March 15, 2009

Hyperparenting: The Ethnography

I have a long list (it exists only in my head unfortunately) of various ethnographic projects I would like to conduct. I might start the real list soon but in the meantime, I will just through the half-baked ideas here and perhaps it will inspire others to take it on. I am currently reading a fantastic book, The Case Against Perfection, and am on a section on hyperparenting and well, while I think at a common sense level we know what psychological havoc such controlled parenting can cause, I think an ethnography of some of the practices and institutions of hyperparenting would, nonetheless, make for a fascinating read. If anyone knows of anything that even resembles this, do drop me a line.

Update: Not exactly an ethnography but certainly fun to read.

December 14, 2008

Thinking Responsibily about the Drugs among Us

Category: Academic,Disability Studies,Ethics,Human Enhancement — Biella @ 12:51 pm

Next semester I am teaching a new undergraduate course tentatively titled “Technology, Society, and Media: The Body under Transition, in Movement, and under (Massive) Transformation(s).” As designed, the course should address technology and media in fairly broad stokes (which I do) but I narrow and control what is a truly unwieldy subject by framing the issues/readings in relation to the human body. Generally speaking, we will interrogate the ways in which technology engenders or erases bodily/human possibilities/capacities and especially the ethical and political ramifications that precipitate from the use/abuse of technology. We traverse a wide range of topics from the telegraph (and how it was used to speak with the dead) to the role of human enhancement technologies of today, to questions of surveillance and privacy, among many other topics.

I am pretty far along with the syllabus and pretty happy with it. So far I think I have struck a nice balance between fun/light/accessible readings and some which are bit more theoretically dense. I am still looking for one or two pieces, perhaps one on tattoos and body modification and another about karaoke. If anyone knows any great articles on these topics, do pass along the information.

I am probably most excited about the cluster of issues that address eugenics (and most students know next to nothing about America’s central role in unleashing the Eugenics’ movement), disability rights activism, human enhancement technologies, and transhumanism. Considering human enhancement in light of previous efforts to enhance our population brings into relief the similar and distinct ethical issues that haunt this field.

One of the most hot button issues of today concern the use of human enhancing drugs. The prestigious journal Nature has just published an editorial on the topic of cognitive enhancement drugs,Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy, which is a fairly interesting read and covers some of the main controversies.

For me, however, the interesting issue is not only whether human enhancement is right or wrong–though this is certainly important–but what our embrace of these drugs tell us about the conditions under which our bodies live and labor. That is, I think we are actually missing out on posing some other important questions simply by framing this int terms of human enhancement.

I suspect, and this is where ethnography would really help out, that many people turning to enhancement drugs may not be medically sick, in the technical sense but I don’t think they are healthy either. Many who turn to these drugs feel pretty worn, pretty exhausted, pretty frazzled (the perfect word, I think, is agotado, Spanish for exhausted) and use these drugs as crutches, as band-aids, as an elixir to help out one preserver in tough work circumstances. I am sure there are folks who take these drugs feel fine and are just trying to push their limits and capacities but I troll many many many patient support sites and it also seems to me that many people live under a state of low-grade chronic state of unwellness. Given the pace of society, given what and how we eat, given the extraordinary rates of depression in our society ,given the fact that babies are born with 200 + chemicals in their bodies (what a way to start out life) I am skeptical that enhancement really captures what is going on with these drugs.

I have not yet come up with the right term, but I am trying to come up with a phrase that would reflect the ways in which these drugs are not used as therapies for a discrete condition (Type 1 diabetes) but how they are a collective response to a state of low grade chronic unwellness that seems to mark the lives of a whole lot of people. This, I think, would be one responsible approach to human “enhancement” technologies that would contextualize their use within a much broader frame, one that is attuned to how bodies have been made, remade, and limited under actual material conditions of labor and life in the 21st century.