Grief, Bodies, and the Production of Vulnerability

I’m not sure when I first read Smaro Kamboureli’s Scandalous Bodies, but in revisiting it to write this piece I’m struck by certain groupings or affinities that I hadn’t previously noticed. The groupings that I’ll address here position Scandalous Bodies within scholarly discussions that take place outside of the field of Canadian literature, or that stretch across any number of bodies of humanistic scholarship and into the realm of activism. Without suggesting that a move away from the disciplinary specificity of Canadian literature is a move toward a literary-critical big kids’ table, and in acknowledgement of Kamboureli’s “desire to release [her]self from the hold that nativism has on Canadian literature” (8), I’d like to consider some of these alternate groupings as one way to assess the ongoing utility of Scandalous Bodies upon its twentieth anniversary. This book can be located within a broad-based critical interest in melancholy, haunting, and grief that takes place at the turn of the millennium; Kamboureli’s engagement with Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) places her work among a diverse array of theoretical and literary-critical texts that seek to prioritize the work of affect—most particularly grief—in the interpretation of history, doing so in order to question the still-dominant idea that progress and perfectibility structure the passage of time. In addition, and perhaps more obviously, Scandalous Bodies participates in the preoccupation with bodies in academic discourse, activist debates, and everyday speech evident in the last quarter of the twentieth century and enduring through to the present. This ubiquitous emphasis on bodies— as opposed to, say, subjects or persons—emerges from an imperative to question the colonial, racist, and patriarchal foundations of subjectivity as well as the legal formalism of personhood and citizenship in ways that highlight vulnerability as both a general condition and a grounding political priority.

I’d like to consider how Scandalous Bodies participates in these two discourses in order to question what seems to have become a critical consensus: that our role and enterprise as literary critics (or, perhaps more broadly, as humanists) is to retroactively grieve the vulnerability of particular bodies and to lament the violence of history—the “wreckage,” to use a term of Benjamin’s (257). My goal in asking this question is not to critique Kamboureli or her important volume, still less to suggest that those who’ve suffered don’t deserve mourning, nor to imply that history wasn’t all that bad. Instead, my hope is that examining Kamboureli’s unique engagements with these still-powerful paradigms might prompt some metacritical considerations: Does it still make sense to employ the agency-denying “bodies” terminology? Is it accurate or sensible to imagine our relationships to the histories that we are interpreting through the image of Benjamin’s angel—a grief-stricken but immobilized and ultimately disconnected observer? I’ll examine Kamboureli’s engagements with the “grief-and-bodies” discourses, if I may use that phrase, and I’ll suggest that what remains useful about Scandalous Bodies is how it sits astride these two critical paradigms, endorsing and expressing some degree of reservation about both in ways that clear a path for more politically engaged scholarship.

Let’s first consider scholarly uses of Benjamin’s well-known essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a text which gained prominence in anglophone criticism around the turn of the millennium for those seeking to contest progressivist historical narratives—I’m thinking of Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (1997), Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (1999), David Eng and David Kazanjian’s volume Loss: The Politics of Mourning (2002), and, no doubt most famously, Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), to offer only a very few examples. In a series of numbered paragraphs, Benjamin rejects any approach to history in which the past appears as a unified whole, wherein it is possible to know how things really were, and in which history is imagined as a progress narrative. In an especially well-known passage, he describes Paul Klee’s 1920 monoprint Angelus Novus, interpreting the cartoonishly innocent angel in the picture as a trapped and stricken witness to the unfolding of history. From the angel’s perspective, history is not structured as a linear narrative of improvement but as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” (Benjamin 257). Wings pinned open by the wind, the angel cannot turn away from this devastating but undifferentiated vision; the angel is propelled into a future he cannot see, and is forced to survey the mess of the past. We, however, are not angels: Benjamin claims that the past cannot be grasped as a totality; instead, we only “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (255). Speaking in the most general terms, what scholars have drawn from Benjamin’s short piece is an invitation to rethink “subjectivity, time, and the writing of history in the context of a politics of social marginality,” as well as a process for “restructuring tradition, discovering other moments, [and] finding new kinds of time in which other voices can be heard in official national historical narratives,” to borrow a couple of representative phrases from Dinshaw (17, 18).

It hadn’t previously occurred to me to put Scandalous Bodies in a category with other turn-of-the-millennium critical works that engage with Benjamin’s writing or with other affective approaches to historical interpretation. Perhaps this was simply because the nation-based framing of most literary criticism—even a work like Scandalous Bodies, which troubles national frameworks by attending to ethnicity and diaspora—artificially separates texts with similar critical frames. In addition, whereas many of the scholarly works that engage closely with Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” seem to adopt the angel’s affective state and, at least implicitly, its perspective, Kamboureli expresses reservations about identifying too closely with Benjamin’s angel, whose position is “too precarious for a mere human, and an academic at that, to mimic” (7). While the sad reality is that almost nothing is “too precarious” for an academic today, Kamboureli’s circumspection about scholarly identification with the angel of history remains crucial: “We may empathize with his predicament . . . but we live in the midst of the debris that he only gazes upon from afar” (8). She therefore engages more substantively with the angels in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (1987), angels who wander around, who engage, who love, learn, and interact. What I draw from Kamboureli’s interlocution with Benjamin is a certain scholarly humility, as well as a reminder of our own embedded positions and the necessity of writing from “inside the cultural and political syntax of the communities in which [we] participat[e]” (21). From this position, the refusal of linear, progressive narratives and the embrace of the brief, particular flash not only makes good sense; it is all that is possible. In its structure and its examples, Scandalous Bodies continues to demonstrate the validity and the excitement of this approach.

Now let’s consider a second theoretical corpus within which Scandalous Bodies might be situated. Art theorist Marina Vishmidt has recently analyzed the “‘bodies’-centric discourse” of the past few decades, explaining that the ubiquitous emphasis on “bodies” seen in critical theory and its related discourses specifically flags “the vulnerability of growing numbers of the population” (34). In other words, the terminological emphasis on “bodies” underscores “the prioritization of vulnerability, or, more generally, life, materiality and affect which constitutes the parameters of basic political analysis today” (34). Evidently, Scandalous Bodies fits well within this discourse: indeed, the terms “body” and “bodies” are used hundreds of times throughout the book. With a little help from the CTRL+F function, it’s easy to trace where these terms are most densely clustered: relatively infrequent in the introduction, nearly absent in the chapter on F. P. Grove, and appearing only a handful of times in the chapter “Sedative Politics: Media, Law, Philosophy,” the recurrence of these terms intensifies as the book goes on. With just over a dozen appearances in the third chapter on “ethnic” anthologies, they achieve their fullest saturation in the final chapter where, taken together, “body” and “bodies” appear well in excess of a hundred times. Why is this notable? The final chapter, as most readers will know, discusses Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981), reading its Japanese Canadian protagonist, Naomi, “as a character embodying history” (176). Perhaps this extreme emphasis on the body at the moment when the text most extensively considers a representation of a racialized woman substantiates Robin D. G. Kelley’s recent critique of the “bodies” discourse: “In the argot of our day, ‘bodies’ . . . increasingly stand in for actual people with names, experiences, dreams, and desires.” Put differently, the recourse to “bodies” terminology runs the risk of entrenching dehumanization by reducing those to whom it is applied to figures similar to Benjamin’s angel; immobilized by forces beyond their control, “bodies” lose capacity for action (or even complexity) and become mere “cipher[s] of sorrow” (Vishmidt 40).

But Kamboureli attends to the production of bodies in a way that Vishmidt claims is rare. Vishmidt, following Kelley, suggests that the terminological emphasis on bodies tends to ontologize bodily vulnerability, unwittingly describing it as a pre-political condition. This, they both suggest, prevents inquiry into how suffering is produced. Kamboureli is instructive here. In fact, it’s notable that the terms “produce,” “reproduce,” and “product” occur thirty-three times in her final chapter. They intersect with the “bodies” terminology, enabling Kamboureli to argue that “racialized sexuality is the product of master discourses; it shows hegemonic systems to operate as desiring machines in which desire signifies at once libidinal force and administrative intention” (203). Indeed, at various points in Scandalous Bodies, she explicitly discusses the production of “multicultural bodies” through “the mandate of the multiculturalism policy” and public understandings thereof (91). While my own reading of Obasan differs from Kamboureli’s, what stands out most to me in rereading Scandalous Bodies is its insistence on problematizing the production of difference in law, media, and other discourses, and its focus on analyzing how this difference is attached and attributed to particular bodies.

An emerging generation of literary scholars is pushing this emphasis on the production of vulnerability—and, indeed, of difference—in new and important directions. Moving beyond the familiar realm of textual analysis to connect literary studies and literary production with concrete instances and patterns of state violence, the scholars I’m thinking of might not be classified as working in Canadian literature due to the sophisticated ways that they discuss the state’s involvement in producing vulnerability. Yet I hope that their growing corpus of work will be as influential to scholars of Canadian literature as Kamboureli’s has been. As Kelley writes in reference to a group of graduate students at his own institution, so I wish to write in reference to the emerging scholar-activists connected to our field:

[They] are demonstrating how we might remake the world. They are ruthless in their criticism and fearless in the face of the powers that be. They model what it means to think through crisis, to fight for the eradication of oppression in all its forms, whether it directly affects us or not. They are in the university but not of the university. They work to understand and advance the movements in the streets, seeking to eliminate racism and state violence, preserve black life, defend the rights of the marginalized (from undocumented immigrants to transfolk), and challenge the current order that has brought us so much misery. And they do this work not without criticism and self-criticism, not by pandering to popular trends or powerful people, a cult of celebrity or Twitter, and not by telling lies, claiming easy answers, or avoiding the ideas that challenge us all. (Kelley, emphasis original)

As Kamboureli says so clearly, we misunderstand our position and our role as critics if we pretend to abstract ourselves from the wreckage. If we take seriously her invitation to write from within the cultural and political syntax of our communities, then it is the work of these emerging colleagues that will refine and sharpen our sense of scandal.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, edited and introduced by Hannah Arendt, Schocken, 1968, pp. 253-64.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Duke UP, 1999.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. 2000. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2009.

Kelley, Robin D. G. “Black Study, Black Struggle.” Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, 7 Mar. 2016, Accessed 16 Oct. 2020.

Vishmidt, Marina. “Bodies in Space: On the Ends of Vulnerability.” Radical Philosophy, vol. 2, no. 8, 2020, pp. 33-46.

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