- Jana Evans Braziel (Editor) and Kathleen LeBesco (Editor)
Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Kristen Guest (Editor)
Eating Their Words: Cannibalism and the Boundaries of Cultural Identity. State University of New York Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Marilyn Iwama
Fat people and eating them—when did literary criticism become this tantalizing? From the moment scientists first admitted that cave dwellers could distinguish beauty from the need to procreate, Kenneth Klein seems to say, with lavish descriptions of the Venus of Willendorf and Rubens’s Graces.
Jane Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco must have smiled at this submission, determined as they are that their collection render "the fat body visible." But while Klein’s essay might appear the most overtly erotic of the fifteen that comprise Bodies out of Bounds, several of its contributors focus on the relationship between fat and desire in their attempts to "reconfigure corpulence." In their essay on exercise videos, Antonia Losano and Brenda A. Risch detail the tragicomic effect in the conspicuous statues of generously proportioned classical goddesses that line a space meant for replicating a hard male physique in soft female bodies. The paradox is heightened by the position of the only fat woman in the class: masked in grey sweats and barely visible in the back corner. If such "pathological" discourses of fatness have rendered fat people invisible, say the editors—include here the "untheorized" fat body in feminist scholarship, Cecilia Hartley adds—the next step is to "unravel" those discourses and explore how fat people understand and represent their own experience.
This unravelling reaches from the redefinition of fat subjectivities (Joyce L. Huff, Hartley, Kathleen LeBesco); through the representational indices of nation, gender, sexuality, and fatness (Marcia Chamberlain, Losano and Risch, Le’a Kent); the reconstruction of corpulent sexualities (Neda Ulaby, Jerry Mosher) and the deconstruction of the carnivalesque (Angela Stukator, Sarah Shieff, Braziel); to corpulence and performativity (Sharon Mazer, Petra Kuppers). Bodies out of Bounds considers fat as political fashion and Utopian freedom from capitalism, fat as nationalist rhetoric, fat as ethnic hot potato, fat as cannibalism, fat as disease, fat as disguise, fat as abnormal, abject, class inflected, and just plain wrong. Completing this catholic collection is a sometimes performative and abstruse dialogue between Michael Moon and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on what they call "representational inversions" of a wide range of fat discourses.
Mostly, Bodies out of Bounds unravels language, remembering the significance of language (à la Judith Butler and Monique Wittig) to material change. After all, a body is just a body. It is language that makes a body "fat." The clearest consensus in this book is that language is constitutive of identity and shot through with ideology. But discourse has rendered fat people voiceless as well as invisible. If we are to subvert that process, several contributors insist, it will only happen through performative reenactment of multiple, ambivalent fat identities, such as Moon and Sedgwick model in their collaborative readings of Divine’s performances of gender in the films of John Waters.
Eating Their Words also ends with strong support for the performative. In this essay, Geoffrey Sanborn chides fellow critics for regarding cannibalism as descriptor rather than performative, "a designation that establishes a presence." No doubt this goal is more attainable with a discourse like cannibalism that is in less danger than fat is of being literally enacted. However, scholars attempting to consider fat as a reiterative or citational practice also flirt with the substitution of performance for the performative. Moon and Sedgwick warn against such "perfunctory aestheticizations" and "less searching experiments," while Sharon Mazer offers a vigorous exposition of the performative in Katy Dierlam’s sideshow act as "fat lady" Helen Melon.
It is as metaphor that cannibalism—"a symbol of the permeability of boundaries ... between a civilized ’us’ and savage ’them’"—appears in Eating Their Words. And, argue many contributors, it is because the act of cannibalism is a myth (read "lie") that the metaphor works. "Red herring," counters Sanborn. The critically productive site is that very "crisis embodied in the encounter between westerner and cannibal." A crisis, Mark Buchan echoes in his rereading of The Odyssey, in which the "savage" Cyclops can be read as a symptom of our own desire. Where Moon and Sedgwick’s collégial caution seems tagged on, the bristle of Sanborn’s and Buchan’s intratextual dialogue adds significant productive tension to Eating Their Words.
Cannibalism as a sign of the permeable self is the theme in Santiago Colas’s discussion of the " anthropofagist" poets of Brazil and the Caribbean. These writers invoke cannibalism of Europeans and European cultural norms as the limit to imperial dominance in the New World. Not the best tool for revolution, notes Colas, since eating your enemy suggests mimicry and a desire to identify with him. Nonetheless, the metaphor’s ambivalence suits the intellectual ambivalences of revolution.
Most of the essays sustain the metaphorical connection of cannibalism to imperial/ colonial/capitalistic greed. (In Bodies out of Bounds, Huff does the same, connecting the fat person’s consumption of limited resources with cannibalism.) Others, such as Robert Viking O’Brien in his essay on Spenser’s Faery Queen, observe variations in the degree and nature of cannibalism: the Irish are cannibals because theirs is a degenerate civilization, while North American aboriginal cannibalism is the outcome of a complete lack of civilization.
These books would benefit from more thematic cross fertilization. Although Minaz Jooma balances the heterosexual bias in criticism of Robinson Crusoe by treating the homoerotic elements of that text, Eating Their Words is shy on sex. And Marcia Chamberlain’s essay on Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo is the only one in Bodies out of Bounds that deals substantially with race and ethnicity. These discourses are too central for a major work not to engage thoroughly with them.
- N.A.D., Trez Beans by David Ritchie
Books reviewed: The First World War by Michael Howard and Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1931 by Paul Lerner and Mark S. Micale
- Curious Knowledge by Rachel Poliquin
Books reviewed: The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and their Collectors by Basil Harley, Peter Marren, and Michael A. Salmon, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry by Barbara M. Benedict, and The Oxford Companion to the Body by Colin Blakemore and Sheila Jennett
- That Fin-de-Siècle Feeling by Wilhelm Emilsson
Books reviewed: The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siècle Culture of Decadence by Susan J. Navarette and Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris by Vanessa R. Schwartz
- Ethnic at Large by Tseen-Ling Khoo
Books reviewed: Ethnic Literature and Culture in the USA, Canada, and Australia by Igor Maver and Precarious Present/Promising Future?: Ethnicity and Identities in Canadian Literature by Janice Kulyk Keefer, Danielle Schaub, and Richard E. Sherwin
- Prairie Past, Prairie Present by R. Douglas Francis
Books reviewed: The Prairie West as Promised Land by R. Douglas Francis and Chris Kitzan and All This Town Remembers by Sean Johnston
MLA: Iwama, Marilyn. Satisfaction Guaranteed. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 136 - 138)
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