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Joanna Latimer “Rewriting Bodies, Portraiting Persons?”

January 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Latimer, Joanna 2013. Rewriting Bodies, Portraiting Persons? The New Genetics, the Clinic and the Figure of the Human. Body & Society 19(4): 3-31.

By suggesting how bodies are not, as previously understood, bounded, contained, homogeneous, fixed and integrated entities, the individual whole persons of humanist thought, made up of substance that is uniquely them, emergent understandings from the biosciences have the possibility of changing perceptions of the body, and thereby of the existence of human beings. That is, contemporary discoveries in molecular biology seem to trouble the self/not-self division that is the defining feature performed by the figure of the individual body. (7)

The new genetics thus puts into play an idea that ‘[w]ithin ‘‘us’’ is the most threatening other – the propagules, whose phenotype we temporarily are’ (Haraway, 1991: 217). Second, breakthroughs made possible because of new genetic techno-science offer ways of rethinking body-persons as made up of substance from a much wider gene pool, and of the body as the temporary and partial expression of a genotype. Within this perspective it is the DNA that is immortal, and the genes that are the ‘time travellers’, while the body or soma is just the transport vehicle, the hired car, the temporary and dispensable host for their reproduction (Olshansky and Carnes, 2001). (7)

Medical textbooks are full of such images. These portraits are classic depictions of a human figure in a specific pose, such as Londe’s portrait of hysteria (Figure 1). The figure is taken not so much to represent him- or herself, but as representing the disease category to which they are being assigned: the figure is being read as signifying the pathology. But engaging with clinical pictures as forms of portraiture is also important because, as Jordanova suggests (2000, 2003), portraits are mobile objects that circulate culturally and socially specific ideas about body–self relations and personhood. For example, Albert Londe’s portrait shows that the effects of hysteria are totalizing, so that the woman embodies the illness. But the form of the portrait also individuates, not just hysteria, but the body-self and personhood. (11)

Clinicians draw upon these clinical methods of assemblage and juxtaposition to differentiate when what is abnormal or unusual about bodies, parts, persons and even families, represents a phenotype. This is because for the most part, there is no genetic technology (molecular test) that can make anomalies visible at the molecular level (see also Reardon and Donnai, 2007). (13)

The relation that gets implied in how dysmorphologists construct their clinical pictures is between the particular features of a syndrome, the notion of a phenotype, and, as such, perhaps the expression of an atypical, aberrant genotype. At moments, it is this relation, the syndrome–genotype, that dysmorphology’s portraits evoke. The aberrations may be as tiny as a single gene defect. For example, where, to use the expression of one expert, ‘a bit of chromosome has fallen off and landed in the wrong place’. The suggestion implied by how geneticists assemble their clinical pictures, then, is that how people and their bodies look and function (the phenotype) may not just be evidence of a syndrome but also that the syndrome is the effect of a specific aberrant (but as yet invisible) genotype, a syndrome–genotype relation. (14)

The portrait in dysmorphology does not always reduce to the figure of an individual, rather the figure of a syndrome–genotype relation emerges in the partial connection between the assemblage and juxtaposition of materials deriving from different bodies. In the clinic the portrait makes a (temporary) space that cannot (yet) settle all the division and connections between all the parts across different bodies. And it is this that is the defining feature of some of dysmorphology’s portraits. The complexity and heterogeneity of the defining features of a syndrome need to be distributedfor them to stand as a phenotype, and the visible expression of the syndrome–genotype relation. Critically, what is implicit in these juxtapositions and dysmorphologists’ readings of them, is that there is something about the substance of the bodies of individuals that is not unique to them, but is shared, or at least held in common, to use Strathern’s term. What is exceptional is being able to make the portraits show that it is not simply a disease that is shared, rather it is the common genetic substance, the genotype, that is pathological, and that the syndrome is the expression, or phenotype, of this common genotype, distributed across different bodies. (18)

Rather, what dysmorphology’s portraits perform is that it is the syndrome–genotype that is made of fragments, not persons. (19)

At the same time, then, as the face of a child may be effaced (Bauman, 1990) by the genetic, the actors responsible for them – the clinicians, the parents – are not effacing their humanity even as they constitute their abnormality. It is the syndrome–genotype that does that. This means that at the same time as clinicians draw upon a notion that the child’s condition is biologically determined rather than socially or culturally conditioned, they hold to an idea that there is an essence to persons, that people have a real nature, that a child is unique and essentially human, despite abnormalities of appearances, appearances on the surface and in the depths of the body. In these ways the integral, discrete body is what helps to create the figure of the individual, but the individual, to be truly human, and transcend their bodiedness, must be able to ‘disembody’. (21)

The relation between the integral, contained, corporeal body and that of the autonomous individual helps perform the figure of the human. This figure of the human isthe cultural icon that underpins most contemporary forms of social organization in the West, including sociological theory itself (Skeggs, 2004, 2011; Strathern, 2006). But alongside this idea of the individuated body-self, runs the paradoxical and parallel seam of western thought that detaches rationality from the body: the individual, at moments of choice and autonomous decision-making, to be rational, must have knowledge from a singular, undivided perspective, a perspective that stands outside the plane of personal (that is bodily) action (Latimer, 2007a; Strathern, 1992). (22)

Against notions of the integral, contained body, individuals, to be fully human, also have to demonstrate a capacity for detachment. To attain the singular perspective of rationality, ‘man’ must be able to disembody. (22)

Paradoxically it is the figure of the person as integral body and a unique discrete consciousness that helps to portray the individual as human. To be fully human, and transcend their bodiedness, the individual must be able to detach rather than simply ‘disembody’, as many have read Descartes (Foucault, 1979). (22)

The human, once distinguished by this detachment of consciousness, is thus able to settle into a complex whole. Curiously it is not the envelope of the body, its form that can be caught in paint or a photograph, so much as it is this signing of a detachment of consciousness from bodily experiences that defines the individual. Yes, representations of the corporeal body must take up most of the painting, photograph or sculpture, but it is the capture of the character (the eyes, stance and gesture) that enliven the flesh and make these more than a representation of a corpse. To be seen as human, persons must exhibit characteristics, such as willpower, desire, vulnerability or moral strength. (23)

The figure of the individual is thus performed as a distinctive person who is much more than the sum of their bodily parts. This doubling of figures is one of the paradoxes of dominant body–self relations. (23)