All posts by Contingent Horizons

The Pointe Shoe: A Tool for Knowledge Production

by Sebastian Ignacio Oreamuno

PhD Student, Dance Studies | York University, Toronto, Canada


Over the years, the connection between the pointe shoe and femininity has solidified, propagating a gendered perspective of pointe dancing as exclusively for women dancers. The gendering of the pointe shoe as feminine makes it difficult for men to dance on pointe. However, shifting perceptions that recognize the pointe shoe as a technological site of knowledge production would encourage men, and any body for that matter, to dance on pointe. Utilizing Judith Butler’s ([1990] 1999) concept of gender performativity and Teresa de Lauretis’s (1987) thinking on the technology of gender, I argue that the continuous iteration of ballerinas on pointe has constructed the pointe shoe as a performative gendered technology. Further mobilizing Tim Ingold’s (2004) work on how we understand the world through our feet and Andy Clark and David Chalmers’s (1998) concept of the extended mind, I argue that knowledge is embodied through the pointe shoe from the ground up, shaping not only the dancer’s body and balance but also their self-awareness and cognition. Ultimately, in this article I argue that the possibility to gain knowledge from pointe, through either training or performance, should not be restricted to a socially constructed gender binary to which traditional ballet so closely associates itself.

Keywords: Ballet, pointe work, gender, embodied knowledge, extended cognition

Publication Information

Volume 4, Issue 1 (2018)

Introduction: Between Two Doors

The first time I went to the Extension Room studio in downtown Toronto for pointe lessons I noticed how the door to the men’s change room had a photograph of a man’s bare foot in demi-pointe [1]. The door to the women’s change room, on the other hand, had a photograph of a woman’s foot in a pointe shoe up on the block [2]. Although both pictures depicted elevation, I found this gendered differentiation fascinating: men’s feet that were bare versus women’s feet that were covered; men’s feet touching the floor versus women’s feet off the floor. Figures 1 and 2 below demonstrate what I am referring to, but use my own feet as examples.

The difference also troubled me. The photograph signified that the men’s change room was a place to become simple—barefoot and “natural” on the ground. Conversely, the women’s change room was designated as a place to transform into the supernatural through elevation off the floor. As a man who was about to take pointe lessons I was unable to identify with either photograph since I was going to be wrapping my feet up in an object designated feminine. Further, my transformation was to occur in the studio space, a room meant to incite change through practice and training. The studio was where I would learn to go on pointe, and where I could be what I was at that moment: student, researcher, outsider, and male dancer, as well as a guy trying pointe work, a guy training with pointe shoes, and a guy wanting to acquire knowledge.

The scenario above illuminates one of the auto-ethnographic field sites in my investigation of men and pointe [3]. My research engaged various physical, virtual, and conceptual spaces, including the pointe shoe itself (see figures 1 and 2 below). My fieldwork included practiced-based auto-ethnographic research in which I took pointe lessons. I also conducted oral history interviews with five male dancers about their experiences of going on pointe and attended a performance of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation, a ballet that uses traditional ballet vocabulary. I contextualize my fieldwork with a literature review of the history of ballet and pointe work. What follows is a discussion of how the pointe shoe can serve as site for knowledge production, an insight that arose from within the various ways that I engaged with this device.

Figure 1: The author’s right foot in demi-pointe. Photograph by Nadine Ryan.


Figure 2: The author’s left foot on pointe. Photograph by Nadine Ryan.

In this article, I re-envision the pointe shoe as a site for knowledge production unrestricted by traditional gendered protocols that have designated the pointe shoe as feminine. I begin this article by demonstrating that the pointe shoe is a gendered technology associated with femininity. Utilizing Judith Butler’s ([1990] 1999) concept of gender performativity and Teresa de Lauretis’s (1987) thinking on the technology of gender, I argue that the continuous iteration of ballerinas on pointe has constructed the pointe shoe as a performative gendered technology [4].

Further mobilizing Tim Ingold’s (2004) work on how we understand the world through our feet and Andy Clark and David Chalmers’s (1998) concept of the extended mind, I argue that knowledge is embodied through the pointe shoe from the ground up, shaping not only the dancer’s body and balance but also their self-awareness and cognition. Ultimately, in this article I argue that the possibility to gain knowledge from pointe, through either training or performance, should not be restricted to a socially constructed gender binary to which traditional ballet so closely associates itself.

A brief history of the pointe shoe

The pointe shoe arose out of a desire to portray particular qualities that emphasized the ideals of the Romantic era, such as ethereality, lightness, and grace, in the burgeoning ballets of the nineteenth century (Barringer and Schlesinger 2004, 2-3; Fisher-Stitt 2011, 24; Jowitt 2015, 214; Walsh 2011, 94). Its original function was to replace Charles Didelot’s flying machine—a technology that elevated ballerinas onto the tips of their toes by lifting them with wires before whisking them away, but that denied them autonomy over their movements. The pointe shoe, on the other hand, allowed ballerinas to rise onto the tips of their toes without the aid of wires, enabling control over their movements [5], thus becoming an “essential choreographic element” (Barringer and Schlesinger 2004, 3).

Jennifer Fisher (2014) outlines the development of the pointe shoe as follows:

Marie Taglioni is usually credited with making pointe dancing artistic when she appeared in the title role in the first La Sylphide (1832) at the Paris Opera. The sylph was an ethereal creature whose satin footwear, as well as her wings, marked her as different from the mortal of the village. This sort of role helped the impressive trick of pointe dancing become entwined in ballet’s aesthetics, as well as advancing its technical progress. […] Eventually, nearly every woman on the ballet stage had to “rise to the occasion” and use the hard tip of a pointed foot either to emphasize points in the plot or just as a tool that made ballet more complex and interesting. (61-2)

Over time the pointe shoe has changed, as Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt suggests, “from being a means to an end to becoming an end in itself” (2011, 24).

A history of men and pointe

My exploration of pointe dancing and pointe shoes began with The Pointe Book: Shoes, Training and Technique by Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger (2004) which succinctly covers various aspects of going on pointe. The authors’ brief history of pointe dancing is a linear narrative of ballerinas rising onto the toes of a soft ballet slipper to dancing in blocked shoes in the nineteenth century (1-7). Placing ballerinas at the forefront of a history of pointe can be seen as empowering for women dancers, as they were the pioneers of the contemporary pointe shoe. Fisher (2014) affirms this when she illuminates the role of the female dancer in the creation of the pointe shoe: “In the early part of the nineteenth century, female dancers started stiffening ordinary dancing slippers by darning them (sewing with thick thread) and inserting cardboard-like materials to achieve the feat of rising onto the tips of the toes” (61). However, Barringer and Schlesinger’s (2004) history of pointe dancing overlooks pointe training in the eighteenth century practiced by both women and men, the resurrection of the male dancer on pointe in drag in the late twentieth century, and the occasional use of men on pointe as a prop for specific characters in traditional ballet. In excluding these narratives, the history of pointe that is constructed, presented and iterated by Barringer and Schlesinger (2004) frames pointe dancing as an exclusively feminine phenomenon due to the repeated iterations that place the ballerina on pointe centre stage.

Sandra Noll Hammond (1988) demonstrates that in the eighteenth century, before the advent of the pointe shoe, going up onto the tips of the toes was practiced by both men and women. Hammond (1988) explicitly states that “early pointe work [without pointe shoes] was not an exclusively feminine activity” and that “the earliest exponent of this phenomenon [was not] a ballerina of the nineteenth century” (27). Hammond goes on to show that the male dancer rising up on his toes was not only present in the eighteenth century but also accepted. For example, Gennaro Magri, who wrote a text on theatrical dance technique, not only comments on M. Pitrot’s “technical brilliance,” but further reveals his awe and admiration by stating that “these feats of Pitrot ‘[…] appear to be super-natural’” (Hammond 1988, 29).

Beginning in the late twentieth century, companies of all-male dancers that donned pointe shoes and danced in drag were established, such as Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (the Trocks). In performing on pointe in drag, these companies of male dancers questioned and poked fun at traditional ballet through satirical and subversive performances. On the other hand, there is no indication that this was the case for the male dancers on pointe in the eighteenth century. Despite their subversive style not being considered within the realm of traditional ballet, the Trocks are technically proficient dancers who use traditional ballet vocabulary in their performances.

Men who don pointe shoes in traditional ballet typically serve the purpose of a prop for specific characters, especially those that provide humour. Fisher (2014) acknowledges, “Except for comic effect, men have almost never appeared on stage on pointe, wearing the specialized shoes with hardened tips made for the purpose” (60). For example, in balletic versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—sometimes called The Dream—the male dancer playing the donkey Bottom often wears pointe shoes to portray hooves [6]. Further, in some adaptations of Cinderella, the ugly step-sisters are played by men in drag, who sometimes wear pointe shoes. In these instances, men are relegated to spaces that do not disturb the status quo because they either re-construct the pointe shoe as something different—hooves—or parody femininity in the case of the ugly step-sisters.

It is outside of traditional ballet that a space for men to go on pointe opens up. Contemporary ballet, and contemporary dance in general, create other opportunities for men to go on pointe [7]. One of my narrators [8], who danced for a contemporary dance company that was active from 1980 to 1996, recounted that he had to wear pointe shoes for the company’s version of Pinocchio [9]. Recalling a particular scene during which Pinocchio’s wooden feet get burned off after falling asleep in front of a fire, he remembered how the pointe shoes were used to signify stumps. While this case still highlights how pointe shoes can be used for comedic effect or can be re-constructed to add to the progression of the story, the same narrator described another experience, within the same company, in which the use of pointe work created a different effect. Naked, with loose long hair and facing the back, the narrator recalled another production where he crossed the stage on pointe while moving his arms in a gentle, light flapping-like motion—a movement that referenced the “swan arms” from the ballet Swan Lake. Yet, instead of poking fun at the ballet, this crossing, which was performed by a seemingly androgynous figure upstage, provided juxtaposition to a heteronormative duet happening downstage [10].

Other contemporary (ballet) choreographers have also created roles for men on pointe, roles that are intended to be contemplative rather than comedic. Édouard Lock’s 2003 dance film Amelia contains a scene halfway through in which a male dancer and a ballerina, both wearing makeup and dressed in suits, appear on the curved set and perform a duet on pointe. Marie-Agnès Gillot’s Sous Apparence, a contemporary ballet for the Paris Opera which was performed in 2012, “featured men dancing seriously on their toes” (Fisher 2014, 60). As Gillot enlightens in an online interview with Roslyn Sulcas (2012), she “wanted to explore the idea of a man on point in a way that wasn’t parody,” and claims that “[t]he entire piece is an act of resistance” (Sulcas 2012). And Julia Gleich’s contemporary ballet Martha: The Searchers, which was performed in October 2017, contained a duet in which both the male dancer and ballerina performed and partnered each other on pointe. In an online article, Leigh Witchel (2017) states how Gleich’s “completely equal duet” demonstrates a way to detach gender from partnering and ballet technique. Engaging a generous reading of Witchel’s comment, I see this duet as attempting to engage gender fluidity, or at the very least blur binary distinctions, by having both dancers perform similar choreography on pointe. Witchel’s observation also suggests that Gleich’s decision to put a man on pointe provoked contemplation rather than humour.

What this short history of men and pointe demonstrates is that there are spaces in which male dancers perform on pointe. More often than not, however, the characters that men on pointe portray are humorous. I argue that these roles reinforce ideas of the pointe shoe as a feminine object because they do not disrupt traditional ballet’s conventions, nor provide avenues for contemplation.  While instances in which “men danc[e] seriously on their toes” do occur (Fisher 2014, 60), these scenarios are the exception to the norm. Yet, these instances demonstrate the possibilities of pointe work and reveal the different ways pointe work can be engaged when artists are committed to exploring the use of pointe technique and open to transgression.

The pointe shoe as a gendered technology

The conventions of traditional ballet reinforce the gender binary. Fisher (2014) indicates that “in the ballet world, ideas about male-female difference […] tend to be conservative because dancers are being trained for a profession where that is the prevailing viewpoint” (75n17). Judith Butler ([1990] 1999) theorizes gender as performative—constructed as static and unchanging through the continuous iteration of its performance.  In Butler’s (1999 [1990]) words, “[G]ender [is] an enactment that performatively constitutes the appearance of its own interior fixity” (95). Similarly, Teresa de Lauretis (1987) argues that gender construction “is both the product and the process of its representation” (5) and explains that the “experience of gender” involves “the meaning effects and self-representations produced in the subject by the sociocultural practices, discourses, and institutions devoted to the production of women and men” (19). Emphasizing the production of gender through diverse ways, de Lauretis proposes that gender “as representation and as self-representation, is the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, and of institutionalized discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life” (1987, 2).

Extending de Lauretis’s (1987) thought in combination with Butler ([1990] 1999), I propose that the perpetual iteration of female dancers on pointe, as well as the repetition of historical narratives that place the ballerina on pointe centre stage, contributes to the gendering of pointe work and the pointe shoe as a feminine technology of gender, and as having always been such. It is through repeated pairing with ballerinas, through this performative process of re-presenting, that the pointe shoe has become gendered and, consequently, as Kristin Harris Walsh (2011) informs, that the ballerina has come to be seen as the feminine ideal (85, 94).

It is in the studio, a daily space of training, that dancers learn and practice how to perform their gender. In ballet, gendered segregation for particular training contributes to this process. As Walsh enlightens, “The technique that tends to be preferred in male ballet dancers […] focuses more on high leaps and grand turns rather than the quick footwork and multiple turns that are ideal for the female dancer on pointe” (2011, 89). This training is necessary for the feats that they will later perform on stage. As such, what is often missing or unacknowledged in the various accounts of ballerinas on pointe and their contribution to pointe dancing is the training they have undergone (Fisher 2014).

Ballerinas, whom the public sees on stage effortlessly performing on pointe, have trained in pointe work, which is in itself a transformative process that has occurred in a studio and in other spaces of practice and rehearsal. It is not that women’s bodies are any more conducive to being on pointe, it is just better accepted since the continuous iteration of the ballerina-on-pointe has become the norm over time. The gendering of pointe, then, is affirmed in the studio as well as in performances, with ballerinas on pointe continuously confirming that the pointe shoe is a feminine object.

An example of how the pointe shoe is gendered can be seen in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s (RWB) Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation, which I attended on February 5, 2016. The ballet addresses the disruption that was caused by the residential schools in Canada, and revolves around the themes of indigeneity, colonization, spirituality, and religiosity. In this ballet, which used traditional ballet vocabulary to tell the story, all the women wore pointe shoes: Annie, the main character, a young First Nations woman living in “the big city,” the “upwardly mobile and chic urban women” of the present; Mother, an indigenous woman of the past; the female Star Children who were meant to be “guides and helpers”; the First Nations girl, Niska, trapped in a residential school; and, finally, the Divine Louis ladies, characters who represented European colonizers (Royal Winnipeg Ballet 2016, 12-15, 17) [11].

The pointe shoe, in this instance, was not utilized to portray any qualities that might be associated with pointe—fragility, power, ethereality, strength—nor to signal the particular position that pointe shoes hold in ballet. Walsh (2011) explains that ballet uses various types of shoes to create a hierarchy between characters: those who have more theatrical, character roles wear character shoes which are often heeled; ballerinas portraying earthly women usually wear soft ballet slippers; and it is usually royalty or otherworldly beings that perform on pointe as a way to emphasize their high or ideal status, respectively (90, 92). The RWB’s choice to put all of its female characters on pointe illuminates that its function was not as a signifier of socio-economic status, race, or otherwise. Furthermore, presenting all the women in the same kind of nude-coloured pointe shoe demonstrates that there was no attempt to differentiate female dancers with respect to footwear, which was not the case for the men [12]. In the end, the RWB’s production exemplifies how the pointe shoe has not only become an end in itself, but also an aesthetic norm. As Walsh states, “[I]t is for a largely aesthetic reason that women are the ones who don the blocked toe and lace up the pink ribbons” (2011, 94).

If the pointe shoe is meant to be a technological device for practice and performance, then what is its purpose in Going Home Star? What becomes obvious in the use of the pointe shoe in the performance is that there is no purpose for it aside from reiterating the gender binary. The pointe shoe does not add anything to the story being told, nor to the development of the characters. As such, the RWB’s utilization of pointe does reiterates that the pointe shoe is a technology of gender. And what this suggests is that the use of pointe in most traditional-style ballets has become a normative practice for women. That is, as an aesthetic norm, it is presented as part of the female body rather than as a technology that can provide a specific quality to the character, dance, or plot. It is imperative to add that I am not declaring that choreographers always put female dancers on pointe, but rather that when choreographers do choose to include pointe work in their pieces it is often women who end up performing on pointe and not men. The pointe shoe therefore becomes a technology of gender as it not only contributes to the construction and representation of ballerinas, but also of male dancers through its dissociation. What goes unnoticed, however, is that this technology of gender is at the same time a technology for knowledge production. 

The pointe shoe as a tool for knowledge production

In ballet, feet are mainly used to travel around the studio or stage, to elevate the body (through rises onto demi-pointe and pointe), and to propel the body into the air. Pointing the feet is the foremost foot articulation seen and expected in traditional ballet. Conversely, the hands are given more movement through the port de bras [13], and at times the freedom to articulate specific gestures through mime. In a sense, while the feet are made to support the feel of a character, the hands are given the possibility to feel the environment through touch, and portray feelings—such as love, hate, anger, longing, and more—through gestures. Feet are taken for granted as expressive appendages, and producers of knowledge.

Understanding the pointe shoe as a piece of technology through which knowledge can be produced requires recognizing that knowledge can arise from the ground up (Ingold 2004); that knowledge emerges between bodily interactions with technology and more (Clark and Chalmers 2016); and that pointe work is an embodied practice, generating knowledge that informs the self and life (Ness 1995).

Discussing the hierarchical relationship within which evolutionary theorists place the feet and hands, Tim Ingold (2004) reveals how the feet have been overlooked as producers of knowledge: while the hands are considered agents that can transform and control the environment, and through which knowledge is acquired, the feet are seen solely as “stepping-machines” (317). According to these theorists, it was the hands and not the feet that allowed early humans to embark “upon the road of civilization” (Ingold 2004, 317). Through this reasoning the status of the hands and fingers is elevated due to their perceived contribution to people’s “intellectual superiority” through “grasping and manipulation,” whereas the feet and toes are reduced to the roles of “support and locomotion” (Ingold 2004, 317). Ingold (2004), therefore, argues for “a more literally grounded approach to perception” (330, original emphasis); recognizing that knowledge can arise from the ground up, through the feet, and through the technologies that we use to cover and constrict them, such as the pointe shoe.

Andy Clark and David Chalmers (2016) also maintain that “the human organism [can be] linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction, creating a coupled system that can be seen as a cognitive system in its own right” (8). In a video lecture for HDC: A History of Distributed Cognition, Andy Clark (2014) explains that the machinery that constitutes an individual mind can be distributed across the brain, body, and world. This proposal is part of a cognitive science perspective that extends cognition beyond the boundary of skin and skull and out into the world with which the individual interacts. Clark and Chalmers (2016) further remark that “[t]he brain (or brain and body) comprises a package of basic, portable, cognitive resources [… which] may incorporate bodily actions into cognitive processes” (10). In this view, the authors not only emphasize that knowledge emerges in systems that couple the body with technology and more, but that knowledge is acquired through (and distributed across) various activities and entanglements.

Moreover, Sally Ann Ness (1995) proposes that “the body may be a site for the production of knowledge that is generalizable to all other domains of cultural life and action” (173n45). Ness (1995) acknowledges that a “body-based intimacy” can be acquired when learning to embody “new forms of movement” because it “exposes in a highly specific way some of one’s most personal judgments to others” (144), enabling empathy and understanding. Although Ness (1995) is referring to ethnographic relationships in cross-cultural encounters, what she is suggesting is also relevant here since donning pointe shoes exposes the wearer to another way of knowing and relating. These kinds of embodied experiences not only inform the self, but also existence, because they are physically and conceptually transformative and extend into other aspects of one’s life.

As a piece of technology, the pointe shoe brings attention to the foot, and the knowledge that can be acquired through this appendage. Whereas, as Ingold (2004) articulates, boots and shoes “[deprive] wearers of the possibility of thinking with their feet” (323) and impede “the development of the prehensile functions of the foot” because of their constriction (324), the pointe shoe provides and fosters kinesthetic awareness and physical pliability. The point shoe therefore is an intriguing device because even though it binds the feet in a tight encasing the feet are trained to be dexterous, requiring the toes to act as a unit through their separate strength in order to achieve the rise onto the block.

Pointe work essentially requires pre-pointe exercises in order to provide the feet with a prehensile function. Thinking back to my time learning to go on pointe, I remember that before putting on our pointe shoes and going up onto the tips of our toes, the ballet teacher would always have the class do pre-pointe exercises on flat feet. The purpose of these exercises is to create feet that are as supple and dexterous as possible in order to be able to articulate through them when rising onto pointe. Further, pre-pointe exercises offer the feet particular sensations so that when they are constricted within the encasing of the pointe shoes the feet already have a feeling of what they need to do in order to rise onto the tips of the toes. Without this information the feet might not have a frame of reference, which could make it harder for a dancer to go on pointe.

While some feet—both from men and women—have become flexible and strong through their development and might be able to rise onto pointe without training, others require this type of practice and understanding before commencing pointe work. These exercises are engaged in order to obtain a more flexible foot that can articulate inside and through the pointe shoe. Additionally, the foot’s haptic involvement in the process of learning pointe work reverberates up through the body, aligning it, shaping it and creating sensation that is transformed into knowledge.

Pointe work, then, provides a form of embodied knowledge that might not necessarily be present in other forms of dance precisely because of how extreme it is, and due to the footwear that is used. What this embodied knowledge could be might differ between individuals, however, I will relate what arose through my experience. What came to light throughout the process of going on pointe was understanding balance through extensions and counter-tensions. In other words, the knowledge that I embodied when engaging with pointe work was that of contradictions: of exaggeration while expressing a sense of equilibrium; of feeling pulled up by pushing down; of pulling the body in different directions in order to centre it; of training to be in control and autonomous when the end result might be to be controlled and manipulated by a partner.

Ness (1995) proposes that embodied knowledge through dance can be a way “of transcending other identity categories” by providing a different perspective (67). Reflecting on the difference between watching Balinese dance and taking a lesson, Ness (1995) discloses: “The complexity of the technique was made much more accessible to me as a student. I gained enormous respect in that hour, and some concrete awareness of my own specific limitations” (69, emphasis added). Coming from a ballet background I knew that going on pointe would not be easy; however, the process was much more arduous than I had anticipated. I became aware of the physical and emotional challenges that I had to overcome in order to go on pointe, as well as my limitations. Importantly, working through the challenges provided me with a deeper sense of respect towards female and male dancers who go on pointe, a sentiment that was shared by my narrators, as well as other male dancers. In an interview with David Mead (2009), for example, Raffaele Morra and Joshua Grant from the Trocks mentioned how pointe work provided them with a better understanding of what a ballerina requires when being partnered.

Aside from these personal epiphanies, going on pointe also presented other understandings: a more profound sensorial experience of body alignment and turn out; a better grasp of weight placement and balance; and the physical strength required of the core, legs, ankles, metatarsals, and toes [14]. Of course, these are general examples which contain their own set of intricacies. What I am trying to illuminate, however, is that pointe work offers the possibility to obtain particular information, presents other movement opportunities, and creates awareness that is embodied and that can be tapped into and applied to other aspects of dance and life. As Ness (1995) illuminates, “What one [needs] to learn to achieve performative adequacy and understanding [… reveals] very different aspects of self-awareness and lived experience” (139).

All of these scenarios illuminate the opportunities that arise by utilizing this technology and indicate that the pointe shoe is a technological tool for knowledge production. Despite the fact that the pointe shoe has been propagated in ballet literature, at institutional settings, and particularly through performances as a feminine technology, this tool has cognitive implications that (in)forms dancers’ knowledge. As Hammond (1988) demonstrates, training in pointe work and performing on pointe in the late eighteenth century through to the early nineteenth century was originally done (by both men and women) without pointe shoes: a training that would have undoubtedly involved body-mind knowledge production through the act of training. Therefore, thinking with Clark and Chalmers (2016), who contend that the link between biological organism and external resources manifests through what they call an extended self (18), I propose that the pairing between dancer and pointe shoe is an extended self. Through practice, the transformative process of their inter-engagement, pointe shoes become part of the dancer as dancer’s feet extend into the shoes.

In the video lecture, Clark (2014) asserts that an extended person is built from “both biological and non-biological parts, some of the latter not even being attached to his [or her] biological body,” and suggests that destroying this person’s non-biological parts—technological devices, external aids, or other tools—could be construed as “a crime against the person, not merely a crime against [her or] his cyber-property.” From this point of view, I argue that socially restricting men from using pointe shoes, technological devices utilized for knowledge production, can be seen as an obstruction to male dancers’ bodily and intellectual development. Especially because the discussion above demonstrates that pointe shoes expand a dancer’s traditional vocabulary while simultaneously broadening their bodily knowledge.

It can be reasoned, then, that the pointe shoe is ultimately a technology for knowledge production, and that attempts to elevate the body and leave the ground have transformed our body as well as our cognition. In doing pointe lessons myself, I came to realize that information was being created by and passed on through my feet. While this knowledge from the feet was not an explicit topic of discussion in the oral history interviews I conducted, it was certainly alluded to. For example, my narrators provided with various tips for going on pointe: being fitted for pointe shoes properly, learning how to articulate through the foot, pushing through the phalanges, concentrating on my ankles going outward rather than focusing on the toes, feeling the sensation of being in first and fifth position on pointe, and more [15].

Acknowledging that the pointe shoe is a tool would permit a greater range for its utility; and, more importantly, open up a space for transformative interaction, a process that shapes the dancer’s body and knowledge. Considering the pointe shoe as a technological tool for knowledge production would make it possible for the restrictions that men face, and the tension that men on pointe create in a traditional ballet setting, to dissipate. This perspective allows the pointe shoe to reside in various spaces, to detach from and attach to different bodies, and to fluidly cross borders and engage in complex relationships. There is a lot of knowledge that can be gained by putting on pointe shoes, and this information, which is acquired through the feet, will not only affect the body but also spread into other aspects of dance training and extend into daily life.


The pointe shoe appears to have become gendered as feminine due to its continual utilization by women’s bodies. Extending from Butler’s ([1990] 1999) concept of gender performativity and de Lauretis’s (1987) discussion on gender as the product of diverse technologies, I have demonstrated how the pointe shoe is a “technology of gender.” I have also illuminated that this gendered technology is simultaneously a technological tool through which knowledge can be produced and acquired. That men have been excluded from this type of training opportunity and, more generally, that pointe work is restricted by perceptions of gender norms is what should be questioned, because these acts have consequences. Not only do these actions inform and maintain the gender binary within traditional ballet, they also make manifest a masculinity that is dependent on men’s dis-engagement with the pointe shoe. As such, it becomes difficult to detach the pointe shoe from ballerinas, and to attach it to male dancers.

Importantly, it is unknown whether men completely abandoned pointe work with the advent of the pointe shoe; a topic that requires further exploration into archives, oral histories, and biographies. Still, it is hard to believe that male dancers, who must have come in contact with the pointe shoe at one time or another, would not have been curious about its function. With this thought in mind, it seems more possible that men did not stop going on pointe, they only stopped disclosing that they did in order to conform to the norms of the time. As such, what remains are particular (balletic) frames that are persistently performed, and which restrict other forms of movement.

The reflection at the beginning of the paper demonstrates that it was the space between the two doors, the space framed by particular conceptualizations of gender, the studio space that a man on pointe could be (re)presented. It was in this room, a room for transformation, in which the presence of a man’s foot wrapped up in a shoe considered feminine could be seen, an image not depicted in either change-room picture (see figure 2 above). De Lauretis highlights how “[t]hese two kinds of spaces […] coexist concurrently and in contradiction” (1987, 26); and in fact, the studio space enabled a counter practice to what is “normally” seen, and it was welcomed. Moreover, the studio space allowed me to conceptually understand the various tensions between the conceptual spaces of men and pointe: the counter-tension of borders and the extension of boundaries. The transformation that occurred then was not only physical and material but also sensorial and intellectual.

In the end, no matter how or within which interactions knowledge arises, it should not be bound by gender norms. The pointe shoe, a technology of gender, must also be recognized as a technological tool for knowledge production, and therefore a resource that should be accessible to any body. Joann Kealiinohomoku’s (2001) acknowledgment of ballet as an ethnic dance form demonstrates well the interconnection between dance and culture, and how a change in times can bring about a change in ballet. Furthermore, as Fisher (2014) remarks, “Performance traditions clearly reflect societal norms and conventional gender expectations, yet they also contain within them the tools to challenge them” (60). For example, in March 2018 the English National Ballet took a step towards disrupting gender expectations by hiring Chase Johnsey—a male dancer who had performed with the Trocks—as a ballerina (Escoyne 2018, Sulcas 2018). Chase was given a short-term contract and performed in ENB’s production of Sleeping Beauty as part of the female ensemble in a character role, which involved wearing heeled shoes (Escoyne 2018, Sulcas 2018). Although he did not appear on pointe in the production, Chase was able to take company classes on pointe and got to don the shoes, as well as a tutu, for an understudy role (Escoyne 2018).

Pointe work within traditional ballet is often used in a way that propagates the gender binary and related gendered prejudices that limit male dancers’ opportunities to go on pointe. Instead, by refusing to bind (dance) knowledge to particular genders, traditional ballet could acknowledge, as Fisher (2014) states, “the tips of the toes […] as just another plane on which to perform” (73).[1] Dance practice, ultimately, is a transformative process that shifts perceptions and extends cognition. So, let’s not limit men, or any body, from taking pointe.


Barringer, Janice, and Sarah Schlesinger. 2004. The Pointe Book, 2nd ed. Highstown: Princeton Book Company.

Butler, Judith. (1990) 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Clark, Andy. 2014. “The Extended Mind.”  HDC: A History of Distributed Cognition website.  Accessed March 7, 2016.

Clark, Andy, and David Chalmers. 2016. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis, 58 (1): 7-19.

De Lauretis, Teresa. 1987. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Escoyne, Courtney. 2018. “Chase Johnsey Spills About Performing a Woman’s Role With English National Ballet.” Dance Magazine website, June 13, 2018. Accessed July 2,       2018.        2577462000.html.

Fisher, Jennifer. 2014. “Why Ballet Men Do Not Stand on Their Toes (but Georgian Men Do).” World of Music 3: 59-77.

Fisher-Stitt, Norma Sue. 2011. “From the romantic to the virtual.” Conversations across the Field of Dance Studies 31: 24-5.

Hammond, Sandra Noll. 1988. “Searching for the Sylph: Documentation of Early Developments in Pointe Technique.” Dance Research Journal 19 (2): 27-31.

Ingold, Tim. 2004. “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet.” Journal of Material Culture 9 (3): 315-40.

Jowitt, Deborah. 2010. “In Pursuit of the Sylph: Ballet in the Romantic Period.”  In Routledge Dance Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Alexandra Carter and Janet O’Shea, 209-19. Florence: Routledge.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. 2001. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” In Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, edited by Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright, 33-43. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Ness, Sally Ann. 1995. “Dancing in the field: notes from memory.” In Corporealities: Dancing   Knowledge, Culture and Power, edited by Susan Leigh Foster, 133-158. Florence: Routledge.

Mead, David. 2008. “Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.” Ballet-Dance Magazine website, December 2008. Accessed January 25, 2018. http://www.ballet-

Royal Winnipeg Ballet. 2016. Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation, program notes. Winnipeg: Dave’s Quick Print.

Sulcas, Roslyn. 2012. “A Shining Star at the Paris Opera Ballet.” The New York Times website, November 2, 2012. Accessed January 25, 2018.

———. 2018. “He Wants to Be a Ballerina. He Has Taken the First Steps.” The New York Times   website, June 8, 2018. Accessed July 2, 2018.             corps-de-ballet.html?mc_cid=649b85b6a2&mc_eid=b89e18af02.

Walsh, Kristin Harris. 2011. “What is the Pointe? The Pointe Shoe as Symbol in Dance    Ethnography.” In Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance, edited by Dena       Davida, 85-98. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Witchel, Leigh. 2017. “Searching.” website, November 8, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2018.


[1] Demi-pointe refers to a position in which a person goes onto the balls of their feet, and therefore still has their toes on the ground. The pointe shoe is an object that allows a person, most often a ballerina, to rise onto the tips of their toes. (Please see note 4 for information on ballerinas and male dancers.) This is achieved through the block, the part of the pointe shoe that covers the toes, and which contains a small platform that helps attain the elevation onto the toes. If demi-pointe is considered the halfway mark to maximum elevation without jumping off of the ground, going on pointe with pointe shoes is the highest a person can go while keeping their (wrapped) feet on the floor. Pointe work, then, is a ballet technique in which a person trains to go onto the tips of the toes both with an without pointe shoes, as well as when a person uses this ability in performance. As such, in this essay, I will use the phrases “pointe work,” “going on pointe,” “on pointe,” and “pointe dancing” interchangeably to signal when a person is utilizing this ballet technique.

[2] Pointe shoes are a type of shoes worn by ballet dancers in order to go onto the tips of their toes (see figure 2), and perform pointe work, a kind of ballet technique (please see note 1 for information on pointe work). As Kristin Harris Walsh (2011) explains,

Because pointe shoes are often handmade, each shoe differs slightly in terms of colour, moulding, construction, and surface detail. But the basic shape is uniform. […] The outer covering of the shoe is satin. The shoes fit snugly to the foot, but lengthen the look of the foot with the addition of a blocked toe on the end. This stiff cup is called the block or box, and the flat part of the shoe that the dancer stands on is the       platform. Other important elements of the shoe construction are the vamp, which covers the top of the toes and the foot; the shank, the stiff sole that supports the insole; and the quarter, the soft material that covers the heel and sides of the foot. (87)

[3] One of the project’s objectives was allowing each contributor to narrate his story through his personal experiences. As such, titling my investigation “Men on Pointe” felt unsuitable because I was the one creating that community, as well as binding the narrators to an identification with which they might not associate. Consequently, I re-named my investigation “Men and Pointe” as an attempt to provide the narrators with the choice to identify as a man on pointe or not, to link or detach, and to allow for mobility between the spaces of “men” and “pointe.”

[4] Ballerina is what a female ballet dancer is called in ballet, and it is actually the Italian title. The Italian counterpart for a male ballet dancer is ballerino, but this is not used in the ballet classes I have attended. The French terms for a female ballet dancer and a male ballet dancer are “danseuse” and “danseur,” respectively. Sometimes, ballerina and danseur—the Italian term for female ballet dancer, and the French term for male ballet dancer—are used together to talk about the two partners. To keep things simple, in this essay I will use the terms ballerina(s) and female dancer(s) interchangeably to speak about women who dance ballet. As for the men, I will only refer to them as male dancer(s) since danseur is close to the word dancer.

[5] While ballerinas were free from the wires of Didelot’s machine, it could be argued that they nonetheless became controlled by the invisible strings of the choreographer. In other words, ballerinas were still dependent on an imposed choreography that dictated when they were to go on pointe.

[6] To hear Bennet Gartside (first soloist for The Royal Ballet) speak about his role as Bottom please see the Royal Opera House, “Men on pointe? First Soloist Bennet Gartside shares his tips (The Royal Ballet),” June 8, 2017, And to hear Ballet Mistress Megan Connelly instructing dancer Luke Marchant, from the Australian Ballet, on how to prepare for his role as Bottom please see The Australian Ballet, “Men en pointe,” March 31, 2015,

[7] Contemporary ballet is dance form that incorporates movement from traditional or classical ballet, as well as modern dance. While this art form still utilizes ballet vocabulary and conventions, it also enables dancers to explore other kinds of movement and scenarios. Speaking about men on pointe, Fisher acknowledges that “a few contemporary ballet choreographers […] have offered the most interesting the most interesting experiments yet” (2014, 60). And contemporary dance is a genre that is informed by various dance styles such as ballet, modern dance, jazz and improvisation, as well as non-western dance forms.

[8] Narrator is the name given to oral history interviewees. It is the counterpart of “informant” or “interlocutor” in anthropology.

[9] For ethical purposes I keep my narrators anonymous and do not insert direct quotes.

[10] Upstage and downstage are the designators for spaces on stage. Upstage refers to the part of the stage that is furthest away from the audience, while downstage refers to the part of the stage that is closest to the audience.

[11] For a trailer of this ballet please see the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, “Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation,” 2015,

[12] Depending on the character they were portraying, the male dancers wore nude, black, or white soft ballet slippers. The colour of the shoes also coincides with another hierarchy that I noticed. The nude slippers were meant to resemble feet and were thus worn by the Indigenous characters; whereas the black and white ballet slippers were worn as shoes by the European characters—the clergymen and Divine Louis lords, respectively.

[13] A port de bras (French for “carriage of the arms”) is way of moving the arms from one position to another while dancing ballet.

[14] Please see video examples from note 6.

[15] Ballet has different positions with regards to legs and arms. Here I will explain the positioning of the legs for first and fifth. In first position, the legs are beside each other with the feet pointing out to the sides to the full extent of a person’s turnout. Fifth position is similar to first but instead of keeping the legs tightly beside each other, one leg comes right in front of the other and crosses it so that the toes of one foot are in line with the heel of the other. In a sense, fifth position is like keeping the feet inside a box, whereas first position is like keeping the feet on a line. With respect to being on pointe, the positions change slightly. First position no longer maintains the legs tightly beside one another because when rising up onto the block the legs are pulled apart. And in fifth, the legs and feet are even closer together since it is the block of the pointe shoes that dictates the crossing of the legs. Therefore, while on flat feet the legs are sort of overcrossed in fifth, on pointe this is not the case.


NASA’s big picture: losing sight of knowing

by Suzanne Kennedy

Undergraduate Student, Honours in Sociology | York University, Toronto, Canada


This article illustrates the ways in which NASA’s stunning, extra-planetary visualizations of global climate change data create a way of knowing that separates us from climate change as a phenomenon and renders us visually impaired to its effects globally, regionally and locally. I show that while we are surrounded by an ever-growing arsenal of visual representations about how our climate is changing, these representations provide a barrier to knowing the realties unfolding on the ground, in communities around the globe. Leveraging Donna Haraway’s (1988) concept of situated knowledge, with multiple ethnographic data points regrading climate change visualization practices and ethnographic accounts of climate change realities, my analysis illustrates just how little we come to know as we are bombarded with evermore visual data.

Key words: Climate change, situated knowledges, visualization, representation

Publication Information

Volume 4, Issue 1 (2018)

NASA: the purveyor of big pictures

The latest in computer and visualization technology has made it possible for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to expose satellite imagery of Earth’s climate in animated full colour simulations (Gray 2017), giving our eyes a front-row seat as we feast on high-resolution, YouTube sized, edutainment chunks, easily digestible by our short attention spans and harried consumption tendencies. These globally spatial and temporally situated, compartmentalized, outer space views, showcasing the geo-spatial magnitude of Earth’s changing climate, are a sight to behold. We are primed to accept what NASA and other entities parade in front of us as the universal truths about the state of our planet’s climate and the enormity of the changes it is undergoing (Wielicki 2012).

How does NASA’s full frontal visual approach prevent us from experiencing the situation on the ground through our non-visual sensorium, and the ways in which human lives are affected as a result of climate change? We are surrounded by vast arrays of imagery culminating in chart upon graph upon illustration rendering climate data from the past, present, and future, through various mechanisms, measuring techniques and models, intended to serve up universal, objective truths about the state of our planet (NOAA n.d., IPCC n.d.). Yet, what do we really know about the changes that are occurring, the significance of the changes, and the magnitude of their impacts on our planetary home?

This paper will explore the ways in which NASA’s stunning, extra-planetary visualizations of global climate change data create a way of knowing that disconnects us from climate change impacts; blocking our view and impairing our ability to understand how these changes are being manifest in a human context—globally, regionally, and locally. I will focus on NASA’s extraterrestrial time lapse imagery which directs one’s attention to changes in the Arctic sea ice from 1984 to 2016 (Gray 2017). While this mega-representation of climate change data exudes notions of objectivity and universal truth coveted in Western science practice (Haraway 1988, 582), it comes at a cost. Such representations from the seat of the stratosphere hide the micro and desensitize us to the ways in which place, human, and sentient beings are transmuted as the Arctic sea ice evaporates. There is no denying that such artistic representations of global climate change data play a role in the development of knowledge and building of awareness. They do, however, represent only one element of a multi-layered, complex, evolving story that is unfolding in and out of the view of NASA’s ever watchful satellite eyes and computer simulations.

Climate data and climate change data

The creation and collection of climate data had humble beginnings in the nineteenth century with the sporadic, voluntary, and manual recording of local weather conditions at various measuring stations around the globe (Edwards 2010, 4). According to Paul N. Edwards (2010), climate is understood as the history of weather over long periods of time (xiv) and knowing about climate’s past can help us construct knowledge and understanding about the present and predict what may happen in the future (xvii).

It wasn’t until the late 1940’s that the digitization of climate and weather data became possible, as computer technology gained the technological means required for the large body of collected data (Edwards 2010, 14). During the 1970’s, three-dimensional climate modelling techniques were developed and deployed by climatologists, establishing a new era for the formal and conscious collection of data to record and monitor the Earth’s climate (Edwards 2010, 14). From the 1980’s, climatologists and meteorologist embraced the abilities of computer modelling techniques to capture, track, and display climate and weather-related information in a truly global context, due to concerns about global warming (Edwards 2010, 15). This global climate measuring system now includes a complex array of surface based, ocean, and atmospheric measuring instruments which take hundreds of thousands of daily readings (Edwards 2010, 4). By all accounts, I suggest the collection of climate data is akin to Helen Verran’s (2002) notion of a grand scale accumulation project (751), in which the counting and measuring of variables is undertaken to achieve the holy grail of cause-and-effect generalizations (755), neatly packaged into models, charts, and simulations suitable for subsequent display.

There are, of course, limitations to data gathering and management projects that are both local and global in scale. Edwards (2010) theorizes that we are in fact “stuck with” the weather and climate data accumulated to date, not only in its form, but also with the sources from which it came (15). Further, I would argue, we are constrained by the ways we visualize, interpret, and come to understand this quantitative, painstakingly collected, data set. These limitations make it difficult for us, lay people and scientist alike, to see beyond the numbers, to see the actualities of the pasts, presents, and possible futures tied up in these sanitized generalizations. When one examines the charts and graphs published by organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC n.d.), the quantitative bias of the data is clear: the stories told focus on the discrete, measurable elements of the scientifically desirable single properties, similar to how Verran (2002) describes forms of scientific generalization that exist in epistemic tension with Aboriginal knowledge on firing practices in Australia (748-750). Climate scientists presenting climate change data embrace a similar, single property approach, as can be witnessed in Bromwich’s 2013 TED talk. Data are painted onto graphs and charts reminiscent of those that economists and business leaders deploy to convey data about the health of trade, labour, and gross domestic product. As these numbers are dished out during analyst calls, press briefings, institutional reports, and discussed across media outlets, the story is the number: how it may have changed since the last report; what policies and indices require tweaking to bring the numbers back in line; whose numbers speak truth and whose do not.

Such representations of data give visibility and voice to distinct quantitative and macro depictions of the global climate system and climate change. NASA’s satellite data is collected from somewhere above the planet and its resulting images are rendered from an extraterrestrial vantage point. Donna Haraway’s (1988) notion of unlocatable knowledge claims—claims that cannot be called into question (583), and are prominently on display—suggests this view from above is disembodied knowing. Climate and climate change become individual and distinct objects in their own right; objects to be dominated and clinically separated from other objects that scientists track and measure; objects over whose data we can obsess. Current obsessions with climate change data are directed towards determining just how much warming the planet is undergoing and how to stay beneath a two-degree Celsius increase in average global temperature (MacMillan 2016). This is the climate change story retold by scientists, journalists, politicians, and corporate leaders, interpreted and manipulated to account for their own singular interests and leaving space for both advocate and denier to find their respective truths amidst such disembodied portrayals.

What remains hidden from view are the stories and experiences taking place on and near the ground, not just human stories and experiences, but also those of the other than human, or what Zoe Todd refers to as “more than human” (2016, 45), everything that is not defined as human. Embracing the “more than human” (45), I propose, re-integrates climate back into the patchwork of earthly vitality and helps bring to life the symbiotic, rhizomic quality of the locally situated ways in which both humans and the “more than human” (45), are being transfigured together and in unison with the changes taking place in the planet’s climate.

And so it is with the pulsing imagery of NASA’s simulation, the ebb and flow of Arctic sea ice swirls around the North Pole, a digitally rendered collection of facts on display from somewhere out in space. Nowhere in sight are the inter-connected knowledges and understandings that tell us what is happening on the ground at this globally significant geographic marker on top of the Earth, or how such happenings connect to other happenings at other places on the planet. Verran submits that Western scientists’ ways of knowing isolate human acts from the land (2002, 739), and in a similar vein NASA’s pulsing Arctic sea ice, a disappearing ice mass that has traditionally served as land, severs human, as well as “more than human” (Todd 2016, 45), acts and ways of being from the land. When consuming NASA’s time lapse imagery of melting arctic ice, I am lulled into a false sense of awareness and objectivity—I observe the shrinking ice as time progresses and believe that I am aware of the full extent of what is going on at the North Pole. NASA is watching over the proceedings, somebody is in control. 

Situated experiences and ways of knowing

Susan A. Crate (2011) alerts us to the challenges of a global view and its impacts on locally situated ways of knowing (176). Specifically, Crate indicates that the generalizations required to implement globally measured, tracked, and communicated phenomena detract from the complex and unique local involvements of both the human and other than human (176). Further, she maintains that the quantitative bias of current climate change data, its analysis and representation, conceal accompanying sociocultural implications  at the local level (176), such as how communities live with and use the land they inhabit (178). This is a point clearly demonstrated by the quantitative data depictions from NASA’s satellite view, and further supported by Verran (2002) who insists that generalization oriented towards “clean and accountable cause-and-effect knowledge” (755) makes invisible other modes of generalizing that maintain the temporal and contextual qualities entangled with the “how” (756).

While many social media sites are brimming with dramatic, even romantic, images of polar bears with their cubs, replete with warnings about the loss of sea ice and the looming decimation of wildlife populations—as in the example from the Discover Magazine blog (Yulsman 2017)—NASA’s pulsing Arctic sea ice model decouples any notion of consequence. This is true not just for wildlife and flora, but also for the Indigenous communities who call the Arctic Circle home. These communities, like the polar bear, rely on the sea ice for their sustenance and ways of life, and those, too, are at risk; their land isn’t changing, it is evaporating. The ebbing and flowing of sea ice changes put forth in NASA’s imagery do not present the viewer with the equally important and vastly more complex facts of local challenges resulting from vanishing permafrost and ice due to a warming climate. The phenomenon of drunken trees (Gore 2006), which are losing their footing as the thawing ground heaves, or the precarious future of whaling villages like Kivalina, on the brink of sinking into the Arctic Ocean (Callison 2014, 41) as the permafrost they are built on melts away, are two such challenges.

It is all too easy to dismiss the changes in Arctic sea ice as happening ‘down there,’ distant, behind the glass of the computer screen, contained in YouTube frames, as the observer takes their place in the stratosphere, a position with a view, certainly, but what exactly does one see? Since recordings began, weather related data has had both nation-state and global value in the name of improving nation-state systems and facilities (Edwards 2010, 13); having first naval, then national security, and commercial applications (41). NASA’s images, however, take climate data representations, and our coming to know about climate change, beyond the global to the cosmic.

Haraway (1988) argues that celestially orbiting satellites are “visualizing technologies” (581), serving up disembodied objectivity from their “conquering gaze from nowhere” (581). As a public, we consume NASA’s imagery through the visualizing technologies of our digital devices, creating further separation between what we come to know and the actual situated experiences of those living with and on the Arctic ice. Our eyes are captivated in and by layers of visualizing technologies, intensifying Haraway’s (1988) claim of disembodied ways of seeing and knowing (581). NASA’s satellites move us beyond the macro to the mega, and we lose sight of the details that attest to the situated experiences of the “more than human” (Todd 2016, 45) and humans alike, as they collide with a changing climate.

Edwards (2010) suggests that the idea of a global climate requires long-term thinking, in the frame of one hundred-year cycles or longer, for us to meaningfully compare past climate attributes with what we now perceive to be a warming climate (4). He further conceives that nobody lives in a global climate and that humans are unable to detect the changes to average temperature trends over time (4). Quantitative climate data and its current expressions in satellite imagery, charts, and graphs, then, become the pre-requisite tools through which we perceive and come to know the fluctuations and gradations of Earth’s climate system (4), and the resulting impacts on the planet’s environment. While this sounds like a reasonable hypothesis, is it in fact a universal truth or is this, as Haraway (1988) posits, just another powerplay in the game of objective knowledge (577)?

Living in a global climate

In her ethnography on climate change, Candis Callison (2014) suggests that “how one comes to talk about the environment is based on how one comes to know it” (46). In the comforts of our Western, capitalist, neoliberal world, we have learned to refer to our environment as a container for resources to fuel our convenience-oriented lifestyles, evidenced in the PBS documentary Global Warming: The Signs and the Science (2012). The environment is reduced to supplying our never-ending demand for more and is something to be explained and controlled through the lenses of scientific practice, political maneuvering, and corporate profit. We have severed ourselves from our environment and climate (Callison 2014, 53), no longer a part of them, and we have become inept at perceiving these differences, as Edwards (2010) suggests.

Western capitalist lifestyles are no longer sustenance based, our food comes from the store and our sensitivity to changes in climate presents itself as power surges when the demand for air conditioning increases, when environmental allergies set in, and when structural vulnerabilities are exposed in the wake of natural disasters (PBS 2012; Gore 2006). Callison (2014) determines that rapid urbanization and industrialized specialization have resulted in a disconnect from the outdoors (53). In such living spaces, our bodies lose their perceptive abilities (Gore 2006), we rely instead on ‘the app for that’, to tell us how to dress, prepare and medicate for outside conditions, a place that is becoming all too alien for us to make sense of without technological aides.

In the Arctic, Inuit peoples, through their sensibilities and oral histories, have perceived and continue to perceive changes in landscapes, weather patterns, flora and wildlife, long before climate change was a mainstream conversation (Callison 2014, 53). Over the past several decades Inuit elders have observed and taken note of changes to the frequency and intensity of storms, sea ice changes, and the erosion of permafrost (Callison 2014, 53). While NASA’s satellite view documents the changes to sea ice, what escapes from this view is the disappearing permafrost, lichen, and caribou, and the new arrival of moose, moss, and black spruce trees that are making their mark in the Arctic circle (Callison 2014, 53); impacting communities dotted through the polar region (Callison 2014, 51).

According to Sheila Watt-Cloutier (2015), the Inuit people perceive their world inter-relationally (7), where everything is connected, and everything counts (6). The reciprocal relationship between sentient being, land, and water uniquely attune those living in the Arctic Circle to sense changes in their surroundings (Callison 2014, 54). For Callison (2014), the ability to observe the impacts of a changing climate on the frozen land and ice mass, requires people to have a firm understanding of their outside world and have an “ecosystem mind-set” (53). It would appear then, that the Inuit people are located firmly in the global climate and are quite adept at perceiving changes to it at the local level.

Seeing, sensing, knowing

NASA’s animated simulation, while technologically sophisticated, factually accurate and artistically appealing, is anemic in its knowing and portrays a singular data point: diminishing sea ice over time. Its only connection is to a geographic location on top of the world. It looks, but it is unable to see and comprehend the changes happening on the ground. As consumers of the simulation, we are not merely separated from land; we are separated from the entire planet, looking down upon it. The NASA images do not make accessible the stories about what else is happening in conjunction with the retreating ice cap. Exalted to the cosmos, the viewer is so detached from the planet, none of this is knowable, perceivable, or visible through the lens of cosmically positioned satellites and their computer-generated simulations. However, climate and its changes are not just visual experiences. What is not knowable from NASA’s disappearing Arctic sea ice act are the sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the shrinking ice, and its connections to and extensions of other interrelated networks, social, natural, and otherwise—those elements that are not measurable via currently available instruments, or easily represented through satellite imagery, or by the coveted charts and graphs we bear witness to when climate change data is being presented.

As consumers of NASA’s representation of the changing Arctic sea ice we do not come to know the ways in which communities, experiencing changing climates, attempt to adapt. Crate (2011) argues communities affected by global climate change struggle to stay on their homelands and maintain the “cultural orientations and symbolic frameworks” they draw upon as they adapt (179). For the Inuit, the warming of the global climate is causing their homelands to literally evaporate. Not only is land disappearing, lives are also being lost as hunting grounds melt and their interconnected, sustenance-oriented way of life is threatened (Callison 2014, 54). Inuit hunters have relied on their knowledge of sea ice to survive and thrive as they work to provide for their families (Callison 2014, 54). A rapidly thinning sea ice makes the hunt for food even more treacherous, resulting in deadly accidents (Watt-Cloutier 2015, 7). Verran (2002) posits the social is not distinct from the natural, there is no separation of “people and place” (735). And in the ways that Aboriginal stocks of knowledge regarding Australian firing practices are embedded in the everyday (Myers 2017), so too are the hunting practices of the Inuit; practices which are contingent upon the existence of sea ice and permafrost. In addition to feeding communities, these practices give relevance and significance to what and how the Inuit come to know (Callison 2014, 49).

Watt-Cloutier (2015) states that the historical permanence of the sea ice, the land of the Inuit, forms an integral part not just of her culture, but the physical and economic well-being of her people (7). Hunting practices are embedded in the ways Inuit depend on their collective memories to guide them through life and understand their place within it (Callison 2014, 49), as a result, Watt-Cloutier (quoted in Callison 2014, 49) suggests the high suicide rates in Inuit communities and climate change are inextricably connected. Coming to know, then, is a full inner and outer body experience, connected through and to environments, climates, histories, places and all sentient beings.

Closing thoughts

I have traced the ways in which Western science practice, with its colonial roots and disembodied approach to knowledge creation (Myers 2014, 2), lacks the sensibilities through which to experience and know in the way embodied knowledge practices do. Western science knowledge practices are oriented towards ordering (Verran 2002, 752), the single property, the visual, creating separation between subject and object. With NASA’s animation, this rift takes on a new dimension as the knowing subject takes its place in outer space and the cosmos becomes the separator, forming a chasm potentially too large to close. As sites of situated knowledge (Haraway 1988, 583) and ways of knowing, bodies and places are, however, more than visual. They are multi- and opti-sensory (Myers 2014, 21), a transient collection of storied experiences, moving through and with space and time (Verran 2002, 731). But this way of knowing does not fit the pattern of the fixed, moment-in-time, disembodied, universal truth claims favoured by Western science. Rather, this way of knowing is messy, inter-related, and inter-connected (Verran 2002, 757), not reducible to variables for counting and measuring. This way of knowing defies the search for the constant; it forms a web, a network of experiences, stories, and sensibilities that do not lend themselves to the modeling and rendering of current approaches for representation and visualization.

With its animated 3D computer simulations, NASA bring us an ‘at the glass’ experience with Earth and climate securely located somewhere off in the distance, outside of the viewer’s immediate purview, not something to really concern oneself with. One’s detachment from the phenomenon is epic: I am no longer a mere human experiencing the ramifications of a changing climate, I am catapulted into the cosmos, looking down on planet Earth, witnessing its goings-on, cast as a disconnected and unbiased observer. As the knower, I assume the “god trick” position (Haraway 1988, 587), severed from the spectacle, not responsible, not accountable, not involved, no dirt on my hands, nothing to see here.


Bromwich, David. 2013. “Global warming – fact or fiction?” Filmed at TEDx Columbus. Youtube TEDx Talks. Accessed February 15, 2017.

Callison, Candis. 2011. How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. Durham, NC. Duke University Press.

Crate, Susan. A. 2011. “Climate and Culture: Anthropology in the Era of Contemporary Climate Change.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 175–94.

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Facebook: The Modern Day Panopticon

by Zaynab Ali

Undergraduate Student | York University, Toronto, Canada


Facebook keeps a keen eye on the inhabitants of the world by tracking users’ lives as they create profiles, connect with friends, and share pictures, videos, and statuses. Drawing from the work of Michel Foucault, Jeremy Bentham, David Miller, and Michael Welch, in this article I consider how Facebook exists in the world of technology as a modern day panopticon and argue that, by creating a platform on which users can instantly post and share their private lives with the public, Facebook blurs the lines between the private and public domains. Through a review of the workings and features of Facebook, I argue that the social network site is a virtual rendition of the penitentiary.

Key words: Facebook, social media, panopticon

Publication Information

Volume 4, Issue 1 (2018)


Technology, as it is manifested in the form of social media and social networking sites (including web-based sites), gives individuals the power to create online profiles through which they can connect and communicate with others (Lange 2007, 362). These platforms are gaining popularity in today’s social settings. Facebook, a popular social network site of the last decade, is a platform that “combines the ability to post visual materials with text status updates and interactive features such as ‘liking’ posts, commenting and private messaging” (Haynes 2016: 46).  A brief analysis of particular social dimensions of Facebook can uncover how Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism has molded people’s experiences on Facebook today.

Foucault’s (1995) concept of panopticism was developed from Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, an architectural penitentiary design that produces a system of social control through surrounding surveillance (Bennet 1988). Bentham’s prison served as a model and metaphor for Foucault to theorize structures of power (Bennett 1988). Furthermore, in The Post-Panoptic society? Reassessing Foucault in surveillance studies Gilbert Caluya explains:

Foucault introduced Bentham’s prison architecture as an exemplar of the shift in mechanisms of social control. The proposed panopticon was composed of an annular building circling a tower. The peripheral building is divided into cells for the inmates, which has a window facing out of the building and another facing the tower such that the backlighting effect would allow anyone within the tower to see all inmates. On the other hand, the tower was designed in such a way that one could not tell whether it was occupied. The result of this architecture was “to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects.” (2010, 622)

In other words panopticism describes a society of surveillance, one that watches over itself by “transforming the crowd into a constantly surveyed, self-watching, self-regulating…orderly public—a society watching over itself” (Bennett 1988, 81). The power of the panoptic gaze is one of the fundamentals of Foucault’s work and the uncomfortable reality of the world today is that of being constantly surveyed and analyzed through new techniques, such as the social networking site Facebook. As one carries on with one’s life, uploading and sharing one’s daily endeavors, the concept of hundreds of strangers getting a peek into one’s private life is a thought tossed aside; oblivious that, just like Focualt’s panopticism, every upload further enables a tighter surveillance on the uploader.

According to Foucault (1995), Bentham’s Panopticon was a structure designed to survey the inmates and its architecture ensured that inmates were seen by the guards who remained hidden.  Through this model the inmates felt the gaze of the guards, and this panoptic scrutiny “induce[d] in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 1995, 201). Moreover, threat of always being watched urges individuals to conform to social norms.

Facebook can be seen as a mode of panopticon surveillance because the sharing of one individual’s data is viewed and surveyed by others. For the posts can be tracked back to the earliest of days of one’s time on Facebook. Timelines seem to stretch on—anyone at any moment is able to pull up exactly what one was feeling at a certain time and date in their lives. For once it is online, it is out there in the system for eternity; slowly circulating through millions of other data.

The works of anthropologists, such as Michel Wesch (2008) and Daniel Miller (2010; 2013), demonstrate how Foucault’s (1995) theory of panopticism has extended into the modern day world of Facebook through three major categories: the sharing of private pictures of oneself,  the public display of one’s friendships on Facebook—the quantity insurmountably more crucial than the quality—and Facebook Live, a feature that incorporates live streaming to further bring one’s private life out into the public until users are constantly mindful of their social status online. Through the example of image sharing we can get a sense of how social norms and relations are shaped through public viewing. Similarly, the calculation and evaluation of friendships reflect how these too, on Facebook, have become a power struggle: to appear popular strangers are added as friends in bulk.

In this article I explore the panoptic implications of Facebook through three specific aspects of the social media platform: image posts, the open display of one’s Facebook friends, and live video interactions. Because Facebook users are aware that their posts are being read by others online it is crucial for them to put their best face forward. Therefore, I argue that Facebook can be regarded as a modern day panopticon, where the users act like the inmates of Bentham’s prison, and the rest of the Facebook community like both the guards and the inmates. I also consider how Facebook blurs the line between private and public domains and disrupts conceptions of authenticity. This is done by reinforcing social norms and sharing intimate details of one’s life as panopticism flows and operates through the people, by the people, for the larger businesses eagerly collecting personal data, one “like” at a time.

Posting Images

It takes little less than a minute to post a picture, or a selfie, on Facebook but once it is posted the lifespan of that picture, a picture that introduces private moments to the public, is infinite. Once posted online the picture is in the hands of the internet, and what was once an intimate moment is now visible on any number of screens, becoming subject to unknown gazes. Indeed, selfies proliferate on the internet. From family vacations and wedding receptions to individual bedrooms and personal spaces, the notion of personal and private dimensions of life are now being showcased to the public over Facebook.

Michael Koliska and Jessica Roberts (2015) define selfies as “visual presentations of one’s self and […] photographic representations and formations of identity” (1672). Through one singular picture, an individual’s identity can be glimpsed by their clothes, facial expressions, and the framing of the selfie (Koliska and Roberts 2015, 1675). The elements one chooses to include in the selfie exhibits a (public) image—an image that is shaped according to the norms displayed on Facebook. For example, selfies that focus on the perfect, happy family, often snapped while on vacation, influence others to mimic these ideals. Thus, selfies have become a way of expressing identity on social media platforms including Facebook, but this identity is subject to conforming with ideals and social norms (Venkatraman 2017, 98).

Feelings of desire can be discerned when gazing at the pictures posted on Facebook. For example, ideals of beauty and its social value are shared and followed—from the so-called “perfect” hair to the “perfect” waist size. Selfies display the qualities one desires because one is aware of the fact that once the selfie is posted on Facebook it will be open for public scrutiny (Costa 2016, 79). For instance, in Social Media in South India Venkatraman (2017) highlights how private events become public through the power of Facebook and mere pictures:

Saranya and Srijith Saranya’s love story—an intimate part of their lives—is painted and announced on Facebook for all of their friends to see, to analyze, and to ‘like.’ Saranya began by posting pictures of their dates, and then pictures from their wedding were added and slowly their love story—from their courtship, to their wedding, to their married life—was chronicled on Facebook for the public to follow. (121)

Their private moments were turned into a public show, facilitated by the ease of posting pictures on Facebook. It takes a second to click the “post” button, to disclose one’s private life to the public, and to place oneself onto the virtual grid.

Facebook thrives on the sharing of personal information and the posting of pictures. The principles of panopticism, one of which includes always being seen without every seeing the source of the gaze, is present in the world of Facebook: from the way the pictures one posts are being gazed at by individuals whose identities are unknown. Once on the internet the picture can be rapidly transported all over the world. Even if privacy settings restrict the amount of people allowed to view the picture, there are several ways one can send the picture to others—from screenshots to downloads; many possibilities are available online.

 Selfies that tell stories of private and intimate moments are now, through Facebook, transferred to the public domain in which individuals are aware of being constantly surveyed by unknown gazes. Facebook is a space in which the private and public distinction becomes more complicated, and a platform on which panopticism is implicated by transforming individuals and societies into self-regulating citizens that are keenly aware of the selfies that are acceptable and “liked.” Facebook selfies demonstrate a society of surveillance where individuals regulate both themselves and each other through posting and “liking” selfies, often those that strive to represent their best selves and their “perfect” lives.  

Friendship Evaluations

Friendships have changed in the 21st century with the introduction of social networking through Facebook. With this social networking site, the number of a person’s friends has been placed on a grid for all to see, to analyze, and to judge. Facebook has more often than not turned meaningful friendships into shallow “Facebook friendships,” created for nothing more than a number count. For even the once personal relationships are often transformed into a public display of posts, likes, and comments. The connections made on Facebook are called “friends,” and these friends are the main purpose of the website: without friends individual profiles are essentially insignificant (Dalsgaard 2016, 98).

Daniel Miller (2013) states, in his book Tales from Facebook, the fact that one has 700 friends on Facebook does not indicate that one has that many friends offline, and when students were interviewed regarding the number of friends they have on Facebook as opposed to their offline lives, the results did not come as a shock. Miller explains that having over 300 friends on Facebook was impressive but the amount of friends with whom users had offline relationships with were significantly lower (2013, 166).

Friendships on Facebook have become a popularity contest where the level of popularity is deemed by the number of friends displayed. This contest is difficult to evade because a friends list is available to others for viewing (unless restricted). Thus, I argue Facebook friend lists have become another means through which surveillance and the gaze are practiced. The unknown gaze of Facebook members is always watching the citizens but is hidden from view which forces citizens to conform to what this society has constructed as appropriate.

According to Miller’s research, individuals connect with others and become Facebook friends for the sole purpose of adding to their friend count (2013, 166). In addition, Steffen Dalsgaard explains that upon logging onto Facebook one is able to “follow” the activities of friends through a “newsfeed where recent activities of friends appear. What appears… is otherwise determined by an algorithm computing one’s likely preferences from data about previous choices and actions online” (2016, 98). When scrolling through a newsfeed, every action—from “liking” a post to becoming friends with another person—is documented by Facebook and Facebook uses this information to filter and personalize a newsfeed according to their algorithms (Facebook 2018).

As Facebook members act as both the prisoners and guards of Bentham’s panopticon they are welcomed into the private friendships and relationships of others, and their (faceless) gaze (that enables one’s every move to be monitored) is snapped on. As Facebook members scroll through their news feed, they become the guards keeping watch over other users, and once these members upload personal information (image posts, statuses, and so on), their roles are reversed and they also become the prisoners feeding into the system. Facebook can also foster jealousy, as stalking one’s profile to see whose wall they’ve posted on can spur feelings of distaste, especially in the cases of former relationships.

Although it might seem that merely posting on a friend’s wall is of no concern to others, the reality is that the post is now also in the domain of the public, and countless people become privy to the intimate details of personal relationships due to public exhibition of Facebook posts and friendships (Miller 2013, 168).  Although these posts are regarded by many Facebook users as a way to document memories, by posting details or anecdotes of their day together their private memories are also being made public (Venkatraman 2017, 122).

While Geoff D’Eon and Jay Dahl’s documentary Facebook Follies (2011) suggest that the average Facebook user assumes Facebook is “for love,” the reality is that Facebook is using every bit of data it can glean from profiles for its own advantages, such as for expanding their business. The world of Facebook is one in which friendships are a commodity used to keep citizens conforming to social norms and under constant surveillance.

Facebook Live

Along with posting pictures and statuses, Facebook users can stream live videos which are published onto the page as a video after the live stream ends through a new feature called Facebook Live. Facebook Live, launched in early 2016, allows users to live stream videos and update friends and followers in real time (Mastroianni 2016). With just a click of a button they are able to send out live videos to the world, where their followers can respond by reacting through ‘Live Reactions,’ which provides a range of expressions—love, anger, or grief for instance (Mastroianni 2016). According to Facebook’s Chief Product Officer Chris Cox, Facebook Live is “’bringing a little TV studio to users’ pockets” (Mastroianni 2016). But the difference between a TV studio and Facebook Live is the level of intimacy.

Facebook Live forges a deeper connection between friends and followers through these videos by creating a sense of intimacy and implying that the video is unscripted. Yet users are aware of the public gaze which bears an influence on their behaviour. As more social network sites are created, and individuals are made to feel as if they are connecting more, ideas of authenticity are becoming complicated with these virtual modes of interaction that are affected by panoptic gazing; individuals are aware that they are being watched and are influenced to present themselves accordingly, for example by often demonstrating their best (or ideal) behavior. The seemingly unscripted nature of the medium changes the overall feeling around everything the individual is doing and saying during the live stream and changes the manner in which messages are carried through this new medium.

Facebook Live can be seen as an extension of YouTube as both mediums convey messages through the use of videos and convey the idea that any individual with a camera has a “strong voice” (Wesch 2008). In An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube, Wesch (2008) states that as media changes human relationships change as well, and media is mediated through these human relationships. In addition, Wesch (2008) theorizes that in the search for individuality human beings still have a strong value for communities, and as commercialization increases so does the hunger for authenticity, and once again all of these points can be seen in Facebook Live. Specifically, Facebook Live is a medium through which communities on Facebook can share a deeper connection with an individual by asking question during a live stream.

Facebook Live is also another way of complicating the private-public divide; the private life of an individual is displayed to the public through live videos and these act as windows into the presumably private lives of individuals. When the line between private and public is blurred, a sense of intimacy is created.  One of the attractions of Facebook Live is the sense of authenticity produced by being in an intimate and mundane setting with another individual. In this way, live streaming brings friends and followers into the private lives of users and thereby provides another means through which panopticism can operate—surveilling the seemingly private lives of individuals. The minute the video is turned on numerous gazes are snapped onto the live stream where they can examine every move. The omnipresence of this unknown gaze, mediated through Facebook, impacts the way one acts the moment they are “live.” In other words, Facebook Live “provides a semi-public stage for…performances of the self,” aware of pressures to follow “normative standards in their pubic performance on social media” (Haynes 2016, 58). Facebook Live has extended the means through which the public gaze can keep citizens under surveillance. Expressing one’s identity takes a whole different twist when one is being watched in ‘real time.’


Through Facebook one is able to build new friendships, revive old ones, and share pictures of one’s life, from mundane images of food to breathtaking travel images featuring views of the Eiffel Tower. This platform involves everything from messages to pictures to live-streaming, all of which serve to display private and personal aspects of life to the public. Furthermore, with its pictures, friendships, and live-streaming, Facebook has a global reach, giving people the tools to watch and to analyze the lives of others.

In this way, it exhibits elements of surveillance that suggest forms of social relation that are reminiscent of Bentham’s prison and Foucault’s (1995) panopticism. By analyzing the way Facebook keeps a close eye on its citizens through the pictures posted, the friendships established, and the live-streaming available, we can consider the hidden gaze that Facebook users employ to surveil the private lives of others—a type of gaze that Foucault (1995) might recognize as the building block of his theory on panopticism. Through the examples of image posting, friends list, and Facebook live we can get a sense of the relationship between the panoptic gaze of Facebook and its virtual social relations and norms. As these three categories exhibit, Facebook and its users can track the movements of users as they upload, add, and watch videos and thus the line between private and public domains starts to blur.

Marshall McLuhan (2002) theorizes that the medium is the message, and this is evident in the way new messages are being transferred and published through Facebook Live. Facebook Live has been the reason behind several protests in recent time, including outrage after the public witnessed the live streaming of Philando Castile’s shooting in 2016. According to CNN reporter Emanuella Grinberg (2016), “Amateur video is more personal and raw, compared to what you see in newscast or edited video, where you’re prepared for what you’re going to see.”

The gaze is as heavy through Facebook as it was in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. The architecture of Facebook and the Panopticon may differ visually but the process and the workings of the two are similar: where guards watched the inmates in the Panopticon, Facebook and the users watch other participants with the same hidden scrutiny and constructs obligations to conform to social norms—reflecting similar social mechanisms of control. Decades have passed since Foucault’s (1995) theory of panopticism and yet panopticism still flows through every picture, friend request, and live-streaming session. In this way, the modern experience of Facebook presents an example of panopticism, where there is seldom a moment in which society does not feel the watchful gaze of others.


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The biopolitics of prenatal diagnosis: How the definition of “health” shapes the use and development of prenatal testing

by Leslie Marie Vesely

MA Student, Department of Anthropology | York University, Toronto, Canada


This article critically examines the definition of “health” in Western epistemology and its link to the use and development of prenatal testing. Biopolitics and biocapital are explored when discussing the malleability of the definition of “health.” This article argues that the equation of “health” with able and productive bodies is naturalized in society and seen as stagnant because of a scientific claim to detached objectivity. This article suggests that this definition of “health” aids in creating, reproducing and supporting a capitalist, neoliberal governmental regime in Canada by focusing on the productivity of bodies, which fosters some lives and hinders others. This article considers the effect this definition of “health” has on the public and questions why prenatal diagnosis continues to gain so much popularity. Importantly, it questions who this technology benefits.

Keywords: Capitalism, disability, health, knowledge systems, prenatal testing, state, technology

Publication Information

Volume 4, Issue 1 (2018)


Advancements in the medical field allow for new technologies that challenge hegemonic kinship beliefs and ideals surrounding “health.” Prenatal diagnosis is a new technology that has recently been gaining momentum around the world (Saxton 2000). This procedure allows the diagnosis of certain physical and genetic disabilities in developing fetuses. Abortion is legal across Canada, which means that pregnant people who discover that the fetus they are carrying may have a diagnosable disability have the choice to terminate the pregnancy (Canada 2015). This has created much controversy around this technology because many activist groups believe that this is a move towards eugenics and is a blatant attack against people with disabilities (Saxton 2006). Disability is commonly equated with illness and fetuses who show signs of genetic and physical differences are often framed as being unhealthy (Saxton 2000). Hence, prenatal testing raises the question of what constitutes a “healthy” fetus and potential human citizen. In this article I use a biopolitical framework to explore how dominant neoliberal and capitalist ideologies influence understandings of “health” and the use of prenatal diagnosis. I argue that prenatal testing is a technology that aids in regulating and policing human bodies to ensure the proliferation of productive citizens who can effectively contribute to the economy and become self-sustaining.

Prenatal Diagnostic Procedures

There are many different kinds of prenatal diagnostic techniques that can be used to detect genetic differences throughout pregnancy. Generally, these procedures can be divided into two categories: invasive and non-invasive. Invasive techniques involve coming into contact with the fetuses’ or embryos’ immediate surroundings, such as the amniotic sac inside of the uterus, usually with the guidance of an ultrasound (Evans and Wapner 2005). The ultrasound, a non-invasive tool, is also commonly used alone to detect any physical deformities. Two main invasive techniques are amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling (CVS) (Evans and Wapner 2005). Amniocentesis involves inserting a needle into a pregnant woman’s lower abdomen, taking amniotic fluid from the uterus, and culturing the fetus’ or embryos’ cells to determine if there are any genetic abnormalities (The University of Utah Eccles Health Sciences Library 2017). CVS involves inserting a catheter through the vaginal opening to collect cells from the placenta (The University of Utah Eccles Health Sciences Library 2017). As with amniocentesis, these cells are cultured in a laboratory to detect any genetic abnormalities. As these two procedures involve coming into close contact with the fetus, there are some associated risks such as fetal death and fetal limb defects (Evans and Wapner 2005). However, risks vary depending on when the procedure is carried out in the pregnancy.

In 1997 researchers found that fetal DNA can be obtained through the blood plasma of pregnant women (De Jong et al. 2010). This discovery was used to develop non-invasive prenatal diagnosis (NIPD), which has been on the rise in recent years. NIPD is found to be more accurate, safer, easier to administer, and can be performed earlier in the pregnancy than invasive procedures (De Jong et al. 2010). Instead of using needles or catheters to collect DNA from cells directly from the fetus or embryo, doctors take blood from the woman’s arm and isolate fetal DNA (De Jong et al. 2010). This technique is specifically helpful in detecting trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), trisomy 13 (Patau syndrome), and trisomy 18 (Edwards syndrome), but is being further developed to detect a wider range of genetic disorders (De Jong et al. 2010).

Defining “Health”

In the 21st century, “health” is commonly equated with “normal” and a criterion of “health” or “normalcy” is being able bodied. However, this deep connection between health and normalcy did not always exist (Foucault 1994). During the 17th to 18th centuries, biomedicine was rapidly gaining popularity and authority through its adherence to rationality, empiricism, and positivism (Samson 1999). The focus on knowledge generated through observation, lived experiences, and privileging of tangibility was sparked during the Enlightenment period (Samson 1999). Descartes, a predominant philosopher in the 17th century, was a major figure during this period and theorized a separation between the mind and body (Samson 1999). This division opened the door for biomedicine and its focus on the physical body.

Medical practitioners’ began to “map” out the body, trying to find commonalities and patterns between various bodies (Samson 1999). Through their focus on the tangible body, practitioners began to claim that the knowledge they were generating was universal and was applicable to all human beings (Foucault 1994). Instead of viewing their understandings of the body as a creation of various collective forces, they viewed their knowledge as objective. That is, practitioners argued that they were merely uncovering universal facts of life and viewed themselves and their context as detached from the knowledge they uncovered (Foucault 1994). This claim to detached objectivity gained medical practitioners authority in the knowledge production and practices concerned with the physical body (Foucault 1994). Through this claim to universality and detached objectivity, ideas of a “healthy” human began to surface and standards of physical beings began to be expressed (Foucault 1994). Although 18th century medicine approached health as individual, 19th century medicine began to view health in relation to norms and standards (Foucault 1994). As Michel Foucault (1994) wrote, life became defined in terms of “the medical bipolarity of the normal and the pathological(35). This dichotomy of normal and pathological, along with the connection between “health” and “normalcy” is still prevalent in North America.

There are many traits that are perceived to be “normal” and make up a “healthy” body. These characteristics vary depending on social, geographical, and temporal context (Ginsberg and Rapp 2013). The criteria for a “healthy,” “normal” body also varies depending on normative stages of development. A child who is unable to walk is viewed as more disabled than an elderly person who is unable to walk. Thus, who gets labeled as “disabled” is relational and contextual. People who are perceived as not being able to “normally” interact with their social and physical surroundings are seen as abnormal and handicapped (Ginsberg and Rapp 2013). The term “dis-abled” can alternatively be interpreted as “un-able” to participate fully in society (Ginsburg and Rapp 2013). Hence, “health” and “normalcy” are further equated with being “able.”

Medical practitioners obtain authority over the physical body through their claim to detached objectivity. This common claim has been challenged by feminist scholars, one being Donna Haraway. Haraway (1988) argued that there are no universal truths and that all knowledges are situated in time and space. She argued that to claim detached objectivity is to claim to “seeing everything from nowhere,” a phenomenon Haraway calls “the God Trick” (581). Instead, she asserted that all knowledge is situated and is formed under specific conditions that allow for those findings, hence there are multiple truths (Haraway 1988). The “God Trick” allows for knowledge about what constitute “health” and “normalcy” to be considered universal truths, implying that “health” and “normalcy” itself are stagnant terms with strict definitions and criteria. However, informed by Haraway’s situated knowledges, these terms can instead be understood as fluid. Andriana Petryna’s (2002) work on Chernobyl highlights the fluidity in such concepts as she explores the constantly changing threshold of disability and health due to environmental, political and economic changes. Hence, the criteria, boundaries, and understandings of “health” and “normalcy” are constantly shifting as informed by changing contexts.

Likewise, understandings of disability and beliefs attached to particular “abnormal” traits are temporally, socially and environmentally situated; hence, there is no one definition of disability and in some communities, the category of disability does not exist (Ginsburg and Rapp 2013). Throughout this article I use the term “differently abled” to challenge the perceived stagnation and timelessness of this term. The term “differently abled” recognizes the multitude of different bodies that exist, while acknowledging that all forms of bodies are able to interact with their social and physical contexts in different ways. This phrase challenges the notion of one “normal,” “healthy” body that can positively interact with their surroundings, and challenges the idea that there is one “normal,” “healthy” way of interacting within a particular context. To fully unpack the connection between “health,” “normalcy,” and ableism, it is useful to attend to the systems and ideologies in place that create a particular social and physical environment that favors particular bodies over others. A useful entry point in exploring these systems is through a close examination of politics and governance.

Governing the Body

Foucault (2008) claimed that definitions of “health” and “normalcy” do not exist independent of the state or ruling authority. The definitions of these terms crafted and instilled by the state are not universal truths; for example, Petryna (2002) demonstrates how the state shapes the definition and requirements of health in order to support a particular system of governance. In Petryna’s case study, standards of disability increased in the Soviet Union after radiation flooded Chernobyl and surrounding areas. This was done to justify sending people into the disaster zone to clean up the nuclear waste, which was extremely risky. After the Soviet Union dissolved and the Ukrainian government formed, standards of health increased and began to recognize more victims of Chernobyl as disabled. While it is often believed that “health” is unchangeable and holds some ultimate truth, Petryna’s work demonstrates how the idea of what is “healthy” established by the state speaks to their system of governance and not to a universal truth or universal definition of “healthy” or “normalcy.”

Biomedicine influences politics as it helps shape understandings of health and normalcy. Science is romanticized as having the ability to overcome human flaws, thus technologies such as prenatal diagnosis can be glorified as having the ability to help ensure the production of “perfect” children (Ginsburg and Rapp 1991). Likewise, the biology of all species, including humans, is deeply intertwined with the state and is sculpted by politics. The authority held by the state aids in creating and maintaining uneven power relations between governments and citizens, where governments hold a lot of power to shape and uphold what “health” and “normal” means to the public. This redefines how the public and health officials view “health,” which influences how technology, infrastructure and societal ideologies are shaped to cater to and foster particular kinds of bodies – and lives – over others.

The intricate links between politics and “health,” as well as the flexibility of the meanings of “health,” can be analyzed through the theoretical lens of biopolitics. Biopolitics, according to Foucault (1984), is the governing of bodies done by the state and through self-regulation, whereby some lives are fostered and others hindered. Understanding power in a Foucauldian sense as an uneven network of relations sheds light on the role of citizens’ participation in governance, specifically through policing one another (Foucault 1978). Ideas of what is considered to be a “good,” “healthy” citizen becomes embodied by people. This embodiment allows citizens to independently strive for these goals of “health” and “normalcy,” which further normalizes these practices and beliefs (Foucault 1984). Prenatal diagnosis is a technology that polices people’s reproduction as it is used to ensure the fetus is “healthy” and “normal” to the standards of the society. To this end, prenatal diagnosis can be understood as a tool of biopolitics that is shaped by particular ideas of what it means to be genetically and physically normal and healthy. This biopolitical tool embodies citizens’ desires for their own normal and healthy bodies and offspring. Prenatal testing allows the public, doctors, and the state to police and regulate bodies at the gestational stages to ensure the birth of a “healthy,” “normal” child (Ginsburg and Rapp 1991). The detection of disability in a fetus often results in abortion (Ginsburg and Rapp 1991; Rapp and Ginsburg 2001), which raises ethical questions of whose lives are fostered and whose lives are disallowed.

The ethical dilemma of the value of lives can be explored through understanding the body as commodified and reduced to a mere resource to be used to support a particular regime. In this light, particular bodies are viewed as worth fostering because of the value and potential they have in supporting a particular form of governance (Rose 2001). The remnants of the mind/body dichotomy from the Enlightenment period helps foster this commodification as people are reduced to their body composition and physical capabilities (Samson 1999). People are viewed as bodies that are to be manipulated, colonized, and dehumanized both socially and emotionally (Samson 1999). The detachment of the body aids in reducing people to the commodified value of their body, a value that is determined by how their body can follow, uphold, and reproduce a particular form of governance. Bodies are viewed as resources, with their maintenance and activity policed by the state, fellow citizens, and selves through the internalization of these ideologies (Foucault 1984).

Prenatal Health in the Global Arena

Prenatal diagnosis is globally widespread, and the understanding and uses of this technology changes based on context. The fluidity and situatedness of “health” takes part in shaping how this biotechnology is understood and used. In the global arena, a large contributing actor that greatly influences the knowledge and practices of “health” and prenatal diagnosis is the United Nations (UN). The UN is an international organization that was founded after World War Two and has multiple interconnected specialized sectors that focus on different issues, including the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO) (United Nations 2017). Currently there are over 190 countries that are part of this organization. While one of the UN’s main purposes, as outlined in their charter, is to maintain global peace and justice, the UN and their specialized sectors have a very particular idea of “development” and the paths to achieve it. For example, the World Bank lends money to developing countries and places particular restrictions to ensure these countries become economically prosperous by being active in the global economy (Brown et al. 2006). These restrictions take on a neoliberal framework, advocating for free markets and less government involvement (Brown et al. 2006). The World Bank became interested in global health and a larger part of the WHO due to the assumption that increased health assistance will result in increased economic development and less poverty (Brown et al. 2006). This perceived tie between health and the economy influences definitions and standard of health, and also shapes technologies that arise.

In an attempt to industrialize and “modernize” poorer countries such as India, China, and Vietnam, the United Nations created the Human Development Index (HDI) (Gammeltoft 2007). The HDI outlines criteria to assess the overall human development of a nation, and considers the average years of education, life expectancy, and standard of living as measured by the gross national income per capita (Human Development Reports 2016). This set of criteria places significant importance on citizens’ health and ability to participate in the workforce and contribute to a capitalist, industrialist society. Striving for “healthy” children who can be self-sufficient, and stimulate the economy has led many countries to adopt techniques, such as prenatal testing, to detect fetal abnormalities. In Vietnam, the government is aiming to decrease the amount of children born with disabilities, despite their history of chemical warfare which affected the population’s reproductive health and ability to have “healthy” children (Gammeltoft 2007). Hence, there is a major push for prenatal screening. In China, doctors are told to encourage abortion to mothers who are found to be carrying an “abnormal” fetus (Sui and Sleeboom-Faulkner 2010). Reflective of the ideas that the HDI encourages, the Chinese Population and Family Planning Law states that family planning is based off the goal of decreasing the quantity of children while increasing the “quality” (Sui and Sleeboom-Faulkner 2010). “Quality” in this case alludes to the citizen’s ability to effectively participate in the economic and social regime of the nation.

The HDI and focus on the economy suggests that the UN is aiming to increase the reproduction of productive bodies; productive in the sense that citizens bodies will be able to actively engage in a neoliberal, capitalist society as set out by the UN. Through the UN’s stress on “healthy,” independent working bodies, the UN and participating countries aim to become “modern” and “developed.” These parties are actively commodifying bodies as they are encouraging the proliferation of a particular body that is deemed to be best suited and productive under a capitalist regime. By encouraging the birth of children who possess a “healthy” body, there will be more “resources” to ensure the growth and support of the global economy.

Prenatal Diagnosis

Health as defined in terms of the commodification of humans gives rise to particular biotechnologies, including prenatal diagnosis. Prenatal diagnosis is a biotechnology that detects abnormalities during the gestational period. These traits are deemed as abnormalities based on the degree it impacts the fetus’ future productivity. This technology helps to subtly control reproduction to ensure the “best” population is being made according to the standards of the state.

While each country and group of people impacted by the UN interpret prenatal diagnosis differently based on their different contexts, citizens’ relation to different bodies is being heavily influenced by a global political system that values neoliberalism and the accumulation of capital. A person deemed able-bodied and healthy from this perspective is seen as more valuable because of their ability to produce capital. In this case, disability is when one is unable to participate in the formal economy. In this light, it can be argued that humans are being treated as biocapital. Stephan Helmreich (2007) describes biocapital with an altered equation that was inspired by Marx: B-C-B’, where B is the biomaterial, C is the commodification of the biomaterial, and B’ is the biotechnology that arises (293-294). He argues that often times the biomaterial is instantly equated with its possibility to produce biotechnology, so that the commodification process of this material is ignored. His altered equation can also be understood in terms of the human capacity to work. Humans are biomaterial (full, living organisms) whose existence is commodified through particular expectations of “health” that allow us to be shaped into citizens of the state who have the capacity to produce capital. Citizens go to school, follow laws, value certain skills and characteristics, and participate in the “normal” routine of life as dictated by the government, so that they can one day enter the workforce and generate capital for years to come. However, the only way to work to full capacity and commodify bodies and labour is if the person meets certain criteria, criteria that is grouped together and labelled “health,” which is then normalized through scientists claim to detached objectivity.

The commodification of bodies and the idea that being “normal” and “healthy” is to be productive is echoed in the sentiments of the public as well. In Nancy Press and colleagues (1998) study of expectant North American mothers who underwent prenatal testing, they found that participants most admired differently abled people for their persistence to be seen as “normal” and not letting their “disability” get in the way of doing “normal” things. Many admired when they saw people who they deem to be disabled as “trying to lead a normal life” (53). The attempt of normalcy gains respect for those deemed “disabled.” “Normal” activities in North America include being independent, working, going to school, and starting a family – all of which reproduce and maintain a neoliberal, capitalist regime. Differently abled people gain public respect when they participate in “normal” lifestyles despite their “disabilities.”

Prenatal Diagnosis in Canada

Canada is a part of the UN and has a political system that supports a neoliberal capitalist society (Albo 2002). This does not mean that Canada has the same understandings and uses of prenatal diagnosis as China or Vietnam. Localizing the effects of capitalism and neoliberalism on prenatal diagnosis in a region, such as Canada sheds light on the multiple actors that are implicated by this dynamic, which includes employers, women undergoing prenatal diagnosis, differently abled people, and the state. As with the general ideology held by the UN, in Canada having a physical, mental, or genetic trait which limits one’s capacity to work and participate in the country’s economy is seen as “unhealthy,” not “normal,” and thus as a disability. In Canada’s Executive Summary of the Key Health Inequalities in Canada, disability was listed as one of the key indicators of one’s “health status” (Canada 2018a). In this definition, a key indicator of health is the absence of a disability. Canada’s Determinants of Health report also noted “genetic endowment” as a “main determinant of health” (Canada 2018b). This understanding of health implies that genetic and physical deviations from particular standards are unhealthy and abnormal. These differences intrude with interacting with society in normative ways. Normative social interactions in Canada typically include getting a degree, finding a job, getting married, and having children – which are all believed to aid the economy. Having a genetic or physical trait that prevents or limits these goals are seen as abnormal traits.

Advances in technologies, such prenatal diagnosis, helps to ensure that people are producing “healthy” children. While in Canada it is unethical for doctors or the government to try to persuade people into choosing selective abortion, there are many indirect influences on this decision. Statistics Canada (2015) reported that in 2010, the median total income of differently abled people was $10 000 less than their normative abled counterparts. Differently abled people are underemployed, and are usually forced to take part-time positions because no one offers them full-time work (CBC 2013). Only 47% of differently abled adults between the ages of 15 to 64 are employed (Statistics Canada 2015). It can be argued that high unemployment among differently abled adults is a result of negative biases that are held against differently abled people, which impact their level of inclusion (CBC 2013). It is reported that 43% of working differently abled people see themselves at a disadvantage in the workforce and 44% believe their employers consider them disadvantaged as well (Statistics Canada 2015).

The fear that living with a disability means suffering is a major concern that people have about having a differently abled child (Press et al. 1998; Rapp and Ginsburg 2001). However, as ableism and disability studies scholar Gregor Wolbring of the University of Calgary pointed out in an interview with CBC:

Suffering is a very subjective term, it’s an emotive term to get acceptance, but that also takes people away from why people are really suffering. That’s a long debate within the disability field. Do I suffer because I have no legs, or do I suffer because you have legs and build everything accordingly? (CBC 2016)

Wolbring highlights that what is considered as a disability is highly dependent on physical and social surroundings. If one cannot effectively navigate a particular physical and social terrain, they are labelled as disabled and suffering due to their “limitations” (Ginsburg and Rapp 2013). These limitations are based on particular ideas of normality and of certain ideas of how people should interact with their surroundings. Deviation from this expected human-surrounding interaction results in labels of being unhealthy. However, ideas of “health” are shaped to accommodate the goals, desires, and context of that political and economic climate. The current system and underlying hegemonic cultural ideologies are shaped by and benefit people who meet a specific definition of “health.” While parents and differently abled people do get some support in Canada, such as disability benefits, and special grants and loans, it is hard to ignore the more entrenched societal hurdles that are presented to people considered disabled. These hurdles influence the uptake of prenatal testing and subsequent decisions of selective abortion based on disability, ultimately catering to a particular kind of body and life over another (Ginsberg and Rapp 2013). Prenatal testing acts as a tool of biopolitical governance that works to detect particular types of bodies based on their perceived genetic or physical “abnormalities.” The social hurdles that exist for differently abled bodies works to sway people into producing “normal” and “healthy” citizens who can positively and effectively engage in the country’s social and physical surroundings. The systems, ideologies, and technologies in place value particular bodies and lives over others (Rose 2001). Hence, the idea of having “free choice” over whether or not to have an abortion based on disability is an illusion because of the systems and ideologies in place that subtly discourage particular kinds of bodies.

Press and colleagues (1998) examine contradicting views on disability. In their study of expectant North American mothers who underwent prenatal testing, they found that most participants talked positively of people with disabilities, using words such as “loving,” and “…so easy to love” (52-53). However, when asked how they would react if their child had a disability, the tone of the parents changed negatively. Many said that while they believe they can love their child the same as a “normal” child, they acknowledged that it would be very hard to care for them and that it would take a “special” kind of parent to be able to raise them. Caretakers are active participants in society, but also aid differently abled people in participating in a society that would otherwise exclude them (Ginsburg and Rapp 2013). Parents feared social embarrassment, stigma against them and their child who has a disability, and feared that their child would suffer (Press et al. 1998). Such uncertainty and contradicting beliefs surrounding disability (your own child versus another child) shows the general ambivalence surrounding this topic.

The perspective of people who identify as disabled must also be considered when exploring issues of disability and prenatal diagnosis. It is not surprising that many people who identify as disabled or who have differently abled children are outraged because of the termination of pregnancies based on disabilities detected through prenatal diagnosis. In all Canadian provinces, except Nunavut, the observed number of children born with Downs Syndrome is significantly lower than the expected number of children born with this condition (Government of Canada 2017). A major contributor to this appears to be the increased use of prenatal diagnosis in detecting Downs Syndrome and subsequent abortions (Government of Canada 2017). This gap in expected and observed number of children born with Downs Syndrome is expected to increase with more accurate and safe prenatal tests emerging (Boseley, 2016). Many disability activists are calling this genetic discrimination, which is when someone is treated differently because of their “apparent or perceived genetic variation from the ‘normal’ human genotype” (Bilings et al. 1992). This extends to prenatal diagnoses because this test looks at one’s genome to detect genetic abnormalities, such as Downs Syndrome. Disability activists are calling this a form of eugenics and genocide. Many North Americans view prenatal diagnosis as a “good” technology that is “common sense” to use (Saxton 2006). However, this belief is based on the assumption that differently abled people lead a less enjoyable life than normatively abled people (Saxton 2000). It also assumes that raising differently abled children is a burden to the parents and larger social network. Deborah Kaplan, a disability activist notes:

If persons with disabilities are perceived as individuals who encounter insurmountable difficulties in life and who place a burden on society, prenatal screening may be regarded as a logical response. However, if persons with disabilities are regarded as a definable social group who have faced great oppression and stigmatization, then prenatal screening may be regarded as yet another form of social abuse. (Saxton 2000, 148)

Understanding differently abled people as a unified social group that is disadvantaged due to the social and physical structures in place that uphold and reproduce normative ideas of “health” and a particular form of governance illuminates the power imbalances in place between normatively able people and those deemed “disabled.” Prenatal diagnostic techniques cater to the reproduction of a particular kind of body, while discouraging other kinds of bodies. When Marsha Saxton (2006) organized a conference in Vancouver on the topic of disability and prenatal diagnosis, her friend who is a dedicated disability activist said, “I think this conference is important, but I have to tell you, I have trouble being in the same room with professionals who are trying to eliminate my people” (added emphasis). This shows a community is created through the identity of having a disability, and displays a sense of solidarity. The advancements in disability rights were fought for and put in place to not only benefit differently abled people who were alive at that time, but also for future generations (Saxton 2006; Rapp and Ginsburg 2001). However, it is important to note that not all people with disabilities feel attacked by prenatal diagnosis, and some agree with it based on their own personal experiences of having a disability or for other reasons (Saxton 2006).

The Canadian government’s Social Determinant of Health and Health Inequalities report acknowledges that some Canadians have “more opportunities to lead a healthy life” than others (Government of Canada 2018b). It is acknowledged that health inequalities are due to a myriad of factors including education, employment status, income, and genetics (Government of Canada 2018a). Through the acknowledgment of the social aspects of health inequalities, it is revealed that a higher socioeconomic status results in “more opportunities to lead a healthy life” (Government of Canada 2018b). This sheds light onto who is privileged with access to the title of “good health,” which are citizens who are can effectively participate and stimulate the economy through employment and investing in higher education. People who are employed or have a higher education are more likely to be considered healthy and have more “opportunities” to establish and maintain their “health status.” Bodies that are able to be productive by Canadian societal standards are rewarded with access to resources that help uphold their position as “healthy.” People who cannot maintain their productivity or adhere to normative ideals of social interaction are disadvantaged economically and socially, often being discriminated against. By having an environment and a political system in place that does not fully support differently abled people, people are indirectly being discouraged from having differently abled children (Rapp and Ginesburg 2001). This benefits the overall economy because more “healthy” children will be born who can participate effectively in Canada’s capitalist society. Through Canada’s acknowledgement of health inequalities we must consider the foundations of this inequality, who this situation benefits, who this situation negatively impacts, and how. By exploring Canada’s position on health disparities and acknowledgement of the role of social inequalities, the normative ideologies and dominant social systems in place can be examined and used to understand how prenatal testing implicitly works to foster some lives while disallowing others.


In the end, with the rise of new reproductive technologies, such as prenatal diagnosis, questions of what constitutes “health” are raised. “Health” is commonly equated with “normal,” and a criterion of these labels is to not be “disabled.” Dis-abled can be understood as being un-able to actively be productive in a particular form of governance. Biopolitics is a helpful theoretical framework in exploring what “health” means and who decides its boundaries. Biopolitics are comprised of both state and citizen regulation of bodies that reinforces and maintains dominant systems and ways of living. “Health” is a flexible term that changes based on context but is portrayed as a universal truth by scientists and health officials who claim a detached objectivity. With the naturalization of a specific definition of “health,” laws, regulations and technologies are developed and maintained to uphold particular ideologies such as neoliberalism and capitalism. An exploration of the UN shows the intimate link between capitalism, neoliberalism, and understandings of the body and prenatal diagnosis. This link and the understanding of health and prenatal diagnosis are situated and fluid, as can be seen by the various approaches taken by various countries connected to the UN. Despite differences between prenatal testing in different countries, a commonality is that people are being treated as biocapital and being commodified through various methods. If someone is not able to fully participate in the capitalist society and are not able to be effectively commodified then they are deemed “unhealthy.” In Canada, while the government may overtly say that access to prenatal diagnosis is not meant to encourage a “new eugenics” of differently abled people, systems and ideologies in place are indirectly encouraging the use of prenatal diagnosis to reduce the amount of “unhealthy” people born who are “un-able” to fully participate in society. New technologies arise for a reason and are created to serve a purpose. Prenatal diagnosis was created and is being improved for the purpose of detecting particular kinds of illnesses in fetuses. Hence, we need to be critical of why so much importance is placed on the development of this technology, who this technology benefits, and whose lives it compromises.


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Borderland, Maquilas, and Feminicide: Issues of Migration and Gendered Violence in Northern Mexico

by Lea Alilovic

PhD student, Department of Anthropology | York University, Toronto, Canada


The rise of maquiladoras, or foreign owned manufacturing plants, in Mexico during the 1970s and 80s symbolizes the social and economic tension of the Mexican-United States borderland. With the implementation of agreements like the Border Industrialization Program (1965) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994) that created and supported the transfer of capital and goods between Mexico and the United States, such policies simultaneously limited the movement of people across the border. By the 1990s, growing disparities between the U.S. and Mexico became evident with the mass movement of Mexican economic migrants to the north and the growth of shanty towns south of the border. Women migrants and labourers in particular faced extremely vulnerable positions in the region due to their precarious work and living conditions, substantiated by the paralleling disappearance, kidnapping, and mutilation of women in the borderlands. This article mobilizes Ursula Biemann’s (1999) work on women’s positionality in Mexico to situate their experiences and agency in Mexico’s border town, Ciudad Juarez, within contexts of prevailing feminicide. Ultimately, in engaging in the discussion of the role of what Melissa Wright (2006) calls women’s disposability in the borderlands, this essay will explore why transnational and migrant labour is often overlooked and exploited by policy, leaving women labourers particularly susceptible to such violence.

Key Words: Mexico, borderlands, gender violence, maquiladoras, economic migration

Publication Information

Volume 4, Issue 1 (2018)


Since 1965, maquiladoras (also referred to as maquilas), or foreign owned manufacturing plants in Ciudad Jaurez have become the center of Mexico’s export-processing industry (Wright 2006, 7). In the present day, Ciudad Juarez’s manufacturing production has become an “internationally recognized leader in low-cost, high quality, labor-intensive manufacturing processes,” an invaluable site for multinational companies in its cost cutting and easy access to the U.S. market (Wright 2006, 7). The rise of maquilas in Mexico during the 1970s and 80s symbolizes the social and economic tension of the Mexican-United States borderland. With the implementation of agreements like the Border Industrialization Program (1965) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994) that created and supported the transfer of capital and goods between Mexico and the United States, such policies simultaneously limited the movement of people across the border. By the 1990s, growing disparities between the U.S. and Mexico became evident with the growth of shanty towns south of the border and the mass movement of Mexican economic migrants to the north.

As more than 60% of maquila workers are women and girls, women labourers in particular face extremely vulnerable positions due to their precarious work and living conditions (Nieves 2002). Coinciding with the growth of foreign investment during the 1990s was the discovery of the bodies of hundreds of young women and girls who were travelling from Ciudad Juarez to work in the maquilas—their bodies mutilated and left in the outskirts of the city (Driver 2015, 32-33). Evident similarities in abuse of these women, including strangulation, stabbing, and battery, demonstrate the trend of feminicide, or the targeted murder of women (Valdez 2006, 1). Otherwise spelt as “femicide,” Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano (2010) make the distinction that femicide solely means “the homicide of women,” while in contrast, feminicide refers to the “genocide against women” that occurs based on historically generated conditions (xv-xvi). While the total number of women missing fluctuates between sources, it is noted that nearly “913 women have been reported murdered since 2010, and 3,000 women have gone missing since the mid-1990s” (Encarnación López 2018).

In 1999, Swiss filmmaker, Ursula Biemann, produced a 43-minute video-essay called Performing the Border, tying the growth and maintenance of maquilas in Mexican border towns like Ciudad Juarez, to the emerging issue of feminicide. Biemann’s film becomes an essential source on border relations as it makes clear that women’s participation in foreign owned labour has unavoidable links to growing violence and death of women in the borderland region. Despite the continuing gender violence experienced by Mexican women along the American border and growing public concern, the Mexican government still neglects this issue (Driver 2015a, 2015b; Davison 2010; Staudt 2008; Wright 2011). In highlighting Biemann’s (1999) argument that the transnational realm of the borderland plays an important role in what she refers to as, mutual and multidirectional exchanges, this essay looks to situate women’s experience and agency in Mexico’s border town, Ciudad Juarez. In asking questions such as, how does Biemann’s work apply today, and how have other academics taken up Biemann’s analysis, this article will address why transnational and migrant labour is often overlooked by domestic and international labour policy, leaving women’s labour particularly more vulnerable.

Ultimately, this essay argues that the issue of feminicide in the borderlands between Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez and El Paso in the United States is related to issues of economic migration and displacement of Mexican women who look for work in the internationally owned maquilas. This essay will recognize domestic labour migration as interwoven with issues of displacement and women’s precarity in Mexico. To do so, I will first locate Biemann’s Performing the Border (1999) in relation to scholarly work to make clear that the maquiladoras’ placement along the Mexico-U.S. border is economically strategic and symbolic of tension at the border, reflecting inclusionary/exclusionary mechanisms of determining worthy citizens In recognizing the link between northern Mexico’s issue of feminicide with maquiladoras, I will consider the contemporary context of gender violence in Ciudad Juarez and demonstrate the applicability of Biemann’s (1999) work in the present. As Biemann (1999) highlights, multinational corporations, like maquilas, play a crucial role in producing a border between Mexico as the global South, and the United States, as the global North. This essay will tie the development of Mexican labour in maquilas with what Melissa Wright (2006) calls the “disposable” (1) woman labourer. The narrative of Mexican women’s disposable labour in maquilas is, I argue, interwoven with the violence experienced in Mexican woman’s everyday lives and feminicide at the borderlands.

Performing the border

In a way, you need the crossing of the border to be real or else it’s just discursive construction…there is nothing natural about it…it’s [a] highly-constructed place that gets reconstructed and reproduced through the crossing of people because without the crossing there is no border, right? It’s just an imaginary line, or it’s just a river, or it’s just a wall… its highly performative.

–Berta Jottar in Performing the Border (Biemann 1999).

Biemann’s Performing the Border (1999), opens with a clip of Berta Jotta discussing the imaginative and performative nature of the U.S.-Mexican border formation. Jotta’s script introduces the film’s main argument, that the presence of maquilas demonstrates the constructed inequality of the border between the U.S. and Mexico, which results from securitization of the border.

Berta Jottar discusses the border as “before and after NAFTA,” explaining that despite the border allowing for goods to travel happily, the movement of people remains limited (Biemann 1999). Along the borderland, the implantation of NAFTA has had numerous effects on the wellbeing of Mexican workers, like that of Mexico’s agricultural businesses, where the introduction of U.S. subsidized corn and other products in Mexico left around 2 million Mexicans out of work (Golash-Boza and Parker 2008, 115). The ruling of the economy along the border is furthered with the role NAFTA played in “creating favourable conditions for large transnational” corporations, pushing small business out and initiating the displacement of people dependent on these means (Golash-Boza and Parker 2008, 116). Here, border performance is enacted and solidified with the disparity of wages between the north and south, where cheap Mexican labour often results in migration to the U.S. as a means to survive (Golash-Boza and Parker 2008). Moreover, with the advent of maquilas, economic policy in favour of free trade or trade with little stipulation in Mexico comes at the expense of economic migrants. Borderlands, which become sites of potential pay for these migrants, correspondingly see a 30% increase in the cost of living in comparison to southern Mexico. Women in particular are subjugated into living in the shantytowns lacking electricity and water that surround the factory cities (Hovespian 2008, 200).

These trends thus demonstrate the geopolitical formation of the borderland is identified as a space wherein the presence of maquiladoras represents a site that produces alienation and disposability of labour in order to create a “maquiladora culture” that demands productivity at the lowest cost (Driver 2015a, 112). Biemann (1999) notes that the production of value added products in maquiladoras ultimately allowed the modernization and inclusion of Mexico in elite global economics, but was also a toll paid through the exploitation of women. Women’s bodies “become a technology,” operating like an assembly line; a woman’s body is “fragmented, dehumanized, and turned into a disposable, exchangeable and marketable component” (Biemann 1999). The economic disposability of women’s bodies links to the disposability of women’s lives through ongoing feminicide that occurs at the border (Driver 2015, 112).

Like other video essays by Biemann, the film maker consciously engages in, and creates, “highly theoretical and self-reflective cinema” (Tay 2009, 150). Biemman’s film-making methodology looks to expand the common space of global capitalism by incorporating and engaging with topics that close the gap between essentialist understandings of gender and feminist theory that becomes essential to the discussion of maquilas (Tay 2009, 157). Biemann’s films work tactically to interrogate and critique the production and complexity of globalization during the 1980s. Performing the Border depicts the dehumanizing of women in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands but, as Driver (2015) points out, “[Biemann’s] video essay does not provide a fully formed discussion of [feminicide,]” and therefore should be used as a starting point in discussions of feminicide (116). In the next section, Biemann’s discussion of Mexican women’s labour in maquilas will be expanded upon in order to address the connection between the factories and gendered violence.

“Lethal spaces”: Biemann on feminicide in Mexico

In her investigation of state connection to the ongoing violence against women at the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Diana Washington Valdez (2006) highlights the role of maquilas in northern Mexico’s growing violence: Ciudad Juarez is one of Mexico’s biggest border cities with approximately 300 maquiladoras, “most of them owned by Fortune 500 companies” (4). Driver (2015) argues that a “narrative of seemingly positive economic markers” appears to be appealing; the success of maquiladoras neglects the exploitation of those working in the factories and living in the border towns (18-19). By the 1990s, the discovery of hundreds of bodies of women maquila workers that were mutilated and abandoned in the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, dictated the indisputable link between gender violence and labour in the borderlands (32-33).

The death of women maquila workers in Ciudad Juarez initiates conversations regarding gendered violence and whether this mass disappearance truly constitutes an issue of feminicide. With the first disappearance of women maquila workers beginning in 1993, such statistics, along with clear patterned methods of abduction and brutality executed on the bodies, reflect the continual threat of abduction and disappearance that women face. Valdez (2006) notes that while not all deaths are related, most have striking similarities: the young women were subject to highly organized abductions with a selection process that ultimately meant their disappearance went unnoticed (2). The evident role of gender among these deaths makes clear that these deaths are a result of violence that is “targeting or affecting women exclusively […] because they are women” (Moshan quoted in Fregoso and Bejarano 2010, 2).

The patterns of violence inflicted on the women found in the outskirts of Juarez is argued by both Valdez (2006) and Biemann (1999) to reflect local, global, and national discourses on the devaluation of women. For Cristina Morales and Cynthia Bejarano (2008), rape becomes a “marker of conquest” in the everyday experiences of women living in Ciudad Juarez “through both actual rapes and the threat of rape” (189). This theme of brutality is most evident in Biemann’s documentary when the film juxtaposes an ongoing list of the police descriptions of the women’s injuries, where each rape, murder, and mutilation are named and labelled over images of uncovered women’s bodies in the desert of the borderlands. Biemann’s display of an ongoing list of the assaults identified on the murdered women acts as a strategic technique to represent the systematic brutality. The list runs across video clips of the bodies being discovered, playing with the sensory experience of viewers. The repetitive descriptions of violence on top of the images of undefinable bodies work to desensitize the viewers with an overload of information.

The Mexican women’s body changes meaning in Biemann’s depiction: these bodies are not only victims of brutal, patterned violence, but are also victims to the desensitizing of crimes by media representations that show images of the women victims’ legs, breast, short skirts, and tight blouses (Driver 2015, 73; Morales and Bejarano 2008, 189). Like Biemann’s sensory play in this scene, the desensitizing and normalizing of the brutality faced by women comes to mark the border as a site where distinctions between the productive and reproductive, or masculine and feminine body, are blurred. This distinction only comes to exist and be defined when those in power decide—the unending cycle of violent deaths makes each body indistinguishable from the next, obscuring and devaluing any signs of a life that existed prior to the violence.

Despite media representation, the United States and foreign investors maintain ambivalence towards the lives of women in the borderlands. Thinking with Giorgio Agamben’s (1995) theorization of the “state of exception” (15), we can consider how the borderland is ambiguous both by law and in daily life, enabling the continued brutality towards women in the borderland. Specifically, this state of exception refers to Mexico’s power to not acknowledge or stop such murders from occurring as their sovereignty means that they both form and exist outside the law (Agamben 1995, 15).

This apathy resonates with Achille Mbembe’s (2003) description of sovereign power, “a twofold process of self-institution and self-limitation” (13), as the modern Mexican state, and its foreign investors, ultimately has the capacity to dictate life and death. Working with Michele Foucault (2003), who recognizes that state power is exercised through what he calls biopolitics, or making live and letting die, Mbembe (2003) expands this theorization of power by noting the production of a state of exception that forms “the normative basis of the right to kill” (16) to develop his theory of necropolitics. Necropolitics, which acknowledges politics as a form of war in which the post-colonial state determines who dies and who does not die (11-12), is dependent on biopower in permitting racism “to regulate the distribution of death and to make possible the murderous functions of the state” (Mbembe 2003, 17). Akin to Mbembe (2003), Judith Butler (2009) argues that the sovereign state’s ability to recognize what life is deemed as living, and, further, who is worthy or unworthy of living, ultimately means that only the recognized life is “grievable” to the state (6-7).

Locating the role of state and international players along the U.S.-Mexico border in Mbembe (2003) and Butler’s (2009) terms situates the perpetuation of women’s marginality and gender violence in Mexico. For Mexican women in the borderlands, Wright (2011) argues that the role of necropolitics in their endured violence and feminicide, reflects how these political and biopolitical spaces are constructed in gendered terms. These gendered terms, moreover, establish women’s disposability in settings like maquilas as these spaces are also noted as being constituted in terms of violence (Wright 2011, 708).

The discussion of the biopolitical construction of gendered space and women’s subjectivity is taken up further in Wright’s ethnographic piece on Mexican women in maquilas, titled, Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism (2006). Wright argues here that gendered violence against women maquiladora workers is tied to the foreign ownership of maquilas and narratives of “third world woman’s disposability” (2006, 71-72). Fitting into Marxist conceptions of labour power as a form of variable capital (a value that changes with production in contrast to constant capital), the Mexican woman maquila worker becomes a “turn over story” where her labour power loses value over time, “even as her labour provides value” (Wright 2006, 71-72). The women are depicted as untrainable labourers whose presence “never appreciate[e] into skill but instead dissipate[e] over time” (73). In this sense, as Wright points out, women in maquilas “personify waste-in-the-making […] always a temporary worker” (73).

Furthermore, the discussion of women maquila workers’ disposability highlights Parin Dossa’s (2014) discussion of the mass displacement of people as “common-place” (7). Dossa stresses that colonial violence is maintained through conquering, dehumanizing, and ruling of displaced peoples in contemporary contexts. She further cites the prevalence of global capitalism as “systematically [undermining] the rights of the marginalized and racialized other on a global scale” (Dossa 2014, 7). The disposability of the “third world” woman labourer in maquilas subscribes to a similar colonial narrative, substantiated through the bodies of women maquiladora migrant labourers. Transnational corporations, in the form of maquilas, conquer, dehumanize, and rule women labourers, marginalizing, ignoring, and rendering them obsolete. In recognizing the colonial narratives that appear through the regulation of women’s bodies in Dossa’s terms, clarify the “chains of connection that have been drawn across the world” (Ginsborg cited in Dossa 2014, 7). Moreover, as I will discuss in the next section, these colonial ties evident in contemporary Mexico remain unequal and one sided, as their driving force is embedded in “economic profit and national power” (Dossa 2014, 7).

Gender and capital: The political economy and Mexican Women

In order to discuss the link between maquilas and feminicide, it is necessary to clarify how the issue of feminicide links to women’s vulnerability in their participation in economic migration to the border. Specifically, as some victims of the ongoing feminicide were on their way to and from work in maquilas, it is important to discuss how violence in the borderland has connections to globalization and “feminization of labour” in the region (Morales and Bejarano 2008, 189).

NAFTA, and such international trade agreements, aid the establishment and perpetuation of inclusionary and exclusionary terms of the ideal citizen and labourer in North America. To Saskia Sassen, (2008) examples of globalization, like NAFTA, play a role in a particular denationalizing, where international legislatures change the relationship between citizens and the state (2). Under globalization, Aihwa Ong (2003) describes how countries like the United States, a nation of immigrants, naturalizes a practice of creating a particular type of citizen, noting: “nationality has been shaped by a series of inclusions and exclusions on the basis of xenophobia, racism, religious bigotry, and male privilege” (79). Despite locations on Mexican soil, maquilas provide an opportunity for American ideals to spread through, as Ong points out, a process of individuation where the foreign work in America is constructed and understood in a definitive way (Ong 2003, 80).

Movement towards the border by both labour and international corporations is strategic here: the direction of migratory flow is both a result of individual decisions, and histories of certain geographic locales, including histories of trade, tourism, and economic migration, which ultimately necessitate and form social and economic integration between the U.S. and Mexico (Chavez 2016, 5; Fernandez-Kelly 1983, 206). For Sergio Chavez (2016), the story of the border is one of state power, where the exertion of this power is done through policies and the securitizing, which inevitably shape the livelihoods within the region. For labour, the border is an area of hope and opportunity, but for international maquila owners, the Mexican location allows for control, cheap production, and ultimately maximizing profit.

At the same time, while Chavez (2016) and Maria Patricia Fernandez-Kelly (1983) note the inherent links between nations that share borders, the affects and impact that these border relations have to the Mexican nation, its environment, and the residents are largely ignored. Wright (2006) argues that it is difficult to image a “unified border subject” due to the existence of divisions between residents of the north and south (95). This division rests in and is reinforced “by nationalist ideologies that separate ‘real’ Mexicans from emigrants and their descendants in the United States” (Wright 2006, 95). This division is more than just geographic: it is social and political, as the discourses produced around the border “work into the materialization of political subjects and their communities” (95).

The borderland between America and Mexico can be recognized as a precarious space, where the internal migration of Mexican men and women for work opportunities operates and depends on American labour markets. As Ong (2003) describes, American corporations, like maquilas, take advantage of the desperate Mexican workers, believing these workers are “grateful to be hired… no matter what,” while giving them no benefits or overtime pay (233). These dominant narratives are highlighted in the understanding of the positionality of Mexican women in maquilas as “[they]…reproduce the devaluing of those jobs and of those who hold the jobs” (232). Ultimately, in these work spaces, order in the work force is maintained by restricting those who have access to the economy itself.

These narratives of the grateful, but docile foreign worker acts as a method to neglect and silence women’s true role in maquilas, and how women’s lives are impacted by their labour roles. Fernandez-Kelly’s critical work recognized early in the advent of maquilas that nearly 85% of its workers were women between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five (1983, 214). With 70% of maquila labour coming from origins outside of Ciudad Juarez at this time, these migrants came at an early age with family for work opportunities; furthermore, for every five male family members was one woman maquila worker (1983, 215). Many of these women labourers began working in order to fulfill “personal needs or to supplement family income,” leading them to become the main providers of stable and regular income in their families (1983, 217). At the same time, in commentary to Fernandez-Kelly, Kathleen Staudt (2008) notes that even with this income, women are “hardly economically independent and autonomous” due to the low value of pesos, as well as receiving backlash from family as these women challenge gender norms with their participation in the work force (45-46). The complexity of women’s positioning in the public, or work sphere, and the domestic sphere, challenges the essentialized narrative of the docile “third-world” woman—the phrasing of “third world” follows Edward Said’s (1995) understanding of the West’s production and solidification in relation to the “other” in the East or the global south.

More than this essentialized depiction, these narratives, and the way women labourers’ bodies have been taken up in the space of the borderland under neoliberal politics, work to produce the vulnerability of migrant women. While nations involved in NAFTA saw it as “a story of social and economic freedom,” Morales and Bejarano (2008) acknowledge that this deal came an “implicit sexual contract:” women’s bodies become something easily accessible and controllable, whether through sexual violence, terms of labour, or political subjugation (194). Women engaging in such labour maintained positions of inferiority which were instilled and solidified through neoliberal trade policies.

Twentieth century border policies, and the maquiladoras themselves, furthermore, become evidence of ongoing imperial power in the role of the “implicit sexual contract” (Morales and Bejarano 2008, 194). When speaking of women’s labour and the way their bodies are conceptualized within the economic market of Ciudad Juarez, female woman’s body is only seen as valuable for its role in producing and creating profit for the multinational companies. In Imperial Debris: Reflection on Ruins and Ruination (2009), Ann Stoler recognizes the ways in which imperial formations are not just a figure of the historical past but are ongoing processes that come to substantiate state institutions and authority which are maintained through material debris and social ruination (193-194). In Stoler’s terms, imperial power persists as a result of the active qualities of the ruins and debris of its presence, where its aftershock memorializes the empire leaving people to deal with the “leftovers” (2009, 9). The remains of these power relations do not just appear in physical traces, but also in the intangible. Agreements such as NAFTA become evidence of this ongoing debris specifically in the form of policies that permit, through ambivalence, what Morales and Bejarano (2008) describe as the “routinization of sexual violence in the everyday” (188). When reflecting on the sexual contract and objectification of women’s bodies within the third world labour setting in Mexico, the systematization of their experience makes evident an inherent violence experienced in order to make a living wage.

The Killings: Feminicide and Displacement

To understand the complexity of the positionality of women in the borderlands and the ways in which women navigate the experience of everyday violence, this essay recognizes what Wright (2006) describes as “the relationship between the border as a metaphor for myriad social divisions and the border as a material space that is policed, enforced, and physically crossed” (95-96). In her discussion, Write explains that Mexican women represent a subversion of historical discourses regarding their involvement in multinational corporations, suggesting that women labourers must “confront the myth of their disposability” (96). Wright advocates that while the passive victim or docile worker is perceived to be materially grounded, the Mexican woman’s body is in flux. The fluidity of Mexican women is apparent with the subversion of historical meanings placed on “her language, body, sexuality, opinions, and labor in the maquiladora corporate community” (96-97).

This ability to contend and negotiate historically induced narratives is inherent to women’s positionality in border towns like Ciudad Juarez. In Performing the Border (1999), Biemann makes clear that as Ciudad Juarez grew with foreign investment, migrant women were forced to move to unoccupied land in the desert outside the city. Living without water and true shelter in the desert, the mass migration of women here demonstrates the desire and hope for work opportunities. Simultaneously, these living conditions represents the fact that the only infrastructure in Ciudad Juarez was for the owners and managers of the maquilas, not those that worked for them (Biemann 1999).

The lack of infrastructure and support in terms of living conditions provokes many women to begin participating in sex work. In Performing the Border (1999), Biemann introduces Juana Azua as an example of this common reality. Azua moved to Ciudad Juarez at the age of 31 to become a sex worker after her brother’s accident left her responsible for providing for her family. Azua’s story follows similar storylines to the narrative of Sonja, described in the film. Sonja says: most sex workers in Ciudad Juarez come from the south with little education, and after not being accepted into the maquilas, turn to sex work. Further, Sonja states that there are really only three options for women in Ciudad Juarez: work in the maquilas, work at home, or participate in sex work. The lack of opportunity for women in Ciudad Juarez places them in a double-bind, or in this case a triple-bind: that although the Mexican woman migrates for better opportunities as a means to provide for family, the maquila is a space of heightened violence either in the workplace itself, in their commute, or in their familial lives. Moreover, the migrant women’s second option of working in the home as a house wife often times is not a real option, as most men cannot find employment, and the income of two adults is still not enough to live in most cases. Additionally, the final option of sex work unmistakably leaves women more susceptible to threats of violence.

As mentioned by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000), the machine of the imperial empire “does not fortify its boundaries to push others away, but pulls them within […] like a powerful vortex” (198). Women face the triple bind, a subjective conflict, as an example of the power that transnational corporations have in the everyday. The financial needs of women motivates their migration to areas of more global capital flow and thus expands beyond the maquilas to include other means of labour and/or the private realm, ultimately demonstrating the “complex variables” of the imperialist hold (Hardt and Negri 2000, 199).

This powerful vortex of transnational and national power, described by Hardt and Negri (2000), expands past terms of labour and production to further formulate women’s relationship with the domestic sphere, and this is particularly evident with household economic struggles often having been cited as a source for suspicion in women’s disappearance. Kathleen Staudt (2008) describes that the new economic relationships between men and women may have been difficult for some men as “their economic struggle has been transformed into a fight against a closer target: their partners” (47). Women as breadwinners for the family had meant a shift in the household, and to some, a sense of reconstructed masculinity (Staudt 2008). A challenging of patriarchal norms was felt deeply in Mexican society, where machismo culture, or exaggerated masculinity, was prevalent and meant “[proving] one’s manhood at any cost” (Valdez 2006, 13). Such familial changes manifested into “domestic violence, and in the attitude of police who belittle reports of sexual assaults or family violence” (Valdez 2006, 13).

With patriarchal roles deeply bound to national narratives in Mexico, such as myths and symbols of the virgin of Guadalupe that present an image of the prized virginal mother for example, sexual violence particularly in the home remains unclaimed (Stuadt 2008, 35-36). This becomes a significant issue when considering that, according to statistics, 47 percent of women “experienced a wide range of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, or economic” (Stuadt 2008, 32). Domestic violence in this case demonstrates the changing gender relations within the borderlands, where violence by men are “desperate and [use] flawed [strategies] to regain power” in the neocolonial economy of Ciudad Juarez (Stuadt 2008, 49). While women might be perceived to be accessing more power in the context of maquiladoras in the borderland, or what would be deemed the vortex, and thereby providing economic security and terms of control in the private sphere; this can also manifest in violent terms against women’s participation.

As mentioned previously, as there is a large population of Mexican women participating in the maquilas for living wage, there is also a parallel increase of women who come to the borderlands to earn money as sex workers, sometimes simultaneous with jobs in maquilas. The heightened vulnerability of women in Ciudad Juarez participating in sex work, or even being conceived as doing so, becomes an effect of the neoliberal policy and the presence of maquilas in the borderlands. More specifically, in Ciudad Juarez, women’s participation in underground labour is seen to “betray the city’s newfound image as a haven for tourism and modernity” (Morales and Bejarano 2008, 191). The sex worker becomes the “beacon for border vices,” and deemed overtly disposable and invaluable (Morales and Bejarano 2008, 191).

The existence and perpetuation of these discourses of sex work manifest into increased sexual victimization for women (Morales and Bejarano 2008, 186). For Morales and Bejarano (2008), the sexual conquest of these Mexican women is rooted in a marginalization of a region, in addition to race, class, and gender. The eroticization of these women which in turn produces a market for sexual labour for Morales and Bejarano (2008) re-appropriates imperialist expansion of the maquilas onto women’s bodies. In this understanding, the woman’s body becomes the site of national discourse where the woman’s body remains something to conquer (Morales and Bejarano 2008, 186-187). Such discussion opens up room to acknowledge women’s participation in underground labour in these border towns as a response to the informal economy growth resulting from maquilas. The transnational migration to the border by women for access to the informal economy, as a means to support and create opportunity, acts as an example of the production of the disposable body. While women are able to participate and make financial gains in these cases, their bodies (and livelihoods) become subjected to national and transnational narratives which depict and instill their lower value.

The line between the good public woman and the sex worker is thin in Mexico as Wright (2001) suggests, and portrayals of sex workers are correlated to the erosion of national narratives of the good domestic woman, and simultaneously, the good public woman. Despite the importance of women’s work in global manufacturing, as evident in their work in maquilas, an inherent shame remains attached to these women because of their departure from the normative domestic sphere. Such ideologies support discourses promoted by political and corporate elites in Ciudad Juarez that normalize the public woman’s body as going against patriarchal norms; where when women in the public sphere were meticulously killed and dumped in cotton fields outside the city, it was because these women “were looking to be murdered” (Wright 2011, 714-715). Violence here acts, and is understood, as a means to delineate and promote the spaces where women should or should not be. Police frequently questioned the stories of the maquila working women killed in the feminicide for “leading double-lives” (Wright 2006, 75). Regardless of whether migration is undertaken for economic needs, the public woman remains vulnerable. The violence endured by women who enter the public sphere evidently signifies the gendered and geopolitical spaces they exist in.


Ultimately, in examining the ways in which maquiladoras along the borderlands of Mexico and the United States reflect the neoliberal economic policy of transnational organizations, this essay claims that the migratory patterns of women looking for work in this setting are complexly intertwined with women’s experiences of different forms of gendered violence. Biemann’s depiction of the growing disappearance and brutality towards women in Mexico’s north initiates discussion of the role of maquiladoras in the gendered necropolitics of the region. Moreover, the presence of multinational corporations in Mexico’s borderlands in particular manifests a vulnerable workplace for women economic migrants as they are deemed disposable in the division of labour. In considering the ways in which labour and the neoliberal political agenda affect the personal lives of the migrant women in the borderlands, gendered spaces that underlie labour participation and domestic life must be brought to the forefront in order to acknowledge that these lives have been deemed “ungrievable” (Butler 2009, 22).

While narratives of violence and migration in Mexico’s borderland have often been unrelated, in order to discuss the stories of the missing women this essay demonstrates the intersecting narratives that women in these spaces must face on a daily basis. Public anthropology becomes a means to bring the topic of maquiladoras and the everyday narratives of women within these spaces, a product of globalization and North American trade agreements, to light. Violence against women thrives on silence. While traces of these stories may be found in online articles or newspapers, discussions of who controls the work and who decides the fate of women’s labour within the borderlands must be publicized.


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Erisian Mysteries: The art of squatting, resistance and solidarity in Exarcheia, Athens

by Katelyn Squires

Undergraduate Student, IBA Anthropology/Philosophy Hons. | York University, Toronto, Canada


This article is guided by the central question: how have the anarchists and residents of Exarcheia in Athens, Greece, manifested, both spatially and socially, forms of resistance to the state in the face of austerity and following the 2008 December riots? Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the anarchist neighbourhood of Exarcheia, located in Athens, this article investigates how anarchist dissent and solidarity have manifested spatially through grassroots organizing, solidarity networks, spatial forms of resistance and other infrastructures of dissent.

Keywords: Greece, solidarity, anarchism, activism

Publication Information

Volume 4, Issue 1 (2018)


Many traditional anarchist principles have formed the basis for organizing within radical movements globally; specifically these include militant street demonstrations and destruction of public and private property. These organizational forms tend to attract media attention, rather than more seemingly mundane forms of resistance such as mutual aid, self-organization and equality. It seems that such everyday forms of resistance are not characteristics typically associated with anarchism in mainstream discourse. Yet, as I observed in Athens, Greece, during fieldwork in July 2016, many anarchist efforts were focused on forms of resistance that I will describe as lateral relations and solidarity. As I will discuss, during my fieldwork I found anarchism was being used as a rejection of state power, economic inequality and structural violence.

Athens is important, on an international level, as a location for anarchists and anti-authoritarian activity. The 2007-2008 Greek financial crisis, the migrant and refugee crisis, and previous civil hostilities to the state, position Greece as a site in which grassroots solidarity movements or alternatives to capitalism can flourish. A failure of capitalism and the state—which has been ineffective with providing essential services to Greek citizens—as well as the subsequent introduction of alternatives made Greece an interesting field site for me to consider the projection of modern radical movements on both sides of the political spectrum.

This article is dedicated to understanding experiences of anarchists and residents of Exarcheia, an anarchist neighbourhood located in Athens, with a focus on networks of solidarity and resistance. First, I outline a historical background of the economic, labour and civil factors that contributed to the social climate in Athens, Greece, during my research. I will consider the historical roots of contemporary Greek civil unrest, which include the Greek Civil war from 1946 to 1949, the Athens Polytechnic uprising of 1973, and the 2008 December riots, as well as their influence on contemporary spatial relations and infrastructures of dissent within Exarcheia. Second, I provide an in-depth analysis that focuses on how forms of dissent and solidarity were negotiated and reproduced after the 2008 riots, and in wake of events including the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, the sovereign debt crisis in Greece (in the aftermath of the global crisis) and subsequent austerity measures. Based on historical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork, my investigation considers how dissent and solidarity manifested spatially within Exarcheia. This will include key experiences in the field and interviews with my interlocutors. Finally, the nature of squatting and spatial resistance will be examined within the context of two particular neighborhoods, Prosfigika and Exarcheia respectively.

I call anarchist forms of resistance the Erisian Mysteries—the secretive rituals of resistance, solidarity and subversion practiced by Athenian anarchists today; often considered to be violent or threatening by outsiders. Erisian pertains to Eris, the Greek Goddess of discord and chaos, and mysteries refer to the secrecy of anarchist practices.


Participant observation, formal and informal interviews were the primary ethnographic methods used for this research. I visited the neighborhoods of Exarcheia and Prosfigika, almost daily for the duration of a month in July 2016 as part of York University’s Ethnographic Fieldwork school in Greece. Although I informally interviewed seven people, only transcripts from interviews with two of my interlocutors are included in this article, because I felt that their experiences and perspectives were the most relevant to my work on anarchist activism.

Both of my interlocutors were Greek men, in their late twenties to early thirties, holders of doctorate degrees, active anarchists, and lived or had lived in squats. The elder of the two, Peter, was a student pursuing a second doctorate degree in theatre and a guerrilla party-planner. Yusuf, was an Ivy League graduate soldier and former priest. The method of data collection used with Peter was primarily formal and informal interviews consisting of speaking, recording, drawing and visiting sites of interest. Participant observation, in the form of active engagement, discussion and action were the ethnographic tools used with Yusuf. All interlocutors provided verbal consent. All the names of my interlocutors, people I spoke with, and anarchist organizations I discuss have been changed to pseudonyms to protect the identity of the people involved.

Historical origins of the debt crisis and Athenian anarchist movement

From speaking with my collaborators, I was able to discern that much of the current political polarization in Greece can be traced to the pivotal events of the Greek Civil War (1946-1949), the Greek military junta of the Colonels (a military dictatorship), and subsequent popular student and anti-authoritarian movements in the last half century. At the end of World War II, the tension between the political right and left manifested in a civil war between the Greek government and the National People’s Army of Liberation (or ELAS) (Kalyvas 2006). The former was supported by Western, capitalist countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States (O’Ballance 1966). ELAS was a guerrilla army under the leadership of the Communist Party of Greece (the KKE) that led resistance both during and after WWII (O’Ballance 1966). Both ELAS and the KKE were a part of the National Liberation Front (or EAM) which was the primary social resistance movement during both the occupation of Greece by the Axis Powers and the civil war (O’Ballance 1966). The EAM is the one of the most significant movements in modern Greek history and consisted of many leftist groups (O’Ballance 1966).

The political polarization between the right and the left following World War II resulted from divisions created by the Nazi occupation between 1941 to 1944 (Kalyvas 2006). The government of King George II fled the country for Egypt, and as a result was of little consequence in the eyes of its citizens (Kalyvas 2006). A puppet regime installed by Germany lacked legitimacy and was an economic and policy disaster (Kalyvas 2006). The vacuum of power created by the Nazi occupation was manipulated by resistance movements, chiefly among them the far-left EAM (Kalyvas 2006).

In 1944 the EAM set up the Political Committee of National Liberation; a provisional government in the mountains, colloquially known as the Mountain Government (Kirk and McElligott 1999). Therefore, the EAM renounced the legitimacy of both the Nazi puppet regime and King George II’s government in exile (Kirk and McElligott 1999). After the withdrawal of German forces, and the lack of cooperation between the United Kingdom and EAM-ELAS, a civil war broke out in Athens (Christodoulakis 2016). The geographical and political space of Athens in particular has consistently been a battleground for struggles between not only the state and militants, but for ideological tussles of the right and left (Kirk and McElligott 1999).

After British forces open fired on EAM demonstrators, the first phase of the civil war had begun (Christodoulakis 2016). On February 12, 1945 the EAM conceded defeat and signed the Treaty of Varkiza (Christodoulakis 2016). Thirteen months later there was a general election held with communists abstaining from voting (Christodoulakis, 2016); a tactic of strategic-passivity I noticed still being used by Athenian leftists during my fieldwork. Nonetheless, the monarchy was restored to power and as a result there was a full-scale launch of guerrilla warfare (andartiko) by EAM-ELAS (Kirk and McElligott 1999).

One of my interlocutors, Peter, told me that he often heard police or fascists call anarchists, or other leftists, “mountain soldiers,” reminiscent of the guerrilla fighters of the civil war. Resistance in Greece is shaped by the mountainous terrain, and its geography facilitates guerrilla tactics. Under the influence of the EAM-ELAS, people began to organize from the bottom up; transforming residents from disorganized farmers into disciplined soldiers and collaborators. According to Tim Kirk and Anthony McElligott (1999), during the civil war “the notion of the Mountain acquired a different meaning and other dimensions in our imaginations” (127) as the Mountain became intricately linked with guerilla tactics, anarchy and resistance.

Ultimately, the struggle was unsuccessful on the part of the EAM (Christodoulakis 2016) but I found that the war never truly ended in the hearts of the people. These are not isolated historic events that are removed from everyday life: they are almost tangible, even today, for many Greeks; the past coloured everything that Peter and Yusuf said. These events functioned as ruptures to the rapport between the public and the state, eroding trust between the two, and creating grounds for organization, solidarity and resistance towards the Greek government.

The Colonels, Polytechnic uprising, and the origins of Exarcheia

The National Technical University of Athens (hereafter referred to as Polytechnio) is located on Oktovriou Street. In November 1973 an uprising took place within Polytechnio precinct and also within Exarcheia (Kotea 2013). Initially, students who were discontented with the military junta met within the main building of Polytechnio to discuss resistance (Kotea 2013). Nevertheless, the event evolved from a discussion to action; the students organized a movement against the junta and their foreign allies, such as NATO) (Kotea 2013). They occupied Polytechnio and constructed a radio station to disseminate their message of solidarity in the face of dictatorship to the rest of the country (Kotea 2013).

Due to strong civilian support and the militancy of the insurgents, the junta’s dictator, Georgios Papadopoulos, ordered a suppression of resistance (Kotea 2013). On November 17th, 1973, a tank destroyed the central gate of Polytechnio, killing student occupiers in the process Kotea 2013). The occupation of Polytechnio was an act of defiance that only exacerbated the situation, as Papadopoulos was replaced by an even more ruthless dictator, Demetrios Ioannides, the former chief of the military police (Kotea 2013). Nonetheless, the regime eventually collapsed in 1974 following a failed coup against Turkey to seize control of Cyprus (Kotea 2013). After the collapse of the military junta, Constantinos Karamanlis returned from France to lead the government (Kotea 2013). As Prime Minister, Karamanlis unified the administration and the military, and legalized the KKE (Kotea 2013). On the first anniversary of the polytechnic uprising in 1975, Greece had its first ever free elections and Karamanlis’ newly formed conservative party, New Democracy, won a majority (Kotea 2013). This history of unrest and uprisings in Greece is foundational to the current anarchist movement in Exarcheia in the wake of the 2010 debt crisis.

Anarchist squats and solidarity networks

I first met Yusuf, one of my main interlocutors, in Plateia Exarchion, or Exarcheia Square, which is in the centre of the neighbourhood. We spoke with ease and he lead me to Polytechnio. I waited in the main hallway of Polytechnio as Yusuf slipped through closed doors opposite the entrance. Inside, a meeting was taking place that I was not privy to, so I waited in the entrance and observed.

Yusuf informed me that we would be meeting up with other anarchists; there was a group of anarchists and refugees (including children) protesting within the neighbourhood. They had been sitting outside an empty government building because the refugees had been promised housing and yet were stuck on the street, vulnerable to attack by nationalist extremists.

When we arrived, there was conflict and confusion amid the refugees who were largely concerned that rioting would cause backlash—they were worried for their children’s safety. One woman was pressing for mobilization; to forcefully take the building and occupy it. Although many anarchists were in favour of this, the refugees seemed hesitant. The disagreement led to confusion: “If the refugees don’t agree, we can’t take any action”, said Yusuf.

Leonard, a Ukrainian anarchist visiting for a few days, nodded his head in agreement; it would be wrong to use the refugee’s vulnerability as a platform to promote anarchist ideals under the guise of solidarity. “Some just want to seize a building; it’s not about necessarily helping the refugees,” said Leonard.

We walked down to a side street in Exarcheia, sitting down in an alleyway restaurant. After we finished eating, Yusuf insisted on paying the bill. As we made the trek up to Strefi Hill, we spoke about the demonstration planned for the next day.: “We’re meeting up with two other guys to decide what to do”, Yusuf explained. He laughed as he saw me huff, slightly, while climbing the final stair. “You’ll have to get into shape to run from the cops!” said Yusuf, and he and Leonard laughed.

We walk along the fenced side of a basketball court, which was brightly illuminated so we continued on just a little past it. Two men waited, with a roll of posters and a large green bucket on the ground beside them. Yusuf introduced Leonard and I, and after our initial greeting they had everyone turn their phones off, placed them in my bag, and put it behind a rock approximately five to six feet away from us. “For security purposes,” Yusuf supplied, as he saw my curious look. “We’re planning what we need for the protest.”

One man, Yannis, spoke first. He insisted we needed milk, marijuana, fireworks, and glue. The first two items were to combat the effects of tear gas; he explained that milk has long been used by activists to neutralize tear gas. Yannis stated that marijuana helps with opening the airways and relaxing after a riot, and he explained that the fireworks were to be potentially used as weapons to throw at police. Finally, I realized that we needed the glue to post the posters as I looked over to where another man, Marko, was making a glue-like mixture for us to use as a paste.

“Okay so, there’s four of us, which position do you want?” Yannis asked, pointing at me. I stared back, dumbfounded. “Well, which positions are there?” I asked. Yannis and the others outlined three positions; offence, defence and medic: the offence’s objective was to push the line, they would have most contact with the police and would need to be aggressive; the defence needed to hold and maintain the line without giving any ground to the police; and the medic was needed to be support for both, and thus needed to be prepared to push forward and take the offensive position if the offence fell back. Hesitant to participate actively in the protest, I half-heartedly agreed to be the medic, with the intention to remedy the situation after by emphasizing my role as a researcher and an observer.

As we walked through the streets of Exarcheia that night, Leonard admired the posters we were pasting. “Pretty girls and AK47’s”, he sighed, gesturing to the YPJ (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin in Kurdish) soldiers on the poster, an all-female military unit within the Syrian Democratic Forces. The others agreed that the girls on the poster were indeed beautiful. While they were preoccupied I spoke with Yusuf, explaining that I was there to observe and not to participate in anything illegal. “We’re posting these aren’t we”, he laughed, gesturing to the revolutionary posters we were pasting to every available surface. “Anything too illegal”, I amended.

Alternative moralities, strategic-passivity, solidarity economies, action and everyday resistance

Peter and I met at a cafe on a side street off of Plateia Exarchion. He quickly dispelled my preconceptions of anarchism and what it meant to be an anarchist. According to Peter, many people who do not identify as anarchists actually might participate in everyday anarchist actions but find that labels do not suit them, and alternatively some people may say “I am an anarchist” however their beliefs and actions might not align with what I am calling lateral anarchist principles—a form of collaboration between comrades that does not pertain to a hierarchy of authority . Moreover, following Peter’s argument, some people who identify with tenets of (lateral) anarchism: solidarity, self-organization and anti-oppression, may instead choose to freely associate and practice anarchism through ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’.

Action was an important concept in the anarchism that I witnessed; it was through everyday action and resistance that difference was thought to be made. Peter explained: “The reason we are participating is to open the political spectrum and transform what may at first not seem to be political, and to then transform it with our participation.”. According to Peter, politics is the organization of everyday life which sets the parameters within which you can exist in society. Therefore, anarchists sought to open up a different conceptual space to navigate their reality; a space that existed outside (or within) a capitalist, state-governed society.

Although my interlocutors are well educated, they felt that many anarchists have little need for high theory from long dead thinkers. This is because the temporal and spatial reality is different, and anarchism insists on action. Although Peter and Yusuf are familiar with foundational thinkers on anarchism such as Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, they found contemporary anarchists to be more relevant. Peter often cited Armed Joy by Alfredo M. Bonanno (1998) as being relevant work, whereas Yusuf encouraged me to read Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federicci (2004).

Peter explained that anarchism and any spatial or material manifestations of anarchism were an ongoing project. Anarchism, I was told, seeks to recreate society from within by subverting and undermining structures of state and capital domination. From our conversations, I learned that it is through action, not destruction, and by the creation of new structures and forms of association, that anarchy is built within the shell of the current society; the materials around us are merely projections of our own ideas; the diameters of the road, the seating in a car, the arrangement of houses into neighbourhoods. Therefore, we speculated, the state and capitalism are reinforced visually and spatially as rational, and even naturalized as ways of living. The building, we discussed, is a tool; not an end in itself. Therefore, we wondered: if state-sanctioned materials and spaces can be appropriated by anarchists, then could anarchist principles also not come into fruition? That is to say; materials that once functioned as tools of the state now serve as manifestations of anarchism.

Anarchy is not chaos, violence and discord but rather the creation of new relations, and forms of engagement. Jean Weir (2016) describes the use of armed struggle in the 2008 anarchist uprisings in Greece as not for violent means but rather “a tool to bring the revolutionary perspective to the fore and present the hypothesis of the need for immediate attack in an unequivocal discourse addressed both to the anarchist movement and the wider movement of the exploited” (35). Therefore every squat, act of political graffiti, and communal kitchen is an action of resistance to the state and capitalism. These alternatives are undermining the existing structures, existing simultaneously. Anarchy is the revolution of the everyday; making soup for a refugee is as powerful as throwing a Molotov cocktail. Both are different forms of solidarity and defiance in the face of oppression and state violence.

According to David Graeber (2004), Marcel Mauss is important to anarchist thought because of his interest in “alternative moralities” (21) to capitalism. Mauss’ work challenged the assumption that societies without market economies or money operated on barter systems that used the principles of the market but had not yet developed centralized currency. Mauss contested that these were not barter systems but “gift economies” (22) and were rooted in ethical systems at odds with modern capitalist global economics, which is motivated by profit (Graeber 2004, 21-24).

Alternate forms of markets have emerged in Greece in response to the austerity measures, for instance the solidarity economy among the anarchists I interacted with while conducting research. Similar to the gift economy, the solidarity economy I observed in Athens based its actions on the purpose of increasing the quality of life rather than profit. There were many grassroots structures such as housing initiatives, autonomous clinics, education groups, solidarity kitchens, and other forms of social cooperation that I encountered. Such organizations are dedicated to improving the quality of life for not only individuals, but the community as a whole, as Graeber (2004) suggests.

In 2010, two years after the 2008 December riots, Greek economists declared a ‘sovereign debt crisis’ (Rakopoulos 2013). Many social, health and education programs were cancelled, and Greek pensions were cut in half, and then half again (Rakopoulos 2013). Theodoros Rakopoulos (2013) suggests “[t]he imposed austerity measures [had] also added a political dimension to the debt crisis” (103). As a result, solidarity emerged in the face of state violence, this time in the form of unemployment, rising cost of goods and extreme debt (Rakopoulos 2013). Rakopoulos (2013) states:

There are many forms of resistance to austerity, in particular the efforts to seize and squat empty or derelict buildings. Many of these squats also function as community centers; anarchists in Prosfigika assisted refugees and baked bread for them as well. Some of these squats have, in addition, been turned into informal social centers, providing voluntary services of various kinds to people who have become impoverished in surrounding areas. (103)

Another instance of solidarity, post financial disaster, which Rakopoulos (2013) speaks of, is RAME (a fictitious acronym used by Rakopoulos to describe the informal group): unemployed and homeless youth who seized a building close to the Botanical Gardens (the Botanic Squat) and formed a collective that distributed food. RAME essentially functioned as an anti-middleman movement that connected farmers with customers (Rakopoulos 2013). Anti-middleman movements, popular throughout Greece, respond to middleman systems in which both the farmer and the customers are shortchanged so the middle-man can turn a profit (Rakopoulos 2013). RAME’s ‘free-man’ markets allowed customers to buy directly from farmers who bring produce from their own farms in the countryside (Rakopoulos 2013). Cutting out the need for a middle-man offered benefits for both farmers and customers (Rakopoulos 2013).

Although RAME planned to alter their collective into a formal co-operative, they did not become a new type of middle-man because, although they acted as a medium between the producers and consumers, “[t]his formal body would work through a market mechanism underpinned by internal solidarity, in which producers and consumers came to know each other personally and were concerned about each other’s well-being, rather than the anonymous pursuit of individual gain (Rakopoulos 2013, 105)”.

The producers were meeting face to face and building a network of free-association based off of mutual interest. This allowed the transaction to become more humanized; they could see one another as people both struggling in the face of austerity. This form of solidarity economy was very much related to notions of everyday revolution; through humanizing processes and the subversion of the typical producer and consumer relationship, RAME and their consumers were able to open up a space in which consumption operated on solidarity, rather than profit.

2008 December riots: Student Years, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, and anarchist space

According to Peter, the “Student Years” refer to the time period from 2006 to 2007 in which a massive anti-state student movement flourished. Peter recounted how every Thursday there were clashes between students and police, and ‘counter-universities,’ or centres, that taught the theory and practice of state resistance. He described how guerrilla ‘anti-courses’ were offered, enabling students who were frustrated with potential university privatization to fight back. He explained that students were willing to fight in the streets using tactics from anti-courses: Molotov cocktails, glass bottles and fireworks; these “anti-courses” were geared towards more radical forms of resistance and organization.

An important moment during the first years of metapolitefsi (a transitional period following the end of the military junta) during the late ’70s, involved a struggle in the universities that was sparked by the efforts of the right wing government to institute educational reforms (Georgiadis 2005). During this struggle anarchists had a significant presence, as well as other groups and individuals with an anti-authoritarian and libertarian perspective. This struggle surpassed the boundaries of the university by involving n the presence and participation of many more people, who were not strictly students, such as other youth as well as workers (Schwarz and Sagris 2010). However, Peter told me that by May 2008 the student movement died because the immediate threat of privatization was lacking.

Contemporary civil resistance can be understood as stemming back to the treaty of Varkiza (noted above) which set the stage for some of the most violent protests and demonstrations in Greek history according to my interlocutors. On December 6, 2008, fifteen year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by two police officers in Exarcheia (Chrysopoulos 2014). The resentment of the student movement was the fuel that fanned the flame of the 2008 riots, and the gun that shot Alexandros Grigoropoulos was a fire lit within heart of the country. December 2008 was described as “the month when the country’s divided past returned in full force” (Vradis and Dalakoglou 2011, 13).

What followed Alexandros’ murder was indescribable: it was not an assault on a single person, but on the Greek people. This is because of the significance of where Alexandros was shot; in the heart of anarchist territory, on an adjacent street to Plateia Exarchion. This was a symbolic killing as it represented the violence the state uses against civilians, and the audacity that agents of the state would have to encroach on anti-state territory and murder a fifteen year old boy. Such a blatant attack could not go unanswered, and the response was felt not only in Exarcheia, but in all of Greece.

December 2008 is a key point of reference for understanding the trajectory and current platform of the anarchist movement in Athens. Although it was initially contained within the centre of Exarcheia, it transcended both geographical and ideological boundaries. The riots were as much about Alexandros, as they were about the rioters. The seeds of the anarchist movement in December 2008 were sown during World War II, in the mountains of Eleftheri Ellada, within Polytechnio, and on the streets of Athens. Indeed, Peter described the December riots as a “moment of revolution” in which thousands of people freely entered into the “anarchist space;” a space in which the public is anti-state. He recounted how people had signs stating: “I am dead. You have killed me.” Thus, the public stood in solidarity with Alexandros Grigorpoulos, people of all classes united in the face of a common enemy: the state.

Peter told me that the “anarchist space” is not so much a physical location as it is a negotiation: people can freely enter the “anarchist space” and navigate it as they so choose. People were not only freely associating with one another, but they were associating with an anarchic theoretical framework that maintained that the state was unnecessary or even evil. Moreover, the term “anarchist space” is one of many terms used to refer to an engagement with anarchist or anti-state ideology. Yusuf for instance, used the term “scene” rather than space to refer to the engagement that people had with anarchist theory.

Although demonstrations and even violence can have an important role in dismantling forms of oppression created and reinforced by the state and capitalism, they often function as a springboard. For instance, protest-action towards the military is more than an expression of collective grievance. Such action, as I argue later, was a key element in the ongoing construction and reconstruction of Athenian anarchist and anti-authoritarian collective identity. Insurrectionist street-protests become as much an aspect of identity formation as they are a tactic (Kalyvas 2010).

The term “anarchist space” also is reflective of the importance of space as a concept in anarchism. Many anarchists have written about how space can be used as a vehicle for radical social change: Peter Kropotkin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon are both foundational thinkers on anarchism who wrote about anarchist geographies; however, the increasing complexity of our societies has made the field of anarchist geographies evolve (Springer et al. 2012). Our planet has been radically reshaped by global capitalism, which has only exacerbated geographical inequalities (Springer et al. 2012). In the article Reanimating Anarchist Geographies, Simon Springer et al. (2012) discuss connections between space (or geography) and anarchism. They state: “Social transformation is, of course, necessarily a spatial project, and a spatial dimension to the effective critique of existing structures is an important element of imagining and forging spaces for new ones” (1593). Therefore, it would be impossible to map out spatial resistance in Exarcheia cartographically as resistance is not spatially or temporally static. Instead of the State deciding which groups of people are allowed to occupy which spaces, during my fieldwork the people themselves took control of the terrain. This suggested that rather than have the space define the person, the person should define the space.

Legacies of December 2008: The spatial politics of Exarcheia, anarchist geography and “In the shell of the old”

According to Marianthi Kotea; “[t]he identity of Exarcheia is certainly due to the symbolism that the whole area had gained because of the polytechnic uprising” (2013, 22). I too noticed that the riots were much more than just violent or militant displays of anger towards the state. The December 2008 riots that engulfed Greece were a foundation for the development of infrastructures of resistance that I noticed among my interlocutors and that continue today. Furthermore, expressions of hostile civil disobedience functioned as a springboard for other manifestations of solidarity that I observed.

Anarchists have long been concerned with the dangers of using a political strategy that was not based on principles with which the future society would be shaped by (Ince 2012). This concern has led to the development of what anarchists call “prefigurative politics” (Ince 2012, 1652). “Prefigurative politics” maintain that anti-democratic or anti-egalitarian methods cannot create a free and equal society (Ince 2012). As such, anarchists are as concerned with the “here-and-now” as they are about tomorrow, if not more so, and this ties in with anarchist principles of everyday revolution and anti-utopianism; anarchists do not dream of utopia (Ince 2012, 1652). Instead, as Peter put it; they want to “smash up the marble” in an alternate way by dismantling oppressive pillars of society to see what possibilities lie ahead. However, prefiguration “is not purely a strategic or tactical move—prefigurative praxis involves a fundamental acknowledgement that no revolution is ever ‘complete’” (Ince 2012, 1652). Indeed, Rudolph Rocker states: “I am an anarchist not because I believe in anarchism as a final goal, but because there is no such thing as a final goal[;] Freedom will lead us to a continually wider and expanding understanding and to new social forms of life” ([1956] 2005, 111 quoted in Ince 2012, 1652).

Revolution is a long process through which forms of resistance and solidarity can be reconstituted within the shell of the old (Ince 2012). Anarchism lives in constant tension between the daily and the possibility of another day, and it is within this temporal tension that spatial transformations can occur because “[u]topia is an unattainable goal which will never be achieved, but in striving to achieve it, we can move towards revolution through the constant creation and adaptation of revolutionary practices and relations in everyday life” (Ince 2012, 1653).

Territorialization for anarchists, according to Anthony Ince (2012), is the process of creating and maintaining solidarity networks in an “institutional pattern across space,” that is not so much about the physical space (Ince 2012, 1662). Rather, it is concerned with the relationships that redefine the material space (Ince 2012). Exarcheia can therefore be understood as a physical space that, through spontaneous demonstrations of anti-state and anti-capitalist solidarity, was reinforced as a radical leftist territory. In turn, the geography of Exarcheia—with its cafes, bookstores and graffiti—reinforces those same solidarity networks. The territorialization of Exarcheia, following Ince’s (2012) thinking, can be understood as having developed over many years, protests and negotiations.

Prosfigika I: Refugees, free-association networks, and the art of squatting

During the final night of my stay in Athens, I planned to attend a demonstration in Exarcheia. Wearing all black and carrying only my phone and a red bandana, I walked with a fellow anthropology student to Plateia Exarchion. Along the way, we noticed that there was a heavy police presence, becoming more concentrated towards Exarcheia. Riot police were parked on every corner and had even placed barricades that blocked access to all streets leading to Exarcheia.

Once in the square, my companion and I met up with Yusuf. However, there were still debates happening at Polytechnio regarding how to proceed with the demonstration; many felt that they were lacking both the resources and the numbers. Yusuf was committed to the protest and suggested we go to Prosfigika to get supplies and plan some form of action. As we walked to the squat, Yusuf informed my companion of the reasons for that night’s demonstration—the police had been shutting down squats. Yusuf told us that a refugee had been killed in Thessaloniki, which was exacerbating hostilities between anarchists, refugees and the police.

In the end, we returned to Profigika and drank red wine while Yusuf showed us photos on his desktop of his time in the military. His military identity card was sitting on his bedside table, strewn with pamphlets, papers and books. I recognized the posters we had pasted earlier lying in the corner behind his bed.

We spent hours there in his squat discussing the nature of occupying space as a political agent, and of the solidarity networks that sustained such forms of material resistance. I also thought about the relevance of the recent death of a refugee in Thessaloniki, and how it would relate to anarchists in Exarcheia, particularly within the squat I was in, Prosfigika.

Known as the “building of the refugees,” Prosfigika has a long history of resistance, dating back prior to the civil war (Tzirtzilaki 2014). The outside walls of Prosfygika appeared to be derelict; the eight buildings that comprise it were littered with graffiti and shell marks. Prosfygika was a site that was frequented by researchers and academics who have formed a strong network of solidarity with the squatters (Tzirtzilaki 2014). This connection has functioned to aid Prosfygika with strong ties within the anti-authoritarian and migrant circles, and within mainstream academia (Tzirtzilaki 2014). However, Peter disagreed with Yusuf’s claim that Prosfygika was primarily a political space; he cited the lack of a central room as a key element to this claim. Peter maintained that Prosfygika was a “living-squat”, it’s politics being secondary to lifestyle. Interestingly, Prosfigika is located in a hotbed of state space; it is wedged between the Athens Police Headquarters and the Supreme Court of Greece. Ambelokipi is the area in which Prosfigika is located in central Athens, and in recent years has been a popular site of construction and gentrification—inciting resistance from the squatters (Tzirtzilaki 2014).

In 2001 due to the approaching 2004 Olympic Games, the Hellenic Public Real Estate Corporation (KED) used threats of demolition and blackmail to buy 137 apartments (Tzirtzilaki 2014). In 2003 40 more apartments were expropriated by the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Climate Change (YPEKA) as a part of a plan to demolish 6 of the 8 apartment blocks to make more green space (Tzirtzilaki 2014,).

Due to solidarity networks forged by the squatters and anarchists, within the academic community and among residents of Ambelokipi, this initiative was unsuccessful (Tzirtzilaki 2014). However, Prosfigika was still considered a major eyesore that was covered to preserve the appearance of the Olympic Games (Tzirtzilaki 2014). Consistently, agents of the state have been keen to destroy and dismantle Prosfigika in favour of state sanctioned initiatives that benefit Greece’s international reputation at the expense of its citizens (Tzirtzilaki 2014).

Following the Olympics, Prosfygika underwent a radical influx of refugees, anarchists and squatters (Tzirtzilaki 2014). The emergence of weekly assemblies aided in the community organization that created infrastructures of solidarity, such as a communal kitchen, an infirmary, and classes for children (Tzirtzilaki 2014).Thus the Prosfygika neighbourhood is a focal point for struggles of self-organization and solidarity as well as for imaginary and physical reality, as the meaning of community is redefined through the transformation of the neighbourhood into a new community (Tzirtzilaki 2014).

From my research I was able to discern that Prosfygika has strong ties to EAM-ELAS and other forms of radical resistance. Material space, especially radical territories like Prosfygika or Exarcheia, has strong connections to intangible forms of dissent. Just as the people shape the space and so are shaped by it, they affect and are affected by immaterial structures of resistance as well. Athenian anarchists’ principles are very much shaped by space and the way in which they express dissent or solidarity manifests as a result (Tzirtzilaki 2014). Indeed, space is not as fixed as one might think. As Eleni Tzirkzilaki (2014) explains:

dynamic spaces, χώροι εν δυνάμει in Greek, shouldn’t be regulated or fixed under a certain label or law, as they escape a fixed definition. These dynamic spaces are like current shelters, they are our answer to the crisis and its violence. They represent a resistance to the prevailing system, generating as resistance an intellectual critique, embodied in the space and in the use of it, suggesting new forms and way of living, as well as becoming communities.

 Prosfigika II: ‘Free’, communality, free-assocation frameworks, labour-currency, and defence

One night I waited outside one of the doors to a squat in Prosfigika. It was my second to last night in Athens and Yusuf had invited me to eat at his friend Alexandros’ place. When I arrived Yusuf and Alexandros’ appeared at the door, assuring a concerned neighbour that I was just a friend, as I had been lurking suspiciously outside. They ushered me inside and I followed them up the stairs in the dimly lit squat. Once inside, we crossed the hallway to the living room. It was as poorly lit as the stairwell, save for the red lamp that cast the room in warm colour. Along the cement floors were many empty glass bottles put together in rows. There were also pliers, scissors, screw drivers, and an assortment of other tools. I noticed the symbol for Conspiracy of Cells of Fire, a Greek radical anarchist group, drawn on the door.

This was a lab for development; Molotov cocktails seemed to be the primary item, and I noticed the floor was littered with silver canisters that appeared to be nitrous oxide. Overhead, a middle aged man was tinkering with the light. Finally, after a few moments, he managed to fix the light and descended from the ladder. Yusuf introduced me to Amir; a former political prisoner who was held in Iran for 11 years.

Alexandros insisted I eat and Yusuf brought out a massive plate of pasta with chunks of beef and caramelized onions in a red sauce. The ingredients for the meal had been donated by a local grocery store; my interlocutors explained that expired goods are often donated to the anarchists and refugees. Even if they aren’t donated, the anarchists explained that they will simply recover the wasted goods from the garbage.

From my observations, the concept of “free” is radically different for anarchists, who attempt to minimize their participation in capitalism. Often it is assumed that things without a price have no value, but Yusuf explained to me this was precisely how the state and capitalism distort reality. Yusuf elaborated that the absence of price is not a reflection of real world value, but merely the artificial value we assign based on monetary cost. For instance, Yusuf informed me that he lived in an apartment within the squat without paying rent or exchanging monetary currency; rather, labour was his form of currency. Furthermore, Yusuf explained that the apartments were communal property and people who regularly participated and laboured in the squat, were allowed to live there.

As Yusuf explained to me, forms of participation and labour became currency. This included political discussions, baking bread for refugees, patrolling the squat, or doing maintenance. Although there were locks on the doors for security, technically the space was communal. The only property that existed within the context of the squat was the personal effects of the squatters. According to Yusuf, tenancy was decided communally according to certain criteria: First, a resident of the squat was required to introduce and vouch for the prospective squatter. The council and assembly would then decide if the person in question could receive a key to an apartment. This was due to the free-association frameworks that facilitated cooperation and non-hierarchical organization. Although there was no central authority, Prosfigika had a council and an open assembly that met two to three times a week and participation in discussion (to a degree) was required to squat in Prosfigika. Generally, the topics of discussion included the inner workings of the squat: security, residency, defense, organization, and so on. One of the most important aspects of the labour-currency was the mobilization and preparation to defend the squat.

“We have the means to defend the squat”, Yusuf once said to me, as we surveyed our surroundings from one of his balconies. The anarchists and squatters were capable of using force, arms, and any other means to resist police and other agents of the state. Typically, they favoured homemade weapons such as Molotov cocktails, or even potato guns (an apparatus that can shoot potatoes with extreme force)—however, they also might have used hot water, oil or throw glass bottles.

Yet, Peter once lived in a squat in Patras, and told me that their most valuable ‘weapons’ were in fact tools of solidarity; modes of communication that allowed people to mobilize quickly. This exemplifies how action and everyday revolution was not always facilitated by violent mobilization; many times it was a network of individuals collaborating laterally for the sake of solidarity. He referred to a loudspeaker as “the community shield” as it could be used to contact comrades to help with defence. Technology was the primary tool employed within this squat, an SMS could function as a panic button. Peter described a group of eleven squatters that turned into more than two hundred thanks to one SMS message. “The best defence is people”, smiled Peter.


The Erisian Mysteries will likely never be understood popularly in their complexities, however, these rituals of resistance to state and capital oppression are essential in our modern world. Alternatives must be found for those who have slipped through the cracks of a failing system. According to my interlocutors, anarchism is not merely violence; it is a cohesive network of non-hierarchical relationships based off mutual association and equality. Throughout my research I found that anarchists in Athens were organized: autonomous clinics, squats, collectives, “free” markets and soup kitchens all attested to the existence of a solidarity economy. Not only did they routinely organize countercultural events such as anti-state demonstrations, but anarchists engaged with poor and working class communities on the ground, daily.

From my research I was able to discern that Greece’s long historic political polarization, from the northern mountains to the graffiti covered streets of Exarcheia, has defined social relations since the civil war. “The anarchist space” that my interlocutors discussed, both the metaphysical and the geographical, constitutes the field site of Athenian anarchism and is one of the most relevant forms of resistance for residents of Exarcheia. Buildings, in particular universities, and other infrastructures of the state, are significant in the battle for spatial autonomy. As Vradis and Dalakoglou (2011) suggest: “What remains an open question and a challenge, then, is to try to make sense of this transition of how we position ourselves within it as anarchists, as part of the global antagonist movement, as people inspired by the December revolt who nevertheless want to be better prepared for the next Decembers that are sure to come” (15).

From my research I was able to come to the conclusion that critics of anarchism allege that it is not a viable ideology; anarchism will simply never happen. And yet, anarchism is happening globally, and has predated any form of economic or social organization that is widely used today. Anarchism is happening right now, on the ground—in the streets of Athens, in the squats of Patras and in the everyday revolutions around the world. Furthermore, anarchism is comprised of moments of revolution, glimpses of a reality without state or economic oppression, in which humans organize themselves according to their own means and accords. It is in the moments of spontaneous and even violent mobilization against the state. Anarchy is in the buildings, streets, plazas and mountains of Greece. But most of all, it is in the relationships between people and the solidarity they share in the face of economic and political marginalization. Anarchy has a long historic, social and spatial history that remains at the forefront of politics in Greece today.


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Chrysopoulos, Philip. “Alexandros Grigoropoulos: The Killing That Shook Greece.” News from Greece. December 06, 2014. Accessed August 23, 2018.

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Graeber, D. 2004. Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Ince, Anthony. 2012. “In the Shell of the Old: Anarchist Geographies of Territorialisation.” Anarchist Geographies. Antipode 44(5): 1645-1666.

Kalyvas, Andreas. 2010. “An Anomaly? Some Reflections on the Greek December 2008.” Constellations 17(2): 351–365

Kalyvas, Stathis N. 2006. The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Kotea, Marianthi. 2013. “Athens Polytechnic Uprising: Myth and Reality”. American International Journal of Contemporary Research 3(8): 18-24.

O’Ballance, Edgar. 1966. The Greek Civil War, 1944-1949. London: Faber.

Rakopoulos, Theodoros. 2013. “Responding to the crisis: food co-operatives and the solidarity economy in Greece”. Anthropology Southern Africa, 36(3-4), 102-107.

Schwarz, A. G., and Tasos Sagris, eds. 2010. We are an Image from the Future: The Greek Revolt of December 2008. Edinburgh: AK Press

Springer, Simon, Anthony Ince, Jenny Pickerill, Gavin Brown, and Adam J. Barker. 2012. “Reanimating Anarchist Geographies: A New Burst of Colour”. Antipode 44(5): 1591–1604.

Tzirtzilaki, Eleni. 2014. “Urban voids”. nomadic architecture network. November 1, 2014. Accessed August 2016.

Vradis, Antonis, and Dalakoglou, Dimitris. 2011. Revolt and crisis in Greece: Between a present yet to pass and a future still to come. Oakland: AK Press and Occupied London.

Weir, Jean. 2016. Tame words from a wild heart. AK Press.









The Imagery of Iranian National Identity: A typology of Slogans during the Aftermath of the 2009 Presidential Election

by Raheleh Abbasinejad

Masters Student, Science and Technology Studies | York University, Toronto, Canada


In this paper, I analyze the nation-building project that the Islamic Republic of Iran has produced and reproduced in the past four decades. I explore the political, social, and economic processes contributing to the (un)doing of identity projects, by investigating the 2009 protests following the Iranian presidential election and analyzing the slogans shouted from both sides of the conflict. I analyze these slogans, their words, metaphors, and meanings embedded in them to extract various aspects of national identity imagery, ideologies, and discourses in Iran. I argue that the narratives that emerged during the political protests of the 2009 Iranian Green movement demonstrate the formation of a plural national identity in Iran, which allows for the inclusion of more and more citizens. I contextualize my questions in the post-Islamic Revolution time period and specifically in the last decade (2009 to the present), because this period has undergone multiple civic movements. I contend that by placing the Iranian Green Movement under scrutiny various dimensions of contemporary national discussions in Iran can be exposed; notably anticolonial nationalism (fear of foreign domination), religious nationalism (Islamic and Shia), and civic nationalism.

Key Words: Iran, national identity, nationalism, civic movements, protests, slogans

Publication Information

Volume 4, Issue 1 (2018)


As an active force with the ability to mobilize the masses of the population in different parts of the world, nationalism is a dominant form of cultural and political identity where people with shared characteristics have a mutual feeling of belonging to one nation, state, or homeland. However, I have always wondered what shared characteristics have contributed to the crafting of collective national identity among Iranians? What makes citizens feel belonging to one nation (if that is the case)? There is no consensual agreement regarding Iranian national identity; for instance, Persian Iranians living in the diaspora may choose to introduce themselves by ethnicity as Persian (thus distancing themselves from about forty percent of non-Persian Iranian citizens), or by the highly politicized national identity as Iranian that directly associates them with the recognized politics and ideologies of the state of the Islamic Republic all over the world.

Contemporary Iran has experienced the development of several distinctive discourses on the construction of national identity, especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In this paper, following Richard Handler (1988), I argue that the definition of national identity in Iran is composed of several elements informed by the interplay of politics, culture, and nationalism across contemporary Iranian history. I argue that Iranian identity cannot be reduced to the Persian Empire, which used to be promoted by the prerevolutionary monarchy, or to ethnicity, or religion (that is endorsed by the current religious leadership).

As Ernest Gellner (1983) states in Nation and Nationalism: “Nationalism has been defined, in effect, as the striving to make culture and polity congruent, to endow a culture with its own political roof, and not more, than one roof at that” (40). On this account, Iranian national identity has been shaped and reshaped, produced and reproduced, through modern history, not only by changing internal political powers but by external factors such as the long-term British colonization of the region, World Wars I and II, and post-Second World War American influence in Iran. Similarly, in Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec, Richard Handler (1988) argues that in Western Europe’s classical nation-states projects, “state-building bred national identity rather than simply following from it” (8).

Thus, in this paper I seek the central components of the national identity and the nation-building project “bred” (Handler 1988, 8) by the state of Islamic Republic. I investigate the political, social, and economic processes contributing to the doing/undoing of identity projects in Iran by discussing the 2009 presidential election, the Green Movement protests provoked afterward, and the slogans chanted during the demonstrations. I employ these slogans as the lenses through which one can analyze the nationalist ideologies and discourses in Iran.

Contextualizing my questions regarding the Iranian national identity project in the post-Islamic Revolution time period, specifically between 2009 and the present, I argue that the multiple civic movements during this period reflect the dominant nationalist discourses in Iran. In particular, I scrutinize the Iranian Green Movement, the political movement in the wake of the 2009 presidential election that criticized the election as fraudulent and called for the removal of President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office. I argue that the protests of this movement (lasting for several months in the form of silent demonstrations, social media campaigns, and so forth, despite being brutally suppressed by the state) expose the various obscure dimensions of contemporary nationalism in Iran. The Green Movement’s national identity discourses are revealing, due to its “general lack of defining and limiting parameters” and subsequent broad reach (Siavoshi 2014, 266). This movement also provides the opportunity to study the dichotomies between the definition of national identity presented by the state officials (and its followers), and the common people (mainly the opposition) in Iran.

Nicholas De Genova (2013), in the Spectacle of migrant illegality, defines the “border spectacle” as a scene of exclusion where the illegality of unwanted or undesirable migrants is rendered “spectacularly visible” (1180-1). In his view, the visible exclusionary characteristic of border policing reifies the inaccessible and invisible laws, illegalizing the migrant’s existence (2013). Although De Genova’s (2013) argument regarding migrants and immigration laws is broader than the focus of this paper, his approach toward borders is useful here when considering Iranian nationalism.

De Genova’s (2013) discussion of scenes that embody the abstract “exclusionary” attitudes of the states toward their citizens supports my examination of Iranian national identity. The massive participation in the 2009 presidential election, the candidates’ campaigns, the questionable results of the election, and the crisis that manifested in the subsequent Green Movement brought to the fore the enduring and heartily contested questions regarding Iranian national identity and its relation to the “form and function of the state that presides over it” (Siavoshi 2014, 253). Consequently, I suggest this election spectacle enacts a scene of both exclusion and inclusion within the Islamic Republic and makes the notion of national identity recognition among people visible.

Choosing the particular occasion of the 2009 elections and subsequent Green Movement as the scene, or “spectacle,” of this article was threefold. First, it was a national election, and consequently most people living in Iran were included simply by having citizenship. As a democratic country holding elections, every citizen has the right to vote; indicating their existence within the nation-state, and the state therefore must recognize the incorporation of citizens into the state’s formulations. Second, it was a presidential election which highlights that, as a national election and because the state of Iran is a Republic, the issues discussed during debates focused on national concerns. Indeed, the state was holding and monitoring the election; therefore, the state’s nationalist views were expressed before, during, and after the election. And third, the 2009 national elections encouraged unprecedented public participation in post-revolution Iran, with mainstream nationalist discussions emergent during the Green Movement protests in response to the state-imposed ideologies. Despite its aftermath, not only did the national mass media endeavor to represent the election as a “national epic” (or Hamas-e-Melli, in its Persian translation) but concurrently the authorities condemned and suppressed the outnumbered opposing groups both verbally and physically, labelling them as enemies of the state who were associated with Britain, Israel, and the United States.

Initially, I intended to focus on the candidate’s campaigns, debates, statements, and promises revolving around nationalism. However, while researching and reading the studies conducted on the 2009 election, I discovered a long list of more than forty different slogans shouted from both sides of the crisis against each other during the Green Movement. This engaged my attention in such a way that I changed my approach. I then started to create a typology of slogans by doing a close analysis of the words, metaphors, and the meanings embedded in them, to examine the various aspects of national identity projects operating in Iran, which resonated with the slogans.

To borrow from Eric J. Hobsbawm’s (1990) observation about nations and nationalism, Iran’s revolutionary ideology was “a dual phenomenon, constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless also analyzed from below, that is regarding the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings, and interests of ordinary people” (150). Therefore, a typology of slogans provides me with opportunities to analyze the Islamic Republic of Iran’s national discourses from “below,” as Hobsbawm (1990) argues is necessary to understand nationalism.

As Robert Denton (1980) argues, a slogan is “a rhetorical device” that can provide scholars, politicians, and even the general public “with topical outlines of the major concerns, frustrations, and hopes of society” (10). However, despite their potential to expose widespread concerns confronting people, there is a lack of scholarship on the nature of slogans, whether used in political campaigns or chanted during movements and demonstrations. The purpose of this paper is to recognize the capacities and attributes of slogans as they are used in the Iranian Green movements and campaigns.

In the following sections of this article, I categorize the slogans shouted during the Green Movement into three different groups: Anticolonial Nationalism (fear of foreign domination), religious nationalism, and civic nationalism. These categories enable a deep, precise understanding of the slogans’ contexts, forms, meanings, roots, and so forth. The structure of this paper will be organized via these categories. I argue that by examining the narrative of the 2009 Green Movement we can detect a new and different type of national identity in Iran: a plural identity of civic nationalism that includes all citizens and does not exclude based on ethnicity, gender, and political or religious beliefs.


I collected the slogans analyzed in this paper from newspapers, YouTube videos, online news agencies, and from direct ethnographic observation. I lived in Tehran at the time of the 2009 election and subsequent Green Movement and attended some of the demonstrations held by protesters after the election, in 2009 and 2010. I have translated most of the slogans from Persian to English myself, except for those I refer to by Dabashi (2011) and Michael Fischer (2010). I have also had my translations reviewed by two other Iranians fluent in Persian and English to confirm my interpretations.

In this article, I have scrutinized some of the slogans, such as “Takbir” or “Allah-o-Akbar,” by contextualizing them historically, socially and politically in contemporary Iran.  Furthermore, for the remaining chants, including “Mousavi, BBC, The British Agent,” I have examined the words and metaphors utilized by the protesters and situated them within the cultural context from which they stem. Thus, I have conducted a close survey of the words, metaphors, and the meanings embedded therein to highlight aspects of Iranian national identity imagery echoed by the slogans.

Contextual Background

Iran’s tenth presidential election was held on June 12, 2009, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent, was running against three candidates, including two public reformist figures, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi [1]. The election intensified when Mousavi, the Iranian reformist politician and the last Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic from 1981 to 1989, during the Iran-Iraq war, declared his candidacy. Mousavi came back to politics after twenty years of an almost total absence which was regarded as a manifestation of his disapproving attitude toward Ahmadinejad’s established regime.

During one of the pre-election debates about the National Television Broadcast, Mousavi stated that his reappearance in politics was with the aim of protesting against the prevalent corruption in the Ahmadinejad presidential period: “I am a revolutionary man and speaking here to protest the current situation […] They [the authority] have brought the country to the point, which is full of lies and hypocrisy!” (IRIB3 2009). He started acrimonious campaigns against Ahmadinejad and ultimately became the leader of the post-election unrest. His leadership was highly supported by Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran (from 1982-1992) and the leader of reformist campaigns since 1982 (Tait 2009a).

Under the leadership of Mousavi, reformists were united during the post-election unrest. The Iranian reformists (or Eslahtalaban in Persian) are a political group that generally supports former President Khatami’s ideas to reform the established Iranian political system in order to incorporate more freedom and democracy. Pro-reformists are also regularly called leftist (or chap, in Persian), or called the opposition among the elites. After the 2009 election most of the prominent reformists, including Khatami, were condemned as “spies” and “traitors” by the state and consequently were arrested, exiled or prohibited from political activities and appearing in mass media (Moaveni 2011).

The 2009 presidential election spectacle, in Hamid Dabashi’s (2011) words, was certainly an “unrivaled mobilization of the public throughout Iran” (13). It was anticipated by weeks of passionate campaigns, public gatherings, and debates; nationwide pre-election euphoria manifested in a dynamic life in the streets, spirited and vivacious, with a glimmer of hope for change through a peaceful democratic election. It was a historic moment for Iran, in which there was unity among all Iranian groups—various social, cultural, political and economic dichotomies and gaps among people were not at the fore. According to Dabashi (2011): “Voting turned into a national struggle for Iran, for its future, for our country, and not necessarily for an election held by the Islamic Republic” (10).  The day following the election, the Islamic Republic News Agency announced that Ahmadinejad had won the election with 63% of the votes cast (Al Jazeera 2009).

However, there were substantial inconsistencies in the results, which surprised people and led to protests with millions of Iranians in opposition to the declared victory of Ahmadinejad—a response that is now called the Iranian Green Movement (Tait, Black, and Tran 2009). Eventually, the post-election disappointment and suppression of the Green Movement followers, whose hopes were shattered in a night, not only exacerbated the pre-election political gaps within Iranian nationhood but alienated the majority of people from the state. It divided the nation into relative or insider (Khodi) and irrelative or outsider (Na-khodi) individuals, into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Thus, people turned against each other, especially after Ahmadinejad called the anti-Ahmadinejad rallies a gathering of “khas-o-khashak” which translates to “dirt and dust” (Islamic Republic of Iran Presidency 2009).

Subsequently, an impromptu slogan, later turned into a song, responded to the Ahmadinejad insult with the words: “Khas-o-khashak to’ie, Doshman-e in Khak to’ie” (meaning, “YOU are the dirt and the dust, YOU are the Enemy of this land!”), or by another frequently heard slogan: “Ma Khas-o-Khashak Nistim, Ma Mellat Iranim” (“We are not dirt and dust, we are Iran’s nation”) (Tait 2009c). The pre-election unity was bifurcated; the rhythm was broken. The offending words “khas-o-khashak” (dirt and dust) soon became a badge of pride for protesters. One of Iran’s most famous musicians, Mohammad Reza Shajjarian, asked the state broadcaster (IRIB) to refrain from broadcasting his songs: “because this is the voice of dirt and dust and will always remain so” (Schott 2009).

Demonstrators gathered to mourn the protesters murdered by Iran’s Basijis (pro-government militia) in several silent marches. One of the silent march protesters, interviewed with Telegraph (2009), described the scene as “the overwhelming sea of people in black standing there in silence.” Further, he said: “No matter how many of these one goes to, you just can’t get used to the sight of tens or hundreds of thousands of people walking or just standing there in silence” (quoted in McDowall and Freeman 2009). The silent marches were effective as a way of expressing a long-term silenced and suppressed citizenship, and a method of displaying the long-standing ignorance by the state toward their existence and belonging to the nation.

Anticolonial Nationalism (Fear of Foreign Domination)

Gellner (1983) defines Nationalism as “a theory of political legitimacy,” requiring that “the political, and the national unit should be congruent” (1). He analyzed nationalism from a historical viewpoint in which “cultural similarity as a basis for political legitimacy” was one of the central features of his theory (1983, 1). Gellner also argues that ethnic boundaries should not go beyond the political ones, particularly “ethnic boundaries within a given state should not separate the power-holders from the rest” (1983, 3).

In Iran, the protests of diversified groups of people after the presidential election in 2009 indeed cut across the political boundaries of the Islamic Republic. Mousavi, the main leader of the Green Movement, who has been placed under house arrest since February 2011, continuously began to question the election results and urged his supporters not to lose hope from the moment the results were released (See his statements in Mousavi 2012). He openly described Ahmadinejad’s government as illegitimate and promised that the protests would continue until the state repeals the election results, stating that: “A majority of the people, including me, do not accept (the government’s) political legitimacy” (Mousavi 2012, 32). He continued, in his first statement published the day after the election, June 2009, that: “it is our historical responsibility to continue our protests and not to abandon our efforts to preserve the nation’s rights. A ruling system that relied on people’s trust for 30 years cannot replace this with security forces overnight” (Mousavi 2012, 32). The Green Movement, therefore, located nationalism and national political legitimacy amongst the people rather than the state.

As a result, soon after the election the state began to denounce the Green Movement, Mousavi, Karroubi, and all their supporters by several means including false accusations. The Green movement was positioned by the state as threatening to the Islamic Republic’s thirty years of nation-building. The slogans: “Mousavi, BBC, Amel-e-Engilisi” (which translates to “Mousavi, BBC, The British Agent,”), and “Karoubi-e-Bisavad, Amel-e-Dast-e-Mossad” (or “The illiterate Karoubi, The Mossad Agent” in English) (Borna news n.d.), as well as other more traditional slogans, such as “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” and “Death to Britain,” were among many that arose in the rallies held by the pro-government demonstrators. They mostly started to emerge when Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the influential conservative and pro-state newspaper Kayhan, blatantly accused Mousavi of being an “American Agent,” by writing that “We have to ask whether the actions of  Mousavi and his supporters are in response to instructions of American authorities” (Tait 2009b). Shariatmadari wrote: “Documents and undeniable evidence show that this mission was directed from the outside” (Tait 2009b). He then went further and asked for a “public trial” for Mousavi and other pro-reform public figures such as the former president, Khatami (Tait 2009b).

The accusation appeared to be part of the regime’s strategy of depicting the demonstrations as arranged by foreign governments. It was part of an old political practice of illegalizing the unwanted and oppositional citizens in the Islamic Republic after the 1979 Revolution. To reinforce the practice, the state also charged one of the Iranian employees of the British embassy with “acting against national security,” a catch-all accusation leveled against not only political activists, but also lay people who participated in the Green Movement marches. This banal performance in the Islamic Republic, through which the state convicts the opposition of treason, first reflected the post-revolution construction of the homogeneous and essentialist evil of the “other,” that is, the United States/Britain/the West. Moreover, this was echoed with the continuous Iranian struggle for independence in contemporary history. Unexpectedly, this approach was not limited to the government. Studying the Green Movement slogans demonstrates how the anticolonial/anti-foreigner attitudes of the Islamic Republic state were extended in their application to the oppositional groups and the nation as well.

On July 17, 2009, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1934-2017), former president of Iran who supported the opposition, led the Friday Prayer, called Jumu’ah, in Tehran. Jumu’ah in Iran is a state-supported event, in which The Imam, who leads Jumu’ah and preaches (politically) during the event, would be assigned by the Supreme Leader. Additionally, organizers of Jumu’ah usually ask participants to shout ideological chants (i.e., “death to America,” or “death to Hypocrite”) after the prayer. Therefore, normally people attending Jumu’ah are pro-government, and most of the opposition (even those who are religious) is reluctant to participate. However, as Hashemi was chosen to lead this particular Jumu’ah, lots of protesters attended the event and turned it into a scene of legal demonstration.

They replied to the calls for “Death to America!” by chanting “Death to Russia!” (Balatarin 2009). This new chant seemed to be a reaction to the fact that the Russian government quickly accepted the results of the June 12, 2009 presidential election and welcomed Mr. Ahmadinejad in Moscow days later, even though Iran’s streets were filled with protesters (Mackey 2009). Demonstrators also believed that the militants, who were suppressing the protesters brutally in the streets, were either Russian or at least trained in Russia. In this respect, Karoubi, in his statement declared in September 2009, alluded to the role of the militants trained by the “Northern neighbor [Russia]” (BBC Persian 2009a), who learned how to control the protesters by terrorizing them.

Whether or not Russia, Britain, or United States really interfered in the 2009 election aftermath, the fact that both sides of the conflict blamed foreigners for domestic issues was remarkable. Poopak Ta’ati (1988), in her comprehensive article Concern for Autonomy in Twentieth-Century Iran, argues that in the last century one of the major concerns within the Iranian society has been for political and social autonomy (22). Ta’ati (1988) argues that this concern has become central to the imagery of Iranian National Identity. Most of the significant political and social events of twentieth-century Iran, such as the Tobacco Movement against British Colonization (1890-1892), the Constitutional movement which was finally suppressed by Russia (1905-1906), the Oil nationalization movement (1950-1953), and the Islamic Revolution (1978-1979), were fueled by anti-American aspirations (26-46).

Ta’ati’s (1988) reading of history elucidates the depth of this Iranian National concern for autonomy and provides supporting evidence that shouting anti-colonial slogans on both sides of the Green Movement was not an accident, and nor was it a mere imposition of people such as Shariatmadari or Karoubi. The nation was already inclined to relate domestic issues to the foreigners. The “fear of domination,” as Dabashi (2016, 152) articulates, has contributed to the Iranian national identity project. Secular nationalism did, and of course is, of paramount importance to the Middle East in the middle of the twentieth century, but all the forms of nationalism eventually failed to produce liberation from foreign domination. Nationalistic resentment of foreign domination also fueled the major Islamist movements of the last century, including the 1979 revolution in Iran. In this case, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-imperialist ideology combined with a socialist one and effectively evoked people’s national sentiments through religious discourses.

Religious Nationalism

Takbir” or “Allah-o-Akbar” (meaning, God is the greatest), is an Islamic religious chant, and was one of the most prominent slogans shouted from the rooftops every night during 1979 revolution, which provoked severe reactions by the state at that time. According to Roxanne Varzi (2011), Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution leader, “led a disparate group of Marxists, feminists, socialists, radical Islamists, secular students, and everyday citizens into one cry: ‘Allah-o-Akbar’” (59), to fight against social injustice and “overcome foreign domination concurrently” (Ta’ati 1988, 47). The slogan “Allah-o-Akbar” was not necessarily intended for returning to Islam, or establishing an Islamic state; on the contrary, it was more related to the nationalistic goals (Aghaie 2014; Ta’ati 1988, 61).

Kamran Scot Aghaie (2014) emphasizes the significance of the approach of religious movements which are also considered “National Movements” and in some cases like Iran are even “Nationalistic Movements” (182). By comparing different theoretical approaches, he proposes “Religious Nationalism” as the best approach for studying the relationship between religion and nationalism, in which religion is neither external to nationalism nor an ethnic signifier (Aghaie 2014, 184). Thus, during the Islamic Revolution, religious nationalism can be understood as having offered a “viable alternative” to achieving social and political autonomy and demanding “civil justice” (Ta’ati 1988, 21). It was the incorporation of post-colonial theories with a strong sense of “national belonging” (Varzi 2011, 61).

In June 2009, these night-time outcries of “Allah-o-Akbar” returned in the aftermath of the election and lasted for several months. In line with the arguments above, the rooftop chanting of “Allah-o-Akbar” can be understood as more profound than merely recalling the 1979 revolution or even asking for God’s help. It was retrieving the Islamic (and Shia) words and gestures as an acceptable tactic of protest. Using this tactic, on the one hand, questioned the legitimacy of the state and, on the other hand, pushed the government to recognize the protestors as legitimate citizens rather than unauthorized and ever silent people, merely living in Iran. Also, by combining anti-government sentiments with Islamic slogans, as Elisabeth Jane Yarbakhsh (2014) explains: “some limits were placed on the ability of the sovereign to exercise its right to violence against the protesters” (22). Moreover, this slogan played an integral role as a medium of encouragement, heartening people to maintain their protests by connecting citizens in the most distanced corners of the nation. The imagined solidarity among protesters was converted into an obvious manifestation in the form of chanting. However, “Takbir” was not the only religious chants heard in the protests.

On December 27, 2009, the day of Ashura that marks the climax of the Remembrance of Muharram,Mousavi led the most massive demonstration since June 2009 in Tehran. Over the centuries, every year on the day of Ashura, Shia Muslims commemorate the death of Hossein ibn Ali (Imam Hossein), the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Imam Hossein refused to make alliance with Yazid, the tyrant of time, and concede him as the new caliph of Islam, so he was brutally killed by the order of Yazid, at the Battle of Karbala on 10th of Muharram in the year 61 AH.

Consequently, the demonstration’s importance was twofold. First, the state suppressed the demonstration with considerable violence. According to the official government reports, four people died that day, including the nephew of Mousavi who was killed in a drive-by shooting outside his home in Tehran (Fischer 2010, 508). Furthermore, the protesters combined the anti-government slogans with the Muharram’s chants and created newer ones: “Mah, mah-e khun ast, Seyyid Ali sar negun ast” (It’s the month, the month of blood, Seyyed Ali—Khamenei—will be toppled) (BBC Persian 2009b). In this newer version Yazid, the symbol of tyranny, was replaced by Ali, meaning Seyyed Ali Khamenei resembles Yazid.

Likewise, in other examples of these distorted slogans, people continuously made us of older chants by replacing Imam Hossein with Mir-Hossein (the Green Movement Leader) and Yazid with Ali (Khamenei), otherwise they simply made impromptu slogans. These slogans mostly related to the concept of the battle of Karbala, as the protesters that I heard shouted: “We are not from the city of Kufa,” We are not followers of Yazid” or “O Hossein, Mir-Hossein.” In all these chants, the government (Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, as well as the gangs of young men who policed the streets from the back of motorbikes with batons and chains) was “conceptualized as Yazid the arch-tyrant of Karbala,” and pro-government demonstrators were likened to the people of Kufa who betrayed Imam Hossein (Fischer 2010, 508).

Kufa is the city in which Imam Hossein grew up, and before the battle of Karbala, its citizens wrote a letter to Imam Hossein and invited him to their city so that they would make an alliance with him to fight in the battle of Karbala against Yazid’s army. However, they refused to help him in the very last minute and led him to go confront Yazid with an army of about a hundred soldiers. These politicized slogans, chanted during Ashura 2009, as well as the religious concept of martyrdom (Shahadat, in Persian), situated the protests within the paradigm of Karbala, including Ashura; the concept of martyrdom, and the resistance of Imam Hossein against the oppression, comprises another pivotal component of Shia identity which has been an integral part of the Iranian National identity.

Elizabeth Yarbakhsh (2014) believes that the Iranian historical experience resonates with the Marxian claim; she claims that during revolutionary periods, people invoke “the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language” (77). Accordingly, before the Islamic Revolution, the reconstructed and revolutionary version of the “Ashura narrative” alongside “Allah-o-Akbar” mobilized disparate groups into a mass movement against “entrenched tyranny” (Ram 1996, 82). Indeed, recalling the “Karbala paradigm” was of paramount importance to the Iranian National Identity project, as it empowered people to reject imposed “Persianized” citizenship of Shah for an alternative (Ram 1996, 70). This other citizenship was mainly based on newly (re)imagined Shia identity, a “vaguely defined but highly emotive alternative configuration of citizenship and nationality” (Yarbakhsh 2014, 79).

Moreover, Fischer (2010) illuminates how the “Karbala Paradigm” was a vehicle to incorporate “morality and social justice as the goals of politics” during the revolution (504). He maintains that the usage of this paradigm has gradually shifted toward the “secular” opposition in Iran to re-claim both “politics” and “morality” against the Islamic Republic state’s “monopoly” over the “interpretation of Islam” and “martyrdom” (2010, 502). The figure of the “Martyr,” who has an unquestionable significance within Iranian national myth-making, and the concept of the “Martyr Culture” which has been produced and reproduced in the Islamic Republic, has created and preserved a strong “Islamic public sphere” and nation-state in recent decades (Varzi 2011, 61; Yarbakhsh 2014, 78).

Politicians like Ahmadinejad, for instance, emphasize the conception of martyrdom and associate themselves with the history of “martyrolog[y]” (Yarbakhsh 2014, 78) and justice in Islam and Iran, thereby cleansing and legitimizing their states. The origins of this history can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq war, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and to the very earliest periods of Islam. This religious paradigm notably played a vital role in the 2009 Green Movement when a young woman, Neda, died during a protest. She then became a symbol of strong national identity among protesters that were both democratic and Islamic: “Koshteh Nadadim ke Sazesh konim, Sandogh-e-Dast khordeh Shomaresh Konim” (We did not make martyr to compromise, to count the rigged ballot box).

Yarbakhsh (2014) contends that if you want to promote the culture of martyrdom successfully, there must necessarily be a “martyrological confrontation,” meaning that there must be an “absolute” evil fighting the martyr (78). The audience of the martyrdom narrative would then resent this evil and appreciate the oppressed opposition. As in the aftermath of the 2009 election, the Green Movement developed the paradigm of Karbala to position itself as “Mazloum” (meaning oppressed) against the (evil) state.

Thus, the Iranian government lost its “monopoly control” over martyrdom (Dabashi 2011, 15). The absolute evil in the state’s narrative of Ashura used to be “the West,” but the protesters who were forcing the state to acknowledge them as legitimate Shia citizens changed this association, using religious slogans and insisting the Green Movement martyrs against the absolute evil of the state (Yarbakhsh 2014, 85). As a result, the state’s use of violence in the face of peaceful religious-like protests ultimately delegitimized the state of Islamic Republic. The state was stripped of its postcolonial, feminist, antiracist, and spiritual qualities the moment Neda Soltani became the “martyr” of a new call for change (Varzi 2011, 62).

Civic Nationalism

The difference between the word for poem and the word for slogan in Persian is just one letter—in Persian, poem is “She’r”)  ش ع ر) and slogan is  “Sho’ar” ( ش ع ا ر ). Both have similar rhythmical structure and the same Arabic root. Both are usually metaphorical, and typically arouse emotions; however, not all poems become slogans. Select poems, transformed into slogans, become capable of mobilizing groups of people by expressing their ideas and purposes. One of the few poems that transcended its limits, as a song, and became a slogan is “Yar-e-Dabestani-e-Man” (translating to “My Schoolmate”), and this slogan first gained enormous popularity among students during the Presidential election campaigns of 1997.

This election was the commencement of the Reformist movements in Iran, led by the former president Khatami who was the most famous public figure of reformists then, and one of the opposition leaders of the 2009 Green Movement. The song was first published in the sociopolitical movie From screaming to assassination (1981), and has been continuously sung by Green Movement protesters as not only a kind of chanting (Kaviani 2008), but also a way of manifesting their identity, intentions, and approaches:

My schoolmate

You’re with me and going along with me 

The alphabet stick is above our heads

You’re my spite and my woe

Our names have been carved

On the body of this blackboard

The stick of injustice and tyranny

Still remains on our body

This uncivilized plain of ours

Is covered with weeds

Good, if good

Bad, if bad

Dead is the hearts of its people

My hand and yours

Should tear up these curtains

Who can, except you and I

Cure our pain?

First, the song is not patriotic in traditional ways of describing the beauties of the country, encouraging defense, or mentioning the honor of being Iranian. It is ostensibly referring to the flaws of the nation as “uncivilized” and “covered with weeds,” rather than praising the land for its magnificence and imaginary virtues and suggesting that we have to save it from the evil enemy, which is a typical theme expressed in most (un)official national anthems. Instead, this song is more realistic and futuristic. The futuristic aspect of the song is the second theme embedded in the song, which inspires people to be active and steer their uncivilized homeland, instead of being passive. As it states: “My hand and yours / Should tear up these curtains / Who can, except you and I / Cure our pain?”

It raises hope for change in the future among people by expressing social solidarity to cure national pains. Moreover, there is not any good/evil binary or identifiable enemy, with hostile intentions toward the nation, in this song. It does not represent exclusionary attitudes toward the audience; rather it invites all citizens (or the “schoolmates”) to participate in a civil movement. It therefore accounts for a plural identity.

Furthermore, the song “My Schoolmate” depicts Iranian nation not merely as a socially constructed community, just imagined by the people who perceive themselves to be part of a group and accustomed to “banal nationalism” (Anderson 1983; Billig 1995). On the contrary, national identity is understood as practical, in the real world, so that Iranian Nationalism would not be, as Daniel Segal and Richard Handler (1992) argue, “a fixed thing, but something invented and reinvented by social actors and something social actors might invent differently now or in the future” (3).

In this case, by examining the Green Movement’s songs and slogans, the new Iranian national identity project of the protesters was one of pragmatic, civic nationalism. In this regard, Dabashi (2011) noticed that the Green Movement goals were essentially “a manifestation of the celebration of life” in contrast with the larger-than ideals of the Revolution (15). “Where is my vote?” was the movement’s civic motto, highlighting how the protesters believed in ballot boxes as a “viable means of showing protest without risking their lives,” and how the Green Movement did not want to provoke another revolution (Dabashi 2011, 58).

The Green Movement implicitly defined new aspects for Iranian civic identity, such as inclusiveness and hope. This is represented in the narrative of Mousavi which extended inclusiveness even to those who attacked the protesters. In his twelfth statement after the election, he stated: “our victory is not the one in which someone should be defeated. We should all be triumphant together, even though some perceive it later” (Mousavi 2012, 50).

To make my argument that the Iranian national identity is surpassing the bounds of ethnic, cultural, and/or religious nationalism, and thus seeking civic nationalism, I am thinking with Sussan Siavoshi’s (2014) concept of “dualistic ethnic/cultural vs. civic Nationalism” to analyze “National Identity” (253). Siavoshi (2014) explains that “Civic Nationalism” can be blind to the characteristics such as race, religion, and ethnicity and thus can be more inclusive, universalistic, and liberal (254). On the other hand, ethnic and/or cultural Nationalism is based on a particularistic, illiberal, and therefore exclusive nationhood (2014, 254).

Natarsid, Natarsid, Ma hameh Ba ham Hastim” (Do not Fear, Do not Fear, We are all together) was one of the chants I frequently heard during the protest demonstrations, in which traditional stratifications in terms of age, social class, gender, or religiosity waned among the participants. The Iranian Green Movement, therefore, can be understood as inclusive, incorporating a variety of political and social groups “without being reduced to any of them” (Dabashi 2011, 11). The movement sought a political power structure that would encompass the desires, ideals, and demands of the “whole nation” (Dabashi 2011, 11). The Green Movement emphasized the importance of democracy and plurality as well as “a vibrant public sphere,” and approached the conception of the nation from political dimensions such as citizenship, constitutionalism, and democratic rules (Dabashi 2011, 11).

Furthermore, “Omid Bazr-e-Hoviat-e-Mast” (Hope is the seed of our identity) is one of the other main slogans, still used in reformists’ campaigns. This motto was part of the ninth statement declared by Mir-Hossein Mousavi: “I am particularly telling the youth that if you want to remain Iranian, protect the flame of hope in your hearth, because hope is the seed of our identity” (Mousavi 2012, 39). The Green Movement illustrated civic nationhood which was a political identity built on shared citizenship rather than Islamic and/or Persian characteristics.


In this article I demonstrate how the Green movement’s narrative and slogans reflect a different kind of formation of national identity in Iran, that of a plural identity which allows for the inclusion of more citizens. I examined the central components of the nation-building project produced by the state of Islamic Republic, investigating the political, social, and economic processes contributing to the doing/undoing of identity projects; specifically, by using the 2009 election and its slogans as the lenses through which  I analyze the nationalist ideologies and discourses in Iran. The significance of these election slogans are contextualized within the post-Islamic Revolution time period and specified to the slogans shouted during Green Movement demonstrations.

Ultimately, I argue that one could identify significant components of Iranian National Identity by placing the slogans under scrutiny. To demonstrate this I typify and deconstructed three different categories of the slogans which include: Anticolonial Nationalism (fear of foreign domination), religious nationalism, and civic nationalism. These types are indeed revealing, yet further research may uncover other components contributing to the Iranian nation building project.


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End Notes

[1] Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were the political leaders of the 2009 Green Movement. Both have been under house arrest since February 2011.

A Critique of the ‘Paleo Diet’: broader implications of a socio-cultural food practice

by Ashley Reeves
Undergraduate Student | University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada


Relatively little has been written about the social, economic and political dynamics and relationships that are engendered through Paleo culture. Examining the tensions within and between the ‘Paleo Diet’ principles and practices reveals the application of a technical solution to a structural problem: power dynamics created at an individual and group level by the Paleo culture reveals an emergent food classism rooted in socio-economic and racialized inequalities. Participation in and adherence to the Paleo lifestyle (or the inability to do so) creates particular types of social subjects and subjectivities based on the the implicit moralization of food and consumption practices. While the Paleo Diet reflects millenarian apprehensions about the state of the contemporary world and concerns with global food quality and food insecurity, it is dependent on and exacerbates the socio-economic dynamics and marginalizing practices of a global food regime that it seeks to critique and abandon.

Key words: Paleo Diet, food inequity, biopolitics, food morality, marginalized consumption

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)

In 2002, The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain was published, becoming a bestseller and the basis of a popular North American health and fitness movement. Based on gastroenterology research first conducted by Walter Voegtlin in the 1970s and developed further by the pivotal work of Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner in the 1980s, the Paleo Diet (or ‘Caveman’ diet) promotes an idealized diet based on the nutritional superiority of anatomically modern humans during the Palaeolithic era.[1] Since the popularization of the Paleo Diet, there have been numerous blogs, cookbooks, celebrity advocates as well as scholarly articles written, debating the merits and benefits of this nutritional program and its ability to combat the diseases of civilization.[2] However, relatively little has been written about the social, economic and political dynamics and relationships that are engendered through Paleo culture. Examining the tensions within and between the ‘Paleo Diet’ principles and practices reveals the application of a technical solution to a structural problem; power dynamics created at an individual and group level by the Paleo culture reveals an emergent food classism rooted in socio-economic and racialized inequalities. Participation in and adherence to the Paleo lifestyle (or the inability to do so) creates particular types of social subjects and subjectivities based on the implicit moralization of food and consumption practices. While the Paleo Diet reflects millenarian apprehensions about the state of the contemporary world and concerns with global food quality and food insecurity, it is dependent on and exacerbates the socio-economic dynamics and marginalizing practices of a global food regime that it seeks to critique and abandon.

The premise of the ‘Paleo Diet’ culture is that the rise of human obesity, disease and malnutrition are the results of the agricultural revolution and Western, industrialized consumptive patterns (Eaton and Konner 1985). The Paleo Diet promotes lean meat and animal product consumption (such as grass-fed meats, eggs, fish and seafood), fresh non-starchy vegetables and fruit (including nuts and seeds), as well as “healthful oils” (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut); while discouraging cultivated grains such as wheat, rice and corn, legumes, dairy products, refined sugar, potatoes, vegetable oils, salt, and other industrialized processed foods (Cordain 2015). According to the evolutionary discordance hypothesis, “the profound environmental changes (e.g., [sic] in diet and other lifestyle conditions) that began with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry 10 000 y ago occurred too recently on an evolutionary time scale for the human genome to adapt” (Cordain et al. 2005:341). Experts cite this genetic adaptive lag coupled with the rapid industrialization in the last century as being responsible for the “so-called diseases of civilization” and they call for all people to return to a Palaeolithic, or pre-agricultural diet in order to improve their health and well-being (Cordain et al. 2005:341). Western consumption and cultural food practices, with a heavy emphasis on processed, high sodium, high fat foods, are out of sync with the biological realities of anatomically modern humans.

Since the 1990s, public discourse on the assumed correlation between physical health, well-being (whether physiological, mental, or emotional) and food has grown and is most salient in debates surrounding obesity (Greenhalgh 2012). Framed as an ‘epidemic’, the North American obsession with being fat has tied the traditional idea of being overweight as an implicit moral failure, to the medicalized paradigm of “the now-routine definition of excess weight as a disease” (Greenhalgh 2012:471). Within this ideology, the complex socio-economic issue of obesity is reduced to a biopolitical problem deserving of a technical solution. Fatness is articulated by Paleo culture as a disease that is cured by changing the diet; it is seen as being a controllable on an individual level, and the inability to curb fatness is an implicit moral failure. The disambiguation between morality, health and biopolitics has led to “moral pronouncements about consumption [that] are inevitable, but…are not arbitrary; on the contrary, they are highly patterned, and they have a social and historical context” (Wilks 2001:250; Greenhalgh 2012). The tenets of the ‘Paleo Diet’ are substantiated by the turn to a biopolitical rationalization of human existence, which fails to address broader structural issues of economic inequality and food insecurity, and erases the link between obesity and the decline in access to nutritious, quality food for marginalized populations (Greenhalgh 2012; Delaney and McCarthy 2014).

The moralizing dichotomy of healthy/good versus unhealthy/bad embedded in the ethos of the Paleo lifestyle can be seen as reductive and problematic. The Paleo ideology is a contemporary cultural construct that utilizes an adaptationist imaginary to reify the distant past. What Paleo culture attempts to capture is “the American utopia vision [which] posits a time of self-sufficient people who were satisfied with what they had” (Wilk 2001:248). Bolstered by the authority of Western science, Paleo culture creates a “consumption space” that uses the biopolitical paradigm of optimization to “fabricate an aura of authenticity” (Zukin 2008:736). Moreover, in forging links between health, morality and consumptive practices, Paleo culture is able to “affect the self-definition of others…motivating their consumption [and]…affect[ing] who and what they think they are” (Mintz 2009:214). The normative, Western emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence discourages inclusion of those who rely on and are embedded in extended support networks to access food and other resources. By objectifying the individual to create Paleo subjects, Paleo culture objectifies the relation between the body and self by “the sheer fact of being alive in natural history or biology,” which it accomplishes through the medicalization of the body (Foucault 1982:777). Through the prescription of “dividing practices”, food is transformed into a type of moralizing and divisive power that can be exercised over the individual (Foucault 1982:777-8). Certain foods (and therefore people) that are deemed ‘good’, ‘healthy’, or ‘natural’ should be consumed while others that are considered ‘bad’, ‘unhealthy’, or ‘processed’ are best avoided.

Paleo culture also inadvertently bolsters a particular set of cultural capital that stems from the moralized, health paradigm that produces an emergent food classism along ethno-racial lines (Lamont and Fournier 1992). Like many alternative food discourses, “privileged perspectives tend to be normalized…despite the structural inequalities making it difficult for marginalized groups to eat with maximum efficiency, healthfulness, deliciousness and distinction” (Johnston et al. 2011:296). The Paleo Diet reduces food consumption to a nutritional cost/benefit dichotomy that obfuscates social, economic and historical constraints that shape contemporary eating practices (Johnston 2011).[3] Through the medicalization of nutrition and the power of cultural capital, Paleo culture produces divisive practices that are effectively colourblind to the ubiquitousness of white privilege, assuming a universalist appeal which does not account for the fact that food quality and security are largely mediated by economic viability, knowledge and resource acquisition determined by ethno-racial identity (Guthman 2008). The Paleo culture’s focus on gourmet ingredients, such as coconut oil, and time-consuming preparation effectively “distribute[s] healthy diets to affluent [white] consumers, and highly processed high calorie foods for poorer [brown and black] populations” (McMichael 2009:159). Low income and racialized others are alienated from developing or accruing a form of cultural capital that as an alternative practice, theoretically aims to shift how all people eat (Slocum 2006). While Paleo culture advocates authentic, ‘from the ground’ food consumption, in reality it ignores the socio-economic inequalities that shape the participant demographic.

Paleo culture garners its legitimacy not only from health discourses and an appeal to a romanticized past, but also from the growing popularity of alternative food practices. Despite its populist rhetoric, Paleo does not appear to advocate explicitly for alternative food movements, but benefits from “public discourse [that] has raised questions about our ability to continue to transport food, or its components, across the world” (McMichael 2009:139). With its temporally remote historical narrative, Paleo culture resists being situated within its contemporary global, geopolitical and economic context. Unlike other alternate food movements that emphasize local production or subsistence agriculture, the Paleo Diet’s consumptive mandates rely on the current global food system and agricultural practices that are responsible for the growth and proliferation of processed foods. “[P]aleo advocates don’t just want us to cut down on processed carbs and grains, they’re dedicated to a selective denial of modernity,” including a selective denial of modern international trade and agricultural relationships that allow for the mass production of vegetables, fruit and meat, as well as the ability to transport them around the world at the expense of the environment, food quality and food security (Wilson 2015). Corporations such as Whole Foods appeal to affluent consumers of fresh and gourmet products, appropriating the momentum of alternative food movements and principles to reproduce relations of inequality locally by catering to those who can afford to pay as opposed to advocating for equitable access to quality food, as well as globally by instituting principles of mass agricultural production through “green capitalism” (Friedmann 2005:229). This is accomplished primarily through global regulatory institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which perpetuate relationships of economic dependence and trade inequality between the global north and global south (McMichael 2009; Freedman 2005). By focusing on a narrow discourse of food that concerns itself primarily with the technical aspects of nutrition, Paleo culture fetishizes foods as ahistorical commodities, erases the geopolitical relationships and dynamics between producers and consumers, and implicitly corroborates institutionalized agro-politics that enact global policy which detrimentally affects the agency of nations, communities and people. An example of what Foucault (1982) terms an ‘immediate struggle’, Paleo culture critiques individual consumption that prioritizes fast and convenient food over nutrition and quality, but fails to recognize that one of the “chief enemies” of health and well-being is rampant global food inequity caused by the domination of neoliberal capitalist agricultural production that enables its existence (p. 780). From this analytical perspective, the ‘Paleo Diet’ is not “a postmodern retreat into locality, anti-urbanism and neo-populist nostalgia” but rather a pattern of consumption that is hinged on capitalist exchange-value relations and embedded in neoliberal agricultural practices (Araghi 2003:51; McMichael 2009:155). Paleo culture’s fear of the diseases of civilization are starkly juxtaposed by emerging diseases of affluence which capitalize on the moralization of food and the body in its principles, but is morally bankrupt in its practices.

A broader millenarian concern about the state of a world dominated by hunger, war and environmental destruction; the use of monocultures and GMO’s, fertilizers and pesticides; outbreaks of food-borne illness; and rising obesity rates have generated global uncertainties. The Paleo Diet and its populist, Western cultural following interpolates obesity and the problems of contemporary, global food systems as a technical, nutritional issue instead of a structural, socio-economic problem. Drawing authority from adaptationist theory and universalizing narratives of a distant, arbitrary and reified point in human history, Paleo culture is revealed as a performative and divisive practice. Articulated within the biopolitical paradigm, it isolates and reduces diseases of civilization to an ontological incompatibility between anatomically modern humans and the increasingly processed and nutritionally devalued foods following the agricultural revolution. Paleo culture divides and creates biopolitical subjects who are imbued with the moralized (or demonized) characteristics of the food they consume, reinterpreted through narratives of health and disease, and rooted in class and racialized identities that determine who is (or is not) able to acquire the knowledge, resources and cultural capital required to participate. At the same time, public discourse has given birth to alternative food movements which call into question global food quality, safety and agricultural practices. The fresh fruit, vegetables and meat that the ‘Paleo Diet’ requires ignores the exploitation of the environment, communities and nations. It objectifies and transforms relationships between producers and consumers into commodities of foodstuffs that are divorced from their own history and repackaged in the romanticized caricature of the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer. Despite its universal rhetoric, Paleo culture engenders forms of neoliberal food classism that appeal to affluent groups, who often possess privileged and nuanced cultural capital, while recreating a marginalized, racialized divide that characterizes consumption practices as symbolic distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eaters. The point of mapping these trajectories has not been to denounce or endorse the Paleo Diet as a nutritional blueprint. The scientific merits of Palaeolithic nutrition have been debated at length and are beyond the scope of this paper. However, through this essay I have attempted to highlight that some of the socio-economic and political ‘work’ and relationships that Paleo culture engenders is important, far-reaching and worthy of closer attention. By unpacking the social, economic and political relationships embedded in the Paleo Diet, masked tensions are highlighted between its ideological principles and the consequences that result from the complicit actions of its practices.

Works Cited

Araghi, Farshad. 2003. “Food Regimes and the Production of Value: Some Methodological Issues.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 30(2):41–70.

Cordain, Loren. 2015.“What to Eat on the Paleo Diet.” The Paleo Diet, LLC.

—–. 2002. The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

Cordain, Loren, S. Boyd EatonAnthony SebastianNeil MannStaffan LindebergBruce A. WatkinsJames H O’Keefe, and Janette Brand-Miller. 2005.“Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81(2):341-354.

Delaney, Mary, and Mary B. McCarthy. 2014.“Saints, Sinners and Non-Believers: The Moral Space of Food. A Qualitative Exploration of Beliefs and Perspectives on Healthy Eating of Irish Adults Aged 50-70.” Appetite 73:105–113.

Eaton, S. Boyd, and Melvin Konner. 1985.“Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications.” The New England Journal of Medicine 312(5):283–289.

Foucault, Michel. 1982.“The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8(4):777-795.

Friedmann, Harriet. 2005.“From Colonialism to Green Capitalism: Social Movements and Emergence of Food Regimes.” New Directions in the Sociology of Global Development 11:227–264.

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2012.“Weighty Subjects: The Biopolitics of the U.S. War on Fat.” American Ethnologist 39(3):471–487.

Guthman, Julie. 2008.“‘If They Only Knew’: Colour Blindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions.” The Professional Geographer 60(3):387–397.

Johnston, J., M. Szabo, and A. Rodney. 2011.“Good Food, Good People: Understanding the Cultural Repertoire of Ethical Eating.” Journal of Consumer Culture 11(3):293–318.

McMichael, Philip. 2009.“A Food Regime Genealogy.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 36(1):139–169.

Mintz, Sidney. 2009.“Notes toward a Cultural Construction of Modern Foods.” Social Anthropology 17(2):209–216.

Slocum, Rachel. 2007.“Whiteness, Space and Alternative Food Practice.” Geoforum 38(3):520–533.

Wilk, Richard. 2001.“Consuming Morality.” Journal of Consumer Culture 1(2):245–260.

Voegtlin, Walter. 1975. The Stone Age Diet : Based on in-Depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man. New York: Vantage Press.

Zukin, Sharon. 2008.“Consuming Authenticity.” Cultural Studies 22(5):724–748.

End Notes

[1]. Eaton, S. Boyd, and Melvin Konner (1985) Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications. The New England Journal of Medicine, 312(5): 283–289 and Voegtlin, Walter (1975) The Stone Age Diet : Based on in-Depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man. New York: Vantage Press.

[2]. Any Google query for “Paleo Diet” will return several hundred hits for blogs, cookbooks and various sites detailing the benefits and drawbacks of the food practice. For a small sampling of academic articles, see: Cachel, S. (1997), “Dietary Shifts and the European Upper Palaeolithic Transition,” Current Anthropology 38(4):579–603; Cordain, Loren, et al. (2005), “Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81(341-354); Eaton, S. Boyd (2006), “The Ancestral Human Diet: What Was It and Should It Be a Paradigm for Contemporary Nutrition?”, The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 65(1):1–6; Garn, S. M. and W. R. Leonard (1989), “What Did Our Ancestors Eat?”, Nutrition Reviews 47(11):337–345; Kuipers, Remko S., Josephine C. A. Joordens, and Frits A. J. Muskiet (2012), “A Multidisciplinary Reconstruction of Palaeolithic Nutrition That Holds Promise for the Prevention and Treatment of Diseases of Civilisation,” Nutrition Research Reviews 25:96–129; Laland, Kevin N. and Gillian R. Brown (2006), “Niche Construction, Human Behavior, and the Adaptive-Lag Hypothesis,” Evolutionary Anthropology 15(3):95–104; Ströhle, Alexander and Andreas Hahn (2011), “Diets of Modern Hunter-Gatherers Vary Substantially in Their Carbohydrate Content Depending on Ecoenvironments: Results from an Ethnographic Analysis,” Nutrition Research 31(6) Elsevier Inc.: 429–435; Turner, Bethany L. and Amanda L. Thompson (2013), “Beyond the Paleolithic Prescription: Incorporating Diversity and Flexibility in the Study of Human Diet Evolution,” Nutrition Reviews 71(8):501–510.

[3]. This is a real issue that is not readily discussed in academic circles which overwhelmingly debate the nutritional pros/cons of the Paleo diet and signalling theory where the expense of participating in fad health plans may have some evolutionary benefit of signalling access to resources for displaying health genes (for example see: Bliege Bird, Rebecca. and Eric Alden Smith (2005), “Signalling Theory, Strategic Interaction and Symbolic Capital,” Current Anthropology 46:221-248; Bliege Bird, Rebecca, Eric Alden Smith, and Douglas W. Bird (2001), “The Hunting Handicap: Costly Signalling in Human Foraging Societies,” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 50:9–19; Smith, Eric Alden, Rebecca Bliege Bird, and Douglas W. Bird (2003), “The Benefits of Costly Signalling: Meriam Turtle Hunters,” Behavioral Ecology 14(1):116–126). However, despite Paleo proponents arguments that it is perfect for everyone, there seems to be lack of recognition that a primarily meat and fresh vegetable diet is expensive and time consuming and therefore not readily accessible to many.

Ethnographic Memories: the politics of fieldwork

by Maxime Polleri
PhD Candidate | York University, Toronto, Canada


This article explores the similarities between a memoir and an ethnographic work. A memoir stands as an historical account written from personal knowledge. It is a form of writing that should resonate deeply within the heart of the anthropologist, whose very own specificity is to be, first and foremost, an ethnographer. That is, anthropologists are individuals full of (hi)stories, contingence, and subjectivity, who nevertheless struggle to bring “objective” accounts of what had happened under their eyes during fieldwork. I use this short comparative act as a jumping board to examine the politics of knowledge in the history of anthropological inquiry since the Enlightenment. More precisely, this comparison represents an opportunity to look at what is silently invested in the practices of ethnographical writing. In a brief discussion, I highlight the political implications that surround issues of knowledge production, expert voices, and translation amidst the discourse and narrative of anthropologists.

Key words: memoirs, memories, ethnography, politics of knowledge, expertise, fieldwork

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)


The whiteness of her face seemed to be a remnant of a forgotten lore. I was staring at the paperback version of Memoirs of a Geisha (1997). Its book cover portrayed a young and somewhat nubile geisha, a traditional female entertainer that had become a well-known icon of Japanese culture. For an unknown reason, the book had been misplaced in the Japanese studies section of my former university’s library. Going through its pages, I could not help but ponder as to why the book had been confused with scholarly works. Could “real” knowledge be gain from a memoir? After all, the book has been critically praised for its authenticity and portrayal of the Gion district, an area famous for its geisha. The more I contemplated this question, the more I was struck by the numerous ironies that this book contains. Memoirs of a Geisha, is actually a fictionalized account of the life of a real geisha, Mineko Iwasaki. Yet, an American man who “embodies the life and voice of a Japanese woman” wrote the book (Allison 2001:395). While the memories of another had been “borrowed,” the memoir is nonetheless perceived as an historically accurate depiction of the world of geisha (see Allison 2001: 382). It had perhaps been misplaced for this very own reason. The almost ethnographic writing of the author, Arthur Golden, seems to have granted Memoirs of a Geisha “higher truth value and therefore authority,” where “fantasy collapses into ‘knowledge’” (Allison 2001:385).

After this small library mischief, the boundaries that define and separate a memoir from an ethnographic work appeared much more porous to my person. I began to wonder at what scope these two genres of literature overlap and weave together, simultaneously blurring the edge among facts, fictions, and storytelling. To what extent do memoirs concur with anthropological writing and what insights can be gained in doing such comparison? In this article, I therefore explore the similarities between a memoir and an ethnographic work. More precisely, I use this short comparative act as a jumping board to examine the politics of knowledge in the history of anthropological inquiry since the Enlightenment period. I later focus on three ethnographic cases that have successfully highlighted the silently invested political practices of ethnographic writing. In an ensuing discussion, I explore more thoroughly the political implications that surround issues of knowledge production, expert voices, and translation amidst the discourse of anthropologists.

In a nutshell, the politics of knowledge refers to the inseparability of knowledge and political activities (Rubio and Baert 2012). However, by the ‘politics of knowledge,’ I do not wish to emphasize how governmental structures, such as the judiciary institutions or the heads of the state, influence issues of knowledge-making and vice-versa. As Marilyn Strathern argues, “the notions of ‘the political’ and ‘political personhood’ are cultural obsessions of our own, which we should be wary, in their specificities, of projecting on to others.” (c.f. Rapport and Overing 2007:167). From this viewpoint, politics cannot be merely understood through discrete and fixed entities (Rubio and Baert 2012: 8). Rather than focusing on “politics” as a set of pre-given institutions and unified structures, my account embraces a much more porous conception of the word political. In such, I focus on the manifold processes of negotiation, translation, as well as the distribution of power affecting the relationship of humans in the production of an ethnographic paradigm. This approach enables me to see all knowledge projects as political, highlighting the fact that “researchers are never free from the values and interests of particular social locations.” (Kirksey 2009:157). Rubio and Baert (2012:2) have argued that knowledge is constitutive of the world in which we live in and therefore invariably political. It is the world of anthropologist and their specific politics upon knowledge that constitutes the subject of my interest.

On Porous Grounds

Thinking about memoirs and ethnographies, I now turn my gaze away from the Orient, toward the emerald green forests of Brazil, where a famous anthropologist first conducted his fieldwork. In his book Tristes Tropiques, I have always wondered why French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss started like this: “I hate travelling and explorers” (1973:17). Tristes Tropiques is a unique piece among Lévi-Strauss’ scholarship; it mixes travel memories, ethnographic works, and philosophical ponderings. First and foremost, it stands as an incredible account of his life and work as an ethnologist, but also as a human being. Lévi-Strauss’ voice, which I often find so effaced, distant, and apolitical, is amidst the yellowish pages of my copy of Tristes Tropiques limpid and clearly present. One can almost hear his distinctive pitch, typical of French intellectuals.

On one page the reader stumbles upon the author’s recollection of his youth in Brazil, on the next we find a detailed study of Nambikwara’s Amerindian populations. Tristes Tropiques is a strange book, an odd piece of ethnography, which oscillates between personal accounts and ethnographic details, where both of those pieces are, before and after all, memories. It is along these blurred edges or uncertain boundaries that we can find one of his most poignant works. Needless to say this book has always intrigued me, perhaps because I find it so hard to categorize amidst a given body of theoretical frameworks, such as French structuralism, a label that has often stuck with his later works. Tristes Tropiques is neither an ethnography per se, or a travel story lost in the faux-semblant that is exoticism, the last bastion of occidental men.[1] By its form, poetics, and texture it is closer to the memoir, because that is what constitutes most of the book: a (re)collection of memories, the memoir of an ethnographer who hated travelling and explorers.

In reading Tristes Tropiques one cannot help but think that ethnographic works and memoirs are perhaps not so distant forms of writing. While both genres are based on the work of retrospection and remembrance, some memories matter more than others. Some memories are deemed important enough to lay on paper, while others are discarded at the convenience of the writer, as are the people who are part of them. In the next parts, I explore in more details the relationship between memoirs and ethnographic works.

Memoirs and Ethnographies

A memoir stands as an historical account written from personal knowledge (see Conrad 1986; Gamble 1994). It is a form of writing that should resonate deeply within the heart of the anthropologist, whose very own specificity is primarily as an ethnographer. That is, an anthropologist is an individual full of (hi)stories, contingence, and subjectivity, who nevertheless struggles to bring an ‘objective’ account of what had happened under his or her eyes. More precisely, I use this comparison as an opportunity to look at what is silently invested in the practices of ethnographic writing. I wish to address more thoroughly the political role and consequences of ethnographic discourses and narratives. I approach the notion of the political, because I think that every memoir has an embedded political framework. Obviously, political memoirs could come to mind, but if one also embraces a more informal definition of the word “politics”—as highlighted before—then it is not hard to consider memoirs through a political lens. The memories that matter or not in a memoir; the ones that are deemed relevant are always negotiated. Therefore, one should think of memoirs as specific visions proposed to the readers. They are also the works of individuals who are important enough to be published and to subsequently be heard by an audience. They are the memories of individuals who have the authority to tell their story and, more importantly, to legitimize it. As Lisa Yoneyama (1995: 502) argues: “To possess and demonstrate one’s own memories is therefore inextricably tied to power and autonomy.” The process that underlies ethnographic writing is perhaps not so different.

Often preconceived notions of memoirs link them with works that are thought to be factual, true, and bias-free; for example, Diebel (2002) shows how political memoirs are even regarded as valuable resources in the teaching of diplomatic history, foreign policy, and international relations. Yet, a memoir remains a personal account, a story that is told by a single individual. In a sense, it can be considered as a subjective version of what someone consider objective. One could even go farther as to compare it to a form of storytelling. After all, that is what good memoirs primarily do—they catch the reader up in their emotional narratives (and not merely in the “facts” that constitute them) until the very last page of the book. As opposed to biographies, which often target the whole panorama of a human life, memoirs generally discuss the turning points in the lifetime of an individual, the touchstone matters of what constitutes an “interesting” life (see Conrad 1986: 149). Sometimes, whole sequences and events are skipped, considered irrelevant, while other memories are embellished and turned into an enjoyable, moving, and potentially inspiring story. As Stoller has mentioned, a memoir does “make readers feel like they are getting a ‘real’ story presented in accessible prose” (2007:182).

Yet, when one browses the counters of a bookstore where can memoirs be found? In the literature and fiction department? Try again. . . . In the romance category? Keep looking. . . . Perhaps in the mystery and thriller section? Another dead-end. Now, try your luck in the non-fiction corner and chances are that you will find something. While memoirs in their form, content, and texture obviously blur the edge between facts and stories, they are rarely sold under the label of fiction. One does not need to search long to see the basic dichotomy that emerges in the form of the memoir: to the bare core, I would argue that they straddle objectivity and subjectivity.

Anthropology since its disciplinary inception emerged from a similar dichotomous cradle, causing many to understand the nature of anthropological work in specific ways. The paradox of objectivity and subjectivity that is found within the form of the memoir can easily be transposed to the practices of ethnographic writing, providing a chance to explore the consequences of such a schism. Indeed, feelings, beliefs, political affiliations, and any other remnants of an ethnographer’s subjectivity have always been a part of anthropological inquiries—whether explicitly acknowledged or not. Yet, although not far from a memoirist, the ethnographer has never been defined as a writer of fiction. Individual assertions, based on the fieldwork memories that one deemed relevant, have neither been regarded as anecdotes, tales, or different perspectives. They were rather ethnographic facts, in the same ways that a memoir’s events are considered historical events.[2] Far from being a storyteller that conveys his or her viewpoint, the ethnographer was not understood to be a writer of fiction, but a writer of science. Like the memoirist, who is the storyteller and the object of the story, anthropology was the science (logos) where Man (anthropos) is both the producer of knowledge and the object of it. However, this position expresses a particular dilemma, similar to the one that is found among many memoirs, where the writer’s subjectivity ends up making much of the objective framework that surrounds this genre. Event more recent incarnations of anthropology exhibit a similar double-bind, where the ethnographer is “a creature that can know the world of which it is existentially a part only by taking leave of it” (Ingold 2013: 745). Initially to surpass such a problem and to become a respectable science, anthropology had to embrace a specific position, where scholars had to stand high and strong against assumptions, interpretations, and beliefs (see Latour 2003). A way to do so was to mimic the Enlightenment naturalists and their “pure” science (Descola 2001, 2011). Such a dualistic framework (social science against a natural one) culminated with the dichotomization of anthropology itself. As French anthropologist Philippe Descola argues, “a first split took place at the end of the nineteenth century […] to physical anthropology came the establishment of a unity beyond variations, while social anthropology was to expose variations on the background of an unlikely unity” (my translation 2011: 9-10). This rose to a crescendo with the nature-culture nexus, upon which an enormous body of work and knowledge has emerged. In this regard, and to go back to Lévi-Strauss, it is worth considering Alice Lamy’s (2008) insightful critique of the Elementary Structures of Kinship, written six years before Tristes Tropiques. As she argues:

The text of Lévi-Strauss fits in rupture and continuity with classical theories [such as Rousseau and Hobbes’ “state of nature”]. First of all, the argument of the author is devoid of any political purpose and is a matter of pure anthropological perspective. This perspective leads Lévi-Strauss to make a conceptual shift in his work: one passes from the distinction state of nature/state of society to the distinction state of nature/state of culture. (My translation, Lamy 2008:33-34)

Here, one should not crucify Lévi-Strauss as the father of all dualism in anthropology. Structuralism was never a dogma, but only a method that resorted to binary opposition, useful in some cases, but not in all. Furthermore, the distinction between nature and culture had no “acceptable historical significance” for Lévi-Strauss; it was only a “tool to think of Man as both a biological being and a social individual” (my translation Lamy 2008:34). The only point that I wish to put forward is that politics was not, for Lévi-Strauss, an issue of major importance in the production of ethnographic work, even if his works have ironically triggered in me an interest in the political implications that surround ethnographic writings. As Alice Lamy argued, “His ambition has always been to approach something like the universal laws of the human mind” (my translation 2008:30). It is not the shift per se toward another dichotomy that is interesting for this article, but rather the dismissal of political purpose in the production of an anthropological literature and writing form. It is sometimes on similar “apolitical” grounds that particular canonical forms of ethnography have been cemented and it is the repercussions of such “objective” frames of mind that I wish to highlight. In the next part, I explore the consequences of those apolitical grounds, by focusing on three case studies.

Glaciers, Beans, and Monkeys

In this section, I target three ethnographic cases that have successfully highlighted the silently invested political practices of ethnographic writing. I begin with the work of anthropologist Julie Cruikshank (2006), who has been interested in the link between local knowledge and colonial encounters, in an effort to address more thoroughly the political role and consequences of anthropological discourses. She first discusses the work of Briggs and Bauman, who argued that the legacy of anthropologist Franz Boas has “trained ethnographic fieldworkers to use the metaphorical incentive of the book as a ‘storage-box’ to elicit texts, a method that […] gave him [Boas] enormous power to regulate the production, circulation, and reception of those accounts” (Cruikshank 2006:59). As Cruikshank demonstrates, Briggs and Bauman argued that such text collections provided for Boas and cultural anthropology a “direct access to timeless cultural traditions—to ‘myth’ rather than to history” (2006:59). In the process of gathering and re-contextualizing those texts, Cruikshank (2006) contended that Boas has erased his own particular role, while subsequently diminishing the Natives’ place as potential narrators, especially by disregarding the context in which their narratives and stories took place. She argued: “He subsequently re-rooted them in a thoroughly modernist practice—preservation and protection—while continuing to burnish them as authentic replications of ‘the native point of view’” (2006:59). Interested in those modernist practices of preservation, and building on political ecology’s insights, Cruikshank subsequently demonstrates that particular notions used in our discourses about nature (such as the construction of “wilderness”[3]) are utterly ethnocentric against indigenous populations such as First Nations, since they thoroughly erase “their prior occupancy, proceeded apace” (2006:255). These formulations and modernist practices thereby “deny varieties of local knowledge their own histories” (Cruikshank 2006:257), especially by freezing them as a mere set of apolitical stories and memories, which are irrelevant to some of our problems like global warming. In those conditions, we can see that the expertise of knowledgeable people, such as First Nations, are often taken out of their “evocative contexts” to be merely “taped, transcribed, codified, and labelled” (Cruikshank 2006:256).

Anthropologist Kregg Hetherington (2013) offers a similar example by studying the introduction of soybean to Paraguay and their unintended consequences. In particular, he focused on the recurring statements of Campesino activists who argued that soybean kills—a discourse that the state quickly dismissed as simply irrational. The interesting point is that Hetherington initially, like the State officials of Paraguay, disregarded the narratives surrounding the so-called killer beans, re-establishing in the process the “priority of frames of reference” in understanding a given problem (2013:71-72). Hetherington first thought that these discourses were, “at best, a figure of speech not meant to be taken literally or, at worst, a mistaken reading of the situation caused by a restricted understanding of what was going on” (2013:71-72). However, he later realized that disregarding the “political importance and analytic potential of the beans” was also a dismissal of the lives of Campesino activists (2013:82). Indeed, doing so was to consider the rural activists’ analyses of the problems brought by the introduction of soybean as something irrelevant (2013).

For the third case, I wish to look at Primate Visions, written by science and technology studies (STS) scholar Donna Haraway (1990). In her book, the author was interested in the scientific practice of physical anthropology and primatology as a form of “story-telling practice in the sense of historically specific practices of interpretation and testimony” (1990:4). Rather than taking the primatologists’ body of knowledge as an apolitical dogma, she takes it up as a set of discourses narrated by expert storytellers. Wishing to challenge the constructions of these stories, she put forward the numerous political stakes (relating to gender, race, colonialism, and scientific objectivity) that are to be found in the production of knowledge surrounding primates’ taxonomy (1990:3) She argues that “primatology is about an Order, a taxonomic and therefore political order that works by the negotiation of boundaries achieved through ordering differences” (1990:10). Her work has revealed how science, monkeys, and expertise—among others—were themselves embodied in the politics of the early and mid-20th century. By looking at physical anthropology from the vantage point of discourse and narrative, Haraway was able to see epistemic systems as “stories,” which are culturally specific and charged with political implications. Such stories are being told by particular groups of experts who might intentionally (or unintentionally) be silencing the voices of others. This could be a charming metaphor for the anthropologists whose fieldwork often consists of “collecting” stories from informants while trying to understand specific knowledge forms by looking over the shoulder of the so-called “Other”.[4]

Discussion: The Politics of Fieldwork

The numerous examples brought by Cruikshank, Hetherington, and Haraway, demonstrate how ethnographic works that might at first seem factual, neutral, and objective, more than often hide unconscious political and subjective frames that enable particular forms of knowledge, while disregarding others. They define what counts as expertise, who has the right to speak, and who should (silently) listen. In many of those cases, the pursuit of knowledge involves, as Allison (2001:386) argues, a “process in which the subject of inquiry is, almost by definition, reduced to the status of an object. And, in the case of the study of other cultures, this aggression is exacerbated even further.” Since the crisis of representation, perhaps best exemplified by Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986), anthropologists have been more in tune with how univocal modern paradigms might be reinstating blatant dualisms that bring new forms of inequality, hierarchy, colonialism, racism, and ethnocentrism. All three previous authors are very attuned to what anthropologists and STS scholar Kim Fortun has called “discursive gaps” (2009). As she argued, “Discursive gaps are gaps in what discourses can say or even recognize. They are what people can’t get their heads and tongues around. They operate through disavowal and ignorance” (2009:9). The goal of being attuned to such gaps is something that echoes the aim of Haraway’s cyborg politics: a struggle that stands against “perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism” (1991:176)—in other words, a struggle against essentialist features and foundational categories.

What is also striking about the three case stories are the political implications that surround the very practice of ethnographic writing, as well as the place of the ethnographer. In the issues surrounding the creation of ethnographic work, it is important to be attuned to the role that anthropologists play, especially as “experts” who produce “first hand” accounts of given knowledge. Anthropology is indeed a science embedded in a rich history of colonialism, where the savage (sometimes noble) opposed the Victorian Englishman—a science where the expert, the ethnologist, relied not merely on its own memory but also on its anonymous and plural informants, the ghostwriter of their memoir. As philosopher Isabelle Stengers says:

The anthropologist produces, whether he wants it or not, a set relationship that is more often inherently asymmetrical: he reports to “us” a knowledge about other groups without putting to the foreground the relationship upon which his knowledge comes, or by simply being at the service of a science to produce. (2007:9)

Indeed, as Timothy Mitchell has argued, experts do not merely report social relations and knowledge forms; instead, they also work to format and produce them (2002:118). In that line of thought, anthropologists, who often speak more than one language,[5] need to be conscious of the political implications that their works of translation might imply. As historian Gyan Prakash explained, translation always implies a certain realignment of power, as well as a renegotiation of the unequal relationship between investigators and their subjects (1999:50). Going back to Memoirs of a Geisha, Allison (2001) has highlighted how the role of the outsider (in this case an American male writer) is crucial in shaping the story arch and its mass appeal to an English speaking audience, even though the memoir takes the form of a first person narrative told by the Geisha protagonist.[6]

While anthropologists have been warier of such difficulties, the problems are numerous and to be found on many levels. In that regard, anthropologist Arturo Escobar asks an interesting question: “How does one study and describe situations in which the objects or subjects are thoroughly constituted by the same knowledge practices of which the ethnographer herself is also a product?” (2008:294). Still, I think that political ecologist Paul Robbins has raised one of the most intelligible inquiries surrounding ethnographical issues. This question concerns how scholars, in search for the concepts used in political ecology, such as governmentality or marginalization, often discover them in the process of doing fieldwork (2004:151). Specifically, he argued: “The concepts pre-exist such discovery and so always seem to turn up! One key lesson is certainly that the reification of categories early in the research process may be limiting and unnecessarily constraining. Better political ecology requires care in this regard” (2004:151). While this warning was directed at political ecologists, any ethnographer can benefit from such an insight. Robbins was not looking to disregard the usefulness of our theories of knowledge; rather, he simply wished to emphasize the constraining aspects related to taken-for-granted notions.

Indeed, before going to the field, before writing a single line in its notebook, and even before meeting the people that they wishes to “study”, the anthropologist always knows what to look for. Yes, anthropologists might be lost in translation, they might not know where to look for it, who to learn it from, or when to gaze at it, but they always know what they are looking for, as they first and foremost track categories. Perhaps this is due to the predictive power of theory. Because, in many ways, that is what theory does: theory tells the ethnographer to locate what matters. In a sense, the horse is being put before the proverbial cart, as such teleology presupposes that we concretely know what matters for people that we have not even met, and who often do not share much of a modicum of economical luxury that a funded ethnographer has. Indeed, fieldworkers need to work “with a strict plan of investigation, which is what the granting agencies insist they manifest before they even go into the field” (Taussig 2011:48). Furthermore, by looking for specific problems, such as ecological degradation or political marginalization, the ethnographer is at risk of tracking such notions through Eurocentric values—an ethnocentric lens—and crystalizing those problems in given epistemological and ontological states. As Taussig notes: “Much of anthropology, certainly most that is funded, thus turns out to be telling other people’s stories without realizing that’s what you are doing, and telling them badly, very badly indeed – […] such stories are seen as mere steps toward the Greater Truth of the Abstraction” (2011:49).

In a related viewpoint, many scholars have successfully demonstrated that the “production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality” (Haraway 1991:181). With this mindset, anthropologists have asked how they are politically situated in writing about the so-called “Other” in their own ethnographic practices. As Stoller highlights, anthropologist have recently experimented with diverse ethnographic forms that “did not conform to the tried and true realist structure of theoretical introduction, presentation of data, and conclusion” (2007:180). By blurring the lines between memoirs, imagination, and story, anthropologists have been more attuned to the subtle subjectivity of the ethnographer, the “empowered person who controls the construction of the text […]” (Stoller 2007:180). Yet, one should also consider how apolitical and non-located forms of knowledge are embedded, not merely in our writing paradigm, but also in the academic practices of anthropology, unconsciously re-establishing powerful frames of domination. We could say that anthropologists need to be mindful of their own academic modes of production, to their methods of producing (his)tories. For example, what is the concrete use of a $150 hardcover ethnographic inquiry—perhaps unaffordable by the marginalized, vulnerable informants—whose commercial success is made possible by a network of high-grossing universities’ libraries, later to be read by a minority of academics? Significantly, this academic minority might not share much of the problems discussed in the books, nor be in a position of power great enough to contribute to potent changes. Furthermore, trendsetting theories, which define the practice, expertise, and future of anthropological work, irremediably emerge from occidental languages, mostly epitomized by the lingua franca that is English. The very work of peer-review also erases any trace of individuality. The name of the ethnographer is replaced by the apolitical and phantomatical ‘I’. Funding projects bring this to a next level; as Taussig argues: “Invariably the application begins not with ‘I wish to study…,’ but with ‘This project is aimed at…’ In one stroke anything subjective is not so much erased as it is disguised and distorted by this language” (2011:48).

In the Heart of Darkness

Kim Fortun has argued that scholars of anthropology are “always confronted with more to understand and more to address than is possible” (2001:350). As a young scholar focusing on the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Polleri 2015, 2016), I especially know that this is the case. Yet, this is not what scares me the most. After all, the numerous problems that surround the issue of nuclear contamination in the aftermath of this disaster cannot be captured in their entirety. Neither should they be, as this denies “the stakes in location, embodiment, and partial perspective” (Haraway 1991:191), one of the best contributions that an ethnographer can make as to what regards a given problem. In the midst of doing fieldwork, what scares me the most is how and why I write. At night, when I try to recall the encounters that have constituted my working day in order to lay them on paper, I cannot help but to get that weird feeling, that “sinking feeling that the reality depicted receded, that the writing is actually pushing reality off the page” (Taussig 2011:16). As Taussig argues: “Perhaps it is an illusion. But then, illusions are real too” (2011:16).

As an anthropologist, I am interested in how diverse forms of knowledge and being interact, and to what extent different actors articulate them. In that line of thought, every scholar should be careful about the investment in an anthropological epistemological practice used to study other epistemological practices and forms; exploring the tensions of epistemologies as a frame of reference itself remains important. In other words, a reflection of anthropological knowledge production in understanding how one writes about people has started to haunt me. In this context, I have begun to ask: for whom do I write? And the answer is an egoistic one: me. As a young scholar, one cannot help but to produce a very specific form of expertise, reflective of a particular academic framing, and one that revolves around publications, conferences, and thesis writing. After all, this article has focused on the diverse processes of negotiation, translation, and power inequalities affecting the relationship of humans in the production of an ethnographic paradigm. While this is still a broader notion of ‘the political’ it still represents a cultural obsession of North American anthropologists. For this reason, I do construct knowledge in a very selective manner. One cannot help but to come full circle back to the memoir, which is also the indulgence of one’s feelings; a form of writing that is sometimes contended with an egoistic self-absorption, where one chooses the memories and people that matter.

On the other hand, a memoir is never a memoir without a public, and ethnographic writing also implies a set of relations, an ongoing politics between the ‘I’ and multiple forms of otherness that are imaginatively materialized on paper. As Taussig notes, “there is always a bigger ‘you’ than yourself, a ‘you’ of many readers looking over your shoulder” (2011:77). An ethnography is not an ethnography in “good and due form” without its body of experts that categorize it as so.

When I glance at my notebook, I begin to see two things. I see sanitized data, under the form of facts, evidence, and information, where the “imaginative logic of discovery” is quickly “followed by the harsh discipline of proof” (Taussig 2011:xi). Between the lines of my notebook, I see something else, memories that do not seem to “fit”, memories that matter—inevitably for some of my informants – but not for the requirements of my particular academic framing.[7] Taussig has argued that the notebook lies “at the outer reaches of language and order” (2011:118). Yet, as an ethnographer interested in Japanese culture, I still write in my notebook from left to right, never from up to down. Writing a memoir is an occupation devoid of any surprises, as the story irremediably revolves around the same protagonist. To some extent, ethnographers should be mindful of this insight. What anthropologists need are alternative forms of narrative that can, as Gosselin (2011: 142) argues, avoid any false representations of a given finality. These alternative narratives must effectively suppress politically dominant discourses, without themselves becoming a prevalent paradigm. Upon leaving Fukushima, I wonder if the memories associated with the pain of other people will be erased forever? In the loud rumble of the metallic beast, will I even be able to hear Mistah Kurtz murmuring: “The horror! The horror!”?

Works Cited

Allison, Anne. 2001. “Memoirs of the Orient.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 27(2):381-398.

Clifford, James and George Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Conrad, Margaret. 1986.“Ego and Autobiography: Three Political Memoirs.” Acadiensis 16(1):149-154.

Cronon, William. 1996.“Foreword.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. William Cronon, ed., 19-22. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Cruikshank, Julie. 2006. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Deibel, Terry L. 2002.“Teaching Foreign Policy with Memoirs.” International Studies Perspective 3:128-138.

Escobar, Arturo. 2008. Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham: Duke University Press.

Descola, Philippe. 2001.“Par-Delà la Nature et la Culture.” Le Débat 2(114):86-101.

–—-. 2011. L’Écologie des Autres: L’Anthropologie et la Question de la Nature. Paris: Éditions Quae.

Fortun, Kim. 2001. Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

–—-. 2009.“Biopolitics and the Informating of Environmentalism.” In Lively Capital. Kaushik Sunder Rajan, ed., 307-326. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Gamble, Andrew. 1994.“Political Memoirs.” Politics 14(1):35-41.

Golden, Arthur. 1997. Memoirs of a Geisha. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gosselin, Abigail. 2011.“Memoirs as Mirrors: Counterstories in Contemporary Memoir.” Narrative 19(1):133-148.

Haraway, Donna. 1990. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge.

–—-. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2013.“Beans before the Law: Knowledge Practices, Responsibility, and Paraguayan Soy Boom.” Cultural Anthropology 28(1):65-85.

Ingold, Tim. 2013.“Dreaming of Dragons: On the Imagination of Real Life.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(4):734-752.

Kirksey, S. Eben. 2009.“Don’t Use Your Data as a Pillow.” In Anthropology off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing. Alisse Waterston and Maria D. Vesperi, eds., 146-159. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Lamy, Alice. 2008.“Présentation.”“L’Introduction des Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté: Un Texte Philosophique?” In Nature, Culture, et Société: Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté. Chapitres I et II, 9-46. Paris: Flammarion.

Latour, Bruno. 2003.“Le Rappel de la Modernité – Approches Anthropologiques.” Conférence dans le séminaire Descola au Collège de France, November 26, 2003.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1973. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Penguin Books.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2002. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Polleri, Maxime 2015.“‘Matters’ of Importance: Contamination in the Aftermath of the Fukushima Disaster.” Nexus: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology 23(1):13-25.

–—-. 2016.“Tracking Radioactive Contamination after Fukushima.” Anthropology Now 8(2):90-103.

Prakash, Gyan. 1999. Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rapport, Nigel and Joanna Overing. 2007. Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge.

Robbins, Paul. 2004. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Rubio, Fernando Domínguez and Patrick Baert. 2012.“Introduction.” In The Politics of Knowledge. Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Patrick Baert, ed., 1-10. New York: Routledge.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2007. Cosmopolitiques VII. Paris: Découverte.

Stoller, Paul. 2007.“Ethnography/Memoir/Imagination/Story.” Anthropology and Humanism 32(2):178-191.

Taussig, Michael. 2011. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Yoneyama, Lisa. 1995.“Memory Matters: Hiroshima’s Korean Atom Bomb Memorial and the Politics of Ethnicity.” Public Culture 7: 499-527.

End Notes

[1]Memoirs of a Geisha is a book that makes use of exoticism. As Anne Allison argues: “The book is written in such a way that it fosters the impression of taking a trip to an exotic, distant land whose foreignness is ‘unmasked’ and whose ‘veil of secrecy’ lifted, allowing readers/travellers to enter into a ‘secret world of the geisha’” (2001:382).

[2]. Of course, such sayings hereby apply to a pre-WWII anthropology. The anthropologist positionality has been extensively questioned in the 80s. As Allison (2001:390) argues, anthropologists have become much more self reflective at unmasking their “own positionality and rhetorical strategies when studying (and representing) others.”

[3]. For example, William Cronon (1996) argues that wilderness should not merely be thought of as a mutually exclusive ontological realm, but also as a social and cultural construct.

[4]. Reading over the shoulder of the “Other” echoes the scholarship of Clifford Geertz, and his idea of reading cultural practices as “texts.” His work has also been seen as straddling the literary and the non-fictional.

[5]. Even monolingual anthropologists can be said to speak more than one ‘language’ if they are attuned, for example, to the vernacular forms of a language, to ‘scientific’ talk, or to the slangs of subcultures.

[6]. The real Geisha that inspired those events later sued Goldman for defamation and wrote her own memoirs in order to set the stakes right by telling the “true” story. Too often, in ethnographic accounts, as in memoirs, the memory of others can only achieve true value and authority in the actual hand of anthropologists or American novelists.

[7]. In that regard, Allison (2001:383) has asked us to reflect on the extent toward which a writer is responsible for the effect of his or her writing. This is made even more important when we consider that specific cultures and societies do get “known and seen through our representations” (383).

Body, Nature, and Society: neonatal resuscitation [En] | Corps, Nature et Société : la réanimation néonatale [Fr]

by Clara Czuppon
Undergraduate Student | Université Lumière Lyon 2, Lyon, France


Modern medicine questions the link between nature, society, and body through the development of the medical technology and the increase of life expectancy. Based on anthropological and sociological resources, this paper will try to unpack the Western vision of an ill body and the treatments that are established in response. This critical reflection on neonatal resuscitation will lead me to propose the need to re-evaluate such system. I will use a transcultural approach when analyzing the care that is given to newborns presenting a critical vital prognostic, while drawing specifically on French-based research. In its attempt to postpone death, biomedicine has allowed for humans to challenge nature and its inexorable processes, and defy the physiological laws. However, what is the price for this progress? In order to tackle these sensitive issues, it is important to leave our judgements behind and to study our therapeutic practices with a new perspective.

La médecine moderne redéfini le lien entre nature, société, et corps au travers de l’essor des diverses technologies et par le prolongement de la vie. S’appuyant sur des références anthropologiques, sociologiques mais également éthiques, cet article tentera de déconstruire la vision occidentale d’un corps diminué et l’ampleur des traitements mis en place. Cette réflexion critique de la réanimation néonatale me permettra de proposer une réévaluation du système biomédical. J’utiliserai une approche transculturelle des soins adressés aux nourrissons présentant un pronostic vital critique, me concentrant sur la situation française. En s’efforçant d’éloigner la mort, la biomédecine a réussi à autonomiser le corps face à la nature, repoussant les lois physiologiques. Cependant, à quel prix s’effectue ce progrès? Pour appréhender ces questions sensibles, il importe de se départir de tout jugement et d’étudier d’un œil nouveau nos pratiques thérapeutiques.

Key words: resuscitation, neonatality, hospital, body, life | réanimation, néonatalité, hôpital, corps, vie

Publication Information
Volume 3, Issue 1 (2017)

“Mankind has a story because it transforms nature,”[1] wrote Maurice Godelier in his book L’idéel et le Matériel (1984). Therefore, the technical progress of modern medicine, the increasing life expectancy, and the decrease of diseases and of child mortality, are the results of human acts upon nature, the material body, and the environment that have modulated our perception of the biological. This perception is socially constructed and greatly influences how we act upon our surroundings through discourses of health, the dominant medical system, or even through our every-day bodily habits.

The evocation of an “abnormal” child—a notion that I will revisit later in this paper—who is abandoned or killed at birth in some African groups can, for example, questions our ways of thinking about death, birth, and the body.  It leads us to try to unpack our own understanding of a “complicated” birth, wherein the birth of a child presents respiratory or cardiac difficulties, or any other serious physiological symptoms. Western legislation and morality advocate setting up every possible measure to keep the child alive in order to “try to give him back autonomy and health”[2] (Dehan 1993:207). How do we justify that this notion is more ethically correct or more moral? Suppose we try to adopt Levi Strauss’ view from afar and imagine what the Lobi from Burkina-Faso would think of our efforts to keep a sick child alive, who they would consider as a soul stuck in the wrong body, a disabled body, begging to be released. It is important here to leave our judgements behind in order to grasp the practices and notions that differ from the ones rooted in biomedical societies. This method will be helpful to critically analyze the intense resuscitation procedures used in modern medicine. Nowadays, one baby out of ten is born prematurely which results in fifteen million babies per year who will spend the first moments of their lives in a neonatal resuscitation department (Antje Christ 2014). The resuscitation process can seem aggressive as it consists of forcibly reviving a body. For a newborn, this can result in severe physical, cerebral, and moral consequences: two thirds of the babies saved by neonatal resuscitation suffer from after-effects (2014). Even though the idea of saving an individual whose life is compromised seems obvious, how should we think about the body—which cannot be reduced to solely the physical—in order to make it suffer as little as possible? How does the treatment of a disease question society, nature, and the body when it threatens a newborn’s life?

First, we should look at the social frameworks of Western medicine in order to explore the issue of the roles of nature and society in the process of resuscitation, and how this questions the notion of the body. Like any other medical system, modern medicine is the product of a social, political, and historical process that extends over three centuries and which has become the dominant system in the Western societies (Foucault 1963). Even though medical pluralism is still common among individual practices and is becoming more and more institutionalized, it remains marginal compared to the hegemony of biomedicine. That is why I will focus on the latter. Throughout this article, I will unpack the major principles and assumptions that underlie biomedicine with the aim of proposing a critique of its functioning. Based upon various anthropological and ethical sources, I will present the majors issues surrounding these procedures and some existing strategies toward the acknowledgement of a humanity of the body.

The Cultural Frameworks for the Development of Modern medicine and neonatal resuscitation

The Denied Death

For several decades, Western society has experienced various waves of medical innovations that were meant to lengthen life expectancy, cure an increased number of diseases, and resuscitate bodies in more and more critical conditions. This set of measures manifested in a shift in the conception of death; “even though it was familiar because of its presence in the past, death will fade and disappear. It has become shameful and taboo.”[3] This is the analysis presented by Philippe Ariès in Essai sur l’Histoire de la Mort en Occident (quoted by Revault d’Allonnes 2014). Death is no longer part of our existence, it has become a parameter that we wish to forget and postpone as long as we can. David Le Breton speaks of this as a “contemporary denial of death”[4] (2011:290).

Yet it has not always been this way and even today some regions of the world do not experience death as we do. Death in our society appears as “an end in itself” (Bloch 1993:9), where the after-death is hard to conceive of. On the other hand, the Greeks, for instance, used to perceive death as an integral part of life, just like birth. Questioning death necessarily leads to questioning the notion of personhood, shaped by a given culture (1993). Modern medicine conceives of the individual as indivisible: our inner elements are all biologically tied and connected without marked division between body and the spirit; the death of one results in the death of the other. In contrast, the Christian idealism divided the mind and the body: the soul is everything whereas the body is nothing (Valette 2013:124). Hence, physical death is not an end in itself, the soul continues to exist. These ideas can also be found in some West African populations, such as the Lobi of Burkina Faso, where the idea of reincarnation is pervasive. The new born child receives a double “tuh” from the body of a dead person: this spirit comes to pursue his life in the body of the child as his vital double (Cros 1990). Death is seen as a passage between two states but does not mark a definitive end: the death of someone will be the birth of someone else. This is a cyclic conception of life.

These examples highlight the strong link between the different interpretations of death and the social practices that are related to it. Thus, a Westernized conception of death appears through the “dedication” of biomedicine to keep it away (Revault d’Allones and Van Reeth 2014). However, should we accept all these developments of Western science? Today, we are able to defy a “state of apparent death”, but to what extent can be decide to neglect death?

The Ethical Debates

Medical progress, taken as the postponement of death, raises numerous ethical issues. In France, the use of intensive medication is defined by the Charte des soins palliatifs et de l’accompagnement (the Charter of the palliative care and support)[5] of 1993 as “the act of pursuing of an invasive therapy with a curative aim, supposed to extend life expectancy without taking into account the quality of this life, whereas there is no reasonable hope for an improvement of the patient’s state.” This notion is at the core of a lively debate between the medical staff, the patient’s relatives, the thinkers, and public opinion, which has reached the neonatal resuscitation department since the 1980’s (Paillet 2007:176). This department is at the heart of a dilemma: keeping a baby in a very bad condition alive, often after a premature birth, while compromising the quality of its future life as little as possible. Western medicine tends to resuscitate ever more weakened and premature babies with more risks of after effects for their body. It has recently been met with fierce resistance from certain practitioners, parents, and the French Comité Consultatif National d’Éthique – CCNE (the National Consultative Committee of Ethic) (Paillet 2007). Specialists’ discussions are built around the questions of “Who should be reanimated?” and “How far should we go?” that emphasize the notions of medical selecting and decision-making power. Throughout this article, I will use the term morality to refer to the rules of conduct that reveal a sense of good and bad present in each member of a society and partly shaped by this one, in this particular case the Western society. I will use the term ethic to designate the philosophical domain that approaches, theorizes, and applies the basis of this morality.

Neonatal resuscitation is circumscribed by certain legal texts that delimit these debates. In France, doctors have to take care of a child born after 24 or 26 weeks of amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) – a child is considered as premature if he is born before 37 weeks of gestation. In Japan, the obligation of saving a new born is set at 22 weeks while it is only set at 28 weeks of amenorrhea in China (Antje Christ 2014). This observation reveals the different relations that specific countries maintain with natality. Before these deadlines, law does not recommend any action: the decision lies with the medical staff. Beyond these questions, neonatal resuscitation largely depends on the morality of doctors, which is shaped by society. As in many other Western countries, euthanasia—provoking the death of a patient in order to abridge his or her suffering in the case of an incurable disease—is forbidden in France and in Canada (Butler and al. 2013). Regarding neonatology, the notice n°65 of the CCNE implies that if the brain lesions are too substantial and seriously compromise the future possibility of the child to be autonomous (respiratory autonomy), it should be reasonable to consider the end of treatment (Gisquet 2008:17). However, the stopping of treatment for an autonomous child is still rarely used and has to come after many team discussions.

During these serious and irreversible decisions, how are we to know who should decide? Should the discussion involve both the parents and the medical team? Should it rely only on the experts’ choices, who take into account every parameter in evaluating the chances of the child and the quality of its future life? These issues are at the core of the politics of hospitals: while some choose to give the parents the decision-making power as in United States, others prefer to push them aside, invoking the huge psychological and moral burden that such decisions can imply (Antje Christ 2014).

These ethical concerns about the future life of the child, the moral obligation of the medical staff, and the decision-making responsibility, demonstrate a certain medical practice exercised in Western societies, which aims to dominate nature.

Natural and Social Body

Questioning the Role of Nature

Pierre Erny describes the child as “a man in a state of nature”[6] (1988:52). It ensures the passage between nature, the biological birth, and culture, the social birth and the assimilation of the diverse cultural features. Françoise Loux, in Le jeune enfant et son corps dans la médecine traditionelle, refers to the past century in France, when the childhood diseases were so common that they were considered as “inevitable sicknesses”[7] (1978:240). The French used to resort to herbal treatments or amulets to cure them. Every action upon the body of a newborn is an action upon an environment and reveals a particular interpretation of nature. Neonatal resuscitation is thus a way to make sense of what we cannot control: death and its hazards. The analysis of Françoise de Barbot states that we have acquired an illusion of domination upon nature through medical and technological models (1993:157).

In anthropology, the movement of cultural materialism ascribes a social response to every natural phenomenon. Thus, the African ritual infanticides of “abnormal” children would be a response to the imbalance between an overpopulation and limited natural resources (Descola 2011). Although these theories have been criticized, we can draw a parallel with the Chinese one-child policy, set as a reaction to the extreme increase of population. Today, China does not save children born before 28 weeks of amenorrhea. Contraception, and particularly D.H Meadows’ analysis of it in a collective report entitled Limits to growth (1972), can also relate to these preoccupations. She predicted that such an increase of population would cause a loss of control and that the State would have to take measures to restrain natality. She anticipated the Foucauldian notion of bio-power, introduced by the philosopher in his work La Volonté de savoir (The Will of Knowledge 1978). Bio-power refers to the power of the authorities (the sovereign, the government, and the institutions) over the life and death of individuals. It shifted from “kill and let live”, in the monarchist and feudal systems, to “keep alive and let die”[8] in our current society (Rose and Rabinow 2006). Thus, power can express itself by the management of life rather than by the threat of death. Intervention and regulation established by power enable greater control of the population. By restricting human bodies to statistics and controlling their numbers, the new science of demography—whose emergence is tied with capitalism—became a medium for this “bio-power” (Foucault 1976:184). This idea is at the core of resuscitation and, more broadly, of modern medicine. Politics are at stake in the dialogue between nature and technique, and shape it differently when framing concepts such as the normal and abnormal.

What biological norm is involved in the practice of resuscitation? Is it “normal” to reanimate a patient that presents all aspects of a physical death? Georges Canguilhem is one of the great French philosophers who have thought about the notion of biological norm: “In anthropological experience a norm cannot be original. Rule begins to be rule only in making rules and this function of correction arises from infraction itself” (1978:241). According to him, the patients and the experts’ discourses build the norm by formulating their condition, and recovery tends to bring back this norm as it gets closer to the usual and ideal state. Later in his book The Normal and the Pathological, Canguilhem tackles the natural selection of Darwin (1978). We can adapt this idea of a struggle between man and nature to how modern medicine supports patients in every pathological complication they encounter. Is Western medicine trying to thwart this principle? Nowadays, having an “inferior” or “superior”—to use the words of George Guille-Escuret—genotype is not what will determine survival (1989:31). Nature as described by Darwin has lost its power in these times of medical technology. In the words of Danielle Hervieu-Leger: “In ultra-modern societies, nature is no longer an order”[9] (2003:241); it is above all perceptions of the environment that are culturally, historically, and socially constructed.

The Body as a Social Model

The body is a core element in society: it exists where mankind is present, and its conception is shaped by social representations. Thoughts on the body of a child vary among societies. For example, some Bantu speaking peoples of South Africa consider that the child is not a part of the world until it goes through a social birth, which often corresponds to the apparition of the first teeth. Before that point, it is a “water-baby” and has no name, no social identity. Its soul can decide to go back to water—its original milieu—and implies the death of the baby’s body without unleashing the emotions of the family (Erny 1988). Another example of this diversity could be the Lobi of Burkina Faso, who believe that the child is inhabited by a “tuh”, a vital double that can appear as respiration or as a mortal spirit. The reactions of the child are attributed to its “tuh”: if it is crying too much or if its health is uncertain, it means that its “tuh” wants to leave the world of the living and go back across the rivers, where it came from. If it leaves, the body will die (Cros 1990).

The truth about the body, and especially about the sick body, emerges with diagnosis. Compliance with medical discourse is important in modern medicine as well as in the traditional one (Le Breton 2011). The realities that both of them produce are at the core of the representations of the body; based on their different diagnosis, they are not referring to the same conception of the world. As far as modern medicine is concerned, Foucault, following Canguilhem’s arguments, claims than the normality of the body is defined and constructed by the clinical experience. Since the Enlightenment, medical developments have shaped medicine in such a way that its truth lies in a unique gaze, that of the experts, whose light is held as true and objective (Foucault 1973:xiii).

The various perceptions of the body are the results of a historical, geographical, and dynamic process that tends to make sense of what eludes our understanding, like many other social phenomena. The frameworks for the interpretation of the body and diseases are ways to understand our environment. The reality of our body is symbolic and this social symbolism is the basis of action.

Body and Treatments

The Primacy of the Result: Life

In the process of resuscitation, the first step and probably the most important one (morally, ethically, and medically) is the maintenance of life. Pierre Valette exposes the ethics of modern medicine as “you can therefore you must”[10] (2013:217). As soon as practitioners have the capacity to act against death, they have to do so immediately before any other kind of consideration, if they want to avoid being accused of negligence. Bringing a patient back to life comes before all else, even prior to thinking of the neurological consequences of such methods. Michel Dehan and Marie-Antoinette Bouguin speak of a “moral duty”[11] to provide assistance to everyone and, secondly, to stop the treatments if the future is not worth considering. The period of this diagnosis is called the “standby resuscitation”, which keeps the patient alive without a promise of remission. Faced with the law and public opinion, doctors can “only accept death as a last resort”[12] (1993:201). These increasingly effective mechanisms are various ways of circumventing death: medical care and new technological tools multiply the chances for survival. The state of apparent death – a very deep coma where all the vital functions slow down – is now reversible (Gisquet 2008).

In emergency situations where a child is endangered, what limits can we set to avoid the use of intensive interventions? Bioethical codes are trying hard to answer these sensitive issues. In the department of neonatal resuscitation, the life of the child is quickly compromised because the nerves endings are still developing and fragile: if the brain does not receive oxygen, these connections cannot be made. Therefore, we should not therapeutically conceive of the body of the baby without taking into account the sequelae caused by the processes of resuscitation. In some cases, Myriam Révault d’Allonnes and Adèle Van Reeth discuss the treatments of “mindless obstinacy”[13] (2014). The Leonetti Law, promulgated in France on April the 22nd, 2005 defines it as: “The pursuance of active treatments that seem useless according to the current state of medicine, or that their benefits—in terms of quality of life and comfort—are disproportionate compared to the risks, the inconvenience, and the moral and physical pain they create.”[14] In that case, how can we avoid such an extreme process where life—as a biological reality—takes priority over the social and psychological future of the child?

The goal of modern medicine would then be to guarantee and value the quality of the newborn’s future life, to persevere it within reason (Paillet 2007:81).

The Dehumanized Body

Modern medicine, more specifically the resuscitation departments, are full of pipes, wires, computers, machines, defibrillators, and other kinds of technological devices that act in a quasi-automatic way upon patient’s body. In Japan, the premature baby is immediately connected to software that continuously calculates and analyzes the bodily variations of the newborn (Antje Christ 2014). According to David Le Breton, this equipment is a part of the dehumanizing process occurring in modern medicine towards the patient. It tends to objectify the subject by trying to separate the individual and the biological mechanisms. The body becomes a “puzzle”: only specific organs or affected areas are focused on, as if they were independent from the rest of the body (2011:293). The diagnostic can be perceived as a series of parameters that will decide the patient’s chances of survival. Medicine deals with the “human machine”[15] (2011:15), the sick person is treated as a mechanism and the body is fragmented. Similarly, we sometimes hear the term “broken children” when it comes to the newborns who have suffered from an active resuscitation process, damaged as objects (Paillet 2007:35).

In her “Monographie du Service A” (Monograph of Department A), Elsa Guisquet copies the report of a doctor concerning a baby in intensive care at a French hospital. The report presents the variations of the child’s state using technical terms such as “EEG”, “ETF”, “MMH”, “HIV de grade IV”, and other numbers and acronyms that are considered as “normal” or “dense”. The standardization of the methods of examination contributed to the standardization of the bodies treated by the same gestures and processes (2008:42).

The repetitive character of the surgeons’ gestures tends to associate their work with a machine-like mechanism (Le Breton 2011). Modern medicine transforms the patient into a profitable medium to exercise its techniques; Didier Sicard, the CCNE president, talks about a “medicine eager for technology”[16] (quoted by Hennezel 2014:87). By comparing modern medicine and the labor mechanisms, Claude Raisky even attributes to medicine the notion of productivity and instrumentality (2003).

The discussions about the life and death of a child should not be tackled by this reductive perspective. Although we notice a necessary attitude of detachment in the discourses of the medical staff toward these terrible decisions, they have to consider the humanity of the newborn and the situation of the family.

Restoring Humanity

The acknowledgement of a newborn as a human being does not seem obvious and has been clearly stated only for a couple of decades. Before, the medical staff could decide not to give the newborn a chance and not to reanimate it. Nowadays, it is against human rights.

When a baby is brought to the intensive care department, it is obviously not able to make its own decisions or to express its opinion. The parents are thus considered as responsible for the agency of their child. Their essential role is to be with it, in order to maintain a link with the outside world and not to deprive it of any kind of relationship. The hospital of Cologne in Germany, proved that physical contact with the mother was a key element in the brain development of the premature baby. The symbiosis of their two bodies in the “kangaroo” position (the child leaning on the mother’s chest) calms the baby and stimulates sleep, a determining factor to gain weight (Antje Christ 2014). This maternal presence can also be assured by the nurses. Guisquet contrasts the technique of “senior” practitioners, who focus on biological development and have to run from a delivery to another, to the humanity conveyed by the nurses that accompany the patients through their recovery. The nurses take the time every day to touch, speak, and carry the baby. They focus on its reactions, its agitation, its tears, rather than the biological features and present all these observations in their report, which the doctors confess they do not often read (2008:42).

The importance of maintaining a link between the external world and the baby has been demonstrated by many scientific studies. Some hospitals such as the ones in Zurich and Cologne integrate the practice of musicology in the treatment of premature babies. They also encourage the parents to stay several hours each day with their child and promote physical contact. In these two hospitals, these practices drastically increased the creation of the nerve endings, which had not been created within the mother’s womb, and minimized the risk of future sequela (Antje Christ 2014). These examples demonstrate the medical team’s efforts not to restrict the baby’s body to a pathology that needs to be cured, following Canguilhem’s term, but rather to put it in a wider perspective to restore its humanity.


In trying to defy death and disease, modern medicine takes part in a wider process of emancipation from nature, shaped by the social representations of death as the end of life. These perceptions of nature are meaningful and are the foundations of the medical actions on a body considered as “sick”. The example of neonatal resuscitation reveals the diverse factors that contribute to our vision of the body, and questions our morals and our race against death. Neonatal resuscitation calls upon numerous concerns around the notion of decision-making, responsibility, and humanity. Comparing our practices with those of other cultures, which could be distant in time or space, enables a critical distance from the strong feelings involved in this tough issue. The technological progress of medicine has shifted the anxieties of birth from the incertitude of the survival to the endangerment of the baby’s quality of life through the use of intense methods of resuscitation. Hence, they raise numerous ethical issues that are rooted in a major question whose legitimacy can also be challenged: What life is worth living?


Version Français

« L’homme a une histoire parce qu’il transforme la nature » écrivait Godelier dans L’idéel et le matériel (1984). Les progrès techniques de la médecine moderne, l’allongement de la vie, le recul des maladies, la baisse de la mortalité infantile, sont donc une partie des résultats des actes humains sur la nature, sur un corps physique et sur un environnement, et participent encore à transformer notre perception du biologique. Cette dernière est construite socialement et influe grandement la façon d’agir sur ce qui nous entoure.

Ainsi, l’évocation d’un enfant « anormal », notion sur laquelle nous reviendrons, mis à mort ou abandonné à sa naissance, dans quelques groupes d’Afrique de l’ouest notamment, nous interroge sur les manières de penser la mort, le corps et la naissance chez chacun d’entre eux. Pourtant, tentons d’examiner notre propre appréhension des naissances qualifiées de « compliquées », j’entends par là la venue au monde d’un enfant présentant des difficultés respiratoires, cardiaques et autres symptômes physiologiques graves. Tant la législation que la morale occidentales prônent la mise en place de tous les dispositifs possibles pour assurer le maintien en vie de l’enfant afin de « tenter de lui rendre autonomie et santé » (Dehan 1993:207) ; comment justifier que cette pensée est la plus éthiquement correcte, la plus morale? Essayons d’adopter le regard éloigné de Lévi-Strauss et demandons-nous ce que pourraient penser, par exemple, les Lobi du Burina Faso de nos efforts pour maintenir en vie un enfant malade qu’ils considéreraient comme une âme venue dans un mauvais corps, un corps handicapé, ne demandant qu’à être libérée. Il s’agit ici de se départir de tout jugement pour appréhender des pratiques et conceptions qui diffèrent de celles solidement enracinées dans les sociétés biomédicalisées. Cette méthode nous sera d’une aide précieuse pour étudier d’un œil critique les procédures de sauvetage extrêmes mises en place par la médicine moderne. Aujourd’hui, un bébé sur dix né prématurément, ce sont quinze millions de bébés par an qui font leurs premiers pas dans la vie au sein d’un service de réanimation néonatale (Antje Christ 2014). Le processus de réanimation est un processus pouvant sembler violent qui consiste à ramener un corps à la vie de force. Chez un nourrisson, il peut engendrer de lourdes conséquences physiques, cérébrales et morales: deux tiers des enfants sauvés en réanimation néonatale souffrent de séquelles (2014). S’il nous paraît évident de sauver un individu dont la vie est compromise, comment penser le corps—qui ne se réduit pas à des caractéristiques physiques—pour lui infliger le moins de souffrances possibles? Comment le traitement de la maladie interroge la nature, la société et le corps lorsqu’elle menace les premiers jours de l’enfant?

Il s’agit de regarder dans un premier temps les cadres sociaux de la médecine moderne pour ensuite explorer la question de la place de nature et du social dans le processus de réanimation et comment celui-ci questionne la notion de corps. La médecine moderne, comme tout système médical, est le produit d’un processus social, politique et historique, qui dure depuis plus de trois siècles et qui est devenu le système dominant dans les sociétés dîtes occidentales (Foucault 1963). Bien que le pluralisme médical soit encore courant au sein des pratiques de soins individuels et tend à être de plus en plus institutionnalisé, il reste minime face à l’hégémonie de la biomédecine, c’est pourquoi je me concentrerai sur celle-ci. Tout au long de cet article, je m’attacherai à déconstruire les principes que supporte la biomédecine dans le but de proposer une critique de son fonctionnement. En m’appuyant sur des sources anthropologiques mais également éthiques portant majoritairement sur la situation Française, je présenterai les questionnements majeurs entourant ces procédures et les stratégies existantes vers la reconnaissance de l’humanité du corps.

Dans quels cadres sociaux se développent la médecine moderne et la réanimation néonatale ?

La mort niée

Depuis plusieurs décennies, la société occidentale est marquée par un flot d’innovations médicales destinées à prolonger la vie, soigner de plus en plus de maladies et réanimer des corps dans des états de plus en plus critiques. Cet ensemble de mesures se traduit par le changement du statut de la mort; « si présente autrefois tant elle était familière, [elle] va s’effacer et disparaître. Elle devient honteuse et objet d’interdits », telle en est l’analyse qu’offre Philippe Ariès dans son Essai sur l’histoire de la mort en Occident (cité par Revault d’Allonnes 2014). La mort ne fait plus partie de notre existence, elle en devient un paramètre que l’on souhaite oublier en le repoussant le plus possible; David Le Breton parle de « déni contemporain de la mort » (2011:290). 

Pourtant il n’en a pas toujours été ainsi et aujourd’hui encore, certaines régions du monde n’ont pas la même expérience de la mort et ne l’approche pas de la même manière que nous. La mort nous apparaît comme « une fin en soi » (Bloch 1993:9), où l’après n’est que difficilement imaginable. Les Grecs, par exemple, ne considéraient pas la mort si différente de la vie: elle en faisait partie, au même titre que la naissance. Dès que l’on interroge la mort, on interroge nécessairement la notion de personne modelée par une culture donnée (1993). La médecine moderne nous pense comme indivisibles, nos éléments internes solidement reliés biologiquement, sans division marquée du corps et de l’esprit: la mort d’une partie entraîne celle de l’autre. À l’opposé, l’idéalisme chrétien se construit autour d’une division du corps et de l’esprit: l’âme est tout et le corps n’est rien (Valette 2013:124). La mort physique n’est donc pas une fin en soi, l’âme continuera de vivre. C’est ce type de conception que l’on retrouve chez les peuples d’Afrique de l’Ouest, tels que les Lobi du Burkina Faso, où l’idée qui prédomine est celle de la réincarnation. L’enfant qui naît reçoit un double « tuh » qui a quitté le corps d’un mort pour se réincarner dans celui d’un nouveau-né, il sera son double vital (Cros 1990). La mort n’est donc qu’un passage entre deux états et ne marque en rien une fin : la mort d’un individu se traduira par la naissance d’un autre. On peut parler de conception cyclique de la vie.

Ces quelques exemples prouvent que les interprétations de la mort sont au centre des actions que les Hommes mettent en place pour agir sur cette dernière. En s’obstinant à repousser la fin de la vie, la médecine moderne véhicule une certaine conception de celle-ci (Revault d’Allones et Van Reeth 2014). Mais peut-on accepter tous ces changements? Jusqu’où irons-nous dans la négation de la mort ? Nous sommes aujourd’hui capables de déjouer un « état de mort apparente » mais peut-on décider d’une limite?

Les débats éthiques soulevés

Le progrès médical, si on le considère comme le recul de la mort, pose de nombreux problèmes éthiques. L’acharnement thérapeutique est défini par la Charte des soins palliatifs et de l’accompagnement (1993) de la Société Française des Soins Palliatifs et de l’Accompagnement par l’attitude qui consiste à « poursuivre une thérapeutique lourde à visée curative, qui n’aurait comme objet que de prolonger la vie sans tenir compte de sa qualité, alors qu’il n’existe aucun espoir raisonnable d’obtenir une amélioration de l’état du malade ». Cette notion est au cœur d’un vif débat entre l’équipe médicale, les proches des patients, les penseurs et l’opinion publique, qui a atteint le service de réanimation néonatale dans les années 1980 (Paillet 2007:176). Ce service est au centre du questionnement: il s’agit de maintenir en vie un bébé en très mauvaise santé, souvent suite à une naissance prématurée, tout en compromettant le moins possible sa vie future. La médecine moderne—qui aurait tendance à réanimer toujours plus tôt des cas toujours plus graves, avec plus de risques de séquelles pour l’enfant—se retrouve confrontée à la résistance de certains praticiens, des parents, et du Comité Consultatif National d’Éthique (CCNE) (Paillet 2007). C’est donc autour des questions « Jusqu’où aller ? » et « Qui réanimer? » que se construisent les discussions des spécialistes, mettant à jour les notions de tri médical et de pouvoir décisionnel. Tout au long de cet article, j’utiliserai le terme morale pour me référer aux règles de conduites liée à un sens du bien et du mal présent dans chaque membre d’une société et modelés en partie par celle-ci, dans ce cas précis la société occidentale, et le terme éthique pour désigner le domaine philosophique qui appréhende, théorise et applique les fondements de cette morale.

La réanimation néonatale est encadrée par quelques textes de loi qui se chargent de trancher ces débats. En France, les médecins se doivent de prendre en charge un enfant qui naît à partir de 24 à 26 semaines d’aménorrhée (un enfant est considéré comme prématuré lorsqu’il naît à moins de 37 semaines de gestation). Au Japon, l’obligation de tenter de sauver un enfant est placée à 22 semaines d’aménorrhée alors qu’en Chine, elle n’est qu’à 28 semaines (Antje Christ 2014). On voit ici une ébauche du rapport de chaque pays avec la natalité. Avant ces échéances, la loi ne préconise aucune action, il en va de la décision de l’équipe médicale. Au-delà de ces questions, la réanimation néonatale est en grande partie aux mains de la morale des médecins, dictée par celle de la société. Comme dans beaucoup de pays occidentaux, l’euthanasie—comprise comme le fait de provoquer la mort d’un patient atteint d’une maladie incurable dans le but d’abréger ses souffrances—est interdite en France comme au Canada (Butler et al. 2013); en ce qui concerne la néonatologie, l’avis n°65 du CCNE laisse entendre que si les lésions cérébrales sont trop importantes et compromettent gravement la vie future d’un enfant devenu autonome (autonomie respiratoire), il serait légitime de considérer l’arrêt des traitements (Gisquet 2008: 17). L’arrêt des soins pour un enfant autonome est encore assez peu pratiqué et il est précédé de nombreuses discussions d’équipe.

Dans ces décisions graves et irréversibles, comment savoir qui doit décider? La discussion devrait-elle réunir parents et équipe médicale ou laisser le choix aux experts, qui prennent en compte chaque paramètre pour estimer les chances de l’enfant et la qualité potentielle de sa vie future ? Ces questionnements sont au cœur de la politique des hôpitaux: alors que certains choisissent de donner aux parents un pouvoir décisionnel, une tendance générale aux Etats Unis, d’autres préfèrent les écarter, invoquant les répercussions morales et psychologiques de telles décisions (Antje Christ 2014).

Ces problématiques éthiques soulevées dans de tels cas—concernant la vie future de l’enfant, l’obligation morale du personnel médical et la responsabilité décisionnelle— témoignent d’une certaine pratique de la médecine qui s’exerce dans des sociétés occidentales ayant pour ambition de dominer la nature.

Corps naturel et corps social

La place de la nature en question

Pierre Erny décrit l’enfant comme « l’homme à l’état de nature » (1988:52), il assure le passage entre la nature, la naissance biologique d’un corps, à celui de la culture, la naissance sociale et la réception des diverses marques sociales.

Françoise Loux, dans Le jeune enfant et son corps dans la médecine traditionnelle, fait écho au siècle dernier où la maladie infantile était « le mal obligatoire » tellement elle était courante (1978:240). On avait alors recours à l’herboristerie ou aux amulettes pour la guérir. Chaque action sur le corps d’un nouveau-né est une action sur un environnement et témoigne d’une interprétation particulière de celui-ci. La réanimation néonatale serait donc une façon de donner du sens à ce qui nous échappe: la nature et ses aléas. C’est une partie de l’analyse que donne Françoise de Barbot: elle affirme que les progrès technologiques et médicaux nous confèrent une illusion de maîtrise de la nature (1993:157).

On peut alors évoquer les théories anthropologiques du matérialisme culturel qui attribuent à chaque phénomène naturel une réponse sociale. Ainsi, les infanticides rituels africains d’enfants jugés « anormaux » seraient une réponse à la trop grande densité de population face aux ressources naturelles (Descola 2011). Si ces théories ont été critiquées, on peut tenter d’appliquer ce type de raisonnement à la politique chinoise de l’enfant unique, en réaction à l’extrême augmentation de la population; aujourd’hui, la Chine ne sauve pas d’enfants nés avant 28 semaines d’aménorrhée (Antje Christ 2014). On peut rapprocher cette réponse de la contraception, et notamment de l’analyse qu’en fait D.H Meadows en 1972 dans un ouvrage collectif intitulé Limits to Growth. Ce dernier prédisait un si fort accroissement de la population qu’il mènerait à une perte de contrôle et donc à des mesures de l’Etat pour restreindre la natalité. Elle augure ainsi la notion de « bio-pouvoir » initiée par Michel Foucault en 1976 dans son ouvrage La volonté de savoir. Le « bio-pouvoir » se réfère au pouvoir de l’autorité (le souverain, le gouvernement puis les institutions) sur la vie ou la mort des individus. Il est passé de « faire mourir et laisser vivre », dans les systèmes monarchiques et féodaux, à « faire vivre et laisser mourir » dans nos sociétés contemporaines (Rose et Rabinow 2006). Ainsi, le pouvoir s’exprime par la prise en charge de la vie et non plus par la menace de mort. Les interventions et forces régulatrices que le pouvoir met en place permettent un plus large contrôle de la population. La démographie est une science nouvelle, liée à l’émergence du capitalisme qui est devenue vectrice de « bio-pouvoir » par sa volonté de restreindre le corps humain à des statistiques et de contrôler son nombre (Foucault 1976:184).  On retrouve cette pensée au cœur de la médecine moderne et de la réanimation en générale; l’enjeu politique intervient dans le dialogue entre nature et technique et le transforme en définissant le règne du « normal ».

Quelle norme biologique est présente dans la pratique de la réanimation? Est-il « normal » de réanimer un patient qui présente tous les signes de la mort physique ? Georges Canguilhem est un des grands philosophes qui se sont interrogés autour de la notion de « norme biologique ». Pour lui « le normal biologique n’est révélé que par les infractions à la norme » (Canguilhem 1966:72), ce sont donc les experts qui construisent une « norme » en reformulant les conditions des patients; la guérison tend à rétablir cette norme en se rapprochant d’un état habituel et idéal. Plus loin dans son ouvrage, Le normal et le pathologique, la sélection naturelle de Darwin est abordée. On peut se demander comment adapter cette idée d’une lutte de l’être humain face à la nature lorsque l’on accompagne les patients dans chaque difficulté pathologique qu’ils rencontrent. La médecine moderne s’est-elle attachée à déjouer ce principe? Aujourd’hui, avoir un génotype « inférieur » ou « supérieur », selon les mots de l’auteur George Guille-Escuret, n’est plus le facteur principal qui altérera notre survie (1989:31). La nature comme l’a décrite Darwin a perdu son pouvoir à l’heure de la technologie médicale.

« Dans les sociétés de l’ultra modernité, la nature n’est plus un ordre » (2003:241), selon Danielle Hervieu Léger, elle est avant tout l’ensemble des façons de percevoir notre environnement  et en cela, on peut affirmer qu’elles sont construites socialement.

Le corps comme modelage social

Le corps est une composante essentielle de la société: il est présent partout où il y a des Hommes, il est au centre de questionnements fondamentaux et sa conception est dictée par des représentations sociales. La pensée du corps de l’enfant varie entre les différentes cultures. Par exemple, les Bantous, population présente majoritairement en Afrique du Sud, considèrent que l’enfant ne fait pas partie du monde tant qu’il n’est pas né socialement, ce qui correspond la plupart du temps à l’apparition des premières dents. Avant ce passage, il est « enfant eau », il n’a pas de nom, pas d’identité sociale et son âme peut décider de retourner dans l’eau, son milieu d’origine, et de faire mourir le corps de l’enfant sans que cela déchaîne les émotions de la famille (Erny 1988). Un autre exemple de cette diversité conceptuelle pourrait être les Lobi, peuple du Burkina Faso, où l’enfant est habité par un « tuh », soit un double vital qui s’exprime notamment par la respiration ou esprit mortel. Les réactions particulières de l’enfant sont attribuées au tuh : si l’enfant pleure trop souvent ou si sa santé est aléatoire, cela signifie que son tuh veut quitter le monde des vivants et retourner de l’autre côté du fleuve, là d’où il vient, en faisant mourir le corps qui l’abrite (Cros 1990).

La vérité du corps, et plus particulièrement du corps malade, naît avec le diagnostic. L’adhésion au discours du thérapeute est présente tant dans la médecine moderne que dans la médecine traditionnelle (Le Breton 2011). La vérité qu’elles construisent est au cœur de la représentation du corps; par leurs diagnostiques différents, elles ne font pas appel à la même réalité. En ce qui concerne la médecine moderne, Foucault, en suivant les arguments de Canguilhem, affirme que le critère du normal est construit et défini par l’expérience de la clinique. Depuis l’époque des Lumières, les développements de la médecine l’ont modelée de telle sorte que sa vérité réside dans un regard unique, celui des experts, dont la seule clarté est tenue pour véridique et objective (Foucault 1963).

Les différentes représentations du corps découlent d’un processus historique, géographique et dynamique qui tend à donner du sens à ce qui nous échappe, à l’instar de beaucoup d’autres phénomènes sociaux. Les divers modèles d’interprétation du corps et de la maladie sont autant de façon d’agir sur son environnement. La réalité du corps est symbolique et cette symbolique sociale est le socle de l’action (Le Breton 2011).

Le corps au cœur des soins

Le primat du résultat : la vie

Dans les chaînons de la réanimation, le premier et certainement celui qui prévaut à bien des égards (moral, éthique, médical), est celui du maintien en vie. Pierre Valette nous expose ainsi l’éthique de la médecine moderne: « tu peux donc tu dois » (2013 : 217). Dès que le praticien a la capacité d’agir contre la mort il doit le faire immédiatement, avant toute considération, sous peine d’être accusé de négligence. La mécanique de la réanimation passe avant toute chose, et plus particulièrement, avant de penser aux conséquences neurologiques de nos actes sur le patient. Michel Dehan et Marie-Antoinette Bouguin parlent d’ « obligation morale » des médecins de porter assistance à tous puis, dans un deuxième temps, d’interrompre les traitements si l’avenir n’est pas envisageable. Le temps du diagnostic est appelé la « réanimation d’attente », sans autre but que de garder le patient en vie et sans promesse d’une rémission. Face à la législation et à l’opinion publique, les médecins ne peuvent « accepter la mort qu’en ultime recours » (Dehan et Bouguin 1993:201)

Ces mécanismes de réanimation, toujours plus efficaces, sont diverses façons de contourner la mort: la prise en charge médicale et les nouveaux outils mis en place ont multiplié les chances de survie; aujourd’hui, l’état « de mort apparente », qui correspond à un coma très profond avec le ralentissement de toutes les fonctions vitales, est réversible (Gisquet 2008).

Dans l’urgence où il faut tout faire pour que l’enfant ne meurt pas, quelles limites peut-on poser pour ne pas tomber dans de « l’acharnement thérapeutique »? La bioéthique s’attache à répondre à ce type de questions délicates. Dans le service de réanimation néonatale, la qualité de la vie future de l’enfant est rapidement compromise car les terminaisons nerveuses sont encore fragiles et en développement : si le cerveau ne reçoit plus d’oxygène, ces connexions ne peuvent être achevées. On ne peut donc « panser » le corps de l’enfant sans prendre en compte les séquelles laissées par les méthodes de réanimation. Dans certains cas, Myriam Révault d’Allonnes et Adèle Van Reeth parlent « d’obstination déraisonnée » (2014); la loi Leonetti du 22 avril 2005 la définit comme telle : « La poursuite des traitements actifs alors que, en l’état actuel de la médecine, ils apparaissent inutiles ou encore que leurs bénéfices, en termes de qualité de vie ou de confort, est disproportionné par rapport aux risques, aux désagréments, à la douleur ou la souffrance morale qu’ils génèrent ». Alors, comment ne pas tomber dans une réanimation extrême où la vie en tant que réalité biologique prime sur la vie sociale et psychologique de l’enfant ?

L’enjeu de cette médecine technique serait alors d’arriver à assurer la survie de l’enfant et d’en estimer la qualité, de s’obstiner sans s’acharner (Paillet 2007:81)

Le corps déshumanisé

La médecine moderne, et spécialement les services de réanimation, fourmillent de tuyaux, fils, défibrillateurs, ordinateurs, machines, et toute une panoplie d’objets techniques pouvant agir de façon quasi automatique sur le corps du malade. Au Japon, l’enfant né prématurément est immédiatement relié à un logiciel qui calcule et analyse sans cesse les variations dans le corps du bébé (Antje Christ 2014). Pour David Le Breton, cet appareillage du corps participe au processus de déshumanisation de la médecine moderne. La médecine telle que nous la pratiquons aurait tendance à oublier le sujet en séparant l’homme des mécanismes biologiques de son corps. Le corps devient un « puzzle »: on choisit d’agir sur tel ou tel organes ou zones affectées comme si ils étaient indépendants du reste du corps (2011:293). Le diagnostic est perçu comme une suite de paramètres qui décident de la survie ou non de la personne. La médecine traite ici de « la machine humaine »: le malade est traité tel une mécanique et son corps est fragmenté (2011:15). On évoque parfois des « enfants cassés » à leur sortie de l’hôpital, abîmés tels des objets par une réanimation soutenue (Paillet 2007:35)

Dans sa « monographie du service A », un service de néonatologie d’un hôpital Français, Elsa Gisquet retranscrit le rapport d’un médecin sur un bébé en réanimation néonatale ; le rapport présente les variations de l’état de l’enfant en utilisant des termes techniques tels que « EEG », « ETF », « MMH », « HIV de grade IV », divers chiffres qualifiés tantôt de « normaux » ou de « denses ». La standardisation des examens participe à la standardisation des corps, traités par les mêmes procédés, les mêmes gestes (2008:42).

La répétition des gestes de réanimation place à leur tour les médecins dans une mécanique pouvant être associée à celle d’une machine (Le Breton 2011). La médecine contemporaine transforme le patient en médium pour exercer sa technique ; Didier Sicard, président du CCNE, parle de « médecine ivre de technologie » (cité par Hennezel 2014:87). Claude Raisky va jusqu’à comparer la médecine moderne aux mécanismes du travail et lui applique les notions de rendement et d’instrumentalisation (2003).

Le débat qui se déroule dans ces services, celui de la vie ou la mort d’un enfant, ne peut être appréhendé de cette manière; même si on entend dans les discours du personnel de santé une certaine prise de recul face aux situations et aux prises de décision extrêmement difficile, ceux-ci se doivent de prendre en compte l’humanité de l’enfant et la situation de ses proches.

Rétablir une humanité

La reconnaissance du statut d’être humain à un nouveau-né n’est pas évidente et n’est énoncée clairement que depuis quelques décennies. L’enfant peut bénéficier désormais des droits reconnus pour tous, comme celui d’être soigné; avant, l’équipe médicale pouvait décider de ne pas donner de chances à un enfant et de ne pas le réanimer (Le Grand Sébille et al. 1998)

L’enfant amené en service de réanimation néonatale n’est évidemment pas en mesure de prendre des décisions ni d’exprimer son avis. On serait donc amenés à considérer les parents comme garants de l’humanité de leur enfant. Leur place peut être essentielle auprès de l’enfant pour lui assurer un lien avec le monde extérieur et ne pas le priver de toute relation. L’hôpital de Cologne, en Allemagne, a montré que la présence des parents et surtout le contact physique avec la mère participaient efficacement au développement cérébral de l’enfant prématuré. La symbiose que forment l’enfant et la mère dans une position qu’ils appellent la position « kangourou » (l’enfant repose sur la poitrine de la mère) permet également de l’apaiser et de favoriser le sommeil, ce qui lui permet ensuite de prendre du poids plus rapidement (Antje Christ 2014). Cette présence auprès de l’enfant est également assurée par les infirmières. Gisquet oppose la technique des médecins « seniors », qui se concentrent sur le développement biologique et enchaînent les accouchements, à l’humanité véhiculée par les infirmières qui sont chargées d’accompagner les patients dans leur guérison (2008:42). Ces dernières prennent le temps de parler, toucher, porter l’enfant ; elles ne se concentrent pas seulement sur les caractéristiques biologiques du nouveau-né mais surtout sur ces réactions, son agitation, ses pleurs et présentent tous ces aspects dans leur rapport écrit quotidien, que les médecins avouent ne pas regarder souvent (2008).

L’importance de la mise en place d’une relation au monde extérieur dans le développement cérébral du nourrisson a été prouvée par la conduite d’études scientifiques. Certains hôpitaux, comme ceux de Cologne et de Zurich, intègrent désormais la pratique de la musicologie dans le traitement des bébés prématurés. Ils incitent également les parents à rester plusieurs heures par jour auprès de leur enfant et favorisent le contact physique. Pour les deux hôpitaux, ces pratiques augmentent rapidement la création des terminaisons nerveuses qui n’ont pas pu se développer dans le ventre de la mère, et limitent ainsi les séquelles cérébrales ultérieures (Antje Christ 2014).

On voit ici les efforts mis en place par l’équipe médicale pour ne pas limiter le corps d’un enfant à une pathologie, pour reprendre le terme de Canguilhem, qu’il faudrait soigner mais pour l’appréhender dans un ensemble qui rétablit alors l’humanité de ce corps auquel on fait face.


Par sa volonté de déjouer la mort et la maladie, la médecine moderne s’inscrit dans un processus d’émancipation d’avec la nature, lui-même poussé par des représentations socialement construites qui considèrent la mort comme la fin de la vie. Ces perceptions de la nature sont vectrices de sens et matrices de l’action de la médecine sur un corps donné et qualifié de « malade ». L’exemple de la réanimation néonatale donne à observer ces différents facteurs qui contribuent à moduler l’idée que nous nous faisons du corps, interrogeant notre morale d’une part et notre course contre la mort de l’autre. La réanimation néonatale invoque de multiples questionnements autour des notions de décision, de responsabilité et d’humanité. Comparer nos façons de faire avec celles d’autres cultures, distantes dans le temps ou dans l’espace, permet une prise de distance d’avec les sentiments puissants impliqués dans cette problématique difficile. Les progrès biologiques de la médecine ont contribué à déplacer l’angoisse néonatale de l’incertitude de la survie de l’enfant à la mise en péril de la qualité de sa vie future au profit de l’assurance de sa survie. Ils soulèvent ainsi de nombreux problèmes éthiques qui prennent leur source dans une interrogation majeure et dont la légitimité peut-elle même être questionnée : quelle vie vaut la peine d’être vécue? 

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Documentary film
Antje Christ, dir. 2014 Grands prématurés : la survie à quel prix ? 52 min. Allemagne. Diffusé le 12 septembre 2014 à 22h25  Arte.

End Notes

[1-4]. My translations.

[5]. Directed by the Société Française des Soins Palliatifs et de l’Accompagnement.

[6-16]. My translations.