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Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 47-71

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Human Remains:
Identity Politics in the Face of Biotechnology

Annette Burfoot

Human Materiality—Some Key Theoretical Debates on What Matters

Judith Butler drew deservedly significant attention when she introduced the concept of gender performativity in 1990. Regrettably for Butler, this concept of performativity tended to be misinterpreted as it was gladly taken up by those looking to reconstruct heterosexism, which was considered normal subjectivity. Butler wrote Bodies That Matter in 1993 partly in response to this misinterpretation and focused on the materiality (rather than performance) of sexual difference. Generally speaking, Butler's later analysis (which is canonic according to Karen Barad [1998, 90]) fits well into the larger postmodern project to replace the Cartesian subject with a discursive, roaming subjectivity, unhinged from the body. It also engages with feminist debates (commonly reduced to essentialism versus constructionism) that occur both within and against postmodernism and center on what constitutes and signifies difference. Both these feminist debates and broader-based analyses of identity rely on the body as a primary site. For many postmodernists (including those claiming a feminist politic such as Butler), the body is a site of departure. For others, like the feminist philosopher Somer Brodribb—who published her feminist analysis of postmodernism Nothing Matters in 1992, a year before Butler's Bodies That Matter—the body remains significantly distinct according to gender. More recently, those interested in the intersection of body politics and technoscience, including Karen Barad, have taken up these arguments to expand the discussion [End Page 47] beyond purely theoretical and bodily confines. It is this wrangling over the body, its symbolic load, and the meaning of matter that is discussed here. Of particular concern is how matter is conceptualized by Butler, Brodribb, Barad, and Hayles, and not only in terms of the human body. I propose a new term, "biopleasure," to appreciate the signification of matter in the context of contemporary technoscientific speculations of bodies as atomized, degendered, and nonhuman.

The specific context of this discussion is professional and popular cultures of biotechnology. Hayles also articulates a relationship between scientific practice and cultural production when she claims, "culture circulates through science no less than science circulates through culture. The heart that keeps this circulatory system flowing is narrative—narratives about culture, narratives within culture, narratives about science, narratives within science" (1999, 21-22). There have been many and varied analyses of particular aspects of biotechnology (such as new reproductive technologies and genetic screening), including those from a cultural point of view. My approach is broadly based and analyzes a wide range of cultural productions, both professional and popular, that treat biotechnology as a single spectacle (Burfoot 1999). This approach resonates with Eugene Thacker's critique of genetic progress or "extropianism." I include recent developments in genetic and reproductive engineering that are centered on the so-called assisted reproductive intervention, in vitro fertilization. I cross-examine the settings of reproductive technology's professional culture with representations of procreativity found in popular culture. I am particularly interested in the science fiction film series Aliens, the quasi-journalistic formations around viral threat, and the film The Matrix. I maintain that such an intracultural analysis illustrates and explains why matter as a form of biopleasure remains gender-distinct. It also explains that posthumanism, especially as formulated in technoscience, can be seen to reify the objectification of the body in terms of denying its formative role and by affirming it as irreducible atomic matter. Biopleasure speaks to the combined and contradictory nature of biotechnology narratives that simultaneously dehumanizes, demonizes, and eroticizes human being. The extension of agency to the nonhuman and the technological confirms the relaxed state of boundaries of being and perpetuates the tradition of denigrating human matter as dumb. [End Page 48]

Biopleasure as an Introduction

Although the term "biopleasure" appears to be a development of Foucault's biopower, I don't wish to use Foucault to signal and validate my analysis of material, bodies, and sexual difference as discursive. It is surprising and disturbing to me how often feminist writers, especially those that engage...


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