Aileen Douglas has remarked, of Tobias Smollett, that “if you prick a socially constructed body, it still bleeds.”
Blood, skin, mucous, flesh… all are part of that body that we inhabit, the body that matters only when we take the time to ponder its actions and its meanings. It is tempting to think, in the world of social construction, that we have authority over our bodies. That our bodies may tell stories, but that it is up to us – as social beings – to interpret those stories. Such a reading suggests that we can tell stories differently. That we have the ability to change our bodily narratives.
The self, in this scenario, is constructed not by the body, but by the stories we tell about the body. Where, then, is the body located in our stories of self? Is it nothing more than a stage upon which we present our psyches, through which we perform our selves? Or is there something more at play?
Blood is, as Douglas reminds us, still blood. It is a fact of our selves. Like skin colour or body size, blood is a fact of our being. It is something that shapes our experiences, our being in the world, and in so doing, something that shapes who we are.
But how far can we take this? I’ve been reading Rebecca Skloot’s amazing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. What remains of Lacks is her genetic imprint – the generations of cells grown from the bits taken, without her permission, from her cervical cancer. To her family members, these cells embodied Henrietta herself, they carried her identity within them … and today, as Skloot points out, there is no way of knowing how many of Henrietta Lacks’ cells are in existence. The number is, quite literally, inconceivable.
What might such cells reveal about the life narrative of Henrietta Lacks? And how do we understand such bits of life? Can they reveal the woman she was? Can they contribute to that process of revelation? And what, in turn, might they reveal about the life narrative of science itself?
Where does life exist? Where does the self exist? These are questions that have fascinated thinkers for centuries. With recent advances in genome sequencing, these questions move into a new level entirely. If the self is embodied, where is that body? Of what does that body consist? And what stories can it tell? Is my body, my self? Or is it other to me? Does it tell stories I want to hear? Or does its intentionality run counter to the I that I conceive myself to be? And if I choose to tell its stories, how might those stories emerge? At what point do my body and I meet?
There is something very tempting about personal genomics. It promises a chance to see inside the depths of the body, to examine the very nature of life itself. It offers the chance to tell the future, to reveal secrets that lie hidden beneath the surface. Steven Pinker writes that “A firsthand familiarity with the code of life is bound to confront us with the emotional, moral and political baggage associated with the idea of our essential nature …. We are only beginning to recognize that our genome … contains information about our temperaments and abilities. Affordable genotyping may offer new kinds of answers to the question ‘Who am I?’ – to ruminations about our ancestry, our vulnerabilities and our choices in life.”
But, as Pinker himself queries, does it actually deliver what it promises? Do these stories reveal the secrets of life, and with them, the stories of the self? On the surface, this approach appears to me dangerously determinist, with the results of personal genomics leading to a passive I whose only goal is to wait for future to become the present, in essence, to wait for history to happen. I can’t even begin to imagine what the existentialists would make of it.