Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review of Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies by Cressida J. Heyes

This review appeared in Philosophy in Review, Volume 28, Volume 4 (2008), pages 267-269.

Cressida J. Heyes Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies.
New York: Oxford University Press 2007. Pp. 175. CDN$110.95/US$99.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-19-531053-5); CDN$33.95/US$29.95 (paper ISBN-13: 978-0-19-531054-2).

This is a work in feminist ethics about our relations to our bodies. In five main chapters, Heyes sets out a theoretical framework, and then examines three central cases of bodies that are considered in need of changing: transgender people, overweight people, and people who want cosmetic surgery. She finishes with a proposal of a Foucauldian way for us to care for our bodies.
Heyes takes her theoretical resources primarily from feminist theory and the philosophy of Foucault. She places herself in her text, not just setting out her own views, but also giving some details of her own life and her own experiences in joining Weight Watchers, as well as discussing some of the problems she faces theorizing about other people of whose experience she has limited understanding. Thus it may be reasonable for me as reviewer to disclose more in this review than I would do in other cases, especially since my review will make some criticisms of the book. I am sympathetic to much of the feminist project but I don’t ally myself strongly with the theoretical standpoint of Foucault. Furthermore, I’m a male who has no direct experience of being transgender, being overweight or having or wanting cosmetic surgery.

The writing in this book does not rely excessively on jargon, and style is relatively straightforward. Chapters are divided into titled sections and Heyes summarizes her main points at the end of each chapter. She surveys a great deal of literature in the process of discussing each subject, and gives a sympathetic summary of each view relevant to the discussion, even when she disagrees with it. Furthermore, Heyes’ approach brings a set of theoretical approaches to issues such as weight loss and cosmetic surgery that are more sophisticated than in most other discussions in much feminist theory and certainly than in standard medical ethics. For that, she deserves a great deal of credit. On top of this, she advances existing debates in constructive ways. So there’s much to admire about this work.

One of the most important themes running through the book is the need to go beyond the dichotomy of either seeing people who engage in bodily changes such as sex change operations, dieting, or cosmetic surgery as either simply acting autonomously and therefore beyond criticism, or else acting out of false consciousness and therefore oppressed by gender stereotypes. Heyes acknowledges the importance of prior feminist critiques of idealized women’s bodies, and the problems with the pressures experienced by women to emulate those ideals. However, she also wants to acknowledge the importance of the care of the self, and the way that such focus on one’s own body can contribute to such self-care. In this, she draws especially on the last work of Foucault in the final two volumes of The History of Sexuality and some interviews.

In the chapter on Weight Watchers, probably the most accessible in the book, Heyes discusses in some detail the work of Susan Bordo and Sandra Bartky on the construction of femininity and the ways that focus on conforming to norms of beauty can oppress women. Heyes acknowledges their analyses of disciplinary practices relating to dieting, but she counterbalances these with a discussion of ‘the active, creative sense of self-development, mastery, expertise, and skill that dieting can offer’ (78). In her chapter on cosmetic surgery, she analyzes the issue through a discussion of the TV show Extreme Makeover. Again, she acknowledges the insight of influential feminist discussions of the representation of work on the body, in this case by Susan Bordo and Kathy Davis. Heyes finds no positive element of cosmetic surgery to counterbalance its problematic nature, but she does argue that current feminist critiques are not sufficient as forms of resistance or as solutions for women considering changing their bodies using medical technology.

The most provocative chapter in the book is the final main one where Heyes explores the possibility of caring for the self in a socially conscious, non-narcissistic way that would not contribute to oppressive practices. She defends Foucault from critics who accuse him of betraying his former political and ethical commitments in his final work, and she finds his discussion inspiring but elusive. She turns to the recent work of Richard Shusterman on somaesthetics for a more fully elaborated idea of what such caring for the self might look like, but still she does not find sufficiently concrete discussion. She finishes the chapter by considering three cases that might be considered as forms of caring for the self that might be ethically and politically admirable: bodily modification, British shipyard workers who practiced ballet, and yoga. She describes and evaluates each of these somewhat briefly, and she indicates that this topic is where her future work will be.

The theoretical position set out by Heyes is promising in its overall form, but her argument lacks enough detail to be convincing. In her short book, she covers philosophical methodology, sociology, cultural studies, feminist theory, medical ethics, and ethical theory. Her first main chapter uses Wittgenstein and Foucault to set out a way of thinking about the body in contemporary society, but really Heyes does no more than gesture at a theoretical position rather than develop a sustained argument.

While the earlier theoretical sections give some indication of how one might ground her approach, they don’t help much in explaining her later suggestions. Heyes is stronger in her discussion of mutual relevance of theory and personal experience or popular culture. Her positive suggestions about how we might understand an ethical approach to the care of the self are tentative and vague. I wish she had been bolder in her claims and had spent more time developing the ideas hinted at in her final chapter, especially those concerning yoga. Just when this book starts to get interesting, it finishes, and the reader is left wondering whether Heyes’ project for conceptualizing a progressive way to care for the self is indeed viable.

Christian Perring
Dowling College

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