I ask you: move your head around a bit; start small and then really get into it. Notice the movement of the vertebra of your cervical spine; the various tensions of the muscles of the neck and the jaw when you move your head this way or that; which kinds of movements seem to alleviate lurking discomforts (you’re welcome), or make them worse (sorry). Reflect on this, and try to catalog everything about the structures and processes that seems relevant. How and why do you know what you know? Are you picturing illustrations or making use of any particular terminology? How did this knowledge come to be made, and to become available to you? How has the societal body of biological knowledge shaped your understanding of your own experiential body?
i0 xen0 is a researcher, artist, and transsexual based in Berlin. It has an academic research background in science and technology studies; its visual and performance art focuses on how people understand and imagine the internal structures and processes in their bodies, including through technologies of voluntary and involuntary bodily surveillance. All aspects of i0 xen0’s academic and artistic work are informed by embodied contemplative practice. Its recent research on how people collectively comprehend hormonal experience is in the process of publication with HumDrum Press. This upcoming book (“How Do We Know What We Know About Hormones?”) contains practical invitations for individual and collaborative building of body knowledge. The content, framing, and spirit of i0 xen0’s essay on M.Y.B.’s book owes much to Ellen Samuels’ “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time” (2017).
M.Y.B.’s book is concerned with biology as “a science of life undertaken by the living” (p. 27) as well as “an organ in the body of capitalism, each dependent on the other” (M.Y.B. p. 72), so inevitably, both you and I are implicated in both our direct bodily experiences, and the sense-making organism of biology as a vehicle of our bodily understanding. Several themes of time are alive in this book, as well as within my own life and research. Thus, in this essay, I offer a reading of M.Y.B.’s “Where does a Body begin?” from the perspective of a few of the different kinds of body-time.
Just before reading “Where does a Body begin?” I read “Saving Time” by Jenny Odell (2023) which reminded me of the notion of kairotic rather than chronological time. In this book, kairos refers to a temporal bodily orientation responsive to seasons and opportunities for action, rather than obeying an arbitrary chronological framing imposed by capitalist demand. Nearly a decade ago, I had encountered the notion of “kairos” for the very first time in the context of rhetoric of science, and there it was used to make a different point.
Rhetoric of science analyzes the tools of argumentation used by scientists and other workers within science-making organizational structures. M.Y.B. writes about the needs of individual scientists to market themselves, to network, and to position research grants in superficially diverse but fundamentally homogenizing ways; and this reminds me of that first use of “kairos” I encountered in the work of Carolyn Miller (1994) on how the rhetoric of science is distinct from the rhetoric of technology. There, the idea of kairos “tells us to look for the particular opportunity in a given moment, to find - or construct - an opening in the here and now, in order to achieve something there and then” (Miller 1994). Kairos can denote “a rhetorical void, a gap, a ‘problemspace,’ that a rhetor can occupy for advantage” which “can be constructed as well as discovered” (ibid.). Where the rhetoric of scientific need - the gap to fill - orients toward discovered opportunities, the rhetoric of technological progress actively constructs opportunities for itself, crafting a narrative of its own seasons to then superficially respond to, translating an imposed capitalist chronological order into a rhetoric of responding to opportune moments.
In “Where does a Body begin?”, M.Y.B. characterizes “the interrelations of the biological sciences with postmodernity and capital” (M.Y.B. p. 39), particularly in drug research and development. Despite a superficial separation between biology-as-science and biology-as-technology, there is a deep interconnection, and so the self-perpetuating rhetoric of technological progress is neither contained, nor containable: “A biologist creates possibilities and these possibilities will be integrated into units of power” (M.Y.B. p. 72).
Some bodies are far less studied than others, with a widespread and persistent exclusion of menstruating subjects from both animal and human drug research because of the inconvenient bodily seasons created by ovarian hormones. Addressing the myth that “using females means we need to know the estrous cycle phase or remove the ovaries” within neuroscience, Shansky and Murphy (2021) point out that “ovarian hormones are unquestionably powerful neuromodulators, but … gonadal hormones are not a uniquely ‘female problem’ for neuroscientists. Examining the influence of the estrous cycle on a particular experimental question is always an option, but is not required for research in females, just as assessing testosterone levels (which can vary up to tenfold across a cohort) is not standard practice for experiments in males.” Despite institutional efforts to include more representative subjects in studies, many studies continue to underreport relevant information and rely on “misconceptions surrounding the hormonal variability of females” (Woitowich et al, 2020).
The perception of some bodies as unwieldy subjects and some gonadal hormones as unwieldy modulators is one example of the ontological limitations of the current empirical process: “Our models of biology and our foundational ontology of biology inform the nature of questions we ask and the data and experiments we consider relevant to our understanding. This does not imply that the investigations themselves are incorrect. To suggest that the paradigms of biology have meaningful orientations, generated by the context in which biology is done, only suggests that these social aspects have significant impact on the higher-level assumptions and questions relevant to a period of science” (M.Y.B. p. 53-54).
The colloquial dismissal of some particular angry gendered body as “hormonal” is part of the same body of knowledge that can exclude a whole category of biological matter because it is inconvenient for the specific structure of atomization within the biological sciences that requires the abstraction and reduction of a human person into an imagined “neutral” state. M.Y.B. writes that the central ontological premise of biological research demands researchers to define “normal,”“healthy,” “bad,” or “better” functioning, but “without a compelling portrait of the systemic nature of the organisms being considered, ... it is worth questioning the conceptual validity of any such considerations” (M.Y.B. p. 84). In our example, the definition of a “normal” body has historically been one that can ignore potentially enormous body impact of testosterone levels at the same time as seriously suggesting that “using females means we need to know the estrous cycle phase or remove the ovaries” (Shansky and Murphy, 2021), which illustrates a profound absence of systemic understanding of a body.
Atomization and specialization, M.Y.B. argues, has been one of the “primary social consequences of 20th century cybernetic thought” (p. 89) and the concern with, above all, cause-and-effect, isolated function. Allan Horwitz (2021) offers a history of this process taking place within psychiatry: responding to the rise of function orientation in biomedical practice with a deliberate atomization of the matters of the mind, with the explicit goal to remove the need for deep personal context and history in treatment (as psychoanalysis would have it) and replace it with generalizable diagnostic and treatment protocols mirroring the contemporary treatment of the body. When I read that book last year, my immediate reaction was: what if that epistemic paradigm did not move away from deep-context and toward atomization; imagine if it had been the other way around, and the treatment of body ailments had rather borrowed epistemologically and ontologically from psychoanalysis! What might clinical practice look like today?
As a path beyond our contemporary predicament, M.Y.B. offers the idea of opacity; “A zone of opacity is a setting which cannot be functionalized and does not have distinctly granular features. Its intrinsic character is a form in spite of specifics … is not an assembly of features which can be understood through time-point observations” (p. 106). Biological sciences require methods for comprehending an organism that do not require exclusion of unwieldy parts. In the example of gonadal hormones, it must be possible to acknowledge the temporal complexity of every human body in response to its many overlapping internal rhythms, without necessitating destructive removal or isolation as prerequisites. M.Y.B. mentions the microbiome (p. 110) as an example: “the specific aspects of an individual’s microbiome amounts to little generalizable understanding.” Personally, I am curiously following the practice of self-tracking by microbiome researchers (Gimbert and Lapointe, 2015) which seems, to me, to parallel some self-reflective aspects of psychoanalytic thought.
While reading “Where does a Body begin?”, the section that stopped me in my tracks most was probably the one that included: “When a scientist claims that the molecular parts of a biological phenomenon are the cause of the systemic parts, it is a claim in direct opposition to the fact that both must necessarily occur simultaneously” (p. 50). In “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (2015), one of the core ideas is that the very physiology of human language creates an experience and understanding of time that requires action and progression. This is the sci-fi novella on which the 2016 US film “Arrival” is based, and it features an alien species that have an entirely different physiology of language and, therefore, perception of time: causality is simultaneous, depending on the nature of expression. By learning the alien language, the main (human) character is able to perceive time in the radically different way.
I have written above about two notions of body-time (kairotic, or seasonal; unwieldy, or opaque) that are both rooted in movement and progression. The third lens of temporal experience that I want to briefly use to read M.Y.B.’s text is non-progressive time. The capitalist drives of biology are inseparable from the desire to prevent, resist, delay, or eliminate aging, decay, disease, and death. This informs the function-orientation of biology, which “is deeply related to a biology whose concern lies in intervention, in a paradigm of human interaction with biological questions as curative gestures” (M.Y.B. p. 83).
Arguably one of the single biggest individual contributions to these “curative gestures” has been the tissue of Henrietta Lacks, who died from a malignant cancer that lives on as immortal HeLa cells. This deathless, timeless tissue has extensive utility in basic research and drug development alike. Its collection and distribution had dubious consent in the first place; the eventual disclosure of her name and the use of her photographs in texts specifically lacked consent from the Lacks family; and, as one of her children noted in Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book, “If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”
Biology as a meaning-making project is inseparable from either direct bodily experiences, or social contexts and capitalist pressures within which these bodily experiences are situated in the first place. This is why it is so essential to reflect, as M.Y.B. does, on the relationship between the biological sciences and capital: “Market forces’ role in the opioid crisis, social pharmaceuticalization, social medicalization, and the highly redundant and expensive curative medical industry … are all frequently discussed symptoms of a biology which centers on bottom-up ontologies. … [A] feedback of knowledge into the market and structures of governance, and vice versa, precludes other ontological approaches … [If other] ideas are dabbled in or even enforced through public governance they still exist within a functionalizing ontological framework” (M.Y.B. p. 70). We are stuck in the “affirming cyclicality of science as a social institution” (ibid.), despite the constructed sensation of progress kairos in the rhetoric of technological progress.
What is beyond the stuckness? Rather than the atomizing primacy of function, biology must center “systemic, holistic, or preventative views” (ibid.), which requires the approach of an opaque systems biology with “the goal … not to locate hyper specific targets, treatments, and therapies, but to understand the properties of biological systems, things which can precipitate individual use of knowledge in ways which are not inherently known” (M.Y.B. p. 110).
“A body begins when its specifics
cannot be constrained.”
– M.Y.B. p. 123
cannot be constrained.”
– M.Y.B. p. 123
Chiang, Ted (2015). "Story of Your Life". Stories of Your Life and Others (e-book ed.). Picador. p. 76. ISBN 978-1-4472-8198-6.
Horwitz, Allan V. DSM: a history of psychiatry's bible. JHU Press, 2021.
Gimbert, Carine, and François-Joseph Lapointe. "Self-tracking the microbiome: where do we go from here?." Microbiome 3, no. 1 (2015):
Miller, Carolyn R. "Opportunity, opportunism, and progress: Kairos in the rhetoric of technology." Argumentation 8 (1994): 81-96
Odell, Jenny. Saving time: Discovering a life beyond the clock. Random House, 2023
Shansky, Rebecca M., and Anne Z. Murphy. "Considering sex as a biological variable will require a global shift in science culture." Nature neuroscience 24, no. 4 (2021): 457-464
Skloot, Rebecca. "The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks." New York : Crown Publishers, 2010. (When reading, consider also later responses, such as: Gamble, Vanessa Northington. "The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks reconsidered." Hastings Center Report 44, no. 1 (2014): inside-back)
Woitowich, Nicole C., Annaliese Beery, and Teresa Woodruff. "A 10-year follow-up study of sex inclusion in the biological sciences." Elife 9 (2020): e56344