Mar. 28th, 2010

askygoneonfire: Red and orange sunset over Hove (Default)

Ever since I can remember, sci-fi has been a staple in my imaginative life.  Whether it be Sunday mornings on the sofa with my eldest brother watching the original series of Star Trek, Tuesday afternoon's after school watching Bucky O'Hare, and later, The Girl from Tomorrow*; or one summer when I got a book called Interstellar Pig out of the library and read it twice in the space of a week, sci-fi has always been there.

While other kids worried about monsters under the bed or bullies in the school yard I quizzed my brothers and my Dad on the likelihood of alien invasion and what a post-nuclear holocaust world would be like (not good.  Actually, my Dad was a policeman and as a result had a place in a nuclear bunker.  He told us he would not take it because he would rather die with us than live in the dystopian nightmare of a post-nuclear world, but I digress...)

I recently bought the Star Trek: The Next Generation movie boxset and have begun a chronological re-watch, it struck me as I watched it just what appeals so much to be about the sci-fi genre.  Primarily, it's about possibility, the possibility of a better civilisation, and of a better way of being human. I think this is particularly appealing to children who, by default, have utopian motivations: what kid hasn't asked "why do we need money, can't we just exchange goods as we need them?" and many sci-fi plots tap directly into this, the most notable example probably being Star Trek. 

Secondly I think the key strength is being able to distance yourself from contemporary society in order to make a critique of it.  This is, in my opinion, most successfully achieved through dystopian futures where the sci-fi element has amplified and taken a contemporary problem to its logical and/or most extreme conclusion.  Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Day After Tomorrow all make direct and clear critique through the bleak realisation of the worst parts of our society in a not-so-distant future or through one catastrophic event.  Frequently this type of narrative is related to us through the perspective of one character who is either the only one to recognise their surroundings as a perversion of all that is good and right, or the only one to find out an inherent truth about the world - such as how it came about or how their government has lied to them in order to maintain order through fear.  The one-on-one interaction between reader/viewer and protagonist heightens the sense of horror or disgust at what the world has/could become. Resurfacing from this sort of fiction, for me at least, usually leaves me with a strong sense of isolation from the world as you feel that, through the lens of the fiction, you alone are seeing the world for what it is and the inherent horror of what is to come if things remain unchanged.  Personally, I find the immersive experience of this most compelling and offering the most absolute opportunity for a shift in one's world view.

We've also got sci-fi where Earth/humanity/the world as we know it is largely blameless and passive in its downfall.  We're talking War of the Worlds, Independence Day, and, at a stretch, 2001: A Space Odyssey (HAL destroys the microcosm of humanity on the ship)  Whilst the film does not make an explicit critique of society in itself, there is usually a lot to be taken from the commentary it gives us of political and social concerns of the time.  Most often there is a conclusion which reasserts the superiority of humanity over the cruel, violent 'other'.  It would be unfair to argue that such sci-fi primarily sures up the patriarchal, well established order of contemporary society because such a conclusion doesn't allow for the nuances in such works, what it commonly does is give cause for positive reflection on the contemporary audience's surroundings and mediates larger concerns about threats of international war, disputes and political uncertainty.

Finally there is transformative sci-fi where an individual, group or the whole of humanity is completely altered after an encounter of some sort, think E.T., Back to the Future, Batteries Not Included, Flight of the Navigator.  This takes the notion of possibility I mentioned at the beginning to it's logical conclusion and provides an often temporary or imperfect utopia behind for those connected to the events.  Much like the sub-genre of humanity being passive in it's demise I mention above I think such works reveal more about the socio-political environment in which they were made than reflecting in any broader sense on humanity.  The films I mention above were made in the '80's and I believe speak both of the over-riding confidence in the organisation and potential of society and also the concern which accompanies rapid social and technological change.  More advanced technologies and races contact humanity and whilst there is fear and misapprehension the end result is positive, even if there are difficulties on the road to resolution.

Overall, what sci-fi offers is the opportunity for a damned good adventure, outside of the day-to-day cares of the audience's contemporary world whilst remaining rooted enough in reality and truth that it can provide either a positive reflection on that which an audience wishes to escape or a solution for the ills of mankind.  For me, it provides a sophisticated commentary on what is, what is not and what could be.  It does not flinch from portraying the very worst aspects of humanity - the very thing which so concerned me in my childhood fantasies of how the world would end.  If the only way to be prepared for the unknown is to imagine every possibility then sci-fi provides the perfect forum for that to happen in.  Imagination is unbidden by technology, politics and social reality.  Even the essential human condition can be altered through the genre.  In short, sci-fi matters because it can speak about everything and make commentary - both positive and negative - without having to engage in the minutiae of how we get from here to there and in so doing it can subtly or overtly provide a new way of viewing that which surrounds us.

So yes, I am a sci-fi geek, but it's ok, because it's intellectual.


* As the only kid in my class who watched/enjoyed The Girl from Tomorrow I would play alone at break time the next day, with my hair band pulled down across my forehead, a la the Transducer.  It will come as no surprise to you that I wasn't terribly popular at school.

askygoneonfire: Red and orange sunset over Hove (Default)
Ellen K. Feder, 'Imperatives of Normality: From "Intersex" to "Disorders of Sex Development"' in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 15 (2009) 225-247

Summary:
This article examines the reasons behind the conflation of intersex identity with homosexual identity and the inherent inaccuracies of the same.  It considers the possibilities allowed for by the endocrinological societies decision to abandon the use of the term hermaphrodite and intersex in favour of 'disorders of sexual development' or DSDs.

Feder argues that whilst both intersex and homosexual identities were 'an invention' of the medical establishment; essentially sharing an origin, their current position has been mistakenly conflated.  Their difference is, to Feder, clear: intersex has an underlying medical condition which can and does require medical intervention in order for the individual to flourish whilst homosexuality as an identity is an entirely cultural construction.

Intersex has, of recent years, become something of a cause célèbre of the Queer liberation movement.  The acts of medical normalisation practiced on intersex bodies epitomises the psychological and social normalisation of queer persons.

However, the nuance which Feder expounds her theory upon is that intersex should not be considered an identity.  Rather it is a word which signifies a range of physical, hormonal abnormalities which frequently require medical intervention.  The change of terminology to reclassify intersex bodies as having a disorder rather than inserting the individual into an identity based on physical markers is, Feder argues, an important step forward; by disentangling genital presentation from identity it is hoped that doctors will increasingly view the individual only in terms of conditions which need medical intervention in order for the patient to live a long and healthy life.  Doctors will no longer see a person who is intrinsically part of a group who need to be normalised in order to be reinserted to society

Feder identifies an essential anachronism of the current treatment of intersex/DSDs: "originally surgical correction of genitals to conform to sex assignment was thought to be essential to the development of a healthy gender identity", while this rationale was challenged and discarded, there has been  no change in treatment.  Doctors continue to 'correct' genital 'ambiguity' which can be understood as an act of 'punishing' abnormality as expounded by Foucault; conformity to social norms is so well imprinted in the brains of citizens that the only acceptable action to take in the face of difference is to enforce conformity; to exercise the same methods of normalisation on another as have been exercised on you.

By redefining intersex as a disorder the terminology no longer encourages the medical profession to view the indivdual as a non-conformist whose actions and body needs to be normalised - a patient suffering a condition like no other which justifies procedures and treatments which would be considered beyond the ethical scope of a doctor's position for any other condition - but a person whose genitalia and hormonal balance is incidental unless it is causing physical discomfort or threat to their wellbeing.  In short, encouraging them only to treat those aspects of physical health which are disordered, rather than any and every aspect of the body/identity which needs normalising,

Response:

The co-opting of intersex by queer activism as being the utopian body of a queer, gender delimited future is an interesting one, and the argument that Feder makes against this ellision of aims is certainly compelling but the arguments made through the example of the medical treatment of intersex persons are important ones.  The medical treatment of the intersex person is the physical expression of the exercise of normalising power of heteronormativity over sexuality, gender and the acts one chooses to engage in with one's own body.  Queer activism gains a nice, neat, clear demonstration of its arguments against the power structures of society although it certainly appears that in so doing they are erasing the individual experience of what it is to be the person subjected to necessary and unnecessary medical procedures in the name of 'curing intersexuality'.  The places where this merging of experience is accurate is how it reveals the way in which power works and can alter an individual's interaction with the world so completely:
"We must cease once and for all todescribe the effects of power in negative terms; it 'excludes', it 'represses', it 'censors', it abstracts', it 'masks', it 'conceals'.  In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth." (Foucault from Discipline and Punish)
Looked at in these terms, working via the powerful institution that is the medical profession intersex activists are producing intersex anew as neither identity nor pathology, but a collection of physical quirks and anomalies, some of which require targeted, impartial medical intervention.  Contrastingly, the homosexual activism has nto sought to change the essential production of homosexual as an 'other' but removed the association with it as a pathology in favour of making it an idenity.  Homosexual remains caught in the dichotomous relationship of gay/straight, outside/inside, other/normal.  One wonders how the world would look now if the core principle driving the liberation campaign of queer persons was to discard the notion of 'different' sexualities rather than request acceptance of the difference.
 
Feder seems to conclude that the notion of intersex as an identtiy should and will evaporate with the change of terminology in the medical establishment but then goes on to describe how the invented identity of 'homosexual' (a term, if you don't know, that came into usage 11 years before 'heterosexual' and was created exclusively to pathologise a sexual practice) has become a positive rallying point which has created powerful organisations which have a positive influence on the lives of those who fall under the umbrella identity 'queer'.  I wonder, and have no answers at all to the question, whether there is anything lost by those who have conditions associated with intersexuality by not having a shared identity anymore.  The Intersex Society of North America has shut its doors and reopened a few houses down as the Accord Alliance, maintaining the notion of a shared experience through 'Alliance' but abandoning a convenient umbrella term which people can gather beneath. Queer groups provide shelter and support from the prejudices invitied to queer folks by that 'invented identity', Persons with DSDs will doubtless suffer similar prejudice at their non-conforming bodily sex appearance and in some cases the disparity between gender identity and gender presentation.

In many ways the effect of these changes to terminology on the individual, social (not medical, I fully agree with the positive potential of the change there) level is likely to be slow to take effect, medical conditions associated with DSDs will affect gender presentation of affected individuals and whilst gender and sexuality are policed by the structures of normalising power of society variations in any individual will always be subject to negative attentions which can hinder the development of an integrated and confident identity so it seems the intersex/DSD fight is far from won although certainly the shift in the arrogant assurance of doctors forcing cosmetic surgeries on DSD cases is a great leap forward.


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