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Critical Race and Whiteness Studies
Volume 8, 2012
Nikki Sullivan and Samantha Murray (eds.) 2009. Somatechnics: Queering the
Technologisation of Bodies
, Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.
Anneli Strutt
University of Western Australia
Born out of the Somatechnics Research Centre at Macquarie University, this
complex volume investigates issues of embodiment; how bodies are brought into
being, and transformed, in culturally and historically specific contexts. A highly
ambitious work, which brings together research from stem cell technoscience to
self-demand amputation, the contributions range from the intensely personal to
the densely theoretical, all of them intellectually challenging. The scientifically
solid neologism of the title encapsulates the notion that neither soma (the body)
nor techné (the techniques in and through which bodies take shape) precede the
other: somatechnics “supplants the logic of the ‘and’” (3), whereby corporealities
and technologies are always already enmeshed. Aligning itself with both
poststructuralist and queer theory, the book raises the bar of queer thinking “by
moving beyond a focus on sexual identities and practices” (6). For Queer
series editors Michael O’Rourke and Noreen Giffney, the queering
move is evident in the title. No longer a question of the-chicken-or-the-egg,
somatechnicity itself is seen as originary.
The concept of somatechnics is perhaps best elucidated through specific
examples rather than a broad overview. While the collection is divided into three
sections, the somatechnics of the social body, Somatechnologies of sex/gender,
and Somatechniques of the self, in the spirit of going against the grain, I chose
four contributions for closer review based on alternative categorisation. As stated
in the preface, various somatechnologies may have either normalising or even
damaging effects, or they may function in a liberating manner. Others yet
contain possibilities for both, and here I have selected pertinent examples of
In the opening chapter Jessica Cadwallader pronounces (Western) medicine as
“the dominant contemporary technology of the body” (13), and unsurprisingly
several chapters take issue with medical discourse. The question of health vs.
aesthetics is raised by Samantha Murray in her honest, personal account of living
ISSN 1838-8310 Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association 2012 in, and as, a ‘banded body,’ after bariatric surgery. In addressing the
somatechnics of weight loss surgeries, Murray exposes the discrepancy between
how such procedures are advertised, and actual post-op existence. While the
current ‘obesity epidemic’ is portrayed as a health concern, Murray detects “an
acute cultural anxiety about the ways in which the fat body disrupts privileged
ideals about normative gendered bodies and aesthetic appearance” (153).
Capitalising upon this, such surgeries promise to grant both health and
normative bodily form, and are portrayed as minimally evasive, with before and
after photographs offering a narrative of simple, linear transition. Yet reality
proves otherwise. Responses to Murray’s changed appearance generally consist
of comments that she ‘look[s] fantastic,’ where a slimmer form is instantly
equated with well-being. Murray troubles this common assumption, encouraging
us to be critical of how health is often measured visually—even aesthetically—by
detailing a list of unseen, surgery-related complications she must endure. In
confessing her inner turmoil of living a ‘dis-abled’ life in what looks like a healthy
body, Murray bravely begins to queer the discourse of ‘health’.
Alternatively, certain somatechnologies can act as resistant, or freeing. Matt
Lodder’s engagement with a highly complex Deleuzean vocabulary asks how to
make oneself a Body without Organs—in this case, a body resistant to oppressive
societal structures, or what Deleuze terms the ‘desiring-machine’. Lodder
speculates that such resistance might be possible if the body could be
reorganised, and finds a solution in the somatechnics of (subcultural) body
modification. Deleuze’s hegemonic desiring-machine oppresses along three
strata, firstly demanding that the (human) organism be organised, as intact and
docile bodies are more easily governable. For Lodder, practises such as tongue
splitting or implanting magnets in fingertips subvert organisation by rearranging
and expanding the body, thereby “resist[ing] the holistic integrity of the
organism” (198). Secondly, the governable body must signify and be
interpretable. Lodder illustrates how the modified BwO can “redeploy significance
to its own ends” (200) through tattoos, often falsely understood as signs
inscribed with a fixed meaning. Yet if we grant that signification is also
dependent on the decipherer, and that the ‘meaning’ of a tattoo may change for
its bearer throughout a lifetime, then the modified body remains “disarticulate
whilst appearing articulate” (200). Finally, if “desiring-production requires an
orderly subject, whose subjectivity is clear and bounded” (201), Lodder offers
the practice of flesh-hook suspension as an example of how a bodily experience
may alter the consciousness. Lodder posits the modified BwO as a
somatechnology in itself, and suggests that while the power structures that
govern us are inescapable, resistance stems from their ‘wilful perversion’.

Yet other somatechnologies can function as both constraining and liberating. In
“Asian Sex Workers in Australia: Somatechnologies of trafficking and Queer
Mobilities” Audrey Yue recounts the history of Australia’s heteronormative and
family-oriented immigration laws, showing how the category of (illegal) Asian sex
worker materialises through anti-trafficking and prostitution control policies, only
to be regulated and excluded by virtue of these very same policies. Yet there is
hope: Yue demonstrates how such migrants may turn the situation to their
advantage, whereby “the somatechnologies of trafficking are also the trajectories
of queer mobility” (66). One liberating ‘counter-strategy’ consists of ‘unlocking’.
In the Australian documentary Trafficked, this means not only uncovering the
past of Puangthong Simaplee, an illegal Thai sex worker who died while in
custody at an Australian detention centre, and who had claimed to be trafficked
into Australia as a twelve-year-old, when in fact she had arrived on a false
passport at the age of twenty-one. It also refers to finding out why she had
constructed such an identity for herself. Unlocking exposes Simaplee’s “tactic of
queer mobility” (76): in appropriating the conventional rhetoric of sex trafficking
Simaplee self-presents as the stereotypical victim in order to bring about lighter
Moving from filmic to textual analysis, Elizabeth Stephens’ account usefully
illustrates how somatechnologies are always historically and culturally specific. In
comparing one early modern (1650) and one postmodern (2002) text on body
modification/transformation, Stephens, like Yue, investigates both the limitations
and the opportunities they afford. John Bulwer’s Anthropometamorphosis, the
“first cross-cultural history of body modification” (172), was written during a
paradigm shift in thinking about bodily change. In the face of the emerging
humanist notion of the autonomous, rational subject, personally accountable for
deliberate acts of bodily tampering, Bulwer condemns such practices as piercing,
branding and scarring, viewing these as culturally degenerative and signalling a
return to primitivity. Self-formation for Bulwer equates to deformity or
disfigurement, as it diverges from the ‘natural’ state of the body, thus render the
body ‘monstrous’. In Rosi Braidotti’s Metamorphoses, on the other hand, these
monster-making technologies are embraced. According to Stephens, both texts
view self-making as political resistance, and Braidotti’s critique of the humanist
ideal reinterprets the monster “as a potential site of positive difference” (179)
due to its resistance to culture’s normalising effects. Braidotti’s queer posthuman
bodies are somatechnical ‘becoming-machines,’ with promising opportunities for
cultural change.
This thought-provoking volume will leave any reader pondering their own
embodied being in the world. Both the introduction and each of the individual
chapters clearly explain the concept of somatechnics itself. Yet, while adding to
the collection’s comprehensive nature, the inclusion of such diverse research
areas means that the reader would benefit from prior knowledge in numerous
individual fields. Lacking this, all contributions reward a repeat reading.

Author Note

Anneli Strutt received her BA Honours from the Faculty of English and Cultural
Studies at the University of Western Australia in 2011. Her research interests
include early modern drama, modernist poetry and poetics, and queer and
gender theory. She can be contacted at


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