A performance artist sets off a scandal when he bites into the forearm of a fetus. The middle-class protagonist of a horror film sees ghosts through the transplanted cornea of an impoverished donor. A cirrhotic liver, preserved in polymer, lies glistening on a table in a shopping mall, not far from a food court and an expensive jewelry store. We live in an age of unprecedented medical commercialization of the body, a time of routine exposure to the agnostic aesthetics of spare kidneys and facial transplants, cosmetic "corrections" and designer blood—a time when the "value" of the medical body has become alarmingly literal.
We live in an age of unprecedented medical commercialization of the body, a time of routine exposure to the agnostic aesthetics of spare kidneys and facial transplants, cosmetic "corrections" and designer blood—a time when the "value" of the medical body has become alarmingly literal.
Yet when representations of this medically commodified body appear in art or public culture, we often dismiss them as sensationalistic: Either we read them as shameless bids for celebrity, or we assume they function autopoietically to critique their own conditions of production. Instead of asking what such works can tell us about the syntax of race, medicine, and corporeality in the grammar of history, we read them tautologically, as the self-fulfilling product of biotech’s dark prophecy. But a closer investigation of representations of the medically commodified body in literature and visual culture can illuminate (and productively complicate) our understanding of the ongoing effects of biopolitical violence in contemporary life. While the medically commodified body itself may be highly confronting, its status as both a transactable and an aestheticized corporeal object is precisely what enables it to speak directly to the legacy of postcolonialism for embodied hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender, culture, class, and ability. If we read these challenging figures only for their shock value or their function as artifacts of biotechnological change—if, in essence, we refuse the responsibility of witness—then we risk perpetuating the many historically embedded violences that inform what Nicole Shukin has described as "life in biopolitical times," our particular moment of geopolitical contraction and biotechnological expansion (Shukin 2009).
By contrast, a more measured attention to the figure of the medically commodified body in literature, art, and popular culture, offers us insight into what Alexander Weheliye has called the "alternative modes of life" that can coexist with "the violence, subjection, exploitation, and racialization that define the modern human" (Weheliye 2014, 1–2). A naked body shrink-wrapped like a cut of meat, a stolen plastic kidney, a tale of fraternal dissection: These figures are uniquely positioned to bridge the divides of past and present, and of colonial and contemporary, as well as to expose the fictions of their own production (including fictions of what counts as "human," as "universal," or even as "human rights"). Moreover, they are inherently transnational: Just as the emergence of biopolitical regimes coincides with the rise of neoliberal (il)logics, the emergence of the figure of the medically commodified body coincides with the increasingly global character of material exchange and its associated mythologies around bodies, technology, and information. Thus when we engage more deeply with the meaning of a given example of the medically commodified body in contemporary literature, visual culture, and popular media, we also begin to see more clearly the subtle connections (or "intimacies") that can link a contemporary popular anatomical display to histories of colonization and enslavement. This is the project of my forthcoming book, Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body.
But a closer investigation of representations of the medically commodified body in literature and visual culture can illuminate (and productively complicate) our understanding of the ongoing effects of biopolitical violence in contemporary life.
Consider the case of the Body Worlds exhibits—those globetrotting, hugely lucrative exhibitions of plastinated human cadavers posed in "anatomical" tableaux that started in the mid-1990s with the development of a polymer-impregnation technique by the enterprising anatomist Gunther von Hagens. Despite the fact that the exhibits have been dogged by accusations that the bodies are "sourced" from executed Chinese prisoners, the majority of scholarship about them elides discussions of race and provenance in favor of debates about the ethics of anatomical display or the role of the cadaver in entertainment, education, or art since the days of Frankenstein. This omission occurs not because humanities scholars don’t care about race and provenance in the Body Worlds exhibits (we do, sometimes), nor even because reliable information about the bodies’ actual provenance is notoriously hard, if not impossible, to come by (it is). Rather it occurs because sometimes we unconsciously impose established but ill-fitting templates on familiar forms of the "human" in ways that lead us to overlook and even perpetuate the "human’s" constitutive hierarchies of race, class, gender, ability, and enfranchisement: We can’t see the forest for the trees.
The case of the Body Worlds epitomizes this kind of forest-blindness. Treated using a method analogous to perimineralization (the natural process that yields petrified wood), plastinated cadavers are in fact mostly plastic: Apart from a scaffolding of tissue, all liquids and fats have been replaced by, or impregnated with, liquid polymers. These polymers in turn have been cured so that the resulting specimens can be displayed indefinitely, each one poised in an eternal rigor of normative "life": holding a tennis racket, doing a yoga pose, raising a conductor’s baton, or even engaging in heterosexual intercourse. Like a diorama of lifestyle choices in a natural history museum from the future, the plastinated human bodies encourage cathexis because they look so real, more or less like the audience members whose class imaginaries they are meant to perform. At the same time, any sense of familiarity is displaced by the specimens’ varying states of dissection, their status as objects, and their association with death.
Such quintessentially uncanny tensions are only compounded when an audience member learns that the bodies may be the product of Chinese human rights abuse. In ten years of attending exhibits around the world, I have eavesdropped many times as visitors speculate on the origins of a given specimen, scrutinizing it for evidence of Chinese ethnicity as carefully as for liver disease or smoker’s lung. Meanwhile, exhibitors make little effort to satisfy the visitors’ curiosity; on the contrary, to preserve donor anonymity they typically obscure the identities of the bodies, proactively removing features such as tattoos, scars, and growths, and referring exclusively to morphological details in the literature. Indeed in a majority of specimens, even that most metonymic of racial markers—the skin—has been altered or removed entirely to expose the vascular, fascial, nervous, and skeletal systems beneath in what Eric Hayot refers to as a kind of "hypernudity of muscle and organ, vein and bone" (Hayot 2009, 254). The chief exception to this process of identity-blocking is that the exhibits commonly accentuate the values associated with certain biodeterministic and heteronormative gender imaginaries, not to mention fantasies of the "able-bodied," such that "male" bodies disproportionately outnumber "female" bodies, and "female" specimens, when not demonstrating various gynecological phenomena, often assume a kind of quasi-parodic burlesque, straddling a chair, striking a pose, and of course, growing a baby (Scott 2011). Between the audience’s curiosity about Chinese provenance on one hand, and the shows’ refusal to disclose details on the other, a tension thus emerges whereby race—especially Chinese race—becomes the exhibits’ ulterior subject. In a postmodern twist on racial profiling, intrepid viewers are left to assess the Chineseness of a plastinate by evaluating the shape of an eye, the distribution of body mass, or the imagined contours of other "secondary" race characteristics.
In supporting this tacit dichotomy between the "human" and the specimen, the promotional materials and even the microcultures of the traveling plastinated cadaver exhibits—and thus the scholarship that fails to address these questions—reproduce colonial race dynamics as faithfully as they do the bodies themselves.
From the deliberate leveling of identity to the strategic flaying, this sublimation of race and ethnicity in favor of constructions of a more universal "human" has troubling implications. For one, it represents the implicit disavowal of the anatomical exhibits’ debt to the more overtly spectacular traditions of medical and natural history museums, colonial archives, freak shows, zoos, wax museums, and Worlds Fairs. For another, it epitomizes the elision of the Chinese body’s role as an unknown soldier in the construction of contemporary narratives of race and "the human." When we attend an exhibit of plastinated human cadavers, in other words, we are asked to accept that what we are viewing is the "human" body, an example of "universal" or "biological" anatomy to which the details of race and provenance are meant to be superfluous. But in the end this is a convenient fiction. When we account for rhetorical and visual traditions of display and consumption in the context of biopolitics, it becomes clear that what we are often viewing (and what we are sometimes complicit in creating) is not a "universal" human at all, but a Chinese (or "Chinese") human, a source of profit whose humanity is qualified or conditioned by its availability as a kind of global corporeal surplus. In supporting this tacit dichotomy between the "human" (the first-world viewers whose ethical practice is constructed as superior) and the specimen (the ethically evacuated non-white or subaltern bodies meant for display), the promotional materials and even the microcultures of the traveling plastinated cadaver exhibits—and thus the scholarship that fails to address these questions—reproduce colonial race dynamics as faithfully as they do the bodies themselves.
Although the technologies, methods of display, and promotional materials may be novel, therefore, the cultural architecture of the plastinated cadaver exhibits is not. On the contrary, it represents an archetypal expression of post-colonial race dynamics whereby Chinese and other subaltern identities are subject to historiographical censorship or suppression even as they directly inform constructions of the "human" or "universal" in contemporary life. Though they are crucial to consider, then, when we focus exclusively on concerns related to the ethics of anatomical display without questioning the universality of the "human" that informs them, we risk reproducing this structurally embedded hierarchy of suppression. In Chinese Surplus, I address the legacy of such suppression for contemporary Chinese and transnational literature, media, visual culture, and popular science by reading more recent provocative representations of the medically commodified body (the body modified or enhanced by transactable biotechnologies like organ transplant, blood transfusion, skin graft, and plastination) against changes in representations of the body over time, arguing that such provocations articulate a critical engagement with the increasing commodification of the body (in this case the "Chinese" body) in modern life. Scanning as far back as nineteenth-century exchanges between European political satirists and Chinese intellectuals about the nature and meaning of the term Frankenstein, and as far forward as experimental art by the "Cadaver Group" at the turn of the new century, in Chinese Surplus I contend that controversial representations of the medically commodified body by transnational Chinese writers, artists, film-makers, and even plastinators in China—far from indicating some fundamentally Chinese disregard for the "human"—indicate a kind of dialogue with, and even suggestion of alternatives to, the historically overdetermined idea of Chinese life as surplus.
That said, I also take care in the book not to segregate science from culture along familiar fault-lines, insisting instead that the relationship between advancements in biotech and developments in literature, art, and culture is more than circumstantial, and by extension that a productive critical analysis must incorporate both political economics and aesthetics if it is to account for the rapid multiplication of representations of the (Chinese) body as surplus in contemporary life. I turn to biopolitical theory because it provides an attractive foundation for an approach that can incorporate science, medicine, and commodity through its attention to the body as a nexus of individual and political power in capitalism, as well as its recommendation that (as Melinda Cooper puts it) "the development of the modern life sciences and classical political economy . . . be understood as parallel and mutually constitutive events" (Cooper 2008, 5).
I am not the first to look at biopolitics and China, of course; many scholars have investigated applications of biopolitical thinking to questions of demographics, medicine, and the life sciences from sociological and anthropological disciplinary perspectives, and of course non-China scholars in diverse fields have already adapted Foucauldian biopolitics’ constitutional affinity for the historical dynamics of medicine and colonialism to studies of everything from the relationships among specific biotechnologies and global labor flows to the associations between public health legislation and corporate interests, the religious right, abortion politics, and U.S. debt imperialism. But in Chinese Surplus I build specifically on works that incorporate attention to the political economics of race, nation, and distribution of resources in situations where medicine comes into play. For instance, Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell pioneer the study of applied medical ethics and political power in their comparison of different approaches to managing ‘value’ in the exchange of human tissue, blood, and other "products" of the body, while Cooper develops a Marxian approach to "life as surplus" to explain not just the emergence of a figuration of a global "surplus" of biological materials (especially those that can be easily commodified), but of the idea of a surplus of life itself, the capitalization of which calls for the valuation of some lives over others.  Kalindi Vora takes "life as surplus" to the industries of surrogacy, call centers, and affective labor in India, abstracting the idea of the value of human life from its usual home in ethics to its place in the real-time dynamics of capital that increasingly construct some lives as socially valuable (typically the "consumer" or "recipient" from the global North) and some as merely commercially valuable, consumable (the labor-provider or "donor" from the global South).
Crucially, these scholars use the Foucauldian algorithm (e.g., modern life sciences + classical political economics = biopolitics) to highlight the contrast between those products of the human body that may be assigned "value" as discrete units of measure—the more or less quantifiable nature of which renders them subject to regulation, such as kidneys, semen, or blood—and whole bodies, like pharmaceutical testing subjects or pregnancy surrogates, the more abstract "lives" of whom accrue a market value inasmuch as they exist beyond or outside of rights, or as a condition of those rights, in a "state of exception." Scholars like Alexander Weheliye, meanwhile, emphasize that biopolitics itself re/produces a blind spot around race and the human, such that "crucial viewpoints [provided by] black studies and other formations of critical ethnic studies [are] often overlooked or actively neglected in bare life and biopolitics discourse, in the production of racialization as an object of knowledge, especially in its interfacing with political violence and (de)humanization."
Careful critiques of the biopolitical dynamics informing the "technologies" of contemporary medical aesthetics in literature, art, cinema, and popular culture can vastly expand how we think about (Chinese) race, medicine, and value "in biopolitical times."
So in Chinese Surplus I start with the premise that reading scientific and sociopolitical phenomena against each other consistently reveals the contradictions embedded in the discourses that produce and shape claims to authenticity by vested sovereign interests—even as any reading of these discourses must also foreground race as one of biopolitics’ constitutive hierarchies. And I argue that careful critiques of the biopolitical dynamics informing the "technologies" of contemporary medical aesthetics in literature, art, cinema, and popular culture can vastly expand how we think about (Chinese) race, medicine, and value "in biopolitical times." At the same time I aim to incorporate race into biopolitical critiques of aesthetics in medicine, science, and history, however, I also acknowledge in the book that models for the more precise relationship of biopolitics to aesthetics—by which I mean all of those things that describe how something looks, feels, sounds, or acts on the senses, the arts of perception broadly speaking—remain harder to find.
Here I can’t help but ask whether the relative challenge of finding discussion of the relationship of biopolitics to aesthetics might be, in the end, a byproduct of the alienation of the humanities from the sciences. What Sander Gilman once observed about the relationship of illustration to history applies equally to aesthetics: Typically, aesthetics has been more of a "step child" to science, political economics, and even history, when it is included in the family tree at all (Gilman 1995). Yet aesthetics is not peripheral to cultural production in the life sciences and beyond; surely it is now a truism that aesthetics plays more than a passive or supporting role in the manufacture and reproduction of political economic value. Perhaps more importantly, aesthetics plays a key role in the establishment and maintenance of—but also resistance to—colonial and neoliberal hierarchies of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, place of origin, and other formations. My research asks how we can write biopolitics into the script of literary, visual, and popular cultural critiques of contemporary materials featuring the human body. More specifically, when we encounter a piece of literature or a work of visual culture that seems to do perplexing violence to the human body in the name of "art"—particularly one that invokes the authority of science and medicine—how can we approach it without falling back on conceptual frameworks that ultimately reproduce the very hierarchies we wish to critique?
When we encounter a piece of literature or a work of visual culture that seems to do perplexing violence to the human body in the name of "art"—particularly one that invokes the authority of science and medicine—how can we approach it without falling back on conceptual frameworks that ultimately reproduce the very hierarchies we wish to critique?
This is not the first time I have addressed this problem. In my monograph The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West, I explored the relationships between science and aesthetics in various examples of "Western" and "Chinese" textual (and cultural) translation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, looking among other things at ways in which the languages of medicine, science, and realism became imbricated in definitions of the body over the course of the emergence of a new politically "modern" Chinese identity in literature and culture of the early twentieth century. In that book, I was especially concerned with the question of how the aesthetics of corporeality—as exemplified by illustrations of the body in translated historical artifacts of science and medicine—impacted representations of the body in modern Chinese literary "realisms." Here I often returned to the late literature scholar Marston Anderson’s observation that "[i]n realist metaphysics it is always the body that is accorded substantiality, [and] it is above all those features of the natural world that invasively trespass the imagined autonomy of the body that achieve status as emblems of the Real"; because of its inherent emphasis on the importance of the body (and by extension its association with "the life sciences"), Anderson’s comment became for me a kind of intellectual shorthand for the integration of literary and visual cultural aesthetics into biopolitics (Anderson 2003, 17). This shorthand allowed me to examine how illustrated exchanges between and among Western medical missionaries and Chinese interlocutors (paintings, prints, anatomical illustrations, photography) contributed not only to the radical (re)invention of new approaches to the body in anatomical science, but to the development of new understandings of the parameters of self and body in literature and visual culture. Though the book therefore began as an investigation of representations of pathology in Chinese literary modernism, eventually it became an exploration of the mechanics of exchanges between science, medicine, and early modern literary realist aesthetics in the period leading up to literary modernism—in retrospect, the foundation for my thinking around biopolitical aesthetics.
Chinese Surplus continues in this vein, but now asks what is the legacy of these late Imperial and early modern interactions between science and the aesthetics of "realism" for more recent representations of the body. How might the "parallel and mutually constitutive" categories of modern life science and political economics be expanded to include aesthetic practice and representations of Chinese "racial" and cultural identity? How might the strategic incorporation of scientific and medical aesthetics into biopolitical theory enhance our understanding of the relationships between modern life sciences and political economics in the age of globalization and biotech? Rather than merely supplementing or illustrating political economics and the life sciences in the original formula for biopolitics, in short, what if we advance aesthetics to equal partner?
- I take this term from the title of Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, which I discuss further below.
- See for example Williams (2010).
- In stating this ambition, I take to heart Lisa Lowe’s injunction to consider the epistemological invisibility of Chinese subjects not as "the particular exclusion of the Chinese," but rather as one manifestation of the more "extensive erasure of colonial connections" that are a trademark of neoliberal globalizations. In her trenchant discussion of the "particular obscurity" of the "figure of the transatlantic Chinese ‘coolie’ within the modern puzzle of the ‘new world,’" for instance, Lowe writes:
While we might suspect that Chinese indentured labor in the early Americas has been ‘lost’ because of indenture’s ambiguous status with respect to freedom and slavery, dialectical terms central to narratives of modernity, it is important not to treat this as the particular exclusion of the Chinese. Rather, this ‘forgetting’ attests to the more extensive erasure of colonial connections that include but are not limited to indentureship: that implicate the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the settler logics of appropriation, forced removal, and assimilation that are repeated in contemporary land seizures, militarized counter-insurgency at home and abroad, and varieties of nationalism in our present moment; that allude to the ubiquitous transnational migrations within neoliberal globalization of which Chinese emigrant labor is but one instance. Moreover, the forgetting reveals the politics of memory itself, and is a reminder that the constitution of knowledge often obscures the conditions of its own making. In this sense, my interest in Chinese emigrant labor is not to pursue a single, particularist cultural identity, not to fill in a gap or add on another transoceanic group, but to explain the politics of our lack of knowledge, and to be more specific about what I would term the economy of affirmation and forgetting that characterizes liberal humanist understanding (Lowe 2015, 38–39).
If I inquire into the absenting of Chinese emigrant labor within modern histories, it is not to make that group exceptional, nor is it to suggest that the addition of this particular group would ‘complete’ the historical portrait; it is not a moralizing admonition about what ‘should have been.’ Rather, it is to consider this absenting as a critical node—a cipher, a brink—which commands us to attend to connections that could have been, but were lost, and are thus, not yet… (Lowe, 174).
- A notable exception is Eric Hayot’s all-too-brief treatment of the Body Worlds exhibits in his epilogue to The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain, a discussion which informs my own (see Hayot 2009).
- These days, exhibits both by von Hagens and his competitors volunteer at least general information about their sourcing of cadavers, either asserting (as von Hagens does) that the exhibits no longer use Chinese cadavers or, alternatively, that the cadavers were acquired with the utmost ethical concern (see for example the long-running plastinated body exhibits at the South Street Seaport in New York, which were forced to be more forthcoming about sourcing in a general sense).
- No body part is ignored, including genitalia. See for example http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2008/mar/05/cover/ where Dobyns cites another viewer evaluating penis size and relating it to her "Asian boyfriend."
- Not to mention the history of display mannequins in the context of commercial fashion. See for example http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/what-mannequins-say-about-us/ (accessed 30 August 2016).
- Eric Hayot remarks that corpses in the Body Worlds exhibits
interrupt . . . the universalist and identifactory appeal to ‘wound culture’ upon which [their] success depends," noting that "the mute and vulnerable corpses have—despite the exhibits’ best intentions—continued to ‘speak’ from beyond their open graves, thereby dislocating the identificatory structure that depends on the presumption of their universality. And what they have said is this: we were once, the vast majority of us, inhabitants of the People’s Republic of China (Hayot 2009, 258–259).
- A project of this book is to write Chinese constructed "race" back into the universal human of the Body Worlds and beyond in light of Alexander Weheliye’s work with Sylvia Wynter’s and Hortense Spiller’s "reconceptualizations of race, subjection, and humanity" as "indispensable correctives to Agamben’s and Foucault’s considerations of racism vis-à-vis biopolitics," in particular his development of "racializing assemblages" (Weheliye, 4–5). I have found biopolitical theory indispensable from the perspective of history of medicine and science, for example, but it often comes up short around questions of race. Thus I’m aiming to address what Weheliye describes when he writes that
black studies and other formations of critical ethnic studies provide crucial viewpoints, often overlooked or actively neglected in bare life and biopolitics discourse, in the production of racialization as an object of knowledge, especially in its interfacing with political violence and (de)humanization. Rather than using biopolitics as a modality of analysis that supersedes or sidelines race, I stress that race be placed front and center in considerations of political violence, albeit not as a biological or cultural classification but as a set of sociopolitical processes of differentiation and hierarchization, which are projected onto the putatively biological human body (Weheliye 2014, 4–5).
- Lowe looks for example at the roots of contemporary political economic inequalities in the transatlantic circulation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century indentured labor and in the "liberal narratives" that emerged to distinguish among various classes of de facto enslavement, ensuring the perpetuation of the colonial economy in the West Indies even after the British "emancipation" of enslaved workers in 1807. Just as Cooper notes in -the epigraph to the introduction of my forthcoming book, "The neoliberal promise of a surplus of life is most visibly predicated on a corresponding devaluation of life" (Cooper 2008, 50). Lowe argues that
Liberal forms of political economy, culture, government, and history propose a narrative of freedom overcoming enslavement that at once denies colonial slavery, erases the seizure of lands from native peoples, displaces migrations and connections across continents, and internalizes these processes in a national struggle of history and consciousness. The social inequalities of our time are a legacy of these processes through which ‘the human’ is ‘freed’ by liberal forms, while other subjects, practices, and geographies are placed at a distance from ‘the human’ (Lowe 2015, 3).
To contextualize my use of the (Chinese) parenthetical in this book, as well as for more on the racial conditionality of definitions of the "human," see the more contemporary contextualized example of Vora and Atanososki (2015).
- I take care here to avoid the language of "resistance" per se. As Weheliye writes:
Building on Hortense Spillers’s distinction between body and flesh and the writ of habeas corpus, I use the phrase habeus viscus—"You shall have the flesh"—on the one hand, to signal how violent political domination activates a fleshly surplus that simultaneously sustains and disfigures said brutality, and, on the other hand, to reclaim the atrocity of flesh as a pivotal arena for the politics emanating from different traditions of the oppressed. The flesh, rather than displacing bare life or civil death, excavates the social (after)life of these categories: it represents racializing assemblages of subjection that can never annihilate the lines of flight, freedom dreams, practices of liberation, and possibilities of other worlds. Nonetheless, genres of the human I discuss in Habeus Viscus ought not to be understood within the lexicons of resistance and agency, because, as explanatory tools, these concepts have a tendency to blind us, whether through strenuous denials or exalted celebrations of their existence, to the manifold occurrences of freedom in zones of indistinction. As modes of analyzing and imagining the practices of the oppressed in the face of extreme violence—although this is also applicable more broadly—resistance and agency assume full, self-present, and coherent subjects working against something or someone. Which is not to say that agency and resistance are completely irrelevant in this context, just that we might come to a more layered and improvisatory understanding of extreme subjection if we do not decide in advance what forms its disfigurations should take on (Weheliye 2014, 2).
- "The control of society over individuals is not conducted only through consciousness or ideology, but also in the body and with the body…for capitalist society, biopolitics is what is most important, the biological, the somatic, the corporeal" (Foucault 1994, 210). See also interview with Foucault:
Would you distinguish your interest in the body from that of other contemporary interpretations? I think I would distinguish myself from both the Marxist and the para-Marxist perspectives. As regards Marxism, I’m not one of those who try to elicit the effects of power at the level of ideology. Indeed I wonder whether, before one poses the question of ideology, it wouldn’t be more materialist to study first the question of the body and the effects of power on it. Because what troubles me with these analyses which prioritise ideology is that there is always presupposed a human subject on the lines of the model provided by classical philosophy, endowed with a consciousness which power is then thought to seize on (Foucault 1980, 58).
- See for example Prasad (2014) or Vora (2015). On the associations between the religious right, abortion politics, and U.S. "debt imperialism," see Cooper (2008, 163).
- Waldby and Mitchell (2006) look at contemporary ethical dilemmas related to the evolution of legislation and therapeutic practice around the cultivation and transfer of human body products such as organs, tissue, and stem cell lines. They consider contemporary biomedical innovations, government regulatory prerogatives, and ethical conventions that contribute to determining the distribution of profit related to the human body and its products. In the case of ever-lengthening waitlists for non-cadaveric transplant organs such as kidneys, for example, Waldby and Mitchell argue that "the relationship between these waiting lists and the growth of a global black market in ‘spare’ kidneys, sold by the poor in the South to organ brokers who arrange their transport to wealthy transplant patients," is less a problem of the "intrinsic inefficiency of gift systems" (to be remedied, as some suggest, by the establishment of regulated organ markets) than a reflection of how "a sense of entitlement to continuing life has become a feature of contemporary neoliberal medical subjectivity." Comparing various approaches to managing transactions in biomaterials in the United States and Europe, the authors argue compellingly that the neoliberal motives underlying the establishment of certain regulatory practices and policies—as illustrated by detailed individual case-studies—in fact ensure the disenfranchisement of exactly those "donor" populations whom ethics are meant to protect (Waldby and Mitchell 2006, 30, 177). Cooper likewise attends to both macro-scale and more "local" readings of biopolitical phenomena: On one hand, Cooper’s book takes as axiomatic the idea that "industrial production depends on finite reserves available on planet earth, [but] life, like contemporary debt production, needs to be understood as a process of continuous autopoiesis, a self-engendering of life from life, without conceivable beginning or end" (Cooper, 2008, 38. Italics in original)
- Cooper also contrasts the underlying assumptions around organ transplant with regenerative medicine, where "if organ transplant medicine needs to maintain life in a state of suspended animation, regenerative medicine…is more interested in capturing life in a state of perpetual self-transformation" (Cooper 2008, 121). See also Cooper and Waldby (2014) on clinical trials and testing.
- See Vora (2015) for a critical model for incorporating transnational flows of power in her study of surrogacy, call-centers, and "affective labor" in South Asia, and also Vora and Atanososki (2015).
- Weheliye observes how in particular Sylvia Wynter’s and Hortense Spillers’s "reconceptualizations of race, subjection, and humanity provide indispensable correctives to Agamben’s and Foucault’s considerations of racism vis-à-vis biopolitics," and advocates that "race be placed front and center in considerations of political violence, albeit not as a biological or cultural classification but as a set of sociopolitical processes of differentiation and hierarchization, which are projected onto the putatively biological human body" (Weheliye 2014, 5). Vora and Atanososki (2015) provide a situated overview of Fanon and Wynter (2015). On Fanon:
Frantz Fanon emphasized the category of the human as a racial epistemological and ontological project that can be remade through revolution in Wretched of the Earth, his seminal work on the potentiality of decolonial movements. Decolonization, Fanon (2005) wrote, is “quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men"…The revolutionary aspirations tied to decolonization, therefore, are fundamentally about aspirations tied to reimagining who or what is human, and how they come to be so. At stake in the Fanonian concept of revolution is the reimagining of the human-thing relation as a precondition for freedom (Vora and Atanososki).
And on Wynter:
Wynter’s work is about the unthinking of contemporary epistemologies and ontologies, about their disruption, and about the unmaking of the world in its current descriptive-material guise…[A]s Darwinian notions of natural selection and race continue to author modern narratives of societal development and evolution, ongoing ‘archipelagos of otherness,’ including the jobless, poor, and ‘underdeveloped,’ are still undergirded by the colonial color line even if it is articulated in economic rather than explicitly racial terms (Wynter, 2003, p. 321). . . (Fanon 2005, 8–10).
- See Tobin Siebers’s definition of the "aesthetic" in his Disability Aesthetics: "Aesthetics is the human activity most identifiable with the human because it defines the process by which human beings attempt to modify themselves, by which they imagine their feelings, forms, and futures real appearances in the world…Disability aesthetics names the emergence of disability in modern art as a significant presence, one that shapes modern art in new ways and creates a space for the development of disabled artists and subjects" (Siebers 2010, 2). Here again, Lowe (2015) integrates archival research with close literary readings, and spans multiple regions, disciplines, and time periods to trace tectonic shifts not only in history but in our ways of producing and transcribing knowledge itself.
- In Chinese studies I’m thinking for example of books like Andrew Jones’ Developmental Fairy Tales, a meticulous exploration of developments in, and translations of, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century evolutionary theory alongside modern Chinese thought that integrates the history of science into critical discussions of Chinese literature and culture.
Anderson, Marston. 2003. The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cooper, Melinda. 2008. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Cooper, Melinda and Catherine Waldby. 2014. Clinical Labor: Tissue Donors and Research Subjects in the Global Bioeconomy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 2005. Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks: New Interdisciplinary Essays. Edited by Max Silverman. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
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This paper is adapted from the introduction to my forthcoming book, Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body, and is included here with the permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved.