Rethinking Shvarts’ corporal interrogation

There is no doubt about it: Aliza Shvarts has had a very (re)productive year. She conceived (of) a senior art project that has sparked a national debate (albeit not on or in the terms she expected) and brought national attention to the usually uncontroversial senior art show.

Perhaps because of failures in the public introduction of her work or because of the culture into which it was introduced, the discussion surrounding it has been focused on issues of (re)productivity, not art. On a personal level, pro-choice advocates have taken a stance similar to that of their anti-choice counterparts, arguing that while she should be allowed choice in matters pertaining to her body, she has erred in her choice(s).

The administration has condemned the artist and her collaborators for their endangerment of the artist’s body and the University’s image. The arguments have been in line with the views of a culture conscious of the ambiguity surrounding cultural and scientific definitions of life and of the human, political and economic costs of AIDS: that (physically and/or politically) unprotected sex is something to be reserved for (re)productive uses. “Choice,” in this framework, is to be exercised, but only in a (politically and/or physically) calculated manner, only following strict guidelines for the (physical and/or political) use and utility of the body.

The discourse initiated by Shvarts’ project has been written off by pro-choice proponents as harmful and unproductive because it exposes the unspoken limits and hypocrisy of the language of choice and in our culture. Members of the Yale community have decried the implications of the project to the University. And their assessments are correct. Shvarts’ artistic (re)production will most likely prove politically harmful to the pro-choice movement, and it will probably be economically detrimental to University fundraising. But does that mean that the work is not productive?

The underlying premise of arguments against Shvarts’ actions seems to be that unless the (re)productive value of an act is immediately evident, it should not be undertaken — that the political and physical risks of any interrogation of the body (or any other political subject) and its (political and/or physical) uses and limits can only be vindicated by a clear an socially accepted politically or physically (re)productive outcome. In short, only the (physical and political) (re)productivity of the body has been discussed — the productivity of interrogation itself is notably absent from the debate.

Despite the fact that Shvarts, like many in the early stages of their careers, has dismissed concerns about her health, the issue has been consistently raised in discussions of her work, and her physical well-being has been cited repeatedly as a reason she should not have been allowed to undertake the project. The rhetoric used to attack her has drawn from an interesting blend of personal and social responsibility. These interests converge on and in her body with sexually transmitted disease, again, in a culture at least superficially concerned with the costs of AIDS.

Her “choice” to expose her body and its uses to public scrutiny has endangered with infectious disease, it seems, the (re)productive value of her body and even, possibly, that of her community. But to argue that Shvarts should not have undertaken her project because of the risk of sexually transmitted infection rings ironic, given that the crisis caused by the most discussed and feared infection, HIV/AIDS, occurred precisely because of an unwillingness to acknowledge and thereby sanction unscripted uses of the body. Further, efforts to eradicate the virus have been hampered by a fear of political and economic “risks” in a society where drug patents are more valuable than human lives. While sights have been set on Shvarts in the localized fight against AIDS, broader action against AIDS has been devalued, much like Shvarts’ art, by political and economic processes of risk assessment.

The more logical of Shvarts’ detractors are correct in their analyses: Her product is a failure as a means to any political or economic ends. What has not been examined nearly satisfactorily, however, is its merit as an end in and of itself. I am not sure how I feel about Shvarts’ work because of the discourse that has enveloped it: I will not be able to see the work, and I will not be able to supplement or confront her interrogation with my own questions on (re)productivity. The situation into which her work was borne will ultimately prevent me from coming to any conclusion as to the productivity of her (re)production.

Instead, I am left with one question of my own: Should the legitimacy of interrogations of (re)production (be they sexual, intellectual, artistic, economic or some combination thereof) be dictated by their possible politico-economic productivity?

Andrew Dowe is a senior in Berkeley College.


  • Hieronymus

    And how does on grade such a "work?"

    I would argue that Ms. Shvarts' efforts clearly sit near the extremes of a continuum, which would argue for a A or an F (to do otherwise places it in relation to other students work, which it really isn't). Which will it be, I wonder?

    I wish Yale had some backbone--EITHER WAY. Really, I wish I knew which way my university swayed. E.g., "Not at the art show? F!" or "Very daring; A!" I would rather have Yale take some stand--either way--than continue its mealy-mouthed, Brodheadesque, non-positional non-stance.

    But, of course, that is just dreaming…

  • Anonymous

    She created no "work", just confusion through dissembling. She simply has an insatiable need for attention. Which this column provides.

  • Mike B

    I assume Dowe's piece, like Shvart's project, is a hoax. Is anyone really buying his pseudointellectual analysis and defense of Shvarts' work?

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Dowe,

    Your plays on language are clever, but they avoid the core issue, which is that Ms. Shvarts proposed - if even only conceptually - the idea of creating a life for the express purpose of destroying that life. Deliberately. Just to be 'smart'. This appals most human beings, regardless of their political views.

  • Gabrielle

    More gibberish from this high-minded University. Do they really teach this nonsense there? The Emperor truly has no clothes and a fair amount of students there are merely parroting the semantical equivalent of absolutely nothing.

    What a waste of funding, but from So. Cal, not surprising.

  • A Yale non-art alum

    Just because a student can spell multi-sylable words does not mean he/she has a clue about the concepts they represent, much less think rationally or write persuasively. Indeed, it appears there is no reasoning ability whatsoever. The inability to put together two sentences that make sense is truly astounding. They apparently are being graded on the number of letters used per word, and nothing else. Do Mr. Dowe and Miss Svarts represent the best and brightest of America? If so, God help us.

  • South Dakota

    Abortion proponents find Shvarts' "work" harmful, exposing as it does the unspoken limits and hypocrisy the pro-abortion stance.

    Real world effects? How about this new South Dakota state referendum:

    "All induced abortions, whether surgically or chemically induced, terminate an entire, unique, living human being, a human being separated from his or her mother, as a matter of scientific and biological fact," says the text to be voted upon on November 4.

    Send partial thanks to Aliza Shvarts!

  • Texas Dem

    I'm pro choice but this is obviously sickening. I was physically revolted by the pictures and the actions of this person. However, maybe some of the men involved were Skull and Bones? This would constitute an act of the blackest magick if she actually knew what she was doing….

  • Michele

    Dowe is entirely too dependent on "(re)production." I wish we were talking about creativity (art) and 'pro-creation' (a better word than 'reproduction' when it comes to human beings). Shvarts knew she would provoke shock because she wasn't just producing art (or endangering her body); she was toying with life. Everyone's dancing around a profound and, yes, spiritual issue here. I just can't decide whether she's brilliant or crazy.

  • Anonymous

    The application of 'sophistry' to an issue can produce a 'justification' for any position - the fictional 'Hanibal Lecter' illustrates that well and before yuio say 'well that was only FICTION' I could use another example even more extreme that isn't fiction but I choose not to use it here because there are still too many real victims around of that appalling set of crimes against humanity. So I guess the issue is where do we draw the line at for the provoking of the aesthetic sensibility and should we even draw a line? I say YES we should for if we count ourselves as having humanity and to be 'civilised' beings then morality isn't a 'taboo' to be broken but rather to be nourished for it's pragmatism in helping us collectively achieve social harmony, respect for other and civility.

  • Blue Dog

    Ned Fulmer. Etc.
    Thanks for playing.

  • B '07

    "unless the (re)productive value of an act is immediately evident, it should not be undertaken — that the political and physical risks of any interrogation of the body (or any other political subject) and its (political and/or physical) uses and limits can only be vindicated by a clear an socially accepted politically or physically (re)productive outcome. "


  • The Grad Student

    I suggest you (re)(re)(re)(re)(re)(re)(re)read her statements as there are some major points you've missed. To start with, each of her "fabricators", or donors, had to submit documents verifying that they were STD free.