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Double Issue: 9.3: Summer 2011
Guest Edited by Dominic Wetzel
Religion and the Body

The Molecular Body and the Christian Secular

Ann Burlein

A note on this article.[1]

Today it is sex that serves as a support for the ancient form—so familiar and important in the West—of preaching .... [W]e might wonder how it is possible that the lyricism and religiosity that have long accompanied the revolutionary project have, in Western industrial societies, been largely carried over to sex.[2]

Belief in the body is more fundamental than belief in the soul.[3]

What happens to Michel Foucault's contention that the soul is the prison of the body[4] when sexuality gets routed not through confession but through molecular biology and the so-called 'revolution in genetic medicine?'[5] How does the market in knowledge-products and services that this revolution has helped produce change expectations regarding the body and its truths? To address these questions, I will first sketch the current situation in molecular medicine and explore the ways it has made biology conditional, thereby linking body and soul in non-linear and non-reductionistic ways (Section One). I will then investigate why 'the genetic revolution'—despite this change—so relentlessly re-inscribes such conventional relations toward belonging and intimacy, sexuality and even life itself (Section Two).

Underpinning this analysis of molecular medicine and the expectations it engenders regarding the body and sexuality is my elaboration of Foucault's understanding of secularism as in-depth Christianization.[6] The idea behind talk of a "Christian secular" is that secularism in the West is "neither continuous with the religious that supposedly preceded it ... nor a simple break from it."[7] Instead, religiosity and the secular co-constitute one another. Nowhere is this tangled co-constitution of religion and the secular more clear than in medicine, whose vocabularies and techniques helped form the very concept of secular society in the West during the eighteenth century.[8] Medicine provided crucial justification for secular governance: in the secular, the only truly moral response to pain was to strive to end it; not to inflict it (as has religion), not to justify it (religion as the opiate of the masses)—not even to palliate it (in the other sense of an opiate), but to meet pain head-on without metaphor. In this way, secular disciplines like clinical medicine framed their knowledge as motivated by this secular (because rational) desire to end cruelties.[9] Yet despite medicine's use of this legitimation narrative to assert its status as empirical science, in Section One I will also show how physicians relied on and even strengthened religious sensibilities regarding sexuality and shame.

'Sexuality,' of course, is a contested concept. Elaborating on Foucault, I understand 'sexuality' as a dispositive or apparatus that (starting roughly in the mid-nineteenth century) draws together under one name disparate experiences, which include but are not limited to: reproduction and ancestry; eroticism, romance (which differs from eroticism due to the salience of gender roles), and affective intimacy; moral/religious taboos, injunctions, and behaviors; bodily sensibilities, especially regarding time and futurity; legal forms, institutions, and codes; as well as a series of biological components involving genetics, hormones, and anatomy as well as the scientific discourses, practices, and institutions that study them.[10] Different medical paradigms foreground different dimensions of this dispositive, thereby bundling body, soul, and fate into 'sexuality' in different ways.

Today, we are witnessing a new twist in how religion and the secular co-constitute one another. As before, nowhere is this twist more clear than in molecular medicine. 'Sexuality' is still key to the molecular body—but differently, insofar as the molecular body develops logics of variation without norm that proliferate individual differences. Yet despite this freedom from traditional notions of 'norm' and thus from the shame that medical norms engender, in Section Two I will also show how molecular medicine curtails and contains these radical possibilities by foregrounding the domestic family as the primary point of access and production of this de-standardizing body. Molecular medicine realizes its dream of tapping directly into the forces of life itself by backgrounding reproduction and stigmatized forms of identity in favor of foregrounding the lyrical and allegedly liberating discourses and practices of romantic love. Thus while molecular medicine still tells sexual sermons (as did eighteenth century sexology), its preaching works not by implanting shame or stigma, but rather by inciting us to invest in the possibility of future growth, not in spite of uncertainty but because of it.

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