Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The New Flesh

A recent study on women's psychological responses to looking at fashion models claims that:

The rail-thin blonde bombshell on the cover of a magazine makes all women feel badly about their own bodies despite the size, shape, height or age of the viewers...all women were equally and negatively affected after viewing pictures of models in magazine ads for just three minutes.

"Surprisingly, we found that weight was not a factor. Viewing these pictures was just bad for everyone," said Laurie Mintz, associate professor of education, school and counseling psychology in the MU College of Education.
It sounds plausible, given the widespread use of Photoshop to create "transhuman" faces and bodies that no amount of dieting or skin care could achieve.

It seems pretty obvious that this is an oppressive ideal, whether or not technology gives women the ability to achieve it. But "democratic transhumanists" like Dr. James Hughes claim that you have "the right to control your own body and mind," and that choosing to be "more than human" is simply an expression of this right.

One of the countless flaws in this argument is illustrated by the negative self-image of the women in the MU study. They didn't choose to feel bad about themselves, and they can't reasonably be accused of failing to control themselves. Their negative feelings arise from a specific social context and practice, as do the options they perceive as being available, or appropriate, to them. But people who preach the gospel of personal choice have an odd tendency to ignore these little details; you're free to choose, as long as you make the right choice from the options that have been presented to you (e.g., as long as you choose "progress," like all good people must).

Question Technology links to an interesting survey of democratic transhumanists, which asks "Will the ability to change skin, hair and body make racism irrelevant?" To their credit, most respondents say "no," which leads Dr. Hughes to call them "pessimists":
So the majority of the world that is Asian, South Asian and African will rush to look like Marilyn Monroe and Brad Pitt, thereby reinforcing racially-chauvanist ideals of beauty? Somehow I doubt it. And we’ll have to save the question of whether such a risk constitutes a reason to restrict access to body modification for later.
Dr. Hughes is entitled to his opinion, but I don't think it's coherent to argue that racism could be made irrelevant by human enhancement technology, while effectively arguing that it's irrelevant to that technology now. If conscious and unconscious "racially chauvinist ideals" aren't widespread and potent enough to affect our behavior and choices, it's hard to make the case that body modification is necessary to combat them. And if they are widespread and potent, it's hard to make the case that they won't influence the development and use of that technology.

This is one of the reasons I can't quite go along with Donna Haraway’s oft-cited claim that “cyborg imagery” is, or could be, "a powerful infidel heteroglossia." Remaking one's body in response to racism or misogyny could just as easily be seen as capitulation as liberation.

At any rate, the means by which fashion models virtually “evolve” reminds me once again of the duplicating mirror in Fitz-James O’Brien’s From Hand to Mouth (1858), which produces a flock of dysfunctional birdlike creatures by amplifying certain avian features at the expense of others:
It was a feathered cripple. It was all hump. It stood on one long attenuated leg. Its neck was tortuous as the wall of Troy….

The reproduction…went on, and the prolific mirror kept sending forth a stream of green abortions, that after a little while were no longer recognizable as belonging to any species of animal in the earth below, or the heavens above, or the caverns that lie under the earth.
Long live the New Flesh!


Interrobang said...

I think Dr. Hughes is full of shit, personally, given how many people in Asia and other parts of the world use skin-lightening creams, bleach their hair, and sometimes even have facial surgery to remove their epicanthic folds. It's actually entirely possible that were extensive body modifications cheap and easy (and there's the rub -- he's also ignoring the obvious class issues, which could be a factor in the fashion model study, as well, since culturally, "fashion model" = "rich" or "high status"), we would be seeing a lot of Marilyn Monroe lookalikes named Michi and Fumiyo and Amina.

Phila said...

I think Dr. Hughes is full of shit, personally,

You're clearly a Bioluddite Who Hates Progress.

Welcome to the club! We should come up with a secret handshake.