The Body: A Postscript
The news last week that Angelina Jolie has had a preventative double mastectomy has ignited a variety of different debates. She has garnered enormous support from women who similarly carry the same gene and live with the enduring shadow of doubt and concern regarding their health and the future of their families. At the same time this move signals the further ascent of genetics to the crown of popular science. So deeply trusted is genetics that it can motivate individuals to make huge life decisions regarding their present health in anticipation of statistical models of future ill health. From a more sociological perspective it is notable that the future choices of many women have been influenced by Jolie. Her status, celebrity, and wealth position her in a unique locus to make this choice. Whilst it is indeed empowering to many, it is also somewhat abstract and removed from the reality which so many other women of similar genetic backgrounds inhabit.
This news arrived just as I was marking the final papers for the course “Anthropology of the Body, Love and Emotion”. These research papers were impressive and inspiring, surveying a vast array of material that included; people’s interaction with the Bruce Lee statue at the Avenue of Stars, Shanghai Longtang houses and nostalgia, Cyborg Anthropology, Body Modification and Orientalism, the Veil and anorexia, Gay Bear subculture in Hong Kong, Emotions and social media, hairstyles and masculinity, masturbation…and much much more of equal diversity and originality. No one chose to do a paper on ‘Adventure Time’, despite me dropping hints. Alas…
So Jolie’s news came as a kind of postscript on the body that would have been apposite for my class. During the course we discussed Phantom Limb Pain (PLP) but also Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) which in some cases has led people to amputate perfectly healthy limbs. It is easy to make a link here to Jolie, she was not ill. She had no breast cancer. But psychologically, as far as I am aware, she did not disassociate herself from her breasts. Ethically we do have to question what we are doing and where we are going with body modification. It may be an individual’s choice, but it often includes the participation of others. On what grounds can we eliminate healthy parts of our bodies for new artificial ones? Ones that are perhaps augmented in function. Does my family history of myopia give reason and justification for me getting bionic eyes? Questions of post humanism, the dovetailing of technology and human biology multiply in such terrain.
What is perhaps safe to say is that our bodies are ours. We choose what to do with them and how to present, maintain, and use them. What is also true is the fact that our bodies are also cultural artefacts and social things. What we choose to do with them sends murmurs, ripples, and shockwaves to the rest of humanity and in turn come back to us. As we grapple with these developments we endlessly make the new human body.