Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death

Carlo Strenger. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 10, Issue 3. July-September 2009.

Psychoanalysis has come a long way. Once upon a time the discipline was replete with normative views on everything from sexuality through anger to the way we should run our relationships, an “etiquette book of good mental behavior,” as Adam Phillips (1995, p. 87) has called it. Since then psychoanalysis has opened up significantly; starting with homosexuality, the notion of perversion has come under critical scrutiny (e.g., Chodorow, 1994). Theorists have become very alert to the extent to which psychoanalytic developmental judgments are often nothing more than rationalizations of cultural stereotypes, prejudice, and preconceptions about the “natural” and the “healthy.”

Michel Foucault (1984) once said that philosophy for him is to find out that we always have a little bit more freedom than we thought. This might be a rather good description of the ethics of psychoanalysis and other disciplines that try to emancipate us from conceptions and practices of division that limit our freedom. Foucault’s spirit indeed hovers over the three papers that investigate a topic that is fraught with preconceptions. The common denominator I see in them is that Pitts-Taylor, Sullivan, and Knafo take a hard look at a new form of classificatory gaze, a judgmental form of social classification, that prevents both women and men from assuming agency and authorship over their lives. All three authors, deeply versed in feminist theory, cultural criticism, and psychoanalysis show how the suspicious gaze of the ideology of political correctness at times can become another form of normalizing discourse instead of the emancipatory activity it claims to be.

Victoria Pitts-Taylor addresses a phenomenon that has reached huge proportions in recent years. Plastic surgery is a multibillion industry. Its clients include all genders, races, and social classes, and its goals range from reparative surgery to purely cosmetic interventions. The great variety of available procedures has led to many blessings, starting with restoring damaged limbs and facial injuries after accidents and ending with the possibility of operating on harelips in early infancy.

Pitts-Taylor courageously tells us about her own experience as a plastic-surgery patient and raises a very pertinent question. Left-leaning circles in the humanities and social sciences tend to be comfortable in accepting body modifications when they express some form of subversive protest against the phallocentric order, capitalism, or bourgeois morality. But plastic surgery in most cases is motivated by much more “standard” motivation: the desire to look better and to feel better about one’s body and/or to be more attractive to objects of the other (or the same) sex. Paradoxically, these motivations are viewed less favorably. “In my academic milieu, cosmetic surgery carries a charge of victimization, pathology, or vanity,” Pitts-Taylor writes (xx).

It is to be assumed that very few people will dispute the positive impact of these technologies in such cases. Who would say that sparing a child the humiliation of feeling defective by operating on a harelip is bad? We would certainly not attribute this operation to the parents’ narcissism or see vanity, excessive self-preoccupation, or caving in to social demands and trying to “normalize” the child.

The question is, where do we draw the limit? Must a limit be drawn? If a man suffers horribly from early balding, why should we say that a hair transplant is an indication of excessive vanity (for fair disclosure: I have been shaving my head for many years; does this count as a body modification too?).

I have spoken to women who have felt tremendous relief after undergoing plastic surgery on their excessively large breasts. Think of the following: If my next sentence were, “Because they finally got rid of the back pain engendered by the breast’s weight,” I have no doubt we would all nod approvingly. If the next sentence were, “Because they were happy to get rid of the ostensive gaze of both men and women on their bosom,” many of us might start feeling uncomfortable. We might wonder whether these women were not victims of the patriarchal order or the normalizing gaze. Finally, if the next sentence were, “Because they felt more attractive now,” as Pitts-Taylor points out, the reaction could be “How vain” or “Did they have to cave in to pressure?” or “Why do they have to fit the stereotype of beauty imposed by men and the beauty industry?”

I feel a strong affinity to the type of disciplined, nonjudgmental contemplation that Pitts-Taylor, Sullivan, and Knafo exercise in their papers. It has become politically correct to react with suspicion to anything that could be interpreted as trying to fit into the established order. Pitts-Taylor’s paper raises the question whether the ideology of political correctness has not created a new form of paternalism (maybe one should call it “maternalism”) in which academics and mental health professionals, under the guise of emancipatory discourse, impose a new form of thought policing: women are not supposed to want to look attractive, or at least they must hide these desires behind more politically correct formulations that pertain to either health or the enhancement of autonomy. Men are supposed to rebel against gender stereotypes if they are not to be classified as outdated machos caught in old-fashioned conceptions of masculinity.

My point is by no means to endorse any form of body modification without questioning. At times I even think that one of the most ubiquitous and seemingly unproblematic forms of shaping the body, working out at the gym, can go to obsessive extremes that need to be questioned and investigated theoretically and clinically (Strenger, 1998, chap. 1). Whenever a patient of mine contemplates cosmetic surgery, I at least invite her to think it through, and at times the result of the dialogue is that the plan is dropped. My point is rather that, as Pitts-Taylor suggests, we must not fall into the trap of judging every “standard” motivation for body modification of any sort automatically according to the idea that seeking to be attractive is a reflection of patriarchal victimization.

Nikki Sullivan writes about another practice that has moved from the fringes of society into the mainstream, tattooing. She notes that social scientists from a variety of disciplines still tend to think of this practice as indicative of some kind of pathology or at least marginality, possibly with some predictive value for future criminality. Sullivan points out the extent to which such judgments are out of touch with recent thinking about the body. I add that they are curiously out of touch with social reality, given that tattooing has become common, even in the mainstream of society as with lawyers and doctors.

Sullivan points out how the suspicious gaze of psychiatrists and criminologists has now been augmented by politically correct judgmentality. “Of course, the pathologization of tattooed bodies is not confined to criminology and psychology. Feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys considers tattooing (along with piercing, transsexual surgery, cosmetic surgery, foot-binding, corsetry, sadomasochism, scarification, anorexia and bulimia, substance abuse, the amputation of digits, penilectomies, and cutting) to be an example of self-mutilation, or, when performed by others, ‘self-mutilation by proxy.’ Although Jeffreys recognizes that the Usted practices are hugely diverse, she argues that we should ‘be aware of the similar origins of all of these practices,’ that is, patriarchal abuse” (xx). Sullivan shows that this new type of summary interpretation of any body modification as a symptom of patriarchal abuse ultimately ends up denying individuals the right over their body and inhibits rather than enhances agency.

This brings us to Danielle Knafo, who investigates a single case that is certainly more at the fringes, the body artist Orlan, who has gone to quite extreme lengths in shaping her body in an ongoing project involving rather unusual procedures. Knafo ponders a variety of possible psychodynamic explanations of Orlan’s way of life and art but refrains from simply pathologizing Orlan. Instead Knafo takes Orlan’s project seriously as an indication of where our posthuman future lies. Could Orlan be seen as an indication of how our posthuman future (Fukuyama, 2002) might look? Could it be that Orlan creates herself as an early experiment of how humans might live in a future not far removed?

The Denial of Death and the Enlightenment Project

Knafo’s analysis is thought provoking because she opens the possibility that Orlan expresses an aspect of the modern project of conquering nature, and ultimately death, in extremis. I take this interpretation of Orlan as the starting point of my reflections on the phenomenon of body modification. Ernest Becker, in his seminal The Denial of Death (1974) has put forward the hypothesis that evolution has created an unbearable tension in the human species. We are the only known animal aware of its own death, but we are still endowed with the profound terror of death instilled in us by our animal past. As a result, the denial of death is one of the deepest motivations of humanity, and Becker suggests that the deepest function of cultural belief systems is to serve this denial.

Becker’s theory was taken up by three young researchers in social psychology in the 1980s. Psyczinsky, Solomon, and Greenberg (2003) succeeded in turning Becker’s theory into one of the most successful research paradigms in academic psychology, Terror Management Theory (TMT). They have been remarkably fruitful in generating explanations for a host of social phenomena ranging from prejudice, cultural stereotyping, and irrational voter behavior to suicide terrorism. They show how deep T. S. Eliot’s line “humankind cannot bear much reality” cuts in all venues of life.

Becker (1974) has argued that one of the ways of dealing with the terror of death is to take a heroic attitude. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. The Homeric Greeks tried to do so through deeds that would immortalize the warrior’s name forever, the classical Greeks by creating works and ideas that would stay on forever. One of the deepest motivations of artists, scientists, and other creators is to enter the pantheon of names that will never be forgotten.

My hypothesis, in accordance with Knafo’s interpretation of Orlan’s project, in a nutshell, is as follows. Could it be that one of the deepest motivations behind body modification is precisely the denial of death that Becker (1974) puts at the center of human motivation? Could it be that the extremes to which Orlan goes highlight something that is hidden in the more common phenomena of tattooing, and even more so, of plastic surgery?

In developing my hypothesis we need to see the phenomena in question in a wider historical context. The denial of death takes on many forms. TMT and other forms of evolutionary psychology (Atran, 2002) have been very successful in explaining the most pervasive and historically most successful form of the denial of death: religion. Most forms of religion assert that physical death is not death tout court but only the end of one form of existence. This idea is at the core of the three major monotheistic religions and plays a role in most other forms of religion as well. Through rituals and public assertions of loyalty to one’s religion, believers place themselves squarely into a community based on the idea that its members will survive death in some form.

As has been pointed out by intellectual historians (Gay, 1966, 1969), atheism was not a real option in the Western world well into the 18th century. One of the reasons for this historical fact is that there were no powerful explanatory frameworks that allowed understanding the natural world. This began to change through the scientific revolution with its series of dramatic successes in explaining ever growing aspects of nature.

The success of science was not just theoretical, though. In the 18th century the possibility that humankind would take its destiny in its own hands began to look like a reasonable expectation. The enlightenment movement, particularly as expressed by the French philosophes and their banner project, the Encyclopédie, argued that the time had come for humankind to stop accepting powerlessness as a given of existence (Gay, 1969). Instead, as the Encyclopédie was supposed to document, the arts, technology, and the sciences would make it possible to run human affairs rationally and effectively.

Organized religion, the philosophes argued, was an expression of the helplessness of humankind up to this point. David Hume argued that superstitions of all sorts were directly correlated to helplessness. The enlightenment now offered an existential and theoretical alternative to the flight into ingratiating ourselves with fictitious deities to get their protection. Instead we would strive toward the point where humankind would be in such control over its destiny that it would no longer have the need for organized religion, magical thinking, and superstitions of all sorts. The Encyclopédie proudly showed how far humankind had already moved ahead in this project; how many solutions engineering, architecture, the crafts, and, of course, science had already generated in bettering the lot of humans (Gay, 1969).

Nevertheless, only with the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution did atheism become an intellectually viable option for many. Finally the puzzle of how life had emerged had at least received the outline of an answer; there was a blueprint leading up the evolutionary ladder. Throughout the 20th century this answer was developed further in giant leaps: molecular genetics, the discovery of the DNA by Watson and Crick, and the ensuing development of technologies for genetic engineering, culminating in the mapping of the human genome at the beginning of the 21st century.

This is where we come back to our topic. The horror of death had largely remained unmitigated throughout the scientific revolution. Although the functioning of the human body was gradually deciphered by discoveries like blood circulation, the biological cell, the possibility of intervening in the body remained very limited. Only the 20th century brought dramatic advances in medical science and its ability to cure and prevent illness. From the discovery of antibiotics to heart transplants, the development of medical technologies led to the point where the dream of changing the human condition no longer seemed to belong to the domain of mythology or science fiction. Scientists were beginning to speak seriously about the possibility of deciphering and intervening in the genetic mechanism of aging.

“Antiaging” has become the pop name of a hugely profitable multibillion-dollar industry, even though none of the products sold have a real effect on the speed of the aging process (Wick, 2002). Some antiaging gurus have gone as far as to claim that virtual immortality is around the comer. Inventor Ray Kurzweil (Kurzweil and Grossman, 2005) explains how he takes 250 (no, this isn’t a typo: two hundred fifty) food supplements a day to slow down his body’s aging. His scenario (not supported by any of the specialists in the field) is that by midcentury a combination between nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and sophisticated organ-replacement techniques will make us practically immortal. Hence Kurzweil, in his early 60s, needs to make it to the middle of the century—and he thinks he can do it with his current lifestyle.

Although Kurzweil seems to be way ahead of actual technological developments, his scenario may not be impossible in the long run. As a result a growing number of people have themselves frozen in the hope that the day will come when they can be thawed without damage and that science at that point will be able to give them eternal, or at least almost unlimited, life spans.

Body modification might be a symbolic expression of the human desire not to be subjected to brute laws of nature. There is, in the psyche, a core that always refuses to accept reality as it is and rebels against it in what I have elsewhere called the ontological protest of subjectivity. Aging and death are certainly the most extreme manifestation of our subjugation to laws of nature that we have not chosen. If in the past the rebellion against death could only take the form of fantasies of otherworldly life, or of resurrection of the body by deities, the enlightenment project has changed this rebellion dramatically.

The scientific project of life prolongation no longer assumes that a miracle needs to overrule the laws of nature to put death off indefinitely. It assumes that instead by deciphering the laws of nature on the microlevel, we will be able to change seemingly immutable laws on the macrolevel, like aging and death.

From this perspective Orlan’s project of far-reaching body modifications pushes a desire to the end that can be found behind the most ordinary facelift. Every act of surgery, plastic or other, is an assertion of the enlightenment project that laws of nature at the macrolevel can be dominated by the human will. Francis Bacon’s injunction at the beginning of the 17th century that nature must be put on the rack to disclose her secrets to us has become the battle cry that motivates researchers in all areas from the search for cures for cancer or HIV to the quest for prolonging life indefinitely.

Any wholesale acceptance or rejection, hailing or condemnation of the enlightenment project of the domination of nature and interfering with human biology is bound to be simplistic and miss too many of the ethical subtleties involved (Fukuyama, 2002). The same, I believe, holds true for the manifold phenomenon of body modification. We live in more than one sense in the age of the designed self (Strenger, 2004). This means that we need to come to terms with technological possibilities and ethics issues humankind has never faced before.

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death compared with the horrors of war and subjugation of those who think differently. Hence, while maintaining an ongoing dialogue about the ethical implications of new developments, we might as well celebrate the advances of science and hope that the day will come where both quality and length of life will be improved dramatically, even though our generation, like Moses, will only see the Promised Land from afar without ever setting foot on it.