Sunday, October 17, 2010

A response to "Biodiverse Resistance"

A friend just told me about this blog called Biodiverse Resistance and I'm really blown away by it. The author, Shiva, explores the links between the liberation struggles of folks with disabilities, queer liberation, feminism, transliberation, ecology, and anti-capitalism, and they use this concept of biodiversity as a framework for articulating these connections. It is some of the freshest radical theorizing going on right now. I particularly like this post. I'm posting my comments on it here because they were too long to put in the comments section on Shiva's blog. I'd be interested to hear Shiva and other folks' thoughts on all of this. My own knowledge on these topics, especially when it comes to disabilities liberation struggles, is very limited and I'm open to critiques.


For years, I studied Christian theology, including ecological theology and feminist theology. I agree with Shiva that in Western cultures (and perhaps others?) there is a somewhat theological emphasis on "bodily acceptance", the idea that God (or nature) gave you your body and you shouldn't alter it. For a lot of Catholics, God and Nature are often synonymous, because so many of the traditions of Catholic moral theology are based in the concept of Natural Law, the idea that God as a Creator infused the world with purpose and direction. For this tradition, fulfilling the purposes of our bodies, our lives, our planet, etc. is a moral imperative. Here, norms don't come from external laws imposed on humans, they spring from our bodies themselves and their relationship to the rest of nature.

For reactionary, patriarchal, heterosexist, and transphobic Catholics this means that anything which does not conform to a narrow definition of bodily flourishing is evil. They would say, for example, that masturbation, birth control, homosexuality, trans identity, abortion etc. are evil because they go against some sort of normative bodily imperative to "flourish" by reproducing. They would argue that our genitals are to be used only for reproduction because that is their "natural", and hence God-given purpose. Some even even take this to the extreme and argue that walking on our hands is a venial sin because the hands are not made for walking, they are made for other purposes. I have also heard anti-choice Catholics use this as a wedge to divide disabilities liberation and feminist movements, when they argue for example that legalized abortion plus new screening technologies that can analyze the genetics of fetuses will lead to the selective abortion of fetuses with disabilities, and hence eugenics.

The irony is that a lot of these reactionaries have a completely different stance when it comes to altering those parts of the natural world that exist outside the human body. They would generally endorse capitalist development projects that enclose land and resources and turn them into commodities to be traded on the "free market". They would generally endorse aspects of modern science that alter nature for profit. They would be critical of deep-ecology and other political ideologies that say nature (conceived of as outside and opposed to human civilization) should be off limits for human influence and that any attempt to alter it is evil.

Some Catholic feminists have rejected natural law because of this reactionary baggage it carries. Others, like Christina Traina and Jean Porter have tried to reclaim/ reinterpret natural law by redefining what is natural based on contemporary science and the insights of feminist theory. They reject the patriarchal biases and the barely updated 12th century science that informs so much official Catholic thinking on nature, and would include homosexuality, and open celebration of women's sexuality as "natural" and hence something good, something that is part of human flourishing. The problem is, some but not all of these folks would endorse aspects of deep ecology and would say we shouldn't alter non-human nature and that our attempts to alter it are what have caused the ecological crisis. Again, there is that contradiction - what we ought to do with our bodies is contrasted to what we ought to do with the rest of nature.

Shiva's emphasis on biodiversity seems to overcome that contradiction, by breaking down the divide between human and non-human nature. The concept of biodiversity does this well, and it also is a good tool for challenging reactionary understandings of human nature, because it shows that human nature, like non-human nature, thrives when it is complex and diverse, and it perishes when it is reduced to some narrow concept of what is "normal." What's key here I think is to link the concept of biodiversity back into evolutionary theory, to show that nature itself is not static, it is always changing. At a certain point in evolutionary history, some of the things we take for granted like opposable thumbs or large brains were mutations, variations on the average body type. Who is to say that the body types our oppressive society considers "abnormal" or "freakish" today might not actually be new evolutionary forms of humanity and nature? Maybe queer folks, transfolks, folks with disabilities, etc. are actually showing the rest of humanity aspects of being human that are currently underdeveloped, and if they flourish they could help humanity as a whole grow and liberate itself from past material constrains and social oppression.

I would be cautious to say this is the only reason why queer folks, transfolks, and folks with disabilities should have freedom and justice because it can come off sounding like those liberals who argue for affirmative action only because "diversity" improves the leaning environment of white folks - instead of getting at the real problem which is that a long history of oppression has kept oppressed people down and this needs to be overthrown. Also, I want to avoid romanticizing the experiences of folks with disabilities, or reducing these experiences to some kind of "improvement" on "normal" body types. This can become its own kind of essentialism because not everyone with a disability necessary wants to embrace this disability and see it as something the contributes to humanity, and that's also a choice people should be able to make. So politically this rhetoric of biodiversity would need to be complemented by an emphasis on justice and liberation (I imagine Shiva might agree with this), but biodiversity is a key philosophical concept that can ground this struggle for justice and liberation in a broader understanding of nature and society.

The danger here is this type of thinking is illustrated by the person who criticized Shiva at the queer ecology conference. What about choice? What about folks who choose to be queer, or trans, for example, and don't want to see it as something "natural" they were "born with"? I agree this critic and with Shiva - politically, we need a libertarian approach that does not police folks choices when it comes to their bodies. As commentor Anne C put it well, bodily acceptance and bodily autonomy are not separate, they're two sides of the same coin because we should be free NOT to change our bodies if we don't want to and we should be free to change our bodies if we do want to. Anything other than that gives society and government too much power which can and will be used to reinforce oppression. This is true when it comes to limiting the power of the current patriarchal-white supremacist-capitalist-heterosexist state, but it is also true when it comes to envisioning a new society. Our revolutionary dreams could rapidly become nightmares if people start to tell transfolks or folks with disabilities "you can't alter your body that way anymore because there is no need to do it now, we've had a revolution and you're free to accept your body the way it is." This sounds a lot like the Revolutionary Community Party USA's line where they said homosexuality would disappear after the revolution.

Often the Left deals with this kind of dilemma by trying to do away with the concept of what is "natural" or "healthy" altogether. I've heard many Leftists argue that all concepts of nature and health are socially constructed, and hence can be changed by human agency. The problem with this is it imagines an abstract human individual who is separate from material reality and can just change that reality based on individual will. This seems to fall into some of the classic mind over body splits that Capitalism and patriarchy have created, which is something that feminism has tried to challenge. Also, it seems to put human willpower over and against nature, which can't be good in terms of developing an ecological politics.

What about an alternative approach, one that tries to understand choice, freedom, and agency as part of nature itself? Maybe Shiva's concept of biodiversity can contribute to that. Have folks ever read Murray Bookchin's book "The Philsophy of Social Ecology"? He tries to get at something similar (though his politics on disabilities, queer liberation, and transliberation are limited) He argues that human history is a part of natural evolution, they are not separated. Like Shiva, he thinks human society thrives when it has its own biodiversity,when it is complex and changing instead of simplified and static. He sees capitalism as simplifying and suffocating both natural and human biodiversity, possibly bringing evolution to a halt. And he envisions a social ecological revolution where human biodiversity will flourish and human society will become "nature rendered self-conscious."

He is able to imagine humans as nature rendered self-conscious because he sees choice, agency, and what libertarian Marxists would call self-activity present throughout nature. He argues that the idea of evolution as "survival of the fittest" or "adaptation" is outdated and is a distortion of oppressive Victorian era patriarchal, racist, and capitalist science. He draws from more contemporary evolutionary theorists who argue that sentient beings actually shape our surroundings and play a role in shaping our own evolution. Not just humans, but other beings as well. In other words, there is a an aspect of self-activity present in the evolutionary process even before humans emerge from it. Our capacity for self-activity and choice actually comes from our bodies and the way they evolved.

So if you take that as step further, our choices to alter our bodies could actually be an extension and continuation of this evolutionary process. And, this evolutionary process is not always as slow creeping linear development, it also includes breaks, leaps, and revolutions, which could happen even faster as humans re-organize technology to express our desires for freedom instead of to dominate each other and the rest of nature.

In any case, I think returning to some of these philosophical and theoretical points can really help us overcome some of the limitations of contemporary ecological, anti-capitalist, and feminist thinking. I'm looking forward to continuing the dialogue.