REVIEW: Biopolitics of the ‘Modern Body’: Contemporary Dilemmas

bipolitics panel_blog
Emily Martin, Ed Cohen and Rebecca Young

“Biopolitics of the ‘Modern Body’: Contemporary Dilemmas”
Ed Cohen, Rutgers University
Emily Martin, New York University
Rebecca Young, Barnard College

New York University, 7 October 2009

This forum moderated by Emily Martin with Ed Cohen and Rebecca Young brought together their work in fascinating ways. It was both a two-pronged lecture and a meditation on “the” body and the ongoing search for the physical addresses of concepts like health, immunity, and sexuality. Together the two lectures made an ultimately Foucaldian point about just where that hinge is between the individual and the population and how we navigate the two.


My left arm sore from the hinge between self and community—arming myself for the ones I love at the NYU Medical Center that day, I was prepped for Ed Cohen’s talk. Beginning with the presumed equivalence between being a person and having a body (“just who or what has the body that I supposedly am?”), Cohen moved through the juridico-political history of the ways that immunity has been constructed as defense. In this idea of immunity we declare, “war on cancer” and “kill the germs that cause bad breath” creating untimely political acts in which defense is something very different than healing and our individuality provides the front line against disease. (And all this is quite topical, as Cohen points out, when you look at the current debates in Washington in which nationalized health care really will swiftly take down all vestiges of American individualism.) With something like SWINE FLU (about which I feel I can use this parenthetical venue to safely admit my 24hr-news-cycle-style-total-horror-all-the-time) Cohen raises the point: Why is the political question how fast can you get out the vaccines and who is first in line to take them instead of why the hell are so many people living next door to so many pigs? Why the focus on defense and not coexistence?   At this point my notes devolve into speculative swine flu fantasy, but I have ordered Cohen’s book:


Because it looks amazing.

Rebecca Young’s was illuminating in a very different direction.  Positing her talk within three sites—two recent and well-publicized  sexuality studies and the historical struggle for a physical diagnosis of pedophilia—Young examines the scientific search for “objective measures of desire ” through scientific apparatus. The terms penile or vaginal plethysmography were new to me (but since her talk, I have been saying “plethysmography” in my head a lot), and the Internet has provided some illustrations:


Take a gander over at io9 to see some more.

Young points us to Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisted from the New York Times in 2005 in which bisexuality in men is scientifically disproved (ahem) by the kinds of “scientific and objective” measurements like the kinds depicted in the above images. In the later study What Do Women Want published this year in the New York Times women are shown scientifically and objectively (ahem) to have no kind of fixed sexuality because they are aroused by a multitude of sexual images. Including of primates. Well then. This omni-sexuality is theorized as an evolutionary adaptation to the constant threat of rape. Young provides us with not only with a problematized view of the merits, scientific or otherwise of these studies, but also brings up the question: where is the pressure coming from to do them? How is it that sexual orientation is “an important and meaningful thing to know about people in the first place?”

Far more troubling is the use of penile plethysmography in studies that seek to define pedophilia. The penile plethysmograph was developed in the 1950s by researcher Kurt Freund and first used to weed out draft dodgers claiming to be homosexual. As work with the plethysmograph continued, Freund began turning his work to the study of pedophilia and hebephilia in the 1960s at the Clark Institute in Canada. Young highlights the ways this work is deeply flawed—the fact that the tests can be learned and responses controlled after as little as one session, the weight of the tests falling on homosexual contact (to be designated as a pedophile an individual had to have sexual contact with two girls or one boy) and the exclusion of cases of incest from the control group. Family abuse situations were considered too “messy” and thus fathers and stepfathers that abused their daughters (a frequently unreported crime) were not included in testing—amounting to a systematic denial of incest.

In all three of these studies, the scientific search for the “physical address” of sexual orientation and desire in physical responses leaves skewed notions of safety and sexual danger, a physical address that in the end leads us to the bio-politics of the modern body. Paraphrasing Young: “in what way is this a good measure?”

Carole Vance and Rebecca Young
Carole Vance and Rebecca Young

The panel was followed by lively debate that, as always, you are encouraged to continue in the comments section below.

by Lydia Brawner, NYU Peformance Studies Ph.D. candidate