“You mean if I say this and you cut me here and shoot me full of that then I can get a piece of paper from a judge that says I get this initial rather than that initial on my driver’s license?”
Susan Stryker was incredulous with some of the policies set in place for her gender transition. After studying emergent identities in early Mormon history for her doctorate’s degree, Stryker came out as transsexual and underwent the physical transformation process to become a woman.
Questions that had plagued her about her own identity continued to multiply and broaden until they no longer strictly pertained to transsexuals, but rather to the relationship between the self and technology for all people. This line of questioning led her to the development of somatechnics.
Somatechnics is an interdisciplinary field best understood as a critical and ethical lens focused on the body and technology. It seeks to challenge traditional notions of the body and technology as being separate and reconsider the ethics transposed on these entities.
Unlike modern perceptions of technology as being solely related to machinery, somatechnics speaks of technology in a broader sense. If techne means the knowledge of how to do something, and a technique is a practical method of doing something, then technology can broadly be defined as “the means or method of doing something,” according to Stryker, director of the UA’s Institute for LGBT Studies.
Driving is a technology that many people feel is so integral to life that it’s become embodied. Stryker draws a parallel between cars that people drive and motorized wheelchairs that handicap people use. She explains that just as people engineer ramps so that wheelchairs can access streets and curbs, people engineer streets so that people can access locations at a certain distance.
The capacity for movement depends on interplay between the body, the technology, and the environment, and not any one of those elements in particular. Without the proper ramps, the person becomes disabled. Just as without the proper street paving, lane size, and amount of lanes, people are disabled in that they cannot reach their destination by car. “Why is the car the symbol of freedom but the wheelchair the symbol of fixity, incapacity, immobility, pain, suffering?” Stryker questions. She reasons that if people can’t live any better without a car, as “disabled” people can without a wheelchair, why is there a moral and ethical overlay placed on physical handicap?
In 2003, Stryker met Nikki Sullivan, associate professor of Critical and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. Sullivan invited Stryker to a conference she was planning to discuss many of the ideas Stryker had already been contemplating and to find others who were also hungry for a larger conversation.
The topic of the conference was body modification. Sullivan had seen the term applied to pierced and tattooed bodies like her own; Stryker identified with its medical technology implications. Both felt the tension between perceived “natural” and “unnatural” modification and the moral judgment placed on those changes deemed unnatural.
Stryker says a perfect example of this is the beauty standards that women face. She asserts there is a “natural” woman held up as the ideal that all women must strive to emulate. In reality, this “natural” look is a highly artificial and stylized version of a woman. Women must use cosmetics, shave and wear the proper attire to fit this ideal—all forms of modification. Ultimately, Stryker believes few women can walk the narrow line considered “good.”
In order to further level moral hierarchies, Sullivan and Stryker wanted to prove that “all bodies are modified,” according to Sullivan. She argues that so many of human technologies become naturalized that people don’t realize they’re technologies. The food people eat, their hygiene practices, even the pregnancy cycle: all are modifications. “There is no body that doesn’t have some relationship to a means of transformation,” Stryker says.
From an evolutionary perspective, Stryker argues that the very bodies people have today developed in relationship to certain capacities in the environment. The notion that the human form is sacredly fixed or static is inconsistent with this worldview.
The support that emerged from the conference for the concept of always already embodied technology and technologized bodies convinced Sullivan and Stryker to push for the development of a somatechnics field. By 2005, Sullivan, Stryker and other interested academics formed the Somatechnics Research Network at Macquarie University and founded the Somatechnics International Conference. After five years of successful funding, Macquarie University cut the program. In 2009 Stryker offered to move the website and network listserv to the UA’s LGBT page. Sullivan agreed. Since then Stryker says she and her team have been in the “very preliminary stages” of establishing a Center for Critical Studies of the Body to better accommodate the Somatechnics Research Network and the expanding field.
For the past 10 years there have been conferences all over the world, including Linköping, Sweden and Otago, New Zealand. In 2013, Stryker and other UA faculty decided to host the 2015 conference in Tucson. Titled Open Embodiments, the conference took place two weeks ago and was the first one located in the U.S. There were keynote addresses about drone warfare and neoliberalism in higher education, a panel about the micro politics of resistance, an art piece on plastics, aquatic animals and evolution, and conversations about the geopolitics of Tucson’s border, violent frameworks and administrations of power.
The diverse range of topics highlights somatechnics’ strength in being relevant, according to Abe Weil, a third year gender and women’s studies Ph.D. student. Weil took a somatechnics seminar with Stryker, his advisor, which exposed him to the concepts. He also attended the Tucson conference and, in 2013, the conference in Sweden. For Weil, part of the importance of the conferences is having a physical space to display the creativity and work of people in the field who are thinking through its ideas.
The field’s applicability allows it to answer a multitude of questions that might not otherwise get asked. In moving away from an isolationist approach, Sullivan says that she’s “seen ways of thinking open up in really productive ways” as more connections are being made across various disciplines. Since it’s not a methodology, she explains, there is no right or wrong way.
“By looking through the lens of somatechnics you can approach things that have already been approached and see them in a different kind of way,” Weil says.
Stryker believes this reimagining is crucial to challenging scientific ideas of “objective truth or knowledge.” Instead, one of somatechnics’ goals is to have people recognize that there’s no understanding that comes from a disembodied place.
As someone who wasn’t around for somatechnics’ conception, Weil believes he and the other young people at the conference were excited by its potential.
“Somatechnics doesn’t offer accepted truths, only possibilities,” Weil says.