April 16, 2007

On the Caveat, Better than Well, and HOT Latino Bodies

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,carl_elliot,Politics,Psychiatry,Tech — Biella @ 12:07 pm

So, yes these three topics, the caveat, the book Better than Well and Hot Latino Bodies are related. You just have to stick with this long post to find out why…


As I progress slowly but surely with my book manuscript, I am really coming to see how a dissertation and book are quite different creatures. I think one of the most important and noticeable differences is that a book has a lot more short caveats and warrants than necessary in a dissertation.

I think there are two main reasons for this. One of which is has to do with your committee members, the primary and (usually only readers) of the dissertation. They are a lot more prepared and adept to ingest complex ideas than lets say undergraduate students, because that is what they are trained to do and because most of them are much more familiar with your topic because they have been with it nearly as long as you have. In a dissertation you are also allowed to (and often expected) to go on and on, ad naseum, with your theoretical explanations that help substantiate what are otherwise shakier, initial claims. For various reasons, for a book, especially if you are not some FFT (Famous French Theorist), you are strongly encouraged to dump most of the theory in favor of providing a streamlined version (which really, is preferable of course, but extraordinarily hard to pull off).

I have been thinking a lot of the caveat because I have just finished re-reading a book “Better than Well” that is not only fascinating in its own right but brings the caveat to a stunning art form. The author, Carl Elliot, is a philosopher/bio-ethicist and the topic of the book, broadly speaking, examines how the rise of new enhancement technologies (prozac, plastic surgery, sex change surgery) is bound tightly with longer-standing, distinctly American ideals, such as the autonomous, self-directed and authentic self.

It is one of those rare books that can be read by your father, aunt and uncle, tossed over to a willing teenager, and assigned in all sorts of college courses and still manage to impress all sort of academics in all sorts of fields. Part of the reason for his broad appeal is because the book is thoughtful and clever and so chock-full of really interesting examples that you are hooked and want more of his tasty intellectual Kool-Aid. So while he has one main focus, which largely triangulates between enhancement technologies, selfhood, and consumerism, in the process of exploring them, you learn about a bunch of other really neat topics: suburbia, the history of cosmetics and childhood, odd social phobias, long-gone and culture- bound disorders like dissociative, fugue, amputee wanabee’s, extreme blushing, and so much more. Along with crystal clear writing, he also throws in some classically funny lines, my favorite one currently being: “For better or worse, suburbia has come to stand for something than can be survived only with minor tranquilizers.”

Another reason he manages to pull this Houdini-like feat is because of his judicious and artful use of the caveat, which is really the only way he can bring forth complex ideas, in a fashion that is much more accessible than is usually done in a purely academic book.

To take on example, when he introduces the usefulness theories of Thorstein Veblen, an economist usually known (and only barely), by academics, he opens in the following way, because in many ways, if you just decided to pick up a copy of Veblen, his style make strike outdated:

“Reading Veblen nearly a century after he wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, it is not easy to know which parts of the book to take seriously. It comes off as equal parts intellectual theory, social satire, and crackpot polemic,” (and goes on for a full more paragraph) and then says “Where Veblen is prescient, however, is his sense that in a consumption economy, consumer goods would become markers of who we are.” p. 103

In this way he can say, “ok Veblen is useful because of this specific reason” and yet communicate to his academic readers that he knows the limits of Veblen.

No matter how much I love the book, and now matter how I think his use of the caveat is stunning, there are two problems I have with it. In one case, I think he fails to give one of the most important caveats.

He paints a picture in which all of American society is ensnared in dominant social codes and mores (which somehow all point back to consumerism and capitalism and a desire to improve the self). While there are points he seems to back away from that sort of statement, and a few rare points where he ascribes his insights to the group I think he should mainly be sticking to—white, liberal-leaning middle-class Americans—I think there are more instances where he paints a picture of America as far more uniform than it actually is. According to his account, no one is immune to the forces he so eloquently writes of and so in the end the environmentalist activist, is as caught up in the traps of consumer life-style as is the investment banker on Wall Street.

It lead hims to say such statements as

“Many Americans today learn who they want to be by listening to a Methodist minister or a civics teacher but by watching advertisements for The Gap.”

Ok while he bit about the civics teacher may be true, any consideration of lets, say… the religious right in this country, which, as we know from recent elections, don’t represent a teeny-tiny itsy-bitsy minority (and for a fascinating glimpse into the world, I would recommend Jesus Camp), would bring holes, and sizable ones, to that sort of statement. Many Americans do in fact listen to their minster. And this does not only help explain the deep divisions in this country, but I bet because they do listen to their pastors, their notions of the good, the self, etc, are going to be pretty distinct from those he describes (and gain see Jesus Camp to get at this point)

It is not that the religious right exists outside of the web of consumerism we are all at least partially caught in, and indeed, a lot of the new Protestant religious movements here and elsewhere as Jean and John’s Comaroff’s work has shown can be all about securing a more robust middle class lifestyle. But we must remember that even something as powerful as consumer capitalism or dominant ideals of an authentic, beautiful self—though powerful and more often than not work in concert with each other—do not quite have the power to efface all meaningful difference— between lets say a white, “liberal” middle class woman and let’s say, many Latinos, who, do, let’s not forget, comprise a huge portion of America. Many Americans have a very different picture of the ideal female body than the picture he explores, which is skinny and lanky and forever youthful (and hence the appeal of botox and lipo). Let me provide just one example drawn from the annual Puerto Rican day parade and this hold true for the one held either in NYC or Chicago.

Along with a blizzard of Puerto Rican flags, what you may also notice is the abundance of really bright spandex being donned on ladies that are not by any standard of the word “slim.” I am sure that any middle class lady (you know, the type who spends 5 days of the week working out at the gym, wishing her thighs were just a little thinner), would feel morally repulsed in seeing that sort of image, that is if they even bothered to go to the parade. But among many Puerto Rican men (not all) a sexylicious and extra-curvy, meaty Puerto Rican woman, decked out in tight & bright spandex, will like bring on a loud “HAY MAMITA, ven acá”…………………” which roughly translates into “You are HOT… Like I want you NOW.”