The gendering of bodies and technologies

Despite Rayna Rapp's impressive study of the 'uneven benefits and burdens' that genetic knowledge and technology has for a diverse range of women (1999), there has been something of a 'gender blindness' in terms of the way that social scientists have analysed developments in the new genetics (Stacey 1999). Although the issue of gendering in relation to genetic technologies has begun to be addressed (Hallowell 2000;D'Agincourt-Canning 2001;Ettorre 2005), it is examined here as a complex configuration of social practices, with diverse and ramifying consequences. Focusing on an interface between gendered health activism and genetic knowledge in relation to predictive rather than reproductive medicine, this study explores what is at stake in situating women as specific kinds of citizens and how this is related to particular articulations of morality and ethics. At the same time fresh light is cast on the relationship between agency, identities and the materiality of science and the body by examining how particular cultural signifiers around gender are constituted in relation to, and how they in turn come to be inscribed into, artefacts or technologies (Wajcman 1991;Martin 1994;Oudshoorn 1994;Van Oost 2000).

The meaning of breast cancer, perhaps more than any other form of cancer, is closely associated with ideas and representations of the female body. It has and continues to be subject to and constituted by a range of historically diverse and contradictory meanings (Lacquer 1990;Martin 1989;Bordo 1993). As Yalom points out this is particularly so of the female breast, which is a 'timeless' signifier of 'sex, life and nurturance' and more recently, through the increased cultural prominence given to breast cancer, also 'death'. As a result, she points out, we are increasingly seeing the female breast as 'first and foremost as a medical problem' (Yalom 1998). Yet the meaning, experience and representation of breast cancer is inescapably caught up with powerful notions about gender and sexuality (Klawiter 2004;Kolker 2004). Just as the meaning of breast cancer reflects and informs particular representations of women, gender and the female body are also enmeshed with recent developments in breast cancer genetics. If, as Butler argues, 'materiality' is a site at which 'gender is continuously played out' (1993), then breast cancer genes and the kinds of bodily and technological 'matter' enlisted and elicited by new genetic knowledge also have consequences for articulations of gender and practices of gendering. This is especially when issues of embodiment and lived experience, refracted through genetic knowledge and technologies are, to a certain extent, re-framed or displaced by the temporality of predictive knowledge and/or the logistics of 'distributed' patienthood.

Central to the modes of co-production explored in this account is the way therefore that particular representations, practices and moralities associated with female gender identity and the female body are caught up with developments in BRCA genetics. In this sense, the book builds on and extends Rapp's idea of women confronting new reproductive health technologies as 'moral pioneers of the private... at once held accountable at the individual level for a cascade of broadly social factors that shape health outcomes of pregnancy and individually empowered to decide whether and when there are limits' (1999: 317). In drawing attention to the powerful but disjunctured terrain through which different gendered configurations of knowledge and technology play out, it also illustrates how novelty meshes ways with older forms of cultural classification. That is despite the unhinging of 'natural facts' in an era of 'biosociality', idioms and practices of 'naturalised' female gender continue to provide the context for medical or scientific knowledge and practice (see Franklin etal. 2000).

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