Writing the Body
- Barbara Korte (Author)
Body Language in Literature. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Leslie Heywood (Author)
Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women's Body Building. Rutgers University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Elizabeth Grosz (Editor) and Elspeth Probyn (Editor)
Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. Routledge (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Hillman (Editor) and Carla Mazzio (Editor)
The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe. Routledge (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Charmaine Eddy
Bodies, bodies, bodies. These days, the literary marketplace is strewn with textual corpses on the body, and yet when the body becomes the object of analysis everything "bodily" seems to be lost in the neutrality of academic discourse. Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism attempts to move beyond the current "unsexy" state of academic research on the body by exploring the production of sexualities instead of their description, with each author experimenting with the possibility of "sexing" or "queering" activities, methods and disciplines that normally would not count as the sexual. With their goal to initiate a recon-ceptualization of bodies and sexuality, Grosz and Probyn conceive of sexuality in the broadest possible thematic and methodological terms. And the volume does produce what the editors have termed a "disquieting effect," as sexuality—the ostensible "topic" of the volume, but also the methodological imperative of its discourse—"spills the boundaries of its proper containment." Over half of the essays in the volume are "queer" or "lesbian" essays, and yet the volume cannot easily be described as a book "about" queer sexualities as such. The creative writing in the volume, for example, which includes Nicole Brossard’s "Green Night of Labyrinth Park" and an excerpt from Mary Fallon’s Working Hot, is clearly lesbian writing. And yet, the experimentation in each within and beyond the boundaries of sexual and erotic discourse situates sexuality in terms of Brossard’s "je thème," a homonymn which links the sexual confession of the lover with the production and function of all discourse. As Dianne Chisolm notes in her exploration of "The ’Cunning Lingua’ of Desire" in Fallón, queer theory has taken up the strategy of "linguistic performativity" as a way of making language "produce effects." Fallon’s "bawdy linguality," like the carnal lesbian centre in Brossard, is an "erotics-poetics" or "seductive illocution," which, by connecting speech acts with carnal acts, shifts the epistemological register of both language and sexuality.
The wide range of essays in Sexy Bodies—Angela Davis’s discussion of the ideology of excess in self-representations in blues music, Sabina Sawhney’s linking of sexuality with the colonialist project, two essays on Jeannette Winterson including one on the "virtual lesbian," an article on Elizabeth Taylor—is framed by contributions from the two editors which displace sexuality from bodily sites onto "geo-sexual locations" and the subhuman. The volume begins with Probyn’s suggestive reflections on belonging, departure, and desire in "Queer Belongings" and concludes with Grosz’s "Animal Sex: Libido as Desire and Death," a fascinating displaced exploration of female sexuality through theories of insect sexuality as cannibalism and of the destabilizing of the body and subjectivity through libido and lust. Probyn’s metatext-ual essay addresses implicitly the volume’s attitude toward what "queer" belongs to, and what "belongs" to the "queer." Moving beyond what she defines as the current preoccupation in queer theory with the need to distinguish homosexual desire from heterosexual desire, or the locating of desire in the figure of the desired object, Probyn instead employs desire, not as a metaphor, but as "the modus operandi of my queer theorizing." To Probyn, "the singularity of queer theory can only reside in the way in which it puts desire to work." "Following queer desire turns us into readers who make strange, who render queer the relations between images and bodies." Grosz’s essay certainly "makes strange" (and yet oddly familiar) the Freudian linking of the pleasure principle with the death drive. Grosz, whose other publications include a book on Lacan, begins by reading mimicry and excess, two terms that have been crucial for feminist psychoanalytic theories of the feminine and female sexuality, though she does so through Roger Callois’s psychological theories of insect sexuality, particularly the female praying mantis’s practice of decapitating the male during coitus, as a way of discussing the fantasy of vagina den-tata. Her unexpected conjunction of entomological sex and death with Alphonso Lingis’s exploration of the decomposing effects of libido removes erotics from the complementarity that defines it in hetero-normative models of sexual relationships, and places it at any point of conjunction of two or more surfaces. Erotogenic zones thus no longer desegment an "organic body." Instead, the body is the provisional product of the temporary and changing organization of those zones, themselves in the continual process of being produced, renewed, and transformed.
While Sexy Bodies sexualizes discursive and methodological contexts, Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Body Building moves from experiential bodily practice to cultural theory, by exploring the cultural practice and gendered ambivalence of female body building. Working within the context of the "personal as political"—she is herself a body builder, and her final chapter discusses in detail her own experiences as a star athlete—Heywood invokes the alternative universe of the body-building gym as a dichotomous world of gods and heroes as well as corporeal monsters. Heywood analyzes body building in relation to the feminine, the masculine, cultural narratives of race, issues of pornography, and contemporary representations of the body in film and photography. As body building moves from the margins to the mainstream in popular culture, it marks a juncture in the cultural construction of our gendered narratives in particular. In her discussion of the masculine, Heywood suggests that the cultural spectacle of body building reveals a void at the centre of the subject, as in current post-structuralist readings of subjectivity, a void that "makes visible the effort to create masculinity as a point of stasis," or the "limit point of the subject," where being has been sacrificed to meaning. As spectacle, bodybuilding emphasizes the dichotomy between the apparent plasticity of the body and the rigidity and fixity of the masculine form that it attempts to create. It thus becomes a masquerade of the "phallus unveiled, stripped of its signifying power," a slavish enactment of the masculine that denaturalizes and deconstructs it.
Heywood’s pursuit of the ideological conflict between cultural expectations of the body and the image of the builder offers some of its best insights in her analysis of its relationship to the feminine. Though Heywood argues that body building should be viewed, and indeed is perceived in some contexts, as the "apotheosis of the American fascination with individual empowerment and sovereignty," she also finds that its practice by women produces "a problem of meaning," with the strong female body "a text on which the history of the politics of race, gender, and power is played out in graphic visual form." She addresses the conflict between the stereotype of female weakness and the image of strength or "female masculinity" represented in the body builder, by reading body building in the context of third-wave feminism and the politics of blacklash. Using so-called "equity" feminists, primarily Christina Hoff Sommers, Heywood argues that feminist claims by gender theorists have become improperly seen as monstrous, perverse, and distorting. Heywood then traces the changes in the image of the female body in the history of female body building, from conservative representations of the feminine through the gendered indeterminacy of someone like Bev Francis to the current debate between body building and "fitness," or sport and sex appeal. The implicit imperative against "losing" one’s femininity and the awarding of the most lucrative endorsement contracts to women who are less threatening to the conventional feminine image have encouraged many builders either to move out of body building and into the world of fitness or to invoke "hypersexualized images" of the strong female body in order to diffuse the threat that their physical power poses. While the rhetoric of self-determination might suggest that the individual builder is following her own desire, Heywood notes that this is an illusion of choice: 80% of professional female body builders have had breast implants, in order to replace the sex-ualized femininity that is lost as body fat turns to muscle through weightlifting. Instead, Heywood wishes to read female bodybuilding as a form of individualistic activism, a self-development and empowering of the individual which also facilitates changes in cultural perceptions and consciousness.
The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe is a compilation of essays on body parts and the fascination with dismemberment, medical anatomy, and the logic of fragmentation in the literary and cultural texts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Cut off from the totalized body, the part challenges its foundational structure, and as the volume explores the ontological status of the body part, its fragmentation begins to disrupt the cognitive systems of organization of the period. A few essays take the body in its entirety as their theoretical site. Stephen Greenblatt’s "Mutilation and Meaning," for example, begins with contemporary practices of ritual scarification, such as tattooing and circumcision, to explore what he defines, through Michel de Certeau, as "heterol-ogy," where distinctive bodily customs and the meaning of those customs produce the body as the site of theoretical and practical otherness. The early modern mutilation of the body in imitation of Christian sacrifice takes on a somatic signification as a form of abjection, a literalizing of contemporary corporeal metaphors for cleansing and redemption. Though Greenblatt examines mutilation practices to the entire corpus, most of the essays take on their own body part or member—a number of them with a freshness that I can only attribute to the freedom that a severing from the imperative of corporeal unity must produce. The volume includes essays on the (missing) breast, the anus, the clitoris, the tongue, the eye, knees and elbows, the entrails, the heart and brain, blood, the belly, the hand, and, at the conclusion to the volume and in the format of a series of footnotes, Peter Stallybrass’s essay on the cultural apotheosis of the foot.
Several of the articles collected here explore the relation of separate body parts to the subversion of social and political hegemonies. Marjorie Garber’s "Out of Joint," for example, focusses on the ceremonial culture of kneeling as true and false homage and the sexual and class implications of literary references to other bodily joints, in order to open up the symbolic body as a paradigm of linguistic "disarticulation" of historical and political systems. Carla Mazzio examines the ambivalent positioning of the tongue—both inside and outside of the body, both a bodily organ and a sign of language and speech—as a "somatic manifestation of all that resists containment" in the social and political order. Another group of essays, under the subtitle "Sexing the Part," addresses the "social logics" of sex, gender, and sexuality as located in particular body parts. Kathryn Schwarz’s "Missing the Breast" focusses on the métonymie function of the breast through the iconography of its absence through self-mutiliation in the figure of the Amazon, as a myth that plays out the fear that the eroticized female body may possess sexual agency and even voraciousness. Jeffrey Masten’s "Is the Fundament a Grave?" (a paraphrase of Leo Bersani’s "Is the Rectum a Grave?") examines the "rhetoric of the anus" and "a sodometry of the fundament" in modern culture in order to explore its imagining as "originary" and offspring, but also as the foundation or the "seat" of subjectivity and knowledge. Others focus on the relation of the body part to the changing perception of subjectivity. David Hillman, for example, examines the relation between selfhood and materiality in Shakespeare through the exposure of human entrails in the anatomy theatre, a practice which produced the human interior as a possible object of external knowledge and thus followed the logic of the skeptic by opening up the body to the other.
Body Language in Literature offers a semiotic analysis of non-verbal communication and behaviour in literary texts. In its desire to classify and compartmentalize aspects of the communicative function of the literary body, it represents the kind of structural finitude that the other three volumes resist. Defining non-verbal communication in terms of movements and postures, facial expressions, eye contact, and touching, Korte proposes to offer a study of the way in which the body in motion produces signs that can be read as meaningful fictional communication between characters and from narrator to narratee. Korte’s purpose in writing this study is to provide "a comprehensive critical framework which can be used as a heuristic procedure in the analysis of (narrative) texts or which allows for a systematic approach to the study of body language in a broad range of literary texts." Some of her categories of analysis include the way in which non-verbal communication indicates mental states, interpersonal relations, and aspects of characterization, as well as its use in the function of authentication or dramatization of a character or situation. Korte works with modern research in non-verbal communication beyond expression psychology, and limits her study to those readers who are sensitive to reading non-verbal communication and have literary competence and those authors who display competence in non-verbal codes. She also limits her study to European or Western texts, since the meaning of bodily movements is culture-specific, and to fictional narratives, since poetic texts offer minimal material for her study and bodily movement in dramatic texts (as opposed to performances) cannot necessarily be delimited by the author. Her final chapter provides a cursory sketch of the historical changes in reading the body in the novel from the 18th-century to the present.
- Diasporic Trajectories by Lily Cho
Books reviewed: Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown by Nyan Shah, Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco by Anthony W. Lee, and Consuming Hong Kong by Tai-lok Lui and Gordon Matthews
- Of Cottages and Women by Julie Cairnie
Books reviewed: Ex-Cottagers in Love by J. M. Kearns
- Colouring the Nation by Sujaya Dhanvantari
Books reviewed: MÃKA Diasporic Juks: Contemporary Writing by Queers of African Descent by Debbie Douglas, Courtnay McFarlane, Makeda Silvera, and Douglas Stewart, Against an African Sky and other stories by Farid Karodia, and "...but where are you really from?": Stories of Identity and Assimilation in Canada by Hazelle Palmer
- Empowered Readers by Adrienne Kertzer
Books reviewed: Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children's Novels by Roberta Seelinger Trites, Awake and Dreaming by Kit Pearson, and The Maestro by Tim Wynne-Jones
- Auteure de force by Maurice Yacowar
Books reviewed: Women Filmmakers: Refocusing by Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis, and Valerie Raoul
MLA: Eddy, Charmaine. Writing the Body. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 213 - 217)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.