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.