Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine

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Embryo adoptions, stem cells capable of transforming into any cell in the human body, intra- and inter-species organ transplantation—these and other biomedical advances have unsettled ideas of what it means to be human, of when life begins and ends. In the first study to consider the cultural impact of the medical transformation of the entire human life span, Susan Merrill Squier argues that fiction—particularly science fiction—serves as a space where worries about ethically and socially charged scientific procedures are worked through. Indeed, she demonstrates that in many instances fiction has anticipated and paved the way for far-reaching biomedical changes. Squier uses the anthropological concept of liminality—the state of being on the threshold of change, no longer one thing yet not quite another—to explore how, from the early twentieth century forward, fiction and science together have altered not only the concept of the human being but the contours of human life.

Drawing on archival materials of twentieth-century biology; little-known works of fiction and science fiction; and twentieth- and twenty-first century U.S. and U.K. government reports by the National Institutes of Health, the Parliamentary Advisory Group on the Ethics of Xenotransplantation, and the President’s Council on Bioethics, she examines a number of biomedical changes as each was portrayed by scientists, social scientists, and authors of fiction and poetry. Among the scientific developments she considers are the cultured cell, the hybrid embryo, the engineered intrauterine fetus, the child treated with human growth hormone, the process of organ transplantation, and the elderly person rejuvenated by hormone replacement therapy or other artificial means. Squier shows that in the midst of new phenomena such as these, literature helps us imagine new ways of living. It allows us to reflect on the possibilities and perils of our liminal lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Liminal Lives offers very strong and important theoretical insights into relationships between scientific knowledge and practice and literary production. Its innovative methodology creates possibilities for better communication and exchange between scientific, literary, and social scientific knowledge in a way that will be very useful to others interested in interdisciplinary science studies.”—Catherine Waldby, author of AIDS and The Body Politic: Biomedicine and Sexual Difference

“A brilliant and provocative exploration of how biomedicine and literature, particularly science fiction, are together reconfiguring the very shape of the entire life span, producing adoptable embryos, giant babies, interspecies pregnancies, and regenerated old bodies—all in the context of a new and grim bio-economy in which hearts and kidneys are for sale and earrings are fabricated out of fetal remains.”—Kathleen Woodward, author of Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions

“Susan Merrill Squier’s Liminal Lives is compelling, timely, imaginative, and wonderfully provocative.”—Priscilla Wald, author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333661
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Merrill Squier is Brill Professor of Women’s Studies and English at The Pennsylvania State University. She is author of Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology; editor of Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture (published by Duke University Press); and coeditor of Playing Dolly: Technocultural Formations, Fantasies, and Fictions of Assisted Reproduction and Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation. She is past president and Executive Board Member of the Society for Literature and Science.

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Liminal lives

Imagining the human at the frontiers of biomedicine
By Susan Merrill Squier

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3366-X

Chapter One

The Uses of Literature for Feminist Science Studies


When Omega came it came with dramatic suddenness and was received with incredulity. Overnight, it seemed, the human race had lost its power to breed. The discovery [took place] in July 1994 that even the frozen sperm stored for experiment and artificial insemination had lost its potency.-P. D. James, The Children of Men

"Omega" is the moment when human fertility ends. P. D. James's novel The Children of Men opens into a world beyond Omega, a world in which men have lost the ability to produce viable sperm. No more babies are being born. In this world without children, adults of all ages seem not quite human, distorted in their emotional responses to the succeeding stages of life. Adults of childbearing age have become broody victims of "frustrated maternal desire," lavishing unrequited affection on increasingly intricate and expensive dolls ("the new born, the six-month-old baby, the year-old, the eighteen-month-old child able to stand and walk, intricately powered"), and the very old go, loveless, to their state-sponsored euthanasia, a mass murder/suicide called the Quietus. The newly adult, those children called "Omegas" who were born in that final fertile year, seem "incapable of humansympathy" (James 1993, 47, 34, 10). Possessing an eerie, remote perfection, these men and women "are a race apart, indulged, propitiated, feared, and regarded with a half-superstitious awe. In some countries, so we are told, they are ritually sacrificed in fertility rites resurrected after centuries of superficial civilization" (10).

With the Omega point as its premise, The Children of Men explores the impact of accelerating biomedical interventions on our changing understanding of human life. In its science fiction melange of biomedical and sociocultural extrapolation, James's novel captures some of the ambiguous positions that characterize what I am calling liminal lives. The novel portrays a society vacillating between organized religion and primitive fertility ritual, longing for the now-elusive miracle of birth but condemned instead to static life and enforced death, lavishing on cherished mechanical dolls and coddled pets the nurturing energies denied not only to the children never born but to their unsatisfied would-be grandparents, the throwaway elderly men and women whose death is mourned by no one but managed by the state.

As a work of science fiction exploring both biological shifts in fertility and their sociocultural implications, James's novel embodies the modified notion of liminality that I have adapted from Victor Turner ([1969] 1995) and Arnold van Gennep (1908). The term "liminal" denotes a biological and social state of transition from a world in which human beings had a characteristic and predictable life course to a world in which neither the beginning of life, nor its flow, nor even its end has a foreseeable structure. As it addresses the social and spiritual implications of a drastic biological event, James's novel raises two issues that will be central to my exploration of the changing status of human beings in this study: the process by which technologies are naturalized, so that they fade into the background as effects not of culture but of nature, and the function and significance of genre in our representation of technologically driven changes in human life. I will explore the novel's relations to other expressions (both literary and scientific) of the project of controlling the human life course, to assess the epistemological and social effects of disciplinary boundaries and interdisciplinary transgressions, and the gendered role of disciplinary discourses in constraining our sense of human possibilities. Before getting to those issues, however, I want to consider the novel's curious conjunction with another published work-not of literature but of science-in order to explore the important, and undervalued, role of literature in feminist science studies. Although it may seem a tactical error to link two such divergent realms of discourse and practice as literary representation and human reproduction, I hope to show that we need to consider both forms of subject production if we are to understand the potential and peril posed by liminal lives.

In the same year in which James's Children of Men appeared, Danish endocrinologist Elisabeth Carlsen and a team of Danish scientists published a study in the British Medical Journal that systematically reviewed the statistics on semen quality for the past half century and concluded that a significant decrease was occurring in male fertility. Carlsen's essay was the first of a number of articles to be published in the next several years, in both popular and scientific journals, that would raise the alarm about a steep decline in both the quantity and quality of human sperm and would over a wide range of theories for this sudden decline (Kolata 1996; Hertsgaard 1996; Raloff 1996). The hypothesis that male fertility decline is caused by environmental chemical pollution, in particular the proliferation of artificial estrogens, is still subject to scientific and popular debate (Oudshoorn 1994, 1996). Not debatable, however, is what one writer has called the "remarkable coincidence" that these two very different texts dealing with the same issue- the global threat of male sterility-should appear simultaneously in 1992 (Wright 1996, 55).

The choice of the label "coincidence," with its implicit assumption that literature and science are stable, discrete, and unlinked categories that only by accident share the same agenda-interests me. Because it reveals another kind of sterility-the failure of two potent fields, feminist literary criticism and feminist science studies, to merge in a fertile zone of inquiry and analysis-this is where I begin to explore the relation between literature and biomedicine in the production of liminal lives. In this chapter and those to come, I will trace the relations of literature and biomedical science from this seemingly accidental moment of intersection in the 1990s back to the century's early years, in order to investigate the sources, and suggest the remedy, for this crucial failure of intellectual and social fertilization.

Why has feminist literary criticism been so indifferent to the question of science? Why are feminist science studies so little marked by the methodology and epistemology of literary studies? We can begin to answer these questions by reviewing the gendered history of the modern discipline of literary studies, for it has shaped the current state of relations between literature and science. We need to consider the institutional relationship between feminist science studies and the analysis of literature and science, and we need to "find or invent" some tools that we can use to understand the particular assemblage of practices and social relations embodied in the James/Carlsen "coincidence" (Rabinow 1999, 15). By examining how and why these two publications converge in the highly charged zone of human reproduction, we can generate a richer analysis of the significance of biomedical interventions targeted at a zone characteristically identified with women, whether they are viewed as closer to nature than culture, or as sites of abjection.


Science and literature are the two preeminent technologies that the Enlightenment produced for constituting social subjects and objects of knowledge. Michel Foucault's analysis of the ways in which modern thought constitutes the human being as an object of knowledge, and of the interrelations of power and knowledge, is helpful here. "Man's mode of being as constituted in modern thought enables him to play two roles: he is at the same time at the foundation of all positivities and present, in a way that cannot even be termed privileged, in the element of empirical things" (Foucault 1973, 344). To reiterate some distinctions I set out in the introduction, I am using the term "science" as shorthand for the Latourian "technoscience," and the term "literature" in its broadest sense as writing of any kind (Latour 1987, 174; Shumway 1994; Williams 1977). I draw on Teresa de Lauretis's modification of Foucault's notion of technologies to conceptualize both science and literature as technologies that define what can be known and bring those objects of knowledge into being (de Lauretis 1987, 2-3; Foucault 1980). Since the eighteenth century, literature has helped us to know the self and, in a certain sense, has actually produced that self as a subject of knowledge. To give two examples, the literary subgenre known as domestic fiction played an important role in constructing woman as a gendered, socially positioned site of deep subjectivity, and the literary genre of sensation fiction produced certain bodily effects of physical excitation in its readers while catalyzing certain behaviors and social relations, among them the debates over the propriety or impropriety of such sexually tinged fictions (Armstrong 1998; Moore 1995). Still more specifically, Radclyve Hall's The Well of Loneliness claimed territory for a powerful new subject position: the lesbian. Science engages in another kind of double process of bringing into being and constituting as "knowable," as sociologists of science and feminist science studies scholars have demonstrated. By processes of abstraction, demarcation, measurement, quantification, publication, and dissemination, the objects of scientific knowledge are brought into being and defined, and their properties are articulated. We can provisionally summarize the relationship I am describing between the two spheres. Science functions as the site of the construction of the objectively known other, while literature is the site of the construction of the subjectively known self.

Yet almost immediately we must qualify these assertions. Science also functions to construct the subject, bringing into being a range of new selves that are the subject of scientific scrutiny and understanding: the homosexual, the hospital patient, the criminal, the woman. The most robust product of scientific subject production, although most often exempt from scientific scrutiny, is the scientific knower, whose intellectual agency, social currency, and personal authority have been memorialized in a range of fictions and memoirs, as well as in the history of science, including the laboratory history that forms the subject of my second chapter (De Kruif 1926 [1954]; Watson 1969; and Keller 1983). And literature can also be understood as constructing objects, not only in the sense of the book as object of exchange value but also in terms of the way literary texts from children's stories to romance novels can act to produce children and women as the docile objects of social forces, whereas nineteenth-century English novels (Jane Eyre, Kim) shaped the contours of the subaltern mind. Here, too, the work of Michel Foucault has sensitized us to the three modes or practices by which human beings are turned into subjects: "classification practices, dividing practices, and self-subjectification practices" (Katz 1996, 17).

In short, literature and science mediate social relations with material objects, as well as with subjects. Both disciplines frame and shape our understanding of the things of this world, whether the knowing subject or the object that is known is a domestic woman, an episode of hysteria, a chemical formula, or a sea urchin. Scholars expanding on the work of Foucault have amply investigated this crossover effect between the constructive forces of science and literature, demonstrating that both objectification and subjectification processes are carried out by disciplines and technologies in the arts and sciences, ranging from the cinema and literature to primatology, gerontology, and embryology. To take just two examples, Nancy Armstrong has shown how "literature provided techniques for making the individual a specific object of knowledge to himself, ... on a mass basis," while Stephen Katz has explored the subjectification practices of the science of modern gerontology, understood as designating "the ways in which a person turns him- or herself into a social subject" (Armstrong 1987, 164; Katz 1996, 18-19). Although the process of "bringing into being" in science may seem more tangible because it frequently has material and conceptual results (a new chemical compound, for example), the imaginative practices and disciplines enforced through literature also have tangible social results, whether in the production of a literary market, or obscenity laws, or a craze for a new kind of clothing or domestic furnishings. And scientific practices also produce social subjects, often in uncanny echoes of literary predecessors. Thus, as we will see, the news in 1998 of a pioneering hand transplant, followed thirteen months later by news of the hand's amputation, was anticipated by the publication seventy years earlier of "The Black Hand," a science fiction tale of a rebellious transplanted hand (Altman 1998; Bowers 1931).

We can grasp the intertwined workings of these technologies of subjectification and objectification if we consider chapter 15 of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in which the monster relates how he learned to know himself through reading Plutarch's Lives, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Milton's Paradise Lost. These texts-critics have long agreed-shape the monster as subject: in society, in relation to nature, in relation to God, and to the opposite sex. Less remarked on is the fact that the monster also reads a fourth text, which shapes him as an experimental object: "the journal of the four months that preceded [his] creation," in which Victor Frankenstein "minutely described ... every step [he] took in the progress of [his] work" and set down "the whole detail of that series of disgusting circumstances which produced it" (Shelley [1831] 1994, 92-93). In drawing together these different texts, Shelley opposes the formative influence of literature, particularly Paradise Lost's powerful story of the origin of sin in the moment of sexual knowledge, to the constructive power of science, embodied by Frankenstein's lab book, in which he records in appalling detail the process of experimentation that led to the creature's monstrous "birth." The conjoined processes of literature and science are articulated in Frankenstein as two related myths of generation, one reproductive, and one replicative.

If the literature the monster reads creates him as a subject, the lab book records how his creator's scientific will to power/knowledge constituted him as an object. Indeed, these subject and object positions are troublingly conflatable and interfused. The monster models his upbringing on the De Lacey family's education of the beautiful Safie; human civilization goes astray with monstrous results. Shelley's point is worth reversing: not only can literature and science come together under abnormal circumstances to produce a monster that is the object of fear or derision, but they can also collaborate under normal circumstances to produce human beings who are valued, even idealized. And whether monstrous or normal, these acts of literary and scientific construction have concrete, material consequences; they produce a "set of effects ... in bodies, behaviors, and social relations" (de Lauretis 1987, 3).

Science and literature are more like each other than they are different, not only because both operate in culture and society to produce subjects and objects but also because both fields have come into being through a crucial act of institutional self-creation: the creation of a disciplinary divide between scientific and literary knowledges and practices. This divide reflects the gendered nature of intellectual inquiry, as Schiebinger has demonstrated: "By the late eighteenth century, scientists and philosophers were championing a science stripped of all metaphysics, poetry, and rhetorical ornament.... Literature, which Claude Bernard called the 'older sister of science,' was to be distinct from science. It was banished from science under the disgraceful title of the 'feminine.' The equation of the poetic and the feminine ratified the exclusion of women from science, but also set limits to the kind of language (male) scientists could use" (Schiebinger 1989, 158-59).


Excerpted from Liminal lives by Susan Merrill Squier Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : networking liminality 1
1 The uses of literature for feminist science studies : tracing liminal lives 25
2 The cultured cell : life and death at Strangeways 58
3 The hybrid embryo and xenogenic desire 89
4 Giant babies : graphing growth in the early twentieth century 112
5 Incubabies and rejuvenates : the traffic between technologies of reproduction and age extension 146
6 Transplant medicine and transformative narrative 168
7 Liminal performances of aging : from replacement to regeneration 214
Coda : the pluripotent discourse of stem cells : liminality, reflexivity, and literature 253
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