Perceiving the 21st Century Body
By Naomi Woodspring
What really is the point of sex? Would you consider having an artificial hippocampus implanted in order to restore or enhance your memory? Is taking cognitive enhancing drugs such as Ritalin legal? What shapes and informs our perceptions of life as a cyborg? These were some just of the questions presented and explored at a symposium held on the 18th May in London.
Over 50 people from a wide variety of disciplines came together to lift the lid on the notion of the 21st century body – its definitions, possibilities, boundaries and ethical frontiers, and influences of our ideas of body, twelve years into the millennium. Hosted by the Medical Anthropology department of UCL, in partnership with BioCentre and St Mary’s University College, the daylong event was divided into opening remarks and three panels. The floor was open for questions and comments at the end of each panel section allowing participants to think about each section’s presentations overall or engage in further discussion of issues raised by specific papers. Long breaks, a lunch, and a wine reception afterwards left time for people to meet and discuss the emerging themes of the day and provided a rich experience for all.
At first glance, this wide–ranging group of presentations seems to have little in common. However, the depth of perspectives from diverse disciplines and an often leisurely amount of time for open discussion after each panel, ensured cohesiveness to the day. What could have been a day of silo thinking was, instead, a blending of various disciplinary perspectives. I offer a brief summary of the presentations before presenting some post–symposium thoughts and reflections on our perceptions of the 21st century body.
Opening the symposium with some introductory comments and reflections which helped to set the tone of the day was science communicator and author, Pete Moore. His remarks regarding using the day to stay with the realities of current knowledge and ‘the possible’ in the immediate future was a helpful framework in which to construct further discussion. Pete closed his remarks with questions about a new dualism versus a new unifying paradigm inviting participants to listen to the wide variety of panels and disciplines with those questions in mind.
The first panel commenced by looking at Redefining social systems: The power of the 21st century urban body.
Enhanced, Improved, Perfected?
First up was Stephen Rainy whose presentation raised core issues within the question of what he describes as distinct but related paths: ‘Hubris and apotheosis and hubris and technology’. The paper reflected on our ways of being human within the context of nature and Kant’s point on our ‘tendency to imagine ideals’. This cautionary paper reminds us that technological advancement and the ongoing desire and pursuit of improvement may lead us to abandon some aspects of human ways of being that should not be lost. What may be lost could be our flawed selves, the selves that signify the complexity of humanness. As Stephen asks: ‘what does it mean to say x improves me?’.
What is the point of sex?
Turning to the matter of sex, Melanie Newbould’s presentation entitled “What is the point of sex?” – brought into consideration the advances of biological sex testing within the context of sport. In the twentieth century, biological sex appeared to be a simple matter of plumbing that matched XX chromosomes or XYchromosomes as a determinant of sex. Athletics is concerned with sex primarily because higher levels of testosterone mean ‘bigger, faster, stronger’. Melanie’s core question was if this categorization remains relevant in a world where biological sex testing demonstrates that there are exceptions to the simple biological rules and gender is a continuum then is gender performative instead of simply biological or is the performance of gender tied to ‘biological characteristics’?
Irritating Social Systems
The work of the prominent German sociologist Niklas Luhmann formed the focus of Francis Halsall’s presentation on “Irritating Social Systems: Luhmann and the Body”. This paper explored the work of Luhmann and 2nd order cybernetics as a lens to the 21st century body. Francis argued that, contrary to Luhmann’s analysis, bodies do exist within a ‘sociological analysis of social systems’. These discrete systems are closed and communication is internal and autonomous. Humans, Luhmann argues are ‘just another system’. Against this rather desolate description, Francis posited that even the most simple of human acts require us to interact with multiple systems, not as neutral agents but as bodies that ‘engage, observe and are observed’. Bodies move through and integrate in systems, ‘irritating them’ with possibilities for change, communication and interaction.
Turning the body into a passport or password?
The final presentation of the panel turned to the rapidly evolving field of biometrics. Matt James spoke on “Turning the body into a passport or password? Changing perceptions of identity in the face of biometrics” and addressed the virtual body, its biometric construction, and the limitations of that construction. In today’s world virtual bodies are being created with older technologies, such as iris scans and voice recognition, and the next generation, such as clocking an individual’s rhythm and gait. The 21st century body asks us to question assumptions of identity as it is not contained within in the flesh. At the centre of his presentation were questions of accuracy and efficacy of these technologies and the repercussions of this flawed technology on individual lives and the larger collective.
The lunch break gave ample opportunity for further informal discussion and exchange of ideas, alongside a superb Lebanese lunch. With natural appetites met, the second panel of the day helped to satisfy the intellectual hunger of those attending as the focus turned to The medical gaze: New perceptions of the clinical–medical body.
The Implantable Cardiac Defibrillator and wireless patients
Julie Grew’s paper explored the ‘individual, social, and ethical implications of prevention of sudden cardiac death with the Implantable Cardiac Defibrillator and remote monitoring’. The device, for some patients, was part of the development of their identity as persons with a chronic illness. For others, the defibrillator meant a means of insurance for a longer life. Some people found it difficult to adapt to the implanted device, experiencing severe problems including anxiety and depression. The defibrillator, with its constant monitoring of patients, shaped their identity, sense of self, and sense of privacy.
In 2011, a BBC News Online and New Scientist survey on cognitive enhancing drugs found that of the 761 replies collected, 38% said they had taken cognitive–enhancing drugs. The surprising trend in the use of such drugs formed the basis of the presentation made by Hannah Maslen and Imogene Goold – “Cognitive Enhancement: A perspective from Law and Medical Ethics”. Hannah and Imogene discussed their current project that examines the legal consequences of off–license use of Ritalin and Modafinil as cognitive enhancers, particularly in the area of surgical doctors. Pharmacological technologies raise questions of liability. Should surgeons be required to use them or would their use mean greater liability? The presenters pointed out that, in the near future, ‘there is a likelihood that negligence cases involving cognitive enhancement drugs will arise’ and recommendations need to be prepared to handle these cases.
Metaphors of the infertile body
Helping to turn our geographical focus to another part of Europe, Signe Mezinska and Ilze Meleiko spoke on “Metaphors of the infertile body: talking about assisted reproduction in Latvia”. Signe’s presentation opened the field to the language of the body; in this case, the metaphors used by infertile women in Latvia to describe their fertility problems and assisted reproduction. The power of language and meaning was linked to perceptions of fertility and reproductive assistance. Much of the language carried military connotations, metaphors that separated the speaker from her body. The use of these metaphors can heighten the sense of alienation and stigma for the women who use them, adding to their initial ailment.
I Remember Me: Neuroprosthetics, memory and identity
The final presentation of the afternoon presented an engaging set of questions about the questions of identity and neuroprosthetics by Yasemin J. Erden. Yasemin’s presentation, using the example of an artificial hippocampus raised a wide–range of questions from ethics to the terms of personal identity to the political–economic considerations of neuroprosthetics. One of such question addressed human dignity in the reflection of ‘the possible’ of the rapidly developing technological landscape.
Following a tea break the third and final panel of the day addressed the matter of Reconsidering enhancement: technological intimacy and the quest for new human potential.
Cyborgian Technique: How Scales Transform and Connect Us
Using the analogy of the aquarium and the shift in perspective it created when it was introduced in the Victorian Era, Aaron Parkhurst discussed three self–described cyborgs and how they call on us to shift our perception. When we draw fish, we tend to draw them from the side view, rather than looking up or down upon them. We take this for granted but this visual fact came to Western culture through the introduction of the aquarium. The lens of perception was echoed in the description of Neil Harbisson and his eyeborg. Will this early group of cyborgs change our perceptions of body?
Reevaluating the role of the aging person: The new longevity
Age UK reports that nearly 14 million people in the UK are aged 60 or over, with 1.4 million of these aged 85 or over. Mindful of this and many other age related statistics, Deborah Gale’s paper was a call for new ways to regard ageing. We are undergoing a demographic shift, in which, there are increasing numbers of older people who are living longer and longer lives. Ageism and the perception of an ageing population as a liability do not serve anyone, not older people themselves nor society at large. The ageing population described by Deborah is healthier and more able to contribute to the greater good than at previous periods of history. How do we readjust our views of ageing to make way for this new group of older people to be respected and productive members of the society?
Bodies, Machines & Metropolis
Situating the body within the urban space, Deborah Shaw asked to locate the body in relationship to our ‘co–existence with the technologies that largely construct and define both ourselves and the urban environment’. She discussed the concept of ‘posthuman urbanism’, which takes into account the profound influences and effects of a ‘new subjectivity’. Bodies embedded within the influence of urban life are, she suggests, subject to and have the ‘potential to confront, metropolitan dispotifs’.
Some Post–Symposium Thoughts
In America in 1975, my sister was in an intensive care ward in need of dialysis. At that time, the decision lay with a Community Board to decide whether or not to extend the limited resources of dialysis to her. Their decision was to say no. Fortunately, her physician pleaded her case into the wee hours of the morning and the Board, more than ready to go home and to bed, changed their decision. Three years later she received a donor kidney when the burning issue concerned the ethics of surgeons removing a healthy kidney from a healthy body.
Contrasting those experiences of the past with contemporary society, we now find ourselves in a new place with new sets of questions. It is a confluence of commerce and the open market, technology, and a profound human curiosity that has shifted the bioethical questions so far in such a relatively short period of time. Those intense questions and debates of the seventies and eighties now have a simplistic feel to them; we have crossed so many boundaries and so redefined the landscape of the possible. The neoliberal open market economies across the globe and our human penchant for curiosity and optimism create a seductive mix calling us to push at the new boundaries, moving those lines in the sand in an ever–increasing arc around our humanity.
We must review our relatively recent technological and bioethical history in the context of its time as well as what it may mean to the questions of our day. Hindsight can hold value when put in context and is an essential aspect of a bioethical toolbox when considering the future. We are not fully using the profound understanding that is part of a critique of our recent past as we redefine and reshape the body. Whether it be virtual body or the fluidity of sex and gender questions or reproductive assistance, creating a space of praxis between the possible, context, and history is vital to the 21st century body.
 BBC News Online, “Do cognitive–enhancing drugs work?” 9th November 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15600900 [accessed 1st June 2012]
 Age UK, The Agenda for Later Life, http://www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/For-professionals/Agenda%20for%20Later%20Life%202011%20-%20policy%20and%20ageing.pdf?dtrk=true
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