cooperation from philosophers such as Spinoza and his idea of “complex bodies,” Machiavelli’s virtu and fortuna, Foucault and his lectures at the College de France, and Deleuze and Guattari and their use of the concept haecceity. I also draw on other philosophers and thinkers in the history of science and science studies such as Latour, especially helpful for a language of “things” in politics, Haraway and her work on companion species, and Canguilhem’s work writings on biology and normalization to explore new ways to imagine a more positive biopolitics. The relation of immunity and community in the writings of Esposito and the role of love and the multitude in Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth are instructive in this regard.

The above examples begin to develop a framework for a non-mechanical and materialist conception of life for the study of international politics. They force us to acknowledge from both inside and outside our bodies that Cartesian dualism and Newtonian atomism is inadequate. As our understanding of the complexity and porosity of the human body has grown, so, too, must our idea of the “body politic” and the political ethics appropriate to it. For example, the interminglings/incorporations of strangers/nonhuman life into our bodies like those identified above may lead us to create and embrace forms of global community not based on citizenship or ethnicity. What might a posthuman future look like based on these material understandings of bodies--both human and nonhuman--and their worlds? How will traditional notions of state sovereignty and policies of national security have to be altered? What other kinds of organization can we imagine beyond the Westphalian state system? How could different metaphors, such as Timothy Morton’s mesh and Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome work to transform our notions of political community? Put another way, the dissertation interrogates the ways in which we constitute ourselves--both as individuals and as groups--as biopolitical subjects and examines the consequences for the political debates surrounding immigration, security, organ trade, and biomaterial, for example.

1 comment:

  1. And we invite others to write about their research projects, as well!!