Read the short report written by Rafael de la Dehesa* about the 23rd Social Research Conference, held on February 10-12, 2011 at the New School University, New York City. The text brings a brief description of some of the speeches and presentations at the Conference.
The Body and the State: How the State Controls and Protects the Body
The 23rd Social Research Conference was held at the New School University on February 10-12, 2011, bringing scholars from various disciplines together to discuss “The Body and the State: How the State Controls and Protects the Body.” The conference was organized around four broad themes: the normalization of bodies; sexual bodies; rights to the body; and commerce in bodies. By putting embodied state practices under a lens, the discussions revealed the multiple ways in which bodies become sites of veridiction, targets of regulation, and battlefields for both claims to and the denial of rights.
In a paper titled “Body Politic, Bodies Impolitic,” Charles W. Mills, Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University, recalled Thomas Hobbes’ famous account of the state as a sovereign body made up of the multiple bodies within its territory, with some acting as nerves; others, as veins; others, as brains, and so on. Tracing the historic racialization of citizenship in the United States, such an image, suggested Mills, leaves open the questions of who is the anus – or “who gets to do the shit work?” — and of which “alien” bodies must be expelled to preserve the whole. This prism of citizenship as a state practice inscribing some bodies within the body politic while excluding others was a theme that recurred in several of the presentations at the event. In his paper “Ascribing Citizenship to the Muslim Body,” for example, John Bowen, Professor of Anthropology of Washington University in Saint Louis, revisited debates about the veil in France, noting a shift in opponents’ arguments from an emphasis on women’s equality to an assertion of specific notions of civility. Referring to a recent court ruling that denied a Muslim woman citizenship on the grounds that she stayed at home too much, Bowen underscored the paradox that her “defect of assimilation” could not be read a violation of public norms — if anything, she was “not public enough” – and suggested that Muslim bodily presence itself has become a barrier to citizenship.
While various authors highlighted the ways that such boundary-drawing by the state creates regimes of exclusion, others noted how the body has also become the basis for contesting such practices and claiming rights. Examining people’s use of the judicial system to claim the right to healthcare in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, João Biehl, Professor of Anthropology and Co-Director of the Program in Global Health and Health Policy at Princeton University, discussed the growing number of lawsuits filed to demand access to healthcare goods and services, now surpassing 15,000 per year, up from less than 3,000 in 2002. Over half of the plaintiffs in these cases, noted Biehl, earn less than minimum wage and rely on free legal services. Against the backdrop of a public health system that has become increasingly pharmaceuticalized and marketized, he concluded, “judicialization has become a parallel infrastructure,” allowing emerging “patient-citizen-consumers” deploying a discourse of human rights to “navigate the market and imperatives of survival.”
The nature of the state itself – and in particular the degree to which we should conceive of it as a unified, purposeful actor or as a conglomeration of diffuse and potentially contradictory practices – also emerged as a central theme in various presentations. In a paper co-authored with Tara Mulqueen titled “Securing Gender: States, Bodies, and Gender Verification,” Paisley Currah, Associate Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, pointed out that citizens’ legal sex can change from one state practice to another, often depending on the goals that a particular state actor wants to achieve. Examining recent policies adopted by the Transportation Security Administration in the United States requiring airline passengers to present their name and sex to security officials, Currah argued that such measures have transformed airport security into a site of gender verification and that their reliance on two potentially contradictory metrics of gender verification (body scans and legal documents) has led to a situation in which perceived “anomalies” become the basis for denying a series of rights.
Finally, several scholars also underscored the ideological dimension of the state by emphasizing how dominant narratives informing public policy often hide as much as they reveal about the social phenomena they purport to regulate. In a paper entitled “States of Contradiction: Ten Ways to Do Nothing About Trafficking while Pretending To,” for example, Carole Vance, Associate Clinical Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, stressed how a dominant narrative about human trafficking reflected in both legal arguments and popular culture has framed it as a crime that inevitably targets young women who are inevitably trafficked into prostitution. Noting that men and boys are also trafficked and that roughly half of the cases of trafficking in the United States involve purposes other than prostitution, she underscored the multiple ways in which this dominant narrative — reminiscent of nineteenth-century melodrama, with its clear identification of victims and villains — obfuscates a much more complex reality. Thus a singular focus on young female victims, presented as innocent and gullible, reinforces an image of a deserving victim while tacitly ignoring those deemed less deserving. The depiction of traffickers as members of international criminal syndicates also precludes attention to the intimate spheres of family and personal networks where trafficking also takes place. Above all, argued Vance, melodrama is about people, not states, institutions, or structures. The melodramatic account of human trafficking that dominates public discourse, therefore, displaces accounts of extreme labor exploitation with stories of male lust; replaces a panoply of rights to which “victims” should have access with the single right to be rescued; and subsumes any account of structural factors such as globalization and gender inequality under the category of “personal motivations.” As a result of these contradictions, she concluded, policy on trafficking is “both ineffective and reactionary.”
Overall, the discussions at the conference revealed the polyvalent ways in which body and state are mutually entangled. Doing justice to all the presentations is beyond the space permitted here. All of the conference papers will be published in two upcoming issues of Social Research: An International Quarterly.
* Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York (Staten Island Campus)