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  • Just Life: Bioethics and the Future of Sexual Differenceby Mary Rawlinson
  • Sara Brill
Mary Rawlinson, Just Life: Bioethics and the Future of Sexual DifferenceNew York: Columbia University Press, 2016, 296pp. ISBN: 978-0-2311-7175-5

T he aim ofM aryR awlinson's Just Life: Bioethics and the Future of Sexual Differenceis nothing less than a refiguration of ethical theory and practice, away from a reliance on a concept of rights that is constitutively designed to support the interests of global capital, and toward a transformed feminist bioethics capable of acknowledging and sustaining the complex web of vulnerabilities and dependencies by means of which living beings carve out their existence. There are moments when the book's 237 pages strain under the weight and number of concerns placed upon them. But there is a powerful thread connecting each of its sections, namely a sustained critique of the deformations of life, human and otherwise, in the Capitalocene. In this, the book provides a valuable resource for spurring thought and action.

It proceeds by way of three strategies: a critique of the emergence of the concept of rights in Hobbes and Rousseau; a re-envisioned role for the ancient Greek figures of Ismene, Demeter, and Persephone in the cultural imagination; and an articulation of the ethical claims embedded in the human practices of eating and working. Rawlinson's motivation for undertaking this project is laid out clearly in the preface and introduction. If one begins with the irreducibility of sexual difference one must acknowledge that any ethical system that strives to reduce ethical agency to a single figure or principle is fundamentally [End Page 93]inadequate. For Rawlinson, the necessary corrective to such gestures is to acknowledge women's experience as no less a source of ethical universals than men's. Such an effort requires the recalibration of ethical language and perception by means of tracing the connection in the history of philosophy between property and the sexualized division of labor, and illuminating the labor such systems of thought and practice render invisible. It is rewarded by "the possibility of imagining infrastructures of life other than property, sexual propriety, and the gendered division of labor" (xxii).

Section 1, "Critique of Rights," proceeds along two trajectories. It opens by tracing the connection in Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel between the discourse of rights and a desire for ownership and domination. Rawlinson concludes that "abstract rights cannot be disentangled from the right of property, nor from the norms of sexual and racial identity that secure hierarchies of power and wealth" (48). In the complicity between the concept of rights and the commodification of human labor and generativity, Rawlinson sees already an oppressive form of biopower at work, and it is this connection between rights discourse and biopower that she treats in greater detail in the second chapter. "Capitalized Bodies: Bioethics, Biopower and the Practice of Freedom" opens with a critique of what Rawlinson sees as Foucault's tendency to "suppress" the continuity between sovereign power and biopower, and to ignore "the way in which prescriptives of sexual propriety are, from the very beginning, irretrievably intertwined with the right to property," which she reads as symptomatic of a larger "blindness on Foucault's part to the rhizomatic nature of the gender division of labor" (53). Rawlinson reads the inequality embedded in school dress codes and the broader rape culture to which they contribute, fashion and the capitalization of women's bodies, surrogacy, and medical tourism as all forms of the operation of a biopower that finds subterranean support and conceptual ground in the traditional conception of rights.

The hinge holding together the critical and speculative dimensions of the book is Rawlinson's reading of four characters from ancient Greek literature, Antigone, Ismene, Demeter, and Persephone. Section 2, "Refiguring Ethics," opens with a critique of the valorization of Antigone as a heroic ideal on the grounds that such a reading, like the character to which it is applied, "reinscribes the very infrastructures of subjection that it means to disrupt and dismantle" (85). At issue for Rawlinson is both the psychoanalytic reification of the Oedipal family and an approach to...


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