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Disreputable Science

eu- [prefix] . . . good, well, easily

-genic [suffix] . . . forming adjectives with the meaning: 'of, pertaining to, or relating to generation or production'

(Oxford English Dictionary)

The terms 'eugenics' was coined by the English scientist Sir Francis Galton in 1883. Galton envisaged a science that would govern the biological health of the human race. Eugenics would provide the rules for man's breeding choices, and so prevent the degeneration of the species by giving "more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable" (Galton, Inquiries into the Human Faculty, 1883). By the middle of the twentieth century eugenics had fallen into disrepute--mainly because of its easy alliance with racist thought and action (think here not only of the Holocaust and Japanese racial science, but also of the globalisation of family planning from the West into the developing world). And by the end of the twentieth century another science--molecular genetics--had fully eclipsed the ambitions and influence of the old eugenic notions of generation and production (think here of cloning, the human genome project and selective genetic therapy).

In the wake of the extensive influence of molecular genetics, eugenics seems to be an historical curio. It's legacy appears primarily negative--to serve as a cautionary tale about the excesses of scientific dogmatism, and to warn us about the how such excesses are instantiated in the new genetic sciences. But there are other, less melancholic lessons still to be extracted from eugenic science: What notions of bodily composition does eugenics promote? What can bodies do and what can bodies become through their relational connections to others? Can the body generate in ways that are not fully contained by heterosexual reproduction? Galton's nineteenth century science is interested in generation, production and inheritance--not at the level of the genome--but with respect to the body in general. Like the physiognomists, phrenologists, anthropometrists and Lamarckians, Galton envisaged a science associated--scandalously--with the phenotypical body. This focus on the body has been the means by which eugenics has been rejected as both a scientifically plausible and culturally legitimate mode of enquiry. But perhaps what has been foreclosed as 'disreputable' in eugenics also contains a view of somatic transformation that remains useful to contemporary scientific and cultural explorations of the corporeal.

John Tonkin's Personal Eugenics reflects on and exploits the generativity of the phenotypical body (and especially the face). Tonkin establishes an interchange with eugenics (and, elsewhere, with those other disreputable nineteenth century sciences--physiognomy, anthropometry; see, Elective Physiognomies, 1995/96 and Elastic Masculinities, 1996/97) that is focused on the inventive contingencies of biological matter. That is, Personal Eugenics doesn't reject the biological, but incites its endless, generative malleability. To this end, Personal Eugenics promotes a system of biological variation and diversity that Galton's eugenic science can never properly contain. Tonkin's presentation of a deliberately cheesy eugenic exercise doesn't so much ridicule as amplify--through interest, surprise and enjoyment--the meanings and ontologies that have been materialised by the eugenic and biogenetic sciences.

For example, according to the central dogma of twentieth century biology, the biological communication of information is contained to the processes of DNA/RNA duplication and transcription. The somatic tissues of the rest of the body are unable to generate or reproduce past the parameters proscribed by these molecular processes. This contemporary reduction of production/reproduction to certain molecular fragments renders the rest of body profoundly barren. Under this regime the body is form, but not formative; it is the effect of generation, but it is not, itself, generative.

Transversing these corporeal reductions, Personal Eugenics establishes the face as a site of biological generativity: your personality, your behavioural repertoire, your career opportunities, your emotional competence can be manipulated through variations in chin length, eye width, forehead height. However, instead of establishing a rigid biological determinism, these eugenic modifications have the effect of revealing the body's natural capacity for transformation. Personal Eugenics promotes a mode of bio-genic engineering that is radically corporeal and corporeally expansive. Mutation and inheritance are no longer contained to the molecular, and no longer in the service of somatic purity and genotypic control. The iterations of Personal Eugenics reveals the body to be--not the inert outcome of genetic inheritance--but an apparatus that produces, generates, communicates and transmits.

In particular, Personal Eugenics reignites our affinity for Lamarckian effort. The inheritance of acquired characteristics (the claim that bodily evolution is an outcome of species effort) is a mechanism that has long been dismissed from respectable biological and evolutionary theory. Nonetheless, the naive logic of Lamarckism is familiar--not necessarily because it seems like an error, but rather because it sometimes seems so uncannily precise: the giraffe's neck is long because its predecessors have had to reach up high into the trees for food; the swan's legs are short as it "makes no effort to lengthen them"; gazelles are slender and light of foot because they have "exert[ed] themselves in swift running" (Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy, 1809). Personal Eugenics bring the relation of cultural, social and psychic effort and biology to the fore. The Lamarckian efforts of the selective processes in Personal Eugenics ('emily wants to become barbie'; 'adrian wants to become alive'; 'veronika wants to become an evil genius') suggest that facial/bodily structures aren't pre-existing forms that can be calculatedly transformed. Rather, these surprising facial configurations suggest that effort and biology are coimplicated and coevolving. Effort is biological. Biology is effortful.

By bringing Lamarckian effort back into the domain of biological generation and production, Personal Eugenics arrests the contemporary expectations that we can effortlessly be who we want to be. It demonstrates that the trajectories of our various bodily, psychic and cultural transformations always lie in a generative debt to biological structure. Whereas biological structures have long considered to be simply constraining limits - something that we might consider putting to one side, Personal Eugenics presents a more complex account of our relation to bodily substrate. Neither simply a restriction nor just optional baggage, biology is the generative and effortful stuff of our personal and political desires.

Elizabeth A. Wilson
Research Fellow
Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Sydney

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