Technicity, Temporality, Embodiment: Guest Editors’ Introduction
Kamillea Aghtan, Akkadia Ford, Erika Kerruish, Rebecca Olive, Karin Sellberg and Elizabeth Stephens
We are delighted to introduce this special virtual issue of Australian Feminist Studies, timed to coincide with the “Technicity, Temporality, Embodiment” conference in Byron Bay, Dec 2016. This conference is the tenth international conference on Somatechnics held since 2003, when the first, “Body Modification: Changing Bodies, Changing Selves” was held at Macquarie University in Sydney, co-convened by Nikki Sullivan, Samantha Murray and Elizabeth Stephens. The Somatechnics research network grew out of this event. Recent conferences have been held in Linköping (2013), Otago (2014) and Tucson (2015).
The term “somatechnics” itself was coined in 2003, and was intended to provide a new critical framework through which to rethink the relationship between technologies and embodiment. As Nikki Sullivan argues in a recent issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly: “techné is not something we add or apply to the already constituted body (as object), nor is it a tool that the embodied self employs to its own ends. Rather, technés are the dynamic means in and through which corporealities are crafted” (TSQ 1.1-2 2014).
Our articles span a period of almost 25 years, with our earliest text (“Burney, Linda. “An Aboriginal Way of Being Australian” by Linda Burney) published in 1994, and this is also roughly the period in which scholarship in this area has taken shape and blossomed. It is unsurprising that so many regular participants in the Somatechnics conferences, and so many ground breaking papers by the feminist scholars who have inspired and enabled us, can be found in the pages of Australian Feminist Studies. This special issue brings together a series of important papers by participants in this year’s conference and the scholars whose work has established the conceptual and critical space in which it takes place. The “Technicity, Temporality, Embodiment” conference puts recent work on bodily techniques and embodied technologies in dialogue with recent theories of time and temporalities, as well as feminist, queer and trans historiography. Philosophies of time and critical investigations of past, present and future technologies have long been important concerns in studies of embodiment. Studies of the historical construction of gender and embodied memory, as well as various durational approaches to materiality, have revealed the important role played by technicity and temporality in the construction of corporealities. Points of intersection and divergence between such critical conceptions of time and technology, and recent science studies open up a further set of directions. Our special issue is divided into three sections, each of which relates to a keyword in the conference there, although, significantly, each of the papers also discusses the relationship between them in important ways.
Our special issue begins with a series of articles that reflect specifically on technicity as it relates to embodiment. Nikki Sullivan’s “Transsomatechnics and the Matter of ‘Genital Modification’” elaborates a new theory of transsomatechnics that further develops Sullivan’s earlier work on somatechnics. As Sullivan notes, the term somatechnics was coined in an attempt to articulate the always-already technologised character of bodily formation and transformation, and the necessarily material (or enfleshed) character of technology: “The term somatechnics thus aims to supplant the logic of the ‘and’, suggesting that modes and practices of corporeality are always-already, and without exception, in-relation and in-process: they necessarily transect and/or transgress what dominant logic conceives as hermetically sealed categories (of practice, embodiment, being, and so on).” This double gesture at the heart of somatechnics provides new theoretical orientations towards trans* studies that simultaneously acknowledge the epistemological force of the term ‘genital modification’ and problematise its identity and the exclusions by which it proceeds.
Vicki Kirby’s “Subject to Natural Law: A Meditation on the ‘Two Cultures’ Problem” provides a larger philosophical context for the issues central to the “double gesture” at the heart of Sullivan’s analysis. In this field-defining article, Kirby questions and renegotiates the poststructuralist Nature/Culture divide, present in, among others, Judith Butler’s work. Kirby teases out a way to think of Nature without assuming some form of fixity and negativity. Building on the work of Elizabeth Wilson and Michel Foucault, she argues in favour of a feminist scholarship that embraces a broader and less determined approach to Nature/Culture and binaries in general.
Karin Sellberg’s “Transitions and Transformations: From Gender Performance to Becoming Gendered” also questions the over-determined nature of Butler’s approach to the Nature/Culture divide. Investigating jarring discourses of authenticity and embodiment in feminist, queer and transgender scholarship, she formulates a more fluid ontology, based on Rosi Braidotti’s construction of a Deleuzean/Irigarayan nomadic subjectivity.
Elizabeth Stephens’ “Venus in the Archive: Anatomical Waxworks of the Pregnant Body” examines the production and public display of gynaemorphic waxworks of the pregnant body, exhibited in sites of popular entertainment from the early eighteenth century until the end of the nineteenth century. The article examines how these waxworks reveal cultural assumptions and expectations about the female body and maternity. At the same time, it offers a new understanding of the history of medicine by showing that, far from comprising a dominant discourse, at this time the study of anatomy was highly disreputable. The public exhibition of anatomical Venuses played a key role in establishing anatomy as a respectable and cultural powerful field of research.
In 2003, Linda Burney was the first Indigenous Woman to be elected to the NSW Parliament, and this year, she became the first Indigenous Australian woman to be elected into the Australia House of Representatives. While women collectively remain an under-represented group in politics, Burney’s milestones are a national reminder of the complexities of subjectivity. The inclusion of Burney’s “An Aboriginal Way of Being Australian” foregrounds the importance of intersections of scholarship with political, activist and public life, as well as a celebration of Burney’s achievements.
The second section of our special issue concentrates particularly on issues of temporality. The oscillation between matter and time in so many critical conceptualisations of being and experience ensure the increasing and perhaps unavoidable imbrication of time and materiality in feminist ontological positionings. Luciana Parisi’s “An Archigenesis of Experience” interrogates a problematic relation between experience and time, posing a challenging and incisive question: how can a feminist understanding of experience – as nanomovements of matter, an archigenetic politics/poetics of becoming – unbalance and rethink a superfluid metaphysics of continuity which so commonly defines genetics, heredity, even the linear bio-logic of sexual difference?
In an investigation of feminism’s complicated relationship to history and historicism, Claire Colebrook constructs an incisive and comprehensive analysis of feminist philosophies of time. In “Stratigraphic Time, Women’s Time”, she argues for “a feminist aesthetics that is also a form of historicism and counter-historicism.” Referring to Rita Felski’s notion of a feminist counter-public sphere, she points out that in the formation of a historical past there is also a feminist non-historical past that should be harnessed.
Penelope Deutscher’s “Repetition Facility: Beauvoir on Women's Time” focuses on Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist concept of repetition. Deutscher’s article presents a theoretical counterpoint to the strategies of embodied time and creative uses of bodies in time that link temporality and technicities. In Beauvoir’s own words: “Transcendence, imagination and creation distinguish us from animality and have temporal implications.”
Adrian Mackenzie’s concentrated and considered engagement with the qualities of contingency and the possibilities of entangling the technics of technology with Butler’s conceptions of corporeality critically anticipate the shape of contemporary somatechnics. In “Technical Materialisations and the Politics of Radical Contingency”, Mackenzie’s speculative schematisation of a radically contingent becoming-technological makes early headway into feminist temporal politics premised on asynchronicity and future indeterminism.
In “Time and Affects: Deleuze on Gender and Sexual Difference”, Paola Marrati examines Deleuze’s concept of affect as becoming. She articulates the very different perspective on the body that arises if we consider it in terms of what it does rather than as an object of knowledge. This valuable account of becoming as a mode of time explores the implications of this for thinking and living gender and sexuality.
Margaret Gibson’s “Bodies without Histories: Cosmetic Surgery and the Undoing of Time” examines the limits of consciousness and individualism in body modification projects through a discussion of mourning, memorialization and issues of time. Foregrounding issues of corporeality and temporality, Gibson reminds us that time can become both visible and erasable from the body; this resonate paper is offered as a way of thinking through the invisible and visible markers that link and connect us to other people through flesh and time.
The final section of our special issue focuses particularly in issues of embodiment. Peta Hinton and Xin Liu’s “The Im/Possibility of Abandonment in New Materialist Ontologies” engages Vicki Kirby’s Derridean approach to binary opposition, and recent criticisms of feminist new materialism by Sara Ahmed and Nikki Sullivan, to formulate an understanding of racially determined discourses and embodiment that both allow for and simultaneously abandon simple constructions of difference. Suggesting that an either/or scenario is unnecessary, they envisage the formation of a new ‘perverse ontology’ that both breaks down and re-affirms binary identity categories.
In “Dancing us to her Song. Enabling Embodiment and Voicing Disability in Heather Rose’s Dance Me to My Song”, Catherine Simpson and Nicole Matthews explore the way the actress and co-author of the film Dance Me to My Song, Heather Rose Slattery, succeeds in representing her own experience as a woman with cerebral palsy. In so doing, she enables critical engagement with notions of normative and non-normative bodies, as well as the politics of disability. Simpson and Matthews demonstrate that the film demands to be not simply placed in the ‘disability film’ genre, but rather viewed as ‘women’s film.’
Our special issue concludes with Elizabeth McMahon’s geographically significant “Puberty Blues takes feminist generationalism to the beach”. The beach is a key cultural site for the 2016 Somatechnics conference, held by the beach in Byron Bay. A central aspect of Australian national identity, it is also central to Byron Bay as a place of pleasure, exclusion, community, and economy. Beaches are contested spaces of sex, violence, leisure, play, sport, community, celebration, gathering, and exclusion, and histories of deviant bodies on public display – naked, black, queer, female, trans, obese, dis/abled – have often marked moments of activism and social and cultural transitions. In this paper, the culture of surfing (an unavoidable aspect of Byron Bay’s contemporary history, community and identity) is explored in terms of changing feminisms. The article’s focus on how experiences and ideas shift across generations, building on what has come before, resonates in terms of the shifts in surfing and beach cultures and scholarship. In both spaces, the presence of women has been central and problematic.