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A review of Copula by Robyn Ferrell, Australian academic and creative writer

August 15, 2010

Disrupting Copulation, Disrupting the Body
Book Title:
Copula: sexual technologies, reproductive powers
Author: Robyn Ferrell
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006
SUNY Series in Gender Theory
Page Count: 190

Copula comes from a long lineage of feminist engagement with the female body, the maternal being, and more recently since the 1990s, the technology of reproduction. Ferrell draws on qualitative work in the sociology of reproductive science, and more than a century’s worth of theories of bio-capital social production/reproduction beginning from Marx, all the way to psychical response to the trauma and disruption that comes from the reconstitution of the female subjectivity. The psychical becomes the playground by which the psychoanalytic, beginning from Freud, attempts a serious exploration. Hence, this is where Ferrell asserts her intellectual investments.

Ferrell is preoccupied with the limitations and inadequacy of theory to account sufficiently for the ontology of a maternal body, and more generically, the female body. Furthermore, there is a possible incompatibility between intellectual labor and the labor of sexual reproduction. However, Ferrell is uncomfortable with dismissing the maternal body to the realm of the abject as she views the latter as a creative life force within other forms of labor relations even as she cautions against its idealization. She wants to place the creative force of the maternity as an active collaboration process, though it is not clear as to where the male other figures in this collaboration. In Ferrell’s estimation, the body is the site of struggle between the Butlerian deconstructive body that is already a byproduct of the entanglement between gender/sex, located within the Foucauldian flows of power, and of phenomenological feminine embodiment that critiques how the body resists change even if the mind is aware of the violence and oppression involved.

The main aim of this book is to revisit the object of woman’s relationality to another, which could be a child or a subjective non-human entity. Influenced by theorists such as Cixous, Kristeva and Irigaray, she frames the question of the woman and her origins within the story of creation that is accounted by the biological and social structures that make her body the site of maternity. Ferrell also criticizes traditional philosophy, and even feminists such as de Beauvoir, for being only able to speak of the body of the woman in its relationship to that of the man. By setting the background for the maternal-material body, she argues that the discourse of maternity centers on subject/object distinction and the privileging of the masculinized ego ideal over that of the negatively-viewed feminine. She also critiques the over-investment of object-relations theory in trying to provide a symbolic representation between the mother-child relationship and for psychical obsession with the trope of the maternal body.

In laying the claims of the constitution of the maternal ontology, Ferrell segues into a discussion of the maternal body as the site of the technological by invoking the Heideggerian notion of techne, to become by moving away from relating towards a way of thinking. Her introductory narrative to the discourse of the maternal body as the site of techne is laced with Heidegger’s theory of technology as instrument , and of the instrumentation of the technological body. She connects the problematics of viewing the body as a technological instrument (which undercuts the dominant notion of kinship and family) with bioethical dilemma. Ferrell argues that the problem with bioethics lies in the fact that it accepts its “normative status” as supervening upon scientific fact. She ventures that the very evaluative and judgmental condition of ethics renders it incapable of having “first-order relationship” with the science it claims to supervise (25). The body as a technological being raises another issue of agency in relation to legality and ethics, such as whether one should have an abortion. This is where the ‘natural’ reproduction clashes with the bio-technologically mutated and manipulated.  She suggests that this paradox came about because technological morality is situated within a masculinist perspective that ignores the sexed specificity of that moral code. Hence, technology does not necessarily undermine existing structures but rather reinforces heteronormative notions.

By re-analyzing dominant debates on the subject of reproduction within the annals of science studies by resite-ing them in feminist psychoanalytic terms, Ferrell is not venturing too far from the discourse of the technology of genre (and thus of order) and gender. Yet, she wants to take-up the Haraway project of situated knowledge by pinning it on the plurality of differences, and resists a return to essentialism even though she does not offer us other paths to epistemic formation. She tries to transcend the limits of the feminine body by taking the discourse of reproduction to the level of abstract reproduction of the generic, hence re-siteing it at the level of the viral in information science, bio-informatics and the mechanical/digital reproduction of media and film.

Nevertheless, this does not solve the dilemma that feminist theory has found itself in for quite some time; how to move out of discussions of social justice without ignoring the abject reality of its lack; and placing feminist critique within the discussion of sexual difference that reconfigures the semiotics of masculinity and femininity for a more empowering re-reading of the feminine. New media theory tries to bring about a differential ontology for a discursive expression of the reproductive body by resignifying the embodiment of its flesh within an incorporeal virtuality, and making the process of cloning and reproducing a seamless multiplication and mutation of informational flow, with errors and systemic residues that could be whitewashed over without ethical repercussions (as long the accumulation of such errors do not jeopardize the workings of the system). Yet, the re-situating of knowledge within this differential ontology does not resolve the unrelenting issues posed by the ineluctable presence of dominance and power, or redistribution of resources. These issues have been pervasive throughout all possible permutations of cultural theory’s interventions into the nexus of race-gender-politics.

While not bringing anything ontologically new to the table, I would suggest that Ferrell attempts to reopen the wounds to the question that no amount of theorizing has been successful in mending.

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